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Dubbing Debs: An Actor Records a Speech by Eugene Debs

Socialist leader and four-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was known as one of the most gifted orators of his generation. One listener recalled his impact as “something more powerful, penetrating, and articulate than mere words.” Although Debs apparently never entered a sound studio, a recording of a Debs speech was widely circulated in the first decade of the 20th century. For many years, the speech was believed to have been in Debs' voice, and it was catalogued as such in libraries and record collections. In fact, the speech was written by Debs but recorded by actor Leonard Spencer, who was famous for his recorded versions of comic and dramatic monologues. It was not uncommon in the early days of recording to have actors read the words of politicians. (This was before actors became politicians.) Even if this recording does not give us Debs‘ actual voice, its circulation indicates his popularity. Faithful socialists wanted to be able to listen at home to Debs’ attacks on the rapacious nature of capitalism and his argument that socialism was the only answer to human problems.

Listen to Audio:

Fellow workers and comrades. The Socialist movement is as wide as the world and its mission is to win the world, the whole world, from animalism, and consecrate it to humanity. What a tremendous task, and what a royal privilege to share in it. To win a world is worthy of a race of gods, and in the winning, men develop god-like attributes since all men are potential gods. What a madhouse the earth would seem today in the frenzied revelry of Capitalism before the light the Socialistic philosophy sheds upon it. What Alpine peaks of wealth and what desert wastes of poverty, despair, and death. What man, unless his heart be adamant, can contemplate this awful scheme and be content? What man, unless his brain be atrophied and his vision blinded, can fail to perceive the impending crisis?

In the presence of this vast and terrible phenomenon how satisfying to be enlisted in the Socialist movement, to understand this doubt-dispelling social philosophy, and to interpret passing events in the clear light of its science. The productive mechanism in modern industry—vast, complex, marvelous beyond expression—burns the impotent touch of the individual hand but leaps as if in joy to its task when caressed by the myriad fingered collective hand of modern toil.

The mute message of the machine—could but the worker understand, and would he but heed it—child of his brain, the machine has come to free and not to enslave, to save and not to destroy the author of its being. Potent and imperious as the command of the industrial Jehovah, the machine compels the grand army of toil to rally to its tenders, to recognize its power, to surrender body breaking and soul devouring tasks, to join hands in sacred fellowship, to sub-divide labor, to equalize burden, to demand joy and leisure for all. And emancipated from the fetters of the flesh, rise to the sublimest heights of intellectual, moral, and spiritual exaltation.

To realize this great social ideal is a work of education, and organization. The working classes must be aroused. They must be made to hear the trumpet call of solidarity: economic solidarity and political solidarity. One great all-embracing industrial union and one great all-embracing political party, and both revolutionary to the core: two hearts, with but a single soul. The modern tool of production must belong to those who make use of it, whose freedoms, yea, whose very lives depend upon it.

A hundred years ago, the collective ownership of the individual tool would have been absurd. Today, the private ownership of the collective tool is a crime. This crime is at the foundation of every other that disfigures society and from its shop cellars exudes the festering stenches of all sweat-shop civilizations. Educate the working class. Spread Wilshire’s Magazine, and the weekly Socialist papers, the pamphlets, [inaudible], and leaflets among the people. The middle-class see their doom in Capitalism, and must soon turn to Socialism. The handwriting is on all the billboards of the universe. The worst in Socialism will be better than the best in Capitalism.

The historic mission of Capitalism has been to exploit the forces of nature, place them at the service of man, augmenting his productive capacity a thousand-fold, to turn as if by magic, the shallow, sluggish dreams into rushing, roaring Niagaras of wealth, leaving to the toilers who produced it, a greater poverty, insecurity, and anguish than before. The mission of Socialism is to release these imprisoned productive forces from the vandal horde that has seized them, that they may be operated, not spasmodically, and in the interests of a favored class, as at present, but freely, and in the common interest of all. Then the world—the world the Socialist movement is to win from Capitalism—will be filled with wealth for all to have and to enjoy in its abundance.

When enough have become Socialists and each day is augmenting the number and making them more staunch and resolute, they will sweep the country on the only vital issue before the nation. A new power will be in control: the people. For the first time in all history, man at last will be free!

Source: Courtesy of the Michigan State University Voice Library.