De Leon outlined strategy for achieving democratic workplace, society

from the New Unionist, March 2001

De Leon outlined strategy for achieving democratic workplace, society

Daniel De Leon was active in the American labor movement from the late 1880s to his death in 1914. A lawyer and lecturer on international law at Columbia in New York City, he passed through several middle-class reform movements before reading Marx, which convinced him a revolutionary change was needed to solve the problems of modern society. He thereupon joined the Socialist Labor Party (SLP).

The SLP at the time was largely an organization of German immigrants making little headway among native English-speaking Americans. Shortly after joining the SLP De Leon became editor of its paper, The People. From there he sought to steer the party into the thick of the struggles of American workers, with the aim of converting them to socialism.

Socialists in the U.S. had for decades oscillated between periods of union organizing followed by periods emphasizing political electioneering. De Leon said that because of the mutual interdependence of economics and politics they needed to direct their efforts to both simultaneously.

Recognizing the inherent political character of the labor movement put him at odds with both the anti-political anarchists and the then politically neutral "pure-and-simple" trade unionists of the AFL. He directed the SLP's ideological warfare against both these factions. At the same time, he recognized that the anarchist idea of overthrowing capitalism through a violent insurrection by a "militant minority" was outmoded and suicidal in the developed political and economic conditions of modern capitalism, exemplified by the United States.

The need instead for a mass-based political movement was acknowledged by all socialists of the time. But a growing number were seeing such a movement as the vehicle for gaining political office to legislate reforms of the existing system, rather than as the weapon to overthrow the state and establish a new worker-owned and governed industrial commonwealth. This conflict within the SLP led to its split in 1899, with the reformist faction leaving to form the Socialist Party of America. The S.P. in America represented the social democratic reformism that would come to dominate the workers' movements in Europe.

De Leon, upholding the revolutionary position, said that the compromises with capitalism sought by reformism, rather than evolving into socialism as its adherents maintained, would block its advance and ultimate success. The experience of Europe's Social Democratic parties which did succeed in winning power in the capitalist state would later bear him out.

From this insight De Leon recognized the limits of relying on political action alone to establish socialism. While the labor movement would still have to organize politically in order to take control of the state powers, these old institutions that had been devised to govern a class-ruled system could not be used to establish the classless society of socialism. The state, once captured, would be dismantled and replaced by a new governing institution.

Since socialism was the democratic control of production and distribution by the working producers themselves, socialist government would be based in the workplaces. Instead of electing representatives from geographical districts, they would be elected from industrial constituencies. This industrial structure of government would allow it carry out its new purpose: to administer production, not for the profit of the removed capitalist owning class, but in the interest of all society, the new owner of the national economy.

The workplace government of socialism would therefore spring from the workplace organization of the workers - unions. These unions would have to be industry-wide and include all the workers of each industry regardless of craft in order to first, have the power to defend the workers' interests under capitalism, and then upon the workers' political victory be positioned to assume the administration of production. The failure to have the workers industrially organized would, De Leon thought, result in the ultimate defeat of a workers' political victory. Or it would result, in his words, in a "usurpation" of authority by the party against the workers, a prediction borne out with catastrophic consequences for the socialist movement by the Russian Revolution.

But the unifying industrial unionism the revolutionary socialists promoted was being blocked by the divisive craft unionism of the AFL, which was defended by the reformists of the Socialist Party. Therefore, the old unionism along with its political allies had to be opposed, and a new unionism organized to supplant it.

So the SLP joined in the effort to launch a revolutionary industrial union in 1905 - the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). After raising the party's hopes for a reorganization of the labor movement on sound principles, the IWW fell prey to the anarchist currents within its own ranks, which in 1908 succeeded in banishing political action from its program. In place of solid political education the IWW employed a bombastic rhetoric of violence and sabotage, making it an easy target for government repression. Come World War I the government happily obliged, effectively destroying the organization as a functioning union.

The more intelligent and far-sighted capitalists, with their allied academics and politicians, saw that the most effective way to deflect a revolutionary threat to the system was to accept reformism into the system. This meant having the government ease the distress of the workers caused by capitalist economics and thereby make the workers dependent on and loyal to the existing government and its laws, a development forecast and feared by De Leon but not fully realized in his lifetime. The strategy was fully implemented in the crisis of the Great Depression, however, and, with the capitalist Democratic Party becoming a committed reform party, left the Socialist Party with nothing to do but die out.

With De Leon's death in 1914 the SLP fared not much better. It decided to preserve itself by insulating itself from the class struggle rather than engage it as De Leon had done. The result was a long and steady degeneration into the tiny authoritarian cult it is today.

Nevertheless, the ideas formulated by Daniel De Leon in the years of the SLP's creative struggles remain to guide this and future generations of working-class militants. They are the ideas that guide the program and action of the New Union Party, today's exponent of the De Leonist vision of a society of freedom and equality.