Daniel De Leon: A Sketch of His Socialist Career
Daniel De Leon: A Portrait of His Family Life
Daniel De Leon’s Works
Visit to the SLP’s Home Page
Daniel De Leon was born Dec. 14, 1852, on Curacao, a Dutch-owned island off the coast of Venezuela, and died in New York City on May 11, 1914. During the second half of this relatively brief life span of 61 years, De Leon devoted himself to the cause of working-class emancipation from capitalist exploitation.
As editor of The People, from 1892 until his untimely death, De Leon developed the strategy and tactics needed to establish socialism by civilized, but nonetheless revolutionary, means in highly industrialized countries like the United States—the Socialist Industrial Union program of the Socialist Labor Party.
That program, which also provides the outline of the democratic structure on which genuine socialism will be built, was not the work of a chair-bound intellectual or theorist. It was developed on the foundation of hard-fought battles within and around the labor movement over a quarter century. Those battles were not fought by one man, but by an organization of men and women whose understanding of the class struggle and Marxist principles enabled them to build that foundation of experience.
De Leon was an active participant in those struggles, not only with the SLP on the political field, but also on the economic field, first from inside the Knights of Labor, then with the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, and ultimately with the original Industrial Workers of the World.
SLP No ’Personality Cult’
The SLP has sometimes been labeled as a “personality cult” because it acknowledges De Leon’s contributions, but those who criticize the SLP on that account are dead wrong. De Leon was only a man, much like any other, except that he had an exceptional mind and made a conscious decision to use it for the sake of humanity. As one recent critic of the SLP grudgingly allowed:
“De Leon was, by any measure, a man of considerable education and talent, who turned his back on a successful career as a law professor at Columbia University to embrace the socialist movement. To the SLP he brought great energy and ability; his commitment was absolute, and it obliged him at times to lead a fairly ascetic existence, which he bore without complaint....”
De Leon received his formal education at schools and universities in Europe during the 1860s and early 1870s. Later, he went on to attend Columbia College (now Columbia University) in New York City. When he graduated from Columbia, he won two highly regarded prizes for essays on “Constitutional History and Constitutional Law” and “International Law.” Several years after graduating, De Leon returned to Columbia as a lecturer on international law. He resigned that position after several years when the university reneged on its promise to make him a full professor because he actively supported the United Labor Party during the 1886 mayoralty campaign in New York City.
The ULP’s candidate for mayor was Henry George, the Single Tax reformer. George finished second in the election behind the Democratic winner, Abram S. Hewitt, but ahead of the third-place Republican finisher, Theodore Roosevelt.
That campaign was the most important attempt at “independent political action” by workers up to that time. In later years, De Leon referred to it as the “cat’s paw” that drew him into the labor movement. Henry George aimed the campaign at landlordism, which was enough to damn it in the eyes of Columbia’s trustees. However, George’s criticism of this one aspect of class-divided society led De Leon to an investigation of all aspects of that society. When Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward, appeared in 1887, for example, it sparked a movement that espoused the virtues of cooperation over competition. Bellamy’s utopian vision stirred De Leon’s imagination, and he became active in the Bellamy movement.
De Leon’s Socialist Career
However, it was De Leon’s study of the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels that enabled him to understand society and the workings of capitalism, and that furnished the clue to the means required to build a better order of society. In 1890, De Leon joined the SLP. In those days, the SLP was an inchoate group without a clearly defined objective. Furthermore, it had been severely criticized by Frederick Engels, the cofounder with Karl Marx of modern socialism, particularly because of its ethnic makeup. In those days, the SLP was composed almost entirely of German immigrants, and Engels believed the SLP was “called upon to play a very important part in the movement,” but could not do so until it became “out and out American.”
De Leon was aware of this, and through his knowledge of languages, he set to work to translate and make available to English-reading students many of the works of Marx, Engels and other Socialist writers. He thereby gave impetus to the study of Marxism that helped to make the SLP the Marxist party it became—and stayed.
When the SLP chose De Leon as editor of The People, he began immediately to develop his own analysis of American capitalism, which agreed with, supplemented and carried on the analysis of Marx. Through the SLP’s experience within the labor movement of the period, including his own direct experience with the Knights of Labor, De Leon applied the Marxian method to developments in this country in such a thorough way that they went to the heart of the social problem and provided guides to social thought and action that are still indispensable for social understanding and planning. Much of that experience, and the lessons it taught, was gathered and synthesized in several key lectures De Leon delivered during his career. These four lectures—Reform or Revolution (1896); What Means This Strike? (1898); The Burning Question of Trades Unionism ( 1904), and Socialist Reconstruction of Society (1905)—have been published together in a single book, Socialist Landmarks.
Reform or Revolution
It was De Leon who most thoroughly and conclusively dealt with the inadequacy and danger of reform. He saw that reforms were meant to patch up, not to change, society; that reform was a lure, or bait, designed to keep its victims tied to capitalism; that it was, in fact, a concealed form of reaction.
De Leon’s analysis of reform and of revolution had its roots in Marxian economics. In his History of Economic Analysis, the late Joseph A. Schumpeter, a Harvard capitalist economist who hated Marx, but who was haunted by his great economic contributions, stated, after reading Reform or Revolution, that De Leon was the one American who carried on scientific work done on Marxist lines. Schumpeter, incidentally, showed in his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that he believed Marx to be right in his forecast that socialism must be the successor to capitalism.
Read De Leon’s Works
The four lectures that make up Socialist Landmarks are not the only great works by De Leon. His As to Politics illustrates the need for the workers to use civilized methods in working for socialism. His Abolition of Poverty examines the basis of idealist philosophy as opposed to Marx’s materialist conception of history. His Two Pages From Roman History showed the role of the procapitalist labor leader in holding the workers to capitalism. His Fifteen Questions About Socialism developed the clues found in Marx’s works to present an outline of the probabilities under socialism. Still other works spelled out the lessons of SLP experience that still guide the Party and must guide the working class if it is to get rid of capitalism and build socialism.
De Leon was a scientist—a social scientist—who built on the foundation laid down by another, earlier social scientist, Karl Marx. We believe that working men and women owe it to themselves to learn of his contributions, and to pass that knowledge on to others.
(Above) A group photograph taken at a surprise birthday party for Daniel De Leon (center left) on Dec. 14, 1912, includes Bertha Canary De Leon (seated on Daniel’s lap) and several of the De Leon children, seated in front of their parents. From left to right (excluding the boy directly in front of the De Leons), are Gertrude, Donald, Solon and Florence. Genseric is standing in the back row, behind the woman immediately in back of Daniel. The boy seated at De Leon’s feet is believed to be Armand Hammer or one of his brothers. Also shown are Paul Augustine (glasses), SLP National Secretary (1908-1914) and, to his right, A.C. Kihn.
Daniel De Leon’s place in American socialist history as a journalist, theoretician and educator is well established. His very warm side as a family man is less well known to the general public.
De Leon’s first marriage was in 1882 to Sarah Lobo, a beautiful, dark-haired young lady whom he had met on one of his return trips to his native Curacao (an island off the coast of Venezuela). She was 16 and he was 29. Daniel took his bride back to New York City, where he had a developing law practice. Their first child, a son named Solon, was born the following year. The family later moved uptown to East 89th Street, where a second son was born.
At this time, De Leon was serving as a prize lecturer at Columbia College (later to become Columbia University), and was also beginning a politically active career. He had publicly and enthusiastically supported Grover Cleveland for the presidency in 1884 and Henry George for mayor of New York in 1886. As a result of the latter campaign, he came into contact with the labor and Socialist supporters of Henry George. It would prove to be a turning point in De Leon’s life, as he began to mature into a Socialist spokesman. His increasing involvement in politics and public issues often took him away from his young family. At home, however, De Leon was always attentive and affectionate and made a great “to-do” over birthdays and other family celebrations. In 1887, Sarah De Leon died suddenly and tragically as a result of infection after a premature childbirth and an inexpert delivery by a midwife. She was not quite 21.
After his wife’s and infant’s funeral, De Leon found an elderly Irish lady, Mrs. Maguire, who was willing to take in the grieving family and care for them. She lived in a third-floor apartment at 1487 Avenue A, near 79th Street and close to the East River. It was a “railroad flat,” that is, all the rooms were in a straight line like the coaches of a railroad train. By this arrangement, it was possible for the tenement house owner to have two apartments on each floor, separated by a hall and a shared bathroom in the middle.
It was at 1487 Avenue A that the De Leon family would live until 1912.
Just two months after the De Leons moved in with Mrs. Maguire, the younger boy died, leaving Solon as the last remaining of the children. Mrs. Maguire was as kind to him in the years to follow as though he had been her own child. She actually relished her role as both landlady and housekeeper for Daniel De Leon and his young son.
De Leon joined the Socialist Labor Party in 1890 and became immediately active as a speaker and writer. In 1891, he became assistant editor of the Party’s national organ, The People. After editor Lucien Sanial resigned because of failing eyesight, De Leon, in 1892, was chosen as editor—a post he would hold until his death.
De Leon’s Second Marriage
In 1891, De Leon made a nationwide agitational tour on behalf of the Socialist Labor Party. Before leaving New York City for the tour, he received from a casual acquaintance the names of two contacts in Independence, Kansas. One was a house painter and the other was a schoolteacher named Bertha Canary. When he reached Independence, De Leon went to call on the house painter, who was not at home. He was not certain how promising the other contact would actually be, but rather reluctantly went to see her. As Bertha later told it, it was love at first sight—on both their parts.
When De Leon returned to New York, he continued a correspondence with the lady from Kansas. It was in reality a long-distance postal courtship. In 1892, she came East and they were married.
Bertha was 25 at the time of her marriage and Daniel was 39. She was a little woman, barely five feet tall, but handsome, outgoing and assertive, with a very loving personality. In Independence, she had been a member of the Congregational Church and considered herself a Christian socialist. Her pastor had been active in the SLP, but was forced from his pulpit by a more conservative congregation. After her marriage to Daniel, Bertha became fully acquainted with Marxian socialism and was an enthusiastic supporter of the SLP.
There were five children born to the marriage. Florence was the eldest, born in 1893. Then came Genseric in 1896, Gertrude in 1898, Paul in 1900, and Donald in 1903. The small apartment gradually became quite cramped for the growing family. To make more room, Solon and his brother Genseric slept on folding cots in the kitchen. These would be folded up during the day to turn the temporary bedroom back into a usable kitchen. In addition to its usual function, the kitchen also served as bathing quarters for the family. A portable washtub, filled with water heated in kettles over the stove, was the only bathtub the family owned.
The Move to Milford
The living conditions and the rather dreary urban neighborhood of Avenue A impelled Bertha to look for a more villagelike location for her family. Daniel kept vetoing her choices as too far away from his work and the center of socialist activity, or too inconvenient for commuting.
Finally they reached a compromise when the Langers, SLP friends in Milford, Connecticut, told them of the possibility of summer rentals in this quiet village facing Long Island Sound. Daniel rented a house in Milford for $8 a month, and the family went there in late spring and stayed the whole summer. De Leon would join them on alternate weekends and during vacation periods. The Milford days remained as some of the happiest memories of the De Leon family
Mrs. De Leon, who had been raised on a farm, even converted her skeptical husband to recognizing the economic advantage of growing their own vegetables. De Leon soon became an enthusiastic gardener. A man with an enormous sense of humor, he often joked with his wife, facetiously warning her that a revolution was imminent in which Labor (he and the children) would soon overthrow Capital (Bertha, as supervisor of the whole project).
There was one tragic side to the De Leon family’s stay in Milford. Malaria had become common in the village, and the De Leon children suffered from it. The treatment was quinine, which was easily obtainable from the local drug stores. Three-year-old Paul, thinking he was doing the right thing, took a massive dose of the pills and then informed his parents how he had been a good boy in taking all his medicine. The truth did not dawn on the parents until he suddenly passed out and went into convulsions. By the time the doctor arrived to pump out his stomach, it was too late. Paul was buried two days later in the Milford Cemetery.
Bertha De Leon was musically inclined and had a good singing voice. While rocking her children to sleep and when working around the house, she would sing the popular songs of the day and, especially, the church hymns she loved so well. One that particularly appealed to her husband was “Dare to Be a Daniel”:
“Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone.
Dare to have a purpose firm,
Dare to make it known.”
Daniel De Leon was so impressed by the sentiments of the refrain, which seemed to speak directly to him, that he made it his motto in life.
De Leon’s Later Years
Both Daniel and Bertha took a direct interest in the education of their children. Bertha, the former teacher, would frequently oversee their lessons. Daniel insisted that the older children learn Latin. Bertha, who had never studied the language, bought a Latin grammar book and learned from it along with the children.
Solon received his higher education at City College, which in those days had no tuition for city residents and provided a free college education for thousands of bright boys from the working class. Bertha’s sister, Allena Canary, came from Independence, Kansas, to live with the De Leons in order to attend Hunter College, the women’s equivalent of City College, where she studied to be a teacher. Florence, the elder De Leon daughter, also received her education at Hunter College.
To relieve the crowded conditions at Avenue A, Florence, Allena and Solon moved into a nearby apartment, which the family dubbed “The Annex.”
In 1911, in appreciation for his work in translating the Eugene Sue novels, Mysteries of the People, which were published in English for the first time by the Party, the SLP conducted a fund-raising effort, meant to be a surprise for De Leon. The $1,028.04 collected was presented to him, along with a half-acre parcel of land in Pleasantville, New York, donated by SLP member and friend Fritz Brauckman. De Leon borrowed another $5,000 from a Party friend, Fred W. Ball, took a mortgage, and had a house built in Pleasantville, largely designed by Mrs. De Leon. The family moved into their new quarters in the summer of 1912, and De Leon thenceforth commuted into work in New York City by railroad.
The joy that the family had in this new house was shortlived. During the early winter months of 1914, De Leon became seriously sick with colds, too sick to work, and finally bedridden. By the time he was admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City on April 5, 1914, his illness had already progressed too far to be cured by the medical knowledge of the day. He was suffering from subacute bacterial endocarditis (a bacterial infection of the heart muscles). The discovery of penicillin, which was a cure for such infections, was still many years in the future. De Leon slipped into a coma and died quietly on the evening of May 11, 1914.
The People ,
December 1, 1990
Socialist Labor Party