FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Eugene Debs: A Graphic Biography is a Masterpiece for the Ages

Verso’s newest collaborative comics art title, Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography, written by Buhle, Steve Max, and Dave Nance and illustrated by Noah Van Sciver, jumps backward over 120 years to narrate the life of not just that most famous of Socialist politicians but the entire American Left since the end of the Civil War. This is a handsome volume, prepared with obvious reverence by the publisher, and should not be missed.

I have been reading comics for about 25 years now, ever since I learned how to look at the Sunday morning funny pages and understand sequential art. I have taken in the full range of material. It is one of the few genres that I genuinely understand with a critical thinking framework that I feel comfortable resting my laurels upon (even despite the fact it might also be why I am still single).

First, it merits mention what this book is not. It is not in-depth history of the Socialist Party, which one can find with the 2015 volume by Jack Ross, nor is it a detailed profile of the titular personage found in the classic Ray Ginger biography The Bending Cross.

I hesitate to characterize it as a hagiography because such fare, pumped out en masse by the Soviet presses, left a bad taste for so many in the course of the last century. And it is not strictly a children’s storybook biography that a parent uses to introduce Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. to a new generation.

I think this is instead a new expression of something else, the legend of a great political figure whose example has remained inspirational for decades despite a Cold War that did so much to discredit his cause. Unlike Lenin, Trotsky, Che, Mao, Castro, or most recently Hugo Chavez, Debs has withstood the test of time. He remains a viable hero for all Americans and his example still awes many. The speech offered to the court upon his sentencing for public opposition to the barbarism of World War I is poetic in the way that King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address sound within the annals of American public address. His campaign for the Oval Office from a jail cell elicits solidarity and respect even though none now live who actually were able to cast a ballot in that election. Debs has gone from the realm of common political actors into a Valhalla that few others have in the past century.

Buhle tells me in correspondence “I was following the model of [my earlier] Wobblies [volume] that I came up with more or less spontaneously, thinking ‘what else does the reader need to know?’ and also, very much, thinking of the SOCIALIST young reader more than the generic young reader… Is it going to be used for internal education or not?” Clearly the point is to create an accessible political education and strategy manual using the Debs legend.

The book follows his eventful career and his martyrdom in the name of justice, starting with his days as a railway unionist until his final stint in jail did serious harm to his health. Those who are familiar with the history of the American Left take in a broad vista, provided via the artwork of Van Sciver, whereupon a host of legendary players make an appearance in a pageant of meaningful episodes that continue to reverberate across the decades.

The book was supported in production by the Democratic Socialists of America Fund and so it does have a clear political inclination. Debs was an anti-imperialist and sacrificed much for that belief. How would he have responded to the events in Venezuela that are being caused by American imperialism? His opinions about the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America during the Spanish-American War in the 1890s were vociferous and publicized widely. The behavior of the social democratic parties of the Global North in the past several weeks have been particularly contrary to the Debsian spirit and those who claim to be his heirs need to take heed of that contradiction.

I also admit that I find the accounting for the role of racial politics within the wider Socialist Party a topic in need of greater elaboration precisely because the issue informs continuing debates within both DSA and the wider progressive movement today, most recently on display with the caustically sectarian writings of Adolph Reed, Jr. In October 1961, a time period covered by this book, after the Khrushchev Secret Speech about Stalin and the “cult of personality” had landed a terminal death blow on the membership rolls that Joseph McCarthy had never been capable of, W.E.B. Du Bois, intellectual godfather of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, joined the Communist Party USA as opposed to the Socialists, who were trying at that point to rebuild themselves under the leadership of Norman Thomas, Irving Howe, Michael Harrington, A. Philip Randolph, and several other reputable postwar activists. His membership application letter is one of the most useful primary source accounts of the Debs-era Socialists’ shortcomings. “I joined the Socialist Party in 1911. I knew nothing of practical Socialist politics and in the campaign on 1912 I found myself unwilling to vote for the Socialist ticket, but advised Negroes to vote for Wilson. This was contrary to Socialist Party rules and consequently I resigned from the Socialist Party… I attacked the Socialists for trying to segregate Southern Negro members; I praised the racial attitudes of the Communists, but opposed their tactics in the case of the Scottsboro Boys and their advocacy of a Negro state,” he wrote.

Even though Debs considered John Brown a personal hero, opposed Jim Crow, and refused to speak in segregated venues, the Socialist Party still made a space for unabashed racists that ran for office under the Socialist banner. For instance, in 1912, Kate Richards O’Hare, who ran for Congress multiple times, published an article titled ‘N***er Equality’ in the Socialist periodical The National Ripsaw. She proclaimed “But you ask what is the solution of the race question? There can be but one. Segregation.” I don’t begrudge the authors for leaving O’Hare out, there’s only so much space to be allocated, but her legacy needs to be given acknowledgement today in progressive political circles and understood as one contending with the legacy of Du Bois.

The mistake of Debs and the wider Socialist movement across the Western world was their misunderstanding of capitalism’s versatility and adaptability. It was their wayward cousin Lenin who realized in 1917 that revolution was going to come not in the highly-developed core of the capitalist world but instead at the peripheral colonial and underdeveloped societies, places where the racist monied elites had no interest in bribing the workers and peasants with state-sponsored safety net programs like public education and old age pensions. It was in the Global South before and after World War II that socialism, either descended from Bolshevism (China, Vietnam, Laos, multiple African countries, Cuba) or the Debsian variety (India, Dominican Republic, Allende’s Chile, and now the Pink Tide Bolivarian countries), where socialist experiments were actually tried.

By contrast, in America, those who claimed his mantle instead faded into the larger collection of progressives held captive by the Democratic Party, the graveyard of social movements that, ironically, has been the initiator of crackdowns on the Left more often than Republicans. The difference between American Communism and its antecedent, the Socialist Party, came into stark relief in the 1920s when Lenin, Radek, and several other Soviet leaders specifically instructed their American Communist contemporaries to place a clear emphasis, alongside imperialism, on the African American cause and their oppression by racialized capitalism. While there were significant flaws and mistakes made by the CPUSA later, that was not one of them and understanding what the Stalin-led Communist movement got right and why is important for all radicals today.

This book is a fantastic catalyst for such efforts and the creators deserve the highest praises for their work.

More articles by:

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
August 23, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Notes on Inauthenticity in a Creeping Fascist Nuthouse
Andrew Levine
Recession Now, Please
Rob Urie
Mr. Trump Goes to Kensington
Jeffrey St. Clair
Deep Time and the Green River, Floating
Robert Hunziker
Earth 4C Hotter
Kenneth Good
Congo’s Patrice Lumumba: The Winds of Reaction in Africa
Pete Dolack
The Realism and Unrealism of the Green New Deals
David Rosen
The White-Nationalist Great Fear
Kenn Orphan
The War on Indigenous People is a War on the Biosphere Itself
L. Michael Hager
What Netanyahu’s Travel Ban Has Revealed
Ramzy Baroud
Jewish Settlers Rule the Roost in Israel, But at What Price?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Is Environmental Protection Possible?
Josue De Luna Navarro
What It’s Like to Grow Up Hunted
Ralph Nader
They Don’t Make Republicans Like the Great Paul Findley Anymore!
Gary Olson
Whither the Resistance to our Capitalist Overlords?
Dean Baker
On Those Downward Jobs Revisions
Rev. William Alberts
Beware of the Gun-Lover-in-Chief
Helder F. do Vale
Brazil: From Global Leader to U.S. Lapdog
Laura Finley
Educators Actually Do “Work” in the Summer
Jim Goodman
Farmers Need a Bill of Rights
Tom Clifford
What China’s Leadership is Really Worried About: Rising Debt
Daphne Wysham
Saving the Planet Means Fighting Bipartisan Corruption
Tierra Curry
Amazon Fires Put the Planet at Risk
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Decentralize Power and Revive Regional Political Institutions
John W. Whitehead
American Apocalypse
George Wuerthner
How Agriculture and Ranching Subvert the Re-Wilding of America
Daniel Murphy
Capital in the 21st Century
Jessicah Pierre
400 Years After Slavery’s Start, No More Band-Aids
Kim C. Domenico
Finding the Comrades: Maintaining Precarious Sanity In Insane Times
Gary Leupp
“Based on the Fact She Won’t Sell Me Greenland, I’m Staying Home”
John Kendall Hawkins
The Chicago 8 Trial, Revisited
Rivera Sun
Tapping into People Power
Ted Rall
As Long as Enemies of the State Keep Dying Before Trial, No One Should Trust the State
Jesse Jackson
The Significance of the “1619 Project”
Thomas Knapp
“Nuance” in Politics and Public Policy? No Thanks
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and Endangered Species, Wildlife and Human
Mel Gurtov
China’s Hong Kong Nightmare, and the US Response
Ron Forthofer
Sick of Being a Guinea Pig
Nicky Reid
Why I Stopped Being White (and You Should Too)
Jill Richardson
As the School Year Starts, I’m Grateful for the ADA
Seth Sandronsky
Rethinking the GDR
Adolf Alzuphar
Tears / Ayizan Velekete
Stephen Cooper
General Jah Mikey: “I Just Love That Microphone, Man”
Louis Proyect
Slaves to the Clock
David Yearsley
Moral Cantatas
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail