Book Review: Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent by ERNEST FREEBERG, Harvard University Press, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-0-674


Thursday, 27 October 2011 02:19

Wilson’s crusade for democracy had been a cruel illusion, a growing number now believed. The administration had lied about the causes and likely consequences of the war, big business had fattened itself while families sacrificed, and much of the patriotic fervor that gripped the country in the war years had only been froth churned by the government’s propaganda machine. [An excellent passage from page 309]


This work is an important depiction of Eugene Debs’ political life in the USA of the early 20th century. It captures a unique snapshot of les problématiques known to individuals politically-jousting during that period – especially the domestic face of President Woodrow Wilson that perhaps most are unaware had existed. It is argued herein that the most important element of this book is that it brings to the forefront the issue of governance during times of war – especially concerning the civic rights of the individual. For example, on page 87, we see the following:

Landis argued that free speech rights were different in times of peace than in times of war, that the need for public unity in a time of crisis trumped the individual’s right to disagree.

There is also the palpable tension between imperialism and ‘democracy’ (this concept was not clearly defined by Freeberg) as argued by the character Stokes in 1918: ‘she [Stokes] decided that Wilson’s crusade was more likely to spread America’s imperialism than its democracy’ (p. 89). One rather frightful example of the times is a line of argument delivered by a prosecutor by the name of Wertz (p. 103):

Once Congress declared war, [Wertz] continued, ‘the body of Eugene Debs’, no less than the products of America’s mills, mines, and farms, belonged to his government, to be used as it saw fit.[1]

Democracys_prisonerHowever, there are notable and mainly conceptual flaws to this work. We see, in Freeberg’s use of normative language, that certain key concepts are not sufficiently fleshed out. For example, ‘nation’ is used frequently when referring to the country of the USA. Given that ‘nation’ as a concept is currently (and has been for some time) embroiled in definitional disputes, it confuses more than aids the reader. There is also the matter of terming the USA as ‘America’. From the 15th century onwards, ‘America’ has meant exactly that: the Americas. What a number of readers may not be aware of is that there are quite a few in the Americas apart from the USA that object to being dispossessed of this geopolitical title. Hence, anyone living in the Americas is American – those living in the USA are US-Americans (or other equally descriptive terms). We also see, for example on page 39, references to the ‘World War’. Once more, this is a term embroiled in definitional controversy. We would be better labelling the commonly termed WWI and WWII as Europe’s War or Europe’s Second War as many parts of this globe were not involved in either.

On page 274, Freeberg tells us that Debs spent his second year in jail. However, on a variety of pages (see index) throughout the work, we are told that Freeberg was actually in prison. Given that jail or gaol is typically distinctive from prison, it would be good to know which Freeberg meant.

The most substantive difficulty with this work is a completely lacking definition of democracy. In one example, on page 173, we see that Freeberg deploys a comparative literary device in the following: ‘Behind bars he would not be excluded from the national debate over the administration’s war on radicals, but would turn his cell into a new stage, casting himself as the hero in a morality tales as old as democracy itself’ [my emphasis added].[2] Given that, at present, we do not entirely know what democracy is, nor for that matter how old it could be, the line shows that Freeberg is perhaps not as familiar with the extant literature on democracy as he should have been. Due to this major infidelity, I am uncertain as to whether the book should be titled ‘Democracy’s Prisoner’. Throughout the book we see that the US war-time governments in question were by a number of accounts un-democratic. The title of ‘A Troubled Democracy’s Prisoner’ would have been more apt.

Pages 322-323 are problematic. On page 322 we see Freeberg comment that ‘…the right to free speech moved to the very center of the way Americans thought about democratic liberty, where it has remained ever since.’ This is a bit of a far reaching claim is it not? Then on page 323 we see another comment positing majority rule as ‘democracy’s bedrock principle’. Once more, and given the broadening of the democratic imagination in recent literature, this seems like a remark that should have been more critical and less presumptive.

The reader is often left to piece together Freeberg’s scales of conservatism versus liberalism, or the political or radical rights and lefts.[3] Added clarity concerning these political measurements would have been useful. There is also a notable difficulty on page 79 which is a good example of thinkers perhaps taking too much liberty in their certainties. Freeberg, when discussing Debs, wrote that ‘[p]ersonally, he [Debs] felt conflicting pulls, bound by friendship and honour to support his friends in jail [could they by chance be in prison?] but understandably reluctant to join them.’ Given that individuals themselves, even in the writing of their own memoirs, may not be entirely certain of their personal emotions, how then is it possible for Freeberg to know that this was Debs’ inner feelings? It would have been better to write this sentence with more caution: perhaps in a way acknowledging the plausibility of this emotion rather than the certainty of it.

Despite these difficulties, there are a number of excellent passages – and certainly too many to highlight in this review. For example, page 50 highlighted a magnificent stance by the little known Harriet Thomas. She stood her ground firmly in front of a House Judiciary Committee taking-in voices for and against a proposed Espionage Act (this was in 1917). Thomas challenged the oratory of the seated Committee and managed to gain a greater sense of what these ‘leaders’ had in mind when one on the bench declared ‘People should go ahead and obey the law, keep their mouths shut, and let the government run the war.’ Pages 58 to 61 are also very good examples of displaying the horrors of nationalistic idolatry and idiocy present in the war-time governance of the USA.

Freeberg also gives us an interesting side of the thinker John Dewey (an often invoked intellectual in certain disputes known to democratic theorists – such as over the meaning of democracy) which casts doubt on whether Dewey had ever actually considered democracy to be a qualitative ‘good’. On page 158 we see the following:

John Dewey explained…if the government had a right to ask citizens to ration their use of staples like meat, sugar, and gasoline, then it only made sense that Americans should be prepared to give up a portion of their free speech rights as well.

One is uncertain as to whether material goods equate civil goods (such as free speech), but that is perhaps beyond the main point of the argument Dewey was involved with. Here, and especially in socio-political bodies that consider themselves or are considered by other to be ‘democratic’, we come to terms again with that monster lurking in our literature: a democracy needs a strong state to both protect it against others, but to also not attack others either. We are confronted in Freeberg’s important work with the question then of how many rights, and for how long, are to be given up in the interests of defending democracy? Should we give any rights up at all?

One line, on page 161, is unique as it ties in particularly well with the emergent political concept of ‘food sovereignty’. In Freeberg we see issue with corporations trying to make a ‘quick buck’ with food profiteering during war-times. But is not food profiteering occurring at this very given moment when hundreds of millions of individuals are the victims of price wars over staples such as millet and rice? As we approach the centenary of 1917, I am uncertain as to whether we have achieved much democratic control over corporations and their respective war on the sovereignty of food (and by extension biospheres).

Overall, I would strongly recommend this work due to its brilliance in capturing the politics of the time. Despite its suffering from a lack of critical analysis and conceptual clarity, it does display magnificent research and it does provide a fantastic description of one angle present in the USA’s early 20th century domestic politics.


[1] Another frightening example of governmental powers clearly operating undemocratically can be found on page 104 in the third full paragraph starting “Finally, Westenhaver…”

[2] On page 261, we see that Freeberg rationalizes Debs and his supporters as the true defenders of democracy of the time. This may very well be, especially given the emphasis Freeberg has put on the freedom of speech, but this is once more a line that is difficult to understand given that we have no analytically determined conception of democracy to work with.

[3] Page 284 proves to be a good example. We see that socialists were under attack from the ‘left and the right’. Is this placing socialists as a the centre of politics at the time or is this meant as politically left and right relative to the socialist policy of the time? Page 284 is not an isolated case. Indeed, throughout the work we see the following (non-exhaustive list) of ‘measurement’ terms which perhaps serve to confuse as much as clarify: progressive republicans, conservative, liberal, radical, communist, socialist, Bolshevik, right wing, left wing, pro-war socialist, moderate progressive, reactionary, and progressive intellectual.


Jean-Paul Gagnon is a social and political theorist with a PhD in political science. Presently, he conducts his work as a Research Fellow with the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science and as an Honorary Research Fellow with the Hong Kong Institute of Education’s Centre for Greater China Studies. He edits the Journal of Democratic Theory and assists the UNDP with its democratic governance research.

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