The Relevance of Debs in the New Gilded Age

For reasons that might be obvious, there has been a resurgence of interest in Eugene V. Debs in recent years. With the USA returning to a new Gilded Age, there is naturally a tendency to see how earlier generations confronted plutocrats like John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the politicians he consorted with.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. lived in the penthouse of 740 Park Avenue, the city’s most expensive real estate. His 34-room apartment now belongs to Stephen Schwarzman, the head of Blackstone and a close friend and adviser to Donald Trump, who is notorious for the vulgar ostentation of his birthday parties. He celebrated his 70thin 2017 by throwing a party that cost 9 million dollars. It featured strolling camels and was capped off by Gwen Stefani singing “Happy Birthday” to the plutocrat whose asset-stripping operation of nursing homes in England led to the death of 19 patients suffering from dementia.

In 1914, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was the strategist behind the Colorado National Guard and Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency assault on the Ludlow miners that left 21 people dead, including the wives and children of the miners. Although Woodrow Wilson appeared to disassociate himself from the murderous attack, he and the Presidents who preceded him were opposed to the right of workers to form trade unions. As I pointed out in a review of Chad Pearson’s “Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement”, a President’s “neutral” stance was just a ploy to allow the boss to have his way after the fashion of FDR’s “a plague on both your houses” during the Little Steel Strike.

Eugene V. Debs, who received six percent of the popular vote as a Socialist in 1912, was never neutral. In a September 4, 1915 article in the Appeal to Reason, the voice of the Socialist Party, he eulogized Louis Tikas, a Greek immigrant who led the Ludlow strikers and who was felled by three bullets during the massacre:

Louis Tikas made Ludlow holy as Jesus Christ made Calvary!

He was the loyal leader of the persecuted colony ; the trusted keeper of the tented village. He was loved by every man, woman and child, and feared only by the fanged wolves and hyenas that threatened to ravage the flock.

Strong as a giant yet gentle as a child; utterly fearless yet without bravado, this great and loving soul cast his lot with the exiled slaves of the pits and kept his vigil over the defenseless women and children of the village as a loving mother might over the fledglings of her brood.

Unlike today’s leftist leaders, except maybe for Cornel West and the late Martin Luther King Jr. who were both ordained ministers, Debs’s speeches had the cadence and the power of a Sunday morning sermon. You get some of that fire and brimstone from Chris Hedges, who is also an ordained minister, but occasionally in a muddled fashion. Unfortunately for him and many other left journalists, the absence of a mass working-class base can foster a sense of hopelessness.

My first exposure to Eugene V. Debs revivalism came in the form of Yale Strom’s documentary “American Socialist” that I reviewed for CounterPunch in 2017 and that is now available as a DVD from Amazon.com. My review stated: “If Debs was up on a cloud in socialist heaven, I am sure he would be gladdened by the sight of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matters, whose activists are seen marching down the streets in Strom’s film.

A few days ago, I received a review copy of “Eugene V. Debs: a Graphic Biography” that is a great companion piece to Yale’s film. It is obvious that the script, which was co-written by Paul Buhle and Steve Max, is intended to make the connections between the class battles of a century ago and those that are unfolding today. In a book divided into five chapters, each one is preceded by an astute preface by the two veteran leftists. While Paul needs no introduction as an emcee might put it, Steve is someone with his own impressive credentials as an SDS leader. He joined SDS in 1962, was an early SDS field secretary, and later became director of its Political Education Project.

Like Yale’s documentary, the visuals in “Eugene V. Debs: a Graphic Biography” are stunning. They were drawn by Noah Van Sciver who, in addition to providing great artwork for understanding Debs, has also illustrated books about SpongeBob SquarePants and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! For a sample of his work, go to https://issuu.com/.

In their introduction, Paul and Steve make the case for Debs’s relevance:

The life of Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926) has returned to public interest and sympathy in ways that no one would have expected five or ten years ago. “Socialism,” contrary to liberal and conservative pronouncements, has made a comeback. The political campaign of Bernie Sanders during 2015-16, appealing to millions of young people but not them only, shocked the mainstream, Democrats as well as Republicans. The Wall Street crash of 2008, and the mass movements of Occupy and Black Lives Matter, almost seemed to have called a movement and a charismatic leader into being. To speak only of this comic’s co-sponsor, Democratic Socialists of America has at this writing grown its membership to over 50,000 members, a height not seen in any American left group since the 1940s.

At 128 pages, a comic book can never replace a full-length biography like Ray Ginger’s “The Bending Cross” that is listed with 14 other books in a useful reading guide appendix. What a comic book can do is provide a snapshot that will lead to a deeper engagement with the subject matter. With that end in mind, Buhle and Max have succeeded. Clearly familiar with Ginger’s work and that of other historians, they provide some memorable insights into Debs’s career against the backdrop of the birth of socialism in the USA.

–Before Debs became a revolutionary socialist, he considered the possibility of forming a rural cooperative after the fashion of New Harmony in Indiana, his home state.

–The class-collaborationist trade union bureaucrat Samuel Gompers saw Debs and the IWW as mortal enemies, so much so that he considered sending in scabs to break strikes they organized.

–Despite Debs’s insistence that Black liberation could only be achieved by voting socialists into office, the Socialist Party won the support of A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B DuBois and Cyril Briggs in the years prior to the Russian Revolution. While not as well-known, Briggs was an important figure. In 1920, when many on the left had abandoned the Socialist Party to join the fledgling Communist Party, Briggs formed the African Blood Brotherhood as a de facto caucus of the CP. Within two or three years, the Bolshevik-inspired party came to agree with Debs’s “class trumps race” stance and liquidated Briggs’s group.

–Woodrow Wilson, who stood aloof from the Rockefeller/Ludlow battles, was not aloof when it came to the Debs/WWI battle. He sponsored the Espionage Act of 1917 under which the elderly Socialist leader was convicted. Espionage did not mean blowing up railroad tracks. It meant speaking against the war, which Debs did most forcefully.

As will probably come as no surprise to readers, I have differences with both Yale, Paul and Steve when it comes to the Democratic Party. In the conclusion to Yale’s documentary, New Yorker Magazine’s Rick Hertzberg argues that Debs would probably be a regular on MSNBC if he was alive today. As my editor Jeff St. Clair likes to put it, this network should really be called MSDNC. Since Yale considers Debs to be a progenitor to Bernie Sanders, interviewing Hertzberg probably served his purposes.

For Paul and Steve, the rise and fall of Eugene V. Debs maps to the vote totals he received with 1912 being the apex and the paltry 188,000 votes his successor Norman Thomas received in 1936 as a sign that the party had passed its shelf life. It is understandable that the DSA would be comfortable with using such a barometer since it has invested so much time and energy into Democrat Party progressives elected.

As a sign of the Socialist Party’s irrelevance, they point to the New Deal that partially owed Communist Party support for its electoral victories. Interestingly, they refer to the formation of the American Labor Party that allowed workers to vote for FDR on its ballot line in 1936, thus robbing votes from Norman Thomas. This is a ploy I discussed in a rebuttal of a Jacobin article on Vito Marcantonio, a CP fellow traveler who was elected to Congress as an American Labor Party candidate.

The CP’s evolution into a Democratic Party fixture took place in the 1930s as a result of the Popular Front turn, as Paul and Steve point out. In the early 20s, when it leapfrogged the SP, this was the furthest thing from its leaders’ mind. They modeled themselves on the Bolsheviks, even to the point of fetishizing organizing as an underground movement.

What the CP did get right was emphasizing “street politics”, which meant building industrial unions, fighting against Jim Crow, opposing imperialist war and the like. It did run candidates in its own name, who like the Bolsheviks were more interested in raising hell than winning office. Neither Debs nor Earl Browder understood what a revolutionary party had to do in order to transform society. Society will not be transformed through winning elections. It will be transformed as an outcome during a period of intense class struggle. Workers and their allies will begin to form neighborhood and city councils that provide an alternative to capitalist normalcy. The first occurrence of such organization was the Paris Commune that was a progenitor to the Russian Soviets and the liberated zones created by workers and peasant in the Spanish Civil War.

As far-fetched as such a development might seem in the USA in 2019 with its football games, opioid epidemics, and shopping mall excursions, it will inevitably begin to take place as the ruling class of the USA deepens its attack on working people. You get a foretaste of the battles to come by the example of the Yellow Vests in France. Of course, there is no guarantee that a revolution will succeed in the USA. Perhaps the only guarantee is one of failure when a left remains mired in electoral routinism.



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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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