Eugene V. Debs and the Urgent Need for a New Anti-War Movement
Eugene Debs became a socialist in prison.
After being arrested for his leadership role in the Pullman Strike of 1894 — for which he was deemed "an enemy of the human race" in the New York Times — Debs took to studying intensely the classics of socialist thought, from the utopian vision of Edward Bellamy to the analytical works of the influential Marxist Karl Kautsky.
But, of course, the critical groundwork for Debs's conversion was already laid; as he recounted in an essay detailing his ideological transformation, the brutality with which striking workers were treated by the forces of the state in defense of the capitalist class was "his first practical lesson in Socialism" — "in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle," he wrote, "the class struggle was revealed."
While still in prison, Debs granted interviews to multiple news outlets, making his newfound ideas known while skewering the then widespread faith in what he termed "the competitive system."
"The competitive system has had its day," he told a correspondent for the Cincinnati Enquirer. "[I]t has blotted out all the stars of hope; filled the world with groans and reduced humanity to slavery. The strong have devoured the weak. The highways of the centuries are strewn with the bones of countless victims."
Almost immediately upon his release, Debs began his rise within the ranks of America's radical circles, a rise that coincided with the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World and America's Social Democratic Party, which shortly thereafter became the Socialist Party.
The fact that Debs would, in the next two decades, launch several failed yet still prominent presidential runs deserves less attention — as he himself emphasized — than his role as America's conscience in the midst of a class structure that seemed unshakable. As Debs acknowledged in 1898, "The few have come in possession of all, and the many have been reduced to the extremity of living by permission."
Child labor was commonplace through the early years of the twentieth century; workers toiled in dangerous conditions, to which Upton Sinclair called attention in his novel The Jungle; and public policy was dictated by the interests of capital.
Debs also confronted what he saw as an inevitable outgrowth of the expansion of industrial capitalism: Military conflict.
"Wars and rumors of wars are of universal prevalence," Debs wrote in 1900, pointing to America's brutal occupation of the Philippines. "The picture, lurid as a chamber of horrors, becomes complete in its gruesome ghastliness when robed ministers of Christ solemnly declare that it is all for the glory of God and the advancement of Christian civilization."
The picture would become infinitely more gruesome in the coming years with the onset of the First World War.
Debs believed that the United States should stay out of the conflict — and so, at least at first, did Woodrow Wilson, who was reelected on a platform of peace in 1916. The very same Wilson would, just two years later, ensure Debs's imprisonment for the crime of defending that platform, a fact whose irony Debs didn't miss.
The beginning of America's involvement in the war coincided with a swift crackdown on dissenting voices; it became, thanks to the Sedition Act of 1918 (an extension of the Espionage Act of 1917), a crime to speak out against the war effort, or to speak in any way that smacked of "disloyalty." Debs lamented in a speech in Canton, Ohio, "that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world."
Two weeks after the Canton remarks, Debs was arrested.
This past Sunday marked the 98th anniversary of what would become Debs's most famous speech, delivered after he was convicted on ten counts of sedition — a conviction that carried a ten-year prison sentence.
"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," Debs told the court. "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."
By highlighting the injustices of the capitalist order at home and the destruction wrought by war abroad, and by making clear the connections between the two, Debs established a framework of thought that would guide the radicalism of future decades.
In his protests against the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr. decried a system that let the poor die in the streets and sent the children of struggling families to die overseas.
"I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube," Dr. King said in 1967. "So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."
But observing the radicalism of Debs and King also forces us to come to grips with the fact that the tradition they upheld — one of principled and persistent opposition to war — has faded rapidly in recent years.
When historian Michael Kazin asked in 2015, "Why is there no antiwar movement?" the necessity of the question was plain: There is no mass, mobilized, and militant anti-war movement in the United States, and that fact should trouble us all.
While the Vietnam War era was characterized by mass discontent and rebellion, the post-Vietnam War era has been shaped by a sprawling and increasingly secretive national security apparatus, complete with private militias and drones that do the dirty work of empire with little to no oversight and scattered opposition.
"In the last six decades, the American national security state has succeeded strikingly at only one thing (other than turning itself into a growth industry): it freed itself of us and of Congress," summarizes Tom Engelhardt. "In the years following the Vietnam War, the American people were effectively demobilized, shorn of that sense of service to country, while war was privatized and the citizen soldier replaced by an 'all-volunteer' force and a host of paid contractors working for warrior corporations."
The "sense of service to country" to which Engelhardt refers is not the blind, reactionary patriotism of the American right; rather, it is the sense that one has the duty to combat injustices, particularly those perpetrated by one's own supposed representatives.
But as Engelhardt also notes, Americans have increasingly come to view — with copious supporting evidence — government as an entity entirely separate from the will of the public at large. Just as Debs excoriated a system under which a "few have come in possession of all," scholars today have documented the extent to which economic elites dominate decision-making, pushing "ordinary" people out of the process altogether.
Americans have, in the years following the financial crisis, organized in an effort to combat this reality, one characterized by soaring inequities of influence, both political and economic. Occupy emerged and changed the national conversation; Fight for $15 is leading the way for higher wages; the nation's democratic socialists have used the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders to expand their influence.
We have also seen the growth and expansion of crucial movements responding to police killings, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and systemic racism — most notably Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives.
The same cannot be said of anti-war efforts. Though the consolidation of power among foreign policy officials and the impenetrable walls behind which they operate have resulted in devastating invasion after devastating invasion, the public has not responded with the proportionality necessary to cultivate effective resistance.
Resistance during the Obama administration has arguably weakened further, as Democratic partisans remain silent in the interest of proper political etiquette and as the anti-war left remains marginalized, without a voice in the mainstream.
This is so even as drones continue to maim and murder civilians, even as the war on whistleblowers is sustained, even as military efforts proceed in Iraq and Afghanistan and spill over into Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
To say that the efforts of the entrenched foreign policy establishment have failed to make the world safer would be an outrageous understatement; the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan sparked the rise of ISIS and other affiliated groups, which are using the chaos initiated by decades of intervention and occupation to spread terror.
Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton offer anything resembling an alternative; indeed, as Matthew Hoh has observed, "both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are unabashed militarists, seeing no shame or dysfunction in America's wars overseas, and seemingly promising to escalate current wars or begin new ones."
But no matter who is elected in November, our hopes cannot remain tethered to presidential politics; the changes that are necessary to take on a military-industrial complex that has extended its reach beyond what Eisenhower could have envisioned cannot come from the top-down.
Like all democratic projects of the past, the formation of a far-reaching and sustainable anti-capitalist, anti-war movement will take years of mass organization and mass action. The question of whether the creation of such a movement is practical is less important than whether such a movement is necessary. If Debs's words are any guide, the answer is clear.
An egalitarian project, as Debs understood, cannot proceed in the midst of perpetual war. A government willing to sanction the bombing and subjugation of innocents abroad will not hesitate to exploit the most vulnerable at home.
"I never so clearly comprehended as now the great struggle between the powers of greed and exploitation on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of industrial freedom and social justice," Debs said in 1918. "I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own."