Kristen Svanum

Daniel De Leon


Published: in International Council Correspondence Vol. 1, no.6, March 1935, pp 1-4.
Source: Antonie Pannekoek Archives
Transcribed: by Graham Dyer

There has of late been a tendency by intellectuals who during the present crisis have discovered the revolutionary movement to join with the Socialist Labor Party in its cult of Daniel De Leon. While these intellectuals remain very skeptical towards the S.L.P. they wax quite lyrical about the revolutionary abilities and potency of De Leon even going so far as to name him an or the American Marx or Lenin. This is quite unjust to the S.L.P. that has ceased to be a factor in the revolutionary movement due to its devotion and loyalty to the theories and personality of De Leon. Such injustice is, of course, a matter of small importance but a distortion of revolutionary theory making a Marx or Lenin out of such shoddy material as De Leon is much more serious; not because De Leon’s importance in American revolutionary tradition is heavy enough to allow a reinterpretation of his theories and activity to have any influence on the class struggle, but because it is an index of the confusion existing in revolutionary theory, and if not countered by a correct analysis is a contributory cause towards making confusion twice confounded.

Frederich Engels’ conception of De Leon must have been quite different. When Lucien Sanial and De Leon visited him in England, his sole comment to a friend in the United States was, “they did not impress me much.”

The alleged greatness of De Leon is usually based on his conception of industrial unionism and his uncompromising stand against any reformist compromise. It is unfortunate for the former premise that the refusal of the credentials committee to seat him at the 1908 convention of the I.W.W. was due to the fact that he was a member of, and a delegate from, a craft local (the clerical workers) and had consistently refused to transfer to an industrial union local in spite of the insistence of the General Executive Board of the I.W.W. that he do so. During the discussion of the credentials committee’s report, in which De Leon was permitted to participate, it was brought out by De Leon himself that this was to him not just a question of expediency - preference for representing a numerically stronger local - but of principle, i.e. that according to De Leon the organization of industrial unions should commence with the organization of craft locals.

This attitude of De Leon amounted, in practice, to demanding that the I.W.W. retrace the steps of the A.F. of L. before starting out on its own proper career, and was the decisive factor swinging many of De Leon’s former supporters against him. As Tom Powers, a delegate from New England, put it: “No one but De Leon himself could convince me that De Leon does not understand industrial unionism - but he has done it.”

The idea prevalent that it was the political action clause that was the issue of this convention is merely a deduction from the fact that after the withdrawal of the De Leon supporters from the convention, the political clause was struck from the I.W.W. preamble but this was merely a result of the anti-political faction being in control after the withdrawal of the De Leonites, not the cause of this withdrawal.

De Leon’s second claim to revolutionary fame is even more shaky; to examine it, it is necessary to go back to the time of his entrance in the S.L.P., and the discussion then raging on the “who pays the taxes” problem. On this question, De Leon and his supporters held that the workers do not pay any taxes. This stand was superficially considered more revolutionary. When the opposing faction contended that the question of taxes should furnish one of the main planks in the party’s platform and be considered separately, any revolutionist must agree with De Leon that this was only a red herring to draw the workers off the revolutionary trail; but, when examining the grounds on which the De Leonites took this stand, the question then assumes a sinister significance.

De Leon's argument was that under capitalism wages are determined by the law of value of labor power. The workers are therefore unable to improve their conditions under capitalism, and vice versa the capitalists are unable to cut their wages, the law of value overriding all such subjective notions. From a theoretical point of view, this is changing the Marxist conception of the class struggle into a conception of society as ruled by “iron immutable” laws. This is not dialectic materialism, but metaphysical materialism; not the Marxist conception of historical materialism, but the bourgeois conception of economic determinism. It is a complete repudiation of the subjective factor, reducing the human element in the class struggle to nothing; reducing social science to the same elements as natural science. In practice, it means the cessation of all struggle except the struggle with immediate revolutionary results. This degrades the revolution to the level of a miracle; for if the wage level is decided by factors outside the determination of capitalists and workers both, then the struggles, whether defensive or offensive, about wages, hours, etc., must be just that much waste of effort.

Incredible as this may seem, this was the attitude of De Leon; and this is the attitude of the S.L.P. today. The position, briefly stated, is this: nothing short of a revolution can improve the position of the working class. The two methods for accomplishing this were, according to the S.L.P., political and economic action, but these two concepts were narrowed down to become mere shadows of their original selves.

Political action was, in the main, defined as parliamentarism; but a stern attitude was taken against the Socialist Party program of reforms to be gained by such methods. Elections were simply thermometers registering the “revolutionary temperature”. When the proper degree, a majority vote, was gained, the workers would assume power but not through their elected parliamentary representatives. This task was left to their economic organizations: the industrial unions. What were these unions in the meantime to do? Merely organize and keep their readiness for their historical mission? A program as narrow as this can, of course, not be carried through with perfect consistency; but the S.L.P. came very close to this “ideal”. On the whole, S.L.P. candidates have honestly set forth at elections that, if elected, they could accomplish nothing; so, too, the W.I.I.U. organizers hold that unions can accomplish nothing for the workers. The result has, of course, been that there has been very little response from the mass of the working class. Only those very susceptible to revolutionary propaganda can respond to a message as severely academic as this. The only measure of success that the S.L.P. has been able to gain has therefore been to isolate within its ranks a small number of people highly susceptible to revolutionary propaganda, and thereby to restrain them from actively participating in any mass struggle.

Corresponding to these theoretical and strategical shortcomings is an equal deficiency in tactical principle. De Leon’s opposition to the anti-political faction with the I.W.W. was not an opposition to opportunism and compromise, but against the “advocates of physical force”. To his notion, political (read parliamentary) action plus industrial unionism made any actual physical struggle unnecessary. The class struggle could therefore be carried on “on the civilized plane” with peaceful electioneering, organization and propaganda work. De Leon’s tactical principle therefore became an extreme of legalism and pacifism, and anyone failing to worship these fetishes were simply branded as “enemies of the working class” and agents provocateurs.

The functions of a revolutionist joining the S.L.P. and adhering strictly to De Leon’s principles were limited to a narrow sort of propaganda with no practical participation in the daily struggles of the workers, nay even disdaining these struggles and deprecating the necessary outbursts of violence of an offensive or defensive character incidental to them. The theoretical, strategical and tactical principles advocated by De Leon thus made revolutionists coming under their influence not only abstain from participation in the actual class struggle, but even made them into a counter-revolutionary force trying to canalize the spontaneous struggles of the workers into sterile channels.

The function of a revolutionary movement is, of course, extremely limited. It does not furnish the motive power of the social revolution but only gives direction to it, and this even within narrow limits. The working class would, even if no revolutionary movement existed, revolt against the oppressive conditions that the capitalist system imposes on it. In the absence of a revolutionary movement such revolts would be empirical, tentative, blundering. The revolutionary movement furnishes not only a record of such revolts, but, by analysis, establishes not only a connection between them by linking them historically to the past and discerning the relationships between the apparently disconnected struggles of the present, but, more important yet, sees the aim towards which the struggle is leading. The revolutionary movement is thus the central sensory and reasoning apparatus of the working class. And as it is impossible for a man to add an ounce of power to his bodily strength by the use of his mind and senses, so it is likewise impossible for the revolutionary movement to increase the revolutionary force of the working class. But a well-trained mind and perfect coordination of nerve and muscle cannot only utilize the muscular power of a man to ever better advantage, it can even, over a period of time, by suitable training increase bodily strength until tasks hitherto impossible can be conquered. It is likewise impossible for the revolutionary movement to accomplish any immediate increase in the revolutionary force of the working class. What it can do is to lead it into the most useful channels and thereby increase its effectiveness; to change it from a blind, instinctive, spontaneous, into a conscious, reasoned, deliberate struggle, not only for immediate redress of grievances but showing a path to the final aim - the rule of the working class as a transition to a classless society. Under such direction the revolutionary force of the working class would not only be better utilized, but would grow by continuous and rational exercise until it became adequate for its final aim.

De Leon’s theory declared the actual class struggle senseless. His strategy would turn it into useless channels, his tactics would offer it as a sacrifice on the altar of legalism. De Leon never ceased to be a university professor in spirit; practical life had to be simplified into simple abstractions; the class struggle to be conducted within an academic, petty-bourgeois framework; and before all, no violence; let us be strictly legal. As all other reformists, he forgot that only one thing can make a revolution legal – its success.


Last updated on: 5.3.2016