Nearly a century after his death, American trade union and socialist leader Eugene V. Debs will be the subject of a major new publishing initiative. Eugene V. Debs: Selected Works is the working title for a four volume series to be published by Chicago publisher Haymarket Books, one of the leading publishers of socialist books in the United States during the 21st Century.
Heading the project is Tim Davenport, 55, a self-described “grumpy old Left Social Democrat” whose previously served as co-editor of a nearly 700-page compilation of documents produced from 1929 to 1940 by dissident American Communist Jay Lovestone and his political associates, published in 2015 by the Dutch academic publisher Brill.
“I consider Gene Debs to be one of my personal heroes,” Davenport said. “He was a man of even temperament and humane vision that dedicated his life to building a better world through creation of a more democratic and just economic system. Debs never shirked his duty, he stood up against corporate greed and militarism and did his best to build a political movement to halt this country’s slide into financial corruption, exploitation of labor, and war. He was a consistent exponent of human rights, including freedom for the particularly targeted populations of women and black Americans. Debs was not afraid to go toe-to-toe with state power, and he followed the course of his beliefs without hesitation or fear.”
Davenport notes that although there are several short assemblages of Debs writings on the market, only a microscopic fraction of the Indiana socialist’s writings have seen print in recent decades.
“Almost everything is traceable to two sources — a 1908 campaign collection of a few dozen articles and speeches, thinly supplemented by a 1948 expanded edition,” Davenport said. “There has never been anything remotely resembling a scientific accumulation of his work, outside of the outstanding three volume selection of letters assembled in the 1990s by Bob Constantine. Between articles that Gene Debs wrote and speeches that he delivered which were reported at least in part in a verbatim fashion, there are somewhat more than 4,000 items in the world — not touching a single letter. Of these, barely more than 100 have ever been reprinted. More than 95% of this iceberg remains underwater, hidden from view. It is an honor and a privilege to be in a position to identify and republish the best of this largely unknown material for this and future generations.”
Joining Davenport as co-editor in this privately-funded initiative is David Walters of Pacifica, California, librarian at the Holt Labor Library, a small, private institution in San Francisco with a focus on the literature of trade unionism and left wing activism. In addition, Walters is a member of the Board of Directors of Marxists Internet Archive (MIA) and coordinator of that group’s “Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive,” the largest online assemblage of Debs writings in the world.
The Debs Selected Works project will consist of four volumes, each approximately 700 pages in length, to be released at the rate of one per year beginning in 2018. Volume 1 will be entitled Railway Populist, 1877-1896 and will include republication for the first time of a healthy selection of articles prepared by Debs during the decade he served as editor of Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine.
“Debs was a well-read and insightful commentator on the American labor and political situation,” Davenport said. “While he started out as a conservative advocate of sobriety and duty to one’s employers, over time he evolved into a rather entertaining critic of the particularly noxious economic monopolies that marred the American landscape during the 1880s and 1890s. He gradually grew disaffected with the way that unified corporate power bullied and dominated disunited craft groups like the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and emerged as a pioneering advocate of labor federation and later industrial unionism.”
The first volume of the Debs Selected Works will deal largely with the relations between organized capital and organized labor during the decade of the 1890s, culminating with the great 1894 Pullman Strike which tangled the American transportation system and ultimately led to Debs’ jailing for six months without trial on charges of “contempt of court.”
“Debs’ role in the Pullman boycott as head of the American Railway Union (ARU) is well known,” said Davenport. “What remains largely unknown are efforts before the Pullman strike to build a federation of the various semi-rival railway brotherhoods for joint action for better wages and conditions. Nor is his activism for the People’s Party in after his six month jail term in 1895 until the loss by William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896 appreciated by more than a handful of scholars. This book will make those pages of history readily accessible as Debs tells the story in his own provocative and inspirational style.”
Davenport notes that the Railway Populist, 1877-1896 volume will include approximately 150 Debs articles, speeches, and open letters and will be organized chronologically. Almost all will be pieces republished for the first time.
A website has been launched to provide weekly updates on the development of the Debs Project, to be found at https://debsproject.org/
Davenport invites contact by interested scholars and individuals, with his email address to be found at the website mentioned above.