Vote for Prisoner 9653

Issue: 126

John Newsinger

Ernest Freeberg, Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene Debs, the Great War and the Right to Dissent (Harvard University, 2008) £22.95

On 16 June 1918 Eugene Debs, one of the leaders of the American Socialist Party, spoke at a mass meeting in Canton, Ohio. Although he had reservations about the party’s anti-war policy, he nevertheless felt obliged to speak out in solidarity with those of his comrades who had already felt the weight of government repression. He opened his speech with a reference to three imprisoned party activists. They had learned “that it is extremely dangerous to exercise our constitutional right of freedom of speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world”.

The highest aspiration one could have, he said, was “to be class conscious, and to realise that, regardless of nationality, race, creed, colour or sex, every man, every woman who toils, who renders useful service, every member of the working class without an exception is my comrade, my brother and sister”. He went on to “deafening applause” to proclaim that “our hearts are with the Bolsheviki in Russia”.

When it came to the First World War, Debs chose his words carefully. He condemned “Junkerism”, both in Germany and in the United States, and spoke against war in general terms rather than condemning the Great War itself. Most of the speech was devoted to arguing the Socialist case and urging his audience to join the Socialist Party. Nevertheless, he went out of his way “to say a word in favour of the IWW”, the International Workers of the World, which was being ruthlessly crushed by the government. And he urged the need for political action to go hand in hand with industrial action. He ended by proclaiming that “in due time the hour will strike and this great cause triumphant…will proclaim the emancipation of the working class and the brotherhood of all mankind”.

This speech led to Debs’s arrest and trial under the Espionage Act in September 1918. He was found guilty. Addressing the court before sentencing, Debs famously asserted that “years ago I recognised my kinship with all living things, 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, while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” He was sentenced to ten years. Ernest Freeberg’s Democracy’s Prisoner tells the story of Debs’s trial and imprisonment and of the campaign to set him free.

Debs’s case was part of the wave of repression, both legal and extra-legal, that swept over the American left during and after the war. Many Socialist Party leaders and activists were imprisoned, the Socialist press was driven out of existence, the IWW leadership was imprisoned and in many parts of the country the union was actually proscribed by criminal syndicalism laws. Men and women received ten, 15 and 20 year sentences for their opposition to the war and the subsequent intervention in Russia. As Max Eastman put it, a socialist could hardly collect his thoughts without being charged with unlawful assembly.

The repression swept up the leader of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Joseph Rutherford (sentenced to 20 years) and the producer of a Hollywood film about the American War of Independence, Robert Goldstein (the film was condemned as anti-British on release and he was sentenced to ten years, reduced on appeal to three). At the end of 1918 a group of Russian anarchists were arrested in New York for their opposition to intervention in Russia: three of them were sentenced to 20 years, one got 15 and one died in prison from mistreatment. This repression exceeded by far that inflicted on the
anti-war movement in any of America’s allies. The liberal lawyer Felix Frankfurter, a future Supreme Court Justice, wrote that the United States was now “the most reactionary country in the world”.

While Debs’s courage in the face of repression was exemplary and his commitment to the cause of the working class beyond question, nevertheless, he consistently refused to take up the fight against the right in the Socialist Party. Indeed, he stood by on a number of occasions while they assailed the left. When the left either broke away or was expelled after the war, Debs remained with the reformists. One reason for this was certainly that the war had not drawn so sharp a line between left and right as it had in Socialist parties in other countries.

In the US, right wing Socialists such as Victor Berger had opposed the war; he received a 20-year prison sentence for the crime (quashed on appeal). Another factor was undoubtedly the factionalism and sectarianism that crippled the Communist movement even in the face of the most ferocious repression. There were, disastrously, two Communist parties emerging from the split with the Socialist Party. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Debs was never prepared actually to embrace the Bolshevism that on numerous occasions he was prepared to celebrate.

In 1920 what was left of the Socialist Party ran Debs as their candidate for the presidency. He campaigned from inside the Federal prison in Atlanta as Prisoner 9653. The Communists called for a boycott of the election. Debs received 913,664 votes, considerably less than he hoped, but the Socialist Party organisation had been wrecked by repression and the split.

If the Democrats had won the Presidency in 1920, the likelihood is that Debs would have rotted in prison. Their vice presidential candidate, a certain Franklin Roosevelt, for example, had endorsed the repression of the left in the town of Centralia, no less, the scene of a horrific IWW lynching. It was to be the Republican president, Warren Harding, who was to free Debs on Christmas Day 1921. When he walked free hundreds of his fellow convicts cheered him (“the most deeply touching and impressive moment of my life”). Debs’ first act as a free man was to donate the $5 prisoners received on release to the fund for the defence of Sacco and Vanzetti.