Daniel de Leon

Daniel de Leon

Daniel de Leon was born in the Dutch colony of Curacao on 14th December, 1852. His parents sent him to Germany and the Netherlands to be educated and he arrived in the United States in 1874. Soon afterwards he found work as a teacher of Latin, Greek and Mathematics.

De Leon settled in New York and became a student and later a teacher at Columbia University. Converted to socialism by the writings of Edward Bellamy, De Leon joined the Knights of Labor and worked for Henry George in his campaign to become mayor of the city.

In 1890 De Leon joined the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) and the following year became the editor of its newspaper, The People. In 1891 he ran as SLP candidate for governor of New York and won 13,000 votes.

Over the next few years De Leon, Laurence Gronlund, Morris Hillquit and Abraham Cahan emerged as the main leaders of the party. De Leon, a Marxist, began arguing for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. He claimed that as United States was the most developed capitalist country in the world it was "ripe for the execution of Marxian revolutionary tactics."

In 1892 the SLP Simon Wing ran for President, with Charles H. Matchett as Vice President. They received 21,173 votes. In 1896 the SLP's vote increased to 36,367 and in 1898 reached a peak of 82,204. At that time the party had 10,000 members.

De Leon was highly critical of the trade union movement in America. Originally a member of the Knights of Labor, In 1895 he helped form the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (STLA) as a revolutionary alternative to the conservative American Federation of Labour. The move was not very successful and after several years only had 20,000 members.

In the 1900 presidential election the Socialist Labor Party candidates received only 33,382. The other major left-wing party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), led by Eugene Debs and Victor Berger, did better winning 97,000 votes.

On the 27th June, 1905, De Leon and a group of radical trade unionists held a convention in Chicago. Those who attended the proceedings included Eugene Debs, Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons and Charles Moyer. At the meeting it was decided to form the radical labour organization, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

In 1908 the Wobblies, as they became known, split into two factions. The group headed by De Leon and Eugene V. Debs advocated political action through the Socialist Party and the trade union movement, to attain its goals. The other faction, led by Bill Haywood, believed that general strikes, boycotts and even sabotage were justified in order to achieve its objectives. Haywood's views prevailed and De Leon left the organization.

De Leon then went on to form the Workers' International Union in opposition to the Industrial Workers of the World. As the historian Paul Buhle has pointed out: "He was the first English-speaking intellectual to influence long-run trends in the American Left, Daniel De Leon could not build a successful socialist movement but he did elucidate powerful notions about the evolution of industrial society."

Daniel de Leon died in New York on 11th May, 1914. Over 30,000 people attended his funeral and his supporters remained dedicated to his principles and memory and reprinted his essays in every edition of Weekly People and circulated his pamphlets widely.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Daniel De Leon, speech in New York (October 1886)

We have hitherto been ruled in this city by a small minority that have no interest whatever in our welfare. They are professional politicians whose headquarters are in the rum and grog shops, with points of vantage in the slums of our city, recruiting their strength from the criminal classes and in time swelling the ranks of those classes. These fellows do not care who is the nominee so long as he has money, and they await the result of all elections as the hungry wolves await carrion, for that is the time when their riotous carnival comes. It is not what brains or what commonsense or what capacity for government a man has, but what boodle he has.

(2) When Daniel De Leon became editor of The People in 1891 he explained the functions of a socialist newspaper.

A daily Socialist paper in the English language must start with the knowledge that, in point of what is called news, it cannot think of competing with the capitalist contemporaries. An English Socialist daily may not trim its sails to attract 'new readers'; in that field it is hors de combat from the start; it must furnish a specialized kind of news that the capitalist press either does not care for, or does not want - legitimate, labor and social news; it must thus create a field from which capitalist competition is, ipso facto, excluded. With such a news policy, supplemented by a news policy that illustrates Socialist principles by the light of the events of the day, and watching its opportunity to enlarge, a daily socialist paper must begin with modest aspirations. It must realise that ninety-nine out of every hundred of its readers will stick to the Egyptian fleshpots of the capitalist 'news' papers. It must aim at getting these readers to acquire a taste for its own bill of fare, without expecting them to drop their own favorite capitalist news menu, at least not immediately. It must thus slowly build up its own audience, upon its own ground. It must, in short, follow the tactics, not of attempting to dispute their field with the capitalist 'news' contemporaries, but, first, of seeking to share their readers; and then, as an ultimate aim, to strip them of their proletarian dupe-audience, together with those in sympathy with these. Even such a course will encounter serious financial obstacles. But these obstacles it is possible to overcome.

(3) Daniel De Leon, speech at the Industrial Workers of the World convention in Chicago (27th June, 1905)

The aspiration to unite the workers upon the political field is an aspiration in line and in step with civilization. Civilized man, when he argues with an adversary, does not start with clenching his fist and telling him, 'smell this bunch of bones'. He does not start by telling him, 'feel my biceps'. He begins by arguing; physical force by arms is the last resort. That is the method of the civilized man, and the method of civilized man is the method of civilized organization. The barbarian begins with physical force; the civilized man ends with that, when physical force is necessary. Civilized man will always here in America give a chance to peace; he will, accordingly, proceed along the lines that make peace possible. But civilized man, unless he is a visionary, will know that unless there is Might behind your Right, your Right is something to laugh at. And the thing to do, consequently, is to gather behind the ballot, behind that united political movement, the Might which is alone able, when necessary, to 'take and hold'. Without the working people are united on the political field; without the delusion has been removed from their minds that any of the issues of the capitalist class can do for them permanently, or even temporarily; without the working people have been removed altogether from the mental thralldom of the capitalist class, from its insidious influence, there is no possibility of your having those conditions under which they can really organize themselves economically in such a way as to 'take and hold'. And after those mental conditions are generally established, there needs something more than the statement to 'take and hold'; something more than a political declaration, something more than the capitalist political inspectors to allow this or that candidate to filter through. You then need the industrial organization of the working class, so that if the capitalist should be foolish enough in America to defeat, to thwart the will of the workers expressed by the ballot - I do not say 'the will of the workers, as returned by the capitalist election inspectors', but the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box - then there will be a condition of things by which the working class can absolutely cease production, and thereby starve out the capitalist class, and render their present economic means and all their preparations for war absolutely useless.

(4) Daniel De Leon, speech at the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance conference in 1905.

The Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance was the first labor organization in this country, since the early labor organizations who also began soundly, that frankly and fully stated to the working class of America that they had to capture the public powers. Their belief is this: That you could not first take the men into the union under the false pretense that you were going to raise their wages, and afterwards indoctrinate them. No, you had to indoctrinate them first, and then bring them in. If the ST & LA has made any mistakes at all, it would be to imagine ten years ago that there were then enough such men in existence to join our ranks.

(5) Daniel De Leon, The People (8th January, 1893)

Private ownership in the instruments of production - in the land, tools, machinery etc. — was at one time the basis of industry and of freedom; concentration of these instruments of production in the hands of a few, and the introduction of machinery establish a system of production upon so gigantic a scale that the individual small producer cannot hold his own; he is stripped of his instruments of production, and becomes a proletarian, a wage slave, dependent for his existence upon the capitalist, who has concentrated in his own hands the things that are necessary for a living; this system fills the land with paupers, breeds crime, prostitution and sickness; freedom under such a system tends to disappear.

(6) John Taylor Caldwell, Come Dungeons Dark: The Life and Times of Guy Aldred (1988)

In 1904, Guy Aldred heard Daniel De Leon speak on Clerkenwell Green. De Leon had been to the International Socialist Congress in Amsterdam, and had taken the opportunity, to visit Britain. De Leon was born on December 14th 1852 on the island of Curacao off the coast of Venezuala, and educated in Europe. He returned to America in 1872, and graduated from Columbia Law School in New York City in 1878, and held a post as lecturer in that college for six years. In 1880 he joined the American Socialist Labour Party, and four years later he became editor of the Party's organ, The People.

De Leon believed that the workers should be organised into Branches according to the tools used by them. "The workers whose tool is the typecase or setting-machine belong to the compositors' branch; .... the workers whose tool is the pen belong to the editorial or writers' branch." The various branches are organised into a Local Industrial Union. "The further stage in the ascending line: Industrial Councils, and Industrial Departments, are obvious. Their structure, hence their method of organisation flows from the structure and reason for the structure of the Local Industrial Unions."

(7) Guy Aldred, No Traitors' Gait (1955)

De Leon saw and taught that the system of government based on territorial lines has outlived its function: that economic development has reached a point where the Political State cannot even appear to serve the workers as an instrument of industrial emancipation. Accumulated wealth, concentrated in a few hands, controls all political governments.

(8) Daniel De Leon, The People (25th October, 1903)

Why should a truly Socialist organization of whites not take in Negro members, but organize these in separate bodies? On account of outside prejudice? Then the body is not truly Socialist. A Socialist body that will trim its sails to 'outside prejudices' had better quit. A truly Socialist body is nothing if not a sort of 'Rough on Prejudices'. Ten to one, however, where the 'issue' arises in such a body it is catering, not to outside, but to inside prejudices, to the prejudices of the members themselves.

(9) Daniel De Leon, speech (1904)

It is not likely that all the countries of civilization will leap into Socialism abreast of one another, consequently, if there could be no Socialist country without all the others being Socialist at the same time, Socialism would have a poor show. One Socialist country, if powerful, would have the effect of rendering Capitalism untenable in the others, if it is a weak country, the others would crush it. Hence we can see no prospect of the Socialist Republic starting anywhere except here in America. America alone, of all the nations, has both the inherent strength and the no less necessary strength of location.

(10) Daniel De Leon, The People (2nd November, 1908)

Socialism means but one thing, and that is the abolition of capital in private hands, and the turning over of the industries into the direct control of the workmen employed in them. Anything else is not socialism, and has no right to sail under that name. Socialism is not the establishment of an eight-hour day, not die abolition of child labor, not the enforcement of pure food laws, not the putting down of die Night Riders, or the enforcement of the 80-cent gas law. None of these, nor all of them together, are socialism. They might all be done by the government tomorrow, and still we would not have socialism. They are merely reforms on the present system, mere patches on the worn out garment of industrial servitude, and are no more socialism than the steam from a locomotive is the locomotive.

(11) Daniel De Leon, The People (15th June, 1909)

What is 'reform'? For that we must go to the reformer himself. He is perfectly explicit in what he is not. The reformer firmly objects to revolution. He holds the thing to be harmful in theory, still more harmful in practice. He holds tenaciously to the essence of what is without upsetting the essence, the reformer seeks to improve details.

(12) Henry Kuhn, The Socialist Labor Party (1931)

The life of the Party organization was dominated by the necessity of maintaining a daily paper, a terrible task. Part of the membership worked like Trojans and almost bled themselves white to give support. Not a few militants broke under the strain and withdrew from the fray. The SLP of those days used up a good deal of human material.

(13) Arnold Peterson, Daniel De Leon - Orator (1942)

He would lay down his major premise, and then support it with a battery of facts, and a logic so all-compelling that one had the extraordinary sensation of having had one's previous views and conceptions completely clarified and confirmed, though in all probability what had really happened was that De Leon, with that mastery of simple and direct statement and overwhelming logic that was his, had succeeded in planting one or more new ideas in the minds of his listeners.

(14) Stephen Coleman, Daniel De Leon (1990)

In February 1906 the states of Colorado and Idaho conspired to frame 'Big Bill Haywood, Charles Moyer and George Pettibone on a charge of murdering the notoriously reactionary Governor of Idaho, Frank Stennenberg. The three men were imprisoned unconstitutionally for eighteen months before the trial in which the prosecution's evidence collapsed. The arrest and prosecution was clearly an attempt to break the WFM by depriving it of its leaders. The IWW was also the target of this vicious frame-up. The persecution spurred a wave of protest. Factional divisions counted for nothing: indignantly united, the workers' watchword of the campaign was 'Shall Our Brothers Be Murdered?'. Mass meetings convened almost spontaneously: 50,000 workers marched through Chicago and 20,000 assembled on Boston Common on May Day 1907. De Leon threw his full weight behind the campaign to release the framed men.

In November 1906 Haywood, from his prison cell, ran for governor of Colorado. In an unprecedented gesture of non-sectarian solidarity, the Colorado Section of the SLP was urged by De Leon to support the Haywood ticket. This is the only time ever that De Leon counselled the SLP members to vote for a non- SLP candidate; at any other time such compromising behaviour would have been regarded as a serious disciplinary offence.

In July 1907 Haywood was released. The clumsy capitalist state had, contrary to all its Machiavellian intentions, created a working-class hero. De Leon was greatly impressed by the respect which Haywood had won. He realised that such charismatic appeal resulted not only from Haywood's near martyrdom and experience-backed oratorical talent but also from the fact that he was untainted by weighty ideological convictions. Haywood was the antithesis of De Leon, not because the two men's principles were very different but because De Leon had a reputation as a fiercely principled revolutionary ideologue, whereas Haywood was known as a revolutionary with no time for ideology. De Leon thought that it was a man like Haywood rather than himself who could build a mass socialist movement in the USA.

(15) William Haywood wrote about Daniel De Leon and the Socialist Labor Party in his his autobiography published in 1929.

De Leon always insisted he was right. He made it impossible for any except his devotees to work with him. The Socialist Labor Party dominated by De Leon's prejudices could not lend strength to any movement with which it became associated.

(16) Morris Hillquit, Daniel De Leon obituary, New Yorker Volkszeitung (13th May 1914)

He, who expired on Monday evening, fared as did so many before him, he died a few decades too late; he outlived himself. True to his maxim to destroy what he could not rule, he concentrated, during the last fifteen years, his vitality and will-power upon tearing down what he, personally, had helped to create. And therein he was great, far greater than in construction and erection. De Leon was, indeed, a destructive genius, i.e. he was great in demolishing, in tearing down. With an hatred that was insatiable and unstable, he fought since his entrance into die American labor movement against every movement of the working class of this country that showed success and that seemed to be in die ascendancy.

(17) Daniel De Leon obituary, People (16th May 1914)

In losing him we lose a man whose very life was dedicated to the emancipation of the working class from wage slavery. When the history of the labor movement and the Social Revolution will be written by future historians, his name will be mentioned with reverence as one who gave of the fullness of his truly wonderful mind and heart that the Disinherited of the earth might come into their own.

(18) Daniel De Leon obituary, New York Call (May 1914)

In a movement which recognizes the mockery of hero worship his name is great. No eulogy was ever stronger than this. There are few orators in America who can sway an audience as Daniel De Leon could. There are fewer who would refuse the temptations to do so as Daniel De Leon often did. To get the exact idea in is mind to as many in the audience or among his readers who were capable of getting all seemed to be his dominant ambitions; through it all there stands out very clearly the memory of a great educator and a truly great man.

(19) Henry Kuhn, Reminiscences of Daniel De Leon (1919)

De Leon's vast knowledge, made mobile and available by a virile mentality, the purity of his motives engendering a flawless devotion to the movement, his absolute fearlessness and steadfastness in die face of whatever might befall, never wavering, never faltering never perturbed. He was, indeed, a tower of strength. It was as though Providence had first shaped and then selected him as an instrument to hold aloft the banner of the Social Revolution at a time and during a period when, seemingly, no one else could have so held it.