Friday, April 8, 2016

Labor and Freedom by Eugene V. Debs

The state of socialism in America, circa 1912
Eugene V. Debs
A century before critics started accusing Bernie Sanders of being a socialist, a real Socialist was in the running for President of the United States. Eugene V. Debs sought the nation’s highest office five times (once from a prison cell). His best performance came in 1912 when, running as a fourth-party candidate against Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, he garnered six percent of the vote. Despite being a high school dropout, Debs was hailed in his day as one of the nation’s most eloquent and moving speakers. His rhetoric not only inspired political fervor but also influenced the socially conscious literature of his era, most notably the writings of Upton Sinclair and Jack London. Labor and Freedom, published in 1916, is a collection of Debs’ writings and speeches. The 18 pieces included in the book provide a detailed overview of Debs’ political thought and campaign platform, as well as a valuable historical record of the American socialist movement at its height.

The book is divided roughly in half; the first part being articles and short lectures and the second consisting of four longer campaign speeches. In “The Secret of Efficient Expression,” when Debs is asked to explain how he became such a powerful and effective speaker, he provides a political autobiography detailing the course of his self education. Among his influences, he ranks two great orators as his personal heroes: abolitionist Wendell Phillips and “The Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll­—two names that crop up repeatedly in his discourse. In “Susan B. Anthony,” Debs expresses his admiration for and solidarity with the famous suffragist, whom he met on two occasions. “Pioneer Women of America” heaps more praise upon Anthony, while also recognizing Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s contributions to the women’s rights and abolitionist movements. In “The Coppock Bros.,” Debs recognizes two Ohio men who fought alongside John Brown in the attack on Harper’s Ferry. “Jesus, the Supreme Leader” presents a secular interpretation of Christ as the ultimate communist, a view shared by Sinclair and many other Christian socialists.

Of course, the book is more than just a collection of history lessons. The majority of its pages are occupied by political rhetoric, some of which could fairly be called propaganda. In “The Social Spirit,” Debs preaches against individualism, capitalism, and competition in favor of brotherhood, socialism, and cooperation. In a pair of pieces, “The Little Lords of Love” and “A Message to the Children,” Debs uses imagery of an idyllic socialist childhood to appeal to parent voters and ends up sounding manipulative and cloying in the process. The campaign speeches are where the real meat of Debs’s thought comes through. If there’s one entry that encapsulates the state of socialism in America a century ago it’s “Unity and Victory,” which opens as a primer on socialist philosophy and ends in a call for all unions to join together into one universal brotherhood of the working class. Not surprisingly for campaign speeches, the four selections included here tend to get repetitive, and Debs spends just as much time attacking his opponents—Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, and William Jennings Bryan—as he does outlining his own agenda. These are campaign speeches, after all, intended to educate and persuade, not to entertain. Regardless of your political slant, the primary value of Labor and Freedom to the 21st century reader is its function as time capsule to an era when many considered socialism to be a viable option for American governance, the class struggle was openly discussed as a reality of American life, and the “S” word was not hurled about as a pejorative insult.

Articles, lectures, and speeches in this collection
The Old Umbrella Mender 
The Secret of Efficient Expression 
Jesus, The Supreme Leader
Susan B. Anthony 
Louis Tikas 
The Little Lords of Love 
The Coppock Bros. 
The Social Spirit 
Roosevelt and His Regime 
Industrial and Social Democracy 
A Message to the Children 
Social Reform 
Danger Ahead 
Pioneer Women in America 
Unity and Victory
Political Appeal to American Workers 

The Fight for Freedom 

Capitalism and Socialism  

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