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Prison Labor


An 1899 address by socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.



Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) was a preeminent late 19th-early 20th century socialist leader in the United States and one of the defining political figures of the era. For further, see Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007, 2nd ed.).

Debs gave this 1899 talk in front of the Nineteenth Century Club, established in New York City in 1883 by the wealthy radical Courtlandt Palmer to foster “free thought”. It was one of the most successful intellectual forums in the United States for decades and featured speakers such as Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Robert Ingersoll and many others. 

The present talk testifies to the crucial presence of slavery and antislavery in Debs’ social thought. In taking up the question of prison convict labor, then expanding throughout the United States, Debs argues that it needs contextualization with an economic system “which is responsible for, not only prison labor, but for the gradual enslavement and degradation of all labor.” (347) He suggests that this degradation derives from the global reach of capitalism where “labor, that is to say the laborer, man, woman and child, is sold to the lowest bidder in the markets of the world.” (347)  Under this system labor in prison, Debs holds, is inseparable from labor outside of prison. Impoverishment under capitalism leads to crime and this leads to prison. Prisoners who are “victims of social malformation, are made the subjects of speculation and traffic.” (349) He points to the results in South Carolina where of 285 prisoners leased to a railroad company, 40 percent died largely through brutal mistreatment, and to the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company’s use of convict labor to force miners’ wages down to subsistence levels. (350) 

Debs cites the minimal wages of US coal miners in order to ask “Are they free men, or are they slaves?” (351) No one would work in the “horror and despair” of mines and mining towns, he argues, were they not effectively enslaved and compelled to do so. He looks forward to an emerging world where “the machine, myriad-armed and tireless, is the only slave.” Debs suggests that there is a reformist tendency to exaggerate the blight of prison labor in order to obscure the impoverishment created by conditions of industrial labor. Prison labor did not create the army of unemployed workers “but has been recruited from its ranks, and both owe their existence to the same social and economic system.” (352) The cause of this unemployment is “the competitive system, which creates wage-slavery” and throws workers out of their jobs while reducing the remainder to bare subsistence. It is not a matter of prison labor, Debs asserts, but of cheap labor.

With its demand for ever-cheaper labor, capitalism “creates millionaires and mendicants, economic masters and slaves, thus intensifying the class struggle.” (354)  Under a system of cooperative labor, however, “Industrial slavery will cease.” Debs concludes with a vision of a world transformed by socialism, one that will bring “the emancipation of all from the vicious and debasing thraldoms of past centuries.” (356) 


- Joe Lockard