The Great Prisoner
Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs.
With an introduction
by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
New York, Hermitage Press, 1948. 484 pp. $4.00.
Mr. Schlesinger has performed a valuable service by making available, in the form of well-selected specimens of Eugene V. Debs’ own writing and speeches, the substance on which the legend of the Great Socialist and Great Prisoner is based.
The substance is better than the legend—truer, more human, clearer, and above all more useable as a touchstone for the appraisal of contemporary political tendencies and personalities. From youth to old age, the logic of Debs’ fortunately simple character seems to have unwound without snarls, or any kind of moral failure or confusion, in a kind of spiritual Horatio Alger sequence. Pluck and luck made a great American out of Gene Debs, and an amazingly successful one, before he was dead. This book, with its chronologically arranged self-documentation of the life, enables us to see the growth of that greatness, and to learn from it.
At thirty-nine Debs had the great good fortune to be clapped into jail for six months. (An invaluable experience, which should be part of the education of every American; twenty-four hours in an average American jail is enough to convince any intelligent person that what we call our civilization is a gross failure, a contemptible fraud.) It happened in 1894, when Grover Cleveland broke the Pullman strike by sending federal troops into Illinois over the protest of Governor Altgeld. Federal judges jailed Debs, the president of the American Railway Union, for contempt of court.
He served his sentence in a filthy county jail in Woodstock, Illinois, and being an honest, logical, and courageous person, he came out of jail a Socialist.
Up to that time Debs had been a trade unionist pure and simple. “No shadow of a system fell athwart my pathway,” he writes. “No thought of ending wage-misery. I was too deeply absorbed in perfecting wage-servitude.”
The Pullman strike seemed won, when “there was delivered from wholly unexpected quarters a swift succession of blows that blinded me for an instant and then opened wide my eyes—and in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed. . . . Injunctions flew thick and fast, arrests followed, and our office was sacked, torn out and nailed up by the lawful authorities’ of the federal government. . . . I found myself in Cook County Jail at Chicago with the whole press screaming conspiracy, treason and murder. . . .”
For the next thirty years, in jail and out—he was to occupy three county jails, one state prison, and one federal penitentiary, for a total of almost four years—Debs functioned as a Socialist agitator. His revelation was too simple, and his platform rhetoric was of the period—that is to say execrable, and studded with quotations from bad poems. Now and then, in a tight tactical spot, he resorted to rationalizations that seem a bit strained: for example, we find him explaining laboriously that his IWW friends Bill Haywood and Frank Bohn didn’t mean what they obviously did mean when they wrote that the class-conscious worker “retains absolutely no respect for the property ‘rights’ of the profit takers. The present laws of property are made by and for the capitalists. Therefore he does not hesitate to break them.” (Debs himself flatly repudiated “direct action.”)
But for the most part Debs remained securely himself, getting better and better in word and deed as he went along: the devoted organizer and editor who gave eighteen hours a day and most of his salary as city clerk to building up the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen; the radical who was also the most loved and respected citizen of Terre Haute, Indiana; the candidate for president who polled a million Socialist votes in 1912; the war re-sister who stood by his jailed comrades, was jailed himself after the Armistice, and was kept jailed by the self-righteous Wilson, who had to be taught humanity by Harding.
By the time Debs reached Atlanta there was a light around his shoulders for all men to see. The prisoners saw it, and when Debs, nominated while in prison, did not win the 1920 election, they were genuinely surprised; they could not understand how the people could fail to choose so great a man. Later, when Debs describes his release from prison in Walls and Bars, his only book, the rhetorical flowers are gone from his style:
The last inmate I clasped hands with was a Negro serving a life sentence. As the poor fellow stood before me sobbing I literally saw the prison in tears.
For a moment I was rooted to the spot and shaken with emotion. I felt as if I was deserting my friends and a sense of guilt gripped my conscience.
I could see their anxious eyes peering at me from all directions, and how could I turn my back on them and leave them there! They wanted me to go, to join my family, to have my liberty, while the impulse seized me to stay with them until we could walk out of the barred cells together into the sunlight of the outer world. . . .
This was the kind and gallant man who made Socialists of us before World War I. I don’t think we would have listened to a Henry Wallace. And I am sure that Gene, seeing the bars through which the self-imprisoned Wallace peers out at the world, would have felt for him chiefly compassion.