Debs's Visit Challenged in Historical Interpretation
By David A. Corbin and Roger Fagge
Appraising Roger Fagge's
I was pleased to read Dr. Fagge's contribution to the debate on Debs and his proper role in American labor and radical history.
I was actually hoping, however, that my own articles on Debs's role in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike would spur additional studies on the activities of SPA officials on the local level in other situations as I considered the facts quite obvious and clear cut in this case. After reading Fagge's article, I still do. I see no reason to change my interpretation.
Most of Fagge's article is merely a recapitulation of the facts as I laid out in articles in West Virginia History and the Journal of American History. With the exception of some aggregate voting statistics (to which I will return), Fagge presents no new facts or other evidence to challenge my conclusions. He simply tries to put a different editorial slant on this event.
Let me take his attempted revision point by editorial point:
Fagge: "The existing interpretation of Eugene V. Debs's eventful visit to West Virginia is wrong to suggest that Debs `betrayed' the West Virginia coal miners."
The facts are: in April 1913, the miners had been on strike for more than a year; they had endured a cold winter in tents and on meager rations. They had suffered humiliation, brutality and death at the hands of the Baldwin-Felts mine guards. They had been machined gunned by an armor plated train, illegally court martialed and illegally imprisoned by Governor H. D. Hatfield. When the miners were on the verge of winning this monumental labor dispute, Governor Hatfield muscled his way in, ordered them to abandon the strike and dictated the conditions under which they would return to work. Miners who opposed these dictates were, under the governor's orders, illegally deported from the state. Two labor newspapers that opposed the governor's dictates were, under the governor's orders, illegally suppressed as the militia destroyed their presses and arrested and imprisoned their editors. The local UMWA officials who were supposed to be representing the best interests of the miners were working in cahoots with the governor to break the strike.
Eugene V. Debs came into West Virginia and reported that the governor was doing a good job! Fagge maintains that Debs did a good job! I am confused!
This alone constituted a "betrayal" of the cause and interests of the rank and file miners! But Debs did not let it stop there.
In a fruitless effort to defend his report, Debs lied about the contents of the report.
When his prevarications were exposed, Debs lied about the motivations of his critics. He charged that his West Virginia critics were not Socialists but members of the IWW who were opposed to the contract simply because it was a contract, not because it was a bad one that would have spelled defeat for the miners.
The miners clearly were not about to accept that worthless contract. That is why the governor called a convention of selected miners to ratify (actually "rubberstamp") his dictated contract terms rather than submit the contract to a rank-and-file vote. That is why the governor deported dissidents from the state. Most importantly, that is why the miners eventually rejected that contract, renewed their strike, and forced the coal companies to grant all of their original demands.
Fagge: "[Debs] had no choice but to work with the UMWA [officials]."
Fagge maintains that Debs's efforts did not constitute a "betrayal" because "cooperating with the UMWA was the only realistic alternative." This reminds me of President Lyndon Johnson's rejoinder to his Vietnam War critics: "I'm the only president you've got." With this reasoning, Fagge would have supported the corruption and tyranny of Tony Boyle because there was no "realistic alternative" to the UMWA. Fortunately, the rank and file did not accept this reasoning in 1969 as they revolted, and eventually Miners for Democracy emerged and so did Jock Yablonski and Arnold Miller.
There were alternatives to Debs in 1913. Debs could have worked with the rank and file miners to help them get a better contract. In the summer of 1913, lead by Frank Keeney, the miners renewed the strike and gained a better contract, despite the opposition of the district officials. Contrary to Fagge's contention, this strike did indeed "invalidate Debs's approach to this situation." In renewing the strike, the miners were rejecting Hatfield -- who Debs had praised. They were rejecting Hatfield's dictates -- which Debs had upheld. And the miners were rejecting the local union officials -- with whom Debs was working. Fagge may try to explain this away all he wants, but that, dear reader, is invalidation.
Debs also could have worked with the rank and file miners to help them oust their corrupt and conservative union officials and to get local officers who would truly represent their best interests. A few years later, in 1916, the rank and file miners again revolted against and ousted the union officials who had worked with Hatfield and had supported his governor's worthless contract -- the one that Debs had praised. This time, Debs supported the miners' democratic effort. In a letter to a Charleston labor paper, Debs confessed to his past sins as he acknowledged that he had once supported these union leaders. He now realized, Debs explained, that these officials "have been hand in glove with the operators and the capitalist politicians" for their "own selfish interests." "The revolting miners," he explained 3 years too late, "represent true unionism and are bound to triumph over the miserable labor politicians."
Fagge does not mention that letter. Nor does he mention that before being ordered into West Virginia and being ordered to work with the local union officials, Debs had denounced Hatfield and his anti-labor activities. In a national socialist publication, he had called Hatfield "the handy man of the coal barons" who had taken extreme efforts "to defeat the strike."
Fagge: "Corbin's argument relies upon a false estimation of the influence of the Socialist party in the coalfields."
"The argument rests upon a false interpretation of the state wide strength of the Socialist movement."
"This thesis seems even more flawed when compared with the voting patterns of coal miners on European countries, where Social Democrats or Labor parties often received majority votes."
Fagge's effort to dismiss Debs's blundering in West Virginia as insignificant because the socialist movement in West Virginia was insignificant is likewise confusing. If all this was insignificant, why are we even discussing it? If Debs and other SPA officials were incapable of working with their local affiliates, and with the rank-and-file workers, it is highly significant, and does help to explain why the SPA collapsed.
Fagge makes his point about the insignificance of the socialist movement in West Virginia at the time by citing the aggregate voting statistics, which he maintains were low, especially in comparison to the socialist vote in European countries. He then launches into a condescending lecture about what constitutes class consciousness and class behavior -- a lecture that is as annoying as it is patronizing.
This is not the time or place, and neither were my articles, to get into a discussion about the concepts of class behavior and what constitutes a viable socialist movement. But I will point out that, Fagge to the contrary, voting patterns alone do not a socialist movement make. Fagge is correct to maintain that the socialist vote in West Virginia was small when compared to Europe's, but those same European workers, instead of uniting to lose their chains, marched right into World War I and slaughtered their working class brothers in an international bloodbath.
I don't give a damn how they voted. Their actions spoke far louder. As E. P. Thompson reasoned, class is a "relationship," not a "thing." It is "defined by men as they lived their own history, and in the end, this is the only definition."
Clearly, something was happening in southern West Virginia at this stage. Less than a decade later, these same miners would be engaging in the largest labor uprising in American history, the "Armed March on Logan," and, as I show in Life, Work, and Rebellion, this was an uprising that was decades in formation. What happened during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike helped determine the course that would lead to the Armed March.
Maybe the miners would have moved away from Socialism and pursued an independent course peculiar to southern West Virginia without Debs ever having set foot in the state. Personally, I think they would have done just that -- that the labor movement in southern West Virginia would have developed along the paths it did, the path that I detail in Life, Work, and Rebellion.
At the time of the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike, the miners were searching for identity, for an alternative to the way of life and work in southern West Virginia -- a way of life that they hated and sought top overthrow. By 1912-13, Socialism was providing an alternative to more and more of them, when Debs entered the picture. One cannot, by any means, rule out what happened during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike. This was such an important period in West Virginia labor history. Although Fagge is right in pointing out that in absolute terms the socialist vote remained low, there was a 300 percent increase -- the largest increase in socialist votes for any state in the nation in 1912, the peak year of socialism in American history. By 1912, three important and influential socialist newspapers had been established in the state, the Huntington Socialist and Labor Star, the Charleston Labor Argus and the Wheeling Majority.
Most importantly, by 1912, the rank-and-file leaders of the southern West Virginia miners, including Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney, L. C. Rodgers, Brant Scott, and "Peg Leg" Dwyer had joined the Socialist party, but all of them had dropped out of the Party immediately after the Debs's visit. And it would be these leaders who lead the southern West Virginia miners in the March on Logan. Maybe it was a coincidence that all of them dropped out at the same time, and they did so shortly after Debs's visit. Maybe not.
Fagge: "The reasons for the rise or fall of socialism are extremely complex. . . . To argue that this one visit and its repercussions played a major role in sabotaging a successful socialist movement is therefore a mistake."
This is a cheap shot that verges on intellectual dishonesty, and I personally resent it. I am surprised and disappointed that the editors of West Virginia History or your readers did not catch this and insist that it either be taken out or reworded. I would never offer such a simplistic explanation for an important historical happening like the failure of socialism in America.
In my article in the Journal of American History, I asked historians "to view and, possible reevaluate Debs and SPA in terms of their grass roots policies and actions." I then carefully state: "External sociological factors were certainly crucial in inhibiting the party's growth, not only in southern West Virginia coal fields, but throughout the country." I then point out that internal conflicts with the party itself, as other historians argue, certainly contributed to the collapse. And then, at this point, I explain: "Nevertheless, historians cannot ignore the party's internal failures and the strategy of its leaders who often framed party tactics without any regard to the wants and needs of local socialists and, consequently, proved incapable of working beneficially and successfully with its local affiliates and the rank-and-file workers."
Let me finish this response by pointing out that this rebuttal, as well as the original article, was difficult to write. Debs was and still is one if my heroes. The whole West Virginia episode may have been out of character for Debs. I hope so. Debs, from what we know for the most part, was a gentle, well meaning person who stood for what is good in American society, and seemed to have stood for what is best for American workers. And, as I pointed out on another occasion, his rhetoric was beautiful and seductive.
But this incident may well have been typical of Debs and other SPA officials inability to deal with their local affiliates and with rank-and-file leaders. Did the reality match the rhetoric?
It is also clear that in this case, Debs botched it badly. Maybe it was because he got caught in the middle of a complex situation while trying to operate within the constraints of the NEC's orders and this may have been an exceptional situation. On the other hand, this may have been typical of Debs and other socialist officials (like national political figures today) who become caught up in the elitist world of national politics that they are no longer sensitive to local workers.
At any rate, I see no reason to alter my interpretation of these events or my conclusions.
A Reply of Sorts to David Corbin
When I wrote my re-appraisal of Eugene Debs' eventful visit to West Virginia, I tried to offer an honest factual and scholarly case for what I believed was a serious misinterpretation of the evidence. Regrettably, David Corbin's reply does not do me the same justice, rapidly descending into polemic and personal abuse. For example, am I really to take seriously the bizarre suggestion that my paper somehow makes me a de facto supporter of Tony Boyle and, it would seem, Lyndon Johnson? Similarly what am I to make of Corbin's confusing bluster about my supposed accusation on the "failure" (his word) of American socialism in general, when my paper quite clearly and specifically talks only about the socialist movement in West Virginia? I could go on, of course, but I don't believe Corbin's comments really merit a reply in print. When scholarly debate turns into polemic, it usually distorts more than it reveals, and I think the West Virginia miners and Eugene V. Debs deserve much, much better than that.
West Virginia History Journal
West Virginia History Center