Daniel De Leon biography

The People
December 1996
Vol. 106 No. 9

DANIEL DE LEON

December 14 marks the 144th anniversary of the birth of Daniel De Leon.

Outside the Socialist Labor Party and readers of THE PEOPLE, few, if any, will take note of that fact. And if experience provides any criteria, the exceptions who might take note of De Leon's birthday will most likely join the long list of those who, down through the years, have repeatedly denigrated him and charged him with the meanest character deficiencies, even as they were forced to admit the many great contributions he had made to the labor movement in his day.

For example, Charles Madison, author of a series of biographical essays published under the title, CRITICS AND CRUSADERS, described De Leon variously as "a man of inflexible principle devoted to ideas"; "a Marxist disciple" who "towered over his fellow American Socialists"; a man with an "acute mind" whose editorials and pamphlets "were superior in quality and cogency to any other similar writings"; an "intellectual and effective speaker" who "impressed his audiences with the vitality of his message."

In his next breath, however, Madison stooped to repeating such old canards as De Leon was "caustic and intolerant," "rigid" in his "orthodox dogma," a man of "dogmatic idealism," "fanatical inflexibilities" and "temperamental deficiencies."

Carl Reeve provides another example. In his LIFE AND TIMES OF DANIEL DE LEON, he wrote that De Leon "devoted his life to the labor movement," that he "strenuously opposed dilution of scientific socialism," that he "fought opportunists and careerists," and that he "championed the cause of the working class against attacks from rising imperialism."

Yet, the same man who appeared to laud De Leon for these qualities describes him as "basically sectarian" with ideas that were "rigid formulas."

We could cite many more examples of De Leon critics who, despite their efforts to denigrate him, were compelled to grudgingly grant the vast contributions he made to the Socialist Movement. There is a morbid, even schizophrenic, quality about their contradictory character. At bottom, however, they simply reveal an inability to accept De Leon for what he was -- a gifted and honest man who had devoted himself to a cause that appealed to his brilliant intellect and to his human compassion.

For despite De Leon's relatively brief involvement in the Socialist Movement, his contributions to it were many and varied.

De Leon was writer, speaker, tactician, theoretician, polemicist and more, all with a singleness of purpose -- to advance the movement for the emancipation of the working class from the conditions of wage slavery.

His contributions were varied and prodigious. They included his translations of such socialist works as Karl Marx's EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE, Frederick Engels' SOCIALISM: FROM UTOPIA TO SCIENCE and August Bebel's WOMAN UNDER SOCIALISM.

He also translated 18 of Eugene Sue's 21-volume set, THE HISTORY OF A PROLETARIAN FAMILY ACROSS THE AGES, several pamphlets by Karl Kautsky and Ferdinand Lassalle's FRANZ VON SICKINGEN.

However, De Leon's primary contribution to socialist thought was his concept of economic organization -- the concept of an integrally organized industrial union, which flowed logically from the highly developed socialized production that is a fact in capitalist America. Such an organization of workers would serve as a revolutionary weapon in the class struggle and as the power behind the socialist ballot, while furnishing the framework for the socialist commonwealth.

-- N.K.