Thursday, May 11, 2017

Let we forget - Daniel De Leon

On May the 11th 1914, Daniel DeLeon, a leading figure of the Socialist Labor Party of America, died.

De Leon had been one of the first social democrats to come out against reformism declaring that a socialist party should concentrate exclusively on achieving socialism. But he is more well known for his advocacy of "socialist industrial unionism", a hybrid of social democracy and syndicalism. He was in favour of setting up separate socialist unions opposed to the "pure and simple" trade unions. De Leon envisaged 'political government' being replaced by 'industrial government'. De Leon asserted the need for an economic wing to the socialist movement and put forward a three-stage theory of revolution: socialists winning the battle of ideas, victory at the ballot-box, and socialist industrial unions supplying the economic might to enforce electoral victory and workers’ power. 

In the absence of mass support for socialist ideas, the socialist industrial union was a failure. Socialist unions were never to be the short-cut to a mass class-conscious movement that De Leon might have hoped for. How could they be when, unlike the political wing, an understanding of basic socialist principles was not a condition of membership? 

The main difference with the SPGB and the SLP was over the relative importance of economic and political action. They said that economic action was more important. We said that this was syndicalism and that the workers had hardly any economic power under capitalism, hence the imperative need to first get control of political power. Any attempt to "take and hold" the means of production without this would end in disaster.

At first, De Leon insisted that political action – as an action aimed at getting control of political power – was paramount, with industrial organisation as supportive, to back up if need be the verdict of the ballot box as well as to take over and run production immediately after the capture of state power. Later, as the agitation built up that eventually led to the foundation of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905 (in which he played a prominent part), he changed the emphasis, arguing that it was organisation on the industrial field – to 'take and hold' the means of production – that was the more important, with political action relegated to the role of supporting the take-over of industry by neutralising and disbanding the state. The SPGB in effect adopted De Leon's original position while the SLPGB embraced his later ‘socialist industrial unionism’. 

The main difference with the SPGB and the SLP was over the relative importance of economic and political action. They said that economic action was more important. We said that this was syndicalism and that the workers had hardly any economic power under capitalism, hence the imperative need to first get control of political power. Any attempt to "take and hold" the means of production without this would end in disaster.

However, there is no doubt that De Leon’s political life was a model of socialist commitment and principle.   


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