Two decades ago my best friend from college and I went out to lunch in Corvallis. We had both recently turned 35 and that served as the occasion — half of the biblical “three score and ten.” I don’t precisely remember a single word that we said to one another during the 90 minutes or so we were together, but I do remember it as a very reflective discussion that we had at what felt like “halftime” of our lives.
Time had flown. There were good memories and good stories and others that were less happy — but it was somehow deeply satisfying to take accounts and to acknowledge mortality. The relative shortness of the first half of life emphasized the value of time and served as a source of focus for activity in the second.
I now find myself feeling the same sort of mixture of pensiveness and optimism about the Debs Selected Works project today as the calendar ticks down on the arduous document compilation phase for the third of six volumes. Halftime approaches.
• • • • •
Origin of the Debs Project
I didn’t wake up one morning and decide that I wanted to spend five years doing a comprehensive Debs writings project. Far from it — this little obsession is the end product of a long process.
I became a socialist as a freshman or sophomore in high school. I was both a committed Marxist and a democrat — with both a small and a capital D. The two most influential books in this process were The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels and Toward a Democratic Left by Michael Harrington, both of which had a place in the high school library in Eureka, California.
The Soviet Union and its centralized, authoritarian, police state held no attraction for me. Rather, it was a classic case of something that had gone terribly wrong and, as such, was something that needed to be thoroughly investigated and understood.
I studied Economics in college, with a view to getting a PhD and becoming an economics professor. Late in the process, in my Junior year, I discovered that I actually had little faith in the pseudoscience of marginalist economics — nor did I possess any quasi-religious faith in the nineteenth century economic system constructed by Karl Marx. Political science and history were far more fascinating.
I graduated and got married, gave up on life as a Economics professor, and worked towards taking over the family business, an independent shoe store. I bought lots and lots of history books in an effort to compensate for my academic frustrations. It was a fair trade.
A few years later, academia again began to sing its siren song. I re-enrolled at Oregon State University part time, studying Russian language so that I could get into a Russian Area Studies MA program with a view to getting a PhD in Russian History. I was accepted at the University of Washington, which had an in-state tuition reciprocity program with Oregon for programs like Russian Area Studies that did not exist in Oregon’s system of higher education.
I had a miserable time. My wife hated Seattle and I struggled mightily with the exponentially more difficult language classes at UW, taught by unsympathetic Russian emigrants. The history part? That I absolutely aced — I truly was one of the top three Russian history students out of the program of 50 or whatever. Fuck it, I was the best, I can not lie… Remember, I had been buying and frenetically reading books for nearly a decade. But as a linguist — dogshit, baby, dogshit…
I found my brief brush with academia not to my liking and at the end of one year I left UW and came back to Corvallis and life as a retail merchant. When “my music” suddenly came back from the grave I put aside books and started a punk rock record label in 1995. It was a blast, making some of my best friends and having my most fun. I went pedal to the metal releasing vinyl 7″ers and CDs — nearly 100 total releases by 2002. I did wholesale distribution to stack up money to lose making stuff. It was incredibly fun.
Eventually fun became labor and musical tides turned. By 2003 I was ready to move back to scholarly pursuits. I decided that my Russian language skills were not good enough, nor would they ever be good enough, to do archival research in Moscow. Nor did I any longer feel that I had anything much to add to the ongoing revisionist/totalitarian school debate in the wake of the collapse of the USSR — which absolutely debunked the totalitarian school’s model of an unchanging authoritarian police state ruling an atomized population which was incapable of making change.
Instead I decided to move from academic interest in the Soviet 1930s to the American 1920s — the era of the Socialist-Communist split, our own “what went wrong?” and “what happened and why?” historical moment.
I began to envision a multivolume history integrating the various strands of American radical history — socialist, communist, anarchist. For the historic interval to study, I foresaw a beginning with the “preparedness” campaign of 1916 which paved the way for American entry into World War I, continuing through the restructuring of the Communist movement and nearly total disintegration of the Socialist Party at the end of 1924.
History is all about periodization. That’s my period.
• • • • •
I began building a website gathering and presenting documents about this period, a set of “reading notes in extremely long form” which could be marshaled for my writing project and began the long and costly process of building a second library. This continued for the better part of a decade.
Along the way one of the people closely associated with the website Marxists Internet Archive discovered my growing work creating and publishing documents for free download at my own site, Early American Marxism. He persuaded me that MIA was interested in “mirroring” my own work — putting up duplicate copies of the same stuff — and brought me into that fold. This in turn brought me into contact with one of the central figures keeping that project moving forward, David Walters of San Francisco.
A man of broad interests and wide knowledge in the field of radical history and Marxist political theory, David noticed the way that I had been paying particular attention to the unpublished writings of Eugene V. Debs whenever I found them.
“Why don’t you compile the Eugene V. Debs Collected Works?” he queried.
“Too big of a project,” I replied. I thought it would take a team of half a dozen scholars, working full time, about a decade to produce satisfactorily. There would be 15, maybe 20 volumes produced, I guesstimated. There were uncounted hundreds of articles spread out over scores of rare publications, material which needed to be discovered before it could be transcribed — and the transcription job would itself be massive.
Time passed and David repeated his suggestion a number of times; I was, however, more and more certain that the chore was unmanagably massive. But still I continued to type up and publish as many unpublished Debs articles as I could lay hands upon in the course of my work building the Early American Marxism archive, preparatory material for my three volume magnum opus on American Radicalism, 1916-1924.
His repeated suggestion left a mark, however, and I began to toy with the idea of some sort of Debs Selected Works, which made no pretense of completeness but at the same time captured everything essential from the massive number of lost-and-forgotten works by Gene Debs.
• • • • •
The Early American Marxism website was focused on the years 1916-1924, to be sure, but it also includes material dating back to launch of the modern socialist movement in America in the 1870s and forward to the coming of World War II, which essentially erased the chalk board on the early phase of American radicalism.
One of the small radical movements that fascinated me, and which I attempted to document, was the “Communist Party Majority Group” associated with former CPUSA Secretary Jay Lovestone. My small stack of documents online drew the attention of Pennsylvania professor and radical activist Paul LeBlanc, who was launching a multi-volume book project gathering the key public documents of a number of dissident Marxist organizations in the United States.
The number of Lovestone experts in the United States can be counted on the toes of one’s right foot and I seemed to qualify. Paul drafted me into his project as co-editor. It was his baby all the way although I did manage to shoehorn a fairly long historical chapter into the book, putting some new detail about the 1929 CPUSA-Lovestone split into print.
The project occupied the better part of a year, I worked my ass off on it running pamphlets and newspaper columns through OCR and correcting. I learned a great deal about the publishing world in the process, picking up the invaluable skill of counting words to meet a quota and developing a short list of what NOT to do when I did a book project of my own.
The Lovestone was published by a Dutch academic publisher called Brill, who I felt made a mess of things, with the paperback rights assigned to Haymarket Books of Chicago, the publishing arm of a Trotskyist political party called the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The latter is today the largest Marxist publishing house in the United States — by a big margin it would seem. I developed warm feelings about them and when my friend David Walters mentioned that he had connections with their editorial board, I began to seriously consider whether a Debs Selected Works project might be viable and decided to take the leap. David agreed to sign on as co-editor and consigliere.
Forward and onward.
• • • • •
The Big Shipping Error
I already had in my library the printed guide for the Eugene V. Debs papers, a 21-reel set of microfilm produced in the 1980s. I had also previously borrowed several reels of Debs correspondence from this set through interlibrary loan. Once I decided to take on Debs, the first order of business was acquiring the three key reels of the set, gathering Debs’s publications.
It took a long time and several failed efforts to get the microfilm publisher to even talk to us. Commercial microfilm publishers are pretty icky, a first cousin of the publishers of big money academic journals, used to dealing with institutions with thousands of dollars to spend and not ashamed to price things in such a matter as to drain those thousands as quickly as possible. The sale of just three reels of film, even at the pirate-with-an-eyepatch rate of $200 a reel, held no attraction for them.
Ultimately we managed to get somebody to quote us a price for the critical reels however, and we cut them a check and waited.
To my shock and nefarious delight, the Huge Commercial Microfilm Company ended up shipping an entire 21-reel set of Debs papers microfilm! Mum was the word with me, call me a criminal element. Microfilm costs about $15 per reel to duplicate, by the way, so I rationalized my silence with the fact that they still cleared about $275 on the transaction. I can live with myself… The contribution that Huge Commercial Microfilm Company inadvertently made to historical science has proven to be massive, as the three targeted reels that we actually paid for have proven to be more or less useless garbage, while several of the other reels they “tagged on” have been a goldmine of new material not even listed in the guidebook.
I’m not sure what the takeaway is. “Never trust a guidebook?” “Bigger equals Dumber?” “Silence can be golden?” “Crime sometimes pays, just not very well?”
Anyway, thanks, rich guys… Without you, this project would have sucked and I never would have figured it out. Now it is solid, and I know that it is solid…
• • • • •
The first task I set myself, and one thing that I really did right, was creating a database of every known Debs article. I started by listing every article Debs wrote during his 13 year editorship of Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine, to which I added later Debs material converted from the (alphabetical by title) listing in the microfilm guidebook to my chronological listing.
To this I have added every “new discovery” as I made them, while subtracting the multiple listings of the same material I have observed which had found its way into the Constantine & Malmgreen microfilm guidebook. Then I cross-referenced every previously published collection of Debs material, of which there have been more than half a dozen.
If that sounds like a lot of work, you are on target. I spent three solid months just getting this database up to speed. Once it was in place, however, I found myself the proud possessor of the mother of all power tools for a Debs Selected Works project — chronologically listing every article, its first source, and recording a word count and notations as I work down the list. A tiny section of this database, listing some of the material from 1902 and 1903, appears above.
You will see that according to my current count indicates there are exactly 3,928 known Debs items. I expect this ever-changing total to sit right at the 4,000 item mark by the time the smoke clears several years hence.
• • • • •
Three Volumes. No, Four… No, Five… No, Six…
What started as a three volume Debs Selected Works project has steadily expanded as I have grown more familiar with the size and shape of the Debs corpus. Our publisher, Haymarket Books, has been extremely supportive, granting us the fourth, then fifth, and finally sixth volume that we have requested.
It’s actually quite an amazing commitment on their part and they are to be saluted for their fortitude. Six volumes should be just right. As I am now finishing up with the documents phase of volume three in the next few weeks here, halftime approaches!
Never satisfied to leave well enough alone, I’m also starting to suss out the prospect of a supplemental self-published volume putting into print a comprehensive index and the key information from my vast database of Debs titles. I wouldn’t dream of burdening Haymarket with that esoteric monstrosity. More on that at some future date.
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 3 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.
- “‘I Am with You in This’: Speech to the Joint Convention of the Western Federation of Miners and Western Labor Union” — May 31, 1902 — 3,077 words
- “The Social Crusaders” — Feb. 4, 1903 — 1,401 words
- “Labor and Politics: Address Delivered at the Socialist Picnic at Gross’s Park, St. Louis” — Sept. 13, 1903 — 1,993 words
- “The Negro and His Nemesis” — Jan. 1904 — 3,342 words
- Unionism and Socialism — July 1904 — 13,538 words
Word count: 236,221 in the can + 23,736 this week = 259,957 words total.
The above material — along with fairly vast numbers of other Debs speeches and articles — is available for free download via Marxists Internet Archive <www.marxists.org>