Some biographies are great histories. Others are lively and interesting discussions of the subject’s life. Very few are both. Even fewer are not only both of the above, but also inspirational. Ray Ginger’s biography of Eugene Debs, The Bending Cross, is one of those few. At once a history of the early US labor and socialist movements, The Bending Cross is an intricate look at the life of the man who is probably most identified with both of those movements’ early history.
The Debs we are introduced to in the early pages of Ginger’s work is a man whose commitment to social justice is already apparent. Not yet a socialist in name, Debs the railway worker applies his understanding of Christ’s social justice message to the plight of his fellow workers. Knowing almost by instinct that it would be foolish to expect the men who own the railroads to improve the lives of their workers, Debs joins one of the railway brotherhoods and almost immediately begins pushing the mission of the organization away from cooperation with ownership and towards organizing workers to demand a fair wage and a life with dignity. After it becomes apparent that the leadership of the brotherhoods have too much to lose in confronting the ownership, Debs and his cohorts form another more radical association. This pattern continues throughout Debs’ life as an organizer. As he observes the pursuit of profits over human existence by corporate capitalism and its justification for the desolation and despair it causes, Debs searches for understanding of the nature of the economic system he finds himself in. This quest leads him to Marxism.
Yet, even his fiercest enemies find it impossible to pigeonhole Debs and caricature him as some kind of crazed revolutionist. Indeed, some are even forced to acknowledge the man’s kindness and purity of motivation–something one would be hard put to attribute to any of the robber barons no matter how great their philanthropy. Ginger attributes Debs’ incredible popularity to this purity of motivation and, without mawkishness, creates an image of an almost mythical human being in his text. Debs would probably not have appreciated the romanticized version of his life, but biographies are not written for the subject, but for those who live other lives.
The romanticized nature of Ginger’s biography does not detract from the story being told nor does it lessen the history lesson within its pages. One reason for this is that Debs’ life was a life that reads like a movie script. His presence and involvement in some of history’s most exciting moments insured that any telling of his life would be, at the least, captivating on each and every page. The difference with The Bending Cross is that it goes beyond a good story and becomes an inspirational tale that everyone and anyone hoping to improve the world they live in by ending capitalism should read. In fact, not only should they read it, but they should keep it nearby in order to reach for it during those moments when that struggle seems hopeless.
During his life, Debs was many things–a railway worker, a clerk, a labor organizer and speaker, and a journalist. In fact, journalism was the only constant in the list of roles he played. The subject of another biography recently completed was also a journalist by trade. Unlike Debs, who wrote primarily for labor and socialist periodicals, Pham Xuan An was a correspondent for the mainstream Time magazine during the US war on Vietnam. Unlike Debs, who mostly wrote essays and opinion columns, An was a reporter who worked with some of the better known US journalists covering that imperial adventure. At the same time, An was a master spy for the revolutionary nationalist struggle of the Vietnamese.
The Perfect Spy by Larry Berman, a political science professor at the University of California’s Davis campus, is a fascinating account of An’s life during the Vietnamese war with the US. Like Ginger’s biography of Debs, Berman’s work presents the reader with a man whose life is more than the sum of its parts. An, who died a hero of the Vietnamese struggle for independence in 2006, lived two lives as a spy and a journalist. Berman’s many interviews with An help him provide a picture of how An managed this while simultaneously keeping his allegiance to Americans he befriended and to the Vietnamese revolution. It’s not 007 stuff that is related here, but intrigue exists, especially in the recounting of An’s work prior to the Tet offensive in 1968 and in his efforts to get friends from the losing side out of Vietnam during the final days of the southern Vietnamese government in 1975.
Equally interesting to today’s reader is the contextual information Berman provides throughout the book. As the United States edges closer to the fifth year of its war in Iraq, the descriptions of US tactics during the war in Vietnam make it clear that not only was the US involvement in Vietnam a combination of imperial hubris and human pride, it was very much a policy and not a mistake. As one analyzes US actions in that war forty years ago in light of the current one, it’s quite apparent that many of the strategies that failed in Vietnam are being attempted again in Iraq and Afghanistan with minimal variation. Likewise, it becomes ever more apparent that , like the Vietnamese war, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not mistakes or blunders (as today’s Democrats are so fond of saying),but essential parts of US geopolitical strategy. Even though it is clear by now that there are several differences between the US war on Vietnam and its current adventure in Iraq, there are similarities that can not be denied. One example came to me as I read Berman’s description of the various factions in southern Vietnam and Washington’s attempts to sort them out through bribery, political chicanery and murder. The description of these manipulations are reminiscent of the ongoing situation in Iraq, where multiple factions are struggling for control and US intelligence and other forces seem to shift their alliances every few months, seemingly without reason.
In the same manner that the US reader will see similarities between the way the war in Vietnam was waged in Vietnam and in the US media and political arena, so might the Iraqi or Afghani reader. Indeed, if I were a member of the resistance in those countries, I might even draw some useful lessons from An’s insights and analysis as it was applied to the situation of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle by its fighters. Likewise, the astute reader of An’s biography can not help but see how many of today’s arguments used to justify the continued US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan are nothing but rehashed rationales from its debacle in Vietnam.
Eugene Debs is the more famous of these two men, for his unbending opposition to imperial war, no matter what the rationales provided by the war makers and those who profit from it. From the so-called liberation of Cuba from the Spanish by Teddy Roosevelt and his rough riding army to the war to make the world safe for democracy organized under Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s administration, Debs never wavered from the perception that war under capitalism is always a war of conquest. It’s not that he was a pacifist, by any means. Indeed, although he hoped for a world where profit ceased to exist, he knew from his experience and observation that such a world would only come via revolution.
Pham Xuan An’s life as a revolutionary patriot of Vietnam and the war he fought in only serves to prove Debs’ perceptions of capitalist wars. Their lives together prove the virtue of resistance to those wars.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com