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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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