Daniel De Leon - What Means This Strike? - Review by Robert Bills

THE PEOPLE
FEBRUARY 1998
Vol. 107 No. 11

The following article is reprinted from the WEEKLY PEOPLE of March 3, 1973, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and the 75th anniversary of WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE?

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WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE?

BY ROBERT BILLS

During the past 75 years the United States has gone through a tremendous number of changes. It has become the most powerful nation in the world and, through the intelligence and expertise of the working class, it has become the most productive. All around us there is evidence of incredible accomplishment. We have moved from the era of horses and horse-drawn trolleys into one of air travel and space exploration. Telephones, televisions and cars have become part of the daily routine of most of us. And it is evident from the industrial capacity of the nation that the material foundation for general affluence and well-being has been constructed.

Equally evident, however, is the fact that permanent affluence and security eludes most of us; not only the millions of impoverished Americans who have been swept aside by technology or who have never had the chance to earn a day's living, but the 80 million of us who have jobs and who bring home a paycheck. We depend on that paycheck to support our families and ourselves just as many of our grandparents depended on their wages a century ago. We live from week to week without any real knowledge of whether we will be working next year, next month or even next week. And even though most of us do manage to hang on to our jobs year after year, we are constantly confronted with the pressure of the rising cost of living, or by our employers' demands for increased productivity.

Every year these and similar pressures force thousands of workers to walk out on strike. These strikes are the clearest indication that despite labor unions, contracts, "benefits," nominal wage raises, cost-of-living "escalator" clauses and a host of related things, American workers are as far from permanent economic security as their grandparents before them.

So we can see that despite the passage of so many years and the coming of so many changes, there is something very basic and similar between the United States as it was in 1898 and as it is today. That basic something is what Daniel De Leon called "an irrepressible conflict, a class struggle for life" between the working class and the capitalist class. That conflict continues today as the fundamental element that characterizes modern, industrial society. If there is a difference between the class struggle as it was in 1898 and as it is today that difference is that it has grown more intense and that its implications are more ominous.

De Leon made this particular reference to the class struggle on Feb. 11, 1898, while addressing a body of striking textile workers in New Bedford, Mass. De Leon went to New Bedford upon the invitation of the Socialist workers who were engaged in the strike. He delivered a number of talks to audiences of striking workers while there; but, it was his address of Feb. 11 that has survived to become the classic of socialist literature known as WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE? The speech has since been printed many times and it has been circulated among thousands of workers. Today it remains as "the class struggle primer par excellence...the handbook, the textbook, of the exploited worker seeking to understand the meaning, the sense, of strikes, and what to do when they take place."

Unfortunately, not so many workers have read WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE? that we can way that, like so many other speeches and pamphlets by others, this one has done its job and can be safely tucked away as a part of history. No, WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE? is even more important a work today than when it was first presented.

There is no way in which the full scope and impact of De Leon's New Bedford address can be fully explored in a single article. Certainly the best summation of its content, however, is found in Arnold Petersen's introduction to the 1946 edition:

"The strike is the manifestation of two primary factors: The fact of a social system based on classes, one of which exploits and feeds upon the other; and the indomitable spirit and unconquerable mind of slaves worthy to be free, and destined to become freemen. Around these two manifestations revolve our entire social problem and the relations of modern classes, and the solution of that problem. In his famous speech, De Leon probes the cause of the strike. The cause being shown to be the struggle between the capitalists and the workers over the 'division' of the wealth produced by labor alone (the question of length of working day being a variant of the same thing), De Leon proceeds to show what are wages, and what profits, and the whence and wherefore of both. He establishes the fact that the share of the capitalists in production is nil, that the 'work' they do is no more productive than 'the intense mental strain and active "work" done by pickpockets is directly or indirectly productive.' He shows how the owners of capital came into possession of their 'original accumulation.' He analyzes the class struggle, and outlines the development of capitalist society. He disposes of the myth that inventors reap the benefit of their genius, showing that, on the contrary, it is the useless, unproductive owner of capital who appropriates the fruits of the inventor's genius. He demonstrates the never- ceasing process of concentration of capital, with its destruction of smaller competitors who join in the labor market the workers displaced by improved machinery. And last, but not least, he projects the principles and structure of the organization which the workers must build if they would free themselves from wage slavery, and without which the strikes in and by themselves would become and remain idle and hopeless gestures of despair against the all-crushing power of capital, that is, of the strongly entrenched and powerfully organized capitalist class."

One of De Leon's main purposes in New Bedford was to convince the striking workers of the harmfulness of their procapitalist unions. The supporters of these unions, De Leon noted, "lay emphasis upon the claim that the 'pure and simple' union does the workers some good NOW by getting something NOW from the employers and from the capitalist parties. We [the Socialists] are not 'practical' they tell us; they are."

By pointing out what everyone in his audience knew firsthand, that their real wages had not risen but fallen under the leadership of the procapitalist union, and that they had no real gains to show after engaging in many strikes, De Leon could conclude that:

"...Not only does 'pure and simpledom' shut off your hope of emancipation by affecting to think such a state of things is unreachable now, but in the meantime and RIGHT NOW, the 'good' it does to you, the 'something' it secures for you 'from the employers and from the politicians' is lower wages. That is what their 'practicality' amounts to in fact."

De Leon warned his audience to remember that by sticking with their procapitalist unions they bred contempt of themselves among the capitalist class and invited new and more dangerous outrages. Among those are the "labor laws" that are supposed to protect workers from the worst conditions that capitalism could create. The type of laws he had in mind are akin to the health and safety laws of today. These were supposed to be great advances for labor and they have been highly praised by capitalists, politicians and union leaders alike. But, without exception those laws have been openly ignored and flagrantly violated in every industry. Why? Because "it does not matter what the law is; the all important thing was, which is the class charged with enforcing it? So long as the capitalist class held the government, all such labor laws as he was straining for, were a snare and a delusion."

Even more important than these things is the fact that the procapitalist unions, both then and now, ignore the relationship of wages and politics. They accomplish the absurd and dangerous feat of dividing the workers between the capitalist political parties and, hence, of uniting workers in upholding the capitalist system.

The principles of sound working-class organization which must replace the procapitalist unions were the crux of De Leon's purpose in New Bedford. He pointed out that because of their blindness, ignorance and betrayal of the working class, the labor unions had discouraged many workers from believing in the principle of labor organization at all. This is one of procapitalist unionism's greatest disservices to the working class.

The principles of sound organization enumerated by De Leon in New Bedford were these:

"1st -- A trade organization must be clear upon the fact, that not until it has overthrown the capitalist system of private ownership in the machinery of production, and made this the joint property of the people, thereby compelling everyone to work if he wants to live, is it possible for the workers to be safe.

"2nd -- A labor organization must be perfectly clear upon the fact that it cannot reach safety until it has wrenched the government from the clutches of the capitalist class; and that it cannot do that unless it votes, not for MEN but for PRINCIPLES, unless it votes into power its own class platform and program: THE ABOLITION OF THE WAGES SYSTEM OF SLAVERY.

"3rd -- A labor organization must be perfectly clear upon the fact that politics are not, like religion, a private concern, any more than the wages and the hours of the workingman are his private concern. For the same reason that his wages and hours are the concern of his class, so is his politics. Politics is not separable from wages. For the same reason that the organization of labor dictates wages, hours, etc., in the interest of the working class, for that same reason must it dictate politics also; and for the same reason that it execrates the scab in the shop, it must execrate the scab at the hustings."

As we noted at the outset, there have been a great many changes since 1898, even though the basic class relations and the status of wage slavery still exist for the working class. And though WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE? is as essential and valuable as ever before, indeed more so, it has suffered from developments. "Here and there," Petersen states, "the text has become somewhat 'dated' by the relentless march of events, and the enlargement and deepening of the science of socialism...." And explaining where that is true, he wrote of how "De Leon speaks of the workers bringing the government under their control, implying that the state would be controlled by the workers in their interests, and that that would be socialism. State ownership is not socialism; industrial union administration and operation of industry IS."

De Leon, of course, was himself the developer of the Socialist Industrial Union concept of government. WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE? is one of the four SOCIALIST LANDMARKS through which he was able to express for the first time the development of the tactical methods and the strategic objectives of scientific socialism in a nation as fully developed industrially as the United States.