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Gentle rebel: letters of Eugene V. Debs.

J. Robert Constantine, ed., Gentle Rebel: Letters of Eugene V. Debs (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press 1995).

EUGENE VICTOR DEBS remained constantly in the American public eye from the time of his trial for refusing to obey a federal injunction during the Pullman strike of 1894. After six months in Woodstock Jail, Illinois, he turned to Socialism, helped create the Socialist Party of America, and ran as a presidential candidate in every election from 1900 to 1920 except 1916, when he contested a Congressional district in Indiana. He conducted the campaign of 1920 from his cell in the Federal Prison in Atlanta, Georgia, where he had been incarcerated under the war-time Espionage Act of 1918. He was released by President Harding without a pardon on Christmas Day, 1921, after a public campaign on his behalf. Debs died in 1926.

During all these years Debs carried on a correspondence with a diverse group of people. Many were family members (like his brother Theodore, who acted as his secretary), fellow socialists, and personal friends, including writers like James Whitcomb Riley, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg, and Claude Bowers. Others were simply fellow-citizens. Debs' letters show him prepared to give himself unsparingly to the Socialist Party, even to the point of frequently undermining his health. They also reveal an honest and generous man, scrupulously straightforward when he criticized yet scarcely ever betraying a hint of personal grudge. Sinclair Lewis wrote to him in 1926 of a dinner he had attended in which guests referred to Debs as the "one real honest-to-God saint of whom they had ever known." It was a widely held view among socialists and non-socialists alike.

Although Debs' tolerant, humane views undoubtedly account for his reputation as the "Gentle Rebel" of the present volume, or the "Citizen and Socialist" of Nick Salvatore's biography, this image possibly gives a wrong impression of Debs' politics. Among socialists in all countries in the period, it is tempting to see a sharp dichotomy between peaceful "revisionists" and violent "revolutionaries," with Debs safely in the former camp. In fact, the struggle was three-way, with a large group of "orthodox" Marxists between the two extremes, clinging to the idea of a real revolution accomplished by purely democratic, non-violent means. This group included some of the best known names of the international socialist movement, including Karl Kautsky in Germany, Jules Guesde in France, a good section of the Independent Labour Party in Britain, and, in America, Eugene Debs. As Debs wrote to Kautsky, "It is from you, dear Comrade, that I learned some of my earliest and most precious lessons in Socialism. I have since wondered often how anyone, however feeble and benighted mentally, could read your crystal clear Marxian exposition and interpretation without becoming and remaining a socialist." This "democratic revolutionary" position explains Debs' consistent refusal to countenance a broad workingclass party in spite of pleas from the likes of Samuel Jones or Henry Demearst Lloyd. It also accounts for his uneasy relationship with Victor Berger, the Milwaukee Socialist, whom Debs called a typical political boss and whom he suspected of reformist backsliding from real socialism, and of hankering after broadbased labour politics. Debs, of course, regarded Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor as beyond hope and suspected Berger of toadying to both. Instead, Debs anticipated the rise of a pro-socialist industrial unionism that would break the AFL mould. Debs' "democratic revolutionary" position also explains his reconciliatory attitude toward Communism after its split from the Socialist Party. Claiming that his incarceration freed him of any responsibility for the division of the American left in 1919, he held out for unity. Like his counterparts in Europe who tried to form, in Lenin's phrase, a "two and a half" International somewhere between the Second (Reformist) and the Third (Communist), Debs only very reluctantly gave up on Russia. The anarchist Emma Goldman, who condemned the Soviet system in spite of being well-treated in Russia after her deportation from the United States in 1919, probably helped Debs change his mind.

Debs' consistent opposition to broad labour coalitions made his support in 1924 for the Conference for Progressive Political Action, headed by Robert La-Follette, all the more surprising. Some found it completely incomprehensible. Debs, however, explained to one enquirer that the "Socialist Party, enfeebled and decimated by the war, felt justified in casting its lot with the progressive organized workers who had declared their withdrawal from the old capitalist parties." He felt "satisfied that the future [would] vindicate the wisdom of this policy." The turnaround, however, might rather have vindicated many "right-wing" socialists who had argued for the policy earlier. With the Socialist party "as near a corpse as a thing can be and still show signs of life," as Debs remarked to his office manager Bertha Hale White in 1925, he must have wondered. The nearest he came to a confession in his correspondence, however, was his statement to Claude Bowers that, although "fundamental principles" were the same everywhere, "there is a different psychology in every nation, different economic and political conditions, and these have not been wisely reckoned with by socialists or they would be much farther along with the American movement."

All the themes discussed above are well covered in the present volume of Debs' letters, a selection from J. Robert Constantine's exhaustive three volume edition published in 1992. In this new volume, Constantine has replaced the explanatory footnotes with introductory paragraphs. He has also condensed the introductory biographical essay and reduced the number of photographs. The editing remains superb. In the matter of selection, Constantine has decided on a broad sampling from both personal letters and those concerned with public affairs. Scholars might have preferred to devote the one volume edition to the Socialist Party and civic matters, leaving aside the more personal, some of which are less interesting. But the present selection certainly gives a well-rounded account of the man.

W.M. Dick

University of Toronto
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Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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