The legacy of De Leonism, part IV

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Previous instalments in this series have addressed De Leonism’s contradictory legacy to the working class, including both its positive contributions to the workers movement in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, and its enormous confusions on economic analysis, the class struggle, and the development of class consciousness. This article focuses on De Leonism’s curious confusions on the nature of bourgeois democracy and proletarian revolution.

De Leonism on Bourgeois Democracy: The Ballot as ‘Weapon of Civilization’

Perhaps the most quixotic feature of the De Leonist political legacy is its cluster of bizarre positions on such basic class principles as the nature of parliamentarism, the possibility of overturning capitalist domination through a peaceful, non-violent revolution, the proletariat’s historic tasks in relation to the capitalist state, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. De Leonism departs so completely and fundamentally from the acquisitions of Marxism on these issues, it seems almost inexplicable. It is indeed ironic that at the same time that De Leon rejected the possibility of reforms within capitalism (even in the period of capitalist ascendance when durable reforms were actually possible, see Part II of this series in Internationalism # 114), he believed the proletariat could peaceably take over control of the bourgeois state through the use of the ballot, use the bourgeois state for its own purposes, and simply legislate capitalism out of existence. As he put it in “What Means This Strike” in 1898, “The aim of all intelligent class conscious workingmen must be to bring the government under the control of their own class by joining and electing the American wing of the International Socialist Party - the Socialist Labor Party of America.” He warned that “a labor organization must be perfectly clear upon the fact that it cannot reach safety until it has wrenched the government from the clutches of the capitalist class; and that it cannot do that unless it votes, not for Men but for Principles, and unless it votes into power its own class platform and program…”

A strong proponent of American exceptionalism, De Leon argued that peaceful revolution was possible in America, but not in Europe, because the American bourgeoisie were cowardly swindlers who lacked a “feudal” tradition that stressed “valour,” whereas the European bourgeoisie still had heavy feudal influences that emphasized “deeds of valor.” De Leon spoke optimistically of the “ideal so dearly pursued by the Socialist - the peaceful solution of the social question” (Socialist Reconstruction, emphasis in the original). De Leon affirmed that “the political movement bows to the methods of civilized discussion: it gives a chance to the peaceful solution of the great question at issue” (emphasis in the original). And he wrote in glowing terms of the bourgeois ballot: “The ballot is a weapon of civilization; the ballot is a weapon that no revolutionary movement of our times may ignore except at its own peril; the Socialist ballot is the emblem of the right”( Socialist Reconstruction, emphasis in original).

Now on one level it is understandable that De Leon might have confusions on bourgeois democracy at the turn of the century. A considerable amount of the clarity developed by Marx and Engels on the nature of the state, on the nature of bourgeois democracy, and the tasks of the proletariat in regard to the state had been completely buried during the period of the Second International. The idea that socialism could be gained peaceably at the ballot box through piecemeal reforms was propagated by the right in the Second International. And while De Leon generally oriented himself in alliance with the Left in the Second International, it is clear that he held certain positions in common with the Right, as on democracy. It wasn’t until around 1910 that efforts were made to again address the Marxist orientation on the state, notably by Pannenkoek. In 1917, three years after De Leon’s death, Lenin systematically reclaimed the theoretical thread, restating Marx and Engels’ insights on the state in State and Revolution. If De Leon’s confusions were at least understandable in the period in which he lived, what is completely ludicrous is for his adherents to maintain in a cult-like fashion the same mistakes a hundred years later, despite all the historical examples that refute the confusions they are wedded to.

For example even today his adherents still echo the naive belief in bourgeois democracy and revolution at the ballot box, still believe that the revolution will come when the socialists win a majority in Congress and adopt a resolution to abolish the government and turn power over to the Socialist Industrial Unions. The Socialist Labor Party (SLP) and the New Unionist Party (NUP) continue to run candidates in capitalist elections. What’s more they even go so far as to twist Marx and Engels to justify their confusions. For example, NUP leader Jeff Miller has insisted that De Leonism’s position on bourgeois democracy is derived from Marx and Engels’ assertion in the Communist Manifesto that “the first task of the proletarian struggle ‘is to win the battle of democracy,’ that bourgeois democracy is not literally a dictatorship, and that participation in capitalist elections is necessary for the legitimization of socialism

Marxism and Bourgeois Democracy

De Leon’s belief that American capitalist democracy was less repressive than its European counterparts notwithstanding, the history of the class struggle has amply proven that whatever particular juridical form the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie takes in any country on earth, it will never hesitate to vent its terror on the working class, unless checked by the possibility of organized defensive violence by the workers. Whatever the basis for De Leon’s profound fascination with feudal valour, the class struggle is not a gentlemen’s duel, but a struggle between two totally antithetical social classes in which the control of society and the future of humanity is at stake. To tell the American working class that their capitalist adversaries would relinquish their domination of society and shrink from violence completely contradicts the experience of the class struggle in America. In the railroad strike of 1877, at Haymarket, at Homestead, and Ludlow, the American ruling class demonstrated beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt that it is ruthless, treacherous, and vicious in its willingness to unleash the most unspeakable violence against workers and their families. Maybe they didn’t do the dirty work themselves, maybe they used hired goons, pinktertons, cops, and soldiers to do their dirty work, but there is no doubt that even in De Leon’s own lifetime the American capitalist class revealed itself as a pernicious and deadly adversary

While it is true that in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels originally believed that the proletariat could take hold of the bourgeois state and wield it for its own purposes, the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871 convinced Marx and Engels of the error of this view. In his analysis of the lessons of the Paris Commune, written for the First International, Marx recognized that this momentous experience in the workers movement demonstrated that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for its own purposes,” but rather had to destroy it. The incredible claim that revolution at the ballot box is derived from the Communist Manifesto is just a wilful misinterpretation of what Marx said and meant in this historic text. The NUP’s Miller quotes Marx as saying the workers must “win the battle of democracy,” as if he meant getting elected to office. However, Marx made it clear in the Manifesto that by winning the battle of democracy he meant that the proletariat had to seize power by violent revolution. The full sentence that Miller quoted from, reads “We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” Seven pages earlier we find what Marx was referring to when said “we have seen above.” In this passage he explained how the working class would raise itself to the position of ruling class. “In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.” As we wrote in Internationalism No. 88, “how De Leonism manages to convert these remarks into a view of a peaceful transition to socialism through victory at the ballot box in bourgeois democracy is a mystery.”

The necessity for violent revolution was restated by Engels in Anti-Duhring: “That force, however, plays another role in history, a revolutionary role; that in the words of Marx it is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with the new, that it is the instrument by the aid of which social development forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilized, political form - of this there is not a word in Herr Duhring. It is only with sighs and groans that he admits the possibility that force will perhaps be necessary for the overthrow of the economic system of exploitation…”

The De Leonist view, expressed by Miller, that bourgeois democracy is not a class dictatorship over the working class, constitutes yet another departure from the basic theoretical acquisitions of Marxism. As early as the Manifesto, Marx made clear that the bourgeoisie wages a class dictatorship over the workers. And in 1891, Engels wrote, “And people think they have taken quite an extraordinarily bold step forward when they have rid themselves of the belief in hereditary monarchy and swear by the democratic republic. In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another; and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy…” (Introduction - Civil War in France).

The imbecile claim that workers enjoy the same political rights as capitalists is enough to leave one speechless. Rather than utilizing the Marxist method to see beyond the superficial, to read between the lines in order to understand material social processes, De Leonism accepts at face value capitalism’s own propaganda, and fails to take into account the manipulative process by which the ruling class determines the nominees for high office, and how the media is utilized to assure desired electoral outcomes. Furthermore, as we noted in a previous article, “the idea that the proletarian revolution must seek legitimization from the political/juridical process of the enemy class fails to understand that a revolution overturns and crushes those processes; to the revolutionary proletariat there is nothing legitimate about capitalism’s rule” (Internationalism No.104).

De Leonism seems simply incapable of grasping the nature of the Marxist method, of understanding the material conditions under which the proletariat wages its struggle against the bourgeoisie, and develops forms of struggle that correspond to these conditions. For example, as we have argued in previous instalments in this series (see Internationalism No. 115), in the ascendant phase of capitalism, when the system was still an historically progressive mode of production, capable of promoting the further development of productive forces, it was indeed possible for the proletariat to wrest durable reforms from the bourgeoisie in the course of struggle. These conditions made it possible for the workers movement to participate in capitalist elections, as part of the struggle to gain reforms in an epoch when material conditions did not yet favor the posing of proletarian revolution, and in certain circumstances to enter into temporary alliances with certain factions of the bourgeoisie. The changed conditions under which the proletariat struggles against its class enemy in the period of capitalist decadence, beginning around the time of the First World War, in which durable reforms are no longer possible, meant that old forms of struggle (e.g., participation in bourgeois elections) were no longer appropriate. The De Leonists know only that Marx said workers could participate in elections in the 19th century, so therefore they must always do this, even at the beginning of the 21st century, when the conditions under which the class struggles have changed so fundamentally from the late 19th century.

De Leonism’s Rejection of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

De Leonism’s adulation of bourgeois democracy and the belief in peaceful revolution has been accompanied historically by a rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Marx’s use of the term being dismissed as a “mistake.” Yet the writings of Marx and Engels are replete not only with references to the dictatorship of the proletariat as the form of working class rule in the period of transition between capitalism and communism in such key works as The Civil War in France and The Critique of the Gotha Programme , but with an insistence that the conception of the dictatorship is one of Marx’s key, unique contributions to the theoretical arsenal of the working class. The importance that Marx placed on the conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat is demonstrated in this excerpt from correspondence with Weydemeyer, dated Mar 5, 1852: “And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society, nor yet the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle, and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production; 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

In rejecting the dictatorship of the proletariat, the De Leonists deny the necessity of a period of transition between capitalism and communism, and, like the anarchists, believe that the state will disappear overnight. In the case of De Leonism the disappearance of the state will apparently be achieved by a resolution to disband the state and turn society over to the Socialist Industrial Unions.

In his 1891 introduction to republication of the Civil War in France Engels noted that Marx’s text on the Paris Commune, was “a most important work of scientific communism, in which the main Marxist tenets in relation to the class struggle, the State, revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat were further elaborated on the basis of the experience of the Paris Commune…In this work Marx corroborated and further developed his idea on the necessity for the proletariat to break up the bourgeois state machine, set forth in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Marx drew the conclusion that the proletariat should break it up and supersede it by a state of the Paris Commune type. Marx’s conclusion on a new, Paris Commune type of state as the state form of the dictatorship of the proletariat constitutes the essence of his new contribution to revolutionary theory.” (The Civil War in France).

We quote here so heavily from Marx and Engels, not because their texts are biblical scripture, infallible for all time. Quite the contrary, Marx and Engels’ analysis and writings are subject to the crucible of the class struggle. Marx and Engels themselves engaged in this process of measuring theoretical propositions against the concrete experience of the class struggle, as they did in assessing the question of whether workers should capture and use the bourgeois state, or smash it. In theoretical reassessment of the experiences of the class struggle, it is possible to reach the conclusion that on this or that point Marx and Engels were wrong in their analysis. But the approach of the Marxist method would be to identify those positions that were mistaken and had to be discarded, and provide argumentation to prove that they were wrong. However, this is not the method of De Leonism, which, in cult-like fashion maintains the blunders of its founder, and then refuses to acknowledge the contradiction between their dogma and the theoretical legacy of the Marxist movement, and worse, falsifies history to insist that their positions are consistent with Marxism. This type of political dishonesty stands as a total contradiction to the spirit of the Marxist method.

These basic theoretical propositions are not controversial in the revolutionary workers movement, and haven’t been for decades:

  • bourgeoisie democracy is a form of class dictatorship over the working class

  • workers can no longer advance their interests in parliament

  • proletarian revolution requires the violent overthrow of the capitalist state

  • proletarian revolution cannot use the capitalist state for its own purposes, but must destroy it

  • the workers revolution must establish its own class dictatorship, the dictatorship of the proletariat, to rule society in the period of transition between capitalism and communism the workers councils are the historically discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat

Yet all these fundamental Marxist positions are completely alien to the De Leonist current, condemning this political milieu to an unsavory mish mash of semi-anarchist and naïve political perspectives, and rendering them incapable of understanding the historic tasks of the revolutionary workers movement.

JG, 15/05/01