Big Labor’s Leninist Founding Father

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[Editor’s note: Admired by Lenin, Daniel De Leon was a transformative figure in the American labor movement, whose Machiavellian, socialism-first legacy lives on in his modern torchbearers. The most notorious of De Leon’s predecessors will be profiled in FrontPage’s new series, “Union Gangsters.” Union consigliere Craig Becker and thug-in-chief Richard Trumka have already been exposed, with many more to come.]

When the California Federation of Teachers resolved earlier this year that “the continued unjust incarceration of Mumia Abu-Jamal represents a threat to the civil rights of all people,” many again scratched their heads over another labor union non sequitur. What does a cop killer incarcerated in Pennsylvania have to do with the working conditions of teachers in California? This is in part the legacy of Daniel De Leon, a schismatic socialist who tirelessly pushed the labor movement to labor for his movement.

Organized labor’s fixation with issues ancillary to the interests of their members never ceases to surprise. Perhaps as unsurprising is that the historical figure most associated with redirecting unions away from wages, conditions, and benefits toiled as a lawyer, an activist, an editor, and a professor—but never as a laborer. Like the landlord Friedrich Engels and his subsidized sponge Karl Marx, Daniel De Leon saw workers as means to his ends rather than as actual people with independent interests of their own. People who don’t work often imagine that those who do work for them.

De Leon’s fleeting fanaticisms moved him to name one son after Grover Cleveland, leap into supporting Henry George’s single tax movement, and write for the Looking Backward-inspired Nationalist journal. Before marrying the cause, the crank was characteristically promiscuous in his obsessions. But in 1890, the serial joiner joined the Socialist Labor Party, a bridge between Marx and Lenin that traced circuitous roots to the First International and extended its shadow upon the Soviet Union. He quickly seized control of the party, relinquishing his grasp only in death nearly a quarter century later.

In the meantime, the diminutive, bearded extremist decimated the party he seized, cast influence over an infamous fellow socialist gangster in the Old World, and generated discord in the labor movement the likes of which continues to this day. Daniel De Leon became the marginalized figure in a marginalized movement. His frustration with workers, the redemptive figures in the Marxist narrative, evolving into contempt for workers does much to explain De Leon forever occupying a further fringe. Ultimately, he forbade members of his political party from holding office in the AFL and other traditional labor unions. Hell hath no fury like a socialist scorned.

“No organization of labor can accomplish anything for the workers that does not proceed from the principle that an irrepressible conflict rages between the capitalist and the working class, a conflict that can be settled only by the total overthrow of the former and the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth,” claimed the Curacao-born activist. To this end, he attempted to hijack the flailing Knights of Labor, and then, the fledgling American Federation of Labor (AFL). The tactic was “boring from within,” infiltrating an organization for the purpose of reorienting it. In 1893, De Leon captured a garment workers’ local for the purpose of capturing the Knights of Labor. By 1895, the garment workers decided that wearing garments didn’t establish one’s credibility as a garment worker, and they rid themselves of the interloper. His disciplined followers never succeeded in capturing the AFL, but they did, along with the Western Federation of Miners, manage to depose union honcho Samuel Gompers, if for just one year.

When the AFL persisted in agitating for higher pay or shorter hours, De Leon denounced them as “buffers of capitalism,” “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class,” and “pure and simplers”—a reference to AFL leaders considering their union a “pure and simple” trades union rather than a political organization. Citing “the impossibility of obtaining a decent living while capitalism existed,” De Leon ridiculed immediate demands whose fulfillment would only delay socialism’s arrival. The theorist wanted the conditions of workers to deteriorate to escalate their clamors for socialism. Gompers’ background as a cigarmaker injected a natural partiality toward immediate worker gains, which made him an object of constant attack from his intemperate adversary.

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  • StephenD

    This same sort of purge seems to be needed today (Trumpka, Hoffa, et al). Knowing some serious union folks, I hesitate to say they believe in the Socialist Agenda. I hesitate but I still say it. If their money (dues) and time in meetings, picket lines, etc. are not subject to at least a moral review before participation than they do in fact support the Socialist agenda. Today, these folks must fear for their livelihood as much as they did then. Should they speak up at a union meeting they will be ostracized, perhaps allowed less work or representation during grievance proceedings. The truth is, the unions have a captive audience and they know it. What can be done to supplant this influence is beyond my simple mind. I only know that it must be done.

  • Ben Traina

    I am a great admirer of David Horowitz and have evolved with him from his "Ramparts" days to "Heterodoxy", and now to "Front Page". I have been a very active Reagan Republican since 1979. I am shocked beyond belief by this vicious, vituperative, misleading portrait of Daniel Deleon and the SLP. It even repeats John Reed's dubious remark that Lenin found DeLeon to have contributed something original to Marxism, an obvious, opportunistic grab for deleonists during the early formation of the CPUSA IN 1919. DeLeon and the SLP were AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISTS!!!!
    They believed that the USA was the most modern, advanced, industrialized nation on earth and ,according to their, admittedly, dogmatic marxism, would lead the world into the (for me, now, utopian) promised land of "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs", SOCIALISM. The SLP'S position was unalterably opposed to violence (which pissed off and alienated the Wobblies and, to this day, the leninists) "THE BALLOT, NOT THE BULLET" was the motto. There was to be a peaceful transition to a "Socialist Industrial Union", a utopian, syndicalist world. The SLP strongly condemned Leninism and its murderous statism. According to DeLeon the repressive political State IMMEDIATELY "dies out", "sine die" with a peacefully, democratically, orderly,civilized election. No "dictatorship of the proletariat" here. We had no feudal impediments as did the rest of the world. From our founding we were the "Bourgeoise Republic, a shining example of a democratic Republic, something to be admired and proud of. Utopian? Yes. But DeLeon would be the first to condem the Wall St. "marxists and anarchists". The SLP envisioned an American flag with innumerable white stars on our revered field of blue representing other countries of the world as they evolved up to our standards and joined us. NO AMERICAN HATRED HERE!! I am not a "red diaper" baby. I was born and raised in extreme poverty, was the first, on both sides of my family to get past 5th grade, jr. high, high school and college. In isolation I read myself into marxism by age 12. I only became active in my freshman yr at Penn in 1956 (with Mike Harrington i attended a CP youth gathering). Altho I thought it utopian and out-dated I joined the SLP, rising to the grandiose position as a member of the Pa. State Exec. Committe from which I resigned in 1968. DeLeon was a dogmatic marxist but NOT a proto leninist, or stalinist, maoist, trotskyite and an unlikely trumka aficionado.

    • Dr. John L. Minnella

      During my teen years, I studied socialism/Marxism with the SLP much to the chagrin of my "bourgeois" Italian-American, Catholic parents. They offerred the opportunity & I took it. I never was convinced that socialism/Marxism/Seleonism were correct but I did find the organization made up of very kind, committed, intelligent, peaceful, sincere people who I cannot say anything bad about except that ultimately I did not agree with them. They vehemently opposed any violence. I find my intimate study with them very useful in providing me insights to the thinking of my "liberal" friends whom I recognize as actually closet "socialists/marxists" by their words & actions. Once you have been intimately within that crowd, you recognize them before the general public does.

      I grew to liberal Democrat but after overcoming my initial vomiting over Ronald Reagan, finally opened my eyes & mind & became an outspoken conservative Republican which I remain to now. However, I still look back fondly on those days of studying with the SLP groups.

      Your analysis is very correct. I too am an admirer of David Horowitz & his work but in this matter you are right.

    • Steve

      Thanks for the additional info, but doesn't Marxism always end in a mountain of skulls with the soul of a culture destroyed?

      • Ben Traina

        All marxist-leninist groups ABSOLUTELY!!! But out there are many misguided souls (such as I was once) who shrink in horror at the more, more, more than 100,000,000 million killed by the monsters like the maos and stalins and pol pots and castros-the list goes on, who make the evil hitler look like a piker. From my birth in 1937 to 1956 when I entered college I lived in utter, abject poverty. Most, but not all, would-be revolutionaries are upper-middle class or higher. ben t

  • LB Samms

    Thank you. Very informative.

  • Geo

    Interesting article and very informative.

    I think the roots of the labor movement requires much more examination and review. Much of it is responsible for the off spring and today's radical leadership.

    While researching for something else, I happened to come across information [though limited] on Eugene Deb who was heavily involved with the Trans Continental [NOT Inter as a fearless leader proclaims] Railroad labor movement. A avowed socialist/communists who ran for President a couple of times, around this same time period. He was a big labor organizer during the expansion of the Railroad out west.

    Yet another link to today's labor movement.

  • maturin20

    It's silly to resurrect one of history's cranks to support the thesis that unions represent a danger to this country.

  • quark1912

    The reason for declining union membership, other than in civil service, is because union leaders have forgotten that they are running a business like any other. A business will only succeed if it adds value to customers, in this case union members. Workers in private enterprise have correctly descerned that being represented by a union does not add and may even subtract value from their lives. The principle function of a union is to protect individual employees from arbitrary treatment not to use union dues to promote socialist agenda.

  • Steve

    Fascinating essay…thanks.