Friday, October 20, 2006

Eugene Debs

“I don't want you to follow me or anyone else. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, somebody else would lead you out.”

Chris at the Virtual Stoa reminds me that yesterday was the 80th anniversary of Eugene Debs' death.

Debs was one of the generation of working-class trade unionists and socialists like Keir Hardie whose hope in the imminence of the ending of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society were shattered by the First World War. He was imprisoned for treason after making an anti-war speech in 1918 while the United States was at war with Germany. As prisoner number 9653, he received nearly 1 million votes for the Presidency in 1920.

Each generation of socialists build on the work of those who have come before, and Debs' speeches and the causes he spent his life working for are as relevant today as they were a century ago. When he was on trial for treason, he opened his defence by saying to the judge:

"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."

(Personally, I like to image David Blunkett or John Reid quoting that last bit)

As with any leftie at any time, Debs spent a lot of his life dealing with splits between different left-wing organisations. This piece of advice, given in 1912, is still well worth learning today:

"We shall accomplish vastly more in bending our energies getting together than we shall in columns of discussion as to how it is to be done. Let us get rid of our differences by engaging in the actual fight of the workers...In the heat of actual conflict the differences we are so prone to magnify melt away and disappear."

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