Daniel De Leon - Socialist Landmarks, publisher's introduction

Publisher's introduction to
_Socialist Landmarks : Four Addresses by Daniel De Leon_,
1977 edition, pages 7-20


In "Reform or Revolution," Daniel De Leon says: "We know that movements make men, but men make movements. Movements cannot exist unless they are carried on by men; in the last analysis it is the human hand and the human brain that serve as the instruments of revolutions."

Attesting to the truth of this statement, De Leon himself stands as Exhibit A. The movement made De Leon. The movement shaped him into the foremost Marxist and social scientist of the twentieth century. Without the movement De Leon would undoubtedly have achieved distinction, possibly even a measure of fame, as an authority on international law, which was his field. But it was the movement of Socialism that awakened the fires of his genius.

And De Leon, in turn, played a stellar role in shaping the Socialist movement. To the immortal Karl Marx belongs the discovery of the role of the class struggle in history, the materialist conception of history, and the formulation of the theory of value and surplus value, and its scientific application. But it was the American, Daniel De Leon, who discovered the actual structure of Socialist society and laid down the basic tactics for achieving proletarian victory in a highly developed industrial society.

Socialism rejects the "great man" theory of history. But Socialism does not fly to the opposite extreme of denying to great men their significant roles. Paraphrasing De Leon, Socialism says historical conditions make great men, but great men often help to determine the course of history and the timing of historical developments. The elements of the social concepts discovered by Daniel De Leon were present in the industrial structure of modern society. If De Leon had not been caught by "a cat's-paw of the labor movement," to use his own expression, sooner or later another great mind would have perceived in industrial production the outlines of the industrial government of the future. But decades might have elapsed first. Meanwhile the movement in America would almost certainly have paralleled the Social Democracy of Europe, which degenerated under the corrupting influence of reforms and compromise into a movement of "bourgeois Socialism."

Indeed, the section of the American movement that marched under the banner of the Socialist party did succumb to these degenerating influences. For half a century the reformist S.P. has peddled bogus Socialism, sown confusion and obscured the lines of the class struggle. No candid historian would deny that it was due mainly to De Leon's profound respect for science, devotion to principle and tireless efforts that the Socialist Labor Party, instead of following the S.P. down the primrose path of opportunism and reform, followed without deviation the course charted by scientific Socialism. It is thanks to Daniel De Leon that we have in America today a nucleus for a sound, disciplined and clear-sighted Marxian organization of the working class.

De Leon came to the social question wonderfully equipped in spirit and intellect. He was born on an island off the coast of Venezuela on December 14, 1852. Sent to Europe as a youth for an education, he received a remarkably thorough and broad one. When he graduated from the famous old University of Leyden, in Holland, he had mastered seven languages and made a deep study of history, philosophy and mathematics.

De Leon was then a young man of twenty. Not wishing to live in the tropics where he was born, he came to New York where, in 1878, he graduated with high honors from Columbia University, having been awarded prizes in constitutional and international law. In presenting the award to Daniel De Leon, Professor Barnard said to him:

"Your successful labors afford ground for the just expectation that you may find your place among the distinguished publicists of the age and the country."

Five years later he was holding down the important academic post of lecturer on international law at Columbia University. Everything pointed to a brilliant career for De Leon as a university professor when, in 1886, an incident occurred that changed the whole direction of his life.

The Columbia Law School was then located on Madison Avenue, opposite St. Patrick's Cathedral. One day De Leon was chatting with a group of his colleagues on the faculty when suddenly there was a great noise in the street-bells ringing, horns tooting and men shouting. A line of street cars -- they were horse cars then -- was coming down the avenue accompanied by a parade of workers. There had been a strike -- a long, hard strike in which the strikers had been treated brutally by the police -- and the workers had won. The professors moved to the window to watch the procession, and the scorn and contempt that they expressed for the workers outraged De Leon's sense of justice. In a mood of anger and resentment over the class snobbery of his colleagues, he sat down and wrote a letter to Henry George, whom he had heard the workers were intending to nominate for mayor, and offered him his support.

It was this incident -- a stroke of fate -- and the subsequent petty persecution to which he was subjected at the university, that brought De Leon into the labor movement. He did not dabble in the labor movement. De Leon was no dilettante. He gave himself and his great talents wholly. Soon he was introduced to the works of Karl Marx and he readily absorbed their logic and principles. By 1889 Daniel De Leon was thoroughly convinced that the capitalist system had become outmoded and the safety and welfare of humanity demanded a new social organization, one that would function in the interests of all the people and not for the benefit of a small privileged capitalist class.

De Leon joined the Socialist Labor Party, the only party then in existence that claimed to be Socialist. With his vibrant personality and strong character, and his outstanding abilities as speaker, writer and logician, he made a deep impression on the membership of this workingmen's Party and in a year or two he was elected to the post of Editor of the Party's official newspaper, the WEEKLY PEOPLE.

So much for the bare facts of his early life. When De Leon entered the Socialist movement he found it vague as to its goal and confused and uncertain as to its methods. When he died a quarter of a century later he left behind him an indestructible movement with a clear understanding of where it was going and how it was going to get there. The story of how the movement was forged and hammered into a powerful working class weapon is largely the story of the development of De Leon's ideas. And De Leon's great speeches, particularly "Reform or Revolution," "What Means This Strike?" "The Burning Question of Trades Unionism," and "Socialist Reconstruction of Society," are pivotal chapters in that story.

De Leon's discoveries did not spring forth fullblown from his brow, as Minerva is said to have sprung from the brow of Jove. They were the product of years of experience and reflection, plus a profound understanding of Marxist science. Above all, they were the product of De Leon's genius for grasping, and accepting without equivocation, the logic of science.

"Reform or Revolution" (January 26, 1896) was the first of De Leon's epoch-making addresses and the first landmark of Marxian Socialism in this country. In it he laid down the fundamental principle that differentiates "revolution" from "reform." He demonstrated that a party of Socialism, which aims for a fundamental social change, tinkers with reforms at its peril. A party of Socialism must declare itself, he said. The workers must understand the need for a thoroughgoing social change and turn a deaf ear to promises of relief that leave the capitalists in the saddle. "Revolutions triumphed," De Leon declared, "whenever they did triumph, by asserting themselves and marching straight upon their goal. On the other hand, the fate of Wat Tyler [leader of a 14th century revolt of English peasants] ever is the fate of reform. The rebels, in this instance, were weak enough to allow themselves to be wheedled into placing their movement into the hands of Richard II, who promised 'relief -- and brought it by marching the men to the gallows."

When De Leon delivered "Reform or Revolution" he was still far from being an industrial unionist. But he was rapidly gathering the experience that would take him in that direction. Actual experience within the faker-controlled unions soon taught De Leon the futility of the policy of trying to convert these unions into Socialist unions via "boring from within." ' 'Boring from within,' " he said in 1900, "resolved itself ... into this: either you must bore to a purpose, and then you land quickly on the outside; or you don't land on the outside, but then you knuckle under, a silent supporter of the felonies committed by the labor lieutenants of capitalism. Such was the experience."

But experience also taught him that the union was a vital factor in waging the class struggle. The union was born of the class struggle. To yield it to the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class was to abandon all hope of emancipation. Without the organization of the workers into a classconscious revolutionary body on the industrial field, the goal of Socialism would remain an aspiration. Such, also, was the lesson of experience.

The Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, the first trade union openly to challenge capitalist rule and acknowledge the Socialist goal, was an application of these lessons. Its purpose was to array the economic forces of labor alongside the revolutionary political party. "It was 'charged,' " wrote the author of "With De Leon Since "89," "that the idea of organizing the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance originated in De Leon's head. It did. That 'charge,' at least, was true. So much the better for De Leon."

De Leon's concept of the relative roles of the economic and political organizations reflected the stage of his thinking during the early S. T. & L. A. period. The S. T. & L. A. was to fight the capitalists and their labor lieutenants, and particularly the conservative politics of the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor, in the Socialist spirit. "We call upon the Socialists of the land," read De Leon's resolution adopted by the Ninth National Convention of the Socialist Labor Party in 1896, "to carry the revolutionary spirit of the S. T. & L. A. into all the organizations of workers, and thus consolidate and concentrate the proletariat of America in one irresistible classconscious army, equipped with both the shield of the economic organization and the sword of the Socialist Labor Party ballot." (Emphasis added.)

The economic organization, therefore, was to act as a shield for the Party! By its own example, by standing "by the workingmen always" to organize and enlighten them, and by throwing itself into the fray "to sound the note of sense" whenever their brothers were being fooled, the union was to win converts to the Socialist cause, build the Party and its voting strength. But De Leon believed it was the Party that would consummate the revolutionary act by placing the public powers in the hands of the workers. In 1896 De Leon believed the Party, or rather, the Socialist ballot, was the "sword."

Two years of S. T. & L. A. experience convinced De Leon that the movement was on the proper course. His second epoch-making address, "What Means This Strike?" (February n, 1898), with its brilliant exposition of the class struggle, was a devastating attack on the labor fakers and their "pure and simple" unionism, and a spirited plea addressed to the striking textile workers to adopt the principles embodied in the S. T. & L. A.

Summing up the burden of his message, De Leon said:

"The essential principles of sound organization are, accordingly, these:

"1st -- A trade [union] organization must be clear upon the fact that, not until it has overthrown the capitalist system of private ownership in the machinery of production, and made this the joint property of the people, thereby compelling everyone to work if he wants to live, is it at all possible for the workers to be safe.

"2nd -- A labor organization must be perfectly clear upon the fact that it cannot reach safety until it has wrenched the government from the clutches of the capitalist class; and that it cannot do this unless it votes, not for men but for principles, unless it votes into power its own class platform and program: The abolition of the wage system of slavery.

"3rd -- A labor organization must be perfectly clear 14 INTRODUCTION upon the fact that politics are not, like religion, a private concern, any more than the wages and hours of a workingman are his private concern. For the same reason that his wages and hours are the concern of his class, so is his politics. Politics is not separable from wages. For the same reason that the organization of labor dictates wages, hours, etc., in the interest of the working class, for that same reason must it dictate politics also; and for the same reason that it execrates the scab in the shop, it must execrate the scab at the hustings."

Ultimately De Leon was to assign to the union the function of enforcing the Socialist ballot by taking, holding and operating the industries, and of supplanting the political organs of class rule with its own administrative councils. Into this conception of the union, however, the S. T. & L. A. did not fit so well. Indeed, structurally, the S. T. & L. A., with its craft and mixed locals and district alliances, was ill-suited either to take possession of or to run the industries. In this respect it marked no advance over the old Knights of Labor. Its attacks on the K. of L. and the A. F. of L. were directed at the corruption and political conservatism of these organizations and not at their craft structure.

Nevertheless, by 1900 De Leon began to shift the emphasis upon the role of the union. While the workers were gathering their strength for a final assault on the robberburg of capitalism, he said in his debate with the Social Democrat, Job Harriman, that year, they would be embroiled in incessant struggle. "We need an economic organization, accordingly, that moves under the protecting guns of a labor political party."

It was not until four more eventful years had passed that De Leon reached his full intellectual height. In the meantime, his editorials reflected a growing perception of the mission of revolutionary unionism. In 1896 he had seen the union as the "shield" and the Socialist Labor Party ballot as the "sword." But by 1904 these roles were completely reversed. Now it was the political party of labor that would be the shield, and the economic organization that would be the sword, of the proletarian revolution.

In "The Burning Question of Trades Unionism" (April 21, 1904) De Leon raised the third of his great Socialist landmarks. For more than half a century the Socialist movement had been struggling to free itself of the historic habit of thought that projected the future Socialist Republic in the shape of a political society and in political terms. Marx had shown that the political State was, historically, an instrument of ruling classes, and that its primary function was to hold ruled and exploited classes in subjection. "Political power, properly so called," he wrote in the "Communist Manifesto" (1848), "is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another." But, while Marx fully grasped the class character of the State, and understood, as he himself expressed it, that Socialism would "cast away the political hull," he did not foresee the actual form and structure of Socialist Administration.

When the twentieth century dawned, the movement was still in this theoretical impasse. It concurred in Marx's dictum that "the existence of the State is inseparable from the existence of slavery." At the same time it looked upon the union movement merely as a weapon with which to wage the class struggle, and on the political movement both as a means of contesting with the capitalists on the political field and as the instrument for administering Socialist society.

De Leon's epochal discovery of the industrial form of Socialist Administration, first presented in "The Burning Question of Trades Unionism," got the movement out of this impasse. "Civilized society," he said "will know no such ridiculous thing as geographic constituencies. The parliament of civilization in America will consist, not of Congressmen from geographic districts, but of representatives of trades throughout the land, and their legislative work will not be the complicated one which a society of conflicting interests, such as capitalism, requires but the easy one which can be summed up in the statistics of the wealth needed, the wealth producible, and the work required -- and that any average set of workingmen's representatives are fully able to ascertain, infinitely better than our modern rhetoricians in Congress."

Thus, at last, was the social form of labor's emancipation forecast! It gave the working class in full-orbed capitalist nations a clearly defined goal, a goal dictated by the nature and form of modern industry, and one that, in turn, reflected light back upon the methods of reaching it. Now, for the first time, the movement was set straight on the ultimate mission of the trade union, which was to organize and conduct Socialist administration. In summing up the point, De Leon said:

".... the trade union has a supreme mission. That mission is nothing short of organizing by uniting, and uniting by organizing, the whole working class industrially -- not merely those for whom there are jobs, accordingly, not only those who can pay dues. This unification or organization is essential in order to save the eventual and possible victory from bankruptcy, by enabling the working class to assume and conduct production the moment the guns of the public powers fall into its hands -- or before, if need be, if capitalist political chicane) y pollutes the ballot box. The mission is important also in that the industrial organization forecasts he future constituencies of the parliaments of the socialist Republic."

A little more than a year after De Leon revealed the historic mission of the trade union, he raised the fourth of his Socialist landmarks. The address known to tens of thousands of American workers as "Socialist Reconstruction of Society" (July 10, 1905) rounded out and climaxed fifteen years of theoretic labor. Here De Leon spelled out the respective and complementary roles of the political party of Socialism and the economic organization.

The political movement is vital because it renders the masses accessible to Socialist education and agitation. "It affords the labor movement the opportunity to ventilate its purposes, its aspirations and its methods, free, over and above board, in the noonday light of the sun, whereas otherwise, its agitation would be consigned to the circumscribed sphere of the rat-hole." By presenting the issue of Socialism on the political field "it places the movement in line with the spirit of the age, which ... denies the power of 'conspiracy' in matters that not only affect the masses, but in which the masses must themselves be intelligent actors. ..." "In short and in fine," said De Leon, "the political movement bows to the methods of civilized discussion: it gives a chance to the peaceful solution of the great question at issue."

But the political organization, vital though it is, is unfit to "take and hold" the industries. It is rendered unfit both by the "reason" for the political movement, which is to capture the "political robberburg" of capitalism (the political State) and dismantle it, and by its "structure," which must conform to the political demarcations of capitalist society. The function of the political movement is "purely destructive."

It is the mission of the union -- the Socialist Industrial Union -- first, to back up the Socialist ballot with an invincible might and to "take and hold" the means of social production; secondly, to assume "the conduct of the nation's production." The union, in short, has as its constructive mission that of assuming governmental functions. In De Leon's inspired words:

"As the slough shed by the serpent that immediately reappears in its new skin, the political State will have  been shed, and society will simultaneously appear in its new administrative garb. The mining, the railroad, the textile, the building industries, down or up the line, each of these, regardless of former political boundaries, will be the constituencies of that new central authority [i.e., the government of Socialism] .... Like the flimsy card-houses that children raise, the present political governments of counties, of states, aye, of the city on the Potomac herself, will tumble down, their places taken by the central and the subordinate administrative organs of the nation's industrial forces."

The rearing of this landmark identifies De Leon as an authentic genius, second only to Marx. Indeed, a little more than a decade after De Leon delivered "Socialist Reconstruction of Society," the Russian revolutionist, Nicolai Lenin, tacitly acknowledged this, saying that De Leon was "the only one who has added anything to Socialist thought since Marx." It follows, therefore, that De Leon's concept of Industrial Union Councils as the administrative organs of Socialism is now an integral part of Marxian science. Marxian science is no longer complete without it.

De Leon's landmarks point the way to a society of peace, affluence and social harmony, in which, at last, the producers will enjoy complete democratic mastery of their tools and products. Each of these addresses establishes a vital theoretical point and none may be ignored or treated lightly without dire peril to the cause of working class and human emancipation. It is, therefore, the duty of classconscious workers, and of all other citizens who are politically awake, and alive to the revolutionary implications of our age, to study and master De Leon's program as expounded with such consummate brilliance in these great addresses. Together, they compose a handbook on the tactics, principles and goal of the Socialist revolution in America.