The Socialist Program

What It Is and How It Developed

Trade unionism has its roots in the class struggle; specifically, in the day-to-day struggle between workers and capitalists over wages, lengthened hours of exploitation and massive layoffs.

That struggle dates back at least 200 years, to the time when modern capitalism got its start in England. As time went on, capitalism came to America, and as the working class and capitalism developed, permanent organizations were built, and the workers fought for increased wages and shortened hours.

In the process, however, the unions lost sight of their original purpose. They became business organizations that accepted capitalism, locked out most workers, and merely haggled over the terms of exploitation for their own memberships.

Daniel De Leon, a great American Socialist, saw this when he entered the labor movement. He also saw that the continued acceptance of capitalist unionism by the workers meant that their struggles for permanent improvements in their condition were doomed to failure. The near-total decimation of the trade unions today shows that De Leon and the Socialist Labor Party were right on that score. At the same time, however, the underlying principle that in unity there is strength and that disunity breeds weakness is still valid. The union principle is still sound, but for unions to work properly they must be built on sound principles and organized in such a way that they unite all workers in their struggles with capital.

The formation of unions by workers proved that capital and labor have conflicting interests. When unions fell under the control of leaders who spoke instead of a “brotherhood of capital and labor,” a struggle began to build a “new unionism” based on sound principles.

The New Unionism

It was the SLP that championed this “new unionism,” and that put it into practice with the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance in 1896. De Leon spoke of it in his famous 1898 address to the striking textile workers of New Bedford, Mass., What Means This Strike? Samuel Gompers, founding president of the American Federation of Labor, saw in the ST&LA a “corroding influence....” The genuine militancy and classconsciousness of this new unionism aroused fear among labor leaders of the AFL, headed by Gompers. They foresaw the end of their income from dues, and of their power and prestige.

Gompers boasted in his autobiography that he followed De Leon to New Bedford, saying that he “succeeded in materially changing the false impression made by De Leon.” But this was a false statement. Gompers spoke to the New Bedford strikers first. It was De Leon who succeeded in changing the impression Gompers made, and encouraging the strikers in their struggle with the capitalist, while imparting sound and easily understood lessons in the class struggle.

As history relates, however, Gompers & Co. made a comeback, not through the “virtues” of their false unionism, but as a result of their loyalty to capitalism and the capitalists’ under-the-table appreciation of this. In time, the capitalist state was to give official recognition to the false unions, as well as to provide them with legal means of forcing maverick capitalists to deal with them, through the National Labor Relations Act.

The Original IWW

Again, in 1905, it was De Leon who developed the new unionism into a force that enabled it, potentially, to become the instrument of social change for the better. He did this through his creative work in developing the concept of socialist industrial unionism, which had its organizational origins at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World. In The IWW, A Study in American Syndicalism, a standard work on the subject, Paul Brissenden noted that “the De Leon element” dominated the convention. “The dominance of De Leonism,” he wrote, “was then a supremacy of ideas.” Concerning the original IWW program of political and industrial action for building socialism, Dr. Brissenden quoted Eugene V. Debs (whose Socialist Party rejected the IWW) on the “SLP faction.” “This faction,” said Debs, “is cornerstoned in the true principles of unionism in reference to political action.”

By this, Debs meant the De Leonist principle incorporated in the original preamble of the IWW’s constitution, that between the capitalist class and the working class “a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor through an economic organization of the working class....” We italicized the phrase “on the political” because that was an essential part of the socialist program to the De Leonists and to the majority of the delegates to the first IWW convention. The phrase became a bone of contention to the anarchists who rejected political action and who relied upon “direct action.” To sum up, the anarchists within the IWW succeeded in repudiating political action, and the IWW—while gaining a romantic glamour in the eyes of many—lost its effectiveness.

However, Debs was right. Socialist industrial unionism must include the principle of political action, for in no other way can the police spy be neutralized, the socialist revolution be advocated in the open, civilized procedures be followed, and a peaceful trial of strength be waged with the forces of capitalism.

The SLP of today continues to advocate this program because it is the socialist program. It is the only one that will provide for workers’ ownership, management and control of the economy, and thereby provide the basis for the complete democracy of socialism.

Socialist Industrial Unionism

Specifically, socialist industrial unionism aims to organize all the workers as a class. Accordingly, it will organize the skilled and unskilled, the employed and unemployed, all the workers of brain and brawn in all the industries and services of the land—the mines, the mills, the factories, the railroads, the hospitals, the schools—all the workers in all the industries. The form or structure of the Socialist Industrial Union (SIU) will follow the lines of industry and production. The subdivisions needed for logical and efficient organization will be determined by the tool used and the product produced. But all these necessary subdivisions will be integrally united in one SIU, with a common purpose and a common goal.

All the officers of the SIU will be democratically elected by the rank and file by direct vote. There will be no “appointees.” And all the officers of the SIU will be directly and constantly responsible to their industrial constituents. They will be subject to recall at the will of the majority. Neither the SIUs nor their elected officers will become involved in capitalist business. Their energies will be devoted solely to advancing the interest of the workers as a class. And the guarantee that this will be so is the fact that the SIU must, and will, be composed of classconscious workers who will know and understand their socialist goal and the correct structure and tactics that their industrial organization must embrace in order to achieve that goal. Classconsciousness is the only thing that will enable them to retain complete democratic control over their organization and to use it to serve their class interests.

The SIU’s Tactics

Tactically, the SIU will operate squarely on the fact of the class struggle. It will completely reject the false theory of the “brotherhood of capital and labor.” Rather, it will emphasize at every opportunity the fact that the working class and the capitalist class have absolutely nothing in common. Insofar as it is possible, at this late date in capitalist decadence, it will fight for the amelioration of conditions and against the encroachments of capitalism, but without losing sight of its real goal, which is: to effect the complete emancipation of the working class from wage slavery by abolishing the capitalist system at the earliest possible date. And, it should be emphasized that this class union will fight the encroachments of capitalism with the full weight of its strength. It will operate on the principle that an injury to one worker is an injury to all the workers. The workers in the SIU will not be divided by meaningless contracts, nor forced or cajoled into organized scabbery. However, at all times the SIU will understand and be guided by the fact that such battles are at best rear-guard actions forced upon it by economic conditions under capitalism and that nothing short of the abolition of capitalism can lead to freedom and affluence for the working class. As De Leon expressed it:

“ ...Industrialism [i.e., industrial unionism] is that system of economic organization of the working class that denies that labor and the capitalist class are brothers; that recognizes the irrepressible nature of the conflict between the two; that perceives that that struggle will not, because it cannot, end until the capitalist class is thrown off labor’s back; that recognizes that an injury to one workingman is an injury to all; and that, consequently, and with this end in view, organizes the whole working class into one union, the same subdivided only into such bodies as their respective craft tools demand, in order to wrestle as one body for the immediate amelioration of its membership [as far as that may be possible today] and for their eventual emancipation by the total overthrow of the capitalist class, its economic and political rule.”

Furthermore, the SIU will teach and proclaim the need for the political organization of the working class in order that they, the vast majority, may be able to establish via the ballot their democratic right peacefully to accomplish the socialist reconstruction of society.

The SIU’s Goal

The avowed goal of the SIU is the Socialist Industrial Republic of Labor or the Socialist Industrial Commonwealth. It will be the power that will back up the political victory of the workers by taking, holding and operating the means of production and distribution in the interests of society as a whole. It will thereby become the instrument of SIU government. In De Leon’s words:

“Industrial unionism bends its efforts to unite the working class upon the political as well as the industrial field—on the industrial field because without the integrally organized union of the working class the revolutionary act is impossible; on the political field, because on none other can be proclaimed the revolutionary purpose, without consciousness of which the union is a rope of sand. Industrial unionism is the Socialist Republic in the making; and, the goal once reached, the industrial union is the Socialist Republic in operation. Accordingly, the industrial union is, at once, the battering ram with which to pound down the fortress of capitalism, and the successor of the capitalist social structure itself.”

To repeat: it must and will be the industrial organization of the working class, and not the political organization, that takes over the reins of government in the Socialist Republic. And this government will, accordingly, be based upon industrial constituencies and will be administered by industrial representatives elected democratically by the workers in all the industries. As De Leon described it:

“Civilized society will know no such ridiculous thing as geographic constituencies. It will know only industrial constituencies. The parliament of civilization in America will consist not of congressmen from geographic districts, but of representatives of trades throughout the land, and their legislative work will not be the complicated one which a society of conflicting interests, such as capitalism, requires but the easy one which can be summed up in the statistics of the wealth needed, the wealth producible and the work required—and that any average set of workingmen’s representatives are fully able to ascertain, infinitely better than our modern rhetoricians in Congress.”

This brings us to the question: Where does the SLP fit into this picture?

The SLP is the political party of the working class. This is so because the SLP is the sole protagonist of the program and principles that the working class must adopt if it is ever to achieve its complete emancipation from wage slavery and, at the same time, save society from catastrophe. The SLP is the only organization demanding the abolition of capitalism and advocating the socialist reconstruction of society. It has been doing so for over 100 years. It is, in short, the organization through which the workers can establish their majority right to reorganize society. At the same time, through its agitational and educational activities, it is the recruiting agency for the SIU—the workers’ power.


Socialist Labor Party of America, P.O. Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042-0218 • •

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