Book Review: Campaigning for Socialism

Eugene V Debs Reader  William A Pelz (ed), Merlin, London, 2014, £14.95

In the US presidential elections of 1912 and 1920 Eugene Debs got close on a million votes, standing as a Socialist opposed to “the corrupt Republican Party and the corrupt Democratic Party – the gold-dust lackeys of the ruling class.” (Making allowance for limitations to the franchise and increase in population, that would be equivalent to around seven million votes today. Compare the under three million that Nader got in 2000, running on a less radical programme.)

Debs was no theoretician, but he was a superb propagandist, able to condense the arguments for socialism into brief and memorable phrases: “As a rule hogs are only raised where they have good health and grow fat. Any old place will do to raise human beings.”

So it is very welcome that William Pelz, of the Institute of Working Class History in Chicago, has produced this useful anthology of Debs’s articles and speeches. (To see Pelz talking about Debs go to this site)

Lenin famously argued that the working class, by its own efforts, developed only trade union consciousness, but that socialism grew out of theories elaborated by intellectuals. Debs is almost a text-book example of this development. Working as a locomotive foreman, he became deeply involved in trade unionism, and helped to found the American Railroad Union. As he tells in his article “How I Became a Socialist”, “up to this time I had heard but little of Socialism”. But as a result of the 1894 Pullman strike he found himself in Cook County jail in Chicago. Here he tells us, “books and pamphlets and letters from Socialists came by every mail”. (One can see why the Tories have been keen to ban prisoners from receiving books.)

He read Blatchford and Bellamy’s Looking Backward (which provoked Morris’s News From Nowhere), and also Kautsky, who introduced him to Marxist theory. Perhaps not the ideal reading list one might have chosen, but it transformed Debs into a Socialist campaigner and propagandist.

At the same time his trade-union experience had shown Debs that craft unionism was obsolete and needed to be replaced by industrial unionism. This meant in his own occupation “organizing, not the firemen merely, but the brakemen, switchmen, telegraphers, shop men, track hands, all of them in fact”.  But it was also a question as to whether trade unions should simply bargain within the existing order, or seek to overthrow it:

“While the craft unionist still talks about a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, implying that the economic interests of the capitalist and the worker can be harmonized upon a basis of equal justice to both, the Industrial Worker says, “I want all I produce by my labor.”

Debs was thus sympathetic to the Industrial Workers of the World when it was founded in 1905; but he was hostile to sabotage and “direct action”, and preferred to direct his energies to the Socialist Party. He certainly did not share the hostility to women sometimes attributed to syndicalists; he insisted on “the absolute equality of the sexes”.

Likewise he was well ahead of his time in stressing the importance of total opposition to racial discrimination:
“The race question as we come to understand it, resolves itself into a class question. At bottom it is a class question. The capitalist cares no more about the white worker than about the black worker. What he wants is labour power – cheap labour power; he does not care whether it is wrapped up in a white skin or a black skin.”

Syndicalism was also often marked by a distrust of intellectuals in the labour movement. On this question too Debs’s position was clear. He did not believe intellectuals should play a leading role in the movement. “I believe that as a rule party officials and representatives, and candidates for public office, should be chosen from the ranks of the workers. The intellectuals in office should be the exceptions, as they are in the rank and file.”

But he was scathing about any possibility that legitimate caution about intellectuals should spread into anti-intellectualism in the movement:

“The increasing cry …. that only the proletariat is revolutionary and that ‘intellectuals’ are middle class reactionaries is an insult to the movement, many of whose staunchest supporters are of the latter type. Moreover, it would imply by its sneering allusion to the ‘intellectuals’ that the proletariat are a brainless rabble, revelling in their base degeneracy and scorning intellectual enlightenment.”

Debs opposed World War I, and directed his passionate contempt towards its apologists. Notably he condemned the role of the churches in backing the war:

“The army chaplain is one of the interesting by-products of war. He is a shining example of Christian patriotism – praying for war, shouting for war, thirsting for blood and “ministering” to the soldier boy with his legs shot off, being careful always to keep his own legs out of the shrapnel zone.

“How many army chaplains were killed in the late world war? There was an army of them, but if any had their eyes shot out I have not heard of them.”

Not surprisingly Debs welcomed the Russian Revolution, declaring: “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it.”

What impresses above all in Debs is not just the insights, but the passion and sheer hatred with which those insights are expressed.  He dismissed with contempt the claim that capitalists have “superior brains”:

“It is true that they have the brains that indicates the cunning of the fox, the wolf, but as for brains denoting real intelligence and the measure of intellectual capacity they are the most woefully ignorant people on earth. Give me a hundred capitalists and let me ask them a dozen simple questions about the history of their own country and I will prove to you that they are as ignorant and unlettered as any you may find in the so-called lower class.”

If a shadow cabinet member used such language today they would be promptly sacked. But all the same Debs was right.

This review was written by Ian Birchall and originally published in the London Socialist History Group Newsletter #54 (January 2015). It is posted here with LSHG’s kind permission.