Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

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ter of the ancient world, holds the great mass of
the people in bondage, not by owning them under
the law, nor by having sole proprietorship of the
land, but by virtue of his ownership of industry,
the tools and machinery with which work is done
and wealth produced. In a word, the capitalist
owns the tools and the jobs of the workers, and
therefore they are his economic dependents. In
that relation the capitalist has the power to ap-
propriate to himself the products of the workers
and to become rich in idleness while the workers,
who produce all the wealth that he enjoys, re-
main in poverty.

To. buttress and safeguard this exploiting sys-
tem, private property of the capitalist has been
made a fetish, a sacred thing, and thousands of
laws have been enacted and more thousands sup-
plemented by court decisions to punish so-called
crimes against the holy institution of private

A vast majority of the crimes that are pun-
ished under the law and for which men are sent
to prison, are committed directly or indirectly
against property. Under the capitalist system
there is far more concern about property and in-


finitely greater care in its conservation than in
human life.

Multiplied thousands of men, women and chil-
dren are killed and maimed in American indus-
try by absolutely preventable accidents every
year, yet no one ever dreams of indicting the
capitalist masters who are guilty of the crime.
The capitalist owners of fire traps and of fetid
sweating dens, where the lives of the workers are
ruthlessly sacrificed and their health wantonly
undermined, are not indicted and sent to prison
for the reason that they own and control the in-
dicting machinery just as they own and control
the industrial machinery in their system.

The economic-owning class is always the po-
litical ruling class.

Laws in the aggregate are largely to keep the
people in subjection to their masters.

Under the capitalist system, based upon pri-
vate property in the means of life, the exploita-
tion that follows impoverishes the masses, and
their precarious economic condition, their bitter
struggle for existence, drives increasing numbers
of them to despair and desperation, to crime and

The inmates of an average county jail consist
mainly of such victims. They also constitute the
great majority in the state prisons and federal
penitentiaries. The inmates of prisons are pro-
verbially the poorer people recruited from what
we know as the ** lower class*'. The rich are not


to be found in prison save in such rare instances
as to prove the rule that penitentiaries are built
for the poor.

Capitalism needs and must have the prison to
protect itself from the criminals it has created.
It not only impoverishes the masses when they
are at work, but it still further reduces them by
not allowing millions to work at all. The capi-
talist's profit has supreme consideration; the life
of the workers is of little consequence.

If a hundred men are blown up in a mine a
hundred others rush there eagerly to take the
places of the dead even before the remnants of
their bodies have been laid away. Protracted
periods of enforced idleness under capitalism
have resulted in thousands of industrious work-
ing men becoming tramps and vagabonds, and
in thousands of tramps and vagabonds becoming
outcasts and criminals..

It is in this process that crime is generated and
proceeds in its logical stages from petty larceny
to highway robbery and homicide. Getting a liv-
ing under capitalism — the system in which the
few who toil not are millionaires and billionaires,
while the mass of the people who toil and sweat
and produce all the wealth are victims of poverty
and pauperism — getting a living under this in-
expressibly cruel and inhuman system is so pre-
carious, so uncertain, fraught with such pain and
struggle that the wonder is not that so many peo-
ple become vicious and criminal, but that so


many remain in docile submission to such a
tyrannous and debasing condition.

It is a beautiful commentary on human nature
that so little of it is defiled and that so much of
it resists corruption under a social system which
would seem to have for its deliberate purpose the
conversion of men into derelicts and criminals,
and the earth into a vast poorhouse and prison.

The prison of capitalism is a finished institu-
tion compared to the cruder bastiles of earlier
periods in human history. The evolution of the
prison has kept pace with the evolution of so-
ciety and the exploitation upon which society is

Just as the exploitation of the many by the few
has reached its highest cultivation and refine-
ment under present day capitalism, and is now
carried on more scientifically and successfully,
and is yielding infinitely richer returns than ever
before, so has the prison under this system been
cultivated and refined in the infliction of its
cruelty, and in its enlarged sphere and increased

Externally, at least, the prison under capital-
ism presents a beautiful and inviting appearance,
but behind its grim and turretted walls the vic-
tims still crouch in terror under the bludgeons of
their brutal keepers, and the progress of the cen-
turies, the march of Christian civilization, mean
little to them, save that the prisons of capitalism
are far more numerous and capacious, and more


readily accessible tlian ever before in history.
They signalize the civilization of onr age by being
composed of steel and concrete and presenting a
veritable triumph in architectural art.

Capitalism is proud of its prisons which fitly
symbolize the character of its institutions and
.constitute one of the chief elements in its philan-

I have seen men working for paltry wages and
other men in enforced idleness without any in-
come at all sink by degrees into vagabondage and
crime, and I have not only found no fault with
them, but I have sympathized with them entirely,
charging the responsibility for their ruin on the
capitalist system, and resolving to fight that sys-
tem relentlessly with all the strength of mind and
body that I possess until that system is destroyed
root and branch and wiped from the earth.

During my prison years I met many men who
were incarcerated as the victims of capitalism.
Let me tell of one in particular. This will typify
many other cases with variations, according to
the circumstances.

This man has spent nearly forty-eight years
in reformatories and prisons. His father died
when he was a child and his mother was poor
and could ill provide for her offspring. At the
tender age of seven years he found himself in a
so-called House of Correction. There he was
starved and beaten and learned to steal.

Escaping from that institution, he was cap-


tured and returned. From that time on he was
marked and his life was a continuous battle. He
was dogged and suspected and the little time that
he was out of jail was spent in dodging the de-
tectives who were ever on his track like keen-
scented hounds in pursuit of their prey. They
were determined that he should be inside of
prison walls. In this cruel manner his fate was
sealed as a mere child. The House of Correction
for poor boys and girls comes nearer being a
House of Destruction.

I spent many hours talking with this victim of
the sordid social system under which we live.
Despite the cruelties he had suffered at its hands,
he was as gentle as a child and responded to the
touch of kindness as quickly as* anyone I ever
knew. Society, which first denied him the op-
portunity to acquire a decent means of living and
subsequently punished him for the crime which it
had committed against him and of which he was
the victim, could have won an upright and use-
ful member in this man.

As I have already stated in a foregoing chap-
ter, I declined to attend the prison chapel ex-
ercises. There were many other convicts who
lent their presence to the mockery of religious
worship over which guards presided with clubs
because they were compelled so to do. The par-
ticular prisoner to whom I have referred ad-
dressed a letter to the warden protesting that he
did not wish to attend devotional exercises and


stated the reason for his attitude. He wrote and
gave to me a copy of the letter and I introduce
it here as indicating that this victim of the bru-
tality of the capitalist system, in spite of the fact
that he had spent nearly half a century behind
prison bars, still possessed sufficient manhood
and courage to assert himself in face of his
cruel captors.

The letter follows as he wrote it :

**I desire to be excused from attendance on
all religious services here which no longer ap-
peal to my curiosity or sense of obligation. I
need practical assistance not spiritual consola-

*^My imagination has already been over-
worked to the impairment of my other mental

^*I do not believe in the Christian religion. I

have formulated a creed agreeable to my mind.

**I have always been fearful of those to

whom government grants the special privilege

to furnish a particular brand of theology.

**I deny the right of government to compel
me to attend any kind of religious service. I
claim and proclaim my religious freedom under
the U. S. constitution.

**In reformatory and penal institutions I
have attended religious service every Sunday
for forty odd years — to ivhat purpose f


The entire career of this imfortunate prisoner
was deteiinined by liis imprisonment in Ms cMld-
hood, and as well might he have been sentenced
for life in his cradle. The system in which he
was born in poverty condemned him to a life
of crime and penal servitude in which he tyi^ifies
the lot of countless thousands of others doomed
to a living death behind prison walls.


Poverty and the Prison.

There is an intimate relation between the poor-
house and the prison. Both are made necessary
in a society which is based upon exploitation.
The aged and infirm who remain docile and sub-
missive through the struggle for existence, to
whatever straits it may reduce them, are per-
mitted to spend their declining days in the coun-
ty house and to rest at last in the pottersfield.

But they who protest against their pitiless fate
rather than yield to its stern decrees, they who
refuse to beg, preferring to take the chances of
helping themselves by whatever means seem most
available, are almost inevitably booked for the
jail and the prison.

Poverty has in all ages, in every nation, and
under every government recorded in history, been
the common lot of the great mass of mankind.
The many have had to toil and produce in pov-
erty that the few might enjoy in luxury and ex-
travagance. But however necessary this may
have been in the past, it need no longer be true
in our day.

Through invention and discovery and the ap-
plication of machinery to industry, the produc-
tive forces of labor have been so vastly aug-


merited that if society were properly organized
the great body of the people, who constitute the
workers and producers, instead of being poor and
miserable and dependent as they now are, would
be happy and free and thrill with the joy of life.

There can be no question about the simple and
self-evident facts as here set forth :

First, here in the United States we live in as
rich a land as there is on earth.

Second, we have all the natural resources, all
the raw materials from which wealth is produced
in practically unlimited abundance.

Third, we have the most highly ef&cient pro-
ductive machinery in the world.

Fourth, we have millions of workers skilled
and unskilled not only ready, but eager, to apply
their labor to the industrial machinery and pro-
duce a sufficiency of all that is required to satisfy
the needs and wants of every man, woman and
child under a civilized standard of living.

Then why should millions be idle and suffering,
millions of others toiling for a pittance, and all
the victims of poverty, and of a bleak and barren
existence ?

The answer is, that capitalism under which we
now live has outlived its usefulness and is no
longer adapted to the social and economic con-
ditions that today confront the world. Profit has
precedence over life, and when profit cannot be
made, industry is paralyzed and the people starve.

Here let it be said again, and it cannot be re-


peated too often nor made too emphatic, that
poverty and ignorance, with which poverty goes
hand in hand, constitute the prolific source from
which flow in a steady and increasing stream
most of the evils which afflict mankind.

It is poverty from which the slums, the red
light district, the asylums, the jails and the pris-
ons are mainly recruited.

It was in the so-called panic of 1873, which
lasted ^ve years and during which millions were
in a state of enforced idleness due to *^over pro-
duction *', that the ^^ tramp '* made his appearance
in American life. The industrious working man,
turned by his employer into the street because he
had produced more goods than could be sold, be-
came a tramp; the tramp in some instances be-
came a beggar and in others a thief and criminal.
From that time to this the tramp has been a
fixed institution in American life, and epidemics
of crime are reported with regularity in the daily

Poverty breeds misery and misery breeds
crime. It is thus the prison is populated and
made to prosper as a permanent and indispens-
able adjunct to our Christian civilization. The
most casual examination of the inmates of jails
and prisons shows the great majority of them at
a glance to be of the poorer classes.

When, perchance, some rich man goes to
prison the instance is so remarkable that it ex-
cites great curiosity and amazement. A rich man


does not fit in prison. The prison was not made
for him. He does not belong there and he does
not stay there. The rich man goes to prison only
as the exception to prove the rule.

The social system that condemns men, women
and children to poverty at the same time pro-
nounces upon many of them the sentence of the
law that makes them convicts. And this social
system in the United States rests on the founda-
tion of private ownership of the social means of
the common life.

Two per cent of the American people own
and control the principal industries and the great
bulk of the wealth of the nation. This interesting
and amazing fact lies at the bottom of the indus-
trial paralysis and the widespread protest and
discontent which prevail as these lines are writ-
ten. The daily papers are almost solid chroni-
cles of vice and immorality, of corruption and

In the City of Chicago the authorities frankly
admit being no longer able to cope with crime
and, happily, Judge W. M. Gammill, of that city,
comes to the rescue by recommending the re-
establishment of the whipping joost as a deterrant
for the crimes and misdemeanors committed by
the victims of a vicious social system which Judge
Gammill upholds. The distinguished judge's
Christian spirit as well as his judicial mind are
vindicated in his happy and thoughful suggestion
which is finding ready echo among ruling class


parasites and mercenaries who, no doubt, would
experience great delight in seeing the poor
wretches that are now only jailed for the crimes
that the injustice of society forces them to com-
mit, tied to a post and their flesh lacerated into
shreds by a whip in the hands of a brute.

Commenting upon Judge Gammill's advocacy
of the whipping post the Tribune of Terre Haute,
the city in which I live, has the following illum-
inating editorial in its columns dated April 12,

The Whipping Post.

**Eevival of the whipping post, Judge W. M.
Gammill, of Chicago, yesterday told the commit-
tee on law enforcement of the American Bar As-
sociation, would have a great effect on the reduc-
tion of crime. He cited examples where flogging
tended to reduce crime and presented figures
showing the number of murders in the large
cities. In 1921 his figures showed that St. Louis
had 26 murders; Philadelphia, 346; New York,
261; Chicago, 206; Boston, 102, and Washing-
ton, 69.

^' There is a good deal to this. Mushy senti-
ment regarding * honor system', and the soft
theories that criminals are not criminals but sick
men, and other things of this sort, have reduced
the fear of the law to a minimum and desperate
characters no longer hesitate at desperate

** Half-baked minds will register horror at the


idea of restoring the whipping post. These will
cry that the world is ^returning to barbarism'.
The fact is that the world can return to ^bar-
barism' with the forces of law and order direct-
ing the ^return', or it can return to the bar-
barism of the criminal, where life and property
are held at naught, and rule is by the pistol,
black-jack and terrorism. The present crime
wave indicates that the world is well on its way to
return to the latter form of ^barbarism' and the
law-abiding jDeople of the world are getting very
much the worst of it. The general re-establish-
ment of the whipping post would stop the present
well advanced return to barbarism. The whip-
ping post should hold terror for but one class,
and the sooner this class is banished from our so-
ciety the better. No law abiding citizens should
have any apprehension over Judge GammilPs

This editorial, reflecting as it does the en-
lightened opinion of the ruling class of which it
is a recognized organ in the community, is its own
sufficient commentary.

In the chapter which follows I shall show how
poverty as it now exists may be abolished, and
how in consequence of such an organic social
change the prison as such would no longer be

For the present I feel impelled to emphasize
the fact that poverty is mainly responsible for
the prison and that, after all, it is poverty that


is penalized and imprisoned under the present
social order.

It is true that people may be poor and not go
to prison, but it is likewise true that most of those
who serve prison sentences do so as the result of
their poverty.

From the hour of my first imprisonment in a
filthy county jail I recognized the fact that the
prison was essentially an institution for the
punishment of the poor, and this is one of many
reasons why I abhor the prison, and why I recog-
nize it to be my duty to do all in my power to
humanize it as far as possible while it exists, and
at the same time to put forth all my efforts to
abolish the social system which makes the prison
necessary by creating the victims who rot behind
its ghastly walls.


Socialism and the Prison.

Socialism and prison are antagonistic terms.

Socialism means freedom and when the people
are free they will not be under the necessity of
committing crime and going to prison. Such ex-
ceptional cases as there may be requiring
restraint for the protection of society will be
cared for in institutions and under conditions be-
tokening a civilization worthy of the name.

Socialism will abolish the prison by removing
its cause and putting an end to the vicious con-
ditions which make such a hideous thing as the
prison a necessity in the community life.

I am aware in advance that what is said here in
regard to abolishing the prison will be met with
incredulity, if not derision, and that the theory
and proposal I advance will be pronounced vis-
ionary, impractical and impossible. Neverthe-
less, my confidence remains unshaken that the
time will come when society will be so far ad-
vanced that it will be too civilized and too humane
to maintain a prison for the punishment of an
erring member, and that man will think too well
of himself to cage his brother as a brute, place
an armed brute over him, feed him as a brute,


treat him as a brute, and reduce him to the level
of a brute.

Socialism jDroposes that the people — all the
people — shall socially own the sources of wealth
and social means with which wealth is produced;
that the people, in other words, shall be the joint
proprietors upon equal terms of the industries of
the nation, that these shall be co-operatively
oiDerated and democratically managed; it pro-
poses that the people shall appropriate to them-
selves the whole of the wealth they create to
freely satisfy their normal wants instead of turn-
ing the bulk of that wealth over, as they now do,
to idlers, parasites and non-producers while they
suffer in poverty and want.

Wlien the community life is organized upon a
co-operative basis according to the socialistic
program every man and woman will have the in-
alienable right to work with the most improved
modem machinery and under the most favorable
possible conditions with the assurance that they
will receive in return the equivalent of their
product, and that they may enjoy in freedom and
peace the fruit of their labor.

In such a society there will be a mutuality of
interest and a fraternity of spirit that will pre-
clude the class antagonism and the hatred re-
sulting therefrom which now prevail, and men
and women will work together with joy, not as
wage slaves for a pittance, but in economic free-
dom and in an atmosphere of mutual goodwill


and peace. The machine will be the only slave,
the workday will be reduced in proportion as the
productive capacity is increased by improved ma-
chinery and methods, so that each life may be as-
sured sufficient leisure for its higher and nobler

What incentive would there be for a man to
steal when he could acquire a happy living so
much more easily and reputably by doing his
share of the community work ? He would have to
be a perverted product of capitalism indeed who
would rather steal than serve in such a com-
munity. Men do not shrink from work, but from
slavery. The man who works primarily for the
benefit of another does so only under compulsion,
and work so done is the very essence of slavery.

Under Socialism no man will depend upon
another for a job, or upon the self-interest or
good will of another for a chance to earn bread
for his wife and child. No man will work to make
a profit for another, to enrich an idler, for the
idler will no longer own the means of life. No man
will be an economic dependent and no man need
feel the pinch of poverty that robs life of all joy
and ends finally in the county house, the prison
and pottersfield.

The healthy members of the community will all
be workers, and they will be rulers as well as
workers, for they will be their own masters and
freely determine the conditions under which they
shall work and live. There will be no arrog^ant


capitalists on the one hand demanding their
profits, nor upon the other cowering wage slaves
dependent upon paltry and insufficient wages.

Industrial self-government, social democracy,
will completely revolutionize the community life.
For the first time in history the people will be
truly free and rule themselves, and when this
comes to pass poverty will vanish like mist before
the sunrise. AVhen poverty goes out of the world
the prison will remain only as a monument to the
ages before light dawned upon darkness and
civilization came to mankind.

It is to inaugurate this world-wide organic so-
cial change that the workers in all lands and all
climes are marshaling their forces, recognizing
their kinship, and proclaiming their international

The world's workers are to become the world's
rulers. The great transformation is impending
and all the underlying laws of the social fabric
and all the irresis table forces of industrial and
social evolution are committed to its triumphant

Capitalism has had its day and must go. The
capitalist cannot function as such in free society.
He will own no job except his own as a worker
and to hold that he must work for what he gets
the same as any other worker. No man has, or
ever did have, the right to live on the labor of
another; to make a profit out of another, to rob


another of the fruit of his toil, his liberty and his

Capitalism is inherently a criminal system for

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 10 of 14)