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VOL. 115 NO. 4
A Page From Working-Class History -- ACROSS THE 'BLOODY CHASM'...
We conclude our celebration of the 1905 founding of the original Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) by reproducing two speeches delivered on the third day of the founding convention by Eugene V. Debs and Daniel De Leon.
These two speeches, as De Leon expressed it, were delivered across a "bloody chasm" in what ultimately proved to be a futile attempt at reconciliation and to bring unity to the socialist movement.
For more than a decade before the IWW's founding convention, De Leon and the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) had fought diligently to instill the labor movement with the principle of the class struggle. In 1896, the SLP had endorsed the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (ST&LA), and thereafter waged a constant battle with the antisocialist and procapitalist -- and, hence, antilabor -- "unions." The founding principles of the original IWW were a vindication of the SLP-ST&LA stance, and, as shown by his speech following Debs at the convention, De Leon was prepared to do almost anything short of compromising that fundamental principle to heal old wounds.
During the early years of his political activities, in the 1890s, Debs was guilty of repeating some of the malicious anti-SLP slanders of the day. In later years, however, he more than once criticized his own associates in the corrupt Socialist Party (SP) for their spiteful and baseless attacks on De Leon and the SLP. His respect for the SLP -- a respect that rendered his own acceptance of SP reformism contradictory and incongruous -- was evidenced by the following comment made in an article printed in APPEAL TO REASON, April 20, 1912, apropos of the slander that the SLP was dead:
"It is foolish to say that the Socialist Labor Party is dead. It is not dead, and for my part I do not want to see it die....Many of my early lessons in economics were taught me by that little 'bunch of fanatics,' and I am not the least ashamed to admit it....I can never forget that little band of valiant comrades -- frenzied fanatics if you please, but still of the stuff out of which revolutions are made. For years they were a mere handful, and yet they fought as if they had legions behind them. Staunchly they upheld the red banner in the face of an indifferent or hostile world -- and this, years before some of those who now scoff at them had shed their bourgeois politics. There are not many of them, but few as they are, they have the backbone to stand alone. There are no trimmers or traders among them."
Debs achieved national prominence in 1894 when, as the leader of the American Railway Union in the Great Northern Railway strike, he was sentenced to six months in jail for violating a court injunction. Debs reputedly studied Marx while in jail and claimed to be a Socialist when he emerged. The evidence seems conclusive that he was a long way from digesting Marx, however, for shortly after he regained his freedom he campaigned for the petty capitalist reformer and Democratic-Populist presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan! When asked, at a meeting in Lynn, Mass., Oct. 26, 1897, how he could square his socialist claims with his support of Bryan, Debs replied:
"It is perfectly consistent for a Socialist to support Bryan. Such men as Bryan will bring Socialism on, while the SLP will not."
At that time, Debs was leading a movement to establish socialism by colonizing a state in the West! De Leon and the SLP criticized this scheme as anti-Marxist and visionary. Yet, the record shows that this exposure was made in such a way as not to impugn either the honesty or good intentions of Debs. Indeed, in an article in THE PEOPLE, June 27, 1897, De Leon, after reviewing the several attempts the SLP had made to show Debs the error of his unscientific schemes, said:
"With warm esteem for the good intentions of Mr. Debs, but fully appreciative of the harm that more failures will do, we earnestly warn the proletariat of America once more not to embark in this new chimera [the Debs scheme for colonizing a state]; not to yield, out of love for the good intentions of Mr. Debs, greater respect to his Judgment than it deserves; to hew close to the line of the principle of the class struggle, never once allowing the delusion to seize it that the Rockefellers will ever aid in its deliverance, however 'orthodox' this warning may sound; and to remember that...the American proletarian [may] come some day to reject Socialism, having, to his sorrow, been taken in with the counterfeit articles that Utopianism, 'unfettered by facts,' had made him invest in."
This is the way De Leon wrote and spoke of Debs in the early years of Debs' utopian activities. Sometimes, as in a speech at Wells Memorial Hall in Boston, Nov. 12, 1897 (THE PEOPLE, December 19, 1897), De Leon ridiculed Debs' claims for the alleged success of his "social democracy" and said of Debs that he "is a gentleman of extraordinary imagination." That is about as close as De Leon ever came to being "spiteful," "cantankerous" and "abusive," as is so frequently charged by his detractors.
At Boston, De Leon summed up the SLP attitude towards social democracy in these words: "What tells are the arguments that leave lasting impression. Phrases about sufferings that all know all about, denunciations of conditions that all recognize, unaccompanied by that scientific presentation of the causes, are barren, they do not point out the right path, and are lightly forgotten; and when such speeches are interlarded with points and arguments that insinuate economic errors, their effect for good is still more transient. The masses of our people will not stir except for the revolutionary cause, and that needs the cannon ball of science; not blank cartridges. Our attitude, consequently, need not be one of fear toward the 'Social Democracy.'"
From populism and colonization, Debs next shifted to the more orthodox brand of radical reformism. Together with the Milwaukee politician, Victor Berger and former SLP members in the East, he helped to launch the Social Democratic Party (later the Socialist Party) as a national organization. Yet, such was the inconsistency of the man that, five years later, in 1905, his proletarian instincts once more asserted themselves, and while remaining in the SP he became an active agitator for the original IWW. In other words, in 1905 Debs accepted, substantially, the position of the SLP on the mission and role of the unions.
In his speech at the founding convention of the IWW, reproduced here, Debs denounced pure and simple unionism as being "not only in the way of progress, but...positively reactionary, a thing that is but an auxiliary of the capitalist class." And he declared frankly that he believed that the theory of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, which was endorsed by the SLP, "is right" and that its principles "are sound." He was critical only of the ST&LA's propaganda methods. Then, turning to De Leon, whom he addressed as "comrade," he said:
"We have not been the best of friends in the past, but the whirligig of time brings about some wonderful changes. I find myself breaking away from some men I have been in very close touch with, and getting in close touch with some men from whom I have been very widely separated."
By the latter reference, of course, he meant De Leon and all who stood with De Leon in the fight against the reformers and "labor leaders" of the period.
To emphasize the mendacity of De Leon's detractors, it should be added that De Leon was happy and eager to close the book on the past. Of "Brother Debs," he told the convention, "a few days ago...we shook hands over the bloody chasm." Later, with obvious reference to Debs, he said that whoever took the position that Debs had taken "will find nothing but fraternal greeting from me as an individual, and from the organization which I represent here...."
A few months after the IWW convention, Debs came to New York for a series of meetings in behalf of the new organization. He shared the platform with De Leon on two occasions. One of those speeches was before an audience at Grand Central Palace. A stenographer recorded that speech and, together with an essay by De Leon, the SLP published it in a pamphlet on industrial unionism.
Debs' Grand Central Palace speech constitutes an endorsement of SLP principles and its program -- and by implication a repudiation of the reformist craft union-supporting Socialist Party. However, Debs remained a member of the SP. Later, as the IWW got into rough water, his revolutionary IWW ardor seemed to wane. Even before 1908, when the IWW fell to the anarchists, Debs had ceased to agitate its principles. That year, although he had the reputation of being a "revolutionist" in the reformist SP, he accepted the SP's nomination for president.
Thus the man who, in 1905, denounced craft unionism as "positively reactionary" and "an auxiliary of the capitalist class," became, in 1908, the standard-bearer for a party that urged its members to "join the union of their craft," and that otherwise kowtowed to the corrupt and capitalist-minded labor fakers.
De Leon and the SLP fought hard to keep the IWW on its original course. They failed, but they never abandoned or compromised the principled ground on which they waged that fight. To this day, De Leon and the SLP are either vilified or ignored by "historians" and other literati, which, in the nature of things, may be taken as a tribute and a compliment. As for Debs, in 1990 he was done the dishonor of being inducted into capitalism's "Labor Hall of Fame" (read infamy), with the following inscription:
"Labor leader, radical, Socialist, presidential candidate, Eugene Victor Debs was a homegrown American original. He formed the American Railway Union, led the Pullman strike of the 1890's in which he was jailed, and emerged a dedicated Socialist. An idealistic, impassioned fighter for economic and social justice, he was brilliant, eloquent and eminently human. As a 'radical' [note the quotation marks] he fought for women's suffrage, workmen's compensation, pensions and social security -- all commonplace today. Five times the Socialist candidate for president, his last campaign was run from federal prison where he garnered almost a million votes."
Debs would have been appalled.
There is much to be learned from the careers of the two men whose IWW convention speeches we reproduce here.
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