Eugene V. Debs – A 1906 speech in Pottsville’s Union Hall

On warm Friday evening in September 1906, residents of Pottsville poured into the city’s Union Hall on Mahantango Street. They paid 25 cents for admission for the evening’s event. A buzz ran through the audience like an electrical current. On this night, a famous figure featured on the front pages of newspapers across America was in Schuylkill County to speak.

His name: Eugene Victor Debs.

His topic on September 21, 1906: socialism in America.

Eugene Debs
Eugene V. Debs

Debs was on a nationwide speaking tour promoting candidates from the Socialist Party before the 1906 elections. The night before arriving in Pottsville, he spoke before a crowd of thousands in Hazleton in neighboring Luzerne County.

For many at Pottsville’s Union Hall, this would be the first time they heard a prominent speaker discuss socialism. There was a distinct curiosity among the crowd. This was anticipated and so a member of Pottsville’s political class, William Wilhelm, prepared questions for the socialist leader.

Eugene Debs speech ad
Advertisement for the Eugene V. Debs presentation at Pottsville’s Union Hall.

Eugene Debs was a fiery speaker and political activist who shook America in the final days of the 19th century and rocketed into prominence in the first years of 20th. Debs was a founding member of the Socialist Party of America and sought to turn over the tables of capitalism in America. The Socialists made gains early as labor battles between workers and management shook the nation’s industrial heartland in the first years of the new century. He had run as the Socialist Party candidate for President in the 1904 election. Debss received just over 400,000 votes, about 3% of the national vote.

The Socialists viewed Pennsylvania’s Coal Region as fertile ground for recruiting new foot soldiers in the battle against capitalism. Mineworkers were coming off making major gains through their union, the United Mineworkers of America, and Debs saw an opportunity to expand his party’s reach.

At Hazleton, many in the audience were mineworkers. But they weren’t sold on the revolutionary tactics suggested by Debs in his speech. Debs likely brought the same speech to the heart of the Schuylkill County coal fields.

The Miners’ Journal of Pottsville sent a reporter to Union Hall, a few blocks from its offices on Centre Street, to report on the event. That reporter documented the speech and the events surrounding it in the September 22, 1906 edition of the Miners’ Journal:

Debs Headline

EUGENE DEBS EXPLAINS SOCIALIST PROPAGANDA

Eugene Debs, the foremost champion of Socialism in this country, and a former candidate for President on the Socialistic ticket, spoke to a largo, intelligent audience in Union Hall last evening on the theory and fundamental principles of socialism, at the same time answering in a general way a set of questions that had been propounded him by William Wilhelm, Esq., of Pottsville.

The hall was filled in every seat and many persons were standing, and all gave the speaker deep and most, thoughtful attention. Mr. Debs won his way into the hearts and sympathies of the listeners at once of his honest and fearless manner and his talk was frequently interrupted by vigorous applause. In delivery, Mr. Debs very much resembles the characteristic pose of Abraham Lincoln, tall and at times awkward, leaning forward from his six feet of height and speaking right onto the audience.

Mr. Wilhelm Opens.

William Wilhelm

William Wilhelm, who had been granted the request to ask Mr. Debs a few questions on the subject of Socialism, was first introduced by Con. F. Foley, of town, the secretary of the Socialist party here. Mr. Wilhelm opened by stating his position – a position of a friendly interrogator, not that of an enemy, and one who sought information on doubtful phases of the Socialistic theory.

He said that Socialism cannot be silenced by silence, it must be met face to face, openly, and its issues fought out in fair and square argument, and “if Socialism can show us that it is better than any other accepted theory of politics, let us have it,” he said.

Mr. Wilhelm said that he had great respect for Socialists, although he did not favor their entire doctrine, for the reason that they had the fearless and patriotic spirit to maintain, and stand up for what they believed to be right. The speaker then went on to state in a general way the tenor of his inquiries, asking for enlightenment on various questions which he said had never been answered to him satisfactorily by any Socialist.

Mr. Debs’ Speech.

Mr. Debs opened by saying that he would endeavor to answer all the inquiries propounded by Mr. Wilhelm in the course of his speech and would give logical support to his beliefs. His speech is here given in full:

“Socialism is first of all a political movement of the working classes,” said Mr. Debs, “clearly defined and uncompromising, which aims at the overthrow of the prevailing capitalist system by securing control of the national government and by the exercise of the public powers, supplanting the existing capitalist class government with social administration that is to say, changing a republic in name into a republic in fact.

Socialism, also means a coming phase of civilization, next in order to the present one, in which the collective people will own and operate the sources and means of wealth production, in which all will have equal right to work and all will cooperate together in producing wealth and all will enjoy all the fruit of their collective labor. In the present system of society, called The Capitalist System, since it is controlled by and supported in the interest of the capitalist class, we have two general classes of people: first, capitalists and second workers. The capitalists are few, the workers are many; the capitalists are called capitalists because they own the productive capital of the country, and all other sources, means and tools of production, distribution and exchange.

The capitalist class who own and control these things also the millions of jobs that are attached to and inseparable from them. It goes without saying that the owner of the jobs is the master of the fellow who depends upon the job. Now why does the workingman depend upon the capitalist for a job? Simply because the capitalist owns the tools with which work is done, and without those the workingman is as helpless as if he had no aims.

The capitalist system has had its day and, like other systems that have gone before, it must pass away when it has fulfilled its mission and make room for another system in harmony with the forces of progress and compatible with the onward march of civilization. The centralization of capital, the concentration of industry, and the co-operation of working-men mark the beginning of the end. Competition is no longer “the life of Trade.” Only they are clamoring for ‘competition’ who have been worsted in the struggle and would like to have another deal.

The Small Class who won out in the game of competition and own the trusts want no more of it. They know what it is, and have had enough. John D. Rockefeller needs no competition to give life to his trade, and his pious son does not expatiate upon the beauties of competition in his class at Sunday school. No successful capitalist wants competition – for himself – he only wants it for the working class, so that he can buy his labor power at the lowest, competitive price in the labor market. The simple truth is, that competition in industrial life belongs in the past, and is practically outgrown. The time is approaching when it will be no longer possible. The improvement and enlargement of machinery and the ever-increasing scale of production compel the concentration of capital and this makes inevitable the concentration of co-operation of the workers.

The capitalists – the successful ones, of course – cooperate on the one side; the workers who are lucky enough to get the jobs on the other side. One Side Gets the Profits, grow rich, live in palaces, ride in yachts, gamble at Monte Carlo, drink champagne, choose judges, buy editors, hire preachers, corrupt politics, build universities, endow libraries, patronize churches, get the gout, preach morals, and bequeath the earth to their lineal descendants.

The other side do the work, early and late, in heat and cold; they sweat and groan and bleed and die – the steel billets they make are the corpses. They build the mills and all the machinery they man the plant and the thing of stone and steel begins to throb. They live far away in the outskirts in cottages, just this side of the hovels, where gaunt famine walks with despair and ‘Les Miserables leer and mock at civilization. When the mills are shut down, they are out of work and out of food and out of home; and when old age begins to steal away their vigor and the step is no longer agile, nor the sinew strong, nor the hand cunning; when the frame begins to bend and quiver and the eye to grow dim and they are no longer fit as labor power to make profit for their masters, they are pushed aside into a human drift that empties into the gulf of despair and death.

The system, once adapted to human needs, has outlived its usefulness and is now an unmitigated curse. It stands in the way of progress and checks the advance of civilization.

The present system of private ownership must be abolished and the workers themselves must be made the owners of the tools with which they are work, and to accomplish this they must organize their class for political action, and this work is already under way in the Socialist party which is composed of the working class and stands for the working class on a revolutionary platform, which declares in favor of the collective ownership of the means of production and the democratic management of industry in the interest of  the whole people.

In the capitalist system the soul has no business. It cannot produce profit by any process of capitalist calculation. The working hand is what is needed for the capitalist’s tool and so the human must be reduced to a hand. No head, no heart, and hands to one brain – the hands of workingmen, the brain of a capitalist. A thousand dumb animals in human form – a thousand slaves in the fetters of ignorance, their heads having run to hands – all these owned and worked and fleeced by one stock-dealing, profit-mongering capitalist.

This is Capitalism, and this system is supported alternatively by the Republican party and the Democratic party. These two capitalist parties relieve each other in support of the capitalist system, while the capitalist system relieves the working class of what they produce. A thousand hands to one head is the abnormal development of the capitalist system. A thousand workingmen turned into hands to develop and gorge and decorate one capitalist paunch. This brutal order of things must be overthrown.

The human race was not born to degeneracy. A thousand heads have grown for every thousand pairs of hands; a thousand hearts throb in testimony of the unity of heads and hands; a thousand souls, though crushed and mangled, burn in protest and are pledged to redeem a thousand men. Heads and hands, hearts and souls, are the heritage of all. Full opportunity for full development is the unalienable right of all.

He who denies it is a tyrant; he who does not demand it is a coward; he who is indifferent to it is a slave; he who does not desire it is dead.”

Mr. Debs made the statement that there are 1,000,000 tramps, 60,000 fallen women, 1,000,000 consumptives, and 50,000 thieves in the United States. He asserted that these are the result of the present social system. He said that multi-millionaires have too much of the things that the tramps have not enough of.

The Pottsville Republican had only this to say of the speech:

A thoughtful and patient audience listened to the lecture on Socialism by Eugene Debs at Union Hall last night. Debs is undoubtedly the leading exponent of the doctrine of Socialism in this country, if not in the world and his arguments undoubtedly had a great attraction for many in the audience, even though they were convinced of their fallacy.

Despite the visit of the Socialist Party leader, votes for that party were minimal in the 1906 elections in Schuylkill County. Leaders in the UMWA tried to separate themselves from the charge of being socialists. For the most part, socialist politics had not yet gained a large following in Eastern Pennsylvania’s industrial district. That changed in later years as the economy began showing worrying signs of teetering in the 1910s-1930s. (More to come on this in the future).

Eugene Debs ran for President of the United States on five separate occasions, led the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies) and famously was imprisoned during World War I for speaking out against American participation in the conflict. He died in 1926.

Eugene Debs mugshot
The mugshot of Eugene V. Debs after his conviction for violating the Sedition Act in 1918. (NARA)

Featured Image: Socialist Party campaign poster from 1904. (LOC)

Read more about Eugene V. Debs and the rise of socialist politics from the Washington Post’s brilliant Retropolis blog.


 

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