Socialist Reconstruction of Society : De Leon's Great Contribution to Labor


The People
December 9, 1995
Vol. 105 No. 16


When automation was making its first inroads into industry more than 40 years ago, an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, William O. Douglas, posed the question: "When the machines do all the work, who will own the machines?"

The answer, of course, is that the capitalist class will continue to own them unless the working class acts to establish an economic democracy in which the means of production and distribution become the property of society. Unless that is done, the modern technology that could be used to provide economic security for all will only benefit a few. It will bring more unemployment than we have ever known, and more economic insecurity and human misery than we ever thought possible.

THE PEOPLE and the Socialist Labor Party have long taken the position that the American working class must come to grips with this problem unless it is prepared to be reduced to a state of abject poverty and economic ruin unlike anything experienced since ancient times, when the majority of people were either chattel slaves or dispossessed entirely from the economy. We refuse to believe that the working class will allow this to happen. To prevent it, however, workers will have to make a conscious effort to organize their economic and political strength to resist capitalism's antisocial misuse of modern technology and to assert their revolutionary right to determine their own destiny. How can that be done?

We believe the answer is the Socialist Industrial Union (SIU) program advocated by the SLP -- a program with roots that run deep into the history and experience of the American labor movement.


This year marks the 90th anniversary of Daniel De Leon's address -- SOCIALIST RECONSTRUCTION OF SOCIETY -- which was the first systematic presentation of the SIU program. Since De Leon delivered his address at Minneapolis on July 10, 1905, it has been the cornerstone of the SLP's literature. The reason it has endured for so long was summed up by Henry Kuhn in the Foreword to the 25th anniversary edition:

"What is it that in socialist literature imparts such permanency? Obviously the fact that, first and foremost, the conditions depicted not only have held good in later years, but that the argument presented has gained in potency by a further development of the conditions affecting the life of the working class along the lines indicated in the document."

This is precisely the case with De Leon's SOCIALIST RECONSTRUCTION. The evolution of society and the development of today's high-tech economy has increased the validity of the SIU program and the goal that it prescribes for the emancipation of the working class from the economic dictatorship and social chaos that is inseparable from capitalism.


Before demonstrating this, it is important to note that De Leon structured his address around three clauses from the Preamble of the Constitution of the original Industrial Workers of the World, which was one of the first labor unions in America to base itself squarely on the class struggle and to acknowledge that socialism must be the final aim of the labor movement. The original IWW not only acknowledged the class struggle and called on the working class to organize into "one big union," it also acknowledged the need for a political party of labor to challenge the capitalist state. While this is not the place to explore the history of the original IWW, it must be noted that it collapsed within three years of its founding under the repeated onslaughts of anarchists who disavowed all political action. Furthermore, they wanted to change the IWW from an organization striving to unite the working class into industrial unions into one that advocated anarcho-syndicalism. *

The history of the IWW during those first three years, and its youthful demise in 1908, contains many lessons for the working class. In hindsight, it may be said that the effort was premature. At any rate, it was too weak to defend its original principles against attacks from within or to extend its influence much beyond the bounds of the unions that merged into it.

The founding convention of the IWW was held at Chicago from June 27 through July 8, 1905. De Leon attended as a representative of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance. His role at the convention was a prominent and influential one, and in many respects the organization that emerged from that first convention was a reflection of what we know today as "De Leonism." The IWW seemed to hold great promise, and the SLP worked hard to build up the organization.


De Leon understandably was filled with enthusiasm for the new labor union, and his high hopes for its growth and eventual success are reflected in SOCIALIST RECONSTRUCTION. His speech was recorded by a stenographer and almost immediately published under the title of, THE PREAMBLE OF THE IWW. After 1908, however, it was reissued as SOCIALIST RECONSTRUCTION OF SOCIETY.

The three passages from the IWW Preamble around which De Leon structured his address were:

(1) "There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life."

(2) "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common."

(3) "Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor through an economic organization of the working class without affiliation with any political party."


De Leon considered the first clause the pivotal one, and he noted that the labor movement was divided on the point. Either the condition of the working class was deteriorating under capitalism, or it was improving.

"The two positions are irreconcilable," he said. "If the latter be true, or even approximately true, then the other two clauses that I am considering from the Preamble, aye, the Preamble itself, together with the whole work of the Chicago convention, fall like the baseless fabric of a nightmare; contrariwise, if the former, if the socialist position is true, then all the rest are conclusions that cannot be escaped, and the Chicago convention built upon solid foundation. All, accordingly, centers upon this first clause. Is it true? Is it false?...."

De Leon took the position that it was true. To illustrate, he used figures on the value of manufactured products and on the wages paid to the productive workers. They were not his own figures, but those the Republican Party used during a national election campaign to "show" that "prosperity" accompanies Republican administrations. They were taken from the official records of the federal government and they were meant to prove that wages rose steadily during Republican administrations.

However, De Leon was able to show that the figures meant something quite different. They showed that as the total value of manufactured goods increased, the relative share of the workers, in the form of wages, decreased. While the American workers of 1860 received, in wages, 20 percent of the value of the goods they produced, they received, in 1900, but 17 percent of the value of the wealth they produced. De Leon proved that in proportion to the values created the workers received less and less. He added something else.

"Whenever figures of wages are presented to you, you must submit them to two tests. Not until you have done so will the figures convey to you any practical information....

"The first test is to ascertain the relative size, or percentage, that the wages bear to the total wealth produced...."

The second test is to compare total wages paid out by the capitalist class to the number of workers employed.

"Suppose I were to tell you that last month I paid out $10 in wages, and that this month I am paying out $20," De Leon explained. "I would now be paying out double the amount in wages that I paid out last month. Does that mean that my workingmen are now getting twice as much as they did last month? They may -- and they may not. Whether they do or do not, depends not merely upon the increased total of the wages paid; it depends on something else besides.

"What is that something else? Obviously, the number of men that I employed last month, and the number of men that I employ this month. If last month I employed only two men, it would mean that their wages averaged $5 apiece; if this month, however, I am employing 10 men, then, although the total amount that I am now paying out in wages doubled, the wages of my men would have gone down by over 50 percent. The total wage may rise mountain high, and yet the individual wage may decline perpendicularly."


Does this still hold true today, 90 years later? You bet it does, and more than ever before. Furthermore, there is plenty of capitalist testimony to prove it. For example, in our issue of Nov. 11 we summed up a recent article from BUSINESS WEEK, as follows:

"...The issue of Oct. 9 tells us that 'corporate America' is 'riding high' on a 'productivity bonanza.' Wages are down, profits are up, and American workers are producing more than ever before. Better yet, at least as BUSINESS WEEK, fewer workers are producing more than more workers used to. Better still, they are doing it in less time and for lower wages.

"'It's a catch phrase for our era, the Age of Productivity,' said an exultant BUSINESS WEEK.

"'Today,' it added, in obvious reference to huge capitalist outlays for labor displacing technology, 'Corporate America has embarked on a capital-spending boom.' 'Corporate profits as a percentage of national income are far higher than they were in the 1980s.' Which, when we unravel the pretzel of Business Speak, can mean only one thing: Workers' wages as a percentage of national income are far lower than they were in the 1980s."

BUSINESS WEEK explained the growing gap between wages and profits this way:

"Underlying these gains is a powerful upsurge in productivity. In the 1990s, nonfarm productivity has been rising at a 2.2 percent rate, more than twice the anemic pace of the previous two decades. And in the fifth year of an economic expansion...productivity posted a remarkable 3.5 percent year- over-year gain in the second quarter of 1995."

To complete the picture, BUSINESS WEEK noted that "layoffs have run from more than 200,000 to more than 600,000 every year."

Modern technology, then, has only accelerated the rate at which labor's share of its product is reduced and the pace at which workers are removed from the productive process.


These conditions are the basis of the conclusion drawn by the second clause of the Preamble to the original IWW Constitution. They demonstrate that the class struggle is a fact, and that the working class and the capitalist class have nothing in common. However, the class struggle is an uneven one in which the capitalist owners of the industries and services have every advantage over the workers. Over the head of the working class, De Leon showed, the capitalist class "holds...the whip of hunger that the capitalist system places in the hands of the master, and with the aid of which he can cow his wage slave into acquiescence."

De Leon also noted that the established unions -- then the AFL, today the AFL-CIO -- were guilty of falsely claiming that workers and capitalists have interests in common, and thereby blunted the workers' instinctive classconsciousness. "Thus," said De Leon, "we trace, in direct line of descent from the ancestral falsehood concerning the mutuality of relations between the employing class and the working class, a long genealogy of fraudulent principles, culminating in the 'contracting' the working class into paralysis, and the crop of evils that flow therefrom. Falsehood can only breed falsehood, and falsehood's spawn is evil; inversely, evil can be sired and damed by falsehood only. In the framework of the capitalist social system, the working class and the employing, or capitalist, class have nothing in common. The principle is a beacon on the track of labor's march to emancipation; the contrary principle is a false light that lures to social wreck."

The disorganized state of the working class today, and the sorry condition of the AFL-CIO, attest to the correctness of De Leon's evaluation.


The third principle embodied in the Preamble of the original IWW Constitution was that the workers must "come together on the political, as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor through an economic organization of the working class...."

Socialist economics is politics. Capitalist economics is politics. Capitalist society requires the political state; accordingly, its economics translates itself into political tenets: The methods of the socialist movement on its march toward socialist society are primarily dictated by the capitalist shell from which socialism is hatching. Inasmuch as capitalist economics translates itself into politics, socialist economics cannot wholly escape the process. "A part, the better, the constructive part of socialist economics, translates itself into the industrial organization of the working class: it translates itself into that formation that outlines the mold of the future social system; another part of socialist economics, however, inevitably translates itself into politics: it inevitably takes that form that matches capitalist methods."

De Leon then described the function of unionism. "The political organization of labor intended to capture [for instance] a congressional district is wholly unfit to 'take and hold' the plants of industry. The only organization fit for that is the organization of the several industries themselves -- and they are not subject to political lines of demarcations; they mock all such arbitrary, imaginary lines. The central administrative organ of the Socialist Republic -- exactly the opposite of the central power of capitalism, not being the organized power of a ruling class for oppression, in short, not being political, but exclusively administrative of the producing forces of the land- -its constituent bodies must be exclusively industrial."


The further details of De Leon's analysis and the development of the argument constitute the framework of the SIU program. We urge our readers to study each section of SOCIALIST RECONSTRUCTION OF SOCIETY and to secure additional copies for their coworkers, friends and other contacts.

* For a brief explanation of the differences between socialist industrial unionism and anarcho-syndicalism see the "Letters to THE PEOPLE" column on page 4.