Eugene V. Debs: On The Mission Of The Socialist Party

In 1898, the Western Federation of Miners founded the Western Labor Union (WLU) for the purpose of building industrial unions among unskilled workers in the Western states of the United States. Four years later, in May of 1902, 3,000 miners affiliated with the Western Labor Union (WLU) met in convention in Denver, Colorado Debs Posingto consider their future. During the convention, Eugene V. Debs delivered a speech entitled “Mission of the Socialist Party.”

In the introduction to the speech, Debs said,

“In the present organization of society, character of government is determined by the political party it represents, and the party is simply the political expression of the economic interests of the class it represents. For example, the Republican Party is essentially the party of the large and successful capitalist class; the Democratic Party is that of the smaller, struggling and less successful capitalists ….”

“The only vital function of the present government is to keep the exploited class in subjection by their exploiters.”

Deb then tells the miners in assembly about the influence of the owning class.

“The owning class is necessarily the ruling class. It dictates legislation and in the case of doubt or controversy has it construed to its own interest.”

And, he speaks about class struggle.

“Centralization is paving the way to the new society that is evolving from the present competitive chaos. All capital, by the inexorable law of economic gravitation, will centralize in the hands of the few.”

Eventually, Debs says, “the dispossessed, propertyless class” will “dispossess the small possessing class in the name of the whole people.”

“To accomplish this, especially in the United States, where all men (and women should) have the ballot, political organization is an absolute necessity, and hence the organization of the Socialist Party to represent the interests of the working class.”

” … socialists rely upon the efficacy of the united class-conscious ballot to accomplish their end.”

Concluding his speech, Eugene V. Debs speaks to the miners about collective ownership.

“Economic freedom can result only from collective ownership …. ”

“Between private ownership and collective ownership there can be no compromise. As well seek to harmonize fire and water. One produces for profit, the other for use. One produces millionaires and mendicants, the other economic equals. One gives us palaces and hovels, robes and rags, the other will secure to every man and woman their full product of his or her toil, abolish class rule, wipe out class distinction, secure the peace of society, and make of this earth for the first time a habitable place.”

Ray Ginger, in The Bending Cross, his biography of Debs, writes that during the Western Labor Union convention, Debs “called upon the delegates to change their name to the American Labor Union, declare in favor of socialism, and begin a nation-wide campaign to organize industrial unions.” He goes on to report that “Every one of these proposals was adopted by the convention in an outburst of fervent enthusiasm.”

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After reading Debs’ speech at the Western Labor Union convention, I researched the convention and found a copy of a newspaper article that reported the Union’s decisions noted by Ginger.

Los Angeles Herald June 5, 1902

WESTERN LABOR UNION A Campaign in Favor of Socialism Will Be Opened

DENVER. June 4.—The Western Labor Union convention today adopted the name of the American Labor Union for the organization, so that its field can be extended throughout the country. The convention also decided to send organizers through the east for the purpose of building up the union and proselyting among people there in the cause of Socialism. It is hoped that they will be enabled to enroll on its membership list those members of the American Federation of Labor who have Socialistic tendencies. Although independent political action has been agreed upon, President Daniel McDonald said today that the new party would not make any nominations for at least another year. “The campaign which the labor union will carry on in regard to Socialism for the present will be educational.” said he. “Literature dealing with Socialist questions will be distributed and speakers sent throughout the east.” The convention of miners at a late hour indorsed Socialism by a vote of 230 to 73.

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You can read the full text of Debs’ “The Mission of the Socialist Party” here.

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