Big Labor's Leninist Founding Father

The man who turned a movement devoted to improving working conditions into the handmaiden of socialism.

[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.

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.