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The 1974 Thomas - Debs Dinner was held on Saturday evening, May 4, at the Midland Hotel in downtown Chicago. Ralph Helstein was the honoree that year. Helstein had been the President of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (now a part of the United Food and Commercial Workers) from 1946 to 1968. Victor Reuther, one of the amazing Reuther brothers team that had helped form the United Auto Workers, was the featured speaker. The theme of the event was "After Impeachement -- What Lies Ahead?". Leon Despres was the Toastmaster. There's not much more in our files about this event. A copy of the promotional flyer is below. We also have a standard portrait photo of Ralph Helstein, also below, as well as a copy of his acceptance speech, provided to us recently by Ralph Helstein's daughter, Nina Helstein.
Ralph Helstein Acceptance Speech
Let me say at the very outset that I know of no honor, other than the one you confer on me tonight, that would move me as much or contain the same self-fulfillment. In my youth the heavens that my fantasy created were populated with many stars. My heroes had their place and shown there with varying degrees of brightness. And in that constellation none gleamed more brightly nor with greater brilliance than did the radiant Eugene V. Debs. His career was in many ways a dedication to the unpopular. He was keenly aware of the corruption of respectability. He rejected success as a respectable labor leader or as a complaisant politician. "The Capitalist Class! The Working Class! The Class Struggle!" Debs would cry. "These are the supreme economic and political facts of this day and the precise terms that express them". He spent his life continuing to express them. His radical passions spoke for the Jacksonians, The Free Soilers, the Populists, and of course for the workers, native born and migrant, of all ages, creeds, sex and color. From the depths of the Pullman strike, that ugly episode in the dark history of Class Violence in America which is such an important part of our heritage, he resisted an injunction, and came from jail a confirmed Socialist. He came with a vision of unity that encompassed the human race, and that led him to say:
Although no star in my personal firmament shown more brightly that did that of Debs, there were some that shown with as much radiance, and provided beacons to light the path of the weary and the downtrodden, and one of them was, of course, Norman Thomas. What does one say of the man who was believed by multitudes to be the "Conscience of America" in his lifetime. He has graced this platform and many of you knew him and heard him. A minister, not a trade unionist, as a leader in the fight for human justice he was by identification and commitment a Union Man. All knew which side he was on. He took part in many worker struggles and, once in the Passaic textile strike of 1926, went to jail for defying the authorities' attempt to establish a permanent condition of riot law. He challenged martial law in Indiana when used against workers. He worked with the sharecroppers in the south. He was a leader in the fight against the K K K and Tampa, Florida, police when Joseph Shoemaker was murdered by flogging in 1935. He was one of the leaders in the fight against Frank "I am the law" Hague in New Jersey. It has been said of him "that he was one of the saving few whose approach to liberty has always taken cognizance of liberty itself".
You will, I trust, understand therefore that an award given tome bearing the name of two of the brightest stars that filled the heavens of my youth would move me greatly and leave me with a gratitude that will last till there is no tomorrow.
It seems appropriate to this occasion to think about the doctrine that for a long time has so confidently dominated the intellectual speculation and the political programs of the United States. Its first principal is that American Capitalism works, and that it is
With growth as the master key, social problems would be solved, social conflict avoided, and social classes themselves dissolved. The doctrine went on to establish modern American corporate as a system, unlike any other system, designed for the "maximization of social power, automatically creating 'countervailing power' to safeguard the worker, the consumer, and the citizen". Reasonable men adopted this doctrine and the world it created. For better than a decade the "Best and the Brightest", all reasonable men, combining cynicism and idealism, power and faith, sought to tidy up the residual imperfections of the United States and, with unmitigated arrogance, the more serious deficiencies of the rest of the world. Well, where did it get us? Has there been a maximization of social power, has the worker, the consumer and the citizen been safeguarded by the system of American corporate capitalism that one can find spelled out in pure form in Fortune magazine, and the reports of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund?
Let us set aside for a moment the mud and the muck of Watergate and the self revulsion and embarrassment we feel at the ugliness of a President with a plastic heart and an elastic tongue. Instead, I would, briefly, examine with you the nature of our society in May, 1974. In doing this we may better understand the challenge of Thomas and Debs to our age.
As a good place as any to start looking at where the doctrine of American corporate capitalism has brought us is with the comment of Lewis Mumford, social philosopher, cultural critic, historian, authority on architecture and city planning, who said in response to a question about the title of Robert Vacca's book The Coming Dark Age, "The Dark Age is not coming - we are in the midst of the Dark Age". He then went on to examine the cities of the world and what man has done to them. From Los Angeles and San Francisco across to Boston then on to London and Paris, finally to Tokyo and even Kyoto, he notes that we in the United States have been making mistakes but that the countries around the world did not learn from them. Every big city, he points out, has 200 cancer producing substances in the air. Every city faces brown-outs or black-outs as a result of energy shortages. With our water supplies so heavily polluted there is not enough water to keep cities decently supplied. Mumford continues with the observation that:
Mumford deals with one phase of the corporate doctrine that dominates our lives. Now let us turn, briefly, to some of the economic considerations at a time when the President and one administration spokesman after another assures us the free market will take care of all our problems.
As we weigh the implications of these data in the context of the doctrine that American Capitalism works and is a truly revolutionary force, look for a moment at the energy problem. In the current issue of Dissent, after referring to a Wall Street Journal editorial that called for increased profits for the oil industry, Mike Harrington points out that:
Moreover, the President's Council of Economic Advisors notes approvingly that the companies expect their profits to be guaranteed. So, consumers provide the capital for the investment by paying higher prices, the citizen taxpayer guarantees both the investment and the companies' profits. This is truly socialism for the rich and expensive, not free enterprise. Adam Smith has been turning in his grave so rapidly that we have even heard the bones rattle at the University of Chicago. And this is one example of the way American corporate capitalism maximizes social power to safeguard the worker, the consumer, and the citizen. Concern for the consumer is expressed in yet another way. Many banks now charge usurious, if legal, 10.4% prime interest rates. It is, of course, only incidental that banks' profits have skyrocketed. The increasing rate is, of cours, not for profit. It is rather to protect the consumer's dollar since the way to stop inflation is by tight money and that means high interest rates. Now, of course, inflation continues as the increased rates get passed on to the consumer, but we would be ungrateful if we didn't recognize that it was all for our own good.
Finally, the reasonable men, who embraced the doctrine that American capitalism works and is a revolutionary force, have brought us to the point where, according to heretofore inaccessible data from the IRS, some 5 million persons (about 4.4% of the total adult population in 1969) owned an estimated 35.6% of the nation's wealth. This wealth is represented in the kind of property that produces more wealth. For example, this 4.4% of the American adult population owns among other property, 63% of all privately held corporate stock, 78% of state and local bonds, 74% of federal bonds and securities other than savings bonds, and virtually all corporate and foreign bonds and notes. Their economic power is even greater than these figures convey because most corporations can be controlled by the ownership of a small proportion of the stock. Wealth is so concentrated in the country that the 4.4% of the population have holdings that average slightly over $200,000 while about half the population, if they sold all their assets and paid all their debts would have no more left than $3,000.
This is a sketchy and I am sure a simplistic view of American society today. It is, I hope, sufficient to use as a background for the challenge posed by Thomas and Debs. They believed in progress, but for them progress was not determined by money and material things. It was determined by our treatment of humanity. They understood that the evolution of man is slow. That the injustice of men is great. That pain is part of man's self-realization. What they sought for man, however, was neither pain nor pleasure, but Life. Life lived intensely, fully, and in harmony with one's fellow man. These are goals to which, I believe, our own age is committed. The problem continues to be, how do we respond? George Bernard Shaw once trenchantly observed, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man". We have, I hope, enough unreasonable "persons" (with apologies to Shaw) to undertake the kind of political programs essential to achieving our ends and revising our institutions.
First, I believe we must, once more, undertake and be unrelenting in our effort to educate on the class nature of our society. Revive Debs' cry of the Class Struggle, and as we comprehend the fact, we develop the strength, the resources, and the vision to carry on the fight.
Second, we must be relentless in our insistence on the redistribution of wealth. Only through such redistribution can we successfully challenge the power of corporate America. There can be no doubt that it works well for a few, haltingly for others, and badly for most American workers, consumers, and citizens.
Third, I think we must organize ourselves in such a way that no political party, including the Democrats, can take us for granted. I think that we should demand and have a right to expect from the Democratic Party commitment to programs, including redistribution of wealth, that we support. Promises and rhetoric are no longer enough. There must be a kind of action that will assure party responsibility for enacting the program. It is important to remember George Washington's warning:
For too long this warning has gone unheeded and today we pay a high penalty for having permitted the government to fall into the hands of the irresponsibles.
Our job, then, is to organize and in the Thomas - Debs tradition carry the message around the country. And the country, I believe though doubting, is ready for it. There is a fire sweeping the land and the people are anxious to believe. I cannot remember, in my lifetime except for 1932, feeling the frustration, bitterness and anger so deeply rooted in the fabric of American society as it is today. People will respond to a call for organization that presents them with a meaningful program and the machinery to fulfill it. At the core of such an undertaking must be the trade unions, essential to any progressive drive. Women, Blacks, Chicanos, American Indians must be at the center of this effort - at the point were the decisive policies are made. Racism and male dominance will not go away by its own motion but only as we act to eliminate it.
If we can find the faith and the commitment that is necessary to meet this challenge then I believe we can create:
To those who doubt man's potential for greatness, to the cynical and hard headed realists who say this is utopian, I would respond as did Oscar Wilde:
This was, I believe, the faith of Debs
and Thomas and it is, I hope, ours. In any case, we have no alternatives
since this kind of faith essential to the only kind of life worth
living. A faith that recognizes that human beings live and grow
in struggle, and that the indomitable spirit of man has no horizons.