June 30, 1918: Eugene V. Debs Jailed for Opposing Imperialist Violence

Eugene Debs speaking in Canton, Ohio (Wikimedia Commons)

“The master class has always declared the war, the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain, nothing to lose, and the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose.”

For speaking these words to a thunderous crowd of workers in Canton, Ohio in 1918, the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs was sent to prison on June 30, 1918. His crime? Opposing World War I – up to then the most brutal and lethal war the world had ever known, with millions of deaths and mass destruction.

World War I was waged – as Debs said – by the ruling capitalist class of each country; all of them claiming to wage war for “freedom” and “democracy” (sound familiar?). What this meant in reality was the freedom to further exploit the working class and the colonial subjects of each country; it meant a democracy for the rich ruling class.

But while the capitalist class was eager to wage war, it was not eager to fight it. Instead, tens of millions of people – workers, oppressed people from the capitalist colonies, the poor – were sent to fight to increase the profits of the capitalist class and expand the plunder from colonies abroad.

Because he bravely stated these truths, Debs was imprisoned until Christmas Day 1921. He was not the only one imprisoned or harassed for opposing the war. Hundreds of socialists across the United States and the world were imprisoned for speaking out against the war. Despite all the claims by the capitalists to support the rights to free speech and a free press, these “rights” were eliminated in all the major capitalist countries during the war – showing just how little our rights matter when they get in the way of capitalist profits and plunder.

World War I ended on November 11, 1918, and was hailed afterwards as the “war to end all wars.” Millions of workers were sick and tired of these wars fought to enrich the capitalists – they wanted peace. Across Europe and the world, there were mass working class uprising against the capitalist class and the war. Soldiers and sailors mutinied against their officers and joined these uprisings. But ultimately, despite the energy and hopes of millions of people, these revolutions were crushed underfoot by the capitalist class.

The “war to end all wars” is a century in the past – but wars continue all around the world today. The United States has launched repeated invasions of the Middle East to protect US hegemony and oil interests in the region – causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and massive destruction of infrastructure and livelihoods. Just at the beginning of this year, Trump assassinated a top Iranian general, threatening yet another war in the Middle East. But the militarism of the major capitalist countries extends beyond directly invading other countries. The US and it’s allies sell billions of dollars worth of weapons abroad every year, and provides military support, advice, and equipment to countries that serve US interests – including repressive dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia. And equipment that doesn’t go abroad can always be used at home by the police – as the recent protests against police brutality have shown.  

These wars and the misery, suffering, and death they cause, all have their origins in the functioning of capitalism. As long as capitalism exists, war will exist to help capitalists control more markets and natural resources, get a greater share of the world profit, and even make a profit by selling weapons and equipment.

We don’t need any of this bloody insanity! We need a peaceful world of international cooperation and unity. We need a world with money for healthcare, housing, food, and education – not more weapons. We need a world where we control the wealth we create, the communities where we live, and the society we’re a part of – not the capitalist class and their political cronies.

But in order to get that world we are going to have to organize ourselves and fight for it. We can’t rely on voting in any politician to build a new society – the Democrats and Republicans both defend this bloody and destructive system of capitalism. We have to look to our own power. These protests against racism and police brutality have shown us our real power when we organize ourselves and struggle. We must continue this movement; the only way we can win a world free from war is if we organize ourselves against the capitalist class and take power into our own hands.