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R. Fahan

Books in Review

Portrait of a Socialist Rebel

A Commendable Biography of Eugene V. Debs

(August 1949)

From The New International, Vol. XV No. 6, August 1949, pp. 190–192.
Transcribed & marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This book [1] is the most comprehensive and probably the best biography yet written of Eugene Victor Debs. It is full of intimate historical detail, it is warm and sympathetic and it has been written by a man who obviously knows something about the problems besetting the socialist movement at the time Debs was its leader. But, best of all, the author has absorbed something of Debs’ rebellious spirit; he does not pretend to some unattainable and hardly desirable objectivity, that chimera with which liberal historians so often delude themselves. He writes with passion and commitment. And that is the best thing about this book.

Debs began his career as a conservative craft unionist in a railroad brotherhood. He preached the doctrine of class collaboration, denied that there was any necessary conflict between labor and capital and even ran as a candidate of and held office for the Terre Haute Democratic Party: His political shifts to the left were all based on his personal experience; he did not abandon a position until the most bitter experience had proved it to be indefensible. As a consequence, his political career took on the aspects of the classical pattern sketched out by Marxism, to which only a few people rigorously adhere in practice. He began as a conservative unionist; when he saw the impracticability of craft groups he helped form the American Railway Union, one of the first industrial unions in the U.S.; and when, after the bitter Pullman strike of 1894, he saw that unionism, even the most militant unionism, was not enough for the workers, he reluctantly and hesitantly moved toward socialism. Once he was a socialist, his revolutionary spirit constantly deepened; he never succumbed to the soft conservatism, the comfortable nostalgia which has characterized so many of the leaders of the American Socialist Party in their later years. Till the day of his death in 1926, he remained a revolutionist.

Because of this pattern in Debs’ career, Ginger’s book is rather dull in its beginning. Too much detail is devoted to his activities as a conservative union leader. But it quickly picks up in interest and pace, moving to an impressive climax in Debs’ imprisonment during the First World War. Ginger is at his best when he describes Debs’ role in the Pullman strike of 1894 and the “Red Special” electoral campaign of Debs and the Socialist Party in 1908. Then, his writing takes on body and flavor, is quick with feeling and conviction. It is good that this book has been written by a man who obviously is some sort of socialist or rebel, who does not condescend to Debs from the superior wisdom of post-New Deal “liberalism.” A fighting man deserves a fighting book.

What Did Debs Really Believe?

Ginger’s book raises certain interesting problems about Debs and the American socialist movement. What, first of all, did Debs really believe?

In his review of Ginger’s book in the New York Times, Sidney Hook writes that “Although Debs belonged to the more militant wing of the Socialist Party, he was really an American populist who spoke in the Marxist idiom.” Hook’s statement is open to serious challenge. To say that someone was a populist means that he thought in terms of “the people” versus “the trusts” or “Wall Street,” that he based himself primarily on agricultural sections of the population and that he either thought of reforming capitalism or did not believe the capitalism-socialism opposition to be meaningful.

But none of these statements holds for Debs. As early as 1899, when the Union Reform Party was organized, Debs wrote: “I am not in favor of such a party as is proposed, which, in the nature of things, must be founded in compromise and cannot long survive the internal dissensions which swept its predecessors from the field.” (The Union Reform Party was, by the way, considerably more radical than the ADA or the Liberal Party of today.)

Debs explicitly declared that he believed that the working class was the major force on which the socialist movement should be based; in fact, a good deal of his activity was concerned with his repeated campaigns for the formation of industrial unions. Probably his major contribution in the realm of ideas to the socialist movement was his conception of the role of industrial unions in the U.S. Debs wrote: “It is either socialism or capitalism – complete freedom or total slavery. I am a socialist without a shadow of concession or compromise.” These are hardly the words of “an American populist who spoke in the Marxian idiom.”

Yet the question may not be quite settled; perhaps what is involved is not what Debs publicly said or thought he believed but the deepest, most instinctive patterns of his thought. Debs was certainly deeply involved in the American tradition – his greatest hero was John Brown. He could not help being deeply affected by the populist movement, for he grew up at a time when it was beginning to stir.

But the point is that he had made the transition from mere populist radicalism to a coherent and conscious socialist view; he said so many times over and, more important, he behaved so – from his electoral campaigns to his endorsement of the Bolshevik Revolution, from his anti-war stand during the First World War to his very last breath. True, he was hardly a Marxist theoretician or scholar, but he did consciously and rigorously function according to a central political doctrine of Marxism: the theory of the class struggle. The mere fact that he had subsumed strands of the American tradition in his thought and speech, that he had absorbed the most rebellious qualities of populist feeling, made him no less a Marxist. He did not, it is true, write scholarly works on the origins of Marxian thought or the meaning of Marxian ideas, but he did something that is perhaps not very much less important: he lived and fought for those ideas.

All of these things are made quite clear in Ginger’s book. The problem of Debs’ attitude to the Bolshevik Revolution is also clarified. Debs was instinctively enthusiastic about the revolution and remained friendly to it through the last years of his life. At the same time, he refused to join any of the Communist groups in the U.S. and remained a dues-paying member of the Socialist Party. He was friendly to the Communist groups, though critical of their sectarian attitudes on a number of questions; he was also critical of the SP leadership while remaining a member of it. There may seem to be some inconsistency in this, and perhaps there is. But the fact is that by the 1920s Debs was a very tired and worn old man who was only intermittently active in politics. His ideas were much as before, and had he actively intervened in SP affairs he undoubtedly would have clashed very sharply with its right-wing leadership. On the other hand, had the early Communist groups been a little more intelligent and flexible in their behavior, Debs would have been drawn closer to them.

A Man of Heroic Aspect

But the central problem that emerges from Ginger’s study is that of Debs’ personality. In his relations to the external world, to American society as a whole, Debs assumed a heroic aspect that only a few men had ever done before him. The comparison with Lincoln immediately strikes one and though inaccurate in many ways if taken as an objective measuring of two personalities, it is useful if seen in terms of mass response to them. Both had that strange charismatic power which the humble leader seems to hold over Americans, and had not Debs been a socialist he probably would have become as popular a figure in American life as Lincoln. The American people seem to prefer their heroes half saints and half simple fellows; half promiscuous and pantheistic lovers of all living things and half crude, callow, poorly educated, folksy characters. Like Lincoln, Debs seems to have had that rare capacity for loving almost all men (except Gompers; there he drew the line), and again, like Lincoln, he could be a rather coarse small-town philosopher.

Quite apart from what must have been his extraordinary technical competence as a speaker (a talent he consciously and guilefully cultivated), Debs had a far rarer gift: he could charge an audience with his own emotion, and could communicate that emotion even through the most cliché-ridden phrases. That is why, as one reads his speeches now, one is astonished at how threadbare, how devoid of intellectual body and subtlety they are; but the test is not a fair one, for Debs was one of the few natural leaders America has ever produced, a man whose ties with the masses were based on far deeper and less tangible forces than mere words.

His Relations with the SP

Perhaps it was his singleness of being, his unity of personality, the fact that he lived and thought as he spoke, that so impressed his listeners. Still, it is necessary to remember that the gifted leader came at a time when the socialist movement, both in the U.S. and in Europe, was on the uprise, when the effects of industrialism were first beginning to be felt in the U.S. and when the political scene was unclouded by such complicating and demoralizing factors as Stalinism and fascism. Much of the growth of the socialist movement was due to Debs’ personal status, but that status could hardly have been attained if there had not been fertile conditions for the movement’s growth.

In his relations with the Socialist Party, Debs’ peculiar role as a leader caused continuous difficulties. He never had much sense of party discipline, even of the most general kind; he attended only one Socialist Party convention in his whole life, presumably on the ground that he did not want to get involved in factional battles. Debs felt himself to be in direct contact with the masses of workers and socialists (as, of course, he was) and did not seem to think that he had a direct responsibility to the party he led. Many of the right-wing leaders of the SP attacked him for this attitude, and while we would sympathize with Debs against them politically, we could not deny that in terms of formal relations between a leader and his party the right-wing criticism had merit. For a leader who takes the attitude of remaining above the party battle, when there is one, is behaving undemocratically; he is refusing to subject himself to the political and intellectual conditions that the members must face. And he thereby also helps perpetuate a myth about himself – a myth that, while the other leaders squabble inside the party, he rises above such petty considerations and works for it in the outside world.

In Debs’ individual case, the dangers of this sort of behavior were mitigated by his genuine extensive contact with the rank and file, his actual scrupulousness in dealing with all factions of the movement, and his personal kindliness which made it impossible for him to attack sharply even those comrades with whom he disagreed. But the distasteful consequences of such leadership habits can be seen in Debs’ successor as the leader of the SP, who has repeatedly used his personal prestige to edge the party into policies it might otherwise not favor.

What remains ultimately in one’s memory of the story of Debs is the portrait of an extraordinarily heroic and rebellious man – one with limited intellectual powers, uncultivated cultural responses, somewhat one-sided personal attitudes, but infinite compassion and courage. We lay no monopolistic claim to his memory; we do not know what he would think or do if he were alive today, nor do we think it possible for anyone else to know. But we believe that his quick sense of rebellion against injustice, his untiring loyalty to his own beliefs and values are extremely relevant today. Perhaps the example to be drawn from his life is even more important than the precise determination of his ideas, for while other socialists have thought and written better, none has lived and fought better.



1. The Bending Cross, by Ray Ginger. Rutgers University Press. $6.00.

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