Daniel De Leon -- A Sketch of His Socialist Career

The People
Dec. 10, 1994
Vol. 104 No. 6

De Leon -- A Sketch of His Socialist Career

Daniel De Leon was born Dec. 14, 1852, on Curacao, a Dutch-owned island off the coast of Venezuela, and died in New York City on May 11, 1914. During the second half of this relatively brief life span of 61 years, De Leon devoted himself to the cause of working-class emancipation from capitalist exploitation.

As editor of The People, from 1892 until his untimely death, De Leon developed the strategy and tactics needed to establish socialism by civilized, but nonetheless revolutionary, means in highly industrialized countries like the United States -- the socialist industrial union program of the Socialist Labor Party.

That program, which also provides the outline of the democratic structure on which genuine socialism will be built, was not the work of a chair-bound intellectual or theorist. It was developed on the foundation of hard-fought battles within and around the labor movement over a quarter century. Those battles were not fought by one man, but by an organization of men and women whose understanding of the class struggle and Marxist principles enabled them to build that foundation of experience.

De Leon was an active participant in those struggles, not only with the SLP on the political field, but also on the economic field, first from inside the Knights of Labor, then with the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, and ultimately with the original Industrial Workers of the World.

SLP No 'Personality Cult'

The SLP has often been labeled as a "personality cult" because it acknowledges De Leon's contributions, but those who criticize the SLP on that account are dead wrong. De Leon was only a man, much like any other, except that he had an exceptional mind and made a conscious decision to use it for the sake of humanity. As one recent critic of the SLP grudgingly allowed:

"De Leon was, by any measure, a man of considerable education and talent, who turned his back on a successful career as a law professor at Columbia University to embrace the socialist movement. To the SLP he brought great energy and ability; his commitment was absolute, and it obliged him at times to lead a fairly ascetic existence, which he bore without complaint...."

De Leon received his formal education at schools and universities in Europe during the 1860s and early 1870s. Later, he went on to attend Columbia College (now Columbia University) in New York City. When he graduated from Columbia, he won two highly regarded prizes for essays on "Constitutional History and Constitutional Law" and "International Law." Several years after graduating, De Leon returned to Columbia as a lecturer on international law. He resigned that position after several years when the university reneged on its promise to make him a full professor because he actively supported the United Labor Party during the 1886 mayoralty campaign in New York City.

The ULP's candidate for mayor was Henry George, the Single Tax reformer. George finished second in the election behind the Democratic winner, Abram S. Hewitt, but ahead of the third-place Republican finisher, Theodore Roosevelt.

That campaign was the most important attempt at "independent political action" by workers up to that time. In later years, De Leon referred to it as the "cat's paw" that drew him into the labor movement. Henry George aimed the campaign at landlordism, which was enough to damn it in the eyes of Columbia's trustees. However, George's criticism of this one aspect of class-divided society led De Leon to an investigation of all aspects of that society. When Edward Bellamy's utopian novel, Looking Backward, appeared in 1887, for example, it sparked a movement that espoused the virtues of cooperation over competition. Bellamy's utopian vision stirred De Leon's imagination, and he became active in the Bellamy movement.

De Leon's Socialist Career

However, it was De Leon's study of the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels that enabled him to understand society and the workings of capitalism, and that furnished the clue to the means required to build a better order of society. In 1890, De Leon joined the SLP. In those days, the SLP was an inchoate group without a clearly defined objective. Furthermore, it had been severely criticized by Frederick Engels, the cofounder with Karl Marx of modern socialism, particularly because of its ethnic makeup. In those days, the SLP was composed almost entirely of German immigrants, and Engels believed the SLP was "called upon to play a very important part in the movement," but could not do so until it became "out and out American."

De Leon was aware of this, and through his knowledge of languages, he set to work to translate and make available to English-reading students many of the works of Marx, Engels and other Socialist writers. He thereby gave impetus to the study of Marxism that helped to make the SLP the Marxist party it became -- and stayed.

When the SLP chose De Leon as editor of The People, he began immediately to develop his own analysis of American capitalism, which agreed with, supplemented and carried on the analysis of Marx. Through the SLP's experience within the labor movement of the period, including his own direct experience with the Knights of Labor, De Leon applied the Marxian method to developments in this country in such a thorough way that they went to the heart of the social problem and provided guides to social thought and action that are still indispensable for social understanding and planning. Much of that experience, and the lessons it taught, was gathered and synthesized in several key lectures De Leon delivered during his career. These four lectures -- Reform or Revolution (1896); What Means This Strike? (1898); The Burning Question of Trades Unionism ( 1904), and Socialist Reconstruction of Society (1905) -- have been published together in a single book, Socialist Landmarks.

Reform or Revolution

As three of these works deal with the union question, which is discussed elsewhere in this issue, we deal briefly here with but one of them, Reform or Revolution.

It was De Leon who most thoroughly and conclusively dealt with the inadequacy and danger of reform. He saw that reforms were meant to patch up, not to change, society; that reform was a lure, or bait, designed to keep its victims tied to capitalism; that it was, in fact, a concealed form of reaction.

De Leon's analysis of reform and of revolution had its roots in Marxian economics. In his History of Economic Analysis, the late Joseph A. Schumpeter, a Harvard capitalist economist who hated Marx, but who was haunted by his great economic contributions, stated, after reading Reform or Revolution, that De Leon was the one American who carried on scientific work done on Marxist lines. Schumpeter, incidentally, showed in his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that he believed Marx to be right in his forecast that socialism must be the successor to capitalism.

Read De Leon's Works

The four lectures that make up Socialist Landmarks are not the only great works by De Leon. His As to Politics illustrates the need for the workers to use civilized methods in working for socialism. His Abolition of Poverty examines the basis of idealist philosophy as opposed to Marx's materialist conception of history. His Two Pages From Roman History showed the role of the procapitalist labor leader in holding the workers to capitalism. His Fifteen Questions About Socialism developed the clues found in Marx's works to present an outline of the probabilities under socialism. Still other works spelled out the lessons of SLP experience that still guide the party and must guide the working class if it is to get rid of capitalism and build socialism.

This outline of De Leon's career and accomplishments is admittedly a sketchy one. In presenting it, and in devoting an issue of The People to De Leon on the anniversary of his birth, we are not carrying on a "cult of personality." We are acknowledging a debt to a man to whom the workers owe much.

De Leon was a scientist -- a social scientist -- who built on the foundation laid down by another, earlier social scientist, Karl Marx. We believe that working men and women owe it to themselves to learn of his contributions, and to pass that knowledge on to others.