Eugene Debs: A Graphic Biography is a Masterpiece for the Ages

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Art by Noah Van Sciver/Fair Use

Last week I wrote a review of Radical America Komiks, a one-off specialty issue of the New Left journal that labor historian Paul Buhle helped create and Gilbert Shelton edited in the waning golden days of Students for a Democratic Society. Not even 12 hours later I received his newest collaborative comics art title, Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography, written by Buhle, Steve Max, and Dave Nance and illustrated by Noah Van Sciver, that jumps backward over 120 years to narrate the life of not just that most famous of Socialist politicians but the entire American Left since the end of the Civil War. This is a handsome volume, prepared with obvious reverence by Verso Books, and should not be missed.

I have been reading comics for about 25 years now, ever since I learned how to look at the Sunday morning funny pages and understand sequential art. I have taken in the full range of material. It is one of the few genres that I genuinely understand with a critical thinking framework that I feel comfortable resting my laurels upon (even despite the fact it might also be why I am still single).

First, it merits mention what this book is not. It is not in-depth history of the Socialist Party, which one can find with the 2015 volume by Jack Ross, nor is it a detailed profile of the titular personage found in the classic Ray Ginger biography The Bending Cross.

Soviet iconography of their saints/Public Domain

I hesitate to characterize it as a hagiography because such fare, pumped out en masse by the Soviet presses, left a bad taste for so many in the course of the last century. And it is not strictly a children’s storybook biography that a parent uses to introduce Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. to a new generation.

I think this is instead a new expression of something else, the legend of a great political figure whose example has remained inspirational for decades despite a Cold War that did so much to discredit his cause. Unlike Lenin, Trotsky, Che, Mao, Castro, or most recently Hugo Chavez, Debs has withstood the test of time. He remains a viable hero for all Americans and his example still awes many. The speech offered to the court upon his sentencing for public opposition to the barbarism of World War I is poetic in the way that King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address sound within the annals of American public address. His campaign for the Oval Office from a jail cell elicits solidarity and respect even though none now live who actually were able to cast a ballot in that election. Debs has gone from the realm of common political actors into a Valhalla that few others have in the past century.

Public Domain

Buhle tells me in correspondence “I was following the model of [my earlier] Wobblies [volume] that I came up with more or less spontaneously, thinking ‘what else does the reader need to know?’ and also, very much, thinking of the SOCIALIST young reader more than the generic young reader… Is it going to be used for internal education or not?” Clearly the point is to create an accessible political education and strategy manual using the Debs legend.

The book follows his eventful career and his martyrdom in the name of justice, starting with his days as a railway unionist until his final stint in jail did serious harm to his health. Those who are familiar with the history of the American Left take in a broad vista, provided via the artwork of Van Sciver, whereupon a host of legendary players make an appearance in a pageant of meaningful episodes that continue to reverberate across the decades.

The book was supported in production by the Democratic Socialists of America Fund and so it does have a clear political inclination. Debs was an anti-imperialist and sacrificed much for that belief. How would he have responded to the events in Venezuela that are being caused by American imperialism? His opinions about the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America during the Spanish-American War in the 1890s were vociferous and publicized widely. The behavior of the social democratic parties of the Global North in the past several weeks have been particularly contrary to the Debsian spirit and those who claim to be his heirs need to take heed of that contradiction.

I also admit that I find the accounting for the role of racial politics within the wider Socialist Party a topic in need of greater elaboration precisely because the issue informs continuing debates within both DSA and the wider progressive movement today, most recently on display with the caustically sectarian writings of Adolph Reed, Jr. In October 1961, a time period covered by this book, after the Khrushchev Secret Speech about Stalin and the “cult of personality” had landed a terminal death blow on the membership rolls that Joseph McCarthy had never been capable of, W.E.B. Du Bois, intellectual godfather of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, joined the Communist Party USA as opposed to the Socialists, who were trying at that point to rebuild themselves under the leadership of Norman Thomas, Irving Howe, Michael Harrington, A. Philip Randolph, and several other reputable postwar activists. His membership application letter is one of the most useful primary source accounts of the Debs-era Socialists’ shortcomings. “I joined the Socialist Party in 1911. I knew nothing of practical Socialist politics and in the campaign on 1912 I found myself unwilling to vote for the Socialist ticket, but advised Negroes to vote for Wilson. This was contrary to Socialist Party rules and consequently I resigned from the Socialist Party… I attacked the Socialists for trying to segregate Southern Negro members; I praised the racial attitudes of the Communists, but opposed their tactics in the case of the Scottsboro Boys and their advocacy of a Negro state,” he wrote.

Even though Debs considered John Brown a personal hero, opposed Jim Crow, and refused to speak in segregated venues, the Socialist Party still made a space for unabashed racists that ran for office under the Socialist banner. For instance, in 1912, Kate Richards O’Hare, who ran for Congress multiple times, published an article titled ‘N***er Equality’ in the Socialist periodical The National Ripsaw. She proclaimed “But you ask what is the solution of the race question? There can be but one. Segregation.” I don’t begrudge the authors for leaving O’Hare out, there’s only so much space to be allocated, but her legacy needs to be given acknowledgement today in progressive political circles and understood as one contending with the legacy of Du Bois. Furthermore, in the name of honesty, this is not a simplistic duality. For instance, while the Communists were silent on the issue of Japanese internment, Norman Thomas launched a vocal public opposition to that travesty of justice.

The mistake of Debs and the wider Socialist movement across the Northern world was their misunderstanding of capitalism’s versatility and adaptability. It was their wayward cousin Lenin who realized in 1917 that revolution was going to come not in the highly-developed core of the capitalist world but instead at the peripheral colonial and underdeveloped societies, places where the racist monied elites had no interest in bribing the workers and peasants with state-sponsored safety net programs like public education and old age pensions. It was in the Global South before and after World War II that socialism, either descended from Bolshevism (China, Vietnam, Laos, multiple African countries, Cuba) or the Debsian variety (India, Dominican Republic, Allende’s Chile, and now the Pink Tide Bolivarian countries), was actually given a laboratory for experiment.

By contrast, in America, those who claimed his mantle instead faded into the larger collection of progressives held captive by the Democratic Party, the graveyard of social movements that, ironically, has been the initiators of crackdowns on the Left more often than Republicans. The difference between American Communism and its antecedent, the Socialist Party, came into stark relief in the 1920s when Lenin, Radek, and several other Soviet leaders specifically instructed their American Communist contemporaries to place a clear emphasis on the African American cause, along with imperialism, and their oppression by racialized capitalism. While there were significant flaws and mistakes made by the CPUSA later, that was not one of them and understanding what the Stalin-led Communist movement got right and why is important for all radicals today.

This book is a fantastic catalyst for such efforts and the creators deserve the highest praises for their work.

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