Eugene V. Debs A Graphic Biography

front cover of book Eugene V. Debs
To be published in Sept. 2019

Paul Buhle, Steve Max, Dave Nance and Noah Van Sciver have produced a new and delightful biography of Eugene Victor Debs, the iconic American socialist, told in a comic book format, although these days, the proper term is graphic book.  For Debs, who created and constantly evolved new approaches to the battle against capital and injustice, approaches that were always peculiarly American, a graphic book is the perfect vehicle to tell his biography.

Eugene Victor Debs is an icon of American Socialism.  The man spoke of an American socialism in an American context in words that still resonate today.   A labor organizer, he was one of the first to insist on industrial unionism.  He was the primary organizer that helped create the Industrial Workers of the World, the legendary IWW.  He was the driving force behind the formation of the Socialist Party.  He supported women’s right to vote and defended their right to birth control.  He was imprisoned for his pacifist speeches in WWI.  

During those troubled years, Debs was an American moral force that is still largely unrecognized.  And this biography presents, graphically, the direct line of succession of that moral force from Eugene Debs to Bernie Sanders.

In 1912, Debs received more votes as a Socialist than any Socialist candidate has since that time.  1912 was the high mark.  The story of how that happened and why it faltered needs to be understood.  And this graphic novel is a short and excellent portrayal of the story.

Most histories of Debs’ life start out with his working life, toiling on the railroad as a fireman, shoveling coal into a furnace.  And, indeed, artist Noah Van Sciver has some exquisite panels of Debs that depict his time working on the railroad.

But Paul Buhle begins his script, his graphic biography, with an earlier and more hopeful start in which Debs’ French immigrant parents name him after two French humanist novelists—Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo.  It turned out to be exceptionally appropriate.  Eugene Victor Debs had the ability to write and deliver amazingly stirring and memorable speeches.  Those who heard his speeches say he was as mesmerizing as his namesakes.

Perhaps the most eloquent and endearing and essential element of the Debs story is the end of his long and productive life in which he is imprisoned for speaking out against the stupidity of World War One.  This is, again, the peculiarity of American Socialism.  The European Socialists eagerly jumped  the militaristic nationalist bandwagon, but Debs, the American Socialist, was imprisoned for loud and vocal pacifism and when sentenced gave his impassioned speech, still remembered—“If one person is of the lower class, then I am of the lower class.  If one person is in prison, then I am not free.”

A labor unionist, a socialist, a pacifist, a supporter of women’s right to vote, an advocate of minorities rights, Eugene V. Debs was a towering figure in America.   

This little graphic book is as much the story of American democratic socialism as it is the story of Eugene V. Debs.  In the final section, it follows the Socialist saga from Eugene Debs to Norman Thomas to Michael Harrington to Bernie Sanders.  A direct line of impassioned pleaders for justice and equality.   The Socialist Party that was never successful politically but always pointed the way to the next set of changes. In one panel, Norman Thomas reflects that the New Deal was effectively the platform of the Socialist Party. 

Understanding Eugene Debs story and his approach to an American socialism is vital to understanding the process of change in America.

A graphic novel is an oddly successful way of achieving this.  Debs, shown in his trademark bowtie and his slouching way of walking and his determination to continue the fight in spite of his deteriorating health, is clearly illustrated and clearly sympathetic.  

Debs is not the macho male revolutionary with the correct political strategy.  Debs is the moral force of change. Debs saw wrongs and tried to make them right.  Labor unions, women’s rights, racial equality, peace.  He fought the good fight for decades.

The graphic pictures show the story as only a graphic book can.  Hitting the highlights and trouncing quickly from peak to peak, it tells the story and tells the story effectively.

Since this is also a People’s History in Texas blog cross-post, the Texas connection must be pointed out.  In the last section, where the historical lines are drawn to the present day, one panel depicts the Oleo Strut.  The Oleo Strut was a GI Coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas that offered support to antiwar soldiers.  It was enthusiastically supported by Students for a Democratic Society activists from Austin.  The peaceniks, apparently,  were the sons and daughters of Debs and beautiful descendants of his pacifism in WWI.  

The PHIT documentary THE RAG, an Underground Newspaper talks about the Oleo Strut.

As a final minor note, and of interest only to Texas historians and to People’s History in Texas, it must be pointed out the Wilson’s Postmaster General, the one who denied second class mailing permits to the socialist press, was not Albert Burelson, but Albert Burleson.   Burleson was from San Marcos and a friend of Colonel House.  He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Austin if anyone wants to drop by and say a few words to him.

Publishing Plans

New Journalism Project is collaborating with People’s History in Texas (PHIT) to re-publish two books.  As a new generation of activists take on gentrification and find inspiration in the history of women who organized before they were born, these books will find new audiences.

Clarksville: Whose Community? by Jennifer Sharpe was first published in 1982 and chronicles an important fight against gentrification in a west Austin neighborhood.  Clarksville was founded in 1871 as black freedom town where former slaves reunited with family separated and displaced by slavery.  In the late 70s, this community waged a battle against developers. That story is now relevant as the city of Austin is grappling with gentrification on a massive scale. PHIT and New Journalism Project hope this new book this will contribute to the discussion.

A second project is a booklet originally published in 1979 to accompany the PHIT documentary, “Talkin’ Union.” The film uses oral histories and archival photos to tell the story of Texas women garment workers and pecan shellers who organized successful labor actions in the 30s.  Women in the Texas Workforce: Yesterday and Today, edited by Richard Croxdale and Melissa Hield with an introduction by Glenn Scott, is an important addition to the documentary, relying on research and transcribed interviews. PHIT wants to to make the book more widely available by republishing with the New Journalism Project.Peoples History in Texas (PHIT), a 501(c)(3) organization, was founded in 1975 by five women including a writer, an elementary school teacher, a librarian, and two graduate students.  PHIT brings to life the stories of ordinary people and significant socio-political movements through its research, publishing, and media production. 

The New Journalism Project is a 501(c)(3) Texas nonprofit that publishes The Rag Blog, sponsors Rag Radio, and produces educational and community activities related to alternative progressive journalism. Building upon the success of its first book, Celebrating The Rag, New Journalism Project is expanding its publishing efforts under the imprint of NJP Publishing.

Streetcars

The Austin History Center has a new photographic exhibit on streetcars in Austin. It is a lovely exhibit that presents gorgeous photos of both mule drawn cars and electric cars. Followers of People’s History in Texas should definitely get by to see it before it closes.

One of the interesting aspects of the streetcar period is that it ended in 1940. The rationale for changing from electric streetcars to gasoline buses was unclear. The streetcar company was given a new franchise but only if it converted to gasoline buses. The price from buses was a dime and the price of a streetcar token was a nickel. It was odd.

People’s History in Texas is performing archival research to find out why. There was a famous incident in Los Angeles in which General Motors was accused of buying the electric streetcar company in order to switch from electric streetcars to gasoline buses. Those who have seen the movie Who Killed Roger Rabbit will be familiar with the topic.

Additions to this story will be posted as the archival search continues.

LBJ and Grassroots Federalism: Congressman Bob Poage, Race, and Change in Texas

by Robert H. Duke

Grassroots Federalism is a neatly threaded tale of three interrelated stories. The author slyly notes the comparison of Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bob Pogue—both from Central Texas, both poor, both from political families, and both politically ambitious. One became President of the United States and the other the Chair of the powerful House Agricultural committee. It is also the story of the two towns that these two men represented in Congress. Austin and Waco are separated by a 100 miles, a mere hour and a half on I-35. But the different racial interactions of the two towns were stark and that sense of place affected the development of the two towns, and the political trjectory of their two two representatives. But despite the differences, 40 years of federal programs led to vast change in both cities.

The author weaves this narrative by bouncing between the differences and similarities of the cities, comparing and contrasting the friendship and eventual conflict between the two political titans, and detailing the interworkings of the federal agencies of the National Youth Agency, Model Cities, and federal support of dams.

The differences in the reaction to the racism and federalism of both representative and district, he says, is due to place. LBJ represented the Hill Country and Austin, beacons of liberalism and tolerance, and the home of the Texas German community Pogue represented Waco, famous mostly for its intolerance and bigotry and racial violence.

LBJ was able to adapt when the time came for change. Pogue was not.

But Pogue’s friendship with LBJ led to a funnel of federal money into Waco and that money saved Waco after the devastating tornado of 1953 and the floods of 1955.

The prime thrust of the story, though, is to provide a case study of how the federal government impacted local government. The federal government provided money and permitted local control of that money, but only if advisory committees were set up, advisory committees that ended up changing the racial dynamics of Waco.

A worthy read and a contribution to scholarship.

Richard Croxdale