The story of the American trade-union militant turned socialist leader, Eugene Debs, remains important and is stirringly told in a new graphic biography, finds Sean Ledwith

Paul Buhle, Steve Max, and Dave Nance, illustrated by Noah Van Sciver, Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography (Verso 2019), 144pp.

Americans subjected to the pitiful spectacle of this year’s Biden vs Trump presidential race can be forgiven for despairing of their political system. The former candidate has been utterly devoid of inspiration and relied on voters’ exasperation with the bigotry and incompetence of the latter to put him ahead in the pre-election polls. The first presidential debate between the two men drew much adverse criticism from across the political spectrum about the pettiness of their exchanges and the dearth of substantial policy scrutiny. Democrat supporters are probably relieved the pandemic gave their candidate an excuse to avoid mass rallies as staging them would only have further exposed the paucity and shortcomings of the Biden-Harris ticket.

The marginalisation of Bernie Sanders and the left faction within the party he represents will only have served to alienate young voters in particular who had been fired up by the Vermont Senator’s insurgent campaigns for the nomination this year and in 2016. As the world’s dominant capitalist state enters a period of triple crisis in the forms of the escalating pandemic, the consequent recession and the persistent Black Lives Matter protests, US society seems locked into a downward trajectory.

This bleak scenario makes it even more important that the American left recalls a time, one hundred years ago, when its standard bearer received one million votes in a presidential election. Eugene Debs’s achievement that year was remarkable but even more so considering he was behind bars for the duration of the campaign! As leader of the Socialist Party, Debs had been incarcerated two years previously for an iconic anti-war speech protesting US involvement in World War One.

A giant of the US left

The 1920 election was the fifth time Debs had run for the White House, each time bringing in an impressively bigger vote. The cumulative impact of these campaigns reflected an era when the American working class endured ferocious onslaughts from the domestic ruling class but fought back with heroic waves of resistance. This graphic novel vividly recaptures the principal events of Debs’s life which incorporated some of the pivotal moments of this golden age of American labour, from the epic railroad strikes of the late nineteenth century, through the rise of the Wobblies and onto the anti-war struggles that landed Debs in jail – not for the first time.

Even though Bernie Sanders has described Debs as ‘the most effective and popular leader that the American working class has ever had,’ he is a largely neglected figure on this side of the Atlantic. This book, scripted by Paul Buhle and Steve Max, is the ideal introduction for anyone wishing to become more familiar with one of the giants of the US left. The authors do justice to a man who was clearly loved by millions of American workers, to the extent that one 97-year-old union activist, interviewed in 1981, could still recall the moment she encountered him: ‘Gene Debs held my baby!’ (p.31).

Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, shortly before the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861. As he grew up in the second half of the nineteenth century, Debs witnessed the country embark on a fivefold expansion of its industrial muscle, transforming it from a largely agricultural economy into one of the manufacturing giants of the Western world with massive investments in railroads, steel and lumber mills especially. This was the age of the notorious robber barons such as Carnegie, Rockefeller and Morgan, whose multi-million-dollar fortunes were derived from ruthless exploitation of the nascent American working class. The press labelled this the Gilded Age but, needless to say, very little of this astronomical wealth trickled down to the largely immigrant workforces crammed in urban centres such as Chicago, Cleveland and New York. The embryonic left in the US at this point was disabled not just by the rapaciousness of the tycoons but also by sectarianism within the labour movement itself. The authors note:

‘Before these grand idealistic movements faded in the post-Civil War years, their commitments often clashed with those of the small craft unions, whose leaders mostly sympathised with the largely anti-reform and deeply racist Democratic Party and who were dedicated to organising only the most skilled workers’ (p.1).

There was a radical strain in Debs from birth. His parents named him ‘Eugene Victor’ after two dissenting French novelists of the nineteenth century with Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, being the best known. Young Debs got his first job painting trains on the Midwest railroad and like many of his workmates joined the local branch of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. Like most US labour organisations of the time, the BLF was a craft union with limited goals and no interest in organising across sectional lines. The BLF and the other rail unions were powerless when a strike of near-insurrectionary proportions erupted on the tracks in 1877, culminating in a general strike in St Louis and the massacre of over one hundred workers by federal marshals called in by President Cleveland.

A union militant

The bloodshed forced Debs to re-evaluate his early opposition to strikes and the use of force by the labour movement. This hardening of his militancy was intensified by the Haymarket Martyrs affair a few years later when four anarchist agitators were hanged on a trumped-up charge of causing an explosion in Chicago on May Day 1886. Debs was also increasingly exasperated by the sectionalism of the BLF and in 1893 played a leading role in the creation of the American Railroad Union, an industry-wide organisation that was open to engineers, conductors, drivers as well as firemen on the tracks.

The following year brought the ultimate test for Debs’s new brand of non-craft-based trade unionism. The town of Pullman, south of Chicago, was named after the rail company that dominated all aspects of local life: stores, factories, housing, clothing and virtually everything else. In 1894, the company decided to slash wages in response to a recession that was unfolding throughout the country. Debs threw the ARU into a massive strike that would eventually include 100,000 Pullman rail workers across the entire US. Buhle and Max note how the sectional leadership of the rival American Federation of Labor was initially sceptical of Debs’s ability to mobilise sufficient solidarity:

‘And yet, west of the Mississippi, they did strike en masse. Had the craft unions offered them sufficient solidarity, and had the federal government not extended an unprecedented repression against a thoroughly nonviolent work stoppage, they might even have won. It was not to be’ (p.5).

Debs spent six months behind bars in Illinois following the crushing of the Pullman strike and it was there that his political conversion to socialism took place. Prominent socialists, including Keir Hardie from the British Labour Party, visited Debs during his imprisonment and introduced him to foundational texts of the left such as Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. This marked his transition from committed rail union activist to standard bearer of the wider US revolutionary movement. The authors note how Debs became the first truly national figurehead of the left that, up to that point, had been characterised by the multiplicity of immigrant traditions failing to find common ground:

‘A fragmented, overwhelmingly foreign-born socialist movement made up of socialist Germans, Jews and others who had waited for years for the arrival of a true American with wide appeal found their veritable savior in the railroad man. They belonged to Debs and Debs belonged to them’ (p.5).

Ethics and strategy

The authors are right to pay glowing tribute to Debs’s evident qualities of decency and humanity that made him such an attractive figure to millions of ordinary Americans. A fierce attachment to the vision of a more enlightened moral code always burned within him and motivated his political action. Speaking from the dock in 1918, he said:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free’ (p.89).

It is important, at the same time, to note the limitations of his politics, particularly in relation to an even greater figure of the contemporary international left. Lenin, unlike Debs, perceived the importance of consistent theoretical analysis to track the shifting modulations of the capitalist system and to assimilate them to the practice of revolutionary politics. Debsian socialism sprang from an instinctive hatred of class oppression and a conviction that the solidarity displayed by the working class alone could be the basis of a new society.

Lenin shared these ethical motivations but combined them with a rigorous focus on theory that was lacking in Debs. One consequence of this crucial difference is that the Russian revolutionary leader was able to forge an organisational spearhead capable of taking state power in the form of the Bolshevik Party. In contrast, Debs’ Socialist Party contained a politically weaker coalition that even included right wingers and racists. Debs was always personally reluctant to wade into ideological debates and preferred to concentrate his activities on agitating and campaigning. This reluctance to theorise left the party under-prepared for the shockwave of World War One, however, and it never recovered its mass appeal following that catastrophe.

The authors note another weakness of Debs’s political practice that was particularly fateful in the American context. He was impressively outspoken on the question of racism against African Americans and was one of the first major white labour leaders to denounce the colour bar that blighted the craft unions of the AFL. At the same time, however, Debs failed to see the crucial importance of supporting the self-organisation of oppressed minorities in the US, particularly black workers and small farmers in the South:

‘Much of white Indiana viewed the legacy of the abolitionist John Brown as one of mere terrorism. Debs though, throughout his life, considered Brown one of the bravest and most important Americans. However, he regarded any special appeals to the African American worker as harmful to proletarian unity, a view abandoned by later socialists and Communists’ (p.31).

Although Debs did not share Lenin’s willingness to engage in sustained theoretical analysis, he recognised the October Revolution as a decisive blow for the global working class and welcomed the rise to power of the Bolsheviks. In his words:

‘Lenin and Trotsky were the men of the hour and under their fearless, incorruptible and uncompromising leadership the Russian proletariat has held the fort against the combined assaults of all the ruling class powers of earth. It is a magnificent spectacle. It stirs the blood and warms the heart of every revolutionist, and it challenges the admiration of all the world.’

Regrettably, this book does not mention this declaration of solidarity from Debs, perhaps reflecting the ambiguous attitude to Leninism which still prevails on the American far left.

Defying the imperialist state

One year after the Russian Revolution, Debs’s political career reached its apotheosis with his iconic anti-war speech at Canton, Ohio, for which the vengeful US ruling class sentenced him to jail for ten years. Whatever his limitations as a theoretician, Debs was an outstanding speaker and heroically defied the wartime restrictions on anti-government activity:

‘This war in a nutshell: The master class has always declared the war; the subject class has always fought the battles! If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace’ (p.82).

The US Supreme Court upheld the vindictive sentence against Debs in the infamous case of Schenck v US, which effectively stated free speech is unregulated – unless it undermines the government’s ability to wage imperialist war! Debs’s reaction to the verdict identified how it exposed the class nature of this supposedly neutral institution of the state: ‘It’s a ruling class court; it could not have been otherwise. Great issues are not decided by courts but by the people. They will be heard from in due time’ (p.91).

Eventually Debs’s prison sentence was commuted after three years thanks to an overwhelming campaign for his release, from trade unionists in the US and around the world, that included the electrifying presidential bid of 1920. Imprisonment had wrecked Debs’s health, however, and his death in 1926 followed the only period of political inactivity in his whole life. His closing statement from the dock at his trial in 1918 stands as a moving testament to his unconquerable optimism regarding the prospects for socialist revolution in America:

‘When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning’ (p.90).

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters