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Daniel de Leon and American socialism

8 June, 2020 · History

Socialist militant, SLP (“Socialist Labor Party”) leader and founder of the IWW (“Industrial Workers of the World”), he established the criticism of the trade union bureaucracy within the Second International. To recover his history is to recover that of socialism in the United States.

Training and life before his militancy

Daniel de Leon was born on December 14, 1852, nine years before the abolition of slavery, on Curaçao, the main island of the Dutch Antilles, then still under the formal sovereignty of Venezuela to which it would legally belong until 1903. His father was a sergeant in the Dutch colonial army. His position enabled Daniel de Leon to travel to Europe in 1866 to study at a gymnasium in Hildeshein (Germany) and later at the University of Leiden where he studied medicine without graduating.

He migrated sometime between 1872 and 1874 to the United States where he was associate editor of a pro-liberation Cuban newspaper in Spanish while teaching in Westchester, New York. A couple of years later, he graduated with honors from Columbia Law School and earned the position of professor of international law at Columbia College for six years, teaching on the history and role of European diplomacy in Latin America. As a young professor, he joined the “mugwumps”, a petty-bourgeois anti-corruption movement born of the Republican Party which, rejecting the financial scheming of Republican candidate James G. Blaine, supported Democrat Grover Cleveland in the 1884 presidential elections.

After his first political experience, and surely driven by the social insensitivity of his comrades, Leon became enthusiastic about Henry George’s “populist” movement, which proposed a single tax, reserved for landowners, as a solution to the “social problem”. He participated in the Georgian election campaign for mayor of New York in 1886.

But his ideological evolution was far from over. In 1890 he joined the “Socialist Labor Party” (SLP). The SLP was the heir to the WPUS (“Workingmen’s Party of the United States”), the first American socialist party.

The American party before Daniel de Leon

“Workers Party of the United States” (WPUS) logo, 1877.

The WPUS was born from two currents: the Marxist one, the so-called “Internationalists” because they were members of the I International (IWA), and the Lasallian one. The Marxists understood the struggle for economic improvements and the parliamentary struggle as two facets of the same process, while the Lassalians – following the theory of the “iron law of salaries” of Say and Lassalle – saw the struggle for better salaries as useless. After the demise of the IWA, both tendencies joined together in Germany to form the SPD at the famous congress in Gotha.

So when the nineteen American sections of the International met in 1876, the founding of the German party was the model to follow. At that time, the class vanguard in the country consisted mainly of German immigrants and most of the workers’ press was published in German. The platform of the Internationalists, which pushed trade union activity and the need to delay electoral activity until the party was sufficiently mature, eventually prevailed in the debates. The Lassalleans, however, won most of the seats on the national executive committee and Philip Van Patten, a Lassallean, became the first secretary of the party born of the conference: the WPUS.

Workers’ rally in New York in support of the railroad strike, 1877

But in 1877 the great railroad strike, the first nationwide workers’ movement, broke out. The movement became strong in some cities, such as St. Louis, where workers united in large assemblies organized by the party that occupied entire areas of the city. Black workers unite and in a short time more and more apply to join the party. The local leadership of the WPUS, of Lassallean leaning, not only refuses their entry, but ends up canceling the assemblies to stop the merger of all the workers as a class. Because, in contrast to the local WPUS leadership, the strikers welcomed the Black proletarians with open arms. The mass meetings that the WPUS ended up canceling were the tool with which the workers could materialize in the struggle the centralism that is essential to their constitution as a political class, as a revolutionary subject. The strength of the striking workers, their organization, was disrupted by this. Instead of responding to the experience of the strike and its demands, the WPUS behaved like a head divorced from its body.

It represented Lassalleanism to the last strata of the artisans falling into either the petty bourgeoisie or the proletariat, between the conversion of the feudal privilege of the skilled worker into the petty bourgeoisie and its proletarianization as a low-skilled worker within a chain whose aim was to reproduce money in capital through surplus value. He thus expressed ambiguous, if not openly reactionary, aspirations, such as that the bourgeois state should take “socialist measures” by creating cooperatives or providing child education, ideas which the Marxists in the German party will have to face from the moment of the merger and even for a long time, as can be seen in the Criticism of the Gotha program by Marx and that of the Erfurt program by Engels.

Transplanted to the conditions of the American South, that attachment to the feudal and identitarian distinction of the artisan, that faded aspiration to a democratic petty bourgeoisie, became racism and defense at all costs of small property hand in hand with the state. The Lassallean leadership went so far as to affirm that it would collaborate with the state authorities to avoid damage to property. Instead of helping in the force and disciplined organization of the workers, the Lassalleans ended up dividing and paralyzing the workers to support the rule of law and the state.

But obviously, the state was not going to correspond to their aspirations. Missouri Governor John S. Phelps ordered the general responsible for the administrative apparatus to distribute arms to St. Louis authorities and to:

remove the ammunition that was recently sent by my orders, to be temporarily delivered to the citizens who were asked to help the civil authorities to preserve the public peace.

Repression by the army of the 1877 railway strike

The Governor of Missouri then issued a proclamation ordering the striking workers to disband. The Executive Committee responded that the strikers would not disband until their demands were met, but to the workers it simply issued an appeal asking for patience. In the end, municipal and federal forces eventually entered the city and suppressed the strike on July 27 and 28. Strikes in the other states of the United States were also suppressed at about the same time.

The actions of the executive committee, its conciliatory position towards the mayor, its attempt to appeal to local business people, the shameless racism and its attempt to moderate the resistance to the repression, expressed one of the poles towards which Lasallean social democracy may be leaning. Faced with proletarianization, the last artisans could fantasize about becoming petty bourgeois with the help of the state or accepting their inescapable future as proletariat. The St. Louis Executive Committee took the first path, even at the cost of increasing confrontations and clashes with the party base and the movement. The accentuation end of Lasalleanism, between [[petty bourgeoisie] and proletariat, between past and future, in the end, between state and class, was thus staged in the USA, tens of thousands of kilometers from the Germany in which it was born and seven years after the Paris Commune.

Platform and resolutions of the 1877 congress which changes the name of WPUS to SLP.

But the railway workers’ strike was not limited to St. Louis, nor did it serve only to show the theoretical and moral collapse of Lassalleanism. In fact, it was the first mass strike in the United States, the first demonstration of the working class as a political subject capable of asserting itself, as the Manifesto says, on a national level, that is, in the whole territory and in front of the national state as a whole. A new historical epoch was opening in the development of the labor movement in the US, answering the expectations that Marx himself had shared with Engels in the first moments of the railroad strike.

What do you think of the workers in the United States? This first eruption against the oligarchy of associated capital that has emerged since the Civil War will, of course, be suppressed, but it could be the starting point for the establishment of a serious workers party in the United States.

And indeed, the WPUS won a large number of votes for the first time in the fall election of 1877 after reconsidering the position adopted at its founding conference only a year earlier. The change in tactics was accompanied by a change in name. The SLP continued to grow until it reached 10,000 members in 1879, spread over a hundred sections. At the same time, from the experience of the 1877 strike, the unions grew massively in both size and membership. As mentioned above, between 1879 and 1880, the membership of the “Knights of Labor” grew from 9,000 to 28,000 members. And in 1885, it would already have 111,000 members.

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On the other hand, the great strike of 1877 raised the issue of political violence. The violence of the capitalist class and the incompatibility between labor and capital had been clearly demonstrated, but with the structure of mass assemblies dismantled, paramilitary groups such as the “Lehr-und-Wehr Verein,” the “Bohemian shooters,” the “Jaeger Verein” or the “Irish workers guards” expanded in Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, and, significantly, in St. Louis. Most of them in cities where workers had suffered or were suffering from police repression.

A significant number of members of the “Socialist Labor Party” (SLP) participated in these armed groups, which caused a great deal of controversy within the party itself. The National Executive Committee of the SLP considered that the paramilitary groups were in contradiction with socialist policy and objectives. They ended up ordering party members to leave them, causing their newspapers, “Arbeiter-Zeitung” and “Vorbote”, to denounce them for “interfering with the rights of party members”. But the discussion remained open and the Allegheny convention in December 1879 became a heated debate on the subject. Albert Parsons, known for his participation in the strike of ’77 and later disillusioned with the SLP and becoming an anarchist, tried to win a vote of no confidence against the National Executive Committee for its ban on the participation of SLP members in paramilitary groups. Philip Van Patten, the party’s Lassallean secretary, demanded that the delegates make a “definitive claim” to their position. In the end, the party leadership stood and Philip Van Patten was re-elected as national secretary.

Torn between a Lassallean leadership and an opposition that was sometimes nationalist and sometimes anarchist, the party had failed to assert independent class politics even in the electoral arena, leaving more and more members disillusioned. The SLP did not even run in the elections alone but always sought to rely on populist and petty-bourgeois parties. Like the PSOE in Spain and its “republican coalition,” it signed the “greenback compromise,” a temporary alliance with the agrarian populists. To top it all off, the 1880 campaign in which judges Walsh and Gibbs filled the ballot box for their candidate J.J. Grath to win the election outraged thousands of workers and led them to wonder whether it was worth mobilizing for the election when the election itself proved to be an obviously rigged terrain for the local bourgeoisie.

Philip Van Patten

Many SLP members ended up joining the “social-revolutionary clubs”. Philip Van Patten rightly argued that members of these clubs could not be members of the SLP because their apoliticism and defense of paramilitary organizations were irreconcilable with a labor party. But as electoral failures followed, anarchism grew. Only a year after Van Patten’s stand against the revolutionary clubs, Johann Most, a Bakuninist German immigrant who would propel anarchism among the workers by multiplying its strength and influence, arrived in the United States. Johann Most promoted terrorist tactics, rejected the wage struggle and participation in elections.

Lassalleanism, with no theoretical basis for a political response to anarchism, still tied to Lassallean demands such as the organization of labor cooperatives by the state, ended up decentralizing its organizational structure and supporting Henry George’s campaign. As Engels pointed out, the best way to get rid of the political confusion and overcome illusions such as the “Single-Tax” of the georgists was to get moving and learn from their own mistakes. Clarity is not achieved by an organization that yields to confusion in order to gain or maintain membership, but neither is it achieved by an organization isolated from the class struggle, in search of a politically “perfect” line. Only after the “Volkszeitung coup” of 1889, with the rejection of Henry George’s platform and the entry of Daniel de Leon into the party, would the SLP become part of the class struggle in the U.S.

Issue of the 1917 New Yorker Volkszeitung announcing Trotsky’s arrival from Spain.

The New Yorker Volkszeitung, an independent newspaper that was composed of SLP members and appeared one year after the railway strike of 1877, was to play an important role in the further development of the party. The Volkszeitung had started with a capital of $1,100 donated by the SLP. The newspaper was maintained through individual subscribers and financial support from the unions, which would later bring the group closer to the “American Federation of Labor” (AFL). The electoral disaster of 1887 convinced the team of the Volkszeitung that conditions were not conducive to electoral participation. W.L. Rosenberg and the majority of the National Executive Committee of the SLP, on the other hand, were reluctant to join the unions and wanted the SLP to maintain independent political and electoral action. So, for the first time, the SLP participated in a nationwide election alone, although it achieved very poor results.

In contrast, the tendency grouped around the Volkszeitung was reinforced by its pro-union position as the struggle for the eight-hour working day spread. In the New York Section of the General Assembly, they obtained a majority, dismissed Rosenberg and elected three new members to the National Executive Committee. At the party’s convention, a new majority changed the orientation by supporting, without any reservations, the eight-hour movement and by finally eliminating the Lasallean slogan for government-funded co-operatives. All this was happening a year before Daniel de Leon entered the SLP.

Daniel de Leon, from georgism to communist militancy

Daniel de Leon had been a delegate to the founding convention of the ULP (“United Labor Party”), the party created by the Central Labor Union (CLU) to present Henry George as a candidate for the U.S. presidency within which the SLP acted as an affiliated organization. At the University he was president of the Georgist Club at Columbia College and a member of the “Anti-Poverty Society”, an organization created by a Georgist priest.

Thanks to the support of anarchists and socialists, George won an unexpected 68,000 votes in the 1886 New York City elections. The press immediately accused him of being “socialist,” threatening to inhibit the vote of the urban petty bourgeoisie he aspired to. So in the 1887 program Henry George focused his program on tax reform by eliminating demands for labor improvements. The SLP took a stand against this, but ended up being expelled from the ULP. The split, which would drag down not only SLP members but also CLU workers, would lead to the founding of the “Progressive Labor Party” which nominated its own candidates without finding any significant electoral resonance, barely 5,000 votes, practically all of them in New York.

Soon, support for the Georgian “single tax” began to wane. Daniel de Leon began to feel demoralized. He believed that Henry George’s movement could rid society once and for all of that “small minority” that had “no interest in our welfare”; he believed that georgism was the weapon to use against those “professional politicians whose headquarters are in the rum and grog shops, with posts in the slums of our city, recruiting their strength from the criminal classes and eventually swelling the ranks of those classes”.

De Leon had become politically involved in a petty-bourgeois movement, but the concerns, the communist morality] that moved him, were not those of a “mugwump” fighting “corruption” to gain public office and maintain social relevance. He was seeking a truly humane world without the degradation and destruction that inevitably results from the widespread [[commodification imposed by the capitalist system.

His experience in the georgist movement had brought him into contact with the socialists. He immersed himself in socialist literature and began to develop a critique of the “single-tax” movement. In 1889, the utopian novel “Looking backward: 2000-1887” by Edward Bellamy was published. The book had a profound impact on him and opened a period of transition in his evolution between his georgist beginnings and his assimilation of Marxism.

Illustration by Alfred Morris for the original edition of “Looking Backward” by Edward Bellamy.

The novel had spawned the so-called “nationalist” movement. “Nationalist clubs” were spreading throughout the United States. They were called “nationalists” for advocating the nationalization of industry as advocated by Bellamy’s utopia. Bellamy was actually as far from socialism as Henry George, but in the clubs a left wing emerged that interpreted the promise of nationalization as a task for the workers.

The novel nationalizes all industry in the United States, drastically reduces the working hours of those who do undesirable work, all receive “credits” that allow them to buy products in the public store; all except the President retire at age 45 and those who are not disabled must work from the age of majority, at 21, until they reach 45, forming the “industrial army”.

The Bellamite society was not the product of a revolution, but rather the acceptance by both the exploiting and the exploited class that the problems of society could be solved by organizing society “rationally” from the state. The transformation to state capitalism would have been an “evolution” completed by “the final consolidation of all the capital of the nation.

The country’s industry and commerce, ceasing to be run by a set of irresponsible corporations of private persons with their whims and purposes of profit, were entrusted to a single grouping representing the people, to be run in the common interest for the common good. The nation, that is, was organized as the only large business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the sole capitalist instead of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the ultimate monopoly in which all previous and minor monopolies were absorbed, a monopoly in which all citizens shared in the profits. The era of trusts had ended in the Great Trust.

In Bellamy’s story, state capitalism had emerged in the United States and had subsequently spread to European countries, Mexico, Australia and parts of South America. The exchange of products between countries was regulated according to the principle of necessity. In the book, although the state is described as the sole capitalist, the problems that inevitably accompany a capitalist society do not exist in society. The culture is communitarian. It rejects competition and individualism and embraces the logic of abundance, the satisfaction of the needs of each individual.

Bellamy’s utopia precipitated Daniel de Leon’s break with georgism. In reality, what the book described was nothing more than an ultra-centralized state capitalism around the old political apparatus of American democracy. But what opened up a world for him was the vision of a society of abundance capable of providing “to each according to his needs”. It is significant that at that time he argued against the “single tax” theory from a moral rather than an economic perspective.

I don’t want to discuss here the economics of the gospel of the single tax. On the contrary. To make my point clear [for the sake of argument] I will concede… that all the premises and all the economic deductions of the single tax theory are sound… What would be the standard of morality in the social system of the single tax? Wealth [would] be produced, as at present, with a single eye to profit and not to the welfare of one’s fellow man.

Compared to Henry George’s single tax scheme, Bellamy’s utopia seemed to come closer to that human world that Daniel de Leon dreamed of. It was a world of abundance that reorganized production to meet human needs, a centralized world where the human species was no longer fragmented but cooperated as a self-aware species. But the “nationalist” clubs would soon disappoint him when he discovered that they would be of no practical use to the workers and that their members, mostly from the petty bourgeoisie, were satisfied with maintaining them as mere debating societies. In an open letter to the director of one of them, he stated thus:

This is not the time for speeches or phraseology… agitation should be our tribune and the masses our audience. Therefore, we should devote all our free time, means and efforts to those environments… talking is not only useless and superfluous, but I believe it is positively harmful in these times.

Similarly, the electoral strategy of the Bellamists, like that of the SLP before Daniel de Leon joined, was very dependent on other parties and movements. The “nationalists” had written to Daniel de Leon trying to convince him to persuade other “nationalists” not to run for mayor that fall. Why? Because they were determined to support the “citizens’ movement” and did not want to challenge it with a competing party. But he, by this time, was already far from his “mugwump” past. The “citizens’ movement” repulsed him and he began to feel that his convictions and aspirations were destined to clash with the “nationalists”.

You will always find people with no real interest in the welfare of our city; people who, although they say that New York is their residence, are, in fact, absent most of the time: in winter, for one reason, in summer for another, in Florida, on the Narrangansett wharf, or in Europe; people – many of them members of the parish council – who hoard the property of the tenement houses; gamble on food, have an interest in the liquor industry, hold shares in factories where men barely earn anything a day, women earn much less, and where child labor flourishes; who control our municipal and state railroads through shares, and who corrupt our legislatures. In short, they are the kind of people, along with their parasites, who cause our city’s misery, and who thrive in it.

From time to time this class abandons their usual names – county Democrats, civil service reformers, Republicans, or whatever – and presents themselves as “citizens” to “clean up the city. But such is the mixture of ignorance and dishonesty among them that they never think of eliminating any of the causes of the abuses for which they are outraged.

Look at them this autumn and you will not hear a word in support of a good school infrastructure; of compulsory education up to at least 16 years of age; of factory and shop legislation against child labor; of city ownership of the railways, gas stations, telegraphs, etc.; of detailed health regulations for the homes of the poor; of the enforcement of an eight-hour law on city works; or in support of any of the many things that would compensate for individual welfare, and thus diminish the sources of civic corruption.

Quite the contrary! These so-called “citizens” would have their cake and still eat it. They are bent on continuing to profit, unchecked, from the sweat of others’ brow, as well as from their corrupt practices, and yet they will oppose the natural consequences.

Tammany is bad enough, God knows: but Tammany is only the natural outcome of “citizens”. How could nationalists, in decency, associate with such people?

He tried to promote the idea that the movement should assert itself from its political independence. Already at that time he claimed that “independent political action” was the “only way to solve the workers’ problem”, so he urged “nationalists” to contribute to the formation of a party that would serve as a “factor of the country’s political struggles”.

May this period pass quickly and the period of action, of independent political action, is near, the growth of the movement manifests itself and the inclination of its members becomes inevitable. However, for this purpose, a more concrete platform is needed. As soon as a good majority of states can be represented at a national conference, the National Conference of the Union will be convened; and from that moment on the helmet of the propaganda party will be discarded and it will become a factor of the country’s political struggles, a factor of irresistible power.

He denounced both the Republican and Democratic parties as representing capitalist interests and began to assert the need for a new party to fight for a “new era.

The social stage of civilization based on the wage system is coming to an end; a more humane stage, made possible by great inventions, is about to take its place; and issues different from those that applied until now are now prevailing in the public mind.

However, both the Democratic and Republican parties, with their various factions in this city, remain divided on hollow issues, or on issues that only take into account the interests of the landowning and capitalist classes. This was also not surprising.

Political parties or classes that have outlived their era cannot readjust to changing conditions or recognize themselves as obsolete. Neither the Whig Party nor the Democratic Party of a generation ago would or could have addressed the issue of slavery. A new party, imbued with the new idea, was necessary and emerged. Neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party could face the irrepressible conflict that we face today.

They live on the memories of the past; even the so-called “reformist” parties that periodically break away from their ranks, like the “citizens,” etc., retaining the worst features of both, lacking the redeeming qualities of either, and exemplifying, with their clichés and dilettantism, the imbecility of the ruling class. Now, as in the days of Fremont and Lincoln, conditions demand a new and vigorous party; a party conscious of the needs of our time, and determined to carry out its demands.

His activism in the bellamist clubs had brought him closer to some of the SLP members involved in them such as Lucien Sanial and Charles Sotheran, who were part of the No. 1 Club in New York. With them he campaigned for an independent political action and around them a small left wing of bellamism was formed… which had to accept the reality: the movement born from the success of “Looking backward” was not fighting for the same thing as them. The SLP was the natural destiny of all of them.

Daniel de Leon in the SLP

The professors at Columbia College considered Daniel de Leon a nuisance: he defended the victims of the Haymarket repression, was an enthusiastic georgist first and a bellamist later. The university ended up deciding not to renew his tenure after two three-year terms. He left university life in 1890. He would not come back.

In 1891 he embarked on a tour of lectures from coast to coast as a speaker for the SLP, which then began its phase of “penetration from within [the unions]” (1891-94). Aware of the importance of the wage struggle, the SLP tries to gain influence with the Knights of Labor (KOL) and the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Knights of Labor

The KOLs originated in the early 1960s, when Uriah Stephens and other members of a small textile cutters’ union reacted against the decline of their guild by creating a secret brotherhood that, like so many others at the time, made intensive use of rituals and ceremonies. They did not become a public union until 1879. Its original name was “Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor”. Not in vain, its founder, Uriah Stephens, was a Mason and a member of several para-masonic organizations such as the “Odd Fellows” or the “Knights of Pythias”. The co-founders, the secretary general and Terence Powderly, who would become the “Grand Master Worker” of the KOL in 1879, also belonged to several fraternities and secret societies. From the Anglo-Saxon Freemasonry that was at its root and from the vast and colorful American para-masonic world of which they were a part, they inherited not only ritualism, but also restrictions such as the non-admission of women and above all an open social harmonism. If the KOLs had any socialist tendencies, they were certainly not to be found in the national leadership.

Since its foundation, they accepted workers from all trades, not just cutters. They recruited mainly from places that had suffered from the collapse of the national trade unions in 1873. They expanded into Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, but never further west than Pittsburgh. The Order’s secrecy, however, soon became a burden. The repression of the “Molly Maguires,” an Irish secret society that articulated the resistance of the Pennsylvania miners, raised suspicions about any workers’ secret society. In addition, the secret nature of the order made it difficult to gain new members. An 1875 petition from Local Assembly 82, for example, detailed the difficulties of recruitment, asking its district assembly to “take steps to make the name of the Order public, so that the workers may know of its existence”.

Once the KOLs made their organization public and open, they restructured it to accommodate a lot more workers in their ranks. Unlike many other US unions at the time, they began to accept unskilled workers, women and blacks. Stripped of their old mystical skin, they became a union capable of playing an extraordinarily significant role in the American labor movement. The key: they kept the paramasonic organization in local instead of trade sections, that is, they broke the division by trade of the craft unions. By going public and opening the gates of their local groups, they had gained the ability to organize the majority of the working class.

Marx and Engels believed that such a trade union movement, which transcended the limits of the division into trades, played at that time an essential role in the constitution of the proletariat into a class. Not surprisingly, Engels believed that, for the American labor movement to prosper, socialists needed to work with and in the “Knights of Labor”. Engels pointed out that the union was not only a genuine expression of the proletariat in the US but was its first unitary organization of national scope. He saw its many internal tensions as a natural occurrence in an organization that was still trying to find its political leadership. For that very reason, the SLP members decided to “penetrate” the KOLs to push them “from within”. Daniel de Leon joined the Assembly of KOL District 49 and soon became a reference. Some of these delegates joined the SLP.

The KOL was weighted down by a right-wing leadership, represented by Terence Powderly, who promoted a xenophobic policy towards the Chinese “coolies” and rejected the use of the strike. The working class being a universal class, its movement must overcome not only the craft divisions, but also the false “racial” and “national” divisions. Strikes must start from their own needs regardless of the divisions that capital imposes on the workplace in order to make its own domination more effective.

Therefore, the removal of Terence Powderly from the leadership became one of the goals of the socialists in the KOL. The attempt, however, ended in failure because, although Terence Powderly left the leadership of the union, his replacement devoted himself to propagating the latest petty-bourgeois left fad in the official KOL newspaper: “free silver”, the idea that an expansionist monetary policy, based on abandoning the gold standard and adopting silver as a guarantee of currency, would accelerate economic growth. What was even worse, H.B. Martin got the job as editor of the union newspaper, getting paid by the Democratic Party for publishing Democratic propaganda in there. Later, at the 1895 general assembly, the representatives of Local Assembly 1563, the grouping in which Daniel de León and the core of SLP members were active, were dismissed amidst a barrage of corrupt maneuvers.

The AFL experience was no better. The AFL, unlike the KOL, organized only skilled workers, effectively excluding women, blacks and immigrants. Not surprisingly, it shared the KOL leadership’s position on Chinese workers. Its model was defined as “plain and simple unionism”, i.e. it rejected political activity.

Its model of national organization represented a step backwards from a transversal industrial unionism capable of uniting different trades at the national level, to a “professional” model in which “national” unions represented the particular interests of a particular skilled group. Following the model of the “Congress of British Trade Unions”, the AFL emphasized collective bargaining, high membership fees and craft particularism, thus expressing the will to artificially assert a “guild” difference in the face of the vast majority of the class, which was made up of millions of immigrants in unskilled jobs. In fact, in 1897, the AFL supported a literacy test for immigrants in order to reduce the arrivals of new batches of workers to the United States; and in 1898, the AFL convention passed a resolution opposing the organization of working women, which it also saw as potential competition and sent back to the household. They were the expression of the inertia of the last guild resistance to proletarianization, with the same basis we already pointed out in Lassalleanism.

These examples of the destructive role that the AFL played in the labor movement convey very well the continuity of a certain guild, feudal, reactionary perspective after all, which sees in the development and growth of the working class a danger for the wages and status of skilled workers. In the new industrial conditions the tradition of the monopoly of craft, with its technical secrets and the importance of the continuity of knowledge in the guild, could only turn into sexism, racism, xenophobia and in general any form of exclusion. What is more, these reactionary tendencies will inevitably be reproduced again and again in trade unions which apparently consolidate, in an inevitable illusion of class collaboration between their leaderships and the employers, relative advantages for a certain group of workers. Engels was able to observe as early as 1871 the obstacle that this kind of trade union could pose to the workers’ movement.

The trade union movement, among all the big, strong and rich trade unions, has become more of an obstacle to the general movement than an instrument of progress; and outside the trade unions there is an immense mass of workers in London who have remained quite distant from the political movement for several years, and as a result are very ignorant. But on the other hand they are also free from many of the traditional prejudices of the trade unions and the other old sects, and therefore form excellent material to work with.

However, the AFL was a massive and influential union and seemed full of potential. In 1894, an independent political platform was adopted by internal referendum. The platform contained ten points: the tenth point called for collective ownership of all means of production and distribution. The referendum was encouraged by unions affiliated with the AFL, including the cigar makers’ union and the printers’ union. However, the subsequent national convention in Denver discarded its results completely.

SLP members were not the only ones trying to revolutionize the AFL from within. The Central Labor Federation had also tried, though without success. In 1890 the “Central Labor Federation” (CLF) was formed. This was a centralizing union body that promoted a “new unionism”. It emphasized independent political action as well as the economic organization of the working class. A clause in the CLF’s founding documents stated that

Every union affiliated to this Central Federation of Labor of New York declares that it opposes the existing political parties of the capitalists, and favors independent political action by organized workers.

The CLF merged with the “Central Labor Union” (CLU) in 1889, but they separated again in 1890 during the 1889 election campaign. Both the “Workmen’s Advocate” and the “Volkszeitung”, the two main socialist newspapers of the time, denounced the corruption of the CLU during this campaign. In retaliation, the CLU expelled the reporters of both newspapers, which in turn led to the CLF’s separation from the CLU. The CLF then attempted to regain its former membership in the AFL. Samuel Gompers refused on the grounds that the CLF had admitted SLP members as delegates, which he said contradicted the apolitical nature of the AFL. The CLF, along with the SLP, then realized that a break with Gompers’ “pure and simple” unionism was necessary to ensure the advancement of the labor movement.

Parallel to the FLC, organizations of a new kind were emerging. The “United Central Labor Federations” (UCLF) had a close relationship with the SLP and prohibited its central organizations from “supporting candidates of any party other than a bona fide labor party” or allowing “any of its constituents to do so”. Two years later, the New York FLC proposed the formation of a national union composed of central organizations. The UCLF’s general executive board printed 200 letters to promote the idea among the central bodies of each union.

Thus the “Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance” (ST&LA) was formed. It brings together the UCLF, the Assembly of the 49th District of the KOL, which was the heart of its socialist tendency, the CLF, the “Socialist Labor Federation”, the “United Hebrew Trades”, and a small central in New Jersey.

It is 1894 and the SLP then decides to end its policy of “penetration” into KOL and AFL. They had concluded that they could not be “revolutionized” from within because their problems were systemic. The AFL and KOL had become an obstacle to the development of the class struggle in the U.S. The isolation of the socialist faction in them demonstrated the impossibility of modifying the trajectory and political practice of the powerful “union leaders” and above all, the overwhelming ordinariness of an organizational practice that showed the strength and deepening of the artificial divisions imposed on the workers (qualification, origin, sex, race…).

The “new trade unionism” that Engels spoke of in those years was a natural consequence of the need to advance the class movement. It was the majority of the class, the unskilled workers in the factories, who were the driving force behind the formation of these new trade unions, which surpassed the craftsmen’s unions that had been converted into trade unions. That is why the new unions had a different political perspective. The old unions expressed an exclusionary and artisan logic of “guild defence” against proletarianization, which could only see in the new groups of unskilled workers joining production (women, blacks, new migrants) “unfair competition”. The “new unions” instead represented the future of homogenization and massification of the working class that was beginning to take shape. Thus, while the British-style professional unions gave a central role to being “recognized institutions,” promoting the “apoliticism” or at least the “political neutrality” of the union, the new organizations, aimed at mobilizing the proletariat as a class, not as a sum of trades, instinctively fought for an independent political existence.

In 1886 the party held its ninth annual convention, the first of truly national scope, at the Grand Central Palace in New York. For the first time, the vast majority of members, from the 12 most industrialized states, were represented by 90 directly elected delegates to their assemblies, rather than by New Yorkers who took their votes because of the inability to finance travel from the states.

On the third day of the convention, after Hugo Vogt, the delegate from ST&LA, gave a speech explaining the union situation, Daniel de Leon proposed the following resolution

Considering that both the AFL and KOL, or what is left of them, have fallen hopelessly into the hands of dishonest and ignorant leaders;

Considering that these bodies have become the bulwarks of capitalism, against which every intelligent effort of the working class to emancipate itself has so far fallen to pieces;

Whereas the policy of “propitiating” the leaders of these organizations has long been espoused by the progressive movement, and is largely responsible for the power these leaders have exercised in protecting capitalism and selling out the workers;

Whereas no trade union organization can achieve anything for workers that does not proceed from the principle that an irrepressible conflict is waged between the capitalist and the working class, a conflict that can only be resolved by the overthrow of the former and the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth; and

Whereas, the conflict is essentially political, requiring the combined political and economic efforts of the working class;

We resolve that we celebrate with absolute joy the formation of the “Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance” as a giant step towards throwing off the yoke of wage slavery and the class of capitalist thieves. We call on the socialists of the country to bring the revolutionary spirit of the ST&LA to all workers’ organizations, and thus to consolidate and concentrate the proletariat of America into an irresistible class-conscious army, equipped with both the shield of economic organization and the sword of the vote of the Socialist Labor Party.

The conference also included supporters of maintaining activity in the AFL such as G.A. Hoehn, Erasmus Pelenz, or Frank Sieverman. But despite their opposition, Daniel de Leon’s resolution was approved by an overwhelming majority of 71 to 6.

The great panic and the ST&LA’s harassment

ST&LA


In the 1892 ninth congressional district campaign, Daniel de Leon would receive 4,300 votes, a clear advance for the SLP that showed that confronting the old union model mobilized the working base. But in 1893 the “great panic” broke out, the last great crisis of rising capitalism. Unemployment rose from 3 to 14.5% in 1896. There is a certain disbanding of the proletariat and mass expropriations in the countryside. The “free silver” movement becomes the political fashion of the petty bourgeoisie and drags in workers who cling to any hope of rapid relief. In that year’s election, Leon won a comparatively smaller but still numerically significant number of votes, especially in a tremendously polarized atmosphere around the populist (“People’s Party”) William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan, although defeated on Election Day, was the most popular candidate. His defeat was due to the pressure of the superior economic power of the industrial capitalists against the power of the middle class backed by the silver-mining barons. The workers in the industrial centers were threatened by the closure of mills and factories in case they did not vote against Bryan.

The populist defeat in the midst of the economic crisis opened up an opportunity for the SLP and the ST&LA… that did not go unnoticed by the union leaderships. The “liberals” who had joined the ST&LA were bribed with promises of good union jobs if they turned against the organization: the CLU “compensated” Ernest Bohm with a pension and the job of CLU registrar. Men like Morris Hillquit, who was a lawyer and would later become a speculator on Wall Street, or Abraham Cahan who became richer with the union movement, saw in Daniel de Leon the force that had to be defeated to stop the growing danger of a development of the ST&LA, singled him out and began a campaign of disqualification. Those in the “Volkszeitung”, whose income came from the “pure and simple” trade unions since they depended on their donations and financial contributions, joined in denouncing the “tyranny” of Daniel de Leon, which they labeled “DeLeonism” and held responsible for having led to the “division” of the trade union movement.

The Volkszeitung supported the position taken by the party, but in a half-hearted manner, and in secret its editors and reports, of which there were more than a handful, sided with the opposition. They had already lost some advertisements from the ” pure and simple ” trade unions in their newspaper, not to mention the donations to the Volkszeitung, as there were many of these so-called progressive trade unions that donated a sum to the party or to the Volkszeitung Conference, an organization of delegates from various trade unions and charitable societies set up for the special purpose of keeping the Volkszeitung alive. Such a donation gave the donating “progressive trade union” absolution for the sins committed and those to be committed against the socialist movement.

The opposition began its smear campaign against the SLP by calling the ST&LA an opposition union (“forgetting” conveniently that the AFL operated as an “opposition union” to the KOL) and scaring workers into thinking that the ST&LA, by weakening the influence of these “pure and simple” unions, would make them more vulnerable to the capitalists’ attacks. They accused the ST&LA of being “firm and solid like the Rock of Gibraltar, not moving at all, not progressing”. The opponents also began to spread the lie that the opposition was being ruthlessly and dictatorially crushed by the “DeLeonists,” a lie carried over into the historical accounts of the SLP. The reality was that criticism was guaranteed space and that only those guilty of atrocious behavior were thrown out.

Meanwhile, the SLP kept gaining strength as the opposition was continually frustrated in its attempts to change the course of party policy. The SLP made significant electoral gains in 1897 (55,000 votes) and 1898 (82,000) and began to generate an influx of “People’s Party” members into the party.

At the initiative of the opposition, several referendums were held to change the party’s orientation, but the opponents were “democratically” defeated in all of them. August Waldinger and Ernest Bohm, members of the CLF, who had been separated from ST&LA on charges of corruption, complained about the “injustice” of the expulsion. They used all the possibilities and means at their disposal to slander the ST&LA. For example, they accused the ST&LA of acting like scabs during a cigarette strike, when in fact the opposite was true. The AFL was accepting salary reductions and calling for strikes against the opinion of the vast majority of workers, while the ST&LA took the lead in the movement and pushed for salary increases. But when “the men and women of the Alliance (ST&LA) went on strike, their jobs were immediately taken over by the AFL cigarette makers, who were in fact the scabs.

All was fair against the rise of the ST&LA, including anti-Semitism. In those years “Turkish tobacco” was expanding with the increase in cigarette sales. Entire factories are moved from Smirna, where most of the workers are Jewish. So from the FLA they started to describe the ST&LA as a trade union “composed of about two dozen Polish Jews” and “scabs” that were “only Jewish”. Although they also did not hesitate to tell the Jewish workers that the “scabs” of the ST&LA were “just ignorant gentiles”.

But in spite of everything, the “opposition” did not make progress. They had to resort to what they did with the Lassalleans in 1889, a “coup”. On July 9, 1899, a false meeting of the General Committee of the Greater New York Section was called for the following day. The meeting “dismissed” all local, state and national Party offices and “elected” new ones. The next thing they knew: they planned to take over the SLP offices. When news came that the opposition was planning to raid the SLP offices at 184 William Street, about 30 SLP members gathered there prepared to defend them. Henry Slobodin and Loewenthal went to demand the surrender of party property and office stamps but failed in their attempt.

The assailants then went against the SLP members of the 18th district. The struggle continued until the police arrived and dispersed the “Volkszeitung”. The new SLP of the “coup-makers” began to publish a newspaper with the same masthead as the party and installed its national committee in its own headquarters while taking legal action to force the party to withdraw its electoral nominations, which also coincided in name and symbols with those of the “clone” party.

The economic difficulties and the incessant pressure from the trade union bureaucracy and the “fake SLP” ended up giving way to a wave of demoralization. The SLP ended up winning all the legal battles with the “coup-makers” of 1899, which meant its total failure. To assert itself, the National Committee of the “Coup” called a national convention in Rochester. The convention condemned the ST&LA and adopted a resolution calling for a “speedy merger” with the “Social Democratic Party” to form “a strong, harmonious and united socialist party”: the “Socialist Party of America” (SPA).

The 1900 convention

Portrait of Daniel de León with the SLP logo.

The SLP by then existed to resist the onslaughts of the “labor fakers”–which could only separate it from the real class struggle and really weaken it, which is what its bullies were after. At the tenth national convention in early June 1900, the SLP decided to abandon the “immediate demands” present in the previous platforms: state property, municipal self-government, progressive taxation, the demand that the federal state be solely responsible for issuing money, etc. Daniel de Leon explained that this framework of demands was…

…the umbilical cord that connected the activist to the embryo of the SLP at a time when we had to go around with our hat in hand, and try to soften our principles, showing people what we could do. And it was very dangerous, because, by telling people what we could do – all of which did not in any way affect the fundamental thing we were seeking, namely the abolition of wage labor – we were simply notifying the madmen and the capitalists by which doors they could enter our citadel and knock us down.

That is, the end of the still “progressive” slogans, which aim at accelerating capitalist development by socializing its forms and strengthening the proletariat on the way, typical of the workers’ parties of rising capitalism, is justified by the need not to be devoured by the political expressions of the democratic petty bourgeoisie and the union bureaucracy. It has nothing to do with a battle against reformism. It is striking that a good part of the cancelled slogans were part of the programme of the Paris Commune. The programmatic change was actually an admission of weakness, because the “objective conditions” that would make communism a global possibility and an immediate historical necessity did not yet exist. This was the weakness of an organization that had been left on the defensive after brutal, systematic and dirty harassment, and that could not find any other way to demarcate fields and assert a class terrain than to reduce its program to what at that time could only be a “maximum program” not immediately applicable.

Another expression of this step on the defensive is the exclusion of those militants who held positions in the old trade unions. The 1900 conference approved that:

If any member of the Socialist Labor Party accepts a post in a “pure and simple” union organization, he will be considered as an antagonist of the SLP and will be expelled. If an official of a pure and simple trade union or labor organization applies to be a member of the Socialist Labor Party, he will be rejected.

Henry Kuhn, the party’s national secretary, strongly opposed the new policy:

When one reviews the speeches made at the convention in defense of this measure, one is struck by the statement, always reiterated by most of them, that it would protect our members against “pure and simple” pollution; that if the measure is not adopted, the bribes offered to them for being officials of such organizations would corrupt them, and that this corruption would then spread to the Party.

I was unable to see anything good; on the contrary, considering that the adoption of such a measure would cause much damage, I opposed it. The idea of “protecting” SLP members in that way did not seem very convincing to me. I thought that many of them might be able to take care of themselves and, if there were some who could not or would not, we could get rid of them as individuals instead of “protecting” them through such extensive preventive legislation.

I was also in the National Secretariat of the Party. I had the pulse of the organization at my fingertips. I knew a lot about local conditions and thought I had a pretty clear idea of what could happen if that step was taken. The “labor faker” was not a foreign species to me and I knew that the “pure and simple” trade union was largely dominated by capitalist interests and even steeped in bourgeois ideology, but I did not forget that most of these organizations were formed, however, in response to the pressure of the class struggle and that they offered a legitimate space for our propaganda. The exception, when such unions are formed under the command of the boss, does not alter this general fact. When such organizations were formed, it was expected that our members, better prepared than their co-workers, would take over.

Forced to reject it, because their Party forbids it, they found themselves in a position that required more than can be expected from a normal person. Instead of the union rank and file being impressed with the integrity of our position, the opposite happened. The rank and file naturally regarded such an attitude as an act of hostility against themselves and regarded the party that ordered it as a hostile force. Therefore, it meant that our members had to leave the field and give “labor faker” absolute control. In the end it was “labor faker” and the “Socialist Party of America” who won the day.

Eventually, events showed that we had stretched the bow too far and when, a few years later, the Party ended up abandoning that position, the damage was already done and could not be easily repaired. In all the years that De Leon and I had been working together, we had never differed on any matter of importance until he fought for this measure to be taken. As much as I respected his powers of foresight and reasoning, I could not be convinced. However, the opposition to the measure was of little importance, as the situation was such that it was approved by the majority at the convention and at the next general party vote.

The 1900 Convention also authorized the organization’s newspaper to be published daily. It was a risky effort, but the main weapon of the “opponents” was the press. The “clone” party had also printed a “clone” newspaper with the organization’s headline as if it were legitimate and used its lists of subscribers and members to send out their attacks. The “Volkszeitung” took up the worst slanders and in order to weaken the SLP was able to support even the anarchists if necessary. But the new “Daily People” of the legitimate SLP would soon become an unbearable burden for the organization and for the editorial staff itself. Daniel de Leon himself did not receive his editor’s salary for more than a year and a half.

The SLP was clearly on the ropes. The umpteenth attempt to form a party and a class union in the United States seemed to be falling apart. Demoralization was rampant. Meanwhile, the “new” party, the SPA, backed by powerful conciliatory unions and with a strong base among small rural landowners, was a politically promising force. The result: the SLP lost militancy while the SPA gained it.

Throughout this period, in addition to translating Marxist works into English, Daniel de Leon developed his analysis of the “pure and simple” unions by criticizing the role they were beginning to play in the capitalist system. He would write what would become one of his most important works: “Two Pages of Roman History”. In it, he pointed out with concrete examples how the trade union bureaucracy participates in the exploitation of the workers in solidarity with the interests of capital. In comparing the union leaders with the tribune of the plebs, Daniel de Leon pointed out exactly the real function that the unions had already at that time: to serve as a mediator between the exploiting and the exploited class in order to prevent a revolution. Like the Roman “Tribunes of the Plebs,” they were in fact bastions of the ruling class.

[The union leader] succeeds in his double game – that is the important fact. And that fact makes the union leader of today, like the leader of the plebs of yesteryear, a masked position, a strategic position and a force that underpins capitalism, and the very nature of which cannot but operate by disastrously demoralizing the working class.

The perspective of communist morality was not at all out of place. Not only because of what they had experienced in the SLP but because

Only the road to serfdom needs appeasing modes; the road to freedom requires a firm hand. Satire, double entendre and slander can serve the purpose of a movement in which the proletariat acts only in the role of an unconscious workhorse. Satire, slander and double entendre are totally repellent to the Proletarian Revolution and are repelled by it.

I declared in the introduction to “The Canons of the Proletarian Revolution” that these canons fit together, since they all come from a central principle. That central principle can now be taken as the tenth of these canons. It sums them all up. You can’t help but see it through all the others. That is: 10. The Proletarian Revolution is a character builder.

The proletarian organization that means to be tributary to the large army of proletarian emancipation cannot too strenuously guard against aught that may tend to debauch its membership. It must be intent upon promoting the character and moral fibre of the mass. Characterfulness is a distinctive mark of the Proletarian Revolution. Foremost, accordingly, in the long series of Gracchian blunders stands the measure of Gaius for the free distribution of corn. By that act he reduced the Roman proletarian to beggars. Beggars can only desert and compromise; they cannot carry out a revolution. Their energies consumed with the tinkerings on “forms;” their intellect cracked by illogical postures; their morale ruined by palliatives; the edge of their revolutionary dignity blunted by “precedents;” their mental vigor palsied by the veneration of the unvenerable; their self-reliance broken by leaning on hostile elements; their resolution warped by sops; their minds left vacant with rhetoric; their senses entertained with pantomimes; finally, their character dragged down to the ditch of the beggar — what wonder that, the moment the Roman proletariat were brought to the scratch, they acquitted themselves like beggars, made their peace with the Usurper, and left their leaders in the lurch?

The need for the proletariat to assert its class interests in a politically independent way is also inseparable from its need to abolish those false divisions that prevent it from doing so. In “Race Riots” (1900) the perspective of communist morality, the foundations of centralism and the need for the proletariat to struggle to develop its own existence are founded on memorable lines.

A flood of ignorance is pouring out of the papers regarding the slaughter of the Negroes in New Orleans by the mob.Various explanations are given, all silly, and many “remedies” are suggested, each one vying with the other in craziness.

The war in New Orleans is not between black and white. It is a war between workingmen, and the prize they battle for is a “job”; and that job means the same to them as the carcass of the animal, over which two savages fight, means to the savage: life or death.

When the vulgar editors prate about “racial hate” and ascribe the riots to that, they merely display their crass ignorance.
We are living in a time when the comforts of life, and all the material wealth needed to bring happiness to every human being, can be produced in abundance. There is no need whatever for one human being to go hungry, homeless or naked. Man’s inventive genius has developed the tool to that point, and guided the natural forces to that degree, that abundance is possible to all.

But between that abundance and its enjoyment by the children of men an obstacle is interposed. That obstacle is the modern social system, capitalism, and its defenders and beneficiaries are the capitalist class.

Balked and baffled by this obstacle, eyeing wistfully that abundance of wealth which the capitalist class forbids them to touch, the ignorant workingmen, black and white, instead of fighting the capitalist, with wealth and freedom as the prize at stake, fall to fighting each other; and the stakes in that conflict are: death to the loser; poverty, misery and wage-slavery to the winner.

More horrible than the battle of the savages who fought for the meat, is this fight between workingmen. This has for a result the survival of the slave. A more brutal and demoralizing spectacle cannot be conceived.

How strong becomes the desire to forever end a system and a class responsible for this manifestation of social atavism! What bitter hate must fill the breast of the class-conscious proletarian for the real authors: the capitalist class!

To the work, then, of organizing and educating the proletariat, to fight for wealth and freedom, and not for poverty and slavery; to fight their masters and not their fellow slaves, and to win that victory in the class war which will forever put an end to race riots.

The IWW

«The last strike». IWW poster.

Meanwhile, the ST&LA did not quite take hold as a national union alternative. Its most important strikes took place in Slatersville -Rhode Island- and in Pittsburgh. The first, against the Steel Pressed Car Company, ended in victory, but the second, of textile workers, ended with the closure of the company.

The ST&LA, although it meant a huge advance in relation to the trade unions, still carried the remains of the KOL in its form of organization. The time of company strikes, in the “old style” of rising capitalism, was already passing. The Russian Revolution of 1905, a mass strike, would give a warning later confirmed by the 1909 movements in Spain and Chile. The new strikes tended to spread geographically, grouping together very different industries and taking on an openly revolutionary character. That same year, the ST&LA, would be integrated into the “Industrial Workers of the World” (IWW).

The IWW had been born in Chicago in 1904 from the initiative of six labor leaders: William E. Trautmann (editor of the “Brauer Zeitung,” the official organ of the “United Brewery Workmen”), George Estes (president of the “United Brotherhood of Railway Employees”), W.L. Hall (General Secretary and Treasurer of the same railway organization), Isaac Cowen (American representative of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers of Great Britain), Clarence Smith (Treasurer and General Secretary of the American Labor Union), and Thomas J. Hagerty (editor of the Voice of Labor, the organ of the latter union). They responded to the need for effective intervention in the labor movement. The industrial unions – organized by companies and sectors – such as the American Labor Union, the Western Federation of Miners or the ST&LA, even if they pointed in the right direction, could not be an effective counterweight to the unions of the better paid trades, such as the AFL. The six decide to send a letter of invitation to thirty prominent socialists and labor activists.

At the January 1905 conference they would meet Charles H. Moyer (President of the “Western Miners Federation”), William Haywood (Secretary of the same union), J.M. O’Neill (editor of “Miners’ Magazine”), A.M. Simons (editor of the “International Socialist Review”), Frank Bohn (of the SLP and ST&LA), T. J. Hagerty, C.O. Sherman (of the “United Metal Workers”), and “Mother Jones”. They produced a Manifesto criticizing the trade unions and proposing the creation of a body to carry out the mission that these unions could not. The June convention convened by the Manifesto had two hundred participants. It was the “First Annual Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World”. Daniel de Leon and twelve other delegates from ST&LA attended this convention.

IWW did not start out as an anarcho-syndicalist project. It was conceived by socialists as a body that would give political direction to the demands of the working class, differing from all that the AFL and “pure and simple” unionism represented. The preamble to the statutes and declarations of the first congress of the IWW would emphasize this with its famous “three clauses”.

There can be no peace as long as hunger and deprivation are found among millions of working people and the few, of whom the employing class is composed, have everything good for life. The working class and the employing class have nothing [no interests] in common. Between these two classes the struggle has to continue until all workers unite in the political field, as well as in the industrial field, and take over what they produce with their work by means of a working class economic organization without any affiliation to any political party.

Shortly after the congress, Daniel de Leon will deliver his speech “The Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World”, later renamed “Socialist Reconstruction of Society”. This is a series of comments on these three clauses. On the first one he focuses on refuting the notion, propagated by the ruling class, that the welfare of the proletariat is only possible with the prosperity of the bourgeoisie; insisting that, the interests of the working class are antagonistic to those of capital accumulation. Curiously, this comment was later used by the American stalinist literature as supposed “proof” of his Lassalleanism. But the truth is that he never held such positions. On the contrary, he understood that higher salaries did not necessarily imply higher price levels and that:

a class-conscious economic organization, i.e. class unionism, would prevent a wage increase from being neutralized by a price increase.

On the second point, he insisted on class antagonism, asserting that the standard of living of the working class continued to deteriorate while the bourgeoisie continued to expand at its expense. But the most interesting comments to understand his later positions against anarchism within the IWW are those of the third clause. He insists that the class struggle is both political and economic. The rejection of the political would mean the rejection of the need of the proletariat to seize political power and therefore leave the working class powerless against the attacks of the capitalist class.

The shield and sword metaphor that he had used years earlier was reversed. The union was no longer represented as the shield, that is, that which would protect the workers from attacks in the political arena. Now the industrial organization was the sword, the “might” of the working class, while the “politics” was the shield, or the “right” that would protect the advances of the proletariat organized as a class in the union. He then went on to think of the trade unions as the organs that would “take over and support” the machinery of production after the revolution.

Thinking of the party as an “administrative” organization of politics led him to think that the party would be abolished immediately after the revolution took place, since the only reason for a political party to exist was “to compete with capitalism on its own terrain-the field that determines the fate of political power. In other words, he thought of the workers parties from a parliamentarianist perspective, exclusively as parties and parliamentary machines specialized in legal reform, something like class “lobbies”.

Consistent with that perspective, he considered that the “political movement” would usurp the power of the “central administration of the industrial organization” if it prolonged its existence after the triumph. Later, his understanding of politics would be transformed through the struggle against the anarchists in the IWW.

But the first split in the IWW was not between anarchists and Marxists, but between groups representing the last specialized trades and those who understood that the organization of the majority of the proletariat, the unskilled workers, was absolutely necessary for the development of the movement. The former were described by their opponents as the “reactionaries” and “phonies,” while the latter were called “revolutionaries” or “wage slaves”.

Victor Berger and other leaders of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) had promised to support the IWW if the revolutionary element was eliminated from the organization. “Millions of workers” would unite, they claimed. Sherman, who came from the United Metal Workers and was then president of the IWW, could not resist the temptation to benefit from the increased income that a membership increase would bring.

The revolutionaries held a pre-convention conference in Chicago on August 14, 1906, convened by Metalworkers and Machinery Department Local No. 23. They sent a letter to the various IWW locals in Chicago, urging the convening of a preliminary conference to consider the following proposals

First. Is a president necessary in our form of organization?
Second, will this organization be the expression of its members?
Third. Who will lead the work of the organization?
Fourth. Will local unions receive a copy of the minutes of the General Executive Board meetings?
Fifth. Will local unions be represented at the National Convention, as provided for in Article VI of the General Constitution?
Sixth. Any other business that the Conference deems necessary to discuss.

The result? The delegates from some sixteen unions unanimously decided that the position of the president was unnecessary, that all local unions should nominate all organizers, speakers, etc., that they should be elected by the rank and file, that the reports of all Executive Board sessions should be sent to all local unions and be open to the rank and file, and that at least two delegates should represent each local union at the next convention.

Once the office of president was abolished at the second annual convention of the IWW, Mahoney of the Western Miners Federation expressed his objections, but they were rejected by the delegates by 342 to 246 votes. On October 2, when a majority of the convention elected new leaders and proclaimed the legitimacy of the new amendments, Mahoney left the convention, taking other members with him. This faction would organize with Sherman a fake IWW, trying to keep–unsuccessfully in the end–the headquarters and property. The episode served to show the animosity that the SPA harbored towards the efforts not only of Daniel de Leon, but of class unionism in general.

But in 1908 another split would take place that would radically change the course of the IWW. When the convention was called to order by Mr. St. John on September 21, 1908, there were twenty-six delegates present who controlled seventy votes in all.

Two delegates – Max Ledermann of Chicago and Daniel de Leon of New York – were excluded from the convention seats. St. John’s, furthermore, now representing the anti-political and anarchist tendency, was appointed permanent president of the convention.

The West Coast IWW, heavily influenced by an anarchism that made a fetish out of the figure of the “hobo” – the nomadic journeyman-, repudiated politics. The excuse for taking Daniel de Leon’s seat was that he was a member of the “wrong union”. He was present as a delegate of the Office Workers’ Union and his opponents insisted that he, being an editor, should have been registered with the Printing Workers’ Local. In this way, many other delegates were denied seats, making the “Raincoat Brigade,” the IWW’s West Coast delegation, the dominant force at the convention.

For four days the convention did practically nothing but protest credentials and debate the question whether or not the Socialist Labor party , through Daniel DeLeon , was trying to control the I.W.W. All this was a prelude to the contest over the retention of the political clause of the pre amble which was fought out on a personal issue – – the admission of DeLeon as a delegate. The DeLeonites accused the St. John – Trautmann group of trying to make the I.W.W. what they called a “purely physical force body.” The DeLeonites in turn were charged with attempting to subordinate the interests of the I.W.W. to those of the Socialist Labor party.

In the end, the anarchists managed to remove the political clause in the preamble that said:

Between these two classes the struggle has to continue until all workers are united in the political field as well as in the industrial field.

The IWW split into two, the anarchist and the “deleonist” groups, based in Detroit and renamed the “Workers’ International Industrial Union” (WIIWU) in 1915. The main concern of the anti-political faction was to break the influence of the SLP. It was not even an opposition to politics as a whole, many of those who voted to remove the political clause belonged to the SPA. Haywood himself, not considering himself an anarchist, preferred to align himself with them rather than with the SLP members.

Why did the members of a party that supported “trade unionism pure and simple,” which was in fact created as a reaction against all the principles that the ST&LA defended, which believed that socialism essentially meant state ownership and that “revolution” would be made through “buying out” the capitalists, support the anarchists in the IWW? Why would the anarchists, who had a deep aversion to politics, ally themselves with the SPA, a supposedly “socialist” political organization that in fact participated largely in the elections?

As de Leon himself explained in “The Socialist Reconstruction of Society,” there is really no such thing as political abstentionism. The AFL’s “rejection of politics” and its guild character was in fact political, just as the anarchist’s rejection not only of electoral participation but of politics in general is in itself political.

This is a capitalist policy, whereas the “policy” that the AFL, the anarchists and even the members of the SPA fought against actually meant the political independence of the proletariat. Daniel de Leon would come to understand more clearly than ever that:

The vote is not the only, nor the most important, factor in political action, [and only] by ignoring this does Haywoodism persistently ask: “what is the point of political action when 75 percent of workers are not voters?

What is “politics”? The passage from the vindication and imposition of human needs over the concrete needs of capital, to the reorganization of the social whole according to them. The seizure of political power by the proletariat is an indispensable condition for the overcoming of capitalism. The absence of revolutionary politics in the trade union did not promote class independence, but on the contrary, dependence and submission to bourgeois politics and morality.

Although the anarchist likes the dramatic and fantasizes about the “destruction” of the existing order, when he rejects the political, he is rejecting the power of the proletariat and its ability to emancipate itself. His glorification of small acts of “sabotage” and “individual appropriation” is a reflection of his narrow-mindedness; his inability to go beyond the “individual” and perceive the present materiality and potentiality of a future of abundance. In other words, for all its grandiloquence and apparent radicalism, it is never unconstrained by bourgeois morality and cannot fail to be that “liberal with a bomb” of which Trotsky spoke.

Like the anarchist, the SPA maintained…

a position which, if it were possible to maintain, would forever prevent the working class from using all its capabilities to liberate itself, from uniting and, with a common purpose, to act as a united force in both the political and economic fields. According to this “reasoning” of the SPA the working class would be composed of two parts; one part made up of “political” men and women and the other of “economic” men and women and that both parts would never meet.

We of the SLP, who perceive the working class as composed of an aggregation of individual units, which have the same general interests vis-à-vis the interests of their capitalist exploiters, cannot accept this kind of “reasoning”; for us this so-called dualism seems to be the most stale kind of treacherous nonsense, calculated to confuse and bewilder and divide the working class in its struggle for freedom, which requires united action in whatever direction is possible by our form of social organization.

But we also perceive that this apparent nonsense and the real betrayal are rooted in the present conditions, conditions that feed this claim because it is in their interest.

The socialist, who has been endowed by nature with a certain degree of foresight, whose mental horizon is not limited by the conditions of the moment, knows that the “trade unions” cannot always remain what they are today; that the further development of our industrial system will impose itself on the development of the trade unions, and that the economic organization of the working class, once it has outgrown its diaper stage, will not be influenced for a moment by this nonsense of “autonomy”.

But the SPA does not care about the future. All the future prospects it offers are linked to the political state in which it will occupy the positions now held by the Republicans and Democrats, as well as the jobs that will be created when, through the proposed means of bonuses, Uncle Sam, or the state, or the municipality, takes over one or another industry from one part of the capitalist class. But that is not our way of realizing socialism, nor is it the “socialism” we are after, and therefore we do not want our party to join the SPA.

What Henry Kuhn says here has everything to do with communist morality. The key word he used was “future”. The SLP, unlike the SPA and the anarchists, shared a conviction in the ability of the working class to emancipate itself and create a world of abundance. This is what was at the heart of all their most important positions and decisions. The rejection of the reactionary trade unions, of “identity politics”, of the apoliticism of the IWW anarchists, was based on the understanding that the working class is the only one capable of overthrowing capitalism and that it must assert its interests independently in order to emancipate itself from the domination of capital.

The anarchists and the SPA, on the other hand, did not envision a future of abundance, but dreamed of a world that would reward them for their “contributions” to the labor movement as petty bureaucrats. The anarchists dreamed of an orgiastic moment, a destructive festival, which would serve as a catharsis.

All the maneuvering, slandering, disgusting and immoral behaviors coming from the ranks of the enemies of the SLP were not isolated incidents of psychologically unbalanced individuals. The reality is that the objective of such “political organizations” has nothing to do with the emancipation of the proletariat and everything to do with self-perpetuation. They see the proletariat not as the only class capable of overthrowing capitalism and creating a world of abundance and true human community, but as a source of power for themselves, a mass that they must subjugate and lead in order to “rule” over it as the ultimate authority. They follow the morals of the capitalists and not ours.

After the IWW

In the 1900 Congress, the SLP was the only socialist party in the United States. In 1904 the SPA appeared. Despite generic calls by the International to establish a debate between the two, the SLP did not take the initiative. It was the New Jersey branch of the SPA that proposed a conference to the SLP to “confer the best means of uniting all workers in a vast army for progress”.

However, the manifesto that resulted from the conference discussions was overwhelmingly rejected by the SPA members, while the SLP members unanimously endorsed it. The SLP reported this to the International Socialist Congress held in Stuttgart, August 18-25, 1907. There were more attempts at unity which were unsuccessful, such as the resolution proposed by New Orleans and the resolution adopted by a local SPA in Redlands, California. Nothing came from the New Orleans resolution and the premises of the Redlands resolution were not only rejected by the same magazine that published it, but it was never put to a referendum vote. All this would seem to indicate that the SPA wanted to pretend to abide by the resolution, but did not actually plan to comply.

The Stuttgart Congress further stated that,

To free the proletariat completely from the bonds of intellectual, political and economic servitude, they must fight in both the political and economic fields. The trade unions will not do their full duty in the struggle for the emancipation of the workers without a deep socialist spirit inspiring their policy.

This resolution by openly rejecting “neutral” trade unions strengthened the positions of the SLP which, despite the failures of previous “attempts” to unite with the SPA, proposed unity with the SPA on the basis of the resolution. However, after a joint national convention was proposed on 2 March 1908, the SPA informed the National Secretary that its National Committee had rejected the SLP’s proposal for a unity conference.

After the Stuttgart Congress [August 1907], the Socialist Labor Party believed that the SPA had changed. The SLP acted on this conclusion. This opinion was based on the position of the Socialist Party at the Stuttgart Congress…where the SPA had supported the congress union resolution and committed itself to the congress resolution on immigration.

Consequently, at the first session of the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Labor Party after the Stuttgart Congress in January 1908, the Socialist Labor Party proposed unity to the SPA with no other condition than the principles of the International Convention: the representation of minorities at the Congress, free immigration and the recognition of the essential role of trade unionism in carrying out the revolutionary act. The SPA rejected the offer

In 1914, the SPA proposed another convocation of a unity conference (four years after the resolution of unity of the French delegation at the 1910 International Congress). After the conference, held with the SLP, a resolution was adopted stating that

The SPA and the SLP will unite to form the Socialist Party of the United States; each branch or local of each party will maintain the same position in the new organization as it had in the previous one. Upon the passage of this motion, the national executives of the two parties shall convene a joint national convention for the purpose of submitting to a referendum appropriate constitutional laws adaptable to a united socialist party

However, this resolution was rejected by the Executive Board of the SPA. The SPA delegates, enraged by this, managed to have the resolution put to a referendum. However, the statutes of the SPA had been amended so that a state could not initiate a national referendum. The effort was futile.

By refusing to unite on the basis of international congresses, the SPA not only demonstrated its separation from the SLP, but also its estrangement from the internationalist socialist movement. Many grassroots activists of the SPA wanted unity, but their leadership continually prevented them from achieving it. Why? Because unity implied the transformation of the SPA, it meant rejecting the most fundamental aspects of the SPA and its raison d’être. Daniel de Leon rightly stated in 1908:

Not rejoicing at the discovery of the correctness of its old estimate concerning the SP, but regretfully, yet with jaws all the more firmly set and with countenance all the serener, the fighting SLP will pursue, unterrified, its undeterred career—freed now in the eyes of all thinking men of all blame for the continued spectacle of a “divided socialist movement.” There is a double foe to fight: the capitalist despot, and his political caricature. Clear the decks!

The Detroit IWW, linked to the SLP, led a textile workers’ strike in Patterson in 1912 “in which De Leon played a leading role and exposed the futility of reformism”. But after the failure of the original IWW, the impossibility of unity between the SPA and the SLP, and the experience of the “Detroit IWW,” de Leon reconsidered his conception of the relationship between the economic and the political.

Under existing conditions, that organization of Socialism which is bound to appear first is the political. The very nature of its mission, essentially propagandist, determines its priority. The political organization of Socialism must be the disseminator of that knowledge and information which will take organic shape in the class-conscious, industrial organization of the working class – the foundation and structure of the Socialist Republic. Thus, although the political is the transitory, and the economic the permanent formation of future society, the political organization, like the scaffolding of a building, must precede the permanent structure.

Daniel de Leon was re-emphasizing the importance of the party’s propaganda work in providing leadership to the class movement. While during his time in the original IWW he had seen the political movement as a reflection of the economic, he now spoke of the political party as an impulse to the movement of struggle.

De Leon died a few months before the outbreak of the First Imperialist World War. Was he unaware of the first mass strikes from Russia to Chile that were beginning to erupt in that decade? Was he not aware of the historical emergence of the soviet as a unitary organism of struggle, insurrection and class power? The truth is that he had welcomed the first Russian revolution and showed signs of the change that was taking place globally:

The recognition of the extra-parliamentary power of organized, revolutionarily led work are expressions of an importance that is not surpassed by any of the most important events that have been happening recently around the world.

But it seems equally clear that he failed to draw lessons from the essentials of 1905: the mass strike and the soviet. For most socialists of the time, outside of a small circle of the European parties of the Second International, Rosa Luxemburg’s analyses of the mass strike and Trotsky’s balance sheet and account of the first experience of the soviets were inaccessible before 1920. It would be the Communist International that would spread these lessons and, consistent with them, a radically different conception of the class party from that of the parties of the old International. Lenin and Trotsky would still find at the second Congress of the Communist International a “syndicalist-revolutionary” current that had emerged during the war in France and Britain. They would then debate with them, trying to convince them that their conception of the trade union, that “conscious minority of the working class, that active minority which must guide its action, is nothing but the party; it is what we call the party”.

But Lenin and Trotsky themselves would continue to recognize trade unions as class organs to the end of their lives, when in reality the fundamental changes in capitalism were negating it even as a possibility. Only the German-Dutch left began in those years a sketch of criticism of the trade unions and only in the 1940s, after the experience of the role of the CNT in the Spanish Revolution, could the criticism of trade unionism reach its final consequences, rescuing Daniel de Leon himself in a prominent place.

Witnessing an accelerated industrialization, already by large production units and extensive areas of the United States, which decisively inclined the demographic preponderance of the proletarian side, Daniel de Leon understood, from the end of the 19th century, that the so repeated “emancipation of the proletariat by the proletariat itself”, found in the set of those production cells, and from each one, the organic foundation of its implementation. How? by the workers taking possession of all the production units, including distribution centers, and reorganizing production by adjusting it to consumer, not commercial, criteria through elected representatives appointed in the production units themselves. This is what de Leon called the “Socialist Republic”. Thus, what Marx foresaw as the “inferior phase of communism” acquired a concrete functional point of support, and so certain, that today no other way of tackling the suppression of classes has been achieved.

[…]The potential strength of a proletariat in full numerical expansion […] and the great generalized industry represented for the revolution an objective facility superior to what the countries of Europe offered then. But there was an important counterpart, a greater obstacle to overcome. The well-focused lucidity of Daniel de Leon pointed this out with exceptional clarity and strength. He saw that between the proletariat and the ownership of the means of production, between the revolutionary class and the revolution, the “workers’ leaders” raised a stony barrier. Without removing them, it is impossible to put an end to capitalism. The certainty of this matured over the years in de Leon’s theoretical reflection, union misdeeds through, and his knowledge of ancient civilization -ascension and decadence- allowed him to draw the parallels between the leaders of the plebs in Rome and the modern political and union leaders below .

To have reached that vision, today undeniable and globally valid, in 1902, reveals a sharp analytical penetration and a capacity for historical synthesis precious to the revolutionary movement. All the more incredible that it seems to have remained almost universally ignored. Only a few Bolsheviks had, late in the day, knowledge of de Leon.

“Semblanza de Daniel de León”, in “Alarma”, 1979

Daniel de Leon’s legacy and the SLP are often distorted by reactionaries of all stripes. The ad hominem attacks, the accusations of “sectarianism”, “dogmatism”, “authoritarianism”, “snobbery”, “anti-unionism”, “Lassalleanism”, even of what they call “colorblind racism”, reveal the extent to which Daniel de Leon challenged not only the obvious enemies of the working class, but the self-styled “champions of the workers”.

Daniel de Leon, far from being a Lassallean or anti-unionist, discovered a reality about unions that many still try to cover up. Far from being someone who rejected the practical struggle of the working class, he understood that the socialist movement could not advance without it, if it was to be the movement of the class and not a mere debate of ideas. And far from being “racist” or “sexist”, he rejected any attempt to divide the working class, whether by skin color, sex or geographical origin.

He understood the universal character of the class, its mission and the need to impose its needs, universal human needs, over the demands of capital. The rejection of the reactionary trade unions, of “identity politics”, of the apoliticism of the IWW anarchists, was based on the understanding that the working class is the only one capable of overthrowing capitalism and that it must assert its interests by expressing itself politically in an independent manner. He had a real conviction in the ability of the working class to emancipate itself and he fought on the basis of that conviction.

The enemies of the SLP, on the other hand, lacking conviction in the ability of the working class to emancipate itself and create a world of abundance, were forced to look for “lesser evils” and see the movement not as a movement to destroy exploitation once and for all, but to benefit personally from it. This is one of the most important lessons we can learn from the American socialist movement. Socialism is not an intellectual exercise, nor is it a way to acquire personal status, it is not about celebrating the success of one’s predictions, nor about “recruiting” members, nor about “winning” in the face of who knows what competitors. It is the movement of the working class when it is consciously oriented to abolish all exploitation and oppression once and for all. Even in the face of the most difficult challenges, in the face of its own limitations, the SLP never gave up because it understood so.