Gene Debs Understood the Root Cause of Our Problems
He was born in Terre Haute, Indiana
a town where rail road workers lived.
He became fascinated with their stories
and at age 14 he dropped out of school to work on the rail lines.
He was the kind of person who
always helped a neighbor.
When the Brotherhood of Railworkers came to town,
they made Gene Debs their secretary.
Because of his popularity
he ran for political office and won.
Unsatisfied with his effectiveness at this job
he edited the Brotherhood’s Magazine full time.
There was a different Brotherhood for each craft,
and many unskilled rail workers could not join.
Debs saw that one union was needed to organize all rail workers,
and helped form the American Railway Union.
Pullman was a town outside of Chicago
which was the headquarters of the Pullman Palace Car Company,
which was owned by George M. Pullman,
who worked rail workers to death.
The wages at Pullman didn’t provide
a family with enough food to live.
Therefore workers were tied to the town by a debt.
When conditions became intolerable they asked the A.R.U. to organize a strike.
Gene Debs was reluctant about the strike,
but once called, he gave it one-hundred and ten percent.
Because Pullman was so powerful,
appeals were made for all rail workers to join the battle.
Although this strategy was logical,
and there was a real chance of victory,
most other unions failed to give their solidarity,
and Pullman blacklisted the strikers throughout the industry.
For his crime of attempting to win food for working people,
Gene Debs was sent to prison.
The charge was violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
A law designed to protect the public from corporate greed.
Debs said: “There is something wrong in this country;
the judicial nets are so adjusted as to catch the minnows
and let the whales slip through and the federal judge is as far removed
from the common people as if he inhabited another planet.”
At the age of forty, Gene Debs began to understand
that the methods he used were insufficient to advance the cause of working people.
He saw that the entire government needed to be replaced
and became a socialist. He said,
“You do not need the capitalist.
He could not exist an instant without you.
You would just begin to live without him.
You do everything and he has everything;
and some of you imagine that if it were not for him
you would have no work.
As a matter of fact,
he does not employ you at all;
you employ him to take from you what you produce,
and he faithfully sticks to his task.
If you can stand it, he can;
and if you don’t change this relation,
I am sure he won’t.
You make the automobile,
he rides in it.
If it were not for you,
he would walk;
and if it were not for him, you would ride.”
Throughout his life he opposed wars
that supported capitalist greed.
When war erupted against the people of Mexico
“You never had a country to fight for
and never will have so much as an inch of one
as long as you are fool enough to make a target of your bodies
for the profit and glory of your masters.
“Let the capitalists do their own fighting
and furnish their own corpses
and there will never be another war
on the face of the earth.”
When the U.S. government supported World War I
activists who spoke against this holocaust of workers
were sent to prison and many of Debs friends
buckled to the pressure and supported the war.
Gene Debs could have retired at this point in his life
with the reputation of a great labor leader.
But he could not fathom living in a world
where working people murdered one another while he just sat by.
In Canton, Ohio Gene Debs gave one
of the most important speeches in the history of the United States.
He showed exactly what soldiers
were asked to fight for,
“They tell us that we live in a great free republic;
that our institutions are democratic;
that we are a free and self-governing people.
This is too much, even for a joke.
But it is not a subject for levity;
it is an exceedingly serious matter.”
“Why, the other day, by a vote of five to four
a kind of craps game
come seven, come’leven
they declared the child labor law unconstitutional
a law secured after twenty years of education and agitation
on the part of all kinds of people.
And yet, by a majority of one, the Supreme Court,
a body of corporation lawyers, with just one exception,
wiped that law from the statute books,
and this in our so-called democracy,
so that we may continue to grind the flesh and blood and bones
of puny little children into profits for the Junkers of Wall Street.
And this in a country that boasts
of fighting to make the world safe for democracy!
The history of this country is being written in the blood
of the childhood the industrial lords have murdered.”
For these and other words Gene Debs
served three years in a Federal Penitentiary.
As a prisoner he ran for President of the United States.
As prisioner number 9653 he received almost one million votes.
During this time he learned
that the wealth of the United States
could be used to provide real opportunities
to those sentenced to prison.
“What incentive would there be for a man to steal
when he could acquire a happy living so much more easily
and reputably by doing his share of the community work?
He would have to be a perverted product of capitalism indeed
who would rather steal than serve in such a community.
Men do not shrink from work, but from slavery.
The man who works primarily for the benefit of another
does so only under compulsion,
and work so done is the very essence of slavery.
A share of the community work or slavery?
Gene Debs felt that the struggle for a new world
was worth the work of a lifetime.
For all those who choose to fight to make this a better world,
you won’t find a better speaker of the truth than Gene Debs.