Review: Eugene Debs: A Graphic Biography
Eugene Victor Debs was America’s foremost socialist in the early decades of the 20th century, and, until Bernie Sanders, its all-time best vote-winner, attracting nearly a million voters as the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in 1912, 6% of the total. My favorite books about Debs are the 1984 biography by Cornell University historian Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, and the 1991 Letters of Eugene V. Debs, a three-volume collection edited by Indiana State University historian J. Robert Constantine.
For his part, Salvatore made an essential point about the movement that Debs led, which reached its height in membership, votes, and influence just before the First World War:
The faith of Debs and his followers in the redemptive power of the ballot is… simply staggering. They took the republican tradition seriously and stressed the individual dignity and power inherent in the concept of citizenship. While frequently vague over exactly how to transform their society, these men and women had no doubt but that, if the people united, the vitality of that tradition would point the way.
Born to French immigrant parents in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855, Debs followed a complicated forty-year route, ably delineated by Salvatore, from conservative craft unionism to radical industrial unionism, from holding elected office in Indiana as a Democrat, to embracing the socialist cause in the 1890s. For Debs, as Salvatore demonstrated, socialism was the best and surest way to achieve the higher aspirations of the nation’s traditions: community, equality, and personal autonomy. Debs didn’t surrender U.S. values by becoming a socialist; rather he sought to fulfill them.
At the same time, Debs wasn’t a saint: that’s where the letters in Constantine’s collection are useful in reminding us of the great man’s capacity for crotchety complaint, especially as he got older. In a letter written midway through a particularly grueling speaking trip on behalf of the Socialist Party in 1910, one involving far too much overnight train travel to remote locations, Debs commented in exasperation to his tour manager, “Whatever possessed you to put Tooele [Utah] into this schedule?” Debs knew a thing or two about exploitation from his days as a railroad worker; but there was another kind of exploitation that wasn’t purely a capitalist sin. Comrades were always demanding attention and favors, like one socialist author who wrote a long, whining letter demanding Debs help promote his works. “You blame me as if I was responsible for people not wanting your book,” Debs replied testily. “I have not even read your book. I know little about your book. I have other affairs besides your book to engage me.” Debs was not the first nor the last idealist to love humanity in the abstract, but at the same time find all too many actual individual humans exasperating and disappointing.
Both the Salvatore biography and the three volumes of the Constantine collection are included in the “Further Reading” list that concludes the latest book devoted to Debs: Eugene Debs: A Graphic Biography. Published by Verso, with some financial support from the Democratic Socialists of America Fund, the book is illustrated by Noah Van Sciver, and written by veteran activists Paul Buhle and Steve Max, with input from Dave Nance. Divided into short explanatory written chapters and longer illustrated sections, it is intended as an introduction to Debs’s life and legacy (including an overview of the history of the socialist movement through the remainder of the 20th century, down to the Sanders campaign). It is, for the most part, a lively re-telling of that story, one familiar to most veterans of DSA, but almost certainly less so to the fifty-thousand plus new recruits who have poured into the organization since 2016. One hopes that those who first encounter Debs through its pages will be encouraged to deepen their knowledge of American socialism’s rich and complicated history with some of the suggested further readings.
The Salvatore thesis, emphasizing the U.S. roots of Debsian socialism, is a dominant theme throughout the book. And the book, rightly, is as much about the movement as the man. Discussing the weekly socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, based in Kansas and selling a half million copies per issue by 1910, the authors describe the “Appeal Army” of reader-volunteers who worked to build the newspaper’s subscription base. They were “a mostly middle-aged cadre, a combination of craft workers, small farmers, and ministers’ wives – the very social types sometimes ridiculed by European Marxists. But they educated themselves, built local socialist chapters, and often published their own local newspapers.” The book explores other sources of support for Debs and his cause, from industrial workers to recent immigrants to Greenwich Village bohemians. The diversity of the movement (although notably not one that extended very deep roots among African Americans) was one of its greatest strengths.
I do have some quibbles. The book is too crowded with characters marginal to the central story, their significance not clearly established (French socialist leader Jean Jaurès appears in two panels, being assassinated in the second, but who kills him and why remains a mystery). And then there’s Johnny Appleseed, he of the apple trees, who died ten years before Debs was born, and has no apparent reason for being awarded a half page illustration. “Not every child in America heard about Johnny, apostle of non-violence and peace. Perhaps Gene did.” And perhaps he didn’t and so what?
Finally, I’m a little troubled by the stiff righteousness of the Debs character in the book: he’s always giving away money or, literally, the coat off his back, to poor passersby, standing up to cops harassing prostitutes, defying club-bearing prison guards, a mixture of radical Marvel action figure and St. Francis of Assisi. This is a Debs utterly without self-regard or self-interest, a saintly character in all regards. But the Debs we encounter in the letters collected in the Constantine volumes is not without human flaws, including vanity. “The meeting in Seattle last night defies description,” he wrote to brother Theodore in 1910, “every inch of standing room was packed and not one soul left the hall till the last word fell from my lips… I spoke 1 hr & 20 minutes without a flaw. The effect was magical.” And so on, with especial attention to the adoration from the women in crowd. Debs, who would never have seen the inside of a jail cell if he had stayed away from the labor and socialist movements, and who sacrificed his freedom and health in denouncing U.S. entry into the First World War, was entitled to his small pleasures, including basking in the admiration of his followers. And yet, a slightly flawed Debs, like the flawed Mike Harrington who emerges in the later pages of the book (too impatient with young radicals at Port Huron, too tardy in joining the protests against the Vietnam War, and so on) would be a much more interesting and believable character.
Maurice Isserman is the author of The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington, and teaches history at Hamilton College.
Excerpted from Eugene Debs: A Graphic Biography, Chapter 3: Triumph- And The Edge of Tragedy
In the saga of the Socialist Party, the years between 1912 and 1917 rushed by, each one containing enough events, both hopeful and tragic, for a decade. At the onset of this period, the socialists appeared to capture the very spirit of the emerging, dynamic working-class movement within a badly corrupt and class-divided society. At the close, they faced an orchestrated repression practically unknown in US history.
The striking images of workers’ power in the Russian Revolution (recalled in John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World (1919) and reaffirmed, but also subtly altered, in the 1981 film Reds) reflect real responses at the time. World revolution seemed, to many, on the agenda. It could happen! The excitement of the class conflicts in far-flung regions, however, somehow made less impression upon the American middle class than cultural conflicts around Greenwich Village, as “modernism” transformed the behavior, and especially the sexual habits, of the young. American culture was dragged out of the nineteenth century, seemingly all at once, by the advent of birth control, feminism, the campaign for women’s suffrage, and the growing prestige of avant-garde art depicting the drama of the city and the lives of the poor. A little-understood reality of this era was the outward spread of bohemianism and the loosening of the previous generation’s moral strictures, behavior formerly frowned upon within polite society. Free-spirited young working-class women were the real source of the ballyhooed, more middle-class “flappers” during the 1920s. Then there was the emergence of Harlem, flourishing after 1917 as the new global heart of Black political and cultural life.
The crowds that rushed to hear Debs and other socialist speakers in the 1910s included young working people loosened from the religious bonds of their parents and eager to find new ways of living. Young women might now become local union leaders or social reformers, sharing a hope for a cooperative society. Copies of The Masses magazine were likely read just as eagerly in Seattle as in Manhattan and Brooklyn by young people feeling the possibility of a new society. In this context, Debs—though part of the “old” labor radicals—became a modern, living saint, one whom Americans desperately needed.
These developments concealed a major demographic and political shift. The appeal of “progressive” and reformist but non-socialist candidates for local offices had diminished the socialist program among middle-class supporters by 1912. A genuinely progressive but non-socialist impulse, represented by Wisconsin governor Robert M. La Follette, contrasted with the bellicose (and racially tinged) nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt who defeated La Follette for the Progressive Party nomination that year. But in the public mind and in the press, Debs and La Follette were not so different: if monopolies could be controlled or broken up, the nation would advance. Undercut among the American-born, the Socialist Party meanwhile advanced rapidly among blue-collar immigrants.
The “new immigrants” and unskilled laborers Debs and the IWW had already embraced now made their mark upon wider social movements. The IWW faltered: partly from internal disagreements, mostly from the rival American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the pressure of employers against any organization of the low-caste worker. By 1914, the best days of the IWW were passing, and immigrant workers in particular were more likely to find their place within existing or newly launched AFL unions and the Socialist Party. The effect was complex and dramatic. The Socialist Party of 1915 was not the Socialist Party of 1912, and the Socialist Party of 1917 was yet further from the “Debs Party” of the 1904 or 1908 campaigns.
Debs became hugely popular among these new immigrants, as far as this can be ascertained. Education in socialist ideas was continuous, especially in the socialist clubhouses in growing immi- grant neighborhoods of various ethnic- ities. But voting was often difficult for the foreign-born and was sometimes restricted by authorities. Labor action picked up the slack. With the outbreak of war in Europe, the labor market tightened and workers could more readily quit undesirable jobs. Both strikes and union organizing became easier, absorbing the energy of younger socialists in particular. In New York’s garment centers, the socialist union leaders who had created power centers for themselves during the 1890s now proved bureaucratic and resistant to militant activity, opening the gates for more aggressive organizing and more radical politics—much of it led by young immigrant women.
The fear of war, and what it would surely bring, cast a dark shadow upon the horizon. Socialists had been writing about it since the US invasion of the Philippines, and Mark Twain campaigned against the horrors of imperial massacres large and small. Socialist magazines discussed, in essays by popular authors, the prospect of the end of civilization—more specifically, the end to the American experiment in democratic civilization, the consolidation of American empire, and the attendant state repression of dissent at home. Indeed, the war years did see mass arrests, and leftist publications were forced to close.
Americans continued to vote for socialists at the state and local levels in considerable number, including electing two socialists to Congress and many city officials. But the advancing momentum of the socialist vote, like Socialist Party membership, had mostly stopped. Antiwar writer Allan L. Benson polled less than 600,000 votes, a considerable number but a significant drop from Debs’s 1912 total. Political repression would soon wipe out the socialist votes in Oklahoma, where the Socialist Party had gained the highest percentile in many counties. The future suddenly looked grim for those who believed socialism would be brought by the ballot.