November 16, 2007

A FREE SOUL IN PRISON


Photo credit: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society, by way of the Library of Congress.

Welcome to the last day of Eugene Debs Week at Goat Rope. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

Despite his status as a national spokesman for labor and the socialist movement (not to mention a perennial candidate) Debs did not aspire to be a conventional "leader" but rather encouraged ordinary people to take the lead:

I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else would lead you out. YOU MUST use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourselves out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads, and your hands.


His biggest brush with the Powers that Were came in the wake of the First World War, which many socialists and others believed was a disastrous slaughter driven by imperialism--a view that many later mainstream historians came to endorse.

In a famous 1918 anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, he said:

...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.


Making an ant-war speech at that time carried considerable risks given repressive wartime legislation. He noted that

...it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world... I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.


(Golly, it's a good thing we don't have to worry about restrictions on liberty during wartime any more, isn't it?)

Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1919 for that speech. Never one to pass on a chance to make a statement, he saved some of his best for the trial. This is what he told the judge during his sentencing hearing:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.


Debs eventually had his sentence commuted by Republican President Warren G. Harding in 1921 after serving time in Moundsville, WV and the federal prison in Atlanta. He lived until 1926, but was unable to regain his own vitality or that of the movement he dedicated his life to serve.

Wartime repression dealt organizations like the Socialist Party and the IWW a blow from which they never recovered. In addition to persecution and defection, a rival communist movement sprang up in the wake of the Russian Revolution, about which the staunchly democratic Debs became more and more critical.

While in some respects the ending was tragic, Debs remains an inspirational figure for his courage and idealism. And indirectly, many of the reforms he and his comrades supported were eventually enacted into legislation. Finally, he inspired the next generation, including such labor leaders as WV's own Reuther brothers.

Requiescat in pace.

PROTESTING THE NLRB. El Cabrero was in DC this week and drove by one of the protests against the Bush National Labor Relations Board described here. I wanted to hop out and join them.

MEGAN WILLIAMS CASE. Here's the latest.

DINOSAUR UPDATE. They found a new one that ate like a cow.

IT'S NOT JUST US. It looks like cockroaches also have conformity and peer pressure issues.

CENSORSHIP UPDATE. It looks like Pat Conroy's novel Beach Music has survived an attempt of censorship at Nitro High School. I'm sure there is gnashing of teeth in the domestic Taliban camp.

MORE ON ARCHIVEGATE, the WV tempest about the bizarre and unjust firing of a state archivist and future plans for the state archive can be found at the Uberblog of WV news, Lincoln Walks at Midnight. A protest is planned for today.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

2 comments:

Donutbuzz said...

If my recall is right, Justice Holmes even wrote the opinion upholding Debs' conviction.

Thanks for a great week of posts about Debs!

El Cabrero said...

He did. That might have been where the old fire in a crowded theater thing came from. (When I was on the local fire department, I hoped to be able to shout "Theater!" in a crowded fire.)

Thanks for dropping by!

Poe week is coming soon, maybe after Thanksgiving.