Daniel De Leon - Pathfinder For Socialist Journalism


Daniel De Leon: Pathfinder For Socialist Journalism

from The People, April 6, 1991, page 2

The quality and the endurance of The People for so many years is due in considerable measure to the work and the enduring legacy of its second and most celebrated editor, Daniel De Leon (1852-1914). It was De Leon who set the high standards for a socialist journal that subsequent editors and writers for The People have aspired, and worked hard, to meet.

As editor of The People from 1892 until his untimely death, De Leon brought a clarity of purpose and a sense of direction to the paper, as he had to the socialist movement. His effective use of The People, not just as a propaganda tool, but as an instrument for educating the working class, made him the pioneer of socialist journalism in America.


De Leon entered the labor movement in 1886. An accomplished legal scholar, he was at that time a lecturer in international law at Columbia University. Despite his position and academic background, however, De Leon was "naturally inclined to rebel against conditions which he saw were not as they should be," as one biographical statement put it.

This post-Civil War period was characterized by social turmoil. A series of financial panics had fallen on the heels of reckless speculation; unrestrained business enterprises fostered corruption and corporate power was running roughshod over the workers. There were numerous strikes and boycotts. The character of the period was highlighted by the Haymarket Affair in Chicago.

De Loen became acquainted with the Socialist Labor Party through his activities in the United Labor Party. The Central Labor Union in New York, at the urging of SLP members, had formed the United Labor Party intent on participating in the mayoral election campaign of 1886. With little more in common than a party looking for a candidate and a candidate looking for a party, Henry George, who had authored a book claiming that poverty could be eliminated by placing a "single tax" on land, became the ULFs candidate. As a supporter of the labor movement, and not of George as such, De Leon was active in that campaign. As a result of his deepening involvement in the labor movement and contact with the SLP, De Leon studied the theories of Karl Marx, Frederick En-gels and Ferdinand Lassalle. His education, practical and theoretical, next brought him into the Nationalist Movement, a movement inspired by Edward Bellamy's book Looking Backward. De Leon described the movement as embracing the class struggle and the law of value, though like the SLP at the time, it looked to nationalization of industry as the solution to society's problems.

In 1890, a split between pro- and anti-socialist factions of the Nationalist Clubs brought the prosocialist group, led by De Leon, into the Socialist Labor Party.

In March of 1891, six months after De Leon joined the party, the SLFs National Executive Committee sent him on a two-month tour across the country as a lecturer/organizer. Rudolph Katz, in his work With De Leon Since '89 noted, "The result of this tour was the cementing of the affiliated sections into a homogeneous national organization, the real beginning of the Socialist Labor Party as a factor in the labor movement." De Leon's first two reports of the tour appeared in the last issues of the Workmen's Advocate, which at that time was the party's English-language journal. The remaining reports appeared in some of the first issues of The People, which replaced the Workmen's Advocate on April 5, 1891. (To be precise, the Workmen's Advocate continued for a time as a distinct section of party news inside the larger paper.)

Lucien Sanial had been made editor of The People and De Leon the associate editor, a post he assumed after his crosscountry tour. A year later Sanial resigned as editor and was replaced by De Leon.

Prior to De Leon's editorship, The People was not a very impressive publication. Though Sanial was a good writer, the paper overall, as Henry Kuhn, then national secretary, described it, was "a large sheet [it measured 25"x 40"] of many pages, most of them filled with boilerplate."

Over the 22 years of his editorship of The People, De Leon developed a clear and principled program of goals and tactics for the socialist movement. His greatest contribution to the SLP and the socialist movement, the socialist industrial union program, is dealt with elsewhere in this special Centennial Issue. But even prior to the emergence of that program, De Leon well understood the significance of Marx's axiom that "the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves." As he observed in his address, Two Pages From Roman History:

"The socialist republic is no predestined, inevitable development. The socialist republic depends not upon material conditions only; it depends upon these-plus clearness of vision to assist the evolutionary process. Nor was the agency of the intellect needful at any previous stage of social evolution in the class struggle to the extent that it is needful at this, the culminating one of all."


Accordingly, as he noted in the same work, "the proletarian army of emancipation cannot consist of a dumb driven herd." A classconscious working class is prerequisite to the success of the socialist movement, and De Leon turned The People into a beacon of classconscious education -- in keeping with his further admonition that the socialist movement must "educate first and organize afterwards."

In keeping with this philosophy, De Leon developed the following guidelines for socialist journalism that continue to influence the character of The People to this day:

* A socialist journal must be owned by the party in order to maintain the integrity and purity of its contents. (See article on page 3.)

* It should not attempt to compete with capitalist newspapers, which are in the business of selling advertising, not informing the public.

* A socialist paper should contain a specialized kind of news -- "legitimate labor and social news," which the capitalist press generally does not care for.

* Editorial policy should illustrate the party's socialist principles through its analysis of current social, political and economic events. It should "weave the theory into the events of the day"; purely theoretical articles should be a rarity.

* The socialist press should "not trim its sails to attract new readers," that is, it should not seek to attract new readers by watering down its message or using the cheap attention-getting devices of the capitalist papers.

* A socialist newspaper must "deliver its message, never compromising with truth to make a friend, nor ever withholding a blow at error lest it make an enemy."

No discussion of Daniel De Leon's contributions to socialist journalism would be complete without some mention of the astounding quantity, as well as quality, of De Leon's work. With only a few periods of absence while he was doing other party work, De Leon wrote an editorial, and often filled other columns of the paper as well, every day for 14 years during the existence of the Daily People, as well as a multitude of editorials and articles during the prior eight years of The People's weekly publication.

In addition to these thousands of articles, and the foreign works that he translated, De Leon also produced over 500 original play-form dialogues -- "mental cartoons," if you will -- in which imaginary characters named Uncle Sam and Brother Jonathan discuss questions raised by socialist politics, economics, trade unionism, etc., providing education through an entertaining format. A sample of one appears below.

De Leon came to the labor movement with relatively little theoretical or practical experience in the labor movement. From the moment he entered the field, however, he became immersed in it. He was a man of great energy and enthusiasm, with a thirst for knowledge, and a tremendous capacity to teach.

De Leon's influence on socialism and socialist journalism is central to the uniqueness of the Socialist Labor Party and its official organ, The People. It is a principal reason for the paper's survival to date and a principal reason why the party and the paper have the character needed to persist until their mission is accomplished.