“As long as there is a lower class, I’m in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it. As long as there’s a soul in prison, I am not free.”
“I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose the war if I stood alone.”
Eugene Debs was a five-time presidential candidate under the banner of the Socialist Party, a union leader, and a fierce advocate for the rights of the working class.
One cannot even imagine such a figure emerging on today’s political scene; and although Debs was relatively popular among his constituency, he predictably garnered little support (and no electoral votes) in comparison with other, more “mainstream” candidates, although in 1920 he did receive the most votes ever by a Socialist candidate, 913,693.
Debs was eventually jailed for ten years for stepping on the toes of the great “Progressive” President Woodrow Wilson, who labeled Debs a “traitor to his country” for his bitter and impassioned opposition to World War I.
He was sentenced under the Espionage Act, and his major crime was “obstruct[ing] the recruitment or enlistment service.”
Debs’ eloquent words against WWI, and against war in general, deserve to be read and re-read, particularly today, in the age of endless conflict. Most notable was a speech addressed to an Ohio workers’ rally in 1918, and he carried on with this speech “knowing very well that his words could lead, as they did, to his arrest and imprisonment.”
Debs began the speech by addressing what he called “the cloak of patriotism”:
Sam Johnson declared that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ He must have had…[the] Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and over-awe the people.
Today’s politicians and media institutions work tirelessly to drum up hysteria and jingoism in the midst of an imminent war.
They stress that, of course, our country is simply defending decent values such as democracy, freedom, and human rights, as if it could not possibly do anything to the contrary. They put on the “cloak of patriotism”, and decry anyone who dares to denounce the savagery of war.
Every solitary one of these aristocratic conspirators and would-be murderers claims to be an arch-patriot; every one of them insists that the war is being waged to make the world safe for democracy. What humbug! What rot! What false pretense! These autocrats, these tyrants, these red-handed robbers and murderers, the ‘patriots,’ while the men who have the courage to stand face to face with them, speak the truth, and fight for their exploited victims – they are the disloyalists and traitors.
The effort to control the public mind is never more frantic than during war-time: Lying is commonplace, deceit is necessary, but rest assured, it is for the greater good.
Those who oppose war must be labeled cowards, traitors, or anti-American so that their opinions may be dismissed without a fair hearing, and without being allowed to “mislead and contaminate” the people.
You are their wards; they are your guardians and they know what is best for you to read and hear and know. They are bound to see to it that our vicious doctrines do not reach your ears. And so in our great democracy, under our free institutions, they flatter our press by suppression; and they ignorantly imagine that they have silenced revolutionary propaganda in the United States.
Debs continues by pointing out a curious fact that has helped along revolutionary movements of the past: As information is suppressed, the masses become more interested in that information. Telling someone that they cannot know something increases their desire to know it, telling someone that they can’t listen to a certain perspective often makes them seek out that perspective with more vigor.
In this way, the authoritarian politicians and media institutions “help us in spite of themselves.”
Moving ahead, Debs uncovers the now well-known fact that those who declare war are never the ones volunteering to take part in carrying it out.
Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war.
The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt.
And that is war in a nutshell.
The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose – especially their lives.
Debs concludes by making a desperate plea for democracy, an ideal that the United States government feigns in flowery rhetoric, but never dares to practice:
And here let me emphasize the fact – and it cannot be repeated too often – that the working class who fight all the battles, the working classes who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.
Yours not to reason why;
Yours but to do and die.
That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation. If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.
Image via Wikimedia Commons