Eugene Debs: Labor Day Message, 1897

There are periods of time in the course of human events when every sentiment of fealty to humanity prompts men to make declarations involving new departures from the old beaten pathways in which men have tramped and wrought and starved and died, and left as an inheritance to their children the same deplorable condition — lives in which the agony of trial, beginning in the cradle, pursues its victim until death closes the scene; a condition in which high aspirations and noble ambitions live for a time to allure their possessors and then

Like Dead Sea fruits that tempt the eye,
Turn to ashes on the lip.

a condition which tells by the wounds and bruises which afflict the victims how deep has penetrated the steel of oppression when selfishness and greed directed the blow.

I would not, if I could, exaggerate conditions. I know of no words in the lexicons of our language which, though they were pigment and brush in the hands of a Raphael, could be made to paint a darker picture than the unadorned facts present for our contemplation. Nor could words, though wielded by the matchless imagination of a Dante or a Milton, whether describing Hell or Paradise Lost, be made to exaggerate the distress of the poor in the United States of America…

I do not care at this time to discuss strikes as a means of securing better conditions for working people. To a limited extent, in some instances, strikes have succeeded, but in almost every instance the victory won has been ephemeral. Defeated capitalism has found a way to regain its lost ground and make another strike a necessity, and in practically every effort upon a large scale in industrial enterprises involving public interests, failure has been written with an “iron pen and lead in a rock forever.”

Why is this fact woven into strikes which involve public convenience? It is because the public will not be inconvenienced for any length of time, though every toiler is found dead in his hut and wives and children become the victims of conditions in the description of which all language is meaningless.

Nevertheless, those whose blood is not warmed in seeing Americans strike against tyranny of any and of every description would have been, had they lived when Washington and his compatriots were leading and fighting forlorn hopes, on the side of the enemies of liberty and independence — traitors to country and humanity.

I know it is the old, old story, the old song, the old refrain, but God pity us all when the old story of the struggle for liberty and independence no longer inspires us to deeds of valor and sacrifice; when Patrick Henry’s defiant words, “Give me liberty or give me death” cease to thrill the American heart; for when that time comes, and its ominous shadows, black as Plutonian darkness, are even now lying athwart our pathway, the republic will have been divided into two classes — brigands and beggars, masters and slaves — and the glory of the nation will have departed to return no more forever…

On the deck of the storm-tossed ship of Labor millions of eyes are seeking to penetrate the surrounding gloom. Millions of voices, listening to what the billows say, would, if they could, interpret the message and point to a haven of safety and repose.

In this supreme hour, when hope is giving way to despair, and stout-hearted men are yielding to what they term the “decree of fate,” the star of the Socialist Party, like that which the wise men saw when Christ was born, blazes above the horizon and hope revives and again is heard by ears attuned to the minstrelsy of humanity, “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

Once more comes into view the “brotherhood of man,” and the old-time shibboleth “Each for all and all for each” is vital with new significance and power.

It is no utopian dream, not an ignis fatuus, not the product of imagination, not a mirage of the desert to allure and vanish, but a theory of life and labor in which the humblest individual owns himself and by his labor secures life, liberty, and happiness.

The Socialist Party deals with the possible, with the practical, with axiomatic propositions in the everyday affairs of life. It lays hold upon fundamental principles with unrelaxing grasp and challenges criticism. It makes humanity the focal, converging, and animating idea and proposes to lift it above chicanery into the clear, serene, and unbefogged realm of common sense.

The Socialist Party beholds Labor a mendicant, half-fed and half-clothed, inhabiting hovels, forever doomed to play its part in the tragedy of toil, to die at last unknelled and uncoffined, destined to a hold in the Potters’ field, and proposes to lift it up and out of its degrading environments, not by pathways decked with the flowers of fancy, but along the lines of practical endeavor, where mind, muscle, skill, humanity, and home, in holy alliance, in well-adjusted, cooperative effort liberates the enslaved, gives a new birth to hope, aspiration, and ambition, and makes the desert blossom and the waste places glad — a condition in which, when a man earns a dollar he is not compelled to divide it with a capitalist, who, as now, scourges him to his task as if he were a galley slave, but takes to himself all the fruits of his labor, and thus emancipated by industrial and economic laws which elevate, bless, and adorn humanity, the devotee of Socialist Party advances by degrees until the fangs and pangs of poverty disappear, until in his own home fears of eviction no longer breed despair, until wife and children, the recipients of the benedictions of cooperative prosperity, enjoy the fruitions of peace and prosperity, and under their own vine and fig tree live as free from carking care as the songbirds of the woodlands.

Here is a theme for Labor Day worthy of the genius of orator and poet. Fancy may plume its wings for flights to where the “universe spreads its flaming walls,” but will find no object more worthy of its powers than a home where love and contentment reign supreme — a home beyond the reach of an injunction — a home amidst pathways of peace and prosperity — a home where the call to labor has no note of degradation, but is attuned to life and liberty and joy, as when a Switzer salutes the rising sun with his Alpine horn, and from peak to peak and crag to crag the shout is heard, “Praise God.”

In writing this message to Labor and to the Socialist Party of America, I would emphasize the fact that a new departure has been inaugurated in response to a demand voiced by conditions in which calamities are forever treading upon the heels of preceding disasters and like the tracks of animals to slaughter pens, no footprint indicates the escape of the doomed victims. It is a new departure based upon the immutable laws of love for the emancipation of humanity from degradation. The principle, ancient as creation, lives for the purpose of being applied whenever and wherever humanity lifts its bowed head and wails forth its cry for help. This it is now doing.

The winds are burdened with moans, and the Socialist Party, with hope and help in alliance, comes to the front with an invitation to all who would escape from the grinding curse of wage slavery, who would place themselves beyond the reach of the jaws and paws of plutocratic tigers, to break loose from their degrading environments and come within the ramparts which the Socialist Party is building for the safety of those who have suffered long for an opportunity to work out their salvation, not with “fear and trembling,” but with a faith “that is the substance of things hoped for” and willing to consecrate all their mental and physical faculties to the work of rescuing their fellow men from the grasp of a system which has enslaved them and help them to realize the full measure of happiness that comes to free and independent men.


Text modified from the original. Original text available here: http://www.marxisthistory.org/history/usa/parties/spusa/1897/0830-debs-tothehostsofsda.pdf


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