Daniel De Leon - This portrait of De Leon is a reproduction of an oil painting by Frederick Preche, which was published in 1940 as the frontispiece of the Socialist Labor Party Golden Jubilee

A Short Review of the Life and Work of Daniel De Leon

Commentary by Mike Lepore


De Leon died three years before the Russian revolution. De Leonism is an interpretation of Marxism which is extremely different from the one put forth by Lenin and his successors in various countries.

There is no advocacy of state ownership of the industries. There is no belief that political government should nationalize the industries, under the leadership of a supposed working class party. The goal, rather, is direct democratic control of all industries and services by the workers united in an industrial union. Rather than governing in the name of the working class, as in the Leninist countries, De Leon asserted that a socialist political party has but one thing to do upon winning control of the political offices, and that is to transfer all management authority to the workers' councils, and, in so doing, abolish all political forms of power, including abolition of the socialist political party itself, without delay.

De Leonism calls for a complete change in the structure of government, abandoning the use of geographical constituencies (towns, counties, provinces, etc.). The local and national economic congresses would consist of delegates elected by the workers in the various occupational functions -- manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, education, health, recreation, etc.

The "industrial form of government" which is to replace the political form would have only economic responsibilities. Thus De Leon, as did Marx, agreed partially with the anarchists, insofar as to say that a truly classless society must also be stateless, and have no coercive power that is distinct from and ruling over the populace.

De Leon's philosophy differed from most anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists in his insistence that the working class can only abolish the state by first capturing control of it. The working class must come to control the offices of political government (i.e., the coercive and geographically-based form of government) in order to dismantle it. Therefore, the working class requires organization on the political field. The ballot, he said, "raises the labor movement above the category of a conspiracy." Without use of the present constitutional method, he argued, the social transformation would have to be violent, involve a "massacre" of labor by the state, and even that sort of transformation would be indefinitely postponed by the "secrecy" which would be required of a non-political syndicalism, which would be forced underground.

However, the ballot is considered purely "destructive", in that it seeks to attain control of the state only for the purpose of dismantling it. The sole "constructive" power of the working class is considered to be the industrial union.

The "socialist industrial union" is conceived as an association of labor which organizes much as trade unions do, however it unites workers of all occupations as the integral departments of a single union of the entire working class. Furthermore, the union openly declares that, in putting forth momentary demands involving wages or working conditions, it is only biding its time. Once the degree of working class organization on both the political and industrial fields becomes sufficient, the union will "take and hold" the means of production. At that point, the union will no longer be a means, but an end, its integral connection of all economic branches being put into place as the new system of management.

Years before, Marx had written that "socialism casts off the political cloak", and Engels had written that, with socialism, "the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things." Such comments on the stateless characteristic of socialism were vague enough to require that a Marxian thinker of a later generation would have to make something specific of them. To some extent, that historical role was given to De Leon.


Daniel De Leon was an American Marxist, and the editor of The People and The Daily People, the journals of the Socialist Labor Party of America . De Leon was born on Dec. 14, 1852 on the island of Curacao, and died on May 11, 1914 in New York City.

Of all organizations still in existence today, throughout the world, the Socialist Labor Party of America is the one which is the most direct extension of the International Working Men's Association (the IWMA, or 'the International'), which was founded by Karl Marx and his collaborators in 1864. The International moved its headquarters to New York in 1872, in response to the increasing influence of Bakunin-style anarchists. Whether the effect was planned or not, this move to New York resulted in a loss of many European members and a gain of many North American members. The IWMA was formally dissolved in 1876, and, in its place, that same year, the former IWMA membership created the Workingmen's Party of the United States. In 1877, the members of the Workingmen's Party voted to change its name to the Socialistic Labor Party (Note the suffix "-ic" in the name).

From 1877 to 1890, the SLP platform was an unclear combination of revolutionary goals and demands for gradual reforms. The modern SLP prefers to consider 1890 as the year of its creation, because it was then that it removed the reformist goals from its revolutionary program, and simultaneously dropped the suffix "-ic" from the name "Socialist".

The SLP got an influx of new members after Bismarck decreed the Anti-Socialist Laws in Germany in 1878. At that time, some German workers, to avoid persecution for their advocacy of socialism, emigrated to the United States and joined the SLP.

In 1886, when Daniel De Leon first became an ally of the labor movement, he was a lecturer of constitutional and international law at Columbia University in New York City. At this time, he came to support the Single Tax movement of Henry George, which explained class divided society primarily in terms of private ownership of land. De Leon had not yet adopted the perspective of Marxism, which considers class rule to based primarily on private ownership of the means of production.

De Leon joined the SLP in 1889.

In 1891, the party's newspaper, The People, was established. It became the first socialist periodical published in the western hemisphere. De Leon was elected to the office of editor. For the remainder of his life, he wrote editorials which today provide us with a more complete understanding of the development of the labor movement and socialist theory during that period.

With the U.S. presidential election of 1892, the SLP nominated Simon Wing, the first socialist national candidate in the western hemisphere.


De Leon was instrumental in the formation, in 1895, of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance. The short-lived S.T. & L.A. was the first labor union in the U.S. to declare the necessity of replacing capitalism by social ownership of the industries. It's open recognition of the class struggle placed the union in opposition to those so-called labor unions which endorsed capitalist ownership of industry, including the American Federation of Labor (A.F. of L.) and the Knights of Labor (K. of L.).

To satirize the acceptance of capitalist rule by so-called organized labor, De Leon called the union bosses "labor fakirs" (fakirs are snake-charmers and other magicians of the Eastern world), and he intentionally modified the spelling to be "labor fakers". He also called the union leaders "labor lieutenants of the capitalist class".


In 1901, those who believed that socialism can be achieved by incremental and legislated improvements in the capitalist system resigned from the SLP and formed the Socialist Party of America. The SLP continued to insist that modifications to the surface forms of the social system cannot bring about structural change, but would, rather, "sweet-scent" class rule, and distract the workers with "palliatives." When, in 1911, the SP candidate Victor Berger was elected to Congress, and each of Berger's proposals in Congress implied a continuation of capitalism, De Leon's editorials said Berger's brand of socialism was fraudulent. Today's Socialist Party USA (SPUSA) is an extension of the original Socialist Party of America.


The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was organized in 1905. Like the earlier S.T. & L.A., the IWW is a union which openly recognizes the necessity of replacing capitalism by social ownership of industry. The SLP was allied with the IWW only from 1905 to 1908.

The 1905 version of the IWW constitution proposed that the working class should "come together on the political as well as the industrial field." Conflict between the SLP and the IWW started to appear in 1906, when a growing number of IWW members supported the idea of deleting the political aspect of the program. In 1908, this proposal was realized by an amendment to the IWW preamble, the newer form of which does not mention any need for political organization.

The SLP insisted that an attempt to establish social ownership of the means of production through industrial organization alone would amount to "physical forcism". It would invite a "massacre" of workers by the state, whereas the ballot box permits a "peaceful trial of strength." The IWW insisted that the process of industrial organization can occur only if the union considers the worker's choice of whom to vote for to be a personal one, and, therefore, the union must avoid making political party endorsements. The two organizations also accused each other of disruptive actions. Following some name-calling episodes in 1908, all connection between the SLP and the IWW came to an end.

The SLP then rejected the original IWW, describing it as having been "captured by physical forcists." The SLP called the original IWW the "Chicago IWW" because of the location of its headquarters, while the SLP formed another "Detroit IWW" based on the SLP's dual political/industrial program. In 1915 the Detroit organization was renamed the Workers International Industrial Union. The WIIU was dissolved in 1925, and since then there has been virtually no De Leonist tendency operating on the industrial field.

Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, there has been very little communication and cooperation between the De Leonists and the IWW. Some of those who hope for an eventual reconciliation continue to try to promote improved communication between the two small movements.


Most De Leonists believe that four in particular of the many speeches delivered by De Leon were the most fundamental in putting forth the De Leonist program. Transcripts of these addresses were published in the form of pamphlets, with these titles:

"Reform or Revolution?" (1896) is considered by many to be first detailed socialist analysis which proposes a great incompatibility between two goals, that of adjusting the forms of a social system (reform), and that of changing the basic structure of the social system (revolution).

Some apparent inconsistencies should be pointed out at this time.

"What Means This Strike?" (1898) was delivered on the occasion of a strike, but the subject extends far beyond the matter of strikes. The speaker focuses on the basic division of labor's product into a paid portion (wages) and an unpaid portion (profits). He disposes of the popular myth that the capitalist receives profit as a compensation for having invested an "original accumulation."

There are known arithmetic errors in the examples which make use of dollar figures. The reader may ignore the actual numbers and instead observe what sort of use the speaker makes of numbers. The point is that, if we consider the "value added" after the workers have acted upon the tools, materials, etc., and compare it to the total wages paid to those same workers, we find it to be a plain fact of arithmetic that the worker's get back a mere fraction of what they produce. Therefore, it is not known "theoretically" that the workers are exploited; rather, it is a direct observation.

"The Burning Question of Trades Unionism" (1904) was delivered about nine months before the industrial unionists' convention of January 1905 , which in turn was about five months before the first convention of the IWW (June of 1905). The concept of unionism presented in this address influenced the later developments.

Union leaders who claim that capital and labor have common interests are severely criticized, and the true purpose of unionism is described as nothing short of the "dethronement of the capitalist class." Also criticized is that sort of unionism which divides the workers into craft-based jurisdictions, rather than uniting the entire working class into one economic force.

"Socialist Reconstruction of Society" (1905) was the occasion on which De Leon proposed that to "take and hold" the industries is the "function of unionism". It is remarked here that future social administration ought to be based, not on "geographic constituencies", but, rather, on "industrial constituencies."

This occasion of the address is a line-by-line analysis of the original (1905) version of the Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World, that is, prior to the 1908 amendment. It's important to remember that the original Preamble urged the working class to "come together on the political, as well as the industrial field", whereas the later version makes no reference to political organization. This address includes several arguments for the necessity of the ballot.

Here, too, some points about capitalist exploitation are made by citing dollar figures which are now obsolete. The reader would do better to follow the line of reasoning, rather than to concentrate on the actual numbers.

"As To Politics" documents the period of growing disagreement between the Socialist Labor Party and the Industrial Workers of the World. From November of 1906 to February of 1907, De Leon and several IWW members debated whether the ballot box is necessary, or whether the industrial union can be self-sufficient. The debate took the form of an exchange of letters which were printed in the SLP newspaper. These letters were published by the SLP in 1907 as a pamphlet entitled "As To Politics".