Some biographies are great histories. Others are lively and interesting discussions of the subject’s life. Very few are both. Even fewer are not only both of the above, but also inspirational. Ray Ginger’s biography of Eugene Debs, The Bending Cross, is one of those few. At once a history of the early
The Debs we are introduced to in the early pages of Ginger’s work is a man whose commitment to social justice is already apparent. Not yet a socialist in name, Debs the railway worker applies his understanding of the Christ’s social justice message to the plight of his fellow workers and finds the situation wanting. Knowing almost by instinct that it would be foolish to expect the men who own the railroads to improve the lives of their workers, Debs joins one of the railway brotherhoods and almost immediately begins pushing the mission of the organization away from cooperation with ownership and towards organizing workers to demand a fair wage and a life with dignity. After it becomes apparent to Debs and other like minded railway workers that the leadership of the brotherhoods have too much to lose in confronting the ownership, Debs and his cohorts form another more radical association. This pattern continues throughout Debs organizing life. As he observes the unyielding pursuit of profits over human existence by corporate capitalism and its heartless justification for the desolation and despair it causes, Debs searches for a more fundamental understanding of the nature of the economic system he finds himself in. Naturally, this quest leads him to Marxism.
Yet, even his greatest enemies find it impossible to pigeonhole Debs and caricature him as some kind of crazed revolutionist. Indeed, some are even forced to acknowledge the man’s kindness and purity of motivation–something one would be hard put to attribute to any of the robber barons no matter how great their philanthropy. Ginger attributes Debs’ incredible popularity to this purity of motivation and, without mawkishness, creates an image of an almost mythical human being in his text. Debs would probably not have appreciated the romanticized version of his life, but biographies are not written for the subject, but for those who live other lives.
The romanticized nature of Ginger’s biography does not detract from the story being told nor does it lessen the history lesson within its pages. One reason for this is that Debs’ life was a life that reads like a movie script. His presence and involvement in some of history’s most exciting moments insured that any telling of his life would be, at the least, captivating on each and every page. The difference with The Bending Cross is that it goes beyond a good story and becomes an inspirational tale that everyone and anyone hoping to improve the world they live in by ending capitalism should read. In fact, not only should they read it, but they should keep it nearby in order to reach for it during those moments when that struggle seems hopeless.
During his life, Debs was many things–a railway worker, a clerk, a labor organizer and speaker, and a journalist. In fact, journalism was the only constant in the list of roles he played. The subject of another biography recently completed was also a journalist by trade. Unlike Debs, who wrote primarily for labor and socialist periodicals, Pham Xuan An was a correspondent for the mainstream Time magazine during the
Larry Berman, a political science professor at the
Equally interesting to today’s reader is the contextual information Berman provides throughout the book. As the United States edges closer to the fifth year of its war in Iraq, the descriptions of US tactics during the war in Vietnam make it clear that not only was the US involvement in Vietnam a combination of imperial hubris and human pride, it was very much a policy and not a mistake. As one analyzes US actions in that war forty years ago in light of the current one, it’s quite apparent that many of the strategies that failed in
In the same manner that the
Eugene Debs is perhaps the most famous of these two men (or infamous depending on your feelings about capitalism and war) for his unbending opposition to imperial war, no matter what the rationales provided by the war makers and those who profit from it. From the so-called liberation of