The Writing of 'What Means This Strike?'

The Writing of 'What Means This Strike?'
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THE PEOPLE
FEBRUARY 1998
Vol. 107 No. 11

THE WRITING OF "WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE?"

The following article is reprinted from the WEEKLY PEOPLE of Feb. 14, 1948, commemorating the 50th anniversary of WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE?

Feb. 11 marks a significant anniversary in the history of socialism in the United States. It was on that date 50 years ago that America's foremost Marxist, Daniel De Leon, delivered WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE? -- an address that has come down to us as a classic statement on the meaning and nature of the class struggle.

Despite the relentless changes of time, WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE? remains today the finest exposition of elementary Marxian economics extant. Its simplicity and the vigor of its logic have made it a primary agitational and educational pamphlet. For newcomers and old-timers alike, WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE? has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration and moral strength.

The occasion for the address and the circumstances under which it was delivered were both calculated to evoke the speaker's best. The textile mills of New Bedford, Mass., had announced a 10 percent wage cut and the workers, rather than accept a reduction in living standards that were already low, struck. In itself, of course, there was nothing unique about a New Bedford textile strike. The famous old New England mill town had witnessed many a bitterly fought industrial battle, the most recent having been the great textile strike of 1894. What raised the strike of '98 above the run of capital-labor conflicts was the accompanying revolt against "pure and simpledom" -- unionism so designated because its leading figure, Samuel Gompers, founder and president of the American Federation of Labor, rejected political action for economic measures "pure and simple."

INTEREST IN 'NEW UNIONISM' HIGH

For the first time New Bedford workers in respectable numbers were beginning to question whether they could ever escape from their wretched wage-slave state via collective bargaining and strikes. Simultaneously they became interested in the "new unionism" represented by an organization that called itself the Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance. The ST&LA was at war with the "pure and simple" AFL. Founded in 1895 under the inspiration of SLP teaching, it did not reject the strike but catalogued it as a mere defensive weapon which could, at best, slow up labor's retreat. The ST&LA held that before the workers could escape from their misery, they would have to unite politically as well as economically to abolish the capitalist system.

There was, then, not merely a body of embattled workers in New Bedford when De Leon arrived to deliver his message; there was a body of aroused workers, eager for light and guidance. Moreover, Gompers himself had personally contributed to the interest in De Leon's lecture by a scurrilous attack he had made on the Socialist spokesman two days earlier.

Samuel Gompers says in his autobiography that, "In a long, carefully prepared address, De Leon set forth the principles of the new unionism and made a savage attack upon trade unions and upon me in particular." He then makes the amazing claim that he went to New Bedford the "following evening" and that there he "addressed large numbers of textile strikers and succeeded in materially changing the impression made by De Leon...the offensive for the new unionism," Gompers boasted, "was successfully checked...."

Either Gompers' memory was playing him tricks or he placed excessive importance on leaving the impression that he had gotten the best of De Leon. Actually, Gompers did go to New Bedford. But it was two days BEFORE De Leon spoke, not the "following evening." And, far from strengthening the cause of pure and simpledom by his visit, Gompers cut a most ignominious figure before an audience considerably smaller than that addressed by De Leon two days later. Moreover, as we have already noted, Gompers' reckless libel of the Socialist spokesman intensified interest in the latter's meeting.

SAM GOMPERS HAS ROUGH TIME IN BEDFORD

When Gompers arrived in New Bedford on Feb. 9, 1898, the following letter, published in the NEW BEDFORD EVENING STANDARD the day before, was handed to him in person:

"To Mr. Samuel Gompers:

"In the name of Section New Bedford, SLP, I am authorized to issue the following challenge:

"That you shall appear in debate on next Friday evening, Feb. 11, at City Hall, with Daniel De Leon. The subject to be: 'The principles which you [Gompers'] represent, known as the American Federation of Labor as opposed to those represented by De Leon, and known as Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, or socialism.'

"Yours, in behalf of Section New Bedford,

"JAMES F. HANCOCK

"Organizer of the local Section."

Instead of seizing this opportunity to crush De Leon and, along with De Leon, the new unionism, Gompers denounced the challenge as "traitorous." According to a report of Gompers' meeting in the PITTSBURGH DISPATCH, Feb. 10, he had no sooner flung the "traitorous" charge than Hancock (the SLP organizer) jumped up and "challenged Gompers then and there." In an instant pandemonium reigned. What followed was reported as follows by the DISPATCH:

"'Don't do that,' said Mr. Gompers. 'Don't sink to his level. I know this red button brigade [SLP members]. You will find a Pinkerton agent, the paid hireling of the mill corporation, here Friday night to divide you against yourselves.' This was taken as a reference to a Socialist [De Leon] who is to speak here Friday night and mingled applause and hisses followed. But Gompers continued, saying that men who would not fight together were traitors to each other. He was several times interrupted, and at length was forced to break off to catch a train."

GOMPERS' LIBEL BACKFIRES

Gompers' libelous charge did not even set well with the non- Socialist strike leaders. One of them -- William Cunnane, president of the Cotton Weavers' Protective Association and financial secretary of the Strike Council -- said in a statement published in the EVENING STANDARD of Feb. 11:

"...Mr. Gompers also warned his audience that the Socialists were about to bring a paid Pinkerton into the city in a few days, and in this connection used language that suggested that the said Pinkerton was Daniel De Leon, who is billed to speak in the City Hall tonight. I have always had a certain amount of respect for Mr. Gompers, but when a man will stand up in front of an audience and make a deliberate statement which he knows is false and a lie, a statement made evidently for the purpose of winning over to his side an excited and passionate audience, then that man loses my respect...."

Thus did Gompers unwittingly contribute to the success of De Leon's New Bedford visit. There De Leon delivered not one, but a series of speeches. "The first meeting was at the City Hall again," reports THE PEOPLE'S correspondent, "all the others were at the Howland Hall. The size of these meetings told a tale in themselves. The City Hall was crowded to its utmost by fully a thousand people on Friday, the 11th, and from first to last the speaker had the audience with him....As a practical result of these meetings, and as an evidence of the ripeness of the workers for an advanced stand, it is enough to say that three Local Alliances of weavers and spinners were organized by De Leon during the three days he was here, and these will proceed forthwith to organize themselves into a District Alliance of the Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance, and thereby set up a local central body of trades unions that the capitalists cannot monkey with through their labor fakers."

And THE PEOPLE'S reporter concluded saying, "The conviction is casting deep roots that during such strike times as these the workers have the best opportunity and are in the best condition to have the labor question presented to them."

DANIEL DE LEON: AGITATOR, EDUCATOR, ORGANIZER

Only those who have read WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE? can appreciate the spirit, skill and energy with which De Leon took advantage of this particular opportunity. De Leon carried his audience with him to a vantage point that gave perspective of the whole capitalist system. Nor did he ignore the role of the Gomperses in this system. "I understand," he said, "that two days ago, in this city, Mr. Gompers went off at a tangent and shot off his mouth about me. What he said was too ridiculous for me to answer. You will have noticed that he simply gave what he wishes you to consider as his opinion; he furnished you no facts from which he drew it, so that you could judge for yourselves. He expected you to take him on faith. I shall not insult you by treating you likewise. Here are the facts on which my conclusion [concerning the role of the labor faker] is based." Thereupon De Leon pulled the curtain aside, revealing Gompers cheek by jowl with the political representatives of the capitalist class, even showing him endorsing the candidacy of a governor who had called out the militia to break a railroad strike.