Who was Daniel De Leon ?

THE PEOPLE
SATURDAY, MARCH 5, 1983
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question period
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Who was Daniel De Leon?

Daniel De Leon was an American Marxist who developed the program of socialist industrial unionism.

De Leon was born Dec. 14, 1852, on the island of Curacao in the Dutch West Indies. He was educated in Europe and settled in America, joining the faculty of Columbia University in 1883 as a lecturer on international law.

Subsequently, he became interested in the labor movement and politics. Involvement in Henry George's single tax movement and Edward Bellamy's national movement led De Leon to study the writings of Marx and Engels.

After leaving Columbia University, De Leon became active in the Socialist Labor Party. He was appointed editor of The People in 1892, about two years after joining the party. He remained editor until his death on May 11, 1914. De Leon was also editor of The Daily People from its founding in 1900 until it ceased publication in February 1914.

In addition, De Leon served the socialist movement as a writer, speaker, theorist, tactician and translator. He stood for political office on several occasions and attended international socialist conferences. He took an active role in the labor movement and was involved in founding the Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance (ST&LA) and the Industrial Workers of the World. In the latter, he led the fight against the virus of anarchism that eventually destroyed the organization.

When De Leon entered the socialist movement in the late 1880s, that movement was in a state of ferment. Not only was there much disagreement about strategy and tactics, there was also considerable vagueness as to the socialist goal. When De Leon died 25 years later, he left both a clear concept of the socialist goal in America -- a democratic cooperative commonwealth based on industry -- and a programatic conception -- socialist industrial unionism -- for achieving that goal.

De Leon's concept of socialist industrial unionism was no Utopian blueprint dreamed up in a vacuum. Rather, it was developed as a result of his active participation in the labor movement, first in the Knights of Labor and later in the ST&LA. Learning constantly from these personal experiences and from events throughout the labor movement, De Leon applied Marxian principles to develop a program that was -- and is -- a coherent approach to the problems confronting the working class in advanced capitalist societies in their struggle to replace capitalism with socialism.

The socialist industrial union program clearly expresses the central tasks of revolutionary socialism. Its core is the insistence on the necessity of both political and economic organization and its explanation of the relation between the two.

De Leon recognized that the destruction of capitalist state power required the political organization of workers. He argued against the anarchists that the capitalist parties would have the field to themselves if classconscious workers deserted the political struggle.

Moreover, De Leon realized that political activity provides a means of spreading socialist education and classconsciousness. Where socialist forces are small, they can only group themselves in a political party since the formation of a classconscious economic movement must involve the mass of the class itself and cannot be created arbitrarily.

At the same time, De Leon saw that political organization alone was insufficient for the revolutionary task. Classconscious unions would be needed to organize workers at the point of production to mobilize the economic potential that workers held as the sole productive class in society. Those unions would be the basic force with which workers could transform the capitalist relations of production and with which they could take, hold and operate the economy.

Such unions would also ensure, to paraphrase Marx, that the emancipation of the working class would be the classconscious act of the workers themselves, since real power would lie in the workers' own mass organizations. De Leon understood that there is a direct connection between the nature of the movement seeking to abolish capitalism and the nature of the society such a movement must establish. In socialist industrial unions, he saw the democratic councils of workers that would be the basis of future socialist government.

As De Leon expressed it, "Industrial Unionism is the Socialist Republic in the making; and the goal once reached, the Industrial Union is the Socialist Republic in operation."

De Leon's development of the socialist industrial unionism concept was an important contribution to Marxist theory and practice. Both Marx and Engels had recognized the need for the economic organization of workers and for political struggle. After the Paris Commune, both realized that workers could not establish socialism simply by taking over the existing state machinery. It was De Leon, however, who spelled out clearly the relation between the political and economic organizations, and it was De Leon who saw in the economic organization of workers not only the weapon of revolutionary struggle but also the basis for the administration of socialist society.