Eugene Debs addresses a crowd (possibly on June 16, 1918) in Canton, Ohio.
Indiana State University Library
origin story / justice

Repressing Radicalism

The Espionage Act turns 100 today. It helped destroy the Socialist Party of America and quashes free speech to this day.
Last week, a little over an hour after the Intercept published a story about a classified National Security Agency report concerning Russian election interference, Reality Winner, the alleged leaker, was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act.

In recent years, the Espionage Act has been used as a statutory sword against whistleblowers. Donald Trump allegedly told former FBI director James Comey he wanted to prosecute journalists under the statute.

But historically, the Espionage Act is perhaps most significant not for its role in persecuting whistleblowers, but for crushing dissent during World War I.

Nowhere was this crackdown felt more acutely than within the Socialist Party (SP). While never on par with some of its international counterparts, the SP was a genuine mass party that elected countless local officials, sent two members to Congress on its own ballot line, and fostered a vibrant socialist press that reached millions. Its longtime standard-bearer, Eugene Debs, was a nationally known figure.

During World War I, even as the majority of its counterparts in the Second International elected to be complicit in the bloodshed, the SP steadfastly opposed the conflict for pitting worker against worker in a scramble for markets and colonies.

According to conventional narratives, it was this decision that caused the SP’s decline: its staunch opposition to a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” made it unpalatable to the patriotic masses. Yet by any measure the Socialist Party’s popularity increased — in fact, it became one of the main vehicles for antiwar and anti-conscription sentiment.

If the SP was brought down by the war, it was only because the Espionage Act gave its enemies long-coveted tools to wound the party. Its leaders were indicted and jailed. Its politicians were barred from office. Its newspapers were confiscated.

A century later, as socialist politics gain favor again in the United States, it’s important to remember the role that brute repression played in the SP’s downfall — and the continued threat the Espionage Act poses to democratic freedoms today.
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