Daniel De Leon and the Founding of American Socialism

As part of our ongoing series on the early Left in the United States, we turn next to the Socialist Labor Party and its central figure, Daniel De Leon. Given the continued influence of De Leon and his ideas on some people on the Left, our aim is to draw a balanced appraisal. With the benefit of hindsight, we examine the rise and fall of the SLP as a relevant force in the socialist and workers' movement in order to draw the lessons for today.

Formative Years

Daniel De Leon was born into a Sephardic Jewish family on December 14, 1852 in Curacao. At this time Curacao was one of the last refuges of the Dutch Empire in the Americas and part of the Dutch West Indies and Daniel's father, Salomon, a former army surgeon, was a colonial official there. Not much is clear about De Leon's childhood in Curacao.

What is clear, however, is that De Leon had a prolific career as a student in his early adult years. He studied throughout Europe in matters of law throughout the 1860s and 70s. His studies took him to Hamburg, Germany and from there on to Holland. Upon graduating from university in Germany, he emigrated to Manhattan's Lower East Side. In New York, he continued his studies at Columbia College (now Columbia University). When his studies were finished there, the Columbia School of Law hired him as a part-time lecturer on international law, which at the time was a field in its infancy.

De Leon's classical training in law gave him a tool which many early socialist leaders were fortunate to have – the ability to speak the language of the ruling class and to be privy to their daily lives. Unlike many of those other early leaders, however, De Leon never got sucked into the bourgeois world and always remained firmly in the camp of the working class.

Entry into the Socialist Movement

While lecturing at Columbia in 1886, De Leon became active around the United Labor Party's mayoral campaign in New York City. The ULP was the political wing of the Central Labor Union and was the first mass labor party in North America based on the trade unions. Its candidate in the mayoral race was Henry George, a populist politician who had started his career in California as a “Lincoln Republican.” George took second place in the election, behind the Democratic candidate, but he smashed the results of the Republican candidate, future President Theodore Roosevelt.

De Leon vocally and publicly supported George in the election. When Columbia caught wind of De Leon's political activity, however, he was denied a full-time position as a lecturer and was forced to leave his part-time position to find a more suitable living.

It was around this time that De Leon first read the popular novel Looking Backward, written by the Utopian Socialist Edward Bellamy. The Bellamy movement, known in the United States as the “Nationalist” movement, was becoming extremely popular throughout the country and particularly in the Midwest, where the majority of the population were farmers. The Nationalists promoted a kind of “communal communism” based on cooperative agricultural colonies. It would be several decades before these Utopian theories were finally abandoned by socialists in the United States.

De Leon's utopianism, on the other hand, did not last long. He soon began to read the works of Marx and Engels and to develop an understanding of scientific socialism, of Marxism. It is possible that De Leon did not become familiar with Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the late 1880's, but returned to them at this point, as it is likely that he had been introduced to such literature while studying in Europe. It makes little difference, however, because it was not until the late 1880's that De Leon became an active Marxist. In 1890 he decided to join the Socialist Labor Party; the first truly functional socialist party in the United States and the only nominally Marxist party at the time.

History of the Socialist Labor Party

In 1876, representatives from seven Marxists societies and clubs met in Philadelphia to lay the basis for forming an actual national party with Marxist politics in the United States. The date and location of the meeting was an obvious homage to the American Revolution and to the revolutionaries of that period who were active in Philadelphia and whose heritage and tradition has been invoked throughout the American socialist movement. These delegates formally voted to hold the new party's founding congress that same year in Newark, New Jersey, with delegates of all seven groups being represented.

At the 1876 convention, these seven groups formed themselves into the second national Marxist party in the world, the Workingmen's Party of the United States (WPUS). The only party older was the German Social-Democratic Workers Party (SAPD in German). The German influence on the WPUS was evident from the very beginning and included some of the less favorable aspects of the socialist movement in that country.

A large portion of the new American party could be classified politically as followers of Ferdinand Lassalle of the German movement. Lassalle had been severely criticized by Karl Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, which was Marx's analysis of the program and conference which unified the Marxist Social-Democratic Workers Party and the Lassallean General Association of German Workers. At the Gotha Congress, the Lassalleans were able to put forward the conception of the “Iron Law of Wages,” a theory which Lassalle had developed. explaining that the tendency of wages was to remain static at “subsistence levels” for all time.

Marx had already exposed this theory for what it was: a fundamental misunderstanding of the classical economists and particularly of David Ricardo. The fact is, wages rise and fall in accordance with an array of complex factors, not the least of which is the workers' struggle for better wages. Unfortunately, the German Marxists opportunistically conceded this point to the Lasalleans in order to ease tensions. This error would have lasting effects which laid the basis for a particular political tendency of reformism to develop in the German socialist movement, finding its highest expression in Eduard Bernstein in the following decades.

That tendency followed the German socialists to America and Lassalleanism became prevalent inside the WPUS. One of the first important tactical questions discussed at the founding congress of the Workingmen was whether the party should be national in scope, which is what the Lassallean comrades advocated, or an international organization in league with the German party, as the Marxist wing advocated. The foresight of the U.S. Marxists and their internationalism in this early period cannot be overstated. But because the Lassalleans were able to outvote them, the idea of a truly international socialist organization of any real size would not come to fruition for another thirteen years,with the formation of the Socialist International in 1889.

Because the SAPD was already so well established, the Workingmen's Party quickly gained members among the German immigrants in the American Northeast. By 1877 the party was actively intervening, if in a fairly limited way, in the Great Railroad Strike of that year. But even this modest intervention gained the WPUS a large amount of prestige and allowed the party to expand into new areas throughout the U.S.

In particular, they gained a strong foothold in Chicago, Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri among the railroad workers in those cities, who were also predominantly German immigrants or the children of German immigrants. The party was so “organically German” that its first newspaper, Vorwärts, named after the daily paper of German Social Democracy, was a German-language daily. Even with such a limited base of support, the authority of the new party grew. The WPUS, which at least partially filled the vacuum of independent, class-conscious political action, met with such success that it became difficult to keep up. Its support was so far-flung that the Workingmen even managed to capture five out of seven seats in the Kentucky State Legislature.

The party was re-formed in December of 1878 as the Socialist Labor Party of America (SLP). Their stronghold remained in the Northeast amongst their base of German wage workers. They, like De Leon, supported Henry George's mayoral run in New York in 1886. It was probably then that De Leon began his activity in the party's orbit. He would go on to have a tremendous impact on that organization and the path it would take over the rest of its existence.

The SLP under De Leon

De Leon joined the SLP in 1890 and immediately set about shaking things up. He had read a number of critical letters which Engels had sent to the leadership of the SLP throughout the 1800s after the party was founded and found himself in complete agreement. Engels' criticisms centered around the notion that the SLP was too “un-American,” in the sense that the official language of the party, both in its activities and its press, was German instead of English. He said,

“The third section [of the American labor movement] consists of the Socialist Labor Party. This section is a party but in name, for nowhere in America has it, up to now, been able actually to take its stand as a political party. It is, moreover, to a certain extent foreign toAmerica, having until lately been made up almost exclusively by German immigrants, using their own language and for the most part, conversant with the common language of the country. But if it came from a foreign stock, it came, at the same time, armed with the experience earned during long years of class struggle in Europe, and with an insight into the general conditions of working-class emancipation, far superior to that hitherto gained by American working-men. This is a fortunate circumstance for the American proletarians who thus are enabled to appropriate, and to take advantage of, the intellectual and moral fruits of the forty years' struggle of their European classmates, and thus to hasten on the time of their own victory. For, as I said before, there cannot be any doubt that the ultimate platform of the American working class must and will be essentially the same as that now adopted by the whole militant working class of Europe, the same as that of the German-American Socialist Labor Party. In so far this party is called upon to play a very important part in the movement. But in order to do so they will have to doff every remnant of their foreign garb. They will have to become out and out American. They cannot expect the Americans to come to them; they, the minority and the immigrants, must go to the Americans, who are the vast majority and the natives. And to do that, they must above all things learn English.” (The Condition of the Working-Class in England, New York, 1887)

De Leon took these criticisms to heart and when he was elected to the leadership of the SLP, he began reforming the character of the party from the ground up in order to better connect with the broader working class.

He began by putting forth the mandate that English be the official communicative language amongst party members in meetings where members understood English. The party's press was also revamped, with the English Daily People replacing Vorwärts as the main daily newspaper of the party, with the supplemental Weekly People soon to follow. De Leon edited both the Daily and Weekly People from 1892 onwards. The SLP by no means neglected its German members, however, as they continued to publish Vorwärts. In much the same way today, it is necessary for a revolutionary organization to make every effort to connect with all workers, regardless of their heritage, by publishing material in their own languages, for example when it comes to the large Spanish-speaking population in the U.S.

These were not the only changes made by De Leon in 1892. At this time the SLP also began running candidates more seriously on a national basis, beginning in with Simon Wing the same year. The SLP's results in these early national campaigns were quite mixed, reflecting the narrow and sectarian outlook of the party. Wing only received 21,163 of the popular votes in the 1892 Presidential election.

The SLP and the Trade Unions

In the latter part of the 1800s, two separate major trade union federations existed in the United States. The first was the American Federation of Labor, which continues to exist today in the trade union confederation of the AFL-CIO, which most trade unionists in the US belong to. The second, which was outstripped by the AFL by the late 1890s, was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor.

The Knights of Labor were founded in 1869 as a secret organization of tailors led by a man named Uriah Stephens. It was an organization marked by ritualistic and semi-religious practices and its members fancied themselves in the early days as a sort of working man's Order of Freemasons, a secret club of workers and a mutual aid society for those intimately involved with the movement. But the times were changing and with them, so did the Knights, who opened their organization to all sorts of trades and crafts, from shoe makers to railroad workers.

The Knights became a public organization in 1879 and opened their doors to all classifications of workers except for lawyers, politicians and liquor dealers. By this time, the Knights were light years ahead of the narrow craft unionism of the AFL, but also ahead of previous incarnations of American trade unionism, such as the National Labor Union, in that every worker, regardless of race, national origin or gender was eligible for membership and given an equal voice inside the organization.

By the time De Leon took the leadership of the SLP, the party already had an established track record in the fledgling trade union movement. They had been active, as we have seen, in the Great Strike of 1877 throughout most of the country, and had made a number of important gains from their orientation in that period. Their approach to the unions would become troublesome, however, as De Leon's sectarianism permeated the party and led to a disastrous position on work in the trade unions.

When De Leon first took the helm in the SLP, that party's orientation in the trade union field was directed towards work within the Knights of Labor. They worked within that organization promoting the Marxist conception of revolution and the need to abolish capitalism. Their approach, however, was marred by the De Leonist conception that trade unions were strictly a “shield” for the working class, while elections were its “sword.” The idea of a trade union movement on the offense was beyond the party's conception and they viewed strikes and work stoppages as strictly defensive mechanisms. As we shall see, this conception flowed directly from the SLP's opposition to reforms under capitalism and their ideas on how the working class should struggle. Their "all or nothing" stand on reforms would later be called “impossibilism” in the American socialist movement, what their counterparts in Europe called “maximalism.”

Members and supporters of the SLP were chased out of the Knights of Labor in 1895, both because they posed a threat to the leadership and because of their sectarian and dogmatic approach to labor struggles and organizing. In December of that year, De Leon took the party down one of the most disastrous paths any socialist organization could travel – the SLP pulled its few remaining members out of the K of L and held a convention in New York to form a "pure," revolutionary trade union federation called the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (STLA), thus isolating a more politically advanced layer of workers from the broader class.

The STLA was not organized on any industrial basis whatsoever. All members were a part of what would be, in theory, a massive organization representing workers in every field. This structure was guided by the best of intentions, the idea of “one big union” which would later be further developed in the Industrial Workers of the World. But the refusal to organize on the basis of industry, as the IWW would later, weakened the STLA by making any sort of industry-wide action of its membership impossible.

Although it was the brainchild of De Leon, the party did not endorse the STLA until the SLP convention the following year. A representative from the new union, Hugo Vogt, spoke to the convention, saying, “[The STLA] will not be affiliated with any capitalist party and will not support any political action except that of the Socialist Labor Party.”

The one-sided and sectarian view of the De Leonists toward trade unionism in general was clearly expressed in the Declaration of Principles of the STLA, which stated quite openly that "the methods and spirit of labor organization are absolutely impotent to resist the aggressions of organized capital."

This De Leonist conception of trade unionism was directly contrary to Marx's own position on the question of trade unions in America. In an 1865 letter to Johann von Schweitzer, Marx's ideas on the issue are clear:

“Combinations, together with trade unions, which develop out of these, are not only of the greatest importance to the working class as a means of organization in its struggle against the bourgeoisie, although this importance is demonstrated, among other things, by the fact that even the workers in the United States cannot do without them, despite the franchise and the republic.” (Marx to Schweitzer, February 13, 1865, London)

It comes as no surprise that the STLA was never able to gain even a modest following amongst the American working class, reaching its peak at 15,000 members – a number smaller than the total membership of the SLP at the time! And the only strike they ever organized was a tragic defeat.

The SLP was reaching the apex of its historical usefulness. That fact would become painfully clear in the next phase of the socialist struggle in the US with the founding of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World.

The 1899 Split and the Results

Tensions rose within the ranks and leadership of the SLP through the 1890s over what many correctly viewed as deeply flawed trade union and electoral policies. Primarily, the opposition was led by Morris Hillquit, a labor lawyer from New York, and Henry Slobodin, a Jewish party organizer repulsed by allegations of anti-Semitism within the party. Other opposition leaders included Job Harriman and Max Hayes. The opposition established its own party headquarters in Rochester, New York in 1899.

De Leon began an immediate campaign against them and their followers within the party. In public articles in the Daily People, he labeled them “Kangaroo socialists” (for jumping the party line) and lambasted them as enemies of the party and socialist movement. But the campaign only spurred the “Kangaroos” further and they began looking for allies.

The Rochester faction's leaders appeared at the 1900 convention of the American Social Democratic Party (SDP), led by Milwaukee publisher Victor Berger and American Rail Union veteran Eugene Debs, a recent convert to socialism. They spoke at the convention and proposed cooperation between the two organizations in the coming election period.

The SDP was a terrible mishmash of Bellamy Nationalists, Ewanite Utopians, trade unionists from Debs' ARU, and a smattering of Marxists. The party was split in two factions – those who wished to establish Utopian colonies in the western US; and those who wished to carry out a struggle to overturn capitalism. A party commission was even elected to begin the groundwork for establishing the communes in the West. Debs and Berger, however, belonged to the second camp, although they too were divided on how best to attain socialism (see: When the Socialist Party Was a Factor in US Politics: Lessons in Party Building by Tom Trottier).

De Leon had viewed the Social Democrats with contempt since their founding in 1897. On the one hand, he rightly criticized the Utopians within the party for their moralistic and surreal visions of socialist communes. On the other hand, he ridiculed that section of the party which was fighting for reforms like the eight hour day. He viewed both halves of the SDP as non-revolutionary and as non-socialists and wrote them off instead of trying to win them over to his version of Marxism. This continued dogmatism would come back to haunt the De Leonists.

Three weeks after the convention in which the Rochester faction of the SLP had proposed cooperation with the Social Democrats, the leaders from each grouping met again in New York City to discuss a merger between the two organizations. But the Social Democrats still viewed the Kangaroos with suspicion due to the tenuous relationship they had had with the SLP. Through the summer of 1900, the executives of both organizations leveled charge after charge at one another. Debs' greatest fear was that, if unity were not carried out on an equal basis from the start, the old Social Democratic Party would be lost in a carbon copy of De Leon's SLP.

Notwithstanding the distrust between the leaders of the two organizations, the groups went ahead with the plan they had laid out after the 1900 convention, due to the enthusiasm of the rank and file for a joint ticket in the elections. For many in both groups, the results of the election were staggering and cause for celebration.

With Debs running for President and Job Harriman of the Rochester group running for Vice-President, the joint ticket had polled 96,000 votes. Meanwhile, the SLP candidates had only polled 34,000 votes. It was the sounding of the death knell for De Leon's SLP.

With such positive electoral results, the Rochester group and the Social Democrats finally put aside their differences for a time and held one more unity conference. The result of this meeting was the founding of the Socialist Party of America, an organization that would remain deeply divided between its new right and left wings, although still very effective in the coming period of labor radicalism and with an appeal many times what the SLP could possibly have gained. From this point forward, the De Leonists would enter a terminal decline and a desperate search for influence.

To be continued in Part 2...

Source: SocialistAppeal (USA)

Works Consulted

Cannon, James P. “New Problems of American Socialism” (speech). Fourth International, Vol. X, No. 3, March 1949, pp. 72-75.

Constitution of the Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance of the United States and Canada.

“De Leon – A Sketch of His Socialist Career.” The People, Dec. 1, 1990.

De Leon, Daniel. “Debs on the Program of Socialism.” Daily People, Vol. XIII, No. 71, Sept. 9, 1912.

Engels, Frederick. The Condition of the Working-Class in England, Introduction to the American Edition, New York, 1887

Ginger, Ray. The Bending Cross. Chicago: Haymarket, 2007.

Hillquit, Morris. Loose Leaves from a Busy Life. New York: Macmillan, 1934.

Jones, Mary Harris. Autobiography of Mother Jones. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 1974.

Le Blanc, Paul. A Short History of the U.S. Working Class. New York: Humanity Books, 1999.

Marx, Karl. The First International and After. The Marx Library: Political Writings, Vol. III. New York: Vintage Books, 1974, pp. 339-359.