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The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs

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Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.—Eugene Debs in 1918 Orator, organizer, self-taught scholar, presidential candidate, and prisoner, Eugene Debs’ lifelong commitment to the fight for a better world is chronicled in this unparalleled biography by historian Ray Ginger. This moving Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.—Eugene Debs in 1918 Orator, organizer, self-taught scholar, presidential candidate, and prisoner, Eugene Debs’ lifelong commitment to the fight for a better world is chronicled in this unparalleled biography by historian Ray Ginger. This moving story presents the definitive account of the life and legacy of the most eloquent spokesperson and leader of the U.S. labor and socialist movements. With a new introduction by Mike Davis.


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Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.—Eugene Debs in 1918 Orator, organizer, self-taught scholar, presidential candidate, and prisoner, Eugene Debs’ lifelong commitment to the fight for a better world is chronicled in this unparalleled biography by historian Ray Ginger. This moving Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.—Eugene Debs in 1918 Orator, organizer, self-taught scholar, presidential candidate, and prisoner, Eugene Debs’ lifelong commitment to the fight for a better world is chronicled in this unparalleled biography by historian Ray Ginger. This moving story presents the definitive account of the life and legacy of the most eloquent spokesperson and leader of the U.S. labor and socialist movements. With a new introduction by Mike Davis.

30 review for The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs

  1. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Arnold

    I was finishing this book right as the Wisconsin union protests were starting up, and the historical allegories gave this book added resonance, both in good ways and in bad. One of the most frequent things you hear from people who don't like unions is that maybe they were valuable once, back in those bad old days, but now that we have weekends and no child labor they're unnecessary. Reading this book both reminds you how difficult it was to get those reforms passed, and how fragile they are. You I was finishing this book right as the Wisconsin union protests were starting up, and the historical allegories gave this book added resonance, both in good ways and in bad. One of the most frequent things you hear from people who don't like unions is that maybe they were valuable once, back in those bad old days, but now that we have weekends and no child labor they're unnecessary. Reading this book both reminds you how difficult it was to get those reforms passed, and how fragile they are. You don't have to be any flavor of Marxist to ponder that, absent any kind of countervailing force, employers have strong incentives to wring the most work out of their employees as they possibly can, due to sheer competition if nothing else. Maybe that doesn't ring many alarm bells in the age of air conditioning and data entry, but back when work was brutal and physical, a 14 hour workday for 6 days a week actually meant something, and it certainly doesn't take much imagination to consider what could happen without institutional pressure keeping those reforms in place. Additionally, by mandating the 40 hour week a lot of people were able to use their newly free time to educate themselves and create the comfortable world we take for granted today; without those reforms it's entirely possible that manual labor would be a much bigger portion of our economy and we'd all be a lot poorer, and that further union-inspired movements to spread prosperity more broadly can have similar benefits for the future. In any case, The Bending Cross is a reprint of what's widely considered to be the definitive biography of Eugene Debs, one of the most singular individuals in American history. Debs went from being a railroad worker to a union leader to the head of the Socialist Party during what was an unbelievably violent time. Whereas Fox News is forced to cobble together clips of people yelling in Wisconsin to generate the illusion of violent leftist protest, back then a strike stood a good chance of being broken with gunfire, and proto-union members frequently got themselves killed. Debs, who comes off as almost impossibly saintlike, was among the most savvy of those labor leaders, with soaring eloquence and a much better judgment of when to strike and when to return, when to negotiate and when to refuse. It seems like he might have gone much farther in life, but for the fact that he was selflessly devoted to helping out his fellow workers no matter the personal cost to himself. One of the most frustrating things to read in the book is the endless repetitions of organize -> coagulate -> bicker -> evaporate that Debs and all the union leaders went through. You remember the Judean People's Front scene in Monty Python's The Life of Brian? It is no joke whatsoever. It boggles the mind how so many different groups devoted to class solidarity and the brotherhood of man could be unable to agree on even the most basic of agenda items, and though Ginger tries to put a brave face on it, it's clear that Debs was trapped and blocked by all this infighting just as much as anyone else. Should Debs favor the Socialist Party? How about the Socialist Labor Party? Why not the Social Democrats? It's madness, and after a while you want to punch these guys in the face for wasting so much time and effort, especially if, like me, you're not a socialist and don't have much interest in these doctrinal disputes over trade unions vs. craft unions vs. industrial unions. I can only imagine how much more successful the American labor movement would have been if there had been fewer leaders, and in fact it's very interesting how much these different factions came to depend on one single man to unite them, even though Debs had little interest in ideology per se. But in addition to his tireless efforts to improve the working life of the average person, Debs also became an important figure in the history of civil liberties. He not only went to jail for his efforts at unionizing and striking, but also for his lonely stance against World War One. It's eye-opening to read how arbitrary and repressive government power was back then, and even now in many ways, and to ponder what it would be like without guys like Debs. These days socialist parties (yes, still plural) are a joke in America, and yet Debs polled nearly a million votes in both 1912 and 1920 - the latter time from jail! After finishing the book it was tough to know if I was more impressed at Debs' character, grateful for his contributions, or fascinated at how far we both have and haven't come as a country. The fact that the entire concept of collective bargaining is being rolled back means that there's still work to be done.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Fredrik deBoer

    When young lefties ask me what they should read (which has happened fairly regularly these past 10 years), I usually tell them: read history, not theory. I would rather they read Ten Days That Shook the World than State and Revolution, because the former will embed ideas in events in a way that will resonate more than pure ideas will. History helps to teach us that no time is particularly special and that we can always take lessons from what came before. History is comforting, because hard times When young lefties ask me what they should read (which has happened fairly regularly these past 10 years), I usually tell them: read history, not theory. I would rather they read Ten Days That Shook the World than State and Revolution, because the former will embed ideas in events in a way that will resonate more than pure ideas will. History helps to teach us that no time is particularly special and that we can always take lessons from what came before. History is comforting, because hard times have come before. History is challenging, because people have risen to the challenge before, so why aren't we? I wish everyone could read this book. Debs is my hero and I am of course biased in that regard. But Debs is such a singular figure, and the story of his times so resonant, that even those who are not socialists could find a lot to learn here. For example, we usually lose; Debs lost again and again and again. And factionalism is inherent to left intellectual space. Debs went to his grave torn between the Socialist party, dying and drifting towards the right, and the communists, whose parties were effectively illegal and who had no real-world influence on events. Throughout it all, what stands out is Debs's integrity and his incredible likeability; again and again, fierce enemies of his political and labor positions can't help but wax on about what a great person he is. And the arc of the story is worthy of Hollywood, with his defiant speech in the Canton courtroom leading to the natural denouement of his declining health and final years. Ginger is an able chronicler, and the text seems strangely modern for a book published in 1949. This is a book to savor, a brilliant look at a singular life and a picture of a period of American history that is typically untaught in schools and ignored in private life. I can't recommend it highly enough.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    Contrary to some of the descriptions, this is not the definitive biography of Eugene Victor Debs. That honor probably belongs to the much more recent work by Salvatore brought out by The University of Illinois Press. It may, however, be the best of them if the point of such a book is to capture the character or spirit of an individual.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    First of all, let me say this is not the copy of the book I own. It has recently been republished by Haymarket Books and I'm not sure why it doesn;t show up anywhere. Anyway, Debs is one of the most important figures of US history. Ginger is a flowery author, but he gives the history of Debs' life, warts and all. Very few warts, I might add. Even better, he draws much on Debs' own powerful words to help tell the story of his life. By the way, Debs is a beautiful writer and his descriptions of hop First of all, let me say this is not the copy of the book I own. It has recently been republished by Haymarket Books and I'm not sure why it doesn;t show up anywhere. Anyway, Debs is one of the most important figures of US history. Ginger is a flowery author, but he gives the history of Debs' life, warts and all. Very few warts, I might add. Even better, he draws much on Debs' own powerful words to help tell the story of his life. By the way, Debs is a beautiful writer and his descriptions of hope and societal change are breathtaking.

  5. 5 out of 5

    David

    This was the definitive biography of Eugene Debs (five-time Socialist Party candidate for president and the leading radical figure in the American labor movement from the 1890s until his death in 1928) until 1982 when Nick Salvatore's Eugene Debs: Citizen And Socialist came out. Both books are compelling, smart, and extremely well done. You cannot really have an understanding of the history of radicalism in general, and the democratic socialist movement in particular, in the United States withou This was the definitive biography of Eugene Debs (five-time Socialist Party candidate for president and the leading radical figure in the American labor movement from the 1890s until his death in 1928) until 1982 when Nick Salvatore's Eugene Debs: Citizen And Socialist came out. Both books are compelling, smart, and extremely well done. You cannot really have an understanding of the history of radicalism in general, and the democratic socialist movement in particular, in the United States without a deep familiarity with Gene Debs. The Bending Cross is a highly readable introduction to the life of this remarkable figure in American political history. At times ornate and a little too tilted towards outright advocacy of its subject, it nevertheless paints a vivid picture of a pre-Stalin, pre-Hitler, pre-Joe McCarthy, pre-Fox News society where exploitation was rampant and both socialists and communists were tolerated if not always openly welcomed. Highly recommended, and required for anyone with a specialized interest in American political history.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Spicy T AKA Mr. Tea

    I read this book in college for an end of term paper and it was stunning. Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party in the USA and 5-time candidate for President of the US, (what I and others would call a closeted anarchist) was a radical labor organizer, socialist, and Industrial Workers of the World founder (among other things) at the turn of the 20th century. This biography gives great atmosphere of the times as well as some of the most memorable moments in US history--and Debs' place in tho I read this book in college for an end of term paper and it was stunning. Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party in the USA and 5-time candidate for President of the US, (what I and others would call a closeted anarchist) was a radical labor organizer, socialist, and Industrial Workers of the World founder (among other things) at the turn of the 20th century. This biography gives great atmosphere of the times as well as some of the most memorable moments in US history--and Debs' place in those events. I highly recommend reading this book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Will

    "Human happiness is never found by a solitary search. No man rises far above the ranks." "Human happiness is never found by a solitary search. No man rises far above the ranks."

  8. 4 out of 5

    Riley

    This is a romantic biography of Eugene Debs, which is fitting, since he was a romantic figure. Debs was a socialist who led the Pullman strike and ran for president several times on a third-party ticket. I honestly didn't know much about him before, beyond some basic things I learned in history class as a kid. Much of the memory of him seems to be positive and nostalgic, but it is important to note that he was controversial and often reviled in his time, sent to federal prison in Georgia for opp This is a romantic biography of Eugene Debs, which is fitting, since he was a romantic figure. Debs was a socialist who led the Pullman strike and ran for president several times on a third-party ticket. I honestly didn't know much about him before, beyond some basic things I learned in history class as a kid. Much of the memory of him seems to be positive and nostalgic, but it is important to note that he was controversial and often reviled in his time, sent to federal prison in Georgia for opposing the blood bath of World War I. As one observer was quoted in the book: "Eugene V. Debs is dead and everybody says he was a good man. He was no better and no worse when he served a sentence in Atlanta."

  9. 5 out of 5

    Gökhan

    Well-organized, absorbing, satisfying... That some readers find the book too long is not at all surprising. However, it is what biographical works are all about, isn't it? All the details, even if they seem trivial, must take their places in the book. Moreover, this is the biography of Eugene Debs, of a man who never given up on his ideals. Well-organized, absorbing, satisfying... That some readers find the book too long is not at all surprising. However, it is what biographical works are all about, isn't it? All the details, even if they seem trivial, must take their places in the book. Moreover, this is the biography of Eugene Debs, of a man who never given up on his ideals.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Individualfrog

    I would be untrue to my principles, rating information above aesthetics, to give this book more than 3 stars; and reading it has coincided with a renewal of my faith in those principles. Recently we've followed the drama of the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, and it put me in the mood to read this book at last. It is, I think, my grandfather's copy; my father's middle name was Eugene, possibly after Debs, and this copy was in our library my whole life, always looking somewhat enigmatic to me, wit I would be untrue to my principles, rating information above aesthetics, to give this book more than 3 stars; and reading it has coincided with a renewal of my faith in those principles. Recently we've followed the drama of the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, and it put me in the mood to read this book at last. It is, I think, my grandfather's copy; my father's middle name was Eugene, possibly after Debs, and this copy was in our library my whole life, always looking somewhat enigmatic to me, with its old-fashioned yet popular-looking dust jacket, an unknown man of unplaceable time and setting on the cover. Through high school, and then through college, I never heard the name Eugene Debs, and I'm not sure where I finally did, but I remember pulling this out of a box of books a few years ago and realizing this book, which if I had had to guess before was a biography of some popular preacher of some revival movement, was actually about a famous labor leader and Socialist candidate for President. There were no other books about (political) radicals amongst my grandfather's collection, that I can remember (my impression, which of course is imaginary because he died long before any of his grandchildren were born, is that my grandmother was really the political one of the family, and he would have preferred to spend all his time reading 19th Century poetry instead of being forced by the circumstances of his times to fight segregation and the 50s Red Scare, and end up blacklisted by a McCarthy-lite state senator) and that seems appropriate, because Debs was for many their only connection to radical politics. Something like Bernie Sanders, he attracted people who saw him as plainspoken, honest, a regular person, nothing like the politicians or theorists who seem superior and disdainful. My grandfather was himself an intellectual, so I think it was a bit different, but I think that personal magnetism of Debs, that saint-who's-also-salt-of-the-earth quality, might explain why we had this book, and not Karl Marx or Rosa Luxemburg or Kropotkin, on our shelves. Speaking of the Amazon union drive, it is a source of continual fascination to me that both left and right, in 21st Century America, see the bare fact of a union even existing as one small step from a complete Bolshevik revolution, but whenever I read history, it seems that unions were frequently, if not usually, conservative institutions. If nothing else, this book is a good way to learn about the various twists and turns of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and to see why and how different strategies and factions arose and became powerful or weak. When Debs started in the Brotherhood of the Locomotive Firemen, it was basically only a mutual insurance company, for a tiny sliver of the railroad industry at large, opposed to strikes or really even collective action of any kind. When Debs helped found the International Workers of the World, it was intended to be "One Big Union" for every worker on the planet, to use militant "economic action" to bring Capital to its knees and establish world-wide anarcho-communism. In between Debs moved steadily up that ladder, from the impotent Brotherhoods to the rather conservative trade-unionism of the AFL to the industrial unionism of the American Railway Union, whose involvement with the doomed Pullman strike sent Debs to prison and to the Socialist Party. But while Debs moved steadily leftward, the institutions he left behind still existed, the Brotherhoods continuing to be reactionary strikebreakers and Samuel Gompers' conservative AFL hostile to industrial unionism and offering tepid, wavering support for various actions and causes, and none at all for socialism; and the AFL style union is what has ended up the default, officially-recognized type of union today. But just as declining religiosity has wrapped all Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, and Baptists into an undifferentiated mass of "Christians", all types of labor organization are now just "unions", represented by not quite, but almost, the most conservative kind, yet thought of, as I say, as being as radical and militant as the most far-left version you can think of. It's a strange situation which makes it hard to explain (donoteat01 probably makes the best attempt that I have seen) that the problem with unions in America, why they annoy people, is not that they're too radical, but too conservative. We could long for a Debs now, who if nothing else was a committed radical and a good communicator, to explain it to the world. The writing of this book is fine, no more or less than that. "It would be an exaggeration to say that it was either critical or judicious," says the inner sleeve of that old-fashioned dust jacket, with rather startling candor. It's certainly never as interesting as some biographies I have read, but then, I think Debs is in fact a pretty difficult subject for a biographer. Debs' life was not one of rip-roaring adventure, like some revolutionaries. FDR, Robert Moses, Huey Long, three men whose biographies I have read and enjoyed, achieved power through some manner of ruthlessness and cunning, and actually accomplished things, which gives something to write about; Debs had no ruthless or cunning bone in his body, achieved no power beyond his own organizations (and very little, it seems to me, even within them) and accomplished nothing except inspiring people, and that is very difficult to write about. It comes across, to use the worst writing-advice cliche of them all, as telling, not showing: we have no way to experience the magnetism and charisma of the man except through the testimony of others. His many campaigns for President make somewhat tedious reading. Ginger is refreshingly critical of Debs's failure to quite grasp the unique difficulties of racism, despite his repudiation of it and awareness that segregation and whites-only unions weakened the labor movement considerably; but this is one of the only things he is critical of -- and that's perhaps because he is trying to get across the enormous personal attractiveness Debs had for almost everyone he ever met. To me, the constant reiteration that Debs was an American-as-apple-pie, salt-of-the-earth saint feels a little bit conservative and nationalistic itself. In the end, though, comes what I would call the great test of Debs's era, and one which almost everyone, even on the far left, failed: World War 1. As astonishing it is that so many people, including those in the most powerful and advanced socialist parties in Europe, failed that test, throwing away their internationalist principles for a war with absolutely no purpose or meaning, it is heartening to me that there were people, even American-as-apple-pie people, who through their existing leftist political convictions, realized the war was wrong and denounced it, to the point of going to jail for this denunciation. So he ends up, for me as for my grandfather, an inspiration.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Timothy Kerrigan

    The best, most comprehensive, and by all accounts I have come upon, the most accurate biography of Debs, a great American.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Winston Plum

    I sort of recommend “The Bending Cross.” It’s a slog to get through in parts. It was published in 1947. As an adult, I have always been familiar with the name Eugene Debs, but like a lot of people who follow politics closely I started thinking about Eugene Debs a lot more as I learned about Bernie Sanders, specifically during his run for president in 2016. “The Bending Cross” never really takes off. Something about the way Ginger relays the vicissitudes and events of the various labor organizati I sort of recommend “The Bending Cross.” It’s a slog to get through in parts. It was published in 1947. As an adult, I have always been familiar with the name Eugene Debs, but like a lot of people who follow politics closely I started thinking about Eugene Debs a lot more as I learned about Bernie Sanders, specifically during his run for president in 2016. “The Bending Cross” never really takes off. Something about the way Ginger relays the vicissitudes and events of the various labor organizations Debs was a part of just didn’t capture my attention. Debs was a force of great moral leadership. Debs seemed like he had a lot of personal courage. Born that way, I guess. Sometimes that’s what it all comes down to. Born that way in the sense he was committed to working people; he was committed to equality. I’m struggling with this review for some reason. The writing wasn’t great. Workmanlike is an adjective that comes to mind. The best part of the book, or the main takeaway, is the fact that Eugene Debs was a legend. What else is there to take from the story of his life? He ran for president several times on the Socialist ticket and the results were negligible. He was arrested near the end of WWI and spent several years in jail. Sometimes when I get a book, my joy comes from the anticipation of reading it. In the case of “The Bending Cross,” thoughts percolated in my mind about what I would learn about Debs and how this new knowledge would improve my life, make me feel better, make me feel better about humans and the possibilities for our society, the possibilities for my life, and the possibilities for how I interact with other people (I know, no pressure on a book). I’m expecting to be vivified, edified, enchanted, and impassioned. “The Bending Cross” didn’t deliver on those obviously unfair expectations. But it got me thinking about what does excite me about a book when I’m really excited while reading it, and it comes down to one thing: the book provides an opportunity for me to think about my existence differently. Under this grand-sounding umbrella there are lots of discrete, and you could say small ways, in which this effect can be registered: to wit, thinking differently about our current political environment, how past political environments inform our present one; thinking about what is valuable to the people around me (and me too), and why those things should or shouldn’t be as important as they are. I guess, succinctly, a great book helps me make sense of what it means to be a human going through my life. The goal of a book should be to enrich our human experience. Books can do that. Did this book? And if so, to what extent; and if it didn’t, why not. Debs had courage and fought and fought for his beliefs. That is inspiring. That (fighting and fighting and not compromising) is edifying and contributes to one’s understanding that compromises need not always be made. Debs fought his fight gallantly until the end of his life. He was often disappointed by the results of the presidential elections in which he ran on the Socialist ticket. I’m afraid this is one of those books (tens if not hundreds at this point) I will forget almost everything about within a couple of years; I might even forget I have read it if someone asks me in ten years if I’ve read “The Bending Cross.” What does that mean?

  13. 5 out of 5

    Brenden Gallagher

    Our political moment could really use a new biography of Eugene V. Debs. "The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene V. Debs" was written in 1947 and it is easy to see why this has become the go-to biography of Debs. Somewhere between a biography and a praise poem, Ginger does a great job outlining Debs' selfless commitment to the labor movement and class struggle. However, you are left wonder if this book holds up to expectations of biography today. You definitely can't imagine this book being red Our political moment could really use a new biography of Eugene V. Debs. "The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene V. Debs" was written in 1947 and it is easy to see why this has become the go-to biography of Debs. Somewhere between a biography and a praise poem, Ginger does a great job outlining Debs' selfless commitment to the labor movement and class struggle. However, you are left wonder if this book holds up to expectations of biography today. You definitely can't imagine this book being rediscovered as an essential tome of the New Left. Ginger presents Debs as basically a saint, and by most accounts, he was pretty close. His telling of the big moments in Debs' life: uniting the railroad union, his various presidential runs, his jail time as a conscientious objector, are brilliantly detailed. The ideological and practical differences between Debs and figures like Big Bill Haywood and Mother Jones are carefully laid out and compellingly drawn. Perhaps most importantly, Ginger helps us to understand that particular moment, as he himself wasn't so far removed from it. Pinkerton men were mowing down strikers, union leaders were being framed and assassinated, and labor activists sometimes responded with dynamite. However, because Ginger couldn't have foreseen the resurgent Left of 2018, he isn't writing to this audience or moment. Some figures he thought important seem irrelevant today. Ideas that he thought progressive seem alternately retrograde and idealistic. A modern appraisal would likely deem Debs and alcoholic and his wife as suffering from bipolar disorder and OCD, but Ginger doesn't have access to this analysis. Ginger, by today's standards, is a sexist, though he clearly thought himself a bastion of equality. Most importantly, "The Bending Cross" cannot account for the world we live in today. Ginger writes not far removed from the warming glow of Debs' legacy and the golden age of American socialism. He cannot see the Cold War, Reagan, Clintons, Sanders, and Trump. He also seems incapable of assessing his hero with anything approaching objectivity. Ginger writes with the clarity and critical eye of a campaign biography. There is no doubt that Debs was a great man. His biography doesn't have the shape of most generals, politicians, and businessmen, who all more or less follow the trajectory of Citizen Kane. Debs' story is one devoid of compromise. However, a new biography would do well to trust that the radiance of Debs' life and the lessons of his legacy would shine through without the floral polish and editorializing of a fawning biographer.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Keith Schnell

    Eugene Debs is one of the less-studied American historical figures, relative to his perceived importance in his own era. This is especially true in that his life story can be read as an illustration of the broader story of industrial unionism and political radicalism in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – a story which is usually left out of the overall American historical narrative, perhaps by villainous capitalist textbook publishers. The Bending Cross is the earl Eugene Debs is one of the less-studied American historical figures, relative to his perceived importance in his own era. This is especially true in that his life story can be read as an illustration of the broader story of industrial unionism and political radicalism in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – a story which is usually left out of the overall American historical narrative, perhaps by villainous capitalist textbook publishers. The Bending Cross is the earlier of the two main biographies of Debs, the other being Citizen and Socialist by Nick Salvatore. Written during the height of the Second Red Scare – its publication got the author blacklisted for a number of years – The Bending Cross was clearly, necessarily, a labor of love, which attitude sometimes comes through in an impossibly saintly portrayal of Debs. Nevertheless, this is usually avoided, and overall Ray Ginger produced the full and detailed story of Debs’ life, including some important insights into his personality, motivation, and his weaknesses as a public figure and a leader – which he was, no matter how strenuously he denied it. Just as important, Ginger provides a very clear explanation of how Debs’ career fit into the almost impossibly complicated world of trade union and Socialist/Communist politics at the turn of the last century. The entire thing is readable and well-organized, and is a good introduction to the subject. Two main insights about Debs' career stand out, among the many covered in The Bending Cross: the extent to which he was politically radicalized by, and almost in direct proportion to, the degree of suppression that he experienced; and the extent to which the lack of unity and discipline on the American left during Debs’ era – which Debs’ increasing radicalism sometimes exacerbated – handicapped actual progress towards the empowerment and improvement of the working class in this country. For a man who finished his career running for President – from federal prison – with the slogan “I am a Bolshevik,” 1870s Eugene Debs comes off as almost adorably moderate and middle-American. While working for The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF), an early trade union that was really more of a life-insurance company with a newsletter, Debs actively discouraged and condemned strikes, and in Ginger’s words, “continued to stand aloof from the more radical philosophy of Sam Gompers and [the AFL],” which is hilarious given the two men’s later history. Debs ran for, and was elected, town clerk and state assemblyman. He married a prosperous grocer’s daughter – his long-suffering and tremendously supportive wife, Kate – and lived in a tidy Victorian home in Terre Haute, as befit a young, self-educated go-getter in gilded age America. Jimmy Stewart would have played him in the movie. The Bending Cross makes clear that Debs’ movement towards an increasingly radical political and economic worldview was a direct result of the suppression and failure that he experienced in striving for what were initially relatively moderate objectives, through relatively moderate means. He served in the State Legislature, only to see his railroad safety bill watered down by corporate interests, so he decided to work through the BLF to secure safety concessions from the railroad companies. When the BLF and its cooperative attitude was ignored, Debs formed an alliance with other railroad unions. When this fell apart due to infighting, he formed an industry-wide union, the American Railway Union (ARU), and led it through a successful strike. When the ARU was crushed, literally at gunpoint, he met some prominent Socialists in jail and came to the conclusion that capitalism itself was the problem and socialism was the answer, and helped to organize the Socialist Party of America. When the Party was actively suppressed by the Federal government, he found himself in a prison cell, calling for revolution with the likes of Emma Goldman. Debs consistently tried one thing until it failed or he was actively stopped, then reassessed and – crucially -- invariably came to the conclusion that a more radical solution was needed, and proceeded from there, rather than attempting more limited tactical changes or making a steadier effort along one line. This severely limited what he was able to accomplish, compared to even Gompers, or to more moderate and disciplined Socialist politicians such as Daniel Hoan. Late in Debs’ story, another labor leader – John L. Lewis – appears on the scene, and is mentioned in passing. Given all that Lewis was able to accomplish in industrial unionism – an ultimately highly viable concept that Debs pioneered – in the 1930s and 40s, one can only speculate what a man with Debs’ talent could have done for the American worker had he stuck to his views and doubled down after the defeat of the ARU. Debs was not alone in this lack of discipline and consistent focus, and the other key lesson of this book is the extent to which this handicapped him and his nominal political allies. Another reviewer compared these to the Judean People’s Front / People’s Front of Judea from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and this is apt. Debs was working in a political environment with dozens of unions, lacking the overall structure of the AFL-CIO and with a slew of short-lived political parties with the word “socialist” in the title, many built around a single charismatic personality or very specific quack theory, and none with strong ties to the labor movement. Many of these organizations worked at cross-purposes with each other, or were openly hostile – even though many were divided only by minor differences in ideology or personality. While Debs tried to split the difference between these groups by relying on his strong personal relationships with their members, and with the occasional editorial urging unity, his discomfort with the national spotlight, and reluctance to be seen as a “Moses,” leading labor out of slavery, kept him from being a true unifying figure and building a party that could control the personal ambitions of those who had lost sight of the common objective of improving the welfare of the American working class. This meant that in an era when the Labour Party in the United Kingdom and the SPD and PS in Germany and France were uniting trade unionists, middle-class Fabian Socialists and professional politicians and journalists, the American movement remained divided and weak. Though Debs was certainly not exclusively to blame, one wonders what he could have accomplished with a more concrete vision – both for himself and for the organization that he reluctantly led. In the end, Debs’ personal integrity and honor secured his place among the great men of American history, but his weaknesses as a leader prevented him from achieving his full potential, or accomplishing all that he might have. To his credit, Ray Ginger paints this very clearly.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Alexander L

    This book is a story of triumph. Eugene V. Debs faced adversity after adversity, challenge after challenge, but in all cases his spirit never broke even as he pushed his body to its limit. Despite strikes, campaigns, and even a criminal defense that an insensitive observer may call “failures,” Debs persisted, and therein lies his greatness. The prose he left behind is magnificent. His words outlive him; the decent world he dreamed of still as inevitable as the coming sunrise. Ray Ginger wrote her This book is a story of triumph. Eugene V. Debs faced adversity after adversity, challenge after challenge, but in all cases his spirit never broke even as he pushed his body to its limit. Despite strikes, campaigns, and even a criminal defense that an insensitive observer may call “failures,” Debs persisted, and therein lies his greatness. The prose he left behind is magnificent. His words outlive him; the decent world he dreamed of still as inevitable as the coming sunrise. Ray Ginger wrote here one of the most excellent biographies. Debs’ life on its own merit deserves reverence, but Ginger’s writing commands it. He had me emotional for someone who died a hundred years ago, feeling the ending to this lengthy biography was abrupt and wanting more. Ginger isn’t afraid to break the fourth wall with his interpretation of the truth, which is helpful guidance. Ginger also explains the events of Debs’ life so clearly and so well that even I, a Midwestern boy living well over a century past them, could understand them and yearn for the goals those brave workers yearned for. This is a remarkably excellent book. It deserved to be dug up from the past, the dust brushed off of it, and published so that my generation and coming generations can admire it. And it deserves to be read.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Joe Rodeck

    Business vs Labor is the hundred year war that deserves more pages in our history books. Once upon a time companies practically owned their employees. The tyranny of the establishment illustrates why there was such a romantic appeal to socialism. There's little balance here. While the author doesn't outright criminalize business leaders, he never shows their side. They're just the bad guys. Nothing here convinces me that the answer to the class struggle is socialism. TMI! Sources and Index alone a Business vs Labor is the hundred year war that deserves more pages in our history books. Once upon a time companies practically owned their employees. The tyranny of the establishment illustrates why there was such a romantic appeal to socialism. There's little balance here. While the author doesn't outright criminalize business leaders, he never shows their side. They're just the bad guys. Nothing here convinces me that the answer to the class struggle is socialism. TMI! Sources and Index alone are 66 pages long. A college semester might be able to cover this history of labor. I can only recommend this to a union historian or fanatic, but even they'll be challenged not to get bored with this old school bio.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Steven

    A great book. The Nick Salvatore biography probably gets credit for being the "definitive" Debs biography, but this one, written in 1949, just has a great feel to it. The final part of the book, "World Socialism", discussing Debs' opposition to WWI, his sedition trail and imprisonment, is remarkable; approaching poetic. Ray Ginger may gloss over some of Debs' faults - it is an affectionate biography - but this is a very good chronicle of a great man. Happy to have finally read it. (I've owned thi A great book. The Nick Salvatore biography probably gets credit for being the "definitive" Debs biography, but this one, written in 1949, just has a great feel to it. The final part of the book, "World Socialism", discussing Debs' opposition to WWI, his sedition trail and imprisonment, is remarkable; approaching poetic. Ray Ginger may gloss over some of Debs' faults - it is an affectionate biography - but this is a very good chronicle of a great man. Happy to have finally read it. (I've owned this book for almost 50 years, after an old girlfriend "liberated" it for me from our college library. )

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kim Zinkowski

    A. There is a lot to say about Eugene Debs. Most importantly he was a tireless advocate for the worker and a sworn enemy of the capitalist. He was opposed to war, he was a champion for woman's suffrage. He was a railroad man and a labor union organizer. He was a writer, a speaker and several times a candidate for President. He was hated by many, including Woodrow Wilson, under whose administration he was imprisoned because he spoke out against the war and its corporate sponsors. He was a husband, A. There is a lot to say about Eugene Debs. Most importantly he was a tireless advocate for the worker and a sworn enemy of the capitalist. He was opposed to war, he was a champion for woman's suffrage. He was a railroad man and a labor union organizer. He was a writer, a speaker and several times a candidate for President. He was hated by many, including Woodrow Wilson, under whose administration he was imprisoned because he spoke out against the war and its corporate sponsors. He was a husband, a good and loyal friend and above all a kind and caring soul.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Samyalll

    Incredibly insightful and humanely written biography of a man I knew nothing about when I picked it up. I have read other reviews that describe this book as being the best in capturing Deb’s true spirit of generosity and love for his common working man and woman and I have to agree. The anecdotes of the great man returning coatless and penniless from his speaking tours because he gave it all away were particularly impactful.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Roberta Havel

    I learned an enormous amount about Eugene Debs and the labor movement. To be honest, I became blurry eyed when the biography started discussing Debs and the American Socialist party. It was more information than I wanted so I decided to put it down. Maybe someday in the future I will finish it. However, if you are interested in a well researched book on Debs, the railway unions and the Socialist party of the early 20th century this is a good book to read.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Grace Davies

    This is a well-written overview of Eugene Debs' life and career as a union organizer and socialist leader. It suffers somewhat by having been written 70 years ago; sometimes the author's style seems dated. A modern biographer would do well to expand on on Deb's personal life and time in prison and less on the size of the crowds at every whistle stop and lecture. This is a well-written overview of Eugene Debs' life and career as a union organizer and socialist leader. It suffers somewhat by having been written 70 years ago; sometimes the author's style seems dated. A modern biographer would do well to expand on on Deb's personal life and time in prison and less on the size of the crowds at every whistle stop and lecture.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Nick

    Its hard to think of a more admirable person to read about when it comes to those who have run for president in America's history. Eugene Debs dedicated his life to fight for the working-class, for dissenters, and for the unjustly imprisoned. The Bending Cross is a supremely researched bio that I recommend to anyone with an interest in American political history. Its hard to think of a more admirable person to read about when it comes to those who have run for president in America's history. Eugene Debs dedicated his life to fight for the working-class, for dissenters, and for the unjustly imprisoned. The Bending Cross is a supremely researched bio that I recommend to anyone with an interest in American political history.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Marius Bagu

    While I strongly disagree with Eugene V. Debs' political views, him being a communist, this is a great biography. As far as I am concerned, I kept for myself all the good things he has done and said, and disregarded the rest. This is a biography worth reading for sure. While I strongly disagree with Eugene V. Debs' political views, him being a communist, this is a great biography. As far as I am concerned, I kept for myself all the good things he has done and said, and disregarded the rest. This is a biography worth reading for sure.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    I nearly put this book down after a couple hundred pages. It was feeling repetitive and a bit slow. I'm glad I pushed on through because I think Eugene Debs is an inspiring person who gave his life to the working man. I nearly put this book down after a couple hundred pages. It was feeling repetitive and a bit slow. I'm glad I pushed on through because I think Eugene Debs is an inspiring person who gave his life to the working man.

  25. 5 out of 5

    TJ Guiney

    An excellent biography of an American hero. May get a little hagiographic at times, but the sources Ginger had access to given the date of publication simply can’t be beat.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Michael Jr.

    Well written. Gives an interesting overview of the stops and starts of the drive for unionism and Debs role in it.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Danielle

    Wanted this book to be better. Unfortunately Ginger is a little too head over heals about Debbs to be able to construct a good, clear picture of a revolutionary American figure.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Brandon Black

    5 stars for Debs

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mike Jurkovic

    The only real bio of Debs. A man of conviction and courage

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jordan Phizacklea-Cullen

    A moving, finely-paced biography of one of the true founding fathers of American Socialism, who at times appears practically saint-like (if you believe the contemporaneous accounts). It is also an admirable account of a time when public oratory aimed for higher standards for all and did not concern itself too much with 'dumbing down'. A moving, finely-paced biography of one of the true founding fathers of American Socialism, who at times appears practically saint-like (if you believe the contemporaneous accounts). It is also an admirable account of a time when public oratory aimed for higher standards for all and did not concern itself too much with 'dumbing down'.

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