Eugene Debs: A New Film Does Him Proud

by Michael Hirsch

Debs+Photo

A charismatic and militant labor leader, five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate, class-war prisoner jailed by the ostensibly liberal Woodrow Wilson administration for opposing U.S entry into World War 1 and a fiery, moral force in a corrupted era — Eugene Victor Debs was among the greatest orators this nation ever produced, yet no recording of his voice survives. And what a speaker he was! John Swinton, the late 19th century New York labor writer who as a young man heard Lincoln speak, likened Debs to Lincoln not just in intellect but in character. And unlike Lincoln, Debs could speak cogently to crowds for hours without notes.

Even foreign-language speakers were won over, with many testifying that Debs’ mannerisms alone were magnetic, his fist smacking his palm as he offered such injunctions as “Progress is born out of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.”

To know Debs and his impact on American working-class politics as it emerged to confront the mammon of industrial and finance capital, we are ably served by his voluminous writings and by a series of fine, highly readable biographies by such writers as Ray Ginger, Nick Salvatore and Ernest Freeberg, the latter author focusing on Debs’ later years as “democracy’s prisoner.” Add to those a plethora of histories of the old Socialist Party. Ira Kipnis’s “The American Socialist Movement: 1897-1912”  is likely the best, though it ends prematurely with a massive vote for Debs in the presidential race and party membership peaking at 118,000 — all before the government’s full-bore assault on the left and Debs’ jailing.

Fortunately two strong movies are also available that help underscore  Debs’ impact, including a 1979 documentary by Bernie Sanders and a new feature: American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, by filmmaker Yale Strom, currently artist-in-residence and professor in the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University, and narrated by actor Amy Madigan. Debs’ legacy is especially well served by the new production, which takes advantage not only of scholarly accounts of Debs’ life and American socialist movement he rose out of but judiciously utilized the extensive Debs archives at Michigan State University-Lansing, the Debs Foundation collection in Terra Haute, Indiana and others.

So Who was Debs?

Born in 1855 and named by his immigrant parents after the French novelists Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo, Debs was slow to embrace radical politics in his hometown of Terra Haute, where the capitalists were still of the small, local variety and social mobility was not impossible for working people. The metastasizing of monopoly capital in the area through the intrusion and consolidation of finance and industry would come soon enough. The future socialist even married a rich man’s daughter and was a Democratic state office holder, if briefly.

The film makes clear that Debs, a strong railroad worker-unionist, didn’t start out as a socialist; that transposition came after the Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland broke the American Railway Union strike under the mendacious claim that strikers were sabotaging mail delivery. Debs, it’s president, went into prison a militant trade unionist and, courtesy of the federal evisceration of his union and a prison reading of Marx’s Capital, came out six months later a committed revolutionary, though of a discernible American type. He would, for example, define socialism as “Christianity in action.” For Debs’ religiously inclined listeners, greed and the pursuit of personal wealth were presented as sin, the riches of capitalists balefully gained.

That appeal to traditional religion as a bulwark of cooperation — the essence of socialism — sparked interest in Debs’ “Red Special” whistle-stop electoral campaign in areas such as Oklahoma, where, the film argues, small-farmer militancy combined with ingrained Evangelical Christianity. The strategy was less successful in the South, where we can intuit that racial division was a prime factor mitigating unified class action.

But whether addressing farmers, workers or urban intellectuals at such venues as New York’s Cooper Union, Debs was in his element.

It was the Socialist Party’s opposition to World War I that led to its undoing and to a five-year prison sentence for Debs. His crime: violating a Sedition Act provision against urging young men to dodge the draft.

On July 16, 1918, a year after the act’s passage, Debs was in Canton, Ohio to address the Ohio Socialist Party’s state convention and visit comrades jailed for speaking out against the war. He knew he was at risk of arrest himself. “I must be exceedingly careful,” he told the convention delegates, “prudent as to what I say. I may not be able to say all I think, but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in prison than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets. They may put those boys in jail — and some of the rest of us in jail — but they cannot put the Socialist movement in jail.”

True to form, government stenographers in the crowd noted his comments selectively. Prison followed, based on the alleged danger that his remarks, those of a known “agitator,” posed to troop recruitment — this just months before the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

A red scare followed the war. Foreign radicals were rounded up and deported. Native-born leftists of any stripe were imprisoned.

Running for president on the Socialist ticket in 1920 while incarcerated, Debs garnered just under 1 million votes. Even as late as 1921, on the eve of his leaving office, Wilson still refused to pardon Debs. It was the GOP’s Harding who granted Debs and 23 others a Christmas commutation.

The Irony of a Humble Man Lionized

It seems odd that a movement valorizing collective action and the social context of everyday life over invidious egotism and careerist grasping would also need to anoint leaders and elevate heroes. As Debs himself put it 1906 to an audience of workers in Detroit: “I would not be a Moses to lead you into the Promised Land, because if I could lead you into it, someone else could lead you out of it. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.”

Even allowing for the early glint of its religious trappings, his was an American variant of Marx’s insistence on working-class self-activity, that the emancipation of working people was not the provenance of elites no matter how well-intentioned but a task largely of the workers alone. Debs’ often quoted statement to his trial judge at his conviction for violating the Sedition Act makes much the same point.

“Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal class I am of it; while there is a soul in prison I am not free.”

Debs’ heroes were not great men and women but ordinary people who showed uncommon bravery and solidarity with one another.

A story Debs told, though not included in the film, concerns a black-balled former railroad worker in desperate straits who proudly tells Debs that he never scabbed, knowing the principled stance meant exorcism from a decent-paying job. “If I’d have been like some of them, I’d had a passenger train years ago and been saved lots of grief,” he tells Debs. “But I’d rather be a broken-down old umbrella fixer without a friend than to be a scab and worth a million…. And when I cross the big divide, I can walk up to the bar of judgment and look God in the face without a flicker.”

Debs’ cited the man as the epitome of working-class solidarity.

“There was something peculiarly grand about the scarred old veteran of the industrial battlefield,” Debs wrote in 1913. “His shabbiness was all on the outside, and he seemed transfigured to me and clad in garments of glory. He loomed before me like a forest monarch the tempests had riven and denuded of its foliage but could not lay low. He had kept the faith and had never scabbed.”

Neither did Debs. See the film.

American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victory Debs opened at New York City’s Cinema Village (Manhattan) on April 27 for one week, and includes a Q and A with the film creator for several performances. Showings are also scheduled for Hudson, NY (April 26-May 13); Los Angeles and Pasadena, (May 4-10); San Diego (May 11-16), Washington, D.C., (May 22), and the Cleveland Museum of Art (June 12-15.)  

This post first appeared in the reader-supported Indypendent and is reposted her with the permission of the author.

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Photo: Eugene Victor Debs speaking to a crowd in Canton, Ohio 1914. Courtesy of First Run Features.

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Report on the Labor Notes Conference

by Guy Miller

“The beating heart of the labor movement.” That’s how the moderator of the Friday evening April 6th plenary session of the 2018 Labor Notes (LN) Conference introduced six West Virginia school teachers. The teachers were fresh from a historic victory in their unauthorized – and unexpected – strike. The same could be said about the conference itself: it represented the beating heart of American labor. The record 3,200 activists who attended the three-day Chicago conference were living, fighting proof of that.

https://rdln.wordpress.com/2018/04/15/the-beating-heart-of-the-labor-movement-report-on-the-2018-labor-notes-conference/

Dolores Huerta – Labor, Feminist activist

Dolores
Join Dolores Delgado Campbell, Sacramento DSA, to discuss the film Dolores.  Here’s how PBS’s Independent Lens describes it: “With intimate and unpresented access, Peter Bratt’s Dolores tells the story of Dolores Huerta. . . . Co-founder of the first farmworkers union with Cesar Chavez, she tirelessly let the fight for racial and labor justice, becoming one of the most defiant feminists of the 20th century.” Delgado Campbell is a Chicana, feminist, labor union activist of 40 years, former co-chair of DSA’s Latino Commission (1983- 2004) and professor emeritus of Women’s History and Chicano History. She worked with Huerta as organizers with the United Farm Workers of America in the 1970s. The film will be shown on PBS TV channels March 27.  Check your local station’s schedule, or watch it online here after March 27. Here’s a review. 

Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, the UFW, and Strategic Racism

(Reposted from 2016)

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Cesar Chavez & Duane Campbell, 1972.

Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.  You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read.  You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.  Cesar Chávez., November 9, 1984.

by Duane Campbell

On March 31, 2018,  eleven states  and numerous cities will hold holidays celebrating  labor and Latino Leader Cesar Chavez. Conferences, marches and celebrations will occur in numerous cities this weekend and particularly in rural farm areas  of the nation.  A recent film Cesar Chavez: An American Hero, starring Michael Peña  as Cesar Chavez and Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta presents important parts of this story.

Meanwhile,  in March of 2015  hundreds of farmworkers have walked off their jobs in Baja California, Mexico, from the agricultural fields just a few miles from the U.S. border, fields developed to provide a harvest to the U.S. markets.  Farm labor strikes and violence against strikers remains a volatile issue.  Farm workers deserve dignity, respect, and fair wages.  Achieving these goals will require a union.

The current UFW leadership, as well as former UFW leaders and former DSA Honorary Chairs Eliseo Medina and Dolores Huerta  are recognized leaders in the ongoing efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in the nation.

On immigration, UFW President Arturo Rodriquez says, “We urge Republicans to abandon their political games that hurt millions of hard-working, taxpaying immigrants and their families, and help us finish the job by passing legislation such as the comprehensive reform bill that was approved by the Senate on a bipartisan vote in June 2013,” Rodriguez said.  Similar compromise proposals, negotiated by the UFW and the nation’s major agricultural employer associations, have passed the U.S. Senate multiple times over the last decade. The same proposal has won majority support in the House of Representatives, even though House GOP leaders have refused to permit a vote on the measure. “The UFW will not rest until the President’s deferred relief is enacted and a permanent immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, is signed into law.”  http://www.UFW.org

What Chavez and Huerta did accomplish along with Philip Vera Cruz,  Marshall Ganz, LeRoy Chatfield, Gil Padilla, Eliseo Medina and  hundreds of others was to  organize in California the first successful farm worker union against overwhelming odds. Continue reading

Dolores: The Film

Dolores
Join Dolores Delgado Campbell, Sacramento DSA, to discuss the film Dolores.  Here’s how PBS’s Independent Lens describes it: “With intimate and unpresented access, Peter Bratt’s Dolores tells the story of Dolores Huerta. . . . Co-founder of the first farmworkers union with Cesar Chavez, she tirelessly let the fight for racial and labor justice, becoming one of the most defiant feminists of the 20th century.” Delgado Campbell is a Chicana, feminist, labor union activist of 40 years, former co-chair of DSA’s Latino Commission (1983- 2004) and professor emeritus of Women’s History and Chicano History. She worked with Huerta as organizers with the United Farm Workers of America in the 1970s. The film will be shown on PBS TV channels March 27.  Check your local station’s schedule, or watch it online here after March 27. Here’s a review. 

Remembering Martin Luther King and His Roots in the Labor and Socialist Movement

king

By Nathan Newman

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, it’s worth remembering that his legacy was based firmly in the labor and the socialist movements of the 20th century. It takes nothing away from King to highlight how his work built on those movements and his voice was magnified by his association with them.

Martin Luther King Jr. was recruited in Montgomery by a labor organizer, gave his most famous speech at a DC rally funded by labor unions, was bailed out of a Birmingham jail with union dues and would die in Memphis fighting for a union.

E.D. Nixon and Montgomery

Most people know at this point that Rosa Parks was not some random woman sitting down on a bus because she was tired, but was a civil rights activist in the Montgomery community who had become chapter secretary of the local NAACP chapter. Less known to many is Edgar Daniel (“E.D.”) Nixon who was a long-time leader of the NAACP chapter and who in fact launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott and recruited the young Martin Luther King Jr. to help lead the campaign. Continue reading

Call For AFL-CIO to Open AIFLD Files

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

For those people, in particular trade union activists who are following developments in our movement, you should be aware of the resolution passed recently by the Duluth (Minn) Labor Body AFL-CIO. The resolution calls on the AFL-CIO leadership and President Richard Trumka to allow the University of Maryland to open the AFL-CIO’s AIFLD archives.  AIFLD was an AFL-CIO department that was set up in the 1960’s in order to combat and suppress any labor organizations throughout the third world that rejected the pro-business US model. It is well documented that AIFLD, funded heavily by the US government, was infiltrated by the CIA and supported the pro-capitalist US foreign policy.

The UAW’s Victor Reuther was an outspoken critic of this referring to the AFL’s “cloak and dagger” operations and the “indiscriminate whitewashing of the obvious shortcomings in US foreign policy.”*  The CIA through AIFLD and backed by the extreme anti-communism of the cold war and AFL-CIO leadership under George Meany and then Lane Kirkland, resorted to all sorts of coercion and violence to undermine radical and democratic unionism.

Rob McKenzie, a former UAW local president and Ford worker wrote the resolution which reads as follows:

Whereas, workers in Ford Motor’s Mexico City Assembly Plant were involved in a series of labor disputes in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s resisting efforts to bring their wages and benefits down to the level of the new plants on the U.S. border and demanding democratic elections in their union.  Many were kidnapped, beaten, shot and fired.  One died from wounds received in the plant.

Whereas, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), a now defunct arm of the AFL-CIO was reputedly involved in these events and the AFL-CIO has sent the old records from this group to the University of Maryland, the official repository for AFL-CIO records.

Whereas, the University of Maryland has requested permission for a year to open new AIFLD records and archive them for researchers and has not received approval from the National AFL-CIO to do so.

Therefore, be it resolved, That the National AFL-CIO take the action necessary to allow archivists at the University of Maryland to open new American Institute for Free Labor Development records. Continue reading