Centennial Commemoration of Eugene V. Debs Held in Cleveland: A Dossier
By DON BRYANT
In May 1918, Congress expanded the Espionage Act of 1917 to include prohibitions on speech. The amendments, known commonly as the Sedition Act, forbade “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government, its flag, or armed forces. Within one month of its passage, Eugene V. Debs was arrested — and later sentenced to 10 years — for making a passionate speech in Canton, Ohio that exposed the war as solely in the interests of the capitalists and concluded by calling upon workers to “unite and act together” in both the industrial and political fields in order to “develop the supreme power of one class that can and will bring permanent peace to the world.”
To honor the centennial of Debs’ seminal speech and trial, as well as to discuss the issues involved, the Labor Education and Arts Project (LEAP) convened a Debs Centennial Commemoration on October 5-6 in Cleveland, Ohio.
American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein, in his message to the conference, expressed the timeliness of the event. This is a time, he wrote, “when bipartisan endless and unjust wars for regime change line the pockets of the military industrial complex and bring unspeakable hardships and horrors the world over.” Pointing to the electoral process today, Dimondstein noted that, “We were once again stuck with the ‘lesser of two evils’ choice. There was no independent political party accountable to us, the workers.” [See his full message in this dossier.]
The Eugene V. Debs Centennial celebration/teach-in began at Cleveland State University’s Moot Courtroom on Friday morning, October 5th, 100 years after Debs gave his anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio.
The first session included a panel of experts unpacking the Espionage Act, then, and now. The panelists and topics included: Ernest Freeburg, Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee on While there is a lower class, I am in it.; Kevin Francis O’Neill, Associate Professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law gave us a Judicial Analysis of World War One Espionage Act Prosecutions; Journalist Chip Gibbons (on Skype), Legislative Counsel for Defending Rights & Dissent covered From Criminalizing War Dissenters to Silencing Whistle Blowers; and Sue Udry, Executive Director of Defending Rights & Dissent concluded with keeping the Public in the Dark: Four Case Studies on How the Espionage Act has been used to Undermine the Public’s Right to Know.
The panel and Q & A were moderated by Allison Duerk, director of the Eugene V. Debs Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana. One little-known revelation was given by Sue Udry regarding Espionage Act enforcement against whistle blowers: From 1917 until 2008 there were three indictments against whistle blowers; under the Obama Administration, there were eight; under Trump, two, so far.
Next was a planned tour of the “Old Courthouse,” The Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, where Debs was tried and convicted in 1918. LEAP’s tour request (dated June 2017) was made to the General Services Administration (GSA), which oversees the use and maintenance of the Old Courthouse. It was referred to U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Gaughan, a Clinton appointee, who denied LEAP’s request to recite Eugene V. Debs’ courtroom speech that was delivered in that same courtroom 100 years ago. Judge Gaughan also limited the number of tour participants to 30, and all names had to be submitted beforehand. The “ceremonial courtroom,” was preserved as a historical site, “for tours like ours, you would think,” said Tom Sodders, Corresponding Secretary for LEAP. GSA typically advertises the space for wedding receptions, so Judge Gaughan’s restrictions were highly irregular.
While the tour commenced, most of the Debs Centennial participants demonstrated on the steps of the courthouse, some with tape over their mouths and Centennial posters in hand. After the tour, all participants took part in a shared reading of the Debs’ speech that he delivered at his trial. Court police continually monitored our group during the demonstration and reading, in a light rain. LEAP President Andrew Bonthius emphatically stated, “The court’s suppression of Debs’ message, even a hundred years later, demonstrates that the ruling class and its judicial henchmen are still running scared of his working-class message.”
Friday night included a dinner reception with two foreign policy experts: Margaret Kimberly, Editor and Senior Columnist, Black Agenda Report, and Dan Kovalik, author of critically acclaimed “The Plot to Scapegoat Russia.”
Margaret Kimberly began by saying that many Democrats blame Greens for Trump being president, and they blame “Russia-gate,” but not the party. “We should be unafraid to explain away our vote; to be scapegoated for Trump becoming president. How serious are we really, to be revolutionary? We have to change things fundamentally. That blame for voting Green cannot upset you. If we are going to honor Debs – he was unapologetic about what side, he was on.”
Ms. Kimberly continued:
“[W]hat we should be fighting for is Socialism – what Debs fought for, which is the only real democracy. We shouldn’t be fighting for a party that is as much an agent for the capitalist class, supporting imperialism and planetary destruction, as the Republicans are. We have to have a real strong Left in this country and we have to struggle with one another and other people as to how best we do that. My argument is that we have to replace the Democrats. [Applause]
“Their corruption has led to incompetency. They’ve lost 1,000 seats in state races and Congress in ten years. The only thing they had left was the presidency — and they messed that up … why people want to defend losers … losers because they are so disloyal to the people that support and defend them. It is interesting that the Democrats are considered to be the left-wing party. The Democrats have been living off the reputation as … left … since FDR. It’s true that they created Medicare and Medicaid, but that was 50 years ago. What have they done for us lately?”
Dan Kovalik explained that the 1919 free speech case against Socialist Party state chairman Charles Schenk still denies one’s right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, but it was Wilson who cried “fire” in a theater [Declaration of War in 1917] and it has continued ever since.
Mr. Kovalik continued, “[W]e can go about our daily lives while it is estimated that this year, in Yemen, 10 million will die, a holocaustal number; the US has been intimately involved in, essentially, a “turkey shoot.” The US provides arms and fuel to Saudi Arabi, is refueling bombers in mid-air, and helps sustain a naval blockade, starving the population. [The crisis in Yemen] is the largest cholera epidemic in the world, with a million people suffering, and the US is stopping people from fleeing. It was President Obama, with UN Secretary Samantha Power, who walked the US into this current genocide and the devastation of Libya where African slaves are sold at $400 … taken from all over Africa … the result of a proposed “humanitarian war” with the encouragement of Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power.”
Dinner meeting and Q & A were moderated by Constance Gadell-Newton, Green Party candidate for Ohio Governor.
On Saturday morning, LEAP President Andrew Bonthius welcomed the group at the Louis Stokes Wing of the Cleveland Public Library. He introduced the panel: Alison Duerk with her presentation – 451 North 8th Street: The Debs House from 1890 to 2018; Ernest Freeburg: Eugene V. Debs and the Fight for Free Speech in World War One; Robert Fritakis, Political Science Professor, Columbus State Community College – The Idea of Democratic Socialism in [US]America and the Decline of the Socialist Party; and Sue Udry – The Clear and Present Danger: Attacks on the Right to Dissent, 2018.
The second session: US Militarism and Its Constant Drumbeat for War was moderated by LEAP Board Member Carolyn Robb-Pavel with panelists David Goldberg, Professor Emeritus, Cleveland State University – Why Debs was Right to Oppose U.S. Entry into the Great War, Margaret Kimberly – Ending the Corporate, Military, Surveillance State and Dan Kovalik – The U.S. War Machine Versus Humanity.
Our final session, “On the Question of a Progressive Political Formation Independent of the Two-Party System a la Debs,” included panelists Robert Fritakis – Debsian Politics Today; Strategies and Tactics; Margaret Kimberley – Revolutionary Politics in the 21st Century; and Nick Brana, Founder and National Director, Movement for a People’s Party – The Labor Community Campaign for an Independent Party.
Director Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick, co-producers of the television series and book “The Untold History of the United States,” synthesized the impact of Debs and his relevance today in their message to the Centennial Commemoration:
“The corporate interests and merchants of death arrayed against Debs and against all anti-war working class leaders of the day were not only worried about the anti-war message Debs delivered in Canton the previous June. They were also terrified by his bold vision for building an independent working class political party. …
“As the standard of living of the vast majority of Americans continues its steady downward decades-long spiral, requiring millions to work two jobs at minimum wage without health care or savings, Debs’ message of a working class political alternative rings as true and necessary as it did 100 years ago. … Debs’ relentless struggle on behalf of workers shall forever remain a shining example for humanity to follow.” [See full text of message in this dossier.]
The Eugene V. Debs Centennial was inspirational for all involved, I am sure. We must continue to tell the history of our rights and how free speech was actually obtained through hard-fought battles, beginning with Eugene Debs and other advocates for real democracy – socialism.
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Message from APWU President Mark Dimondstein to the Eugene V. Debs Centennial Commemoration
[Note: Following are major excerpts from a message sent to the Debs’ Centennial Commemoration, held in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 5-6, under the sponsorship of the Labor Education and Arts Project.]
Dear Sisters and Brothers:
I salute you for having this fitting assembly 100 years after the legendary Debs’ outstanding anti-War World I stance and famous speech – at a current time when bipartisan, endless and unjust wars for regime change line the pockets of the military industrial complex, and bring unspeakable hardships and horrors the world over.
I was asked to speak on the question of “an independent political party based in the labor movement,” an issue I have been involved with for many decades, including in the Labor Party efforts under the creative leadership of Tony Mazzochi and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW).
Let me share a few of my thoughts on this subject by quoting comments I wrote to the APWU membership before and after the 2016 election.
In September 2015, I shared the following thoughts on the coming presidential election and asked members for their input:
“Everywhere we turn, and no matter which party is in power, Corporate America is having their way at the expense of the rest of us, the 99%. Wall Street dominates the policies of our government and the corporate overlords laugh all the way to the bank…
“In 2008, Democrats won the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate had a filibuster-proof majority. Yet legislation to raise the minimum wage to a living wage was not passed. Legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave was not passed. The Employee Free Choice Act, which was promised and which would have helped level the playing field for workers trying to organize unions, was not passed. Legislation to end the congressionally manufactured pre-funding crisis that is strangling the Postal Service was not passed…
“During the 2016 election cycle, postal workers should certainly look to elect and re-elect pro-worker candidates no matter which party they are from. The APWU can also promote issue-based ballot initiatives, such as living-wage provisions that uplift workers, our families and our communities. But we should also help find a way out of the ‘lesser-of-two-evils’ choices we are continually offered and build an independent political movement where we are not taken for granted by politicians, where elections are not bought and sold, and where our elected representatives are truly accountable to the people.”
After the election I had this to say:
“[T]his election was truly a revolt against the status quo, against the elites and against ‘politics as usual.’ While we have many terrific friends in Congress and will continue to work to elect worker-friendly candidates, the fundamental politics of both the Democrat and Republican parties over the last few decades have undercut and failed the working class…
“It [the presidential election] did not work out as the two corporate-controlled parties planned. They failed to understand that the 99%, especially the working class, are fighting mad. We, the workers, have been kicked in the gut by a rigged system. We suffer from downward mobility, a loss of manufacturing jobs to rotten trade deals, tax structures favoring the wealthy, an infrastructure crumbling around us, our water poisoned, an economic ‘recovery’ going to the top 1%, glaring and growing income inequality, and unaffordable healthcare and college education. …
“We were once again stuck with the ‘lesser of two evils’ choice. There was no independent political party accountable to us, the workers.”
I appreciate the opportunity to share these few thoughts with your gathering. Our union has been struggling with how to fight our way out of the political quagmire. At our 2016 national convention, attended by 2,000 delegates, we passed a resolution “Exploring New Directions for Labor in Electoral Politics” which stated:
“In addition to the traditional supporting of electoral candidates who are friends and allies of postal workers, the APWU will also pursue a strategy of advancing our core issues through referenda, initiatives and propositions at the statewide and local level; study the viability of independent and third party politics; and explore the possibility of creating a new labor-based political party, or any other reasonable means of advancing the interests of labor in electoral politics.” The APWU presented a similar resolution to the October 2017 AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention, which passed in a slightly watered-down form.
Since this is a Centennial meeting of the outstanding labor leader Eugene V. Debs, let me close with two of his many great statements.
One apropos to the subject you asked me to speak on: “You have got to unite in the same labor union and in the same political party and strike and vote together, and the hour you do that, the world is yours.”
The other helps ground any genuine working-class leader with the right orientation to the members we represent and I hold its sentiments close at hand in my work as a union president: “When I rise, it will be with the ranks, not from the ranks.”
In Union Solidarity,
American Postal Workers Union
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Greetings to Debs Centennial Commemoration from Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick
Dear Friends and Supporters,
Congratulations to the Labor Education and Arts Project on the momentous occasion of your Fifth LaborFest in Northeast Ohio held in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the prosecution of Eugene V. Debs — a very sad episode in American history. Remembering that historic event and its meaning for today’s workers is a most worthy endeavor.
The corporate interests and merchants of death arrayed against Debs and against all anti-war working class leaders of the day were not only worried about the anti-war message he delivered in Canton the previous June. They were also terrified by his bold vision for building an independent working class political party. It was Debs’ broader strategy they sought to thwart and silence most. Debs, and millions of workers with him, understood that First Amendment rights were tenuous at best when it came to workers’ struggles. Throughout the trial, Debs stood forthright in his convictions, unflinching at the inevitable ruling against him and his ultimate imprisonment.
As the standard of living of the vast majority of Americans continues its steady downward decades-long spiral, requiring millions to work two jobs at minimum wage without health care or savings, Debs’ message of a working class political alternative rings as
true and necessary as it did one hundred years ago.
On behalf of all working people, we thank you for your efforts in keeping this history alive. Debs’ relentless struggle on behalf of workers shall forever remain a shining example for humanity to follow.
Unfortunately, due to other commitments we are not able to be with you in person for this wonderful event, but we will be there in spirit. We wish you great success and look forward to possible collaborations in the future.
Yours in struggle,
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Eugene V. Debs Canton, Ohio speech June 16, 1918 (excerpts)
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 seen 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 economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. … 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.
They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people. …
And now for all of us to do our duty! The clarion call is ringing in our ears and we cannot falter without being convicted of treason to ourselves and to our great cause. …
In good time we are going to sweep into power in this nation and throughout the world. We are going to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and re-create them as free and humanizing institutions. … We need industrial and social builders. We Socialists are the builders of the beautiful world that is to be. … In due time the hour will strike and this great cause triumphant — the greatest in history — will proclaim the emancipation of the working class and the brotherhood of all mankind.
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Eugene V. Debs’ Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violated the Sedition Act, September 18, 1918 (excerpts)
I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions. …
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. …
In this country … 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 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.
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. …
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Eugene V. Debs: The Making of a Socialist
Introductory Note: Eugene V. Debs “was a famous labor organizer and strike leader – a man of action – long before he came to socialism,” wrote James P. Cannon, the founder of the Fourth International in the United States, on the centennial of Debs’ birth. Debs, Cannon continued, “never lost his love and feel for the firing line of the class struggle after he turned to the platform.” In Chapter 2 of a remarkable pamphlet, Cannon discussed Debs’ transformation into a revolutionary socialist while in later chapters – excerpts of which we shall publish in the next issue of The Organizer – Cannon focused his critical eye on the limitations as well as the potential of the Socialist Party and Debs’ role in shaping it. — Mya Shone
The real history of America is the history of a process leading up to socialism, and an essential part of that process is the activity of those who see the goal and show it to others. From that point of view Eugene V. Debs is a man to remember. The day of his birth one hundred years ago – November 5, 1855 – was a good day for this country. Debs saw the future and worked for it as no one else has been privileged to do. On the honor roll of the socialist pioneers his name leads all the rest.
The life of Debs is a great American story; but like everything else American, it is partly foreign. He was truly indigenous, about as American as you can get, and he did far more than anyone else to “Americanize” socialism. But he was not, as he is sometimes pictured, the exponent of a peculiar homemade socialism, figured out all by himself, without benefit of “foreign” ideas and influences.
Debs was the perfect example of an American worker whose life was transformed by the ideas of others, and imported ideas at that. Many influences, national and international, his own experiences and the ideas and actions of others at home and abroad, conspired to shape his life, and then to transform it when he was already on the threshold of middle age.
The employers and their political tools did all they could to help. When President Cleveland sent federal troops to break the strike of the American Railway Union in 1894, and a federal judge put Debs in jail for violating an injunction, they made a great, if unintended, contribution to the auspicious launching of the native American socialist movement.
The inspired agitator began to “study socialism” in Woodstock jail. That was the starting point of the great change in the life of Debs, and thereby in the prospects of socialism in this country. It was to lead a little later to the organization of the first indigenous movement of American socialism under the name of the Socialist Party.
The transformation of Debs, from a progressive unionist and Populist into a revolutionary socialist, didn’t happen all at once, as if by a sudden revelation. It took him several more years after he left Woodstock jail, carefully checking the new idea against his own experiences in the class struggle, and experimenting with various reformist and utopian conceptions along the route, to find his way to the revolutionary socialism of Marx and Engels.
But when he finally got it, he got it straight and never changed. Debs learned the basic essentials from Kautsky, the best popularizer of Marxism known in this country in the epoch before the First World War. Thereafter the Marxist theory of the class struggle was the central theme of all his agitation. He scornfully denounced the Gompers theory that the interests of capital and labor are identical. And he would have no truck with the delusive theory that capitalism will grow into socialism through a series of reforms.
Debs campaigned for the overthrow of capitalism by workers’ revolution, and refused to settle for anything less. As he himself expressed it, he “determined to stick to the main issue and stay on the main track, no matter how alluring some of the by-ways may appear.”
Debs was the main influence and most popular attraction making possible the formation of the Socialist Party of America at the “Unity Convention” in 1901, and the party became an important factor in American life mainly because of him.
There had been socialists and socialist organizations in this country for a half century before that; but they had been derailed every time by a combination of objective circumstances and their own misunderstanding of the doctrine they espoused. The original socialists had been mainly utopians of various kinds, or German immigrants who brought their socialist ideas with them and never learned to relate them to American conditions.
Engels who, like Marx, was foreign to no country, saw no future for that kind of socialism in the United States. In his letters to friends in this country, up to the time of his death in 1895, he continuously insisted that American socialism would never amount to anything until it learned to “speak English” and find expression through the native workers.
In Debs the movement finally found a man who really spoke the language of the country, and who knew how to explain the imported idea of socialism to the American workers in relation to their own experiences.
When he came to socialism, Debs had already attained national fame as a labor leader. He brought to the new party the rich benefits of his reputation and popularity, the splendor of his oratorical gifts, and a great good will to work for the cause. Debs made the difference; Debs, plus conditions at the time which produced an audience ready to respond. With Debs as its outstanding spokesman after the turn of the century, socialism began for the first time to get a hearing in this country.