Now my friends, I am opposed to the system of society in which we live today, not because I lack the natural equipment to do for myself but because I am not satisfied to make myself comfortable knowing that there are thousands of my fellow men who suffer for the barest necessities of life.
We were taught under the old ethic that man’s business on this earth was to look out for himself. That was the ethic of the jungle, the ethic of the wild beast. Take care of yourself, no matter what may become of your fellow man. Thousands of years ago the question was asked: ”Am I my brother’s keeper?” That question has never yet been answered in a way that is satisfactory to civilized society.
Yes, I am my brother’s keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality but by the higher duty I owe myself. What would you think me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death.
– Eugene V. Debs (1908)
Eugene V. Debs is one of the founding members of the International Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and several times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States. Through his presidential candidacies, as well as his work with labour movements, Debs eventually becomes one of the best-known socialists living in the United States.
After working with several smaller unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Debs is instrumental in the founding of the American Railway Union (ARU), the nation’s first industrial union. When the ARU strikes the Pullman Palace Car Company over pay cuts, President Grover Cleveland employs the United States Army to break the strike. As a leader of the ARU, Debs is later imprisoned for failing to obey an injunction against the strike.
Debs educates himself about socialism in prison and emerges to launch his career as the nation’s most prominent socialist in the first decades of the 20th century. He runs as the Socialist Party’s candidate for the presidency in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, the last time from his prison cell.
Noted for his oratory, it is a speech denouncing American participation in World War I that leads to his second arrest in 1918. He is convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and sentenced to a term of 10 years. President Warren G. Harding commutes his sentence in December 1921. Eugene V. Debs leaves us in 1926.