EUGENE DEBS, THE ISSUE (16 MAY 1908)
- How does Eugene V. Debs use emotional language to communicate his ideas to his audience?
- How might the points Debs makes in “The Issue” relate to current concerns about class distinctions and social/racial justice?
- Why was it important for Debs to appeal both to socialists and to farmers? Why did some socialists think that farmers should not be included in the Socialist party?
- Classroom Debate: Debs claims that socialism is superior to capitalism in terms of the dignity and the intellectual development of the mass of people, and in terms of the distribution of wealth. Debs says “Eighty per cent of the people in the United States have little or no property of any kind today. A few have got it all. They have dispossessed the people, and when we get into power we will dispossess them.” Is socialism – the ownership of the means of production by the state and equal distribution of its profits to all of the people – superior to capitalism? Why or why not?
- Debs says, “Our conduct is determined largely by our economic relations.” This central proposition of socialist analysis holds that religion and law support the status quo of the wealthy and powerful against the needs of ordinary working people. Do you agree with this or disagree?
- Every speech can be divided into sections: introduction, topics in the main body, and conclusion. Take the text of “The Issue” and divide it into appropriate sections. How does the introduction function to gain the goodwill of the audience? What are the main topics raised in the body of the speech? How does the conclusion bring the speech to a satisfying end?
- Probably the most famous speech made by Eugene Debs was his Canton Ohio speech in 1918, in which he opposed the U.S. entry into the First World War, and advocated that working-class men refuse the draft. He was arrested, tried, and convicted under the new sedition law, and sentenced to ten years at hard labor. Read his address to the court, given after he was convicted and before sentencing. How does it compare to ideas and sentiments expressed 10 years previously in “The Issue”?
- In June 2019 Bernie Sanders gave a speech on democratic socialism at George Washington University (https://www.vox.com/2019/6/12/18663217/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism-speech-transcript). How do Sanders’ ideas compare to those of Debs in “The Issue”?
- On August 31, 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Osawatomie, Kansas and laid out his vision for what he called a “new nationalism.” Compare the arguments he makes in defense of capitalism to the arguments Debs makes against it and in favor of socialism. (https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2011/12/06/archives-president-teddy-roosevelts-new-nationalism-speech)
- Many scholars have presented reasons why socialism never caught on strongly in the United States, or became a strong political alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties. Research the history of the American Socialist Party and the socialist organizations that followed it (the Socialist Party of America and the Democratic Socialists of America). Why do you think socialism did not achieve popularity with the American public in general?
- Watch the public television documentary “The Revolutionist: Eugene V. Debs” (https://www.wfyi.org/programs/debs). Debs spent his life promoting the union movement, but since 1980 union membership has decreased. Do you think workers should join a union, or are unions counterproductive by restricting the freedom of business?
- Debs conviction in 1919 under the Sedition Act for his speech in Canton, Ohio, raises the question of the balance between Freedom of Speech as guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and national security. Should a person be allowed to denounce U.S. policy publicly even if it jeopardizes national security according to the President and other leaders? Read Debs’ “Address to the Jury” (https://debsfoundation.org/pdf/canton-and-court.pdf) – do you think he is guilty of Sedition for his speech?
- Debs believed that a socialist revolution would liberate all Americans from oppression because class divisions were the root of all oppression. The great sociological scholar W.E.B. Du Bois identified the problem of racial discrimination as one of social caste rather than class, and thought that these problems would remain even after a socialist revolution. Do you think that economic discrimination can be separated from racial discrimination? Would the reduction of economic inequality also significantly reduce racial inequalities?