Frank Girard, Denigrating De Leonism

Frank Girard
Denigrating De Leonism
from the Discussion Bulletin
May-June 2002 #113, pages 24-26

Comments by M.L., web site editor:

In the following article, Frank Girard replied to a series of articles about De Leonism that had appeared on the website of the organization International Communist Current (ICC). As of 5/08 the page is ICC's index of all of their articles on the subject of De Leonism. It seems that their present archive of such articles is incomplete and doesn't include some of the material that Frank answered below.

One reason I'm inspired to upload Frank's article to is because one of the misconceptions it answers is the assertion that De Leon supported the belief by Ferdinand Lassalle known as the "iron law of wages." According to that belief, the fact that, for most workers, real wages (what wages will buy) continuously gravitate back toward the "living wage" level (which, like Marx, De Leon held to be true) supposedly implies that the formation of unions and economic struggle are therefore useless (which, like Marx, De Leon held to be false). During the time after Frank Girard died, some writers have polluted articles on Wikipedia with false assertions that De Leon agreed with such a theory and was therefore non-Marxian. In the following article Frank replied effectively to the misconception.

Frank also made the important point that some of the differences in strategy between De Leonism and other interpretations of socialism may be traced to the fact that De Leonists reject the suggestion of minority revolution. This is probably the explanation for why De Leonism has been criticized so sharply on the leftist forum Some of the anarchist and Leninist critics on that forum visualize socialism as something that has to be forced onto the many by the few. Naturally they would be repulsed by the proposal to change society in a fundamental way while adhering to the Constitutional method. Naturally when we say "peaceful revolution" they would have no point of reference for understanding what we mean.

Mike Lepore, May 29, 2008


Frank Girard


In its issue 120 Internationalism returned to its project of "coming to grips with De Leonism," but rather obliquely this time. The title, "Deifying De Leon Dishonors His Revolutionary Legacy" seems to be nothing more than a disingenuous (and irrelevant) cheap shot The basic purpose of the series has been to denigrate De Leon and the revolutionary program he developed and thus to deny the validity of his "revolutionary legacy." It's irrelevant because the article has nothing to do with "deifying" De Leon; it's a reply of sorts to articles in DBs 108 and 109 reviewing Internationalism's four-part series.

[Note: Internationalism's attacks on DeLeonism have been much too long to publish in the DB, and the same can be said by Internationalism about publishing the DB's review. With that in mind the DB has provided readers with information on how to obtain copies of Internationalism. Internationalism, however, as is its custom, has protected its readers from hearing the other side of the debate by not returning the favor. Like the earlier issues, Internationalisml20 can be obtained for $1 from PO Box 288, New York, NY 10018.]

Jerry Grevin, the author of Internationalism's articles, begins by expanding his original accusation that De Leon advocated "a variant" of the iron law of wages. Now we have his assertion that De Leon and the SLP viewed strikes as useless. The fact is that De Leon, like Marx, asserted the economic futility of strikes, but saw them as evidence of the healthy and potentially revolutionary willingness of our class to engage in the struggle for a greater portion of the wealth it produces. (Since Grevin accuses me of misquoting and misparaphrasing Marx, readers will find here the relevant passage from Value Price and Profit, [pp. 72-74 of the SLP edition or in other editions, the last couple pages starting at the paragraph that begins, "These few hints..."] and also from De Leon's What Means This Strike in the collection Socialist Landmarks, pp. 83-85.)

From Value Price and Profit:

"These few hints will suffice to show that the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favor of the capitalist against the workingman, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages or to push the value of labor more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making die best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. I think! have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labor, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement."

"At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these every-day struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economic reconstruction of society."

From What Means This Strike?

"Three years ago I was in your midst during another strike. The superficial observer who looks back to your attitude during that strike, who looks back to your attitude during the 'strikes that preceded that one, who now turns his eyes to your attitude in the present strike, and who discovers substantially no difference between your attitude now and then might say, "Why, it is a waste of time to speak to such men; they learn nothing from experience; they will eternally fight die same hopeless battle, the battle to establish 'safe relations' with the capitalist class, with the same hopeless weapon: the 'pure and simple' organization of labor!" But the Socialist does not take that view. There is one thing about your conduct that enlists for and entitles You to the warm sympathy of the Socialist, and that is that, despite your persistent errors in fundamental principles, in aims and methods, 'despite the illusions that you are chasing after, despite the increasing poverty and cumulating failures that press upon you, despite all that you preserve manhood enough not to submit to oppression, but rise in the rebellion that is implied in a strike. The attitude of workingmen engaged in a bona fide strike is an inspiring one. It is an earnest that slavery will not prevail. The slave alone who will not rise against his master, who will meekly bend his back to die lash and turn his cheek to him who plucks his beard-that slave alone is hopeless. But the slave, who, as you of New Bedford, persists, despite failures and poverty, in rebelling, there is always hope for. This is the reason I have considered it worth my white to Jeave my home and interrupt my work in New York, and come here, and spend a few days with you. I bank my hopes wholly and build entirely upon this sentiment of rebellion within you."

Grevin's willful blindness to the sense of Marx's statements in VPP may stem from his realization that these speeches by Marx and De Leon fly in the face of an article of internationalism's faith: its peculiar mechanistic version of "capitalist decadence." Neither Marx nor De Leon could witness the explosive growth in productivity that would enable capital to accede to working class demands to improve the standard of living of industrial workers in the 20th century. Grevin's defense of his idea of capitalist decadence seems relevant to the comic Richard Prvor's famous remark, "Are you going to believe me or are you going to believe your lying eyes?" To explain 20* century economic reforms Grevin resorts to a new classification of reforms: They are "fundamental structural changes" like the eight-hour day and restrictions on child labor granted during what he calls the ascendant phase of capitalism [ ie. pre-1914] and thus in keeping with "capitalist decadence" theory, or else they are "measures designed to institutionalize state capitalism" like social security, welfare, and the WPA. Grevin doesn't explain just how the sharp rise in the standard of living of industrial workers since 1914 figures in the thinking of capitalist decadence proponents.

Next Internationalism "comes to grips" with De Leonist's rejection of the idea of a post-revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. The problem I and many other De Leonists have with the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat is its tragic history. I cited the USSR, The People's Republic of China, and Cambodia as examples. Grevin complained that these weren't dictatorships of the proletariat but rather were "extreme forms of state capitalism, not workers governments." I agree that all were examples of state capitalist economies. But in each case the vanguard party that provided leadership for the proletariat claimed to nave established a D of P whose purpose was to repress counter-revolutionary' elements in society. In every case the dictatorship of the proletariat became a dictatorship over the workers by the elite leaders of the vanguard party.

Another factor influencing De Leonist rejection of the D of P is that De Leonists are opposed to the idea of a minority revolution. In advanced industrial nations the proletariat make up over 90 percent of the population. It is die task of socialist revolutionaries to convince, not lead, our fellow workers to abolish capitalism. A revolution made by a clear majority of convinced socialists will not need the coercive instruments of a dictatorship to maintain itself. Marx could not see into the future when die proletariat would be the great majority and when it would only remain to win them over by persuasion. Nor could he envision the hideous barbarism that the dictatorship of the proletariat would entail.

This brings us to the question of democracy and the Leninist aversion to the idea of a revolution precipitated by the choice of voters in an election. Grevin's response to the idea in the section "DeLeonism and Bourgeois Democracy" consists almost entirely of sarcastic references to my brief outline of the De Leonist program in DB10S:

"De Leon's idea featured a peaceful revolution through the ballot preceded by a period of economic and political education by a revolutionary party and a revolutionary union movement. The combination of an educated working class and foundering capitalism -would result in an overwhelming victory at the polls. The socialist majority in Congress would abolish capitalism and disband the state apparatus; the SIUs would provide the social organization necessary to organize production."

Grevin simply ignores Marx's 1870 endorsement of a peaceful, electoral revolution (quoted in DB108) and attempts to laugh the SLP's program for revolution out of existence: "For De Leonism, proletarian revolution will not only be peaceful but legal to boot!!! God forbid the workers stage an illegal overthrow of capitalism." Etc. etc. After the laughs Grevin's argument consists of his conviction that the capitalist class is unlikely to abide by its professed democratic pretensions. Like Greven De Leonists have no illusions about the willingness of our rulers to abide by the results of an election, nor did De Leon. The power that will enforce the victory at the polls will be the class conscious working class organized in socialist industrial unions whose members do the work and are in a position to control production, communication, transportation and all other activity a counter-revolution would require.

It's difficult to understand exactly why Leninists like Internationalism and the left communists in general reject so utterly the idea of a peaceful revolution. One explanation may be their romantic attachment to the model of urban insurrection played out in Petersburg in 1917. Another may be that the De Leonist model leaves no role for the vanguard party and its leadership elite -- no place for the Lenins, the Trotskys, the Stalins, the Maos of such a revolution. Perhaps also they feel that a blood-on-the-streets insurrection will pave the way for the coercive force that will institute the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The title of Internationalism's series was "The Legacy of De Leonism." I hope readers will examine that legacy by reading De Leon's works available from New York Labor News, PO Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042 and from the monthly journals The People, PO Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042 and the New Unionist, 1821 University Ave., W. #S-116, Saint Paul, MN 55104.

-- Frank Girard