Debs on the “Great” War

Excerpt: Eugene Debs lashes out against World War I
and calls on the crowd to join the Socialist party,
Canton, Ohio, June 16, 1918.

Comrades, friends and fellow-workers:
For this very cordial greeting, this very hearty reception, I thank you all with the fullest appreciation of your interest in and your devotion to the cause for which I am to speak to you this afternoon. [Applause.]

To speak for labor; to plead the cause of the men and women and children who toil; to serve the working class, has always been to me a high privilege; [Applause] a duty of love. I have just returned from a visit over yonder, where three of our most loyal comrades are paying the penalty for their devotion to the cause of the working class. [Applause.] They have come to realize, as many of us have, that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world. [Applause.]

I realize that, in speaking to you this afternoon, there are certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech. I must be exceedingly careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. [Applause.] I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets. [Applause and shouts.] They may put those boys in jail — and some of the rest of us in jail — but they can not put the Socialist movement in jail. [Applause and shouts.] Those prison bars separate their bodies from ours, but their souls are here this afternoon. [Applause and cheers.] They are simply paying the penalty that all men have paid in all the ages of history for standing erect, and for seeking to pave the way to better conditions for mankind. [Applause.]….

These are the gentry who are today wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty, eager to apply the brand of treason to the men who dare to even whisper their opposition to Junker rule in the United Sates. No wonder Sam Johnson declared that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He must have had this Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both, to deceive and overawe the people. [Applause.]

… Every solitary one of these aristocratic conspirators and would-be murderers claims to be an arch-patriot. Every one of them insists that the war is being waged to make the world safe for democracy. What humbug! What rot! What false pretense! These autocrats, these tyrants, these red-handed robbers and murderers, the “patriots,” while the men who have the courage to stand face to face with them, speak the truth, and fight for their exploited victims — they are the disloyalists and traitors. If this be true, I want to take my place side by side with the traitors in this fight! [Great applause.]

…How stupid and short-sighted the ruling class really is! Cupidity is stone blind. It has no vision. The greedy, profit-seeking exploiter cannot see beyond the end of his nose. … He has no capacity for literature; no appreciation of art; no soul for beauty. That is the penalty the parasites pay for the violation of the laws of life. The Rockefellers are blind. Every move they make in their game of greed but hastens their own doom…

Every time they strangle a Socialist paper they add a thousand voices proclaiming the truth of the principles of socialism and the ideals of the Socialist movement. They help us in spite of themselves. Socialism is a growing idea; an expanding philosophy. It is spreading over the entire face of the earth; it is as vain to resist it as it would be to arrest the sunrise on the morrow. It is coming, coming, coming all along the line. Can you not see it? If not, I advise you to consult an oculist.

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 anymore than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war.[Applause.] 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. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell…

And here let me emphasize the fact — and it cannot be repeated too often — that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.

“Yours not to reason why; Yours but to do and die.” That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation. If war is right, let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace. [Applause.]….

Do you wish to hasten the day of victory? Join the Socialist Party! Don’t wait for the morrow. Join now! [Applause.] Enroll your name without fear, and take your place where you belong. You cannot do your duty by proxy. You have got to do it yourself, and do it squarely and then, as you look yourself in the face, you will have no occasion to blush. You will know what it is to be a real man or woman. You will lose nothing; you will gain everything. [Applause.] Not only will you lose nothing, but you will find something of infinite value, and that something will be yourself. And that is your supreme need — to find yourself — to really know yourself and your purpose in life. [Applause.]

You need at this time especially to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder. [Applause.] You need to know that you were not created to work and produce and impoverish yourself to enrich an idle exploiter. You need to know that you have a mind to improve, a soul to develop, and a manhood to sustain… You need to know that as long as you are ignorant, as long as you are indifferent, as long as you are apathetic, unorganized and content, you will remain exactly where you are.[Applause.] You will be exploited; you will be degraded, and you will have to beg for a job. You will get just enough for your slavish toil to keep you in working order, and you will be looked down upon with scorn and contempt by the very parasites that live and luxuriate out of your sweat and unpaid labor….

To turn your back on the corrupt Republican Party and the still more corrupt Democratic Party — the gold-dust lackeys of the ruling class [laughter] counts for still more after you have stepped out of those popular and corrupt capitalist parties to join a minority party that has an ideal, that stands for a principle, and fights for a cause. [Applause.] This will be the most important change you have ever made and the time will come when you will thank me for having made the suggestion. It was the day of days for me. I remember it well. It was like passing from midnight darkness to the noon-tide light of day. It came almost like a flash and found me ready.

…[The Democrats and Republicans are continually talking about your patriotic duty. It is not their but your patriotic duty that they are concerned about. There is a decided difference. Their patriotic duty never takes them to the firing line or chucks them into the trenches.

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