The Legacy of De Leonism, Part II

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De Leon’s opposition to reformism, a central element in his ideological perspective, superficially resembles the position defended today by the ICC and the rest of the Communist Left. However, De Leon’s views, originally formulated as early as the 1890s, were based on a total confusion on the operation of capitalist economy and were actually incorrect for the period in which he lived. Here it is important to differentiate clearly between reformism and reforms. As we pointed out in Internationalism, #21, "Reformism has always meant the theory and practice of a peaceful transition to socialism, whose hallmarks have been a commitment to parliamentarism, legalism, and pacificism. This theory and practice of reformism…has always been antithetical to the interests of the working class and has represented the invasion of bourgeois ideology into the ranks of the proletariat." On the other hand the struggle for reforms – for durable improvements in the conditions of the working class, i.e., the end of child labor, the eight hour day, etc – "in the ascendant phase of capitalism when it was pse of capitalism when it was possible for the working class to win durable reforms from the bourgeoisie…occurred on the class terrain of the proletariat and was a manifestation of the fundamental antagonism between capital and the wage-working class." Thus in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the struggle for reforms was correctly supported by Marxist revolutionaries. De Leon on the other hand did not support that struggle. Instead he denounced the struggle for reforms as synonymous with the counter-revolutionary practice of reformism.

There are two factors underlying De Leon’s confusion on this question: 1) a failure to understand adequately that all economic modes of production go through phases of ascendance and decadence in their historic development, and in particular the significance of this fact for capitalism; 2) an adherence to a variant of "the iron law of wages,"(1) which essentially held that under capitalism workers’ wages always fell and that the struggle for wage increases and for reforms was pointless. .

When Did Capitalism Enter Its Epoch of Decay?

The understanding that all modes of production throughout history pass through phases history pass through phases of ascendance and decadence in the course of their historic development, defended by the Communist Left, has its basis in the work of Karl Marx. Even the Socialist Labor Party’s Arnold Petersen was forced to acknowledge in his 1947 introduction to a reprint of De Leon’s "Reform or Revolution," that "social systems are born, grow and mature and eventually decay," and that before a social system reaches its period of decay, reforms are possible. But once decadence sets in, the era of reforms is over, and only a revolutionary transformation of society is on the agenda.

For revolutionaries it is essential to theoretically understand when capitalism reaches the limits of its historic development, ceases to be progressive in the historic sense, and instead becomes a fetter on the further development of the productive forces, and thereby puts proletarian revolution on the agenda. Such an understanding has profound implications for the intervention of revolutionaries in the class struggle. Marx and Engels at first underestimated the expansive potential of capitalism, and thought that proletarian revolution was on the agenda in 1848. History was to demonstrate otherwise, and Marx and Engel’s later writings and revolutionary activities were based on a clearactivities were based on a clear recognition of this fact.

For De Leon the onset of capitalist decay must have come very early. As early as the 1890s, De Leon argued that "at the present stage of civilization there is possible no reform worth speaking of…" and that "every reform granted by capitalism is a congealed measure of reaction." But on what basis did De Leon believe that capitalism had reached the limits of its historic development and changed so fundamentally and irrevocably? Certainly such a qualitative change in the fundamental character of the capitalist system and the conditions of class struggle would have announced itself and offered itself for theoretical elaboration by revolutionaries. It is difficult to imagine that such an historic development would have occurred secretly and unnoticed. The fact is that De Leonism offers no answer to this question, no theoretical explanation for its conclusions. In the 1890s, De Leon was wrong when he opposed reforms, right when he opposed reformism, and wrong for confusing the two. Reforms were still possible at the turn of the century. Capitalism was in its last phase of expansion, still expanding into Africa. The capitalist system had not yet completed its historic mission – the creation of a world market. The struggle for a shorter wo The struggle for a shorter working day, for an end to child labor were not struggles that were "congealed reaction."

On the contrary, they were class struggles for durable gains for the working class, that provided a preparation for future revolutionary struggles, and also served as a goad to capitalism to continue its further development. In the ascendant phase of capitalism, the struggle for reforms was not separate from the revolutionary struggle. Ironically, despite his avowed opposition to reformism, because of his confusions on the nature of bourgeois democracy, and the political tasks of the proletariat, De Leon argued from parliamentarism, legalism and pacifism in the political arena, which made his practice identical to the reformism he so thoroughly despised. We will address these political shortcomings in a future article in this series.

While De Leonism was oblivious to the theoretical tasks of understanding when the qualitative change in the nature of capitalism had arrived, the rest of the revolutionary Marxist movement was clear that the outbreak of World War I, a fullscale inter-imperialist war, plunging humanity into an unprecedented global butchery, was the historic watershed, marking the end of capitalism’s period of historic expansion, and the beginning of the era of war or revolution. The understanding that a new situation existed, that posed directly the question of proletarian revolution as the means to rescue humanity from a descent into barbarism led to splits in all the socialist parties in the major countries of world capitalism, between the right which collaborated with the respective bourgeoisies in mobilizing the working class for the bloodbath, and the left which advocated a proletarian solution to the social impasse.

It was the change in historic period that led to the workers’ revolution in Russia as the first act in the world revolution, to the founding of the Third International to regroup the left revolutionaries and to help spread the world revolution, and to the founding of the Communist Parties. There was debate within the movement as to what were the fundamental causes of the onset of capitalist decadence, polarizing eventually on two theoretical explanations, and indeed this theoretical explanation is still debated within the Communist Left today. (2) But however hotly this issued is debated, there is underlying agreement that the nature of capitalism changed in the run up to World War I. Though De Leonism often found itself siding with the left in the Second International, it was cSecond International, it was content to wait for the end of World War I so it could resume its old political practices without regard to the changed historic conditions.

De Leon’s Confusions on the Theory of Wages

De Leon’s belief in a variant of "the iron law of wages" meant that he essentially saw no purpose to the class struggle on the immediate level. As one of his adherents once put it, De Leon believed that "regardless of how strong and militant the working class is, its collective action under capitalism cannot prevent its conditions from becoming worse. (Goodstein, New Socialist). In "Socialist Reconstruction of Society," De Leon developed his contention that the workers’ share of the products produced in society is declining. This was certainly accurate but did not necessarily mean that the standard of living of the working class was declining. According to De Leon, from 1870 to 1900, the standard of living of the workers had "gone from bad to worse." What De Leon confounded was the difference between the relative and the absolute impoverization of the working class. Absolute impoverization means a fall in the workers’ standard of living, while relative impoverization occurs even while the worketion occurs even while the workers’ standard of living may actually rise.

For Marx, here was no law that real wages must always sink. Quite the contrary. While the lower limit of wages was fixed by the physiological minimum necessary to reproduce the workers’ labor power, the upper limit was ultimately set by factors such as the rate and mass of profit, the rate of accumulation and the conditions for the realization of surplus value prevailing in a given period of capitalist development. Between this lower and upper limit (the latter receding as capitalism went from its phase of ascendance to its phase of decadence), the actual level of wages at any given moment is determined, in large part, by the degree of class combativeness and the level of class struggle. In developing this point, Marx wrote:

"although we can fix the minimum of wages, we cannot fix their maximum. We can only say that, the limits of the working day being given, the maximum of profit corresponds to the physical minimum of wages; and that wages being given, the maximum of profit corresponds to such a prolongation of the working day as is compatible with the physical forces of the laborers…The fixation on its actual degree is only settled by the cont is only settled by the continuous struggle between capital and labor, the capitalist constantly tending to reduce wages to their physical minimum, and to extend the working day to its physical maximum, while the worker constantly presses in the opposite direction. The matter resolves itself into a question of the respective power of the combatants"(Wages, Price and Profit).

Contrary to De Leon’s view that real wages must always sink, regardless of the class struggle, Marx held that the class struggle was a vital determinant in settling the actual level of wages.

That Marx distinguished between absolute and relative impoverization is illustrated by the following passage:

"By virtue of the increased productivity of labor, the same amount of the average daily necessaries might sink from 3 to 2 shillings, or only 4 hours out of the working day instead of 6 be wanted to produce an equivalent for the value of the daily necessaries. The working man would now be able to buy with 2 shillings as many necessaries as he did with 3 shillings. Indeed the value of labor would have sunk, but that diminished value would command the same amount of commld command the same amount of commodities as before…although the laborer’s absolute standard of life would have remained the same, his relative wages and therewith his relative social position as compared to that of the capitalist would have been lowered" (Wages, Price and Profit).

That Marx recognized that while the workers’ share of the social product may sink in relation to that of the capitalists, the standard of living of the workers can remain the same, or even rise, is illustrated by the following passage:

"Real wages may stay the same, they may even rise, and yet relative wages may fall. Le us suppose, for example, that all means of subsistence had gone down in price by 2/3 while wages per day have only fallen by 1/3, that is to say, for example, from 3 marks to 2 marks. Although the worker can command a greater amount of commodities with these 2 marks than he previously could with 3 marks, his wages will have gone down in relation to the profit of the capitalist…The share of capital relative to labor has risen. The division of social wealth between capital and labor has become still more unequal…and Real wages express the price of labor in relation to the price of other commodities; relative wages, on the other hand, express the share of direct labor in the new value it has created in relation to the share which falls to accumulated labor, to capital" (Wage, Labor and Capital).

Thus, De Leon’s view that the real wages of workers, in contrast to their relative wages, must continually sink regardless of the class struggle in capitalist society, was refuted by Marx decades before De Leon even joined the socialist movement. De Leon persisted in this misunderstanding despite the fact that he translated into English the very works in which Marx argued his analyses.

De Leon’s view that the workers’ standard of living during the ascendant phase of capitalism had continually "gone from bad to worse" was refuted by the reality of workers’ struggles. In the ascendant phase of capitalism, there was a tendency towards absolute impoverization of the working class during the period of primitive accumulation. But in the period of capitalist expansion in the 19th century, there was a tendency towards a rise in real wages, simultaneous with a decline in relative wages, and thus relative impoverization. It was during this period that it was pduring this period that it was possible to wrest durable reforms from the bourgeoisie in the course of the class struggle.Thus, for example in Volume I of Capital, Marx pointed out that real wages fell in Britain between 1799-1815, the final stage of the primitive accumulation of capital. But if we look at Britain and France during the period of the most rapid capitalist expansion, it is clear that far from continually sinking, as De Leon mistakenly believed, real wages actually rose:

Real Wages in France and Britain 1830-1910

(1900=base 100)

Date France Britain 1830 54 45 1840 e="Arial">1840 57 50 1850 59.5 50 1860 63 55 1870 69 60 1875 70 18801880 74.5 70 1885 72 1890 89.5 84 1895 93 1900 100 100 1905 104.5 1910 106

These figures taken from Fritz Sternberg’s Der Imperialismus, 1926

The Link Between the Daily Defensive Struggle and the Revolutionary Struggle

It is in the decadent phase of capitalism that "the general tendency of capitalistic production…to sink the average standard of wages" (Marx, Wages, Price and Profit) prevails precisely because the accumulation process itself has come up against the insurmountable barrier of a saturated world market, and the cyclical crises of capitalist ascendance have been replaced by a permanent crisis.

Even if De Leon hadn’t totally misunderstood Marx on the questilly misunderstood Marx on the question of wages, the political conclusions he reached on the futility of the day to day struggle of the proletariat would have been wrong. Even if durable reforms had not been possible during capitalist ascendance and real wages continually fell as De Leon mistakenly believed, the daily struggle of the workers to defend themselves against the attacks of capital would have been no less necessary at that time than it is today, when durable reforms are in fact impossible to attain(3). This defensive struggle of the working class was contemptuously spurned by De Leon who could not understand the link between the daily struggle of the proletariat and the revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism. In the Warning of the Gracchi (1902) De Leon expressed this contempt with these words:

"The characteristic weakness of the proletariat renders it prone to lures…short of the abolition of wage slavery, all ‘improvements’ either accrue to capitalism are or the merest moonshine."

Marx, on the contrary insisted that the defensive struggle was one of the most important conditions for the proletariat to be able to wage a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist state, when after the capitalist state, when after pointing to the objective tendencies which would, if unopposed , continually lower the standard of living, he wrote:

"Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches beyond salvation…

"By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement" (Wages, Price and Profit).

The necessary link between the economic and political struggles of the working class, between the immediate, defensive struggles and the historic struggle for communism is basic to revolutionary Marxism, but was rejected by De Leon. Particularly in decadence, the polarization of the class struggle, the tendency for economic struggles to become transformed into political struggles, and thus the generalization of the daily struggle, is at the heart of the revolutionary strugglheart of the revolutionary struggle. De Leonism’s failure to grasp Marxism’s theory of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy, and its political implications for the class struggle, have condemned it to dire consequences on the political terrain, as we shall see in future articles in this series. – JG


1) The iron law of wages was a term coined by Ferdinand LaSalle and decisively refuted by Marx.

2) A full discussion of capitalist decadence is beyond the scope of the current article. Readers are referred to the ICC’s pamphlet, "The Decadence of Capitalism" and a series of articles defending the theory of decadence in the International Review 48, 49, 54, 55, 56, 58, 60.

3) Of course today the working class’s defensive struggles must take different forms than in the epoch of ascendant capitalism, because of the integration of the trade unions into the state apparatus and the impossibility of permanent mass organs of working class struggle because of the emergence of state capitalism. See the ICC pamphlet "Unions Against the Working Class" for a full discussion of the union question.