ATHENS, GA - They call it "the debate that never was."
In 1963 as the country was coming out of the McCarthy Red Scare but still in the midst of the Cold War, and as the South was roiled by the civil rights movement, the Phi Kappa Literary Society here at the University of Georgia invited a speaker from the Communist Party to the campus in the heart of the Jim Crow South for a public debate. The topic was to be "Is Full Employment Possible Under Capitalism?" but the debate never happened.
According to the society's history, "the Student Affairs Committee of the University refused to permit the debate and the University President O.C. Aderhold rebuked the Society for attempting to create what he called a 'sideshow' and 'riot' on campus."
Fifty years after the incident, Phi Kappa organized a re-creation of "the Debate that Never Was" Monday evening, February 25 in "the spirit of free speech and debate."
Sam Webb, the national chairperson of the Communist Party USA debated Dr. Greg Morin of the Georgia Libertarian Party on the original topic from 1963 with a new spin: "Is Full Employment Possible Under Capitalism? Solving America's Jobs Crisis." (See video below)
Over 300 students, alumni, faculty, and community members attended the event in historic University Chapel.
Webb argued that no, capitalism was not able to achieve full employment, and that an active struggle for jobs would be necessary to win important progress in putting people back to work. He called for "a bold, transformative 'new jobs' agenda."
"For the sake of our fragile planet and ourselves," said Webb. "Such an agenda would transform our economy from one dominated by Wall Street, Lockheed Martin, Peabody Coal, Exxon and Walmart to a Main Street economy rooted in a green, demilitarized production, clean and renewable energy, livable wages and union protections, publicly owned banks, public controls over the investment policies of the Fortune 500, affirmative action and equality, the modernization of mass transit, aid for small and medium sized businesses, renewal of both urban and rural communities, democratic forms of worker ownership, and a progressive tax structure."
Dr. Morin, a local businessman, didn't argue that capitalism as currently constructed could put people back to work. He argued that only a pure "free market" capitalism free from government regulation or taxation would achieve full employment.
"Maximum employment requires maximum freedom," said Morin. By freedom, apparently Morin meant free markets. "The market comes into equilibrium on its own through competition." Morin further argued that even the boom-and-bust cycle endemic to capitalist mode of production was only a result of government meddling beginning with the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank and exacerbated by New Deal social programs like unemployment insurance.
"Unemployment insurance is basically paying people to remain unemployed," said Morin.
Webb countered that the root of the current economic and jobs crisis was in fact the deregulation of financial markets in recent decades and the insufficient consumer demand caused by increasing economic inequality and wage stagnation.
While Webb argued that there is no solution to the jobs crisis under capitalism, it can be curbed, "but only if the American people bring the power of their numbers and unity to bear on government at all levels, much like Americans did in the 1930s."
Event organizer and Phi Kappa Society member Ben Woodard felt the event was a success. "300 people peacefully gathered to witness an exchange of ideas on our campus," he said. "Whereas fifty years ago it was not possible. It shows just how far we have come since the dark days of the Red Scare. We must always be vigilant of infringements on our freedom of speech, the most basic of human rights."
The Phi Kappa Society is a student-led debate organization founded in 1820. It holds weekly student debates on a wide variety of topics. The group counts sixteen governors of Georgia among its alumni.
The main debate in the chapel Monday night was followed by a student debate open to guest participation at nearby Phi Kappa Hall. The topic of the student debate was "Was Jesus a Communist or a Capitalist?" The audience voted overwhelmingly at the conclusion of the debate that Jesus was a red.
The event was made possible in part due to assistance from Speak Progress, a progressive speakers bureau. For more information, or to bring a speaker to your campus or community, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the full text of Sam Webb's opening remarks here.
Photo: Phi Kappa Society