Eugene V. Debs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Oct 4 09:07:59 MDT 2000

Richard Fidler:
>question. To cite only one example, and it is by no means the worst: our
>esteemed moderator, in his excellent and very educational presentation on
>Cochranite legacy", which he posted to this list, cites the Socialist
Party of
>Eugene V. Debs as an appropriate alternative to the "Zinovievist" model of
>"party-building" attributed (with some justice, I concede) to James P.
Cannon. I
>am not sure what the American Socialist actually said about the SP, and I
>Louis can manage to publish his projected reader. But I think no serious
>assessment of Debs's SP can ignore the critiques by the early Communists,
>including Cannon who rightly pointed to the tolerance within that party's
>of such reactionaries as the outright racist mayor of Milwaukee, Victor
>one of the SP's main leaders.

American Socialist November, 1955 (a special issued devoted to the legacy
of Eugene V. Debs.)

The Eugene V. Debs Heritage
by Bert Cochran

THE American labor movement lacks a line of continuity. This is seen very
clearly in the case of Debs, who was the idol of millions in this country
but forty years ago, and will now have to be reintroduced to the present
labor generation. His writings and speeches are all but forgotten-a sad
reflection of the disastrous decline of the radical movement in recent times.

But even in the thirties, Debs was in partial eclipse. This came about
because the post-World War I generations of radicals tended to be somewhat
supercilious about Debs. He obviously wasn't a theoretician of socialism.
His positions and attitudes struck them as a little naive and
over-simplified. In any case, it was a commonly held conviction that his
type of socialism had been completely left behind by the march of events,
superseded in every respect by the wisdom emanating from the Russian
revolution, and the message broadcast by the Communist International.

The debacle of radicalism in the past decade has broken some of us of our
past arrogance, has taught some a little humility and open-mindedness. And
a certain renewed interest has grown among many radicals concerning the
significance of the great socialist agitator. After all, here was a man who
was able to poll almost a million votes, who became a national figure, and
who did it by preaching all his adult life a flaming class-struggle kind of
socialism. How did he do it? What was his secret weapon? Can any of his
methods be applied again today? The towering figure of the socialist orator
addressing huge throngs up and down the country becomes all the more
appealing on the background of the present isolation of American radicalism.

We agree with those who believe that Debs' life and work carry an important
message for the present generation. But the last way to go about
discovering Debs' message is to cull his speeches and articles for nuggets
of wisdom that can bc memorized like mathematical formulas or wise men's
sayings, and then "applied." Nothing can come of such efforts.

We have to be perfectly clear on what Debs was and what he was not. Debs
was not an original thinker and he added nothing new to the theory of
Socialism. He did have some very definite ideas about how the Socialist
Party ought to be organized and run, and was especially keen in spotting
anything that was wrong. His sense of smell was remarkably acute. But even
on this question, he never worked out his ideas in any systematic fashion.

AS is further known, he was contemptuous of the middle-class intellectual
leadership of the Socialist Party which tried to reduce socialism to a
milk-and-water series of welfare reforms. On thc other extreme, when some
of the left-wingers began playing around with syndicalist doctrines of
"direct action," he again became very emphatic. "There have been times in
the past," he wrote, "and there are countries today where the frenzied deed
of a glorious fanatic like old John Brown seems to have been inspired by
Jehovah himself, but I am now dealing with the twentieth century and with
the United States." Later on he rejected without a moment's hesitation
post-war experimentations with underground conspiratorial organization. As
in the previous instance, his objections were not based on considerations
of abstract morality; he simply didn't think these methods fitted American
conditions. Debs' feel was exceptionally good on the many tactical problems
confronting American socialism in his day. But, here again, the
circumstances both in the country and in the radical movement have so
altered that many of these tactical problems are no longer germane, or
where they are, their form is so drastically different as to constitute for
practical purposes a new problem, and render impossible any mere repetition
of the old methods and remedies.

In a word, when dealing with a figure like Debs who was primarily a
practical leader and a socialist propagandist, we cannot rest on just his
speeches, or writings, or his answers to specific questions current in his
time, in an attempt to assess the significance of his contribution, or its
possible meaning for today. We have to take the whole  of his man-which
means his speeches, his writings, his activities, way his works. We have to
take it all together.

It was one of Debs' important achievements that the Socialist Party, from
the time of its formation in 1901 up to the first World War, was an
American movement. By that is meant that it was a genuine expression of
indigenous radicalism. It was the Left continuation of the big Populist
rebellion, and the natural socialist evolution of its best contingents
after the promise of Populism was destroyed in 1896. Debs Socialism rose on
the crest of the wave of thc progressivism and widespread rebelliousness
that was sweeping America up to 1914, because it was part and parcel of
this movement. This was a new departure for socialism in this country,
because before Debs, socialism was primarily a German proposition, with
little contact and less appeal outside of its own community.

PECULIARLY enough, the Communist movement that followed Debs, and became
the mainstream of American radicalism in the thirties and forties, lost
this trait all over again, and became too much of a Russian movement; not
in the sense that most of its members were of Russian extraction (they were
not), but because their thought was so largely concentrated on Russia.
Their leaders uncritically tried to copy Russian patterns of behavior, and
misconstrued socialist internationalism to mean loss of independence for
one's own party. A reawakened socialist movement will undoubtedly have to
re-create much of the earlier Debs model in this respect.

It can be put down as a fact that people will have to live for many years
under socialism before they consider themselves citizens of the world and
become genuinely internationalist in their habits of thought. A socialist
movement, therefore, if it is to build at all effectively under present
conditions of capitalism, will have to take account of the specific
national characteristics and peculiar organizational problems of each
people. It will have to be indigenous to this country, and its main
attention will have to be riveted on this country. Socialist
internationalism expresses the essential solidarity of labor the world
over, but it does not, cannot, and should not mean that American socialists
are to be more interested in the problems of socialism in Europe or Asia
than they are in the problems of socialism in this country. Nor can it ever
mean that socialists of Europe or Asia can or should run or interfere in
the running of the affairs of the American socialist organization. If the
socialist movement is ever to amount to anything in this country, it will
have to represent a genuine response of American radicalism which throws up
an authentic self-reliant leadership out of its midst, democratically
selected by and responsible to its own membership.

Another crucial aspect of Debs' life work is the popular image of the
movement and of himself that he implanted in the minds of the American
people. He created the image of a fiercely honest and democratic
personality, the incorruptible man of principle, selflessly fighting for
the brotherhood of man. Of course Debs brought incomparable gifts to his
work. His personality was an irresistible one and his oratorical talents
were of the highest. But his basic technique was quite simple. It consisted
in actually being what he pretended to be. It was leadership of a supreme
kind because it was leadership by example. The con-man technique employed
in American advertising may be highly effective in selling soap, but it
doesn't work for selling socialism; because arrayed against socialism are
all the forces of power and wealth in this society who will ferret out any
weaknesses that the movement may possess, and expose them to the pitiless
glare of publicity.

Of course, not everybody by a long shot succumbed to Debs' appeal.
Capitalism in the United States has mighty powerful roots, and has spread
its philosophy far and wide. Some considered Debs a sentimental Utopian who
was five-hundred years ahead of his time, others thought his heart was
bigger than his head. The cynics declared him a windbag and a charlatan,
the greedy pictured him a dangerous fanatic. But even in these worldly-wise
criticisms or partisan attacks one detected that socialism was accepted as
part of the American scene, even though it was, in the opinion of the
critics, a mistaken part.

DEBS grasped what an all-national struggle for socialism entails, all the
better as his understanding derived not primarily from an intellectualistic
process, but was half-intuitive. We can draw the measure of his
achievement, and the sureness of his feel for the right approach and tactic
by contrasting his struggle with the popular image that Communism created
several decades later-an image of craftiness, subtle maneuvers, ruthless
efficiency and power politics. Communist radicalism accomplished many grand
things in its heyday, but it got lost in the game of opportunist
adroitness, and in the end outsmarted itself. For the sake of a number of
short-term victories and ephemeral accretions of strength, it often
sacrificed its integrity and good name, and when the final reckoning came,
it discovered that it had been the loser in the transaction.

In the light of our experiences since 1946, a lot of Debs' naiveté doesn't
strike us as being so naive any longer. His "Victorian Socialism" had much
beauty, much truth, much effectiveness. Naturally, we should not try to
impart to it what it does not possess, or derive out of it answers to
problems that it is unable to give. Debs' leadership represented in a
historical sense a makeshift arrangement to arouse the country with the
revolutionary socialist message while maintaining leadership of a chaotic
mass movement of social protest whose main impulse was reformist-welfare
statist, not revolutionary. The America of Debs' day is gone beyond recall.
It will never come back. And any future socialist leader will have to deal
with the new realities of a nuclear world. There are no ready-made answers,
or handy solutions to all practical problems and difficulties that exist
today and that will arise tomorrow. But Debs left a heritage which,
critically understood, can still be of inestimable worth in properly
orienting the present generation of radicals.

We are not among those who think that the dog days that have befallen the
radical movement are mainly due to the mistakes or sins of the Communist
leadership. We understand very well that unprecedented prosperity coupled
with ferocious repression produced a diabolical combination that decimated
the Left to its lowest point in modern times. But when a man is stripped of
his wealth or worldly position, he is compelled to fall back on his own
inner resources, and his survival and comeback depend on how substantial
those resources are. Similarly, the radical movement today has to fall back
on its historical understanding, its idealism and the basic moral capital
that it has been able to create in its more affluent days. And here, it is
the heritage of Debs that serves best, and will come into its own as the
Left regroups itself, and launches -when the objective conditions are
opportune-a new crusade for socialism.

Louis Proyect
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