Eugene Victor Debs (1855—1926) was a prominent trade union organizer and socialist writer and speaker. Five times he ran for president as candidate of the Socialist Party of America – the last time (1920) from a prison cell following conviction for his opposition to World War One.
The World Socialist Party of the US and our companion parties in the World Socialist Movement admire Debs for his principled socialist positions and moving oratory. On the whole we share his outlook. That is why we present this collection of quotations from Debs’ speeches and writings, selected from the Marxist Internet Archive by our comrade Alan Johnstone.
There is one important issue on which we do not agree with Debs – the attitude that a socialist party should take toward reforms and reformism. This disagreement is explained in a commentary inserted after one of the quotations.
We start off with three short quotations:
It is infinitely better to vote for freedom and fail than to vote for slavery and succeed.
Better a thousand times that labor is divided fighting for freedom than united in the bonds of slavery.
Until corporate wealth is supplanted by common wealth in the ownership of the nation, it will continue to write our laws and to enforce them or not, as best pleases its owners. [Note. Nowadays we emphasize the need to establish socialism on a global scale.]
The Fundamental Principles of Socialism
The one thing necessary is that we shall have a sound Socialist Party, with a platform that will bear the test of critical analysis. By this I do not mean that we shall quibble and split hairs, but that so far as the fundamental principles of Socialism are concerned, they shall be stated with such clarity as to silence all reasonable questions as to our party being free from the taint of compromise and in harmonious alliance with the Socialist movement of the world.
The Social Democracy [Note. In Debs’ time this term was often used to refer to the socialist movement] is a Socialist party and is pledged to the principles of Socialism. It can not and will not fuse with any capitalist party, by whatever name it may be called. As special allusion to the Populist Party is made by our inquirers, let it be said that the Populist Party is a capitalist party and the Social Democracy will not fuse with it any more than it will with the Republican or Democratic Party. It is urged by some that we should encourage alliance with the Populist Party because it inclines in our direction. Their advice, if followed, would wreck our party. If Socialism is right, Populists should become Socialists and join the Social Democracy. If they are not ready to do this they are not Socialists, and hence opposed to Socialism, and fusion with their party would result in inevitable disaster. The only object of such fusion would be the securing of office — the loaves and fishes. We are not after office, we want Socialism. We care nothing about office except in so far as it represents the triumph of Socialism. Therefore, be it understood, once for all, that the Social Democracy will not fuse with any party that does not stand for pure Socialism, and there will be no departure from this policy.
The differences between the Republican and Democratic parties involve no issue, no principle in which the working class have any interest, and whether the spoils be distributed by Hanna and Platt, or by Croker and Tammany Hall is all the same to them.
Between these parties socialists have no choice, no preference. They are one in their opposition to Socialism, that is to say, the emancipation of the working class from wage-slavery, and every workingman who has intelligence enough to understand the interest of his class and the nature of the struggle in which it is involved, will once and for all time sever his relations with them both; and recognizing the class-struggle which is being waged between the producing workers and non-producing capitalists, cast his lot with the class-conscious, revolutionary Socialist party, which is pledged to abolish the capitalist system, class-rule and wage-slavery—a party which does not compromise or fuse, but, preserving inviolate the principles which quickened it into life and now give it vitality and force, moves forward with dauntless determination to the goal of economic freedom.
The Socialist party, the party of the working class, the party of emancipation, is made up of men and women who know their rights and scorn to compromise with their oppressors; who want no votes that can be bought and no support under any false pretense whatsoever. The Socialist party stands squarely upon its proletarian principles and relies wholly upon the forces of industrial progress and the education of the working class. The Socialist party buys no votes and promises no offices. Not a farthing is spent for whiskey or cigars. Every penny in the campaign fund is the voluntary offerings of workers and their sympathizers and every penny is used for education. What other parties can say the same?
The workers themselves must take the initiative in uniting their forces for effective economic and political action; the leaders will never do it for them. They must no longer suffer themselves to be deceived by the specious arguments of their betrayers, who blatantly boast of their unionism that they may traffic in it and sell out the dupes who blindly follow them. I have very little use for labor leaders in general and none at all for the kind who feel their self-importance and are so impressed by their own wisdom that where they lead their dupes are expected to blindly follow without a question. Such “leaders” lead their victims to the shambles and deliver them over for a consideration and this is possible only among craft-divided wage-slaves who are kept apart for the very purpose that they may feel their economic helplessness and rely upon some “leader” to do something for them… The Socialist Party is the party of the workers, organized to express in political terms their determination to break their fetters and rise to the dignity of free men. In this party the workers must unite and develop their political power to conquer and abolish the capitalist political state and clear the way for industrial and social democracy. But the new order can never be established by mere votes alone. This must be the result of industrial development and intelligent economic and political organization, necessitating both the industrial union and the political party of the workers to achieve their emancipation.
The Socialist party as the party of the working class stands squarely upon its principles in making its appeal to the workers of the nation. It is not begging for votes, nor asking votes, nor bargaining for votes. It is not in the vote market. It wants votes but only of those who want it — those who recognize is as their party, and come to it of their own free will.
If as the Socialist candidate for president I were seeking office and the spoils of office I would be a traitor to the Socialist party and a disgrace to the working class.
To be sure, we want all the votes we can get and all that are coming to us, but only as a means of developing the political power of the working class in the struggle for industrial freedom, and not that we may revel in the spoils of office.
The workers have never yet developed or made use of their political power. They have played the game of their masters for the benefit of the master class-and how many of them, disgusted with their own blind and stupid performance are renouncing politics and refusing to see any difference between the capitalist parties financed by the ruling class to perpetuate class rule and the Socialist party organized and financed by the workers themselves as a means of wresting the control of government and of industry from the capitalists and making the working class the ruling class of the nation and the world.
The mission of Social Democracy is to awaken the producer to a consciousness that he is a Socialist and to give him courage by changing his conditions… I don’t fear the man that says I don’t agree with you. The only thing in this world that I fear is ignorance.
The working class alone made the tools; the working class alone can use them, and the working class must, therefore, own them. This is the revolutionary demand of the Socialist movement. The propaganda is one of education and is perfectly orderly and peaceable. The workers must be taught to unite and vote together as a class in support of the Socialist party, the party that represents them as a class, and when they do this the government will pass into their hands and capitalism will fall to rise no more; private ownership will give way to social ownership, and production for profit to production for use; the wage system will disappear, and with it the ignorance and poverty, misery and crime that wage-slavery breeds; the working class will stand forth triumphant and free, and a new era will dawn in human progress and in the civilization of mankind.
I am not here, my brothers, to ask you, as an economic organization, to go into politics. Not at all. If I could have you pass a resolution to go into politics I would not do it. If you were inclined to go into active politics as an organization I would prevent such action if I could. You represent the economic organization of the working class and this organization has its own clearly defined functions. Your economic organization can never become a political machine, but your economic organization must recognize and proclaim the necessity for a united political party. You ought to pass a resolution recognizing the class struggle, declaring your opposition to the capitalist system of private ownership of the means of production, and urging upon the working class the necessity for working class political action. That is as far as the economic organization need to go. If you were to use your economic organization for political purposes you would disrupt it, you would wreck it. But I would not have you renounce politics… Workingmen in their organized capacity must recognize the necessity for both economic and political action. I would not have you declare in favor of any particular political party. That would be another mistake which would have disastrous results. If I could have you pass a resolution to support the Socialist party I would not do it. You can’t make Socialists by passing resolutions. Men have to become Socialists by study and experience, and they are getting the experience every day.
There is one fact, and a very important one, that I would impress upon you, and that is the necessity for revolutionary working class political action.
No one will attempt to dispute the fact that our interests as workers are identical. If our interests are identical, then we ought to unite. We ought to unite within the same organization, and if there is a strike we should all strike, and if there is a boycott all of us ought to engage in it. If our interests are identical, it follows that we ought to belong to the same party as well as to the same economic organization. What is politics? It is simply the reflex of economics. What is a party? It is the expression politically of certain material class interests. You belong to that party that you believe will promote your material welfare. Is not that a fact? If you find yourself in a party that attacks your pocket do you not quit that party?
Now, if you are in a party that opposes your interests it is because you don’t have intelligence enough to understand your interests. That is where the capitalists have the better of you…No man can serve both capital and labor at the same time. You don’t admit the capitalists to your union. They organize their union to fight you. You organize your union to fight them. Their union consists wholly of capitalists; your union consists wholly of workingmen. It is along the same line that you have got to organize politically. You don’t unite with capitalists on the economic field; why should you politically?
The education of the people, not the few alone, but the entire mass in the principles of industrial democracy and along the lines of social development is the task of the people to be emphasized and that task – let it be impressed upon them – can be performed only by themselves. The cultured few can never educate the uncultured many. All history attests the fact that all the few have ever done for the many is to keep them in ignorance and servitude and live out of their labor.
To stir the masses, to appeal to their higher, better selves, to set them thinking for themselves, and to hold ever before them the ideal of mutual kindness and good will, based upon mutual interests, is to render real service to the cause of humanity.”
Reforms and Reformism
Everything that is of interest to the workers in their struggle to better their condition should appeal to the revolutionary movement. Indeed, the only way to make the movement truly revolutionary is to make the daily struggle of the workers its own struggle and so thoroughly incarnate and breathe that struggle as to make it not only a necessary and inseparable part of the workers but the very workers themselves in organized and conscious action to throw off the burdens that oppress them and walk the earth free men.
There is but one issue that appeals to this conquering army — the unconditional surrender of the capitalistic class. To be sure this cannot be achieved in a day and in the meantime the party enforces to the extent of its power its immediate demands and presses steadily onward toward the goal. It has its constructive program by means of which it develops its power and its capacity, step by step, seizing upon every bit of vantage to advance and strengthen its position, but never for a moment mistaking reform for revolution and never losing sight of the ultimate goal. Socialist reform must not be confounded with so-cared capitalist reform. The latter is shrewdly designed to buttress capitalism; the former to overthrow it. Socialist reform vitalizes and promotes the socialist revolution…
Our commentary. We interrupt Eugene Debs for a minute to explain that here the World Socialist Movement does not quite see eye to eye with him. While we are not against reforms as such and are willing to judge them on their merits, we hold that socialist parties should devote all their efforts to achieving socialism. As the experience of the socialist movement has shown, when a socialist party divides its efforts between work for socialism and the day-to-day struggle for reforms the work for socialism takes the back seat. Lip service may still be paid to the socialist goal, but in practice ‘the movement is everything, the goal is nothing’ – to quote the motto of Eduard Bernstein, who wanted the Social Democratic Party of Germany openly to acknowledge the real situation.
There is no hope under the present decaying system. The worker who votes the Republican or Democratic ticket does worse than throw away his vote. He is a deserter of his class and his own worst enemy, though he may be in blissful ignorance of the fact that he is false to himself and his fellow workers, and that sooner or later he must reap what he has sown…The Socialist party presents …points out to them clearly why their situation is hopeless under capitalism, how they are robbed and exploited.
While I believe that most of these “reformers” are honest and well-meaning, I know that some of them, by no means inconspicuous, are charlatans and frauds. They are the representatives of middle class interests, and the shrewd old politicians of the capitalist parties are not slow to perceive and take advantage of their influence. They are “Socialists” for no other purpose than to emasculate Socialism. Beaten in the capitalist game by better shufflers, dealers, and players, they have turned “reformers” and are playing that for what there is in it. They were failures as preaches and lawyers and politicians and capitalists. In their new role as “reformers” they dare not offend the capitalist exploiters, for their revenue depends upon their treason to the exploited slaves over whom they mourn dolefully and shed crocodile tears.
I respect the honest effort of any man or set of men, however misguided, to better social conditions, but I have no patience with the frauds and quacks who wear the masks of meekness and in the name of “brotherhood” betray their trusting victims to the class that robs them without pity and riots in the proceeds without shame.
It is a question of human freedom versus human slavery.
This question is as old as the race, but for the first time in human history the issue is stripped of all subterfuge and the exploited class have the political power in their own hands to accomplish by peaceful means their own emancipation.
No longer can the political harlots of capitalism betray the workers with issues manufactured for that purpose. The beating of tariff tom-toms, the cry for control of corporations, the punishment of “malefactors of great wealth,” the wolf cry of civic righteousness under capitalism, will not avail the politicians in this campaign.
Neither will the purely political issues of direct legislation, the recall, direct election of senators, or the economic reforms promised, of old-age pensions, minimum wage, industrial insurance and welfare of labor, about which the politicians of capitalism are now so much concerned, bring aid or comfort to them, for the people know that all of these are a part of the program of Socialism and that they are only seized upon by designing men who are not Socialists in an effort to deceive the people and prolong the reign of capitalism….The Socialist party offers the only remedy, which is Socialism. It does not promise Socialism in a day, a month, or a year, but it has a definite program with Socialism as its ultimate end.
The largest possible expression of the social spirit should be fostered and encouraged in the Socialist movement. In spite of the hindrances which beset us in our present environments and relations, we may yet cultivate this spirit assiduously to our increasing mutual good and to the good of our great movement.
In our propaganda, in the discussion of our tactical and other differences, and in all our other activities, the larger faith that true comradeship inspires should prevail between us. We need to be more patient, more kindly, more tolerant, more sympathetic, helpful, and encouraging to one another, and less suspicious, less envious, and less contentious, if we are to educate and impress the people by our example and by the results of our teachings upon ourselves, win them to our movement, and realize our dream of universal freedom and social righteousness.
Why can we not differ without denouncing each other?
Why can we not give those with whom we differ credit for being as honest as ourselves? Why can we not reason with those with whom we disagree in a decent spirit instead of treating them with ridicule and contempt?
Personally I have equal respect for all who stand four square for the working class and for the overthrow of the capitalist system, whether they be socialists, communists, anarchists, or IWWs. I don’t find it necessary to hate and denounce them because their method differs from mine. They may be right. I don’t think they are, but I have been mistaken a good many times in the past and am just as apt to be so now as anyone else. We certainly find a large measure of common ground for all these groups if we have the right spirit and seek to convince and win over by argument instead of offending and driving away by abuse…I hope we may have a more decent, tolerant, and truly revolutionary spirit in our attitude toward those with whom we differ in the movement, and that we may devote our whole time and energy in organizing the workers into one industrial union and one political party for the gigantic struggle which confronts them and which they must win, or remain in slavery. The most effective way to answer those who sneer at political action is with silence when argument fails. Let them alone and stick to your work of education and organization!”
If a bona fide labor party cannot be organized at Chicago then I hope that no party at all will issue from that conference. Better far no party than a nondescript imitation of one, composed of so-called progressive and reform elements, more or less muddled, discordant, and wholly lacking in clear aim, definite object, and concerted purpose. A “third party” of such a nature would at best align the dwindling “little interests” against the “big interests,” seek to patch up and prolong the present corrupt and collapsing capitalist system, and failing utterly to effect any material change or achieve any substantial benefit would finally fizzle out and add one more to the list of “third party” fiascoes…
A political party today must stand for labor and the freedom of labor, or it must stand for capital and the exploitation of labor. It cannot possibly stand for both any more than it could for both freedom and slavery…
I want to see the workers of this nation rise in the might of their intelligence and demand a party of their own, free, eternally free from the paralyzing putridities of the parties of their silk-hatted, wealth-inflated, job-owning and labor-exploiting masters—a party with a backbone and the courage to stand up without apology and proclaim itself a Labor Party, clean, confident of its own inherent powers, bearing proudly the union label in token of its fundamental conquering principle of industrial and political solidarity, and challenging the whole world of capitalism to contest the right of this nation to own its own industries, to control its own economic and social life, and the right of the toiling and producing masses to own their own jobs, to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, and to be the masters of their own lives.
I am suspicious of those who admit that we must have a labor party but object to having it called by its right name. It should be a matter of pride and certainly not of shame to a labor party to have its true title nailed to its masthead. If not, why not? Shall we fear to keep out many who would otherwise join? That is the very reason the party should be known for what it actually is as well as what it actually stands for. We must bear no false label, carry no false banner, nor seek support under any false pretense whatsoever.
We must stand avowedly, face front, for labor—for the people who produce, who render needed service, and who are useful and necessary to the world.
Let me make it clear that I am not wanting another socialist party organized. We already have one and that is enough. Neither do I want another capitalist party organized, having already two, more than enough. A middle-class party, by whatever name, would still be a capitalist party, for while it might champion “little interests” against “big interests,” with a sop to labor, it would still stand for the capitalist system and the perpetuation of wage-slavery.
If a genuine labor party is organized at Chicago I shall not expect the platform to go the limit of radical demands but shall be satisfied with a reasonable statement of labor’s rights and interests as well as its duties and responsibilities, doubting not that with the progress of the party its platform will in due time embrace every essential feature of the working class program for deliverance from industrial servitude.
The Socialist party can, should, and I have no doubt will join such a party wholeheartedly, becoming an integral part of its structure, reserving, however, its autonomy unimpaired and using all its powers and functions in building up, equipping, promoting, and directing the general party.
Now I believe that it is impossible to compromise a principle, and the Socialist Party is committed to a certain principle. To compromise principle is to court death and disaster. It is better to be true to a principle and to stand alone and be able to look yourself in the face without a blush, far better to be in a hopeless minority than to be in a great popular and powerful majority of the unthinking.