2: Creation of the Modern Party 1890-1899

Submitted by jondwhite on December 29, 2014

At the beginning of 1890, the Socialist Labor Party continued to feel the need for fluent English-language agitators to carry on work among American workers. The value of the support it received from immigrating German and Jewish workers was obvious, but of course no major successes could occur without strong backing from native English-speaking workers. The arrival of Daniel De Leon in the fall of that year was a major element in resolving the problem of Americanization.

De Leon Joins the SLP

Daniel De Leon was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Curacao, a Dutch possession off the coast of Venezuela. After receiving an excellent formal education in Europe, he emigrated to the United States, and later became a member of the law faculty of what is now Columbia University. In 1886, he supported Henry George's bid for the New York mayoralty on the Single Tax ticket. De Leon soon became dissatisfied with Single Taxism. By early 1889, disillusioned with George and his economic theories, he joined the Nationalist movement of Edward Bellamy.

De Leon became a very active Nationalist. He was put in charge of organizing new clubs in the New York City area and was a frequent speaker and writer, sometimes to the point of physical exhaustion. However, he and a few other Nationalist members became dissatisfied with the movement's gradualist approach and attempted to pull the movement into an avowed socialist stand. An attempt to organize a new party along socialist lines failed, and in September or October 1890, De Leon joined the SLP.

Agitation in the Knights of Labor

From its earliest days, members of the WPUS/SLP, including Van Patten and Parsons, had worked within the Knights of Labor. Unlike the later AFL, the Knights wished to benefit both skilled and unskilled workers and accepted blacks and women as equal members The original "Grand Master Workman" Uriah Stephens and his successor, Terence Powderly, did not welcome socialist influence, Powderly also thought little of the strike weapon and tried to squelch local Knights support for their widely publicized May First strike for the eight-hour day in 1886.

In 1893, the United Hebrew Trades joined the Knights enabling the socialists to become a substantial force in District Assembly (DA) 49. Despite being politically opposed to Populism, SLP delegates helped the Populists to take over the posts of district officers. That year DA 49 sent a number of socialist delegates, including De Leon, to the General Assembly, the Knights of Labor national convention. Here, they worked with anti-Powderly delegates concerned with reversing the declining fortunes of the Knights and elected James K. Sovereign as Grand Master Workman. Sovereign, needing socialist support to stave off an attempt by Powderly to regain power, accepted De Leon's support in return for a promise to appoint Lucien Sanial editor of the Knights official organ. Sovereign did prevail against Powderly at the next convention but reneged on his promise, and the socialist unionists soon found that Sovereign's policies differed little from those of his predecessor.

In 1895, the SLP slate in DAA 49 was elected and took control of the district. On the national level, however, the Sovereign faction tightened its hold. At the fall General Assembly, the credentials of the DA 49 delegation were challenged and by a narrow margin it was turned away. Although by this time the decline of the Knights had left little to capture, the experience clearly was a source of deep chagrin to De Leon and most of the party. After this, SLP literature repeatedly condemned the "labor fakirs" (or fakers) for their crass opportunism and lack of real interest in long term political goals.

Party Growth and Changes

The 90s saw the party grow in size and influence. In 1891, there were a hundred sections, of which eighty-eight were German speaking. Immigrant Jewish workers made up much of the rest; Jewish sections were numerous enough in New York to hold their own National conventions. The financial Panic of 1893 contributed to party growth. In 1896 the national convention had nearly a hundred delegates representing twenty-five states and Canada. The number of sections had doubled in three years.

The socialist vote continued to grow, and local candidates occasionally won office. The presidential vote in 1896 was 36,367, the highest it would reach before World War II. The party reached its all-time electoral peak in 1898 when the total vote for SLP candidates was 82,204. With this relative success came internal conflict. In Chicago and Cleveland there were, in spite of official party rules, fusions with Populists and Prohibitionists. In Haverhill, Massachusetts, the section’s James F. Carey was elected to city council. When Carey voted for a militia armory appropriation, the national office demanded his resignation, but the section refused to force him to comply. But these difficulties did not interfere with the party's progress.

Unquestionably, much of this progress resulted from competent leadership, and since that time SLP "leader" and the name of De Leon become synonymous. But many contemporary observers considered the SLP to have been dominated intellectually by the triumvirate of De Leon, Lucien Sanial and Hugo Vogt. De Leon, just as he had done with the Bellamy Nationalists, threw himself into the movement without reservation. Although De Leon's writings have a dated, academic flavor today, they were a vast improvement over most of the literature of the period, some of which suffered from awkward translation from the German. As a speaker, De Leon was much sought after for both English- and German-speaking audiences. De Leon never held administrative office, but as editor and speaker his perceptions of the labor movement and the required program to implement socialism deeply influenced those around him. Also, his legal training, knowledge of parliamentary procedure and debating skills undoubtedly were of great advantage in meetings establishing policy. He freely and harshly criticized his opponents. His enemies saw all this as manipulation and charged him with being a "boss" or "pope."

But the party had other important figures as well. Lucien Sanial, before immigrating, had been a French naval officer. He was a popular speaker and writer, frequently chosen to represent the SLP at international and labor conferences. Hugo Vogt was one of the German socialists forced to emigrate because of the Bismarck anti-socialist laws. His "forceful tongue and pen" made him especially useful working with German-American socialists. And the modern SLP might have turned out quite differently without the talents of Henry Kuhn who was the party's national secretary between 1891 and 1906. His tenacity and devotion to the movement became legendary. His loyalty to the SLP became also a loyalty to De Leon personally whom he described in later years as an "Instrument of Providence."

The "Americanization" of the party made considerable progress during this period. Documents from the 1893 convention in Chicago had been written primarily in German. But at the 1896 convention many of the delegates were from "American" sections or had clearly non-German names (one of these was the noted feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman). On the other hand, although the preponderance of Germans faded and the number of "native" Americans increased, the party did remain overwhelmingly first or second generation immigrant. Party literature was published in Polish, Danish, French, Italian and "Slavish" as well as the predominant English, German and Yiddish.

The printing and distribution of agitational literature also proliferated during the decade. Increasingly, books and pamphlets were written directly in English with fewer translations of European titles. Exceptions were the Marx/Engels classics, some of which De Leon translated. In 1896 Kuhn reported "The People has developed splendidly…with its circulation…now more than 6,000…" Under De Leon, The People had become the recognized voice of the party. The German Vorwärts circulation had climbed to five thousand. Jewish members were by far the most successful, launching a daily Abend-Blatt with circulation of fifteen thousand. There were other English and German papers as well as ephemeral Dutch, Italian and Polish.

There were some, however, who objected to The People as a national organ. One group attempted and failed to replace The People with locally edited editions of the St. Louis-based Labor. The local editions of Labor, like The People during its first year, were filled with non-socialist "human interest" material. Their editorials sometimes endorsed political fusion and support for the AFL. This conflict was another harbinger of the coming split.

The Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance

Until 1896, the SLP considered trade unions necessary to improve working class living standards and as useful forums to promote socialism. De Leon's editorial influence and the SLP's bad experiences at the hands of non-socialist labor leaders combined to modify the pro-union stance of the party, which had come to question the ability of the unions to really help the workers under capitalism. Many, including De Leon, even doubted the value of strikes. In January 1896 De Leon gave a lecture in Boston, "Reform or Revolution," in which he rejected reforms: political measures that do not abolish capitalism. De Leon's speech argued that the struggle for socialism was basically political, and he called for nothing less than the overthrow of capitalism. The workers were exhorted to support a revolutionary union whose primary task was to educate the workers, and secondarily to play a defensive role in resisting the encroachments of capital. The ultimate goal continued to be a somewhat nebulously conceived commonwealth in which the means of production would be nationalized.

On December 13, 1895, shortly after the SLP-dominated District Assembly 49 of the Knights of Labor had in effect been rejected by its national body, it joined with a number of other Knights district assemblies and other labor federations in the New York city area to form the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (STLA). Although the STLA is often referred to as having been "still-born," the SLP claimed that DA 49 took the majority of the fast-failing Knights with them, and evidently the STLA did begin with about a hundred locals in the New York area. According to Fine, a "hostile source" said that 228 charters were issued "between January [1896?] and July 1898" when it had about fifteen thousand members, and its influence had extended into Pennsylvania, New England and elsewhere. Samuel Gompers later wrote that the STLA had kept New York's East Side in turmoil and had received support from garment, textile, cigar making, mining and glass workers elsewhere. Although the SLP did not officially support the new union until its convention in the summer of 1896, in reality it was the guiding force, and SLP members were encouraged to join from the start.

It should be pointed out that the STLA was not an industrial union. Like the Knights of Labor, it was organized by trades or groups of trades. However, Gompers and his supporters were furious over this dual unionism which they saw as dividing the trade union movement, and some in the SLP like Thomas J. Morgan agreed. The SLP and STLA retorted that the AFL was hopelessly corrupt and based on the perverse principle of cooperation between Capital and Labor.

The STLA was an active and militant labor organization, but it suffered from a schizophrenia that was to affect the Industrial Workers of the World later: officially, it did not believe that workers could gain any real benefits under capitalism and would do best by putting their energies into establishing socialism, but simultaneously the union had to fight for immediate gains with weapons at its disposal such as the strike. Many workers who joined the STLA lacked the long view of the SLP members and concluded that the more established AFL, even with its evident shortcomings, gave more promise of immediate benefits. The prevalent STLA and SLP attitude on the futility of traditional union activity is well illustrated by De Leon's February 1898 speech in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on the occasion of an important strike there. He informed the striking workers that what they needed, "aye, more than bread, is the knowledge of a few elemental principles of political economy and of sociology." The speech outlined the Marxist view of class division and exploitation, stating that the only solution was the "sword of the Socialist ballot" protected by "the shield of the trade union…" He conceded that shop organization could be of value but considered the strike basically an inspiring display of resistance to oppression.

In July 1898, the STLA held a national convention in Buffalo. De Leon had condemned Ernest Bohm, STLA national secretary, and August Waldinger, both officials in the Central Labor Federation, the "backbone" of the STLA. He charged the two with corruption: accepting advertising for Republican and Democratic candidates. The DeLeonites won a Pyrrhic victory when the CLF withdrew from the STLA. Prior to this, the STLA had had a considerable measure of independence with its press, sometimes espousing views differing from those of The People. Afterwards, the STLA's influence declined rapidly, and most of its active members were SLP members.

The Split

At the 1896 convention, few opposed the party's increasingly anti-reformist and dual union program. But difficulties arose with the Socialistic Cooperative Publishing Association, which published The People and the New Yorker Volkszeitung. Originally, loyalty to SLP principles had been required for membership, but during the decade many of the SCPA members, the "Volkszeitung group," had become estranged from current political developments within the SLP. Many were German immigrants of the generation before who had become small businessmen and were offended by the party's position that taxation was only a capitalist question, or who were skilled craftsmen deeply involved in AFL activity and bitterly opposed to the STLA. Factional opposition may have been catalyzed by Morris Hillquit, a one-time industrial worker who had become a lawyer. He advised a confidant that he would start an anti-De Leon campaign beginning October 1898.

The Volkszeitung group became a nucleus of opposition which extended beyond New York. This opposition went beyond the STLA and taxation issues to include charges that a few men, De Leon in particular, controlled the party. The question of revolution versus reforms does not seem to have been as important as one might suppose from reading later SIP polemics, although division over the question probably existed (as it did also around this time in the socialist movement in France, Great Britain, Russia and elsewhere).

Battle lines began forming early in 1899. The new NEC had only one oppositionist, and Henry Kuhn was re-elected National Secretary by a large margin. When The People published what De Leon characterized as a "catalogue of sins" of the Volkszeitung, the Volkszeitung group tried to have its position printed in The People. When the NEC refused, the Volkszeitung group circularized the membership using The People subscription list. A referendum confirmed an NEC decision to dispossess the SCP and have the press strictly party-owned.

On July 8, the semi-annual meeting to elect delegates to the Central Committee of Section New York was convened. Parliamentary wrangling and scuffling took place and the opposition decided to call a General Committee meeting without the "administration faction." A last minute announcement was published in the Volkszeitung, inaccesible to most of the non-German DeLeonites. At the meeting, National Secretary Kuhn was replaced by Henry Slobodin, and most of the NEC was sacked. This rump meeting of the General Committee included only a fraction of the actual members and, in any case, probably lacked the authority to carry out its actions. (De Leon began referring to the opposition as "kangaroos" because of their alleged similarity to the "kangaroo courts” of the old West, which ignored formal legality.)

The "Battle of July 10" occurred around midnight when the dissidents tried to take over the party headquarters. Considerably outnumbered according to DeLeonist accounts, the loyalists held off several attacks against opponents armed with iron and wooden clubs before police arrived with guns drawn. Accepting De Leon's explanation that his faction was legally there, the police dispersed the raiding party.

However, since the headquarters was in the Volkszeitung building, the loyalists wisely moved everything out the next day to a safer location. Each side declared itself the legitimate Socialist Labor Party and published its own version of The People. The Volkszeitung faction, having the original subscription list, was able to publish its account of events first. Outside of New York, members and readers were surprised to learn that the old NEC and national secretary had been deposed. The DeLeonites soon followed with the story that a planned disruption had failed.

In New York, duplicate organizations were established almost at once. Outside of New York, several sections went over immediately to the new SLP. Such sections were "reorganized" by the Kuhn NEC to exclude the dissidents. Other sections adopted a wait-and-see attitude, some of them concluding that affairs in New York were in such a mess that the NEC should be transferred. The opposition NEC gradually gained support from around the country as some sections went over to them and as they attracted new members from among those who had considered the old party's policies and leaders too rigid. The legal question of who possessed the right to use the names and emblem of the SLP and The People went to the courts. The remaining members eventually rationalized the loss of substantial portions of the German and Jewish blocs as a benefit, a fulfillment of the long-sought Americanization of the party. Most of those prominent in the breakaway SLP had been much less so in the old. The most notable to leave was probably Hillquit.

In February 1900, the dissident wing of the Socialist Labor Party held its national convention in Rochester, New York. It claimed to have the support of four thousand members out of an original 5500 while the "regular" party claimed that losses were minimal. (It is quite possible that a majority did eventually defect.) In its report to the new SLP, the Rochester NEC confidently predicted the early demise of the DeLeonite faction. It reported having lost a legal battle over the right to use the party name and emblem in New York but was the official SLP in Massachusetts and California. (Although most of the lawyers in the party except for De Leon were said to have been among the defectors, the New Yorkers eventually won virtually all of the legal battles.) The Rochester SLP declared its willingness to join with the Social Democratic Party because no "difference in principle, or even in tactics divides us." The Social Democratic Party, especially the leadership, had mixed feelings about their new supporters. However, on July 29, 1901, anti-De Leon socialists held a unity conference, and the Socialist Party (SP) was organized with a claimed membership of ten thousand.