The Conscience of a Socialist

By Stooksbury, Clark | The American Conservative, June 3, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Conscience of a Socialist


Stooksbury, Clark, The American Conservative


The Conscience of a Socialist [Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, Ernest Freeberg, Harvard University Press, 380 pages]

EUGENE VICTOR DEBS was a socialist icon, a pioneer of 20th-century labor unionism, a five-time presidential candidate, and a firebrand who went to prison for publicly denouncing America's intervention in the First World War. In 1920, he won almost a million votes running his White House campaign from behind bars. His story is a timely reminder of the limits of a democratic society and should interest today's antiwar Americans, both on the Left and Right

Author Ernest Freeberg describes Debs as a radical "in an American grain." His "fight against capitalism was inspired as much by Tom Paine, Walt Whitman, and Wendell Phillips as it was by Karl Marx." He was also a man of contrasts: an ail-American Marxist and a self-described "citizen of the world" who was devoted to his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana. His socialism coexisted with the unfettered capitalism of early 20th-century America.

Debs and other socialists considered World War I to be a fight among capitalists. In 1915, in the radical publication Appeal to Reason, he wrote that to be a soldier was to be a "hired assassin of his capitalist master." The U.S. was then officially at peace. By 1917, when the country went to war, Woodrow Wilson was determined to build support through propaganda and even censorship. That year, his administration introduced the Espionage Act. Congress removed a provision in the original bill that would have given an executivebranch committee the power to censor newspapers, but left in clauses allowing the postmaster general to refuse mailing privileges to publications he considered "treasonous" or guilty of "insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny or refusal of duty in the military... or willfully obstruct[ing] the recruitment or enlistment services of the United States." In the spring of 1918, Congress added the Sedition Act, which punished "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" that might encourage "contempt scorn, contumely or disrepute" toward the Constitution, government, or military.

This broad language gave the government great power to gag its opponents. Freeberg documents some of the numerous assaults on civil liberties: "An Iowa man received twenty years for predicting that American boys would leave for Europe as heroes but return to fill the insane asylums. Others went to jail for distributing a pamphlet that a federal prosecutor thought Overstated the horrors of war.' ... A Montana man was prosecuted when he called the president 'a Wall Street tool' during a 'hot and furious saloon argument.'"

In this atmosphere, Debs's loud dissent was an invitation to arrest, but he declined to be quiet In a fateful speech in Canton, Ohio, he declaimed, "they have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and have yourselves slaughtered at command. But in all of that history of the world, you the people, never had a voice in declaring war ... the working class who fights the battles, the working class who make the sacrifices, the working class who shed the blood, the working class who furnish the corpses, the working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war."

Clyde Miller, a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter, was so outraged by these words that he campaigned, both through his publication and by directly lobbying a federal prosecutor, to have Debs punished. Amid public acrimony, Debs was tried in Cleveland and given a ten-year sentence, which was later upheld in the Supreme Court. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who would later reverse his stance on free speech with his famous "clear and present danger" test, wrote the majority opinion.

Democracy's Prisoner covers the trial in detail, but the second, and perhaps more important, part of the book is about Debs's time in prison and the campaign to release him and other political prisoners of the Wilson years. …

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