What do you see? (18-20)


This was another week in which much of my attention was pulled away from Volume 3: 1897-1904 by the need to get finished with the corrected manuscript for Volume 1: 1877-1892.

Last week I chose to spend most of what limited time that remained on this blog, this week I invested my truncated free time putting the pedal to the metal typing up documents. So my apologies if this is sparse and rambling.

Fortunately, the 750-page manuscript for the first book has now been corrected for punctuation and capitalization styled. A few new footnotes were written and my cludgy prose made a little less so in the introduction.

Hopefully I will be back to my normal pace of work from here on out. I’m not entirely sure if it will  be six or seven more weeks to get done with the document transcription phase for Volume 3 — one of those.

•          •          •          •          •

Was Debs a “Left Wing” Socialist?

inkblotSocialists have always fought with one another over strategy and tactics. It’s a dubious tradition that dates all the way back to the origin of international socialism in America back in the middle 1870s. The Socialist Labor Party split over the question in the early 1880s, with a right wing believing in fielding candidates in elections and educating working class voters to take control through the ballot box facing off against a revolutionary socialist left that believed in armed struggle, agitation to fan the flames of popular discontent, and a physical seizure of power when the time was ripe.

There were those who believed in primary attention should be directed to the election process, others who thought running candidates was fruitless and that the educational mission was paramount, still others who thought that trade unions held the key and that the combination and coordination of strike efforts held the most promise in winning a change.

Many thought that radicalizing the existing trade union movement, conservative and costly bureaucracy and all, was the most promising avenue for activity. Many others believed the “old” unions were a lost cause and sought to build a new parallel explicitly socialist trade union movement as an absolute necessity. Some sought to convert those already in union movement to the socialist mission, others believed that organizing the unorganized and enlarging the movement in that way was an essential first step.

There were socialists who thought that religion was a diversion and that organized religion was a bulwark of the conservative capitalist state. Others saw the socialist movement as the fulfillment of the Christian ethic of brotherhood, equality, and the need to provide care and sustenance to all.

And so on and so forth. it’s a bit of a wonder that anybody ever agreed totally with anyone about anything.

debs-inkportraitGene Debs was a unique figure in the American radical movement in that he was attractive to many different sorts of socialists. His devoted supporters ran the gamut from Christian socialists to electoral activists to gritty trade unionists to “give ’em hell” revolutionary-minded types anticipating a forthcoming cataclysm.

He was a sort of human glue that held all these disparate elements together in a single movement.

Debs seemed to offer a little something to everyone, regardless of their own socialist predictions and preferences. People tended to see in him what they wanted to see. Debs appealed to Christian socialist pacifists because he was a Christian socialist and a pacifist. He appealed to election activists because he was an election activist. He appealed to trade union oriented socialists because he was a trade union organizer. He was supported by fire-breathing socialist millennialists because he was a fire-breathing orator preaching about the coming socialist millennium.

Eugene V. Debs was a human Rorschach test.

•          •          •          •          •

This is not to say, however, that Debs was each of these things in equal measures at all times.


Edition of the Communist Manifesto published in 1901 by Debs Publishing Co. The edition is crazy rare…

In the 1880s he was a Christian paternalist and old school railway brotherhood functionary. He developed trade union feistiness in the early 1890s, and emerged as a radical populist and public figure on the national stage in the last half of that decade.

Debs flirted briefly to utopian socialism in 1897, moved decisively towards political action in 1898, and had fully embraced the notion of class struggle soon after, actually publishing an edition of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels by 1901.

He fell in with the radical miners of the West and came aboard to help found the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905… Then he left them behind, throwing up his hands over their aversion to politics, moving all the way to a harsh anti-syndicalist position in 1912.

Throughout Debs’s life we see a regular shedding of skins and changing of intellectual emphasis. But these perspectives and orientations were never abandoned completely, threads of previous belief remained, with contrasting and occasionally contradictory ideas tugging one against the other, changing as the external situation evolved.

As for the moment with which I am currently concerned, 1903, it appears that in addition to spending time on the road as a paid lecturer, Debs was also a consistent contributor to Victor Berger’s Social Democratic Herald — one of the most electorally-oriented, not to say tepid, of publications. Interestingly, it was at this same time that Debs was giving full throated voice to the doctrine of class struggle, the fundamental idea of Marxism.

So was Debs a “left wing” socialist, as many commentators would have it?

Yes. No. Sometimes. Maybe.

It all depends on what one chooses to see.

•          •          •          •          •

Debs Papers source deficiencies, redux.

I managed to dig out the last couple of reels of Debs papers microfilm I had yet to examine and spun them out, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything from the 1902 to 1904 period that had been chronologically misfiled.

No such luck.

There seems to be a pretty huge hole for 1903 and 1904, meaning the additions to the database of about 165 items for those two years are apt to be few.

It appears that the years 1905 to 1914 have fairly heavy amounts of material that was scrapbooked or saved by the Debs brothers. The situation appears worse after the outbreak of World War I, with virtually nothing preserved from the last few years of Debs’s life.

It is what it is, as they say. I’ll do my best with what there is.



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 6 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “The Arbitration Farce” — Jan. 24, 1903 — 2,372 words
  • “Socialism’s Steady Progress” — March 7, 1903 — 1,322 words
  • “Frederic O. MacCartney Belongs to the Living” — June 1, 1903 — 949 words
  • “Labor and the Color Question” [expanded excerpt] — June 20, 1903 — 1,716 words
  • “Class-Conscious Courts” — June 20, 1903 — 1,520 words
  • “You Only Work at the Pleasure of Your Masters”: Speech in Milwaukee [excerpt] — July 19, 1903 — 1,151 words

Word count: 211,058 in the can + 7,500 this week = 218,558 words total.


About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
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