A long story for a long book… (17-07)

• My friend David Walters saw Debs as a project before I did. From about 2004 to 2009 I was focused on what I still consider the main historical project in my life — a three volume work on a very few MIA-frontpageyears of left wing political history, 1916 to 1924. Yeah, those dates have meaning. My vision is to tie together the story of the attenuation of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist Party’s emergence and growth in the superheated political environment of world war and European revolution. Parts of this story have been narrated  many times; other aspects of the saga have never been told. To my mind it has never really been done right, although the Philip Foner’s 10-volume History of the Labor Movement in the United States at least touches most of the bases, no matter how tendentiously.

Anyway I built a website to house my “reading notes in very long form” (Early American Marxism website) so that I could not only organize and rapidly access my work but also share my findings and I started assembling documents. This effort attracted the notice of a volunteer at one of the established Marxist history websites (Marxists Internet Archive), which started to mirror my content in a more visible manner. I became a fully fledged volunteer there, which is how I met David — one of the two or three de facto coordinators of the site.

As I was typing up full documents for my book project, I paid particular attention to several key individuals whose intellectual trajectory would carry my tale. Always steal from the best: that is how Ted Draper structured his seminal volumes, The Roots of American Communism and American Communism and Soviet Russia — the work I would be following half a century later and effectively replacing. One of these main individuals in my story happened to be Jay Lovestone — whom I ended up spending a year on a while ago as co-pilot of a radical scholar’s book project (eventually published as The “American Exceptionalism” of Jay Lovestone and His Comrades, but see the working title below). Another of these key political actors was Gene Debs.

Lovestone-bookMarxists Internet Archive (MIA) is structured a bit strangely. The basic site is built around the writings of individuals — all of Marx here, all of Lenin there, all of Trotsky on another page, Kautsky on still another, and so forth — all with server access pretty tightly restricted so that only one or two or a very few volunteers have access to any particular index page to keep the works from getting effed up. I was doing my own thing as part of a “US History section” mirroring content of my site but I didn’t want to screw around with MIA’s html pages, which were not a direct replication of my own primitive “frames”-based website but had its own very definite form. David Walters emerged as the adapter of my stuff and my handler of sorts, converting my material to the official MIA site structure.

Along the way he started posting some of my documents in parallel — listing things not only in the largely unvisited “US History section” index pages but also according to the writer of the document in the Preferred MIA Mode. Thus all of the Eugene V. Debs documents that I typed up began to migrate to a single place — an already existing “Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive.” I was churning them out as fast as I came across them for my future History of American Radicalism, 1916-1924 book(s). The rare Debs pieces started to stack up.

Debs is a big figure in the history of American radicalism, respected and revered then and now both by social democrats like myself and small-c communists like David. It’s hard to think of another individual with similar “crossover appeal” between the reformist and revolutionary left. David was interested. I was interested. And it was becoming clear that there was an enormous pool of Debs material out there. It struck him as really weird that nobody had ever done a proper job of putting together Debs’s writings in a coherent way. David started to nudge me a little — why not get serious about gathering everything together and putting out Debs’ Collected Works?

MECW-38Any Marxist can tell you that there’s a world of difference between “Collected Works” and “Selected Works.” The latter generally means one or two or three volumes of the most important stuff, with tons of lesser material and fluff left behind. The former includes literally everything written or spoken by a person and that gets big fast. Lenin’s Polnoe sobraniie sochineniia (“Complete Collected Works”) ran to 55 thick volumes in Russian, with the slightly truncated English edition tipping in at 45. The Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (“Complete Edition”) runs to 44 volumes in German, some of these in multiple parts, and 50 volumes in English. Russian or English collected works have never even been completed for Leon Trotsky, despite the size and fervor of his political following. The subset of Trotsky’s 1929-1940 material alone that is not included in his three foot shelf of freestanding books runs to 14 volumes in English — that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Bear in mind that all of these Collected Works projects took teams of scholars decades to produce. Moral: Collected Works = BIG.

“It is too much for one person to do a Collected Works of Eugene Debs,” I told David. I had no idea how many Debs writings were out there, but I guesstimated several thousand and further extrapolated that this would require a total of 14 or so thick volumes. That’s turned out to be a pretty good estimate — just north of 4,000 works and more like 18 volumes would be my current, smarter guesses. Maybe three people working hard for a decade could get it done, I speculated. And there the idea sat for several years. I turned my attention to Wikipedia, figuring that it was the best use of my time improving the historical coverage on that ubiquitous website. Nevertheless, I continued to type up Debs material for MIA as I bumped into it. The list of Debs works continued to expand. Over time I gradually began to ponder the idea of a Selected Works of limited size. That might be a plausible goal. David was all for it and became the project’s biggest cheerleader.

380809-lovestone-smIn the meantime, I got drafted into working on the Lovestone book mentioned above. The connection was made through my own website, I think, anybody working on Lovestone seriously and running Google searches would have come into contact with my documents at some point, as I had gathered material on the Lovestoneites running into the 1930s. I wound up spending the better part of a year on that project and learned a lot in terms of the publishing process and the dos and don’ts of editing a “documents” book. I can’t emphasize enough that the Lovestone book wasn’t my vision, that I was only the co-pilot. I have finally learned to not hate it, which is a baby step for me, I was pretty discouraged near the end there… I did manage to sneak one chapter into the work that approximated my vision — I’m sure my co-editor Paul LeBlanc hates that particular contribution (it does stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of the book), but he’s a prolific guy who is already about half a dozen projects down the road from Lovestone by now. Maybe the Lovestone will come out in paperback this year and more than a dozen will actually see it, who knows? Anyway, I know what I do and don’t want to do this time around. There is no substitute for experience.

And so there you have it. Not every detail of the Eugene V. Debs: Selected Works project has been decided. We do known that there will be four fat volumes produced, and all signs are that there will be enough additional material generated to constitute the equivalent of four more volumes. Beyond that there will be at least that much more material left behind. I have been greatly aided in my task by two scholars who have come before me, Bob Constantine and Gail Malmgreen, who conducted a project to assemble and microfilm the collected writings and letters of Eugene Debs during the early 1980s, which has meshed with my own independent work marvelously, setting me up to do what I do well. The story of their work a third of a century ago and how I blundered into it remains for another day.

The bottom line is that it is indeed possible for one or two people to get a really good Debs Selected Works together in four years — which is absolutely jamming as these sort of projects go.

We’ll see.

We finally got the contract all squared away. Haymarket promises to do both hardcover and paper, with price of the hardcover capped at $125 (although they expect it to be substantially less). That sounds like an insanely high price, trust me it is not. If they manage to bring this thing in under $100 a volume that will be a big win for libraries and people who take books seriously.

David and I had a nice conference call with a couple of the comrades at Haymarket who will be working on the project on the publishers’ side and everything is good. They’re stoked about the project, which is all we could ever ask.

My girlfriend Laura and I had a nice dinner with John and Sue from Bolerium Books of San Francisco, who were passing through Corvallis. I was actually a Debs seller rather than a buyer this time around, sending the five bound volumes I had collected (out of 14) of Debs-edited Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine back into the world. Between Google Books’ pdfs and backup copies of all the editorials on the Debs Papers microfilm, the hardcopy was an unnecessary duplicate to me. Moreover, it was a run that I was clearly never going to finish given the rarity of the title in the marketplace. Individual issues with covers still hold an appeal and I’ll buy a few more of those as they appear on eBay, but the thick bound volumes were just taking up space. (Besides, I needed to pay the piper for the stack of New Masses volumes I obtained last week.)

During dinner I learned that Sue (a historian) had done extensive work on the Martin Luther King papers project, even taking the lead on a couple of those volumes. Small world.


• “Speech to the Indiana Legislature Renominating Daniel W. Voorhees” — Jan. 1885 speech — 1,250 words

“A Day and Its Duties” — March 1885 article — 1,570 words

• “War Clouds” — June 1885 article — 1,920 words

• “When 100 Years Are Gone” — July 1885 article — 1,750 words

• “Standing Armies” — Aug. 1885 article — 1,360 words

“Dynamite and Legitimate Warfare” — Oct. 1885 article — 1,375 words

• “Employees the Wards of Employers” — April 1886 article — 1,000 words

• “Reformations” — April 1886 article — 1,075 words

• “Overproduction” — April 1886 article — 1,175 words

• “Current Disagreements Between Employers and Employees” — May 1886 article — 2,025 words

• “T.V. Powderly and the Knights of Labor” — May 1886 article — 3,100 words

• “Boycotting” — June 1886 article — 2,400 words

• “The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen“ — July 1886 article — 5,950 words

• “Why Eight Hours for a Day’s Work” — July 1886 article — 2,700 words

• “More Soldiers” — Aug. 1886 article — 1,100 words

• “The Coming Workingman” — July 1895 article — 1,375 words

“Labor Omnia Vincit (Labor Conquers Everything)” — Aug. 1895 article — 980 words

• “Term Half Over” — Aug. 1895 interview — 1,475 words

• “Open Letter to Alfred S. Edwards” — June 1896 letter — 650 words

….Word count = 306,475 words + 32,030 this week = 338,505 words

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