If one glances at the scoreboard of articles typed up, it doesn’t look like I put in my hours this week. I actually did. The year 1897 was a huge moment in the public eye for Gene Debs — 1898 feels almost silent by comparison. Why the difference?
Debs was in the news constantly in 1897. At the start of the year, he boldly and loudly declared himself a socialist, announcing to all and sundry that he was finished forever with the People’s Party. That was news. Then he spent nearly two months touring the West in support of the strike of the Colorado hard rock miners — and that was news. Then he held his regularly scheduled convention of the American Railway Union and switched up the organizational name and focus to the Social Democracy of America, complete with a sensational scheme to colonize and take over the government of an unnamed Western state. That was also news. Then he went East to Pennsylvania and West Virginia to agitate in support of the strike of coal miners, earning yet another judicial injunction for his efforts — and that, too, was news.
Debs was in the paper with astonishing regularity. Busy, busy, busy…
But then comes 1898 and things get quiet. Why?
• • • • •
The biographies and history books won’t help us to figure this out. A cache of revealing Debs letters for 1898 simply do not exist. The biographers, of necessity, all pretty much fake their way through the years 1898 to 1900, hemming and hawing and subtly sliding ahead to the better documented years after the formation of the Socialist Party of America in 1901. There is absolutely nothing in the way of Debs correspondence for 1898 to provide grist for the historian’s mill and so the historians did not mill.
Tell ya what though, there’s a new resource available in 2018 that wasn’t even a thing back when Salvatore and Constantine and Brommel and the others were writing their books. The website Newspapers.com now has damned near 350 million pages of digitized newspapers hooked up to a killer search engine (and they are adding more and more every week). It is now possible to do something that was never possible before — to search a significant fraction of the newspapers of the country, not just a couple big papers from big cities, and to thereby figure out exactly what Gene Debs was doing in the “silent year” of 1898.
• • • • •
Unlike 1897, Debs’ every doing was not newsworthy, but there is enough local coverage to draw lines from A to B to C. The year 1897 ended with a Canadian organizing trip — apparently he sought to make inroads for the Social Democracy of America north of the border, with speeches in St. Thomas, London, Brantford, Hamilton, and Toronto, Ontario during one week of December. Then he seems to have gone home for Christmas, a road warrior who had been living from a suitcase for most of the year finally found his own bed.
After New Year’s 1898 Debs did the rational thing, hitting the road again but moving South, where the weather was relatively warm. He apparently spent about six weeks in the dead of winter touring Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana for the SDA before cutting back home through Kansas. Local coverage of these speeches was extremely spotty and on top of that Newspapers.com in its 2018 iteration misses most of these. But we at least know that’s where he was.
The SDA wasn’t just a political party trying to get off the ground, however. It was a dual organization, equally dedicated to demonstrating socialism by example through the formation of socialist colonies to promote socialist industry — with a view to socialist migration to a relatively unpopulated Western state such as Washington, where the influx of enthusiastic newcomers could win political control of the state.
That was the plan and it really wasn’t that far-fetched, at least on paper. The Governor of the state, John R. Rogers, was himself a member of the People’s Party, and he welcomed the effort.
Unfortunately, the two journalists and one construction engineer in charge of the SDA’s largely independent Colonization Commission were unequal to the task. Their eyes were “too big for their bellies,” as my old man used to say about gluttonous children: they became distracted with a series of grandiose crackpot schemes. A massive project constructing 75 miles of train tracks for the city of Nashville funded by government bonds… A multi-million dollar deal for 400,000 acres of land in Tennessee, to be underwritten by capitalists selling bonds backed by the value of the property… A tour of Georgia because somebody said there might be a good place for a colony there… A gold mine in Colorado, the 5% interest bearing bonds needed to make the deal possible to be financed by the metal (hopefully) to be mined in the near future….
The Colonization Commission of the SDA was, pardon my french, an absolute shit-show. By the time they refocused on the original plan, establishing a colony in Washington state with a view to taking over the state government, as the friendly rival Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth was already doing, it was already too late. The organization had split, enthusiasm had waned, and what little money had been raised for the effort had already been spent.
The SDA colonists reincorporated and changed their name to The Cooperative Brotherhood and played with log cabins in rural Washington for a couple years until the money ran out.
• • • • •
The June 1898 convention of the Social Democracy of America was a news story, but not a big one. It was the scene of a split. The political actionists, who favored a European style electoral Socialist Party, were frustrated with the stream of ridiculous schemes of the colonizationists. They claimed that the latter had packed the convention with a dozen hastily constructed new Chicago Local Branches, each with the minimum of five or maybe six members — thereby ensuring a focus on colonization for the organization.
The colonizationists, for their part (for what it’s worth), thought the political actionists were dangerous Marxists intent on violent revolution and sought their own peaceful, evolutionary path to socialism through practical example.
It was a very unpleasant split. Debs did not like unpleasant splits, speaking temperamentally. Throughout his life, whenever the political heat of inner party politics came on, he managed to “get sick” — almost every single time. This was no different. While the others stayed up all night to form a new political party, the Social Democratic Party of America, Debs nodded his assent and went to bed. Debs not only wasn’t the leader of the 1898 split of the SDA — for a time it wasn’t even completely clear that he supported the decision. His brother Theodore was chosen as National Secretary of the SDP — a symbolic gesture if ever there was one. When push came to shove, Debs was not to be found.
Debs did write a few things for the new party press, but his heart was clearly not in the effort. A few platitudes for his friends. Rah rah, team. He basically took the summer off. Was EVD simply exhausted from his nonstop touring for all of 1896 and 1897? Demoralized by the way his “New ARU” not only failed to usher in the Cooperative Commonwealth in America, but rather split to bits upon the rocks of factionalism?
There is not enough information to answer this just now. But one thing is clear: during the summer of 1898 the relentless touring of Gene Debs suddenly stopped.
• • • • •
And here’s a weird little story. In the middle of September Debs made a quick trip to Toronto, where the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen were holding their annual convention. There was no SDP-related reason for him to go there, nor any big strike with organizers seeking his presence, nor was he up on charges for alleged financial malfeasance from his time as Secretary-Treasurer and needing to appear to make an answer, so far as I’m aware. After some bitterness and whispering about nepotism, Debs’s administration of affairs had already been certified clean by the brotherhood.
There was simply no reason for Debs to have been in Toronto at all in September 1898.
Then a few days later there appeared a wire story — apparently a leak to the press, unattributed information. Debs had wanted his old editorial job back or some other paid post with the B of LF, it was intimated. He had not been successful. No soup for you. His old railway brothers and their still prosperous organization had told him to get bent.
Was this news snippet true? Was it a case of imaginative reporting by a newspaper scrawler in need of a juicy story?
Again: there is not enough information to answer this question just now.
• • • • •
With fall in the air and elections around the corner, something unexpected happened: the Social Democratic Party of America began to get hot in Massachusetts. Maybe there was something to this political action idea after all… Debs published a brief notice that party members should get busy with the campaign and hurried off for the Bay state in support of the cause. Night after night throughout the end of October he hammered home the SDP’s message, speaking at Northampton, Holyoke, Worcester, Cambridge, and Boston.
The SDP actually scored some electoral wins, sending L.M. Scates and James F. Carey to the Massachusetts legislature. It was a feather in Debs’s cap — he had done his part.
But then the election was over. What was an unemployed labor agitator to do?
• • • • •
Although he had earlier sworn off lecturing for pay as unseemly, it appears that Debs decided to do exactly that. A tour of twenty, count them, twenty lectures were booked, almost all of which were in the state of Iowa. They were billed as being “strictly non-partisan” and admission was charged. They were not put on under the auspices of any trade union. It was a paid lecturing venture, by every indication.
The banality of the “Labor and Liberty” 1898 Iowa tour is apparent by its schedule:
- Dec. 4. — Des Moines, IA
- Dec. 5. — Marshalltown, IA
- Dec. 6. — Waterloo, IA.
- Dec. 7. — Clifton, IA
- Dec. 8. — Dubuque, IA
- Dec. 9. — Cedar Rapids, IA
- Dec. 10. — Davenport, IA
- Dec. 11. — Burlington, IA
- Dec. 12. — Muscatine, IA
- Dec. 13. — Ottumwa, IA
- Dec. 14. — Creston, IA
- Dec. 15. — Fort Madison, IA
- Dec. 17. — Oskaloosa, IA
- Dec. 18. — Mason City, IA
- Dec. 19. — Eagle Grove, IA
- Dec. 20. — Boone, IA
- Dec. 21. — Council Bluffs, IA
- Dec. 22. — Omaha, NE
- Dec. 23. — Sioux City, IA
- Dec. 24. — Fort Dodge, IA
Here’s the bad part for Debs: his debut paid lecture tour stiffed. Very few small town Iowans paid money to hear the famous (or infamous) labor orator do his thing.
As 1898 came to a close, Eugene V. Debs found himself adrift…
The deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 3 is October 15, 2018. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 21 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.
- “Speech at the First Convention of the Social Democracy of America at Chicago” [excerpt] — June 9, 1898 — 574 words
- “‘The More I Think of the Outcome’ : Excerpt from a Letter to G.A. Hoehn” — July 9, 1898 — 108 words
- “The Future” — July 16, 1898 — 409 words
- “The Social Democratic Party and Labor Day” — Sept. 3, 1898 — 917 words
- “To Our Comrades!” — Sept. 24, 1898 — 330 words
- “Social Democracy” — Oct. 1, 1898 — 1,514 words.
- “An End to War — A Start to Militarism” — circa Nov. 15, 1898 — 1,866 words
Total Words this week: 5,718 ******************* Total Words to date: 65,714
There appears to be far less extant Debs material for 1898 than there is for 1897. I will continue to work on the year one more week — by way of comparison, it took me three weeks going full out to finish 1897.
I spent a great deal of time typing up background material this week, including N. Lermond on the history of the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth, Cyrus Field Willard’s report of the Colonization Commission to the 1898 Convention of the Social Democracy of America, key BCC activist G.E. Pelton’s December 1898 article declaring that the colony movement in Washington was in danger due to dwindling enthusiasm, the constitution of the Social Democratic Party of America, declaration of principles of the SDP, and like fare.
★ Well, this one doesn’t have anything to do with Debs or the Gilded Age or the Progressive Era, but it does entertain me — a newly released paperback version of the 2015 edited volume that I did along with Pennsylvania history professor Paul LeBlanc. The title is The “American Exceptionalism” of Jay Lovestone and His Comrades, 1929-1940: Dissident Marxism in the US, Vol. 1.
Don’t blame me for that title, I didn’t do it.
This book is the very prolific Dr. LeBlanc’s baby — his concept was a series of five volumes exploring the ideas of five “dissident Marxist” (i.e., non CPUSA) political parties through their core documents and party press. As there are essentially zero academic experts on the Lovestoneites these days; and as I had very decent coverage of the group up on my www.marxisthistory.org website, with more documents already typed up and ready to rumble; and as I had rare primary source material in my collection as well as a decade’s worth of experience transcribing documents for print; etc., Paul made my acquaintance and we ended up doing this book.
It was a real learning experience for me and I’m thankful for having done it — even though I’d grade the effort D-plus and difficult to dance to… Paul had massive book-creating experience and connections in the left wing publishing world, allowing me to ride along and learn how things work.
Would I be doing this series of Debs books if I had never done this one? Probably not. Would I have been smart enough to deal directly with Haymarket Books instead of fiddle-fritzing around with certain other unnamed publishers whom I am trying hard not to swear about? Not a chance.
If you haven’t figured it out already, this project proved the source of frustration and bitterness on my part with regards to the hardcover edition’s publisher, who ran all the documents through the “house style” meatgrinder, making the Lovestone crew sound like they were from Great Britain — and making me in my One Real Chapter sound not only British, but illiterate. Not that my prose are great, but seriously — that copyediting is horrid. They actually introduced a typo that I wouldn’t have made typing drunk… It was galling. I bailed.
Paul (bless his heart) got it more or less fixed, but they still managed to put fricking British punctuation in the book’s title, for example. (Idiots!) Then they priced the thing at $237, a clever marketing strategy that allowed them to sell approximately 33 copies during the first year. I am not making those numbers up, sadly. And then instead of a projected one year for the paper to appear, it took more like two and a half…
Anyway, now it’s finally out in paper from the Chicago-based Haymarket Books, who are every bit as swell as certain Dutch academic publishers are stupid. The cover price is $36 and Haymarket runs things perpetually at 30% of the cover price through their website and also throws in free shipping on orders over $25 — so for $25.20 you can have this 700 page monstrosity in your mailbox. That’s good value if radical esoterica appeals.
And now, finally, I can try to chill out.
CLICK HERE to order a copy.