Socialist Labor Party

The 19th century had been a period of rapid industrial expansion in America. Between 1800 and 1900 the per capita wealth of the country had increased from $200 to $1,200. However, the distribution of this wealth was extremely uneven. It was this economic situation that stimulated a growth in socialist ideas in the United States. In 1874 a group of socialists led by Friedrich Sorge formed the Workingmen's Party. Three years later it was renamed the Socialist Labor Party. Some members of the party came under the influence of the anarchist ideas of the German revolutionary, Johann Most.

In 1886 the party became involved in helping organize the campaign for the eight-hour day. At one meeting on 4th May, in Chicago, the Haymarket Bombing took place and several former members of the party, including August Spies, Albert Parson, Adolph Fisher and George Engel, were found guilty of conspiracy to murder and executed.

In 1891 the SLP established its journal The People. Daniel De Leon, Laurence Gronlund, Morris Hillquit and Abraham Cahan emerged as leaders of the SLP. De Leon wrote the SLP's first program that included the breakup of the state, workers' democracy, the seizure of social power by the organized producers and the socialist reorganization of the economy.

In 1892 Simon Wing ran for President, with Charles H. Matchett as Vice President. They received 21,173 votes. In 1896 the SLP's vote increased to 36,367 and in 1898 reached a peak of 82,204. At that time the party had 10,000 members. This included Meyer London.

In the 1900 presidential election the Socialist Labor Party candidates received only 33,382. The other major left-wing party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), led by Eugene Debs and Victor Berger, did better winning 97,000 votes. SLP presidential candidates won 33,510 votes in 1904, 14,029 in 1908 and 29,213 in 1912.

Primary Sources

(1) When Daniel De Leon became editor of The People in 1891 he explained the functions of a socialist newspaper.

A daily Socialist paper in the English language must start with the knowledge that, in point of what is called news, it cannot think of competing with the capitalist contemporaries. An English Socialist daily may not trim its sails to attract 'new readers'; in that field it is hors de combat from the start; it must furnish a specialized kind of news that the capitalist press either does not care for, or does not want - legitimate, labor and social news; it must thus create a field from which capitalist competition is, ipso facto, excluded. With such a news policy, supplemented by a news policy that illustrates Socialist principles by the light of the events of the day, and watching its opportunity to enlarge, a daily socialist paper must begin with modest aspirations. It must realise that ninety-nine out of every hundred of its readers will stick to the Egyptian fleshpots of the capitalist 'news' papers. It must aim at getting these readers to acquire a taste for its own bill of fare, without expecting them to drop their own favorite capitalist news menu, at least not immediately. It must thus slowly build up its own audience, upon its own ground. It must, in short, follow the tactics, not of attempting to dispute their field with the capitalist 'news' contemporaries, but, first, of seeking to share their readers; and then, as an ultimate aim, to strip them of their proletarian dupe-audience, together with those in sympathy with these. Even such a course will encounter serious financial obstacles. But these obstacles it is possible to overcome.

(2) Daniel De Leon, The People (8th January, 1893)

Private ownership in the instruments of production - in the land, tools, machinery etc. — was at one time the basis of industry and of freedom; concentration of these instruments of production in the hands of a few, and the introduction of machinery establish a system of production upon so gigantic a scale that the individual small producer cannot hold his own; he is stripped of his instruments of production, and becomes a proletarian, a wage slave, dependent for his existence upon the capitalist, who has concentrated in his own hands the things that are necessary for a living; this system fills the land with paupers, breeds crime, prostitution and sickness; freedom under such a system tends to disappear.

(3) Daniel De Leon, The People (25th October, 1903)

Why should a truly Socialist organization of whites not take in Negro members, but organize these in separate bodies? On account of outside prejudice? Then the body is not truly Socialist. A Socialist body that will trim its sails to 'outside prejudices' had better quit. A truly Socialist body is nothing if not a sort of 'Rough on Prejudices'. Ten to one, however, where the 'issue' arises in such a body it is catering, not to outside, but to inside prejudices, to the prejudices of the members themselves.

(4) Daniel De Leon, The People (2nd November, 1908)

Socialism means but one thing, and that is the abolition of capital in private hands, and the turning over of the industries into the direct control of the workmen employed in them. Anything else is not socialism, and has no right to sail under that name. Socialism is not the establishment of an eight-hour day, not die abolition of child labor, not the enforcement of pure food laws, not the putting down of die Night Riders, or the enforcement of the 80-cent gas law. None of these, nor all of them together, are socialism. They might all be done by the government tomorrow, and still we would not have socialism. They are merely reforms on the present system, mere patches on the worn out garment of industrial servitude, and are no more socialism than the steam from a locomotive is the locomotive.

(5) Daniel De Leon, The People (15th June, 1909)

What is 'reform'? For that we must go to the reformer himself. He is perfectly explicit in what he is not. The reformer firmly objects to revolution. He holds the thing to be harmful in theory, still more harmful in practice. He holds tenaciously to the essence of what is without upsetting the essence, the reformer seeks to improve details.

(6) Henry Kuhn, The Socialist Labor Party (1931)

The life of the Party organization was dominated by the necessity of maintaining a daily paper, a terrible task. Part of the membership worked like Trojans and almost bled themselves white to give support. Not a few militants broke under the strain and withdrew from the fray. The SLP of those days used up a good deal of human material.

(7) William Haywood wrote about Daniel De Leon and the Socialist Labor Party in his his autobiography published in 1929.

De Leon always insisted he was right. He made it impossible for any except his devotees to work with him. The Socialist Labor Party dominated by De Leon's prejudices could not lend strength to any movement with which it became associated.

(8) Morris Hillquit, Daniel De Leon obituary, New Yorker Volkszeitung (13th May 1914)

He, who expired on Monday evening, fared as did so many before him, he died a few decades too late; he outlived himself. True to his maxim to destroy what he could not rule, he concentrated, during the last fifteen years, his vitality and will-power upon tearing down what he, personally, had helped to create. And therein he was great, far greater than in construction and erection. De Leon was, indeed, a destructive genius, i.e. he was great in demolishing, in tearing down. With an hatred that was insatiable and unstable, he fought since his entrance into die American labor movement against every movement of the working class of this country that showed success and that seemed to be in die ascendancy.

(9) Daniel De Leon obituary, People (16th May 1914)

In losing him we lose a man whose very life was dedicated to the emancipation of the working class from wage slavery. When the history of the labor movement and the Social Revolution will be written by future historians, his name will be mentioned with reverence as one who gave of the fullness of his truly wonderful mind and heart that the Disinherited of the earth might come into their own.

(10) Crystal Eastman, The Liberator (January, 1920)

The most revolutionary thing about the recent Labor Party Convention at Chicago was its decision to appoint a National Executive Committee composed of two members from each state, one man and one woman. To force women to take an equal share in the actual business of building up the executive machine, - it's never been heard of before in the history of the world, not in trades-unions, not in co-operatives, not in Socialist parties, not in Utopias. It means more for feminism than a million resolutions. For after all these centuries of retirement women need more than an "equal opportunity" to show what's in them. They need a generous shove into positions of responsibility. And that is what the Labor Party has given them. It is proof that there is some very honest idealism among the thousand delegates who gathered at Chicago.