Daniel De Leon - Burning Question of Trades Unionism, publisher's preface


Publisher's preface to Daniel De Leon,
_The Burning Question of Trades Unionism_,
copied from _Socialist Landmarks_,
1977 edition, pages 129-134


The address by Daniel De Leon, entitled "The Burning Question of Trades Unionism,"* is another landmark on the road of scientific Socialism to labor's emancipation from wage slavery. It marks the first decided advance in Socialist theory since the time of Marx, pointing as it does definitely to the organization and tactics necessary for the Socialist and labor movement to adopt, as it approaches the time of the social revolution.



* "Trades Unionism" was the only term current at the time this lecture was delivered and as such applied to labor unions generally, reactionary and progressive alike. Subsequently, the definitive terms, contrasting "craft unionism" and "industrial unionism," came into common usage. Since the appearance of fake industrial unions (such as the C.I.O. whose principles are identical with those of the A. F. of L.), Socialists designate bona fide working class unionism as Socialist Industrial Unionism.


At the time of the delivery of "The Burning Question of Trades Unionism," i.e., in April, 1904, the principal ideas expressed in it were but slightly known and understood. For this reason a short sketch of the events in the American labor movement that led up to its delivery, or followed almost directly thereupon, will aid the reader in appreciating its importance both historically and theoretically.

The Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, organized in 1895, had embodied some of the principles set forth in Daniel De Leon's speech. The S. T. and L. A., however, never had, at one and the same time, both a clear conception of the full requirements of true unionism and a membership strong enough to put those principles into practice upon a scale sufficiently large to bring success and insure permanent progress. The S.T. and L.A., because of the very correctness of its position, had encountered violent opposition that was insidious as often as open. It had encountered opposition from the leaders of the so-called Socialist party, sometimes open, but more often veiled under the cloak of "neutrality toward economic organizations of labor." There was, furthermore, the passive opposition resulting from the ignorance and weakness of the rank and file of the working class itself. In consequence of all these and other circumstances of less importance, the S.T. and L. A. had been brought, in 1904, to a low state of vitality.

Then came this speech. The mission of unionism was made clear. Labor will instinctively throw up an arm to screen its head from the blows of capitalism- that arm is the union. The workers must equip themselves with the force necessary to wrest the industries from the control of the capitalist class; the only such force available to the workers is industrial organization, the union. The workers must build an organization through which they can directly and effectively carry on the administration and operation of industry when capitalist usurpation has been unseated-that organization, which is to be the foundation of the Industrial Republic, is the union. The form of organization is dictated by the mission of the union. The union must be an organization in which the workers are grouped according to the industries in which they work. It must not be a craft organization in which the various trades are at each other's throats and all together at the throats of the unorganized. The union must, furthermore, be an organization of the entire working class; it must organize those out of work, as well as those who have jobs. The union must recognize the ballot as the civilized, political instrument for deciding social disputes, but it must also be there with the power to enforce the fiat of the ballot if the capitalists should seek to set aside the decision of society.

This address was delivered and published in April, 1904; it had a wide circulation. The following January, there was held in Chicago a conference from which issued the call that brought together the elements, the S. T. and L. A. among them, which went to make up the First Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World, convened at Chicago, June 27, 1905. At that First Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World, the constitution, preamble and plan of organization adopted were in harmony in every important particular with the requirements of organization and tactics specified in this address, "The Burning Question of Trades Unionism."

Again, however, the movement met with misfortune. As had the S. T. and L.A., the young I. W. W. also encountered opposition from the combined forces of the capitalist class itself and its servants, the leaders of the American Federation of Labor. And again true unionism was scuttled by the "Socialist" party leaders, still skulking under the veil of pretended neutrality. All this opposition notwithstanding, the I. W. W. for a time forged ahead by leaps and bounds. But something worse than any external enemy attacked the organization.

The canker worm of anarchy gnawed at the vitals of the young organization from the very beginning. And even for this the pure and simple political and anti-union attitude of the Socialist party of America was to a great extent responsible. Thousands of work-ingmen, inclined toward Socialism, knew or heard nothing of any other Socialist party than the S.P., which was then as now featured by the capitalist press. These workingtnen, having repeatedly received from S.P. unionists and "borers from within" the American Federation of Labor just such a deal as De Leon at the close of this address describes in the answer to the question of Mr. William Walker, had become thoroughly disgusted with the activities of pure and simple political Socialism. Add to this the fact that the S.P., then on the top wave of its "success," exhibited its worst and most shameful corruption, political trading and reform politics in the various cities it had succeeded in capturing. Small is the wonder that half-baked Socialists turned absolutely against politics as a revolutionary weapon, scornfully referring to it as parliamentarianism and politicianism.

This psychological state, in which thousands of the young I. W. W. men found themselves, aggravated by the attitude of hostility of the Socialist party leaders, was grist to the mills of the anarchists who had found shelter in the organization from its inception. Antipolitical, physical forcist, purely anarchistic ideas grew apace among the rank and file, and finally nestled at the very center of the organization. At the Fourth Convention the anarchists in office, Vincent St. John and W. E. Trautmann, with a number of assistants, steamrollered several duly elected delegates out of the convention. The rump convention then proceeded to strike from the I. W. W. Preamble the clause declaring the necessity for organizing the revolutionary movement of labor upon the political as well as on the industrial field.

From thence that faction of the I. W. W., identified as the "Anarchistic I. W. W." or the "Bum-mery" from their song, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," or as "Chicago I. W. W.," has steered into the open practices of anarchy. Its spokesmen have advocated "theft," "assassination," "sabotage," and so-called "direct action." From the day that it steamrollered those bona fide delegates to the so-called Fourth Convention, that movement has recogni/ed and upheld no peaceful means of social intercourse, no regular and peaceful method of determining public issues. Whatever the end sought, this anarchistic crew has universally repudiated all civilized means for its attainment, and has flown at once to the employment of the barbarous devices of individualistic physical force and terrorism. From time to time, and particularly during the war, the leaders betrayed their followers into prison, accomplishing no good whatsoever to the working class. The final result was that hundreds of I. W. W. members, probably sincere but misled and ignorant, were sent to prison for terms up to 20 years, winding up with the total fiasco of their chief, W. D. Haywood, leaving his dupes to suffer for the folly he had committed the organization to and himself skipping the country, finding refuge in Soviet Russia, where he subsequently died.

As an organization the I. W. W. has long since ceased to exert any influence. In contrast to the political organization of Socialism, the economic organization of revolutionary labor must have numbers in order to justify its existence. Bereft of principles as well as numbers, the miserable remnant of that once proud embodiment of working-class hopes and aspirations lingers on, a powerful object lesson to the Marxist militant, a warning to the workers, and a tribute to the genius of Daniel De Leon, who predicted just such an end for the organization, once it had thrown overboard the civilized principle of settling the great issue of our age at the ballot box.

The principles of Socialist Industrial Unionism, coupled with sound working-class political action, still remain the last and only hope of the workers, and the only means of achieving the Socialist Republic of freedom, peace and abundance.