Big Labor’s Leninist Founding Father

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Gompers, whose Dutch-Jewish origins, foreign birth, and New York City residency mirrored that of his antagonist, returned the favor by mocking De Leon as “a professor without a professorship.” “This man’s characteristics of intolerance to every one that does not adopt his policy—his venom and spite crop out at every opportunity—that makes it impossible for anyone that has any self respect to have any dealings with him or those for whom he speaks,” Gompers observed of De Leon. “He has simply widened the chasm between the different wings of the labor movement.”

Indeed, he established a parallel labor movement to counter the actual labor movement. In 1895, thwarted in his efforts to co-opt the Knights of Labor and the AFL, De Leon shifted tactics from “boring from within” to “dual unionism.” He established the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (STLA) as a foil to the AFL. “We could not get at them [the workers],” he lamented. “Between us and them there stood a solid wall of ignorant, stupid, and corrupt labor fakers.” But with the establishment of the STLA, “At last we stand face to face with the rank and file of the American proletariat.” The statement is a remarkable admission that neither De Leon nor his lackeys had any meaningful interaction with workers. But De Leon’s interaction with them within the STLA only repulsed the workers. The “dual union” died a decade after its founding with less than a tenth of its original membership. To know him was not to love him.

De Leon’s luck didn’t improve as a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905. When the Wobblies tired of his sectarianism, they ejected him in 1908. He responded by forming a new, smaller outfit, also called the Industrial Workers of the World, which, in one of his life’s many pope/anti-pope moments, he insisted represented the true IWW. De Leon characteristically created a splinter group of a splinter group.

Difficult men found difficult De Leon especially difficult. Other socialists who stacked meetings, purged dissenters to ensure consent, and delayed votes until the disciplined minority could outlast the tired majority saw a more extreme version of themselves in De Leon. John Tobin, a leader of the Boot and Shoe Workers Union, dubbed his onetime ally an “unscrupulous falsifier.” Longtime apostle Louis Frainia concluded that his mentor was “sometimes dishonest in his methods of attack. He was temperamentally a Jesuit, consistently acting on the principle that the end justified the means.” One gleans that impression from his extant writings. The SLP’s strongman explained, “The proletarian revolution marches by its own light; its acts are to be judged by the code of legality that itself carries in its folds, not by the standard of the existing law, which is but the reflex of existing usurpation…. A new Social System brings along a new Code of Morals.”

They had the same idea in the Soviet Union. “Premier Lenin is a great admirer of Daniel DeLeon,” explained John Reed. “He considers him the greatest of modern socialists—the only one who has added anything to socialist thought since Marx.” Before the Russian had co-opted the gains of other leftists, made deceit a revolutionary principle, and purged dissenters, De Leon had done all of this in miniature. De Leon didn’t survive to see the Russian Revolution. And if he had ever led his own revolution, few who saw it would have survived. So fanatical was De Leon that he excommunicated from his party the man who had converted him to socialism and even his eldest son. “David had his Absalom,” he muttered.

There is power in a union. De Leon recognized this and attempted to bully unions into focusing on putting socialism in power. When they instead concentrated on more practical matters, such as higher pay and shorter hours, the one-time Ivy League professor denounced them as charlatan workingmen. Nearly one hundred years after De Leon’s death, non-laboring labor activists still demand that working people sacrifice their union dues to politicians at the expense of their workplace grievances. That’s easy for them to do.

“When De Leon died in 1914,” Lillian Symes and Travers Clement write in Rebel America: The Story of Social Revolt in the United States, “American labor scarcely knew that he had existed.” This isn’t to say that traces of his existence aren’t found all over the labor movement.

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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.