The political legacy of De Leonism (part VI)

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Previous installments in this series have focused on both the positive aspects of Daniel De Leon's political legacy, and the central political and economic incomprehensions of the De Leonist political tendency. This final article will discuss De Leonism's tragic response to the Russian Revolution and the dire political consequences of this tendency's theoretical shortcomings.

De Leonism and the Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution was the most momentous event in the entire history of working class struggle against capitalism domination, more important even than the Paris Commune in 1871. It occurred at the confluence of tremendous social, economic and political forces at the beginning of the 20th century: the onset of the decadent phase of capitalist development, the global imperialist slaughter of World War I, and the revolutionary proletarian response to the historic choice of war or revolution posed by the global capitalist crisis. Capitalism's entry into its decadent phase meant that the system had completed its historic task of creating a world market, and had ceased to be historically progressive, no longer capable of continuing to foster the dramatic development of the productive forces. Instead it had become what Marx had called a fetter on the further development of the productive forces, and posed the necessity of proletarian revolution to push aside the rotten carcass of decaying capitalism and replace it with the dictatorship of the proletariat that could preside over the transformation of society to communism. With the completion of the world market, the only way that any nation could expand was at the expense of a rival, increasing imperialist rivalries and leading to the perspective of imperialist war as the means for survival and expansion for the different national capitals. The first world imperialist war was an unprecedented butchery, consuming more than 20 million lives, most of them civilians, sacrificed in the struggle to re-carve the world market.

In this context, the onset of capitalist decadence opened up serious theoretical tasks for the revolutionary workers movement, to understand the significance of the changed conditions of struggle for the working class, and to adjust the strategy and tactics of the workers movement to these dramatically altered circumstances. De Leonism's response to the changed epoch, as we shall see, was woefully inadequate, and completely cut off from the international revolutionary struggle.

Daniel De Leon died in May 1914, less than three months before the outbreak of the imperialist world war and the collapse of the Second International. Thus, his followers in the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) had to respond without direct guidance from their theoretical benefactor to the disgraceful betrayal of the principles of proletarian internationalism by the major social democratic parties. In general, these parties rallied to the support of their respective bourgeoisies and integrated themselves into their state's efforts to mobilize the working class for the imperialist carnage. The SLP responded with a principled defense of proletarian internationalism, but did not mount an energetic intervention within the proletariat on this question.

When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, the De Leonists were initially supportive, as were proletarian activists throughout the world. But their sympathy with Bolshevism was colored by an exaggerated sense of their own self-importance in regard to events in Russia. For example, Boris Reinstein, a former SLP member, who had returned to Russia on his own, had been named head of the Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda in Moscow. Despite the fact that Reinstein had previously been in disfavor within the SLP because of his willingness to seek unity with the left of Debs' Socialist Party (SP), his position of responsibility in Moscow was viewed as a tribute to the SLP. In addition, in 1918, reports by John Reed upon his return from Russia about Lenin's purported high regard for De Leon also tended to swell the SLP's pride. According to the SLP's Weekly People, Lenin was "a great admirer of Daniel De Leon, considering him the greatest of modern Socialists-the only one who has added anything to Socialist thought since Marx." Whether Reed's reports were accurately reported or whether Reed purposely exaggerated Lenin's "admiration" of De Leon as a tactic to woo the SLP to support the Russian Revolution and eventually join the Third International, is debatable. Lenin was clearly aware of De Leon and the SLP, and on several occasions warned against its sectarianism, while at the same time he envisioned a possible regroupment of the SLP, or at least elements of the SLP, with the left of the SP to form the Communist Party. It is definitely possible that Lenin considered that De Leon's conception of Socialist Industrial Unions vaguely anticipated the soviets, or workers councils, developed by the proletariat in Russia, as the historically discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. There is absolutely no way that Lenin could have abided De Leonism's rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat, refusal to recognize the need for a period of transition between capitalism and communism, insistence that the Socialist Industrial Unions concept was superior to the workers councils developed by the proletariat in the actual struggle, and blind faith in bourgeois democracy and revolution at the ballot box.

The SLP quickly soured on the Russian Revolution because it failed to establish a government of Socialist Industrial Unions, and sought to create a centralized revolutionary movement dedicated to the violent overthrow of capitalism in the formation of the Third International in 1919. The SLP conceded that the Third International was launched "for the purpose of promoting working class revolution, and with no thought that it was to serve merely Russian national interests." (SLP Declaration on the Dissolution of the "Third International"). But they believed that Lenin quickly abandoned this Marxian view, "for the 'Third International' was no more a Marxist International than was Bakunin's ill-famed 'International Alliance of Social Democracy.'" The 21 Points, adopted by the Second Congress of the International as the basis for affiliation with the Third International were denounced as "anti-Marxist and idiotic" by the SLP. For the SLP these revolutionary positions were so irrational, so contradictory to their naïve faith in bourgeois democracy and a peaceful overturn of capitalism, that a large portion of the membership doubted the authenticity of the 21 Points, and the decision was made to send observers to the Third Congress to clarify the situation, and correct the International's "mistaken" views on the conditions of struggle for the working class in advanced democracies like the US. The SLP's opposition did not focus on such significant problems as the union question or the national question, but rather on such issues as centralization, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the necessity to prepare for underground activity in the event of capitalist repression, and the need for political intervention in the military. As the following passage from the SLP's 1943 Declaration on the Dissolution of the "Third International" summarizing the SLP's attitude towards the Third International demonstrates, the SLP considered that the "idiocy" of the 21 Points was so transparent, that no counter arguments were necessary: "From Point No. 1 we cite: "The entire propaganda and agitation must bear a genuinely Communistic character and agree with the program and decisions of the Third International. All the press organs of the party must be managed by responsible Communists who have proved their devotion to the cause of the proletariat." "The dictatorship of the proletariat must not be talked about as if it were an ordinary formula learned by heart, but it must be propagated for in such a way as to make its necessity apparent to every plain worker, soldier and peasant through the facts of daily life, which must be systematically watched by our press and fully utilized from day to day."

"Point No. 3 provided: "In nearly every country of Europe and America the class struggle is entering upon the phase of civil war. Under such circumstances the Communists can have no confidence in bourgeois legality. "It is their duty to create everywhere a parallel illegal organization machine which at the decisive moment will be helpful to the party in fulfilling its duty to the revolution. "In all countries where the Communists, because of a state of siege and because of exceptional laws directed against them, are unable to carry on their whole work legally, it is absolutely necessary to combine legal with illegal activities."

"Point No. 4 imposed this insane obligation: "The duty of spreading Communist ideas includes the special obligation to carry on a vigorous and systematic propaganda in the army. Where this agitation is forbidden by laws of exception it is to be carried on illegally. Renunciation of such activities would be the same as treason to revolutionary duty and would be incompatible with membership in the Third International."

"Comments on what has been cited are superfluous."

The SLP's outright rejection of these basic revolutionary principles illustrate how isolated they were from the international struggle. It's almost impossible for revolutionaries today to imagine an objection to the principle that the organizational press had to communicate the programmatic positions of the international movement. While it is true that much of revolutionary Marxism's legacy on the question of democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat had been obscured by the opportunism of the Second International, the De Leonists showed themselves totally unaware of Lenin's State and Revolution, a landmark text which painstakingly reconstructed the views of Marxism on these questions. To read that revolutionists like the De Leonists were scandalized by the admonition not to be sucked in by bourgeois legality, and to be prepared to respond to legal repression, is almost unbelievable. The De Leonist ability to bury its head in the sand like an ostrich, denying the experience of the American proletariat which suffered bloody repression at the hands of the army, the police, the pinkertons, of the Palmer Raids, is unsurpassed in the history of the working class. And to write that the communist responsibility to carry on propagandistic work in the army is an "insane obligation" is itself an expression of political insanity.

American Exceptionalism and De Leonism's Self Proclaimed Superiority to European Socialism

For the SLP only an International based on De Leonist doctrine was acceptable: "the recognition, endorsement, and active support of … revolutionary, industrial unionism should be made a condition for admission in the new International (from the declaration of the SLP National Executive Committee May 1919). The SLP demonstrated both its strong commitment to American exceptionalism and its difficulty to see the international nature of the class struggle by its insistence that ..."the struggle against capitalism must of necessity differ in each country according to the prevailing conditions - social, political, and economic - the choice of these methods must therefore be left to each country. In the United States, for instance, where the Constitution of the land provides a method for its own amendment, the working class will not and should not voluntarily deprive itself of the political weapon, to utilize the working class ballot to proclaim and to propagate the working class RIGHT and to shield the gathering forces of the working class MIGHT on the industrial field." (ibid). The SLP's observers at the Third Congress of the International were absolutely scandalized when their naïve notion of revolution by constitutional amendment and rejection of workers councils in favor Socialist Industrial Unions were scoffed at by the delegates to the Congress. The SLP chose therefore to remain aloof from the international revolutionary movement, never participating in the struggle of the left against the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the International.

De Leonism's greatest weakness has not been its collection of confused political positions, but its failure to grasp the Marxist revolutionary method. Revolutionary marxists don't necessarily have a priori answers to all questions confronting the workers movement at any given moment in history. What they do have is a method, the marxist method, which enables them to analyze and comprehend reality in order to change it. It's a method that allows revolutionaries to constantly measure the validity of their analyses against the reality of the class struggle, and to modify, update or revamp that analysis accordingly. The De Leonist movement never came close to mastering this method. Instead it reduced Marxism to a dogma, as laid down by its patron saint, Daniel De Leon, producing a narrow, inwardly turned sect, that cut itself off from the rest of the revolutionary Marxist movement. This isolation was not accidental but rather stemmed from the SLP's American exceptionalism, a mistaken view that held that the specificities of the American situation made the class struggle in the US totally unique, and refused to recognize that the experiences of the workers movement in other countries had any applicability to the class struggle in the US.

Despite its confusions and incomprehensions, the De Leonist movement never suffered from an inferiority complex in regard to European socialism. To the contrary, almost laughably, the De Leonists considered themselves to be far superior to the European Marxists in the Second International. As long-time SLP leader Eric Haas explained in an official party text in 1944, the SLP's superiority corresponded directly to the political and economic supremacy of American capitalism in relation to its European counterpart. According to this rather clumsy, vulgar materialism, "Europe…was far behind America in political and industrial development, and the European Socialist movement, not without some logic, reflected this backwardness…Even foremost European Marxian scholars seemed utterly incapable of understanding the significance of the higher point of vantage enjoyed by the SLP…" So even while the SLP was able to recognize that the Second International regrouped a left comprised of revolutionary Marxists, as well as opportunists and reformists, it had nothing but contempt for the European movement in general. For example, in 1904, a membership referendum narrowly defeated, by a slim margin of 25 votes, a resolution not to send a delegate to the Amsterdam Congress of the Second International. Passage of this resolution, supported by De Leon, would have been tantamount to a withdrawal from the International. It was defeated primarily because many SLPers feared that withdrawal would have been misinterpreted as a repudiation of the "sentiment of internationalism." Had it not been for this sentiment, De Leon said, "I would at previous occasions have moved to save the Party the money, the time and, I must say, the delegate the annoyance of sitting in one of these conventions. Even though De Leon and other SLP delegates intervened with the left against Bernstein and Kautsky in the various debates in the International, the Party's quixotic theoretical snobbery cut it off from being influenced by the left, in the Second International.

This disdain for the international movement and the self-induced estrangement from the international left was reflected in the SLP's inadequate response to the outbreak of the imperialist war in 1914. True, the party maintained a formal adherence to proletarian internationalism, denouncing the war as imperialist and refusing to support it. But its sectarian isolation from the mass movement of the proletariat meant that its intervention was largely ineffectual. Unlike the left of the Socialist Party, or the left within the IWW, who openly denounced the war, advocated strikes against military shipments, and supported the Russian Revolution in 1917, and were arrested and imprisoned for their anti-war agitation, the SLP propaganda was never enough of a threat to risk the rancor of the capitalist repressive apparatus.

Despite the betrayal of the social democratic parties in the central countries of Europe and the consequent collapse of the Second International, an SLP membership referendum rejected a motion to disaffiliate from the Second International, on the grounds that it might be possible to revive the International in the postwar period, and the SLP's "prestige would be enhanced by reason of our tried and tested internationalism "(Haas). So, while the proletariat was butchered in Europe, and the international left gave a concrete example of "tried and tested internationalism" as they struggled to rebuild an international effort to oppose the war and end the barbarism, the SLP was content to wait patiently for the war to end, dreaming wistfully of improvements in its prestige in the postwar period. It was so cut off from the international left that it seemed totally unaware of the Kienthal and Zimmerwald conferences aimed at regrouping anti-war socialists. Neither Kienthal or Zimmerwald are mentioned in Haas's The Socialist Labor Party and the Internationals. It wasn't until 1919, five years after the outbreak of the war and nearly two years after the Russian Revolution, that the SLP decided that the Second International was irredeemable and officially ended its affiliation. But as we have seen sectarian blindness left the De Leonists unable to see the need to regroup with the rest of the revolutionary Marxist left in the midst of an international revolutionary wave.

It is a basic tenet of the workers movement that "proletarian revolutions…. criticize themselves constantly; constantly interrupt themselves in their course; come back to what seems to have been accomplished, in order to start anew; scorn with cruel thoroughness the half measures, weaknesses and meannesses of their first attempts…" This basic axiom of the workers movement has proven beyond the comprehension of the De Leonist tendency. Everything De Leon ever said or did is beyond reproach, every half-baked, mistaken idea is sacrosanct, regardless that the entire experience of the working class movement might contradict it. Despite its confusions, De Leonism never crossed the class line. In every imperialist war, perhaps saved by the very political sclerosis that prevents it from self-critiquing its own history, this tendency has always defended a proletarian internationalist position. De Leonism's American exceptionalism and sectarianism cut it off from the international workers movement, and thus left it incapable of drawing the lessons of the class struggle of the entire 20th century. De Leonism never pondered the meaning of capitalist decadence for the class struggle, the nature of the global crisis, the changed conditions for the class struggle, the rise of state capitalism, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the role of the revolutionary party in the development of class consciousness, or any of the other burning issues that were debated and discussed by the communist left throughout the 20th century. For the De Leonists it's as if the 20th century never happened. All the positions that De Leon advocated in 1898 and 1903 are as applicable today as they ever were. De Leon's confusions at the turn of the last century may have been honest errors, but to repeat those same errors a hundred years later at the dawn of the 21st century, and ignore the lessons of working class experience, reduces De Leonism to an anachronistic sect. This is especially tragic because there are genuine militants who are still drawn to De Leonism in part because of its opposition to reformism, its rejection of Stalinism and its peculiar American exceptionalism. But in reality De Leonism offers only the perspective of being mired in a swamp of confusion, and an inability to play any significant role in the difficult struggle of the world working class to confront and overthrow the system of capitalist exploitation and replace it with a society controlled by the working class itself, that will make the creation of a genuine human community in which social need, not the profit motive, will predominate.

Jerry Grevin, 23/7/01.