Reform versus Revolution


This is the text of a leaflet published in 1984
by the De Leonist Society of Canada


(Reprinted from The De Leonist Society Bulletin)

-- November 1984 --

"The issue....was a repetition of the age-old conflict between the opportunist and the revolutionist elements, part and parcel of every revolutionary movement. The former wants numbers, large numbers, and is not unwilling to obscure and to screen the ultimate revolutionary purpose in order to get and hold numbers even at the risk of deceiving the followers. The latter wants clarity first and numbers only on the basis of clarity, hence will stress the ultimate aim of the movement. The former would hold out the hope that the working class can improve its condition under capitalism, and is forced by such an attitude to strive for immediate demands. The latter denies the possibility of such improvement for the class, though it may temporarily hold good for certain groups, and demands an out-and-out revolutionary posture. Such is the age-old struggle between opportunist and revolutionist..." (Henry Kuhn in "Socialist Labor Party: 1890-1930")


Each of two comparatively recent issues of The People, organ of the Socialist Labor Party, contains a striking article that is striking as an instructive reminder of that organization's dismally unsuccessful at-temps to rationalize the revisionism that charmed it into "sliding off the revolutionary plane." The first, entitled "Workers' daily struggles-Revolution versus Reformism," appeared in the April 14 issue of this year.['84] The second, "A historic De Leon address-The Burning Question of Trades Unionism," appeared in this year's June 9 issue. Both are reprinted from Weekly People issues of 1979, suggesting the SLP thinks them models of excellence. De Leonists know otherwise! having staunchly repudiated the irrational arguments upon which these and kindred SLP revisionist apologetics were based. However, the reappearance of the two articles at a time when the issue of human survival is manifestly more crucial than ever before is a timely reminder that revisionism is a recipe for disaster that must be repeatedly exposed.

The nub of the first article ("Workers' daily struggles -- -Revolution versus Reformism") is contained in the following quotes from it:

"...the [revisionist] Socialist Labor Party holds that involvement in daily struggles is not inherently reformistic. Indeed, such involvement, conducted in principled, classconscious, non-opportunistic fashion is an indispensible aspect of sound revolutionary tactics. In practical terms, the revolutionary party can, by participating in workers' daily struggles, gain firsthand knowledge and experience that will aid it in improving its strategy and tactics. Such participation can also help socialists clarify policies on those issues around which large numbers of workers have been moved to action. And while affording the revolutionary party opportunities to improve through actual practice its methods of agitation and education, such involvement injects revolutionary politics and concepts into the immediate struggle, thus bringing socialist perspectives to the attention of the workers involved."

Now "workers' daily struggles" (struggles for "immediate demands" in the workplace and struggles in "issue-oriented" organizations) signify struggles for "something now" under the wages system instead of a revolutionary struggle to abolish the system. Broadly speaking, such struggles are therefore essentially conservative and "inherently reformistic." This,The People (Weekly People) does not deny. What The People denies is that SLP "participation" in these struggles is reformistic! That is the revisionist SLP position-a position, be it noted, that The People fancies it can call "sound revolutionary tactics" by simply sanctifying it with the names of Marx and Engels, Luxemburg and De Leon -- in short, by merely turning the clock back to Socialism's early trials in Europe and America and stopping it there!

But that is certainly not the De Leonist position! -- not the position attained in the ripeness of time by De Leon and the bona fide SLP, nor the position upheld today by The De Leonist Society. Ironically, The People quotes Rosa Luxemburg to the effect that:

"One 'must judge and debate [this matter] on the basis of the existing concrete relationships, of the existing economic and political situation, and not a lifeless and abstract principle..."

Exactly! Marx and Engels, De Leon and the bona fide SLP are honored for their fidelity to existing situations, the revisionist SLP dishonored for its infidelity. The former grew with experience, the latter threw experience to the dogs along with a principle which that experience had forged into a living reality - a principle that cuts a clean swath between revolutionary activity and reformism, a principle that is (irony of ironies!) concisely expressed by De Leon in the very editorial which The People issue in question chose to place alongside the "Revolution versus Reformism" article under scrutiny. Quoting from this (1913) editorial:

"The moment things that are not in the nature of a 'demand1 because they are not the goal, are raised to the dignity of a 'demand,' they are apt to be, and generally are, confused with the goal itself. A political party that sets up 'immediate1 demands by so much blurs its 'constant1 demand or goal. The presence of 'immediate' demands in a Socialist platform reveals pure and simple politicianism -- corruption, or the invitation to corruption."

Now, what is to be said? of a "De Leonist" party that cites De Leon's warning against setting up "immediate demands" in a socialist platform, and heeds the warning by supporting workers' daily struggles - that is, in effect, by setting up 'immediate demands' in its platform!

One of many De Leonist lessons learned through hard, practical experience, asseverates that a political organization cannot help take on the color of any organization it identifies with, cooperates with, or assists. The revisionists in the SLP thought they knew better! -- thought that if the SLP joined or otherwise supported "something now" organizations it could infiltrate these organizations with the revolutionary goal without losing its revolutionary character. Result? Yesterday, today, or tomorrow, however much the SLP may attempt to justify its defection from principle, it can never get out from under the fact that by supporting workers' daily struggles it has lent credence to the belief that it has made these struggles its cause, and to the belief that these struggles can be won. By lending credence to "something now" rather than revolution it has debased itself into a "something now" organization-an organization that is indelibly and incorrigibly "inherently reformistic" thus not worth workers' serious attention.


The second article in question recently resurrected by the revisionist People ("A historic De Leon address -- The Burning Question of Trades Unionism") fails as miserably as does the first ("Workers' Daily Struggles -- Revo-lution versus Reformism") in its attempt to rationalize SLP support of workers' daily struggles. And it fails for the identical reason - failure to heed Luxemburg's caution that one "must judge and debate [this matter] on the basis of existing relationships, of the existing economic and political situation..."

Thus when under a sub-heading, "Fighting the daily struggle," the article states:

"But De Leon was no armchair strategist or parlor theoretician who concentrated on the future while ignoring the demands of the present";

and when it further states:

"He [De Leon] was not oblivious to the everyday practical problems confronting the workers or the daily battles imposed upon them by the existing class struggle";

or when it still further states:

"He fully comprehended that the primary weapon available to the workers in fighting those daily battles against the constant encroachments of their capitalist exploiters was the very same union that must one day provide the lever for successful social revolution. Consequently, De Leon also clearly enunciated the 'immediate mission1 of the union, while voicing the caution that the daily struggles in which it engaged must square with its ultimate aim." --

when the article thus carries on, it not only denies De Leon's own subsequent experience and development but repudiates obvious and far-reaching changes that have taken place in the "economic and political situation" from De Leon's day to our own. We examined "this matter" a while ago in reviews of two De Leon addresses which we submitted to the Canadian De Leonist Society. It is hoped that the following excerpts from those reviews will help exorcise the superstition promoted by the revisionist SLP that because the question of "immediate demands" was relevant at the beginning of the century therefore it is relevant today and ever shall be relevant, "world without end."


"Does the question still burn? The answer can only by YES! Indeed, the incessant aggravation of economic class conflict throughout the industrialized world warns that De Leon's revolutionary concept of the union, first made explicit in this speech, is more urgently needed today than ever before as a beacon to inspire and guide the working class in its historic mission to end class rule thus 'save civilization from a catastrophe.' De Leonists therefore emphasize this concept as THE THING, sustaining it inviolate against reformism and warning in particular against fraudulent De Leonism -- that reform virus that in the trappings of Marx and De Leon substitutes opportunism and reformism for education and class consciousness. And here, not only because it projects a qualitative advance in Socialist thought but is also now dated in certain important respects, "The Burning Question of Trades Unionism" helps wonderfully to expose the methods of fraudulent De Leonism -- how this reform species subverts the goal, which the speech so clearly enunciated-how it rationalizes the union's supreme mission to the background, or to a far distant day, by simply ignoring De Leon's subsequent development as well as certain other subsequent changes...."

"A second aspect of "The Burning Question of Trades Unionism" to become dated concerns its position on 'immediate demands,1 namely, that although the boira fide trades union...has for its supreme mission the Socialist reconstruction of society, that mission is ultimate; that accordingly, while keeping its eye on the goal the union has an immediate mission to put 'a brake on the decline of wages' and otherwise 'break the force of the onslaught of the capitalist.' That was in 1904. However, conditions today are so radically altered that in North America at least there appears little or no remaining possibility of successful resistance to capitalist encroachments. For one thing, the unionized segment of the working class is no longer divided between bona fide Socialist unions and 'limbs of capitalisra' officered by 'labor lieutenants of capital,' but is now wholly in the hands of the latter. For another, the state has erected a virtually impregnable legal barrier against certification as bargaining agent of an 'undesirable1 labor organization. Even more to the point, in contrast to the beginning of the century, capitalism is now so far advanced in decay (has indeed already encroached so disastrously upon all aspects! of the life of the nation) that it is difficult to see how class-conscious unions could be appreciably more effective today than their conservative counterparts in shielding their members from the blows of the decadent system....

"But of course such palpable realities are too solid for pseudo-De Leonists who, in order to attract new members, are more than eager to sacrifice the essence of De Leonism for its shadow with the result that the 'immediate mission1 of the trades union of 1904 becomes a jumping-off place for these 'followers' of De Leon and, in their hands, the source of as great Labor-defeating corruption as the question of transition to Socialism.

'"Immediate demands'? If workers would free themselves from poverty and insecurity, if they would free the nation from anarchy and violence, if they would promote that internationalism which alone can deliver mankind from pollution and the nuclear missile -- in short, if they would survive and live they must make De Leonism their immediate concern!"



"Early in his address, De Leon spells out the essence of his message in the following matchless summation:

"'The mission of unionism is not to act as rearguard to an army defeated, seasoned in defeat, habituated to defeat, and fit only for defeat. The mission of unionism is to organize and drill the working class for final victory-to "take and hold" the machinery of production, which means the administration of the country.'

"The statement is a jewel of many facets which gather and reflect the basic premises adopted or developed by De Leon in his address, and which with but one qualification comprise the Socialist program...."

"Thus whereas in 1905 De Leon said: 'The mission of unionism is to organize and drill the working class for final victory," a year or two later he would have said: The mission of unionism is to drill and organize the working class for final victory. The reversal marks a trenchant qualification of tactics that still further advanced the SLP's revolutionary position - a qualification that the bona fide SLP ever since emphasized and one that the fraudulent SLP saw fit to ignore...."

"As regards the mission of unionism...the I.W.W. was split into two camps - one emphasizing unionism's mission to 'organize and drill the working class' for Socialism, the other emphasizing industrialism for resistance to capitalist encroachment. This within one organization! Even so, it was by no means evident at the time that the two were incompatible; indeed, even De Leon seemed hopeful at first that with an input of Socialist education an industrial union founded upon a mix of 'immediate demands' and 'ultimate goal' would be capable of serving the former without inhibiting the latter....

"But that was in 1905, before the I.W.W. had proved hostile to Socialist 'drilling.' How different! was De Leon's subsequent view of the matter: "You [Olive Johnson] hit the nail squarely on the head where you say in the Open Letter-educate first and organize afterward1; how pertinent! the lesson that (to paraphrase De Leon): The I.W.W. was built upon the double fallacy that a Socialist economic organization need not stand upon the Socialist platform, and that such organization may rise upon the tacit groundwork of organize now, educate later.

"The relevance of the foregoing to De Leon's address is now clear; that is, that while it may be 'idle speculation' whether political unity is brought about by industrial unity, or the latter by the former, it is not speculation (idle or otherwise) that neither can arise in a climate of 'immediate demands.' This is precisely the point adhered to by the bona fide SLP throughout the remainder of its long life following the I.W.W. failure, and precisely the point diligently avoided by its fraudulent namesake - a "Socialist" outfit that emphasizes the importance of unionism's mission by putting it on the back burner in favor of 'something now." De Leonism is not schizophrenic; it teaches the emancipatory function of unionism, the function emphasized by De Leon throughout, and thus builds the foundation for working class unity on both the political field and the industrial field."

De Leonist Society of Canada

De Leonist Society of U.S.A.