This marks the beginning of the third year of the Debs project.
By now I have the preparation cycle pretty well figured out, kicking off research the first week of February and getting into final compilation and writing mode around the first of August.
As I write this I am in a weird place with the project — Volume 1 (Building Solidarity on the Tracks, 1877-1892) is still at the printer; Volume 2 (The Rise and Fall of the ARU, 1892-1896) is heading for indexing; Volume 3 (Path to a Socialist Party, 1897-1904) has an introduction that is still being futzed with… Now here I am simultaneously ready to kick off research and article transcription for the fourth volume, tentatively titled Red Union, Red Paper, Red Train, 1905-1910.
It seems a little bit scattered having four 750-page books happening at once, eh?
Does that make it hard to focus?
• • • • •
Gene Debs the Subject of New Documentary Film
I opened up my third research year grudgingly doing a bit of homework. I spent an hour and a half watching a new documentary movie — American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs (Blackstream Films, 2018). Few of you have probably heard of this project; nor had I. I was surprised to recently discover this straight-to-DVD project in the course of my perusing of eBay for rare Debs and Socialist Party fare and the requisite coins were spent to buy a copy.
American Socialist, written and produced by Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz, fortunately proved to be well crafted. The film is clearly inspired by the work of Ken Burns — he of the slow moving pans of static images and the toothsome voice-overs dramatically reading contemporary documents while folksy acoustic instrumental music accompanies in the background. Some money was clearly spent carrying out the project, as it features in-person interviews with a range of well-selected subject experts, including historians Jim Bissett, Richard Schneirov, and Nick Salvatore, economist Richard Wolf, social scientist Frances Fox Piven, and red diaper baby New Yorker journalist Rick Hertzberg.
All of these enlighten the general audience for whom this project is intended, the new generation of American socialists taking inspiration from the 2016 political campaign of certain United States Senator from Vermont, answering the rhetorical question posed by the producers: “Bernie Sanders inspired a generation — but who inspired him?”
As is inevitable when attempting to compress a lifetime into a 90 minute slide show, certain strengths and weaknesses of analysis make themselves felt. The movie whizzes through the first half of Debs’ life — his growing up in Terre Haute (without truly making clear his middle class background), his departure from school at age 14 to work for the railroad (without noting the brevity or his railway career or his simultaneous enrollment in business school), glancing allusion to his career as a Democratic Party politician (omitting mention of his election to the legislature), his marriage to and (overemphasized) emotional estrangement from Katherine Metzel.
Then, voilá, we have the American Railway Union and the Pullman Strike.
It’s all very tidy and telescoped and a bit superficial, racing about in an effort to check many boxes, speaking of much while truly explaining little. Identification of Debs as a well-salaried magazine editor and railway brotherhood functionary for more than a decade? Nada.
The voice work is quite good for most of the characters of the historical drama — Big Bill Haywood, Clarence Darrow, Seymour Stedman, Helen Keller, Upton Sinclair, and so on — with the notable and deeply disappointing exception of the treatment accorded to Debs himself. The uncredited, uncharismatic portrayal of Debs’ voice is colorless and plodding — devoid of his midwestern twang and deep orator’s resonance, both of which were documented traits that he possessed. Did the producer save this plum for himself? I certainly hope not — it was a terrible decision and a failure if he did.
The tepid presentation of Debs stands in painful contrast to the colorful voice work done for others and leaves the viewer wondering just what all the fuss was about — how a man could have been able to captivate crowds running into the thousands for two hours at a time despite being so…………. bland. The answer is this: Debs’s voice wasn’t bland.
Looking on the bright side: at least Brooklyn Bernie Sanders wasn’t tapped by Strom and Schwartz for a reprise of the Debs vocal role which he delivered with such comically bad effect in his 1979 spoken word album.
Several potentially controversial aspects of the Debs story are not dodged in the least, including his lengthy love affair with Mabel Curry, his brief support of the Bolshevik Revolution, and his fleeting flirtation with the American communist movement in the months after his 1922 prison release.
Other aspects of the political story are overdrawn or wrong, including an over-association of Debs with the Industrial Workers of the World (to the extent of ignoring his endorsement of the anti-syndicalist reaction in the Socialist Party in 1913), a complete failure to mention or explain his 1916 Congressional run, as well as howling errors such as calling defrocked Socialist Congressman Victor L. Berger a pro-WWI “jingoist,” pronouncing the name of Debs’ French-Alsatian father Jean as “JEEN,” and misspelling and mispronouncing the name of Attorney General Harry Daugherty as “Daughtery.” Such errors should not happen in a documentary of this scale.
Additional abdominal pain and eye-rolling resulted from the repeated use of anachronistic photos, including those of Debs from late in life to illustrate activities undertaken in the middle of life, as well as film of non-germane industrial and crowd scenes and badly faked crowd noise. When they do get it really right, using actual images from the 1918 Canton speech in connection with their presentation of the event, the impact is lessened because similar things had already been cheesily “simulated” several times before.
The film, as it necessarily must be, is a quick gloss of a life, attempting to briefly tie the Debs life story to the later struggles of Martin Luther King, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the concern for the poor of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis). There is, in short, an undeniable contemporary-activist rather than scholarly overtone to the work, despite the enlistment of able scholars to help tell the tale.
I observe that the anarchist publisher AK Press is credited for some of the design work on the box. I additionally observe that the name of producer “Blackstream Films” bears a vaguely anarchist flavor. To this political state of affairs may be assigned the over-association of Debs with the anarchosyndicalist IWW, I speculate.
In reality, Debs was in and out of the IWW in rapid succession as it quickly eschewed electoral politics in favor of mass action. Thereafter, Debs would be friendly to the IWW’s activist members but never again of the body, so to speak. Debs would be fundamentally committed to political-action throughout his entire life, brief rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding. This divergence is badly blurred by the makers and presents the single greatest flaw of the film.
Be that as it may, the end result here proves to be………….. okay. Those who know a little about Debs will doubtlessly learn some; thought those who already know some won’t probably learn much. The still photographs are interesting and well-presented, the production values quite good indeed. One could certainly do worse.
★ ★ ½
American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs.
Blackstream Films/First Run Features. DVD. 97 minutes. $24.95
• • • • •
What I Did During My Winter Vacation
Those who know me well are aware that I own and read a lot of microfilm. I’m not exactly sure, but the Vegas over/under would be something like 1,000 reels — although bear in mind that a lot of it is garbage, like US News and World Report and Time magazine and the Congressional Record. But I do have a lot of really good and quite rare and valuable microfilm of socialist, anarchist, and communist newspapers.
Over the last decade or so, veritable old 1950s-vintage microfilm — lauded as a format stable enough to last for hundreds of years — has been giving way to digitization. The website Newspapers.com, for example, currently has 467.2 million pages of newspapers digitized and available for their subscribers to peruse. Moreover, that is just a minor fraction of the pages of newspapers that have survived. There are multiple billions of pages out there from the United States alone.
It is worth mentioning that the digitization of radical newspapers (a specialized subset of newspapers in general) is spotty at best, beyond which is the legitimate issue of whether such material should be locked behind a subscribers-only paywall. Information wants to be free.
In his life’s work to improve the world, my friend Marty Goodman has been digitizing left wing newspapers and magazines for the better part of a decade now. Though he dropped major cash on flattop paper scanning gear, he has for years hemmed and hawed about getting the costly equipment needed for microfilm digitization, paralyzed by the choice of dropping $50,000 for a top-end automated scanning system versus $10,000 for a state of the art non-automated unit.
During the course of his work, Marty made himself familiar with the various film scanners being used at several of the archives and libraries he visits and he passed that information on to me. “An e-ImageData Scan Pro 3000 is what you want,” Marty assured me. He put his money where his mouth is, dropping several thousand dollars to track down a used Scan Pro 2200 and spending extra money to upgrade it to 3000 fidelity. Then, miracle of miracles, a couple weeks after upgrading his machine we spotted a lease return on a Scan Pro 3000 up for sale on eBay — the only one we have ever seen, before or since, I note. I went to the mat to obtain it, spending enough money to have bought a decent used car in the process…
It goes without saying that the last several months I have spent scanning film of old socialist newspapers like a madman, placing an emphasis on the major publications of Debs Volume 3 time period (1897-1904). My consigliere and handler, David Walters, has been putting my output into accessible form on Marxists Internet Archive, where it is available for free download by anyone, any time, anywhere… Nice work by him!
Here are some of the specific papers I have worked on, in case anyone is interested in doing a little reading, research, or writing… Those with a “+” I will be expanding as I move forward…
• American Labor Union Journal (1902-1905)
• America for All (1932) — SPA campaign paper
• Appeal to Reason (1900-1904+)
• Camden Voice of Labor / New Jersey Leader (1915-1920) — badly broken run
• Chicago Workers’ Call / Chicago Socialist (1899-1903+)
• The People [regular] / The Weekly People (1897-1904+)
• The People [dissident] / The Worker (1899-1904+)
• The Railway Times / The Social Democrat (1897-1898)
• Seattle Socialist (1900-1907+) — partially done earlier by someone else
• Social Democratic Herald (1898-1904+)
• Socialist Party Official Bulletin (1904-1913)
• Die Wahrheit (1897-1898+) — Victor Berger’s German weekly
• • • • •
Debs Volume 4 — 1905 to 1910
The period 1905 to 1910 marks Gene Debs’s most fruitful period as a socialist commentator. At the time I begin the Red Union, Red Paper, Red Train volume, my database lists slightly more than 510 Debs items — seemingly about one-third of which were first published in the Appeal to Reason. It was during this period that Debs moved out of his comfortable house in Terre Haute, leaving his wife behind, making the small Southeastern Kansas town of Girard his home and base of operations.
I see nothing on my list of Debs articles written for Victor Berger’s Social Democratic Herald dated after October 1905. This had been Debs’s main journalistic venue of the 1898-1904 period. I speculate that he and Berger broke over Debs’s participation in the Industrial Workers of the World, Berger being a committed “boring from within” kind of guy with respect to the trade union movement.
It will be interesting to see whether Berger and his right hand man, Fred Heath, picked up and reprinted Debs’s articles written for the Appeal the way the Appeal often reprinted earlier material by Debs originally written for the Herald, or whether things were so bitter between the two that Debs was ignored.
This period also marks the launch of two of the three Socialist Party daily newspapers, the New York Call and the Chicago Daily Socialist. Six issues a week instead of one means six times as much scanning work. My newspaper scanning project is about to explode…
Whelp, time to move along to getting that intro to Volume 3 finished up. No time to think about anything too long…
The official deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 4 is October 15, 2019. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 24 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words. And so it begins…
- “The Industrial Union Manifesto” — Jan. 4, 1905 — 1,417 words
Word count: 0 in the can + 1,417 this week = 1,417 words total.
David Walters will be running all of this material up on Marxists Internet Archive in coming days.
To find it, please visit the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive
Here’s a list of the microfilm that I’ve scanned this week, available for free download. There is a short delay between completion of the scanning and its appearance on MIA.
- Appeal to Reason — 1905, 1906
New arrivals for my personal library vaguely related to the Debs project.
- Mark Bevir, The Making of British Socialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. — An emphasis on the Fabian movement and the emergence of the Independent Labour Party, but including discussion of Christian socialism and ethical anarchism. Chapter-length coverage of E. Belfort Bax, H.M. Hyndman, George Bernard Shaw, Sydney Webb.
- Peter J. Frederick, Knights of the Golden Rule: The Intellectual as Christian Social Reformer in the 1890s. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1976. — Biographies of William Deans Howell, Henry Demarest Lloyd, W.D.P. Bliss, B.O. Flower, Vida Scudder, Walter Rauschenbusch, George Herron, Edwin Markham, Ernest Crosby, and Samuel M. Jones as exemplars of a movement.