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E.R. Frank

A Flaming Revolutionist

(28 June 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 26, 28 June 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“Everybody wants to get into the act,” says Jimmy Durante, the radio comedian. Everybody nowadays wants to claim Gene Debs as their own. Stalinists; Social Democrats, FDR liberals, the venal time-servers, the career-grubbers and general all-around scoundrels – all have become ardent admirers of the great socialist agitator.

They are like the crooked businessman, who lies and cheats and gouges and abuses people all day long; there isn’t a good thing he can say for himself. But at least he’d like to claim some honorable forebears for his own.

The thing started a year ago when the publishers issued a monstrosity called Adversary in the House by Irving Stone. An insult to the memory of a great rebel – if there ever was one. Stone makes the axis of his book an alleged conflict between Debs and Katherine Metzel, his wife, who according to the author, was hostile to the socialist cause. Even worse than this cheap Hollywood scenario, Debs emerges in the book as a kind of Christian do-gooder, who would be like a fish out of water on the picket lines, but could fit in perfectly as a fellow delegate with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt on a UN discussion panel of an International Health Commission. This for Gene Debs, the intrepid fighter of a hundred class battles, who never gave an inch to the philistines, whose ardor never cooled, who entered Atlanta prison at the age of 63, as he said, “a flaming revolutionist.”

The Norman Thomas crowd, who continue, out of old habits and inertia to call themselves “socialists,” have now decided to put in their spurious claim for Gene Debs’ memory by helping issue the recent book of his writings and speeches, which George Breitman reviewed for The Militant on May 31. Characteristic of this crew, sailing under a flag not their own, and by which they often seem slightly embarrassed, they got a big-name historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, to write the introduction to this work. What does it matter that Schlesinger is an officer of the Americans for Democratic Action, a typical career-grubbing FDR liberal?

Schlesinger has a little difficulty deciding just what Debs did accomplish by all his street-corner speeches. But he finally comes up with the gem that Debs’ work was after all not wasted because “Those years of education forced on the people ... saved this country from civil war in the depths of depression and gave Franklin D. Roosevelt ... the understanding public and trained workers for the immediate job he had on taking over.” If Debs didn’t accomplish a hell of a lot himself, he at least paved the way for the New Deal! That’s the Norman Thomas Socialist Party “tribute” to Debs.

With all this renewed interest in Debs, the Stalinists figured they had better stake their claim. International Publishers got busy and just issued a booklet, Gene Debs: Story of a Fighting American, by Morais and Cahn, which is now being run serially in the Daily Worker. It’s pointless trying to review this new biography at length. A typical Stalinist hack job. Everything the Stalinists touch comes out the same way – robot-like, lifeless, synthetic. Even when they repeat some worthwhile idea or genuine thought, it has, out of their mouths, all the indecency of a drunkard giving a lecture on sobriety.

There is nothing unexpected or surprising in this. How can hacks, whose spines have been caved in by an impersonal machine, who live by the lie and grovel before power, write about Debs, the rebel with the unquenchable flame and the great heart? It cannot be done.

You don’t have to read very many of Debs’ articles or speeches to quickly realize that Debs was indeed a man of great feeling, great sentiment, great nobility of character. He could talk of mother, of love, of a comrade’s handclasp, he could recite the poetry of Victor Hugo and ever James Russell Lowell – and with him it always rang true.

But don’t get the false idea that Debs was just a good-natured, slightly naive slob simply spouting soap box speeches for the brotherhood of man, as his latter day “disciples” would have us believe. Debs knew exactly what he was .about. I am making no attempt here to write the story of the great socialist orator, agitator and campaigner, whose revolutionary instincts were always true, who was always on the right side of the fight in every big question and dispute That story still remains to be written – as one day it will be – for the example and inspiration of all revolutionists, living and to come.

Debs understood to a “T” his role in the movement and in life. And he played it out deliberately and surely, with consummate skill and passionate devotion. He not only spread the gospel from one end of the country to the other, and made socialism American and a power to be reckoned with and feared, but he kept the flame of revolution alive in the Socialist Party and in his period of activity, held at arm’s length the growing tribe of lawyers, political climbers and middle class reformers and preachers. Time and again his voice rang out in denunciation and warning against the Hillquits, Bergers and their ilk, who wanted to convert tile Socialist movement into a harmless reform society and a club for up-and-coming labor careerists. “I am willing to be charged with almost anything,” he ironically remarked in his Canton speech, “rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety.”

Nobody has any right to claim Debs but revolutionary socialists. And that’s us – and nobody but us.

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