Eugene Debs' Tribute to Daniel De Leon - 1914

Debs' Tribute to De Leon
THE PEOPLE
DECEMBER 2001
VOL. 111 NO. 9

EUGENE DEBS' TRIBUTE TO DANIEL DE LEON

Daniel De Leon was born 149 years ago on a tiny colonial island off the coast of Venezuela, Dec. 14, 1852. He died young by modern standards, while still in his 61st year. Nonetheless, few men of comparable potential and ability who lived longer accomplished as much and left behind as great a legacy for the betterment of humankind than did De Leon.

Parental hopes and ambitions aside, no one knows in advance what a man or woman will achieve in life. De Leon's accomplishments, impressive by any standard, were succinctly summed up by Arnold Petersen in his introduction to Socialist Landmarks, an SLP publication that contains four of De Leon's major addresses.

"De Leon played a stellar role in the socialist movement," Petersen wrote. "To the immortal Karl Marx belongs the discovery of the role of the class struggle in history, the materialist conception of history, and the formulation of the theory of value, surplus value and its scientific application. But it was the American, Daniel De Leon, who discovered the actual structure of socialist society and laid down the basic tactics for achieving proletarian victory in a highly industrialized society."

De Leon was vilified while he lived, particularly by the labor fakers and phony socialists whose disservices to the working class he unflinchingly exposed. Those enemies are to De Leon's credit. Unfortunately, their libels and slanders have been taken up by many historians of the labor and socialist movements in this country and have gained an undeserved acceptance as objective truth.

The tribute to De Leon that follows presents a different view. It is all the more remarkable because it was written by a person with whom De Leon was often at odds and whom historians have tried to portray as a "respectable reformer" and consistent opponent of De Leon -- Eugene V. Debs.

Unlike De Leon, Debs was never a consistent Marxist, and while he sometimes criticized the reformist stands of his own Socialist Party, he "was never able to move decisively to the revolutionary stance of the SLP," as The People put it in 1976.

Nonetheless, Debs was a working-class militant, a consistent supporter of labor struggles and a principled opponent of the labor fakers. He endorsed the original Industrial Workers of the World, which De Leon played a major role in establishing. Although Debs drifted away from the IWW even before it was captured and split by the anarchists in 1908, he continued to endorse the theory of revolutionary industrial unionism, or what the SLP calls Socialist Industrial Unionism.

Debs' tribute to De Leon's greatness first appeared in the Weekly People of July 11, 1914.

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On the Death of Daniel De Leon

By Eugene V. Debs

[The below article was sent to us by Eugene V. Debs with this explanation:

"The enclosed tribute to Daniel De Leon was written for the National Rip-Saw and should have appeared in the issue just off the press, but unfortunately I was not present when the paper was made up and now I find to my great regret that it was inadvertently left out. I shall see to it that it goes into the next issue without fail; but as that will not appear for another month it will seem rather tardy and so I am sending it to you asking that you kindly give it space in an early issue of the Weekly People."]

The death of Daniel De Leon, editor of the New York People and leader of the Socialist Labor Party, marks the passing of a striking figure and an extraordinary character from the stage of revolutionary activity. For a full quarter of a century, De Leon has been a leader of socialism in the United States, head and front of the Socialist Labor Party, making a name for himself that is known throughout the world. Gifted with a mind of unusual depth and brilliancy and educated in the leading colleges both here and abroad, he was fitted, as perhaps no other American Socialist, for great work in the educational propaganda of the socialist movement.

Daniel De Leon was a true disciple of Marx and Engels and one of their ablest and most brilliant interpreters. His editorials in The People covered the whole range of economics, sociology, politics, history and philosophy, and his versatile genius appears at its best in these columns.

He was an uncompromising champion of economic and political organization, believing that only through their economic and political solidarity could the workers emancipate themselves from wage slavery. He fought the craft unions in and out of season, exposing without mercy their weakness and impotency, and he stood with equal insistence for revolutionary industrial organization. He was bold and pointed in his criticism, persistent in arguing his convictions, and tireless in fighting for what he believed to be right.

The speeches and writings of De Leon evince keen insight and rare powers of analysis, clear thinking and lucid expression. He had, in a remarkable degree, the faculty of making the most involved and abstruse propositions clear and understandable to his readers. As an editorial writer of clarity, brilliancy and force he had no equal on the American socialist press and no superior anywhere. His versatility, range of mind and felicity of treatment were, indeed, unsurpassed, and his death leaves a vacancy that never can be filled.

There is not a doubt that Daniel De Leon, with all his wealth of intellectual endowment and his classical education and high culture, could and would have ranked high in any profession he might have chosen. But when the light of socialism came into his life it determined his destiny and he plunged into the propaganda with a vigor and zeal which never abated until his vital powers were exhausted and death put an end to his activities. When the prodigious amount of work he did is taken into account, such as translating the classics of socialism and other standard works, addressing propaganda meetings, holding debates and making speaking tours, in addition to his editorial work on the Daily and Weekly People, it is not strange that he broke down prematurely and that, sad to tell, he literally worked himself to death.

Whatever fault may be found with De Leon, his personality, his methods or his tactics, it cannot be gainsaid that his zeal, his energy, his very heart and soul were all with the working class, and that with a singleness of purpose as exalted as it was inspiring, he consecrated himself to their emancipation. He had his faults, as all men have, but these will fade away in the light of his monumental services to the cause. He fought the good fight to the end without flinching, and left the world a heritage of light and hope and inspiration that will keep his name bright and his fame secure, through the coming ages.

With deep regret and with sincere appreciation of his masterly services and his loyal devotion to the cause, we note the passing of our valiant comrade from the field of conflict to the realm of rest, and to his stricken widow and family we tender our heartfelt sympathy in their great bereavement.