Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

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it is based upon the robbery of the working class
and corner-stoned in its slavery. The title-deed
held by the capitalist class to the tools used by
the working class is also the title-deed to their
liberty and their lives.

Economic slavery is at the foundation of every
other slavery of body, mind and soul. But the
capitalists rob not only the workers, but also
themselves in appropriating what is produced in
the sweat and misery of their toil. They lapse
into a state of parasitism that robs them of their
higher development, the intellectual and spiritual
estate to which all human beings are heirs who
live in accordance with the higher laws of their

Often at night in my narrow prison quarters
when all about me was quiet I beheld as in a
vision the majestic march of events in the trans-
formation of the world.

I saw the working class in which I was bom
and reared, and to whom I owe my all, engaged in
the last great conflict to break the fetters that have
bound them for ages, and to stand forth at last,
emancipated from every form of servitude, the
sovereign rulers of the world.

It was this vision that sustained me in every
hour of my imprisonment, for I felt deep within
me, in a way that made it prophecy fulfilled, that


the long night was far spent and that the dawn of
the glad new day was near at hand.

In my prison life I saw in a way I never had
before the blighting, disfiguring, destroying
effects of capitalism. I saw here accentuated
and made more hideous and revolting than is
manifest in the outer world the effects of the
oppression and cruelty inflicted upon the victims
of this iniquitous system.

On the outside of the prison walls the wage
slave begs his master for a job; on the inside he
cowers before the club of his keeper. The entire
process is a degenerating one and robs the human
being, either as a wage slave walking the street
or as a convict crouching in a cell, of every at-
tribute of sovereignty and every quality that
dignifies his nature.

Socialism is the antithesis of capitalism. It
means nothing that capitalism means, and every-
thing that capitalism does not.

Capitalism means private ownership, compe-
tition, slavery and starvation.

Socialism means social ownership, co-opera-
tion, freedom and abundance for all.

Socialism is the spontaneous expression of
human nature in concrete social forms to meet the
demands and regulate the terms of the common

The human being is a social being, and So-
cialism would organize his life in the social spirit,


under social conditions and along social lines of

What more natural than that things of a social
nature in a community should be socially owned
and socially administered for the individual and
social well-being of all !

What more unnatural, what more antagonistic
to every social instinct, than the private owner-
ship of the social means of life !

Socialism is evolving every hour of the day
and night and all attempts to arrest its progress
but increase its power, accelerate its momentum
and insure its triumph for the liberation of
humanity throughout the world.


Prison Labor, Its Effects on Industry

AND Trade.

(Address before Nineteenth Century Club at

Delmonieo 's, New York City, March

21st, 1899.)

In my early years I stood before the open door
of a blazing furnace and piled in the fuel to cre-
ate steam to speed a locomotive along the iron
track of progress and civilization. In the cos-
tume of my craft, through the grime of mingled
sweat and smoke and dust I was initiated into
the great brotherhood of labor. The locomotive
was my alma mater. I mastered the curriculum
and graduated with the degree of D. D., not, as
the lexicons interpret the letters, ^'Doctor of Di-
vinity'', but that better signification, ^*Do and
Dare'' — a higher degree than Aristotle conferred
in his Lyceum or Plato thundered from his

I am not in the habit of telling how little I
know about Latin to those who have slaked their
thirst for learning at the Pierian springs, but
there is a proverb that has come down to us from
the dim past which reads, ^^ Omnia vincit labor"
and which has been adopted as the shibboleth of
the American labor movement because, when re-


duced to English, it reads *^ Labor overcomes all
things *\ In a certain sense this is true. Labor
has built this great metropolis of the new world,
built it as coral insects build the foundations of
islands — build and die; build from the fathom-
less depths of the ocean until the mountain bil-
lows are dashed into spray as they beat against
the fortifications beneath which the builders are
forever entombed and forgotten.

Here in this proud city where wealth has built
its monuments grander and more imposing than
any of the seven wonders of the world named in
classic lore, if you will excavate for facts you
will find the remains, the bones of the toilers,
buried and embedded in their foundations. They
lived, they wrought, they died. In their time
they may have laughed and sung and danced to
the music of their clanking chains. They mar-
ried, propagated their species, and perpetuated
conditions which, growing steadily worse, are to-
day the foulest blot the imagination can conceive
upon our much vaunted civilization.

And from these conditions there flow a thou-
sand streams of vice and crime which have
broadened and deepened until they constitute a
perpetual menace to the peace and security of
society. Jails, work-houses, reformatories and
penitentiaries have been crowded with victims,
and the question how to control these institutions
and their unfortunate inmates is challenging the


most serious thought of the most advanced na-
tions on the globe.

The particular phase of this grave and mel-
ancholy question which we are to consider this
evening is embodied in the subject assigned the
speakers ^^ Prison Labor, Its Effect on Industry
and Trade ^\

I must confess that it would have suited my
purpose better had the subject been transposed
so as to read: ** Industry and Trade, Their Ef-
fect on Labor ' % for, as a Socialist, I am convinced
that the prison problem is rooted in the present
system of industry and trade, carried forward,
as it is, purely for private profit without the
slightest regard to the effect upon those engaged
in it, especially the men, women and children who
perform the useful, productive labor which has
created all wealth and all civilization.

Serious as is the problem presented in the sub-
ject of our discussion, it is yet insignificant when
compared with the vastly greater question of the
effect of our social and economic system upon in-
dustry and trade.

The pernicious effect of prison contract labor
upon **free labor", so-called, when brought into
competition with it in the open market, is uni-
versally conceded, but it should not be overlooked
that prison labor is itself an effect and not a
cause, and that convict labor is recruited almost
wholly from the propertyless, wage-working class
and that the inhuman system which has reduced


a comparative few from enforced idleness to
crime, has smik the whole mass of labor to the
dead level of industrial servitude.

It is therefore the economic system, which is
responsible for, not only prison labor, but for the
gradual enslavement and degradation of all la-
bor, that we must deal before there can be any
solution of the prison labor problem or any per-
manent relief from its demoralizing influences.

But we will briefly consider the etf ects of prison
labor upon industry and then pass to the larger
question of the cause of prison labor and its ap-
palling increase, to which the discussion logically

From the earliest ages there has been a prison
problem. The ancients had their bastiles and
their dungeons. Most of the pioneers of prog-
ress, the haters of oppression, the lovers of lib-
erty, whose names now glorify the pantheon of
the world, made such institutions a necessity in
their day. But civilization advances, however
slowly, and there has been some progress.

It required five hundred years to travel from
the inquisition to the injunction.

In the earlier days punishment was the sole
purpose of imprisonment. Offenders against the
ruling class must pay the penalty in a prison cell,
which, not infrequently, was equipped with in-
struments of torture. With the civilizing process
came the idea of a reformation of the culprit,
and this idea prompts every investigation made


of the latter-day problem. Tlie inmates must be
set to work for their own good, no less than for
the good of the state.

It was at this point that the convict labor prob-
lem began and it has steadily expanded from that
time to this and while there have been some tem-
porary modifications of the evil, it is still an un-
mitigated curse from which there can be no escape
while an economic system endures in which labor,
that is to say the laborer, man, woman and child,
is sold to the lowest bidder in the markets of the

More than thirty years ago Professor E. C.
Wines and Professor Theodore W. Dwight, then
commissioners of the Prison Association of New
York, made a report to the legislature of the
state on prison industry in which they said:

*^Upon the whole it is our settled conviction
that the contract system of convict labor, added
to the system of political appointments, which
necessarily involves a low grade of official quali-
fication and constant changes in the prison staff,
renders nugatory, to a great extent, the whole
theory of our penitentiary system. Inspection
may correct isolated abuses; philanthropy may
relieve isolated cases of distress; and religion
may effect isolated moral cures; but genuine,
radical, comprehensive, systematic improvement
is impossible. '*

The lapse of thirty years has not affected the
wisdom or logic of the conclusion. It is as true


now as it was then. Considered in his most fa-
vorable light, the convict is a scourge to himself,
a menace to society and a burden to industry,
and whatever system of convict labor may be
tried, it will ultimately fail of its purpose at
reformation of the criminal or the relief of in-
dustry as long as thousands of ^^free laborers '',
who have committed no crime, are unable to get
work and make an honest living. Not long ago
I visited a penitentiary in which a convict ex-
pressed regret that his sentence was soon to ex-
pire, where was he to go or what was he to do?
And how long before he would be sentenced to a
longer term for a greater crime!

The commission which investigated the matter
in Ohio in 1877 reported to the legislature as
follows :

''The contract system interferes in an undue
manner with the honest industry of the state.
It has been the cause of crippling the business of
many of our manufacturers; it has been the
cause of driving many of them out of business;
it has been the cause of a large percentage of
reductions which have taken place in the wages
of our mechanics ; it has been the cause of pauper-
izing a large portion of our laborers and in in-
creasing crime in a corresponding degree ; it has
been no benefit to the state; as a reformatory
measure it has been a complete, total and mis-
erable failure; it has hardened more criminals
than any other cause; it has made total wrecks


morally of thousands and thousands who would
have been reclaimed from the paths of vice and
crime under a proper system of prison manage-
ment, but who have resigned their fate to a life
of hopeless degradation ; it has not a single com-
mendable feature. Its tendency is pernicious in
the extreme. In short, it is an insurmountable
barrier in the way of the reformation of the un-
fortunates who are compelled to live and labor
under its evil influences ; it enables a class of men
to get rich out of the crimes committed by others ;
it leaves upon the fair escutcheon of the state a '
relic of the very worst form of human slavery;
it is a bone of ceaseless contention between the
state and its mechanical and industrial interests ;
it is abhorred by all and respected by none ex-
cept those, perhaps, who make profit and gain
out of it. It should be tolerated no longer but
abolished at once.*'

And yet this same system is still in effect in
many of the states in the Union. The most re-
volting outrages have been perpetrated upon
prison laborers under this diabolical system.
Read the official reports and stand aghast at the
atrocities committed against these morally de-
formed and perverted human creatures, your
brothers and my brothers, for the private profit
of capitalistic exploiters and the advancement of
Christian civilization.

What a commentary on the capitalistic com-
petitive system! First, men are forced into


idleness. Gradually they are driven to the ex-
tremity of begging or stealing. Having still a
spark of pride and self-respect they steal and
are sent to jail. The first sentence seals their
doom. The brand of Cain is upon them. They
are identified with the criminal class. Society,
whose victims they are, has exiled them forever,
and with this curse ringing in their ears they
proceed on their downward career, sounding
every note in the scale of depravity until at last,
having graduated in crime all the way from petit
larceny to homicide, their last despairing sigh
is wrung from them by the hangman's halter.
From first to last these unfortunptes, the victims
of social malformation, are made the subject of
speculation and traffic. The barbed iron of the
prison contractor is plunged into their quivering
hearts that their torture may be coined into
private profit for their exploiters.

In the investigation in South Carolina, where
the convicts have been leased to railroad com-
panies the most startling disclosures were made.
Out of 285 prisoners employed by one company,
128, or more than 40 per cent, died as the result,
largely, of brutal treatment.

It is popular to say that society must be pro-
tected against its criminals. I prefer to believe
that criminals should be protected against so-
ciety, at least while we live under a system that
makes the commission of crime necessary to se-
cure employment.


The Tennessee tragedy is still fresh in the pub-
lic memory. Here, as elsewhere, the convicts,
themselves brutally treated, were used as a
means of dragging the whole mine-working class
down to their crime-cursed condition. The Ten-
nessee Coal and Iron Company leased the con-
victs for the express purpose of forcing the
wages of miners down to the point of subsistence.
Says the official report : ^ ^ The miners were com-
pelled to work in competition with low-priced
convict labor, the presence of which was used by
the company as a scourge to force free laborers
to its terms''. Then the miners, locked out, their
families suffering, driven to desperation, ap-
pealed to force and in a twinkling the laws of the
state were trampled down, the authorities over-
powered and defied, and almost five hundred con-
victs set at liberty.

Fortunately the system of leasing and con-
tracting prison labor for private exploitation is
being exposed and its frightful iniquities laid
bare. Thanks to organized labor and to the spirit
of prison reform, this horrifying phase of the
evil is doomed to disappear before an enlightened
public sentiment.

The public account system, though subject to
serious criticism, is far less objectionable than
either the lease, the contract or the piece price
system. At least the prisoner's infirmities cease
to be the prey of speculative greed and con-
scienceless rapacity.


Tte system of manufacturmg for the use of
state, county and municipal institutions, adopted
by the State of New York, is an improvement
upon those hitherto in effect, but it is certain to
develop serious objections in course of time.
AYith the use of modem machinery the limited de-
mand will soon be supplied and then what? It
may be in order to suggest that the prisoners
could be employed in making shoes and clothes
for the destitute poor and school books for their
children and many other articles which the poor
sorely need but are unable to buy.

Developing along this line it will be only a
question of time until the state would be manu-
facturing all things for the use of the people, and
then jDerhaps the inquiry would be pertinent: If
the state can give men steady employment after
they commit crime, and manufacturing can be
carried forward successfully by their labor, why
can it not give them employment before they are
driven to that extremity, thereby preventing
them from becoming criminals?

All useful labor is honest labor, even if per-
formed in a prison. Only the labor of exploiters,
such as speculators, stock-gamblers, beef-embalm-
ers and their mercenary politicians, lawyers and
other parasites — only such is dishonest labor. A
thief making shoes in a penitentiary is engaged
in more useful and therefore more honest labor
than a *^free'' stonemason at work on a palace
whose foundations are laid in the skulls and


bones, and cemented in the sweat and blood of
ten thousand victims of capitalistic exploitation.
In both cases the labor is compulsory. The stone-
mason would not work for the trust-magnate
were he not compelled to.

In ancient times only slaves labored. And as
a matter of fact only slaves labor now. The mil-
lions are made by the magic of manipulation.
The coal miners of West Virginia, Pennsylvania,
Ohio, Indiana and Illinois receive an average
wage of less than seventy-five cents a day. They
perform the most useful and necessary labor,
without which your homes, if possible at all,
would be cheerless as caves and the great heart
of industry would cease to throb. Are they free
men, or are they slaves? And what is the effect
of their labor on trade and industry and upon
themselves and their families? Dante would
search the realms of inferno in vain for such pic-
tures of horror and despair as are to be found
in the mine regions of free America.

To the student of social science the haggard
fact stands forth that under the competitive sys-
tem of production and distribution the prison
problem will never be solved — and its effect upon
trade and industry will never be greatly modified.
The fact will remain that whatever labor is per-
formed by prison labor could and should be per-
formed by free labor, and when in the marcM
of economic progress the capitalist system of in-
dustry for private profit succumbs to the socialist



system of industry for human happiness, when
the factory, which is now a penitentiary crowded
with life convicts, among whom children often
constitute the majority — when this factory is
transformed into a temple of science, and the ma-
chine, myriad-armed and tireless, is the only
slave, there will be no prison labor and the prob-
lem will cease to vex the world, and to this it is
coming in obedience to the economic law, as un-
erring in its operation as the law of gravitation.

That prison labor, especially under the various
forms of the contract system, is demoralizing in
its effect on trade and industry whenever and
wherever brought into competition with outside
labor is, of course, conceded ; but that it has been,
or is at present, an especially effective factor in
such demoralization is not here admitted. There
is a tendency to exaggerate the blighting effect of
prison labor for the purpose of obscuring the one
overshadowing cause of demoralized trade and
impoverished industry.

Prison labor did not reduce the miner to a
walking hungerpang, his wife to a tear-stained
rag, and his home to a lair. Prison labor is not
responsible for the squares of squalor and the
miles of misery in New York, Chicago and all
other centers of population. Prison labor is not
chargeable with the sweating dens in which the
victims of capitalistic competition crouch in dread
and fear until death comes to their rescue.
Prison labor had no hand in Coeur d'Alene,


Tennesee, Homestead, Hazelton, Virdin, Pana,
that suburb of hell called Pullman and other en-
sanguined battlefields where thousands of work-
ingmen after being oppressed and robbed were im-
prisoned like felons, and shot down like vaga-
bond dogs; where venal judges issued infamous
injunctions and despotic orders at the behest of
their masters, enforcing them with deputy mar-
shals armed with pistols and clubs and supported
by troops with gleaming bayonets and shotted
guns to drain the veins of workingmen of blood,
but for whose labor this continent would still be
a wilderness. Only the tortures of hunger and
nakedness provoked protest, and this was silenced
by the bayonet and bullet; by the club and the
blood that followed the blow.

Prison labor is not accountable for the appall-
ing increase in insanity, in suicide, in murder, in
prostitution and a thousand other forms of vice
and crime which pollute every fountain and con-
taminate every stream designed to bless the

Prison labor did not create our army of unem-
ployed, but has been recruited from its ranks,
and both owe their existence to the same social
and economic system.

Nor are the evil effects confined exclusively
to the poor working class. There is an aspect of
the case in which the rich are as unfortunate as
the poor. The destiny of the capitalist class is
irrevocably linked with the working class. Fichte,


the great German philosopher, said, '* Wickedness
increases in proportion to the elevation of rank".

Prison labor is but one of the manifestations
of our economic development and indicates its
trend. The same cause that demoralized indus-.
try has crowded our prisons. Industry has not
been impoverished by prison labor, but prison
labor is the result of impoverished industry.
The limited time at my command will not permit
an analysis of the process.

The real question which confronts us is our
industrial system and its effects upon labor. One
of these effects is, as I have intimated, prison
labor. What is its cause? T\Tiat makes it nec-
essary? The answer is, the competitive system,
which creates wage-slavery, throws thousands out
of employment and reduces the wages of thou-
sands more to the point of bare subsistence.

Why is prison labor preferred to **free la-
bor?" Simply because it is cheaper; it yields
more profit to the man who buys, exploits and
sells it. But this has its limitations. Capitalist
competition that throngs the streets with idle
workers, capitalist production that reduces hu-
man labor to a commodity and ultimately to
crime — this system produces another kind of
prison labor in the form of child labor which is
being utilized more and more to complete the
subjugation of the working class. There is this
difference: The prison laborers are clothed and
housed and fed. The child laborers whose wage


is a dollar a week, or even less, must take care of

Prison labor is preferred because it is cheap.
So with child labor. It is not a question of prison
labor, or child labor, but of cheap labor.

Tenement-house labor is another form of
prison labor.

The effects of cheap labor on trade and indus-
try must be the same, whether such labor is done
by prisoners, tenement house slaves, children or
starving ** hoboes''.

The prison laborer produces by machinery in
abundance but does not consume. The child like-
wise produces, but owing to its small wages, does
not consume. So with the vast army of workers
whose wage grows smaller as the productive ca-
pacity of labor increases, and then society is af-
flicted with overproduction, the result of under-
consumption. What follows? The panic. Fac-
tories close down, wage-workers are idle and
suffer, middle-class business men are forced into
bankruptcy, the army of tramps is increased,
vice and crime are rampant and prisons and
work-houses are filled to overflowing as are sew-
ers when the streets of cities are deluged with

Prison labor, like all cheap labor, is at first a
source of profit to the capitalist, but finally it

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 11 of 14)