The Oppressed Need Justice, Not Charity

Eugene V. Debs / Jacobin
The Oppressed Need Justice, Not Charity Charity ball, 1929. (photo: National Photo Company Collection/Library of Congress)

Today is Giving Tuesday, so here’s a 1913 article by Eugene V. Debs, never before republished, about why the charity balls of the rich will never deliver justice for the poor. As Debs declared, “What the poor need is that the rich shall get off their backs.”

This is the season for “charity” rehearsals. The “charity” ball and “charity” banquets are now all the rage.

The other day — or night, rather — a lot of high-toned women at Chicago, half-naked, and covered with ten million dollars’ worth of diamonds, danced the “grizzly bear,” the “turkey trot,” and the “bunny hug” with their male escorts, at what was called the “charity ball of the smart set.”

This vulgar exhibition and others like it outrage every sentiment of true charity. The gang of parasites that cavorted about on this occasion were wholly absorbed in displaying their “charms” and out-rivaling one another with blazoned jewels and crass ornamentations, and there was not a thought of charity nor charitable impulse in the whole affair. They “licked-up” more champagne than the net proceeds amounted to.

Think of one set of human beings dancing with glee and filling themselves with champagne, wine and truffled tidbits because another set of human beings is starving for the want of bread!

And this is “charity” from the point of view of the class who live out of the sweat and misery of the victims upon whom they bestow it.

Think of Jesus Christ, who “had nowhere to lay his head,” looking upon such a scene! What would He say if told that the “grizzly bear” was being danced by half-nude women and the champagne guzzled in his name, and to feed his sheep? If he did not rebuke such mockery and scourge the bacchanalian revelers from the scene, he must have changed mightily from what he was in Jerusalem twenty centuries ago.

To give the proceeds of such an affair to the hungry and naked is not a charity. It is the extreme opposite of charity and is as discreditable to those who give as it is to those who receive.

Such perversion of charity follows the denial of justice. As long as one set of human beings own the means of life and another set of human beings depend upon them for a chance to get a living, one set will be sated and the other starved, the more of this so-called “charity” that is dispensed the worse it will be for all concerned.

In thinking of the abuses to which this word is subjected, I feel moved to paraphrase Madame Roland: “O, Charity, what crimes are committed in thy name!”

There is something radically wrong in a society in which the few have to dance periodically because the many are starving perpetually.

The relation to those who dance sustain to those who starve precludes all possibility of true charity.

I want no dude to dance in a dress coat that I may eat.

To be fed that way paralyzes the moral fiber and destroys self-respects.

What the poor need is that the rich shall get off their backs, and then they will not have to go to the trouble of dancing at “charity” balls to feed their victims. But that is exactly what the rich will not do, and, therefore, the poor the world over, are preparing to unload.

And this is the significance of the labor movement and of the agitation of the working class in every nation on earth.

There is a mighty change impending, and when this change has taken place and society is rightly organized and social righteousness prevails “charity” balls and “charity” banquets will be unnecessary and unknown.

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