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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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