The Legacy of De Leonism, part III: De Leon's misconceptions on class struggle

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As we pointed out in Part I of this series, Daniel De Leon unquestionably played a pivotal role in introducing Marxism to American revolutionaries, and exerted considerable influence early in this century not only over members of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), but also the left of the Socialist Party (SP) and the early Communist Party, as well. Unfortunately this influence wasn’t always beneficial. In Part II, we focused on De Leon’s mistaken adherence to Lassallean economic conceptions (see Internationalism 114), which rendered De Leon incapable of comprehending the relationship between the immediate struggle and the historic goals of proletarian struggle. This failure had profound implications for De Leon and his followers in terms of their political intervention in the class struggle.

Rejection of revolutionary work within the mass organizations of the working class

De Leon contended that strikes could be successful only in the early stages of capitalism. In his view the development of machinery and the existence of a reserve army of the unemployed had undercut the ability of workers to wage successful strikes. Following the failure of the Buffalo Switchmen’s strike in 1892, De Leon wrote, "Once more it has been shown that no strike couldshown that no strike could succeed in industries that reached a high degree of capitalistic concentration" (People, August 28, 1892). This view, consistent with De Leon’s Lassalleanism, was completely at odds with the Marxist understanding of the workings of capitalist economy and the class struggle. As Marx insisted,

"The historical or social element, entering into the value of labor, may be expanded or contracted, or altogether extinguished so that nothing remains but the physical limit…the value of labor itself is not a fixed but a variable magnitude, even supposing the values of all other commodities to remain constant…The fixation of its actual degree is only settled by the continuous struggle between capital and labor" (Value, Price and Profit).

The failure to see that workers could struggle to improve their living standard – to increase wages and wrest durable reforms during the period of capitalist ascendancy had catastrophic consequences for De Leonism’s intervention in the class struggle, leading directly to a rejection of revolutionary work within the mass organizations of the proletariat during that period. For De Leon unions made sense only if they advocated the destruction of capitalism, and ignored tn of capitalism, and ignored the immediate struggle. In the early 1890s, De Leon had had illusions about the possibility of revolutionary socialists gaining control of the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor, but after several years of "boring from within," De Leon became completely disenchanted with the mass unions. In 1894, De Leon enunciated his hallmark positions on revolutionary trade unionism and revolution at the ballot box, in an article about the failed Pullman strike:

"The union of the workers that expects to be successful must recognize 1) the impossibility of obtaining a decent living while capitalism exists, the certainty of worse and worse conditions, the necessity of the abolition of the wage and capitalist system, and their substitution by the Socialist or Cooperative Commonwealth, whereby the instruments of production shall be made the property of the whole people…and 2) the necessity of conquering the public powers at the ballot box by the vote of the working class, cast independently."

Frustrated by the failure to capture control of the unions, De Leon denounced them as useless and dead, and called upon socialists to withdraw and adopt a dual unionist policy. In 1895 the SLP established the Soc1895 the SLP established the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (ST&LA), which an SLP resolution written by De Leon hailed "as a giant stride toward throwing off the yoke of wage slavery." In 1900 the SLP formally dropped support for immediate demands in workers struggles, and in 1902 in "The Warning of the Gracchi," De Leon wrote,

"The characteristic weakness of the proletariat renders it prone to lures…The essence of this revolution – the overthrow of wage slavery, cannot be too forcefully held up. Nor can the point be too forcefully kept in evidence that short of the abolition of wage slavery, all ‘improvements’ either accrue to capitalism or are the merest moonshine."

This rejection of the possibility of fighting for immediate demands, of winning gains or durable reforms, was absolutely dead wrong in the period of capitalist ascendance, in which De Leon lived, a period when capitalism was still an historically progressive mode of production, still expanding, and favoring a development of the productive forces, and therefore making durable reforms a real possibility. But it would be wrong even if advocated today in the period of capitalist decadence, when the system is no longer hie, when the system is no longer historically progressive, but rather has become a fetter on the further development of the productive forces and therefore incapable of granting reforms, because it grossly fails to recognize the link between the immediate struggle of the proletariat and the historic struggle to overthrow capitalism (see Internationalism 114 for a fuller explanation of capitalist ascendance and decadence). Even if reforms are impossible under decadent capitalism, the immediate struggle of the proletariat to defend its interests against capitalist attacks poses the possibility of transforming struggles that begin even as simple economic disputes into a political confrontation with state capitalism, which holds the seeds of the revolutionary struggle.

De Leon’s confusion on revolutionary work within the mass organizations of the proletariat was at odds with the repeated interventions in the American socialist movement by Engels, who urged participation in the existing unions, which,

"whatever their shortcomings and little absurdities, whatever their platform and their constitution…are…the only national bond that holds them (American workers) together, that makes their strength felt to themselves not less than to their enemies: less than to their enemies: (Marx & Engels, Letters to Americans, 1848-1895, The Labor Movement in the United States, p. 289).

Engels also called upon socialists to form

"a core of people who understand the movement and its aims"

within the unions, and warned that if socialists

"stand aloof, they will dwindle down into a dogmatic sect and be brushed aside as people who do not understand their own principles" (Letter for Frederick Sorge, Nov. 29, 1886).

Proving Engels prescience, the SLP withdrew from the mass unions, retreated into its ST&LA front group, which shrank from 15,000 workers to 1,500 in the decade of its existence, and cut itself off from the masses of the working class.

De Leon’s foolhardy withdrawal from the mass organs of the proletariat triggered considerable opposition from within party ranks, which led to a wave of splits and expulsions, after which the SLP was reduced to a small isolated group, losing half its membership, including long time and leading members of the organizatiog members of the organization. In 1900, one significant group split to regroup with Eugene Debs and others to form the Socialist Party, which quickly developed into a mass socialist party during the first two decades of the 20th century. The splits and expulsions had reached such epidemic proportions that in 1902, Lucien Sanial and Hugo Vogt, high ranking party leaders who had sponsored De Leon for membership in the SLP in 1890, issued an appeal for an end to "the inquisition in the SLP," and then shortly left the party themselves. Rudolf Katz, an SLPer who left the party at the time of De Leon’s death in 1914, reported that so many comrades had left the organization in such a short period of time

"that De Leon remarked that he had to look at himself in the mirror at least once a day to find out whether he had not gone with the others" (quoted in Reeve, The Life and Times of Daniel De Leon).

Confusions on the development of class consciousness

Mesmerized by bourgeois democracy, a serious political confusion that will be addressed in the ion that will be addressed in the next installment of this series, De Leon sorely misunderstood how class consciousness develops in the course of class struggle. For him consciousness was measured by means of the political thermometer of elections, and developed pedagogically, one worker at a time, as a voter at the ballot box, not as a collective phenomenon among workers at the point of production in the class struggle.

True, De Leon said he found

"the attitude of workingmen engaged in a bona fide strike…an inspiring one. It is an earnest that slavery will not prevail. The slave alone who will not rise against his master, who will meekly bend his back to the lash…that slave alone is hopeless. But the slave, who…persists despite failures and poverty, in rebelling, there is always hope for" (What Means This Strike?).

But his view of class struggle is erroneous. It sees struggling workers as noble savages, blindly rebelling. However, workers are not the slaves of the ancient world, who could only engage in blind rebellion, a noble act against injustice. In slave society, the slaves did not hold the future of the world in their hands. They were not the key to a society without exploitaey to a society without exploitation and oppression. De Leon may have found the attitude of struggling workers "inspiring" but he did not understand that this struggle was the key to the transformation of society. In the same text, "What Means This Strike?" he developed his views with these words,

"Look at the recent miners’ strike; the men were shot down and the strike was lost; this happened in the very midst of a political campaign and these miners, who could at any election capture the government, or at least, by polling a big vote against capitalism announce their advance towards freedom, are seen to turn right around and vote back into power the very class that just trampled them."

What a mass of confusion. First there is the bourgeois conception of the workers gaining control of the capitalist state, a position abandoned by Marx on the basis of the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871. And then, instead of pointing out the necessity for workers to organize and defend themselves, to arm themselves against the state and the pinkertons, to recognize the necessity for class war, De Leon called upon the workers to forsake the class struggle for the terrain of parliamentarism. What De Leon did not understand is t De Leon did not understand is that consciousness is a collective phenomenon. It cannot be measured by what an individual, atomized "citizen" does in a polling booth; it must be judged by what workers do together as a collectivity in confrontation with the bosses and their state. There is a concrete reason why every union bureaucrat knows that if he really wants a sellout contract rammed through, he has to hold a mail ballot ratification vote, where the workers alone in their living rooms will cast their ballots, rather than risk a mass meeting of the workers, where they can influence each other and react collectively to the issues before them.

In the period in which De Leon and the SLP were involved in the IWW, De Leon opposed what he disparagingly called the "bummery" who wanted to engage in direct action against the employers and the state. After the 1908 split between the anarchists and the SLPers in the IWW, the De Leonist controlled splinter-IWW organized one important strike, among silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1912, which gives a glimpse of De Leon’s conception of class struggle. This silk strike of 1912 is not to be confused with the famous struggle of 1913, led by the "bummery" IWW, which made working class history. No, the 1912 strike was doomed by the De rike was doomed by the De Leonist leadership which insisted upon legality and decorum in the course of the struggle. According to a contemporary newspaper report, "’Peaceful means’ is the slogan," meaning that workers could use only peaceful, legalistic forms of struggle under the SLP leadership.

"All forms of disorder and even peaceful picketing are barred. The strike-leaders notified the strikers that if any of them took the law into their hands the union would not help them out of trouble with the police" (St Paul Daily News, March 31, 1912, cited in Foner, History of the Labor Movement in he United States, Vol. 4).

It is precisely in those struggles that De Leon could appreciate only as the noble, blind rebellion of hapless slaves, that class consciousness develops. It is precisely these struggles, especially in decadent capitalism, that can lead quickly to a direct confrontation with the capitalist state, and hold the seeds of decisive class confrontations. Revolutionaries must intervene in these struggles to help generalize the lessons of past struggles, pointing out the need to organize independently of and against the unions, and the necessity for the violent overthrow of the capitalist state. Revolutionaries must not follow the example of De Leon, intervening in these struggles to tell the workers to abandon the class struggle for the ballot box in capitalist elections. In the next installment we will address De Leonism’s total confusion on the question of bourgeois democracy.

– JG