Good Man, Useful Idiot

Eugene Debs was the Socialist Party candidate for president four times, eventually ending up with about 4% of the vote in the 1920 election. Neat thing about that? He was in prison at the time and stripped of his citizenship.

Now look, Debs seems like a nice guy. His speeches, of which one is the point of this post, are really good. He wasn’t an abstract idea guy like so many socialists of his time and today (and other fringe political movements like libertarians). He saw problems, read some ideas, found them persuasive, and used his personal charm to grow his cause in very simple and direct ways.

Unfortunately, like all socialist causes, they eventually devolve into barbarism as soon as they get a shot at running the show. Debs was one of the founders of the International Workers of the World. The Wobblies, as they were known, were one of the first unions as we know them today. Instead of being drawn together by guilds–masons stick with masons, cobblers with cobblers–this union was one of all workers of an industry. They started with rail and mining, getting all of the workers together, and with this structure were very successful.

Unfortunately for Debs, they became the inevitable group of anarchists and terrorists and so he left the group. Surprise! After a brief turn with the great populist William Jennings Bryan, he helped start the Socialist Party.

This document is his argument at his trial for crimes under the Espionage Act. This another wonderful act of early 20th century insanity that covered all kinds of things including “obstructing recruiting”.  Debs was convicted and sentenced to 10 years. This pamplet was to raise money to cover the cost of the appeals.

If you read this you will find it is pretty good. He’s nuts but in a “Gee, I’m just like Washington and Lincoln, radicals, and you love those guys! Why don’t you love me?” sort of way. And he’s right. He was advocating peaceful political ideas. His conviction was as terrible.

Debs was in prison throughout the Wilson administration, in spite of Attorney General Palmer’s (he of the Palmer Raids) several attempts to get his sentence commuted. As soon as Wilson was out and Harding was in, he was let out of prison and met by the president at the White House. A few of the more egregious parts of the law have since been repealed but it is still around for actual traitors like Manning and Snowden.

debs argument