Reply to letter from Harry Banks


De Leonist Society of Canada
January 29, 1994 reply to the
Dec. 15, 1993 letter by Harry Banks
Mar.-Apr. 1995

January 29, 1994

Dear Comrade Banks:

Thank you for yours of December 15.

Your reaction to our thesis is just what our own reaction would have been a few years ago. However, it is now abundantly clear to us that while Socialist Industrial Unionism answers the question of how to dispossess the capitalist class and institute a socialist industrial "administration of things," it does not address the question of how society-as-a-whole will be enabled to not only determine industrial policy but also resolve the many social issues that have come to the fore since De Leon's day. Apropos, the Advisory Committee itself presumably recognized the existence of a problem here when it endorsed our draft for the (now dated) WAR -- WHY? leaflet, the relevant passage occurring on the back page of this leaflet and reading: "With representation from industrial constituencies -- supplemented by whatever representation is necessary from the nation-at-large to facilitate functions of government not directly concerned with production...." (Our emphasis.)

Now as to your allegation: "Your [Our] criticism of the use of the word 'people' by De Leon and making an issue of it is ludicrous!" You have obviously misunderstood the point we were trying to make. We took as our standard of socialist democracy De Leon's incomparable definition of Socialism, a definition containing the key phrase "by the people" -- a phrase that unquestionably implies, and a phrase that democracy insists, must mean by the people-as-a-whole! No, our problem did not stem from De Leon's use of the word "people" but from the fact of a radical change in the "demography" of the people over a near century ! -- that is, that while in De Leon's day the work force (the people actively engaged in production) may have for all intents and purposes been broadly perceived as synonymous with the people (the people-as-a-whole), "the second industrial revolution" has destroyed the credibility of such perception. Just look at the composition of today's population -- its fast-growing segment of retirees! Just contemplate the perfectly credible socialist scenario wherein the work force could become an actual minority of the adult population! In a word, we are convinced that the widening gap between the active producers and the rest of the population vis-a-vis the question of socialist democracy, far from being a "ludicrous" issue, has become a crucial issue that demands utmost consideration by all who recognize that in this respect De Leonism is not abreast of the times.

As to your "main criticism": "The main criticism of your [our] 'Thesis' is the fact that you [we] made an unforgiving [unforgivable?] error for getting, and using the definition of the word 'Political' in Webster's Dictionary." This, coupled with your assertion: "The final error in your 'Thesis' is the shattering thought of Political Democracy in a Classless Society, and the origin of these misconceptions is the unscientific definition of the word Political" -- and further coupled with your admonition: "Would you [we] not be better informed if you read about the meaning of the word Political, in 'Ancient Society' by Lewis H. Morgan LL.D.??"

To begin our response to the above we would ask what makes you so sure that the Webster s definition of political which we employed is "un-scientific" -- that is, erroneous or ill-founded? We used this in the context of an industrially-developed society to help convey our conviction that if it is to be truly democratic the legislative body of a socialist government, as distinct from its executive, must be directly responsible to a national electorate. Our many discussions under this head led us to at last realize that not sovereignty of the work force of the day but sovereignty of the whole people must become paramount. Not only does this conclusion harmonize with De Leon's concise definition of Socialism but it is also a reflection of a profound passage that is found towards the end of Eugene Sue's The Mysteries of the People-this grand and noble epic tale so admired by De Leon. Quoting the relevant passage:

"Our program contained in substance this: 'France is free, she wants a Constitution. She will accord to the provisional government no right but that to consult the nation. The people should not, and can not [must not?], alienate its sovereignty. [Our emphasis.] No more royalty. Let the executive power be delegated to an elected President, responsible and subject to recall. The legislative power should be reposed in an Assembly elected by universal suffrage. For these principles we have just exposed our lives and shed our blood, and we will uphold them at need by a new insurrection.'" (The Sword of Honor, vol. II, p.322.)

The connection between this splendid passage and our use of Webster's should now be crystal clear. Quoting from our thesis: "According to Webster, 'political' is among other things: 'of, relating to, or concerned with the making as distinguished from the administration of government policy.' (Our emphasis.) With Sue's spokesman we firmly uphold the democratic principle of sovereignty of the people -- a sovereignty that will have flesh and blood only on condition that the people-as-a-whole exercise the legislative power (i.e., determine government policy). We therefore ask on what basis do you find Webster's above-quoted definition of political "unscientific" and our use of it "unforgiving"? As you merely state but do not explain your position, we can only conclude that what you really object to is not Webster's definition per se but our insistence that sovereignty of the people requires political (as well as industrial) democracy -- ergo, in your opinion, requires retention of the political State! But that is not our position! Not only do we hold that the State is a creature of class-divided society that must be abolished but that its abolition is a condition for the full flowering of political democracy!

In view of the foregoing, would you still claim our use of Webster's in this instance is wrong?


Incidentally, as regards your query -- "Would you [we] also use a definition of "Surplus Value' in Websters Dictionary?" -- we decided to lookup its definition and we quote as follows: "surplus value -- n: the difference in Marxist theory between the value of work done or of commodities produced by labor and the usu. [usual] subsistence wages paid by the employer" (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, Copyright 1979 by G. & C. Merriam Co.).

Granting that this definition does not touch upon relative surplus value (an aspect that would seem to require more than a word or two to define), we nevertheless think it comes pretty close to the mark in defining what Marx defined as Absolute Surplus-Value, namely: "The prolongation of the working day beyond the point at which the labourer would have produced just an equivalent for the value of his labour-power, and the appropriation of that surplus-labour by capital, this is production of absolute surplus-value." (Capital, Vol. I, Chapt. XVI, Kerr edition.)

Speaking generally, we have no reservation in agreeing that much caution must indeed be taken in the use of dictionary definitions of sociological terms. At the same time we do not think a taboo should be placed on all such. In practice, therefore, we have rejected some as either ambiguous or unscientific while employing others that appeared faithful to our context.

Examples of the former are:

(1) "Among Webster's definitions of democracy are (1) 'A government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usu. involving periodically held free elections'; (2) 'The absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges.'

"The definitions bear thinking about....

"So much for ailing political democracy! what of Websterian economic democracy... what, simply, of 'the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions'? Underneath its fine feathers what is this but bourgeois democracy....Taken together, Webster's two foregoing definitions can well identify 'western democracies.' At the same time it cannot escape notice that by failing to totally exclude [economic] class from its ken the latter is irreconcilably at odds with the former." (Excerpt from the article GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE published in The De Leonist Society Bulletin, November 1986.)

(2) "According to Webster: The entrepreneur is 'one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise'....

"The definition cannot stand[as is]. The context is obviously small capitalist business; but although small, the entrepreneur is nevertheless not a one-man show. Like the large corporation he is an employer of wage labor.1 (Excerpt from the article THE ENTREPRENEUR published in The De Leonist Society Bulletin, June 1988.)

Examples of the latter (for which, be it noted, we received no objection)

(1) "According to Webster's, KNOWLEDGE is not merely 'the sum of what is known; the body of truth, information and principles acquired by mankind' but also '(1): the fact or condition of being aware of something (2): the range of one's information or understanding. (Excerpt from the article MORE THAN KNOWLEDGE IS NEEDED published in The De Leonist Society Bulletin, July 1985.)

(2) "Now socialist revisionism, according to Webster, is 'a movement in revolutionary Marxian socialism favoring an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary spirit.'" (Excerpt from the article SOCIALIST LABOR PARTY "CENTENNIAL" published in The De Leonist Society Bulletin, November 1990.)

(3) "From Webster's New World Dictionary, College Edition (1966); "Dictatorship of the Proletariat is defined as 'absolute control of economic and political power in a country by a government of the working class (proletariat): regarded in Communist theory as a means of effecting the transition from capitalism to socialism.' (Excerpt from SLP of Canada compilation entitled Recent SLP of America Changes, 1975-1977, copy of which was sent to the U.S. De Leonist Society.)


But we must now respond to your "main criticism" with a broader survey of that ubiquitous word political.

Let us first say that your prescription that we look into Morgan's Ancient Societv was well taken bv us. For the record, however, we should state here that while we are very far indeed trom being tuiiy conversant with this vast work (or with Engels1 Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State) we had nevertheless explored relevant chapters in Morgan (especially "The Institution of Grecian Political Society") prior to drafting our thesis. We of course cannot know in advance what your conception of Political is when you ask us to look into Morgan for its meaning. Our own conception is a composite from a number of sources including Morgan.

In his The Rise of the West-A History of the Human Community (Copyright 1963, University of Chicago Press), W. H. McNeill quotes Aristotle to the effect that "Man is a political animal." What did Aristotle mean by "political"? Let's expand the excerpt thus:

"'Man is a political animal,' said Aristotle; and his definition was particularly apt for Greek antiquity, when the polis, or city-state, embraced almost all human concerns within its institutional frame." (P.209)

"The polis constituted the fundamental cell of both Greek and Roman civilized life. Physically, it consisted of a town or city with an area of farm and pasture land round about. Politically, it was a community governed by magistrates and laws.... In its mature form, the Greek polis commanded an almost total dedication on the part of its citizens. Economics and politics, together with religion, art, literature, and philosophy, came to be pursued largely within its framework." (P.214)

In short, since the word political derives from the Greek polis, it would appear that political (polis-ical?) society begins with the appearance of the polis or city community.

Morgan's meaning is suggested by numerous passages, as for instance:

"Thus the Athenians founded the second great plan of government upon territory and upon property. They substituted a series of territorial aggregates in place of an ascending series of aggregates of persons.... His [the citizen's] relations to a gens or phratry ceased to govern his duties as a citizen. The contrast between the two systems is as marked as their difference was fundamental. A coalescence of the people into bodies politic in territorial areas now became complete." (Ancient Society, Henry Holt & Co., 1907, p.272)

"As a consequence of the legislation of Cleisthenes, the gentes phratries and tribes were divested of their influence, because their powers were taken from them and vested in the deme, the local tribe and the state, which became from thenceforth the sources of all political power." (P.273. Our emphasis.)

Thus in Morgan it would seem that "bodies politic" (political bodies) are citizen bodies of the poleis (cities), or of the demes or local tribes as the case may be; and further, that "political power" manifests itself first as local self-government of the polis -- or of the deme, as the case may be, and subsequently as government embracing larger territorial areas.

At the same time, the second of the above quotes taken from Morgan infers that the gentes, phratries and tribes who first settled in poleis did at first exercise political power!

That such was indeed the case seems amply demonstrated elsewhere by Morgan wherein he attributes the downfall of gentile municipal government to its increasing inability to conduct the common affairs of what became fast-growing urban communities of both indigenous people and aliens. But that is not all. Corroborating Morgan, Engels, too, makes the point that political government was first undertaken by organs of gentile society -- albeit that the growth in size and complexity of the political units eventually made gentile political government no longer viable. Quoting Engels: "The gentes, phratries, and tribes, whose members were now scattered over all Attica and thoroughly intermixed, had thus become useless as political bodies..." (Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, International Publishers, p. 105.) Need we add that what had "become useless" must thereby have at one time been useful?


But what about the word "state" in McNeill's term "city-state"? In the Grecian example, by the middle of the first millennium B.C. the tribes of Attica had already coalesced and completed the transition from gentile to political government; in short, had evolved the Athenian city-state. The point that must now be addressed is Morgan's use of the word "state."

To us, "state" denotes not only a politically-organized people occupying a definite territory but also a society characterized by economic class division and class rule. The seeming problem here is that while Morgan does not hide the fact that the Athenian citizenry was supported by a slave class, he nevertheless employs the term "free state" to describe Athenian democratic institutions. However, the apparent contradiction seems largely resolved when we discover that Morgan's purview here is not all the inhabitants of Athens but only its citizens, and that within this frame he provides evidence that, with few short-lived exceptions, the citizen body enjoyed an epoch of political democracy. For instance:

"Cleisthenes ... placed the Athenian political system upon the foundation on which it remained to the close of the independent existence of the commonwealth." (Ancient Society, p.270.)

"Omitting minor particulars, we find the instructive and remarkable fact that the township, as first instituted, possessed all the powers of local self-government.... Freedom in religion is also noticeable, which was placed where it rightfully belongs, under the control of the people. All registered citizens were free, and equal in their rights and privileges, with the exception of equal eligibility to the higher offices. Such was the new unit of organization in Athenian political society, at once a model for a free state, and a marvel of wisdom and knowledge. The Athenians commenced with a democratic organization at the point where every people must commence who desire to create a free state, and place the control of the government in the hands of its citizens." (pp. 270-1)

"The classes ... both those instituted by Theseus and those afterwards created by Solon, disappeared after the time of Cleisthenes." (p.273)

"Usurpations not unlikely occurred, followed by controversies...but they [the Athenians] never lost their liberties, or those ideas of freedom and of the right of self-government which had been their inheritance in all ages." (p.274)

In sum, while Morgan shows that the citizens of Athens acquired a high degree of political democracy, the fact remains that this was predicated upon State subjugation of an enslaved class of producers. But is political democracy to be thereby regarded as incompatible with a classless industrial society? Marxists-De Leonists have long held such position, a position exemplified in the following excerpt from the Weekly People's Question Period.column of December 7, 1974, in answer to the question "Why is political government outmoded?"

"To put it plainly and simply, political government must go because it cannot administer society's productive machinery in the interest of society. Indeed, the very fact of the political state's existence is evidence that the productive machinery is not being operated for society's benefit, but rather that classes or bureaucratic masters are the beneficiaries ."

And here is the crux of the problem! In this one paragraph "political government" is equated with "political state"! We believe such synonymous usage has been the source of untold confusion on the question of socialist democracy. Obviously political government is today unfit to administer industrial production and distribution in the interest of society (or for that matter, today, in a ruling class interest). However, it should become equally obvious that an industrial administration is unfit to handle, much less resolve, today's manifold problems of a sociopolitical nature. At the same time, by what reasoning? is the conclusion reached that whereas political democracy was in the past and is now, wedded to the State, so it ever shall be, world without end! In our view, there is nothing inherently oppressive or undemocratic in political representation from geographic constituencies. The problem lies in the present manipulation and control of the political field and political government by ruling class interests. When these interests are dethroned through the political mandate of society, backed up by the seizure and administration of industry by the industrially-organized workers, the political field and political government (reformed to suit classless society's needs) can provide the necessary forum and machinery to enable society-as-a-whole to discuss and determine social policy. Where such policy pertains to industry, it will be carried out by the workers through their Industrial Union organization.

As to the presently oppressive organs of the State (e.g., armies, police, courts, prisons), the question is, are all these inherently oppressive or is it their ruling class control and application that makes them so? If they are indeed inherently oppressive then it would seem they should be quickly eliminated. However, in view of the terrible legacy that will be left us by class rule, it may be that some of these organs will be necessary at least for a time after a socialist revolution. For the sake of argument, consider the problem of crime. It should be readily admitted that the advent of Socialism will not immediately rid society of the pervasive crime that Capitalism will undoubtedly hand it. How, then, is Socialism to address the problem if not through police, criminal law, courthouses and judiciary, jails and penitentiaries, etc.? The significant point that we therefore again emphasize here is not a continued existence of coercive organs per se, but that with the outlawing of economic class and class rule these organs would no longer oppress but would merely keep order.

As we see it, therefore, your statement that "The final error in your [our] 'Thesis' is the shattering thought, of Political Democracy in a Classless Society" is not an error on our part. Lacking a convincing argument to the contrary, what our thought shatters is a misconception -- the misconception that political democracy cannot be divorced from the political State! Here, as in so many other instances it is economic development that is the determining factor. In ancient Athens, the citizen body enjoyed political democracy on a material foundation of wealth lifted from slave labor -- under a political State umbrella designed to keep the slave in slavery. But apropos is the following quote from De Leon's essay, "The Materialist Conception of History," as it appears in the pamphlet Abolition of Poverty:

"The set typified by Aristotle and Xenophon looked upon involuntary poverty as an evil, but a necessary, an unavoidable evil. The Aristotelian passage, cited by Marx, -- 'If every tool, when summoned, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it, just as the creations of Daedalus moved of themselves, or the tripods of Hephaestos went of their own accord to their sacred work, if the weaver's shuttles were to weave of themselves, then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers, or of slaves for the lords' -- this passage strikes the key-note of the reasoning of this set."

Today, however, is it not evident that industrial development has reached the point where "the weaver's shuttles" do indeed "weave of themselves"? where an abundance for all is producible with a minimum of toil by any? where the servitude of Labor is no longer the price of political democracy? and where, therefore, Labor's emancipatory act should bestow not only industrial democracy -- but also political democracy stripped of its class content? In a word, we think that instead of depriving the people of the limited political democracy they now have, the De Leonist program should be a portal to realms of self-government whose limits can not yet be imagined! Our keynote throughout has therefore been sovereignty of the people -- a principle or cause upheld, as we have shown, by De Leon in his definition of Socialism, by Sue's spokesman, and as is clearly evident in Ancient Society, by Morgan himself -- as for instance:

"As the unit,so the compound. It is here that the people, as before remarked, must begin if they would learn the art of self-government, and maintain equal laws, and equal rights and privileges. They must retain in their hands all the powers of society not necessary to the state [Obviously, here, not the Marxist state but a democratically-controlled executive body of the nation, federation, or commonwealth] to ensure an efficient general administration, as well as control of the administration itself." (P.275. Our emphasis.)

In conclusion we wish to comment on your opening salvo-that De Leon "is very clear and precise" as regards "your [our] thesis on Political Democracy in a Classless Society." Here you quote relevant passages from De Leon's Socialist Reconstruction of Society address-passages that would indeed constitute a knockout blow to our position were it not for one highly significant circumstance that easily renders the blow harmless. Consider the following, which you quoted:

"On the other hand, if the political triumph does find the working class industrially organized, then for the political movement to prolong its existence would be to attempt to usurp the powers which its very triumph announces have devolved upon the central administration of the industrial organization."

This is unquestionably a potent argument, nevertheless the circumstance that would render it impotent is an amended question!-a question that would make it clip and clear that what the nation would be asked to agree to would NOT! be devolution of its powers upon an industrial organization but delegation of industrial executive authority to an industrial organization responsible to the people through a political legislative assembly!


Our hope is that our thesis will not be finally received by our U.S. comrades as an impudent or thoughtless attack on De Leonism but as an earnest and reasoned effort to adjust it to conditions now prevailing. Our new position has been several years in the making. We now ask that it be accepted or rejected on its merits. Perhaps we will yet receive an argument that will defeat ours. If so, we must surrender our position. Otherwise we will conceive it our duty to propagate an amended De Leonist program-a program of Political and Industrial Democracy.