“I was to be baptized in Socialism in the roar of the conflict. … [I]n the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed,” he writes. “This was my first practical lesson in Socialism.”
Debs came to the conclusion that no strike or labor movement could ultimately be successful as long as the government was controlled by the capitalist class. Any advances made by an organized working class would be reversed once the capitalists regained absolute power, often by temporarily mollifying workers with a few reforms. Working men and women had to achieve political power, a goal of Britain’s Labour Party for workers at the time, or they would forever be at the mercy of the bosses.
Debs feared the rise of the monolithic corporate state. He foresaw that corporations, unchecked, would expand to “continental proportions and swallow up the national resources and the means of production and distribution.” If that happened, he warned, the long “night of capitalism will be dark.”
A life of moral probity was vital as an example in the face of capitalist exploitation, but that was not enough to defeat the “kingdom of evil.” The owners and managers of corporations, driven by greed and a lust for power, would never play fair. They would always seek to use the law as an instrument of oppression and increase profits through machines, a reduction in wages, a denial of benefits and union busting. They would sacrifice anyone and anything—including democracy and the natural world—to achieve their goals.
Debs, if he could hear today’s proponents of the “free market,” self-help gurus, positive psychologists, talk show hosts and the political class as they exhort Americans to work harder, get an education, follow their dreams, remain positive and believe in themselves and American exceptionalism, would have scoffed in derision. He knew that corporate power is countered only through organized and collective resistance by workers forced to fight a bitter class war.
Eugene Debs, 1918, minutes before being sentenced to a 10-year prison term and being stripped of his citizenship:
Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change—but if possible by peaceable and orderly means. …
Standing here this morning, I recall my boyhood. At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day, and from that time until now my heart has been with the working class. I could have been in Congress long ago. I have preferred to go to prison. …
I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.
In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity.
I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned—that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all. …
I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
This order of things cannot always endure. I have registered my protest against it. I recognize the feebleness of my effort, but, fortunately, I am not alone. There are multiplied thousands of others who, like myself, have come to realize that before we may truly enjoy the blessings of civilized life, we must reorganize society upon a mutual and cooperative basis.
We have returned to an oligarchic purgatory. Wall Street and the global corporations, including the fossil fuel industry and the war industry, have iron control over the government. The social, political and civil rights won by workers in long and bloody struggles have been stripped away. Government regulations have been rolled back to permit capitalists to engage in abuse and fraud. The political elites, along with their courtiers in the media and academia, are hapless corporate stooges. Social and economic inequality replicates the worst excesses of the robber barons. And the great civic, labor and political organizations that fought for working men and women are moribund or dead.
We have to begin all over again. And we must do so understanding, as Debs did, that any accommodation with members of the capitalist class is futile and self-defeating. They are the enemy. They will degrade and destroy everything, including the ecosystem, to get richer. They are not capable of reform.
Debs, like many of his generation, was literate. He read and reread “Les Misérables” in French. It was his father’s bible. It became his own. His parents, émigrés from Alsace, named him after the French novelists Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo. His father read Sue, Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau, Dumas and other authors to his six children. Debs found in Hugo’s majestic novel the pathos of the struggle by the wretched of the earth for dignity and freedom. He was well aware, like Hugo, that the good were usually relentlessly persecuted, that they were not rewarded for virtue and that those who held fast to truth and justice often found their way to their own cross. But there was no other choice for him: The kingdom of evil had to be fought. It was a moral imperative. It was what made us human.