Daniel DeLeon was largely responsible for the 1906 split of the Industrial Workers of the World, a division which resulted in two parallel organizations spending money they could not afford on doubled up salaries, offices, and newspapers.
Let us be clear on that point from the outset. One needs only to read the record of the IWW’s second convention, held in Chicago over a 17-day period beginning September 17, 1906, to understand that reality.
DeLeon was an impossibilist, a believer in a disciplined and centralized vanguard party to educate and thereby help generate the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by an enlightened minority of the working class. His Socialist Labor Party was to be that nexus for change. DeLeon was ready and willing and more than able to spend more than two weeks as an extremely active convention delegate, battling in the trenches every single day over credentials and committees and resolutions in an effort to decide the fate of a national industrial union organization.
SLP partisans were sectarian and dismissive in their attitude toward others, so certain were they of their scientific correctness at all times and in all situations. The party’s extremist agenda, pointedly foregoing a minimum program entirely, and long history of efforts at dual union-organizing bought them some credibility with anarcho-syndicalist industrial unionists, but the balance on this account was not bottomless.
At heart they were politicians, not organizers in the shop — attempting to pull the strings of what they saw as trade union puppets.
The party led. The unions followed. They were proto-communists.†
• • • • •
Debs and the Socialist Party, for all their protestations to the contrary, were reformist international socialists in the tradition of the Second International. They genuflected to Europe and genuinely looked to the more experienced European socialist parties for leadership. The Socialists were obsessively election campaign-driven — they reprinted and reprinted and reprinted ad nauseam the total number of “socialist votes cast” in each election over recent years as if that totem were a pivotal metric of the coming social revolution.
They believed in the vote as both strategy and tactic — they earnestly sought to win state power via the ballot box. They quickly became realistic about the lengthy timetable necessary for accomplishing this, but their quasi-religious faith in the transformative power of the vote never wavered.
Little else mattered. They would ultimately win some Great November, they believed — this was the form of their moral certitude.
After all, the iron logic of history was on their side.
As for Debs, he spent the summer of 1906 lecturing on socialism to crowds of hundreds and thousands on the remunerative Chautauqua circuit across the rural Midwest. You wouldn’t have found him mucking about in a 17 day Chicago convention to depose the leader of the IWW for love or money. That was simply not his element.
Debs was a public speaker. It was his job and it was his mission.
• • • • •
The anarcho-syndicalists — the “industrialists” — were another breed altogether. These had little patience for lawyers and middle-class newspaper editors, even if such antipathy objectively smacked more than a little of self-hatred. To them, the “Slowcialists” were on the wrong path entirely with their obsession with electoral politics. The SLP, although closer to the mark, were seen as manipulators who played factional games and alienated rather than getting down to business and organizing.
The industrialists ultimately won control of the IWW and made the organization in their image — but the new baby only barely survived the birthing process, which involved a split, an abandonment, and another split.
The first of these events came in 1906. It pitted two factions of the syndicalists, a left wing faction (led by IWW Secretary-Treasurer Trautmann) and a moderate faction (led by IWW President Charles O. Sherman), with Daniel DeLeon throwing his weight behind the radicals and effectively directing a break.
Here’s an outline of that story.
• • • • •
The 1906 Split of the IWW, redux
The split of the Industrial Workers of the World into two parallel organizations took place at the organization’s second convention, which convened in Chicago on September 17, 1906. It was attended by 93 delegates.(fn. Vincent St. John, The IWW: Its History, Structure, and Methods. Chicago: IWW, n.d. [c. 1920]; p. 7.) The conclave adjourned sine die following a substantial speech by Daniel DeLeon and three cheers for the IWW.
It is easy to see that the factional leaders were on one side President Charles O. Sherman and his supporters and on the other side an alliance between General Secetary-Treasurer W.E. Trautmann and éminence grise Daniel DeLeon — but the exact mechanics of the split were previously unclear to me.
I’m starting to figure things out.
This was not, on the face of it, a battle between a corrupt administration and honest reformers. It was a split over ideological principles, exacerbated by a personality conflict and a desire to capture or hold paid employment — as is the case with most radical party splits of the early twentieth century. Ideas — personalities — jobs.
First, a bit on the ideological motivation of the two factions. This is an extract from the report to the convention by President Sherman, delivered on September 24:
The [IWW] was lauched upon the troubled seas of labor in a period when that small portion of labor which claimed to be oganized was almost in a chaotic state, owing to the dissatisfaction that had taken a firm hold of the minds of its members. The excuse for this dissatisfaction varies… Some believe that trade unionism fails to protect the workers’ interests because of the disloyalty of its members, while others believe it if though mismanagement by their officers.
I feel that I strike the keynote when I assert that the system of society is wholly responsible, and not the individual; but I am of the belief that the Industrial Workers can give relief to the workers under the present system, although I know that the time must come when we must have a complete abolition of the competitive system… * * *
Your president believes that greater care should be used in selecting literature that shall be distributed at mass meetings called for the purpose of educating the workers on industrial unionism. I feel that literature bearing on any complexion of a political nature should be barred from any economic industrial meeting, and that all organizers, or speakers, working under instructions from the Industrial Workers of the World shall enforce such principles.
Your president mentions this in his report because he has had the experience. Many times he has found at meetings which he has attended and addressed, men representing political organizations [i.e. the Socialist Party, the Socialist Labor Party] distributing political literature and, in places, having the same on sale.
It is the belief of your president that in many instances this has worked detrimental to the purpose for which such meeting was called, as it makes an impression upon many who attend such meetings…and they go away with the firm belief that the Industrial Workers of the World is a part of some political organization. Your president does not hesitate to say that, in his belief, if the Industrial Workers of the World is not kept clear from all political agitation for the next few years to come, at the very best, it will be impossible to build up an industrial organization of the working class under their present frame of mind….
Your president has very little faith in the ballot, and looks upon it as merely a paper-wad. At the best, it is only a paper expression, or reflex, of labor. The real weapon that will and must be used by the workers when organized is the cessation of work. This must be done systematically, momentarily, and to be known as a “general strike.” (fn. Charles O. Sherman, “President’s Report,” in Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World: Held at Chicago, Illinois, Sept. 17 to Oct. 3, 1906. Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World [Sherman faction], 1906; pp. 42-45.)
In other words — peeling aside any personal interest by Sherman or anyone else may or may not have had in the position at the head of the IWW for its paid railroad costs, hotel bills, meals, and incidentals — Sherman was anti-political, anti-political party, a syndicalist.
Daniel DeLeon was clearly a true master of parliamentary procedure. One can’t read stenographic convention reports and escape that conclusion. If there was a timely objection to be made, DeLeon was there to make it.
During this fight DeLeon made alliance with the #2 person in the IWW officer structure, former Brewery Workers’ editor William E. Trautmann. This seems to have been a temporary alliance of expedience, as Trautmann seems to have actually shared Sherman’s general political view — his belief in the primacy of the union movement and disdain for political socialism. The antipathy toward IWW President Sherman was greater, and DeLeon and Trautmann allied to force Sherman’s removal. A profligate spender of party funds traveling the country to speak and organize, Sherman was not corrupt so much as he was ineffectual. Sherman was simply not able to organize new local unions of the IWW commensurate with the outlay on train fare, hotel rooms, and “incidentals.” The fact that he did not properly itemize his petty cash expenditures on the road was a mere pretext.
The means of removing Sherman from power was to simply abolish his position of president, which DDL (quite rightfully, it would seem) characterized as “mainly, essentially, and exclusively an organizer, a general organizer, with a high-sounding title and the necessary wages and expenses to match.”(fn. Daniel DeLeon, comments of Sept. 27, in Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention…, op. cit., p. 225.)
But this was not all.
DDL and the Constitution Committee went after the Metal and Machinery Department, Sherman’s bailiwick in the organization. This was effectively decommissioned by a raising the minimum number of dues-paying members to activate an IWW department from 3,000 to 10,000. (Incidentally, the heads of each of these departments sat on the General Executive Board and were paid IWW functionaries, I believe.)
This change was to take effect immediately, with the effect that all delegates representing the Metal and Machinery Department on the floor of the convention still in session [Sherman’s friends and allies] were to be immediately unseated — and this after the delegates had spent a full week (!!!) fighting among themselves over the naming of a Credentials Committee and battling over challenges of credentials!‡ Not only would Sherman’s allies be unseated as delegates by this move, but so would Sherman himself…
This immediate unseating was pushed to a vote by DeLeon, over an attempt by the chair to rule his draconian interpretation out of order. In the vote on this narrow question (with representatives of big organizations like the Western Federation of Miners voting large blocs of votes) the finally tally was rendered: Team DeLeon 331, Team Sherman 301. Sherman was effectively removed both as an officer of the organization and as a delegate to the convention in the middle of its activity!
This fundamental structural change to the organization’s constitution, including the elimination of the position of president, were to be put into effect by the convention without a ratification referendum to the rank and file membership, the delegates decided. Sherman was enraged and the implied lack of legitimacy of this decision-making process was what precipitated the split:
[The IWW] only would have, according to the wording, three members on the [General] Executive Board. They would be, one from the Mining Department [WFM], one General Secretary-Treasurer [Trautmann], and one an Assistant General Secretary-Treasurer…. Delegate Veal says that they are going to make the organizers go into the industrial centers. Who is going to make them? He says they are going to make them go into the industrial centers and organize. There is nobody of authority in the organization. * * *
I want to say to you right here, and serve notice on you, that I am not asking anything of the Industrial Workers of the World. I did not ask for the position that I have occupied, and I do not ask for anything now. There is nothing in your keeping that I am looking for, only this: I ask you to submit to the rank and file that is going to and has supported this organization an opportunity either to endorse or reject your work in this convention, and if you do I will assure you that the rank and file will turn it down flat.
And Mr. DeLeon does not dare to go to the rank and file; he does not. I defy you to ask us to go to the rank and file and ask an endorsement. You daren’t do it. You are a coward, and you daren’t leave the decision to the rank and file.(fn. Sherman, comments of Sept. 27, in Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention…, op. cit., p. 234.)
The delicate flower Daniel DeLeon took immediate exception to these words from the floor, rising to demand a point of order striking the phrase “coward” from the record as unparliamentary.
He lost on that question but he won the really big ones at the 1906 IWW convention, including the matter of whether the changes to the constitution at the Second Convention needed to be submitted to the rank and file for ratification via the referendum. They never were. This, to DeLeon, made perfect sense:
Our organization, our constitution, was born in the throes of travail of last year’s convention. It was born as we all are born, covered all over with dirt and slime and putrefaction.
We have divided ourselves in this convention into two camps, both considering themselves constitutionalists. For the sake of argument I shall concede that both are sincere, and I do believe that both are. There is this difference between them: that one camp holds that what was born was the child, and that camp is trying to save that child and wipe it clean of the dirt and the slime and the blood with which it is covered. Whereas the other constitutionalists are trying to throw the child into the slop bucket, and are trying to save the dirt and the slime and the putrefaction with which that child was born.
That is the difference, and I think it is positively comical to see men who stand convicted before this convention of having trampled on the principles of the constitution by the deposition and imposition of officers — men who have refused the referendum, men who have suspended locals because they did not submit to the men who lined up with those elements — I think it is positively comical to have such elements come and kowtow to the rank and file, or start off screeching like howling dervishes, “Referendum!” No, away with such comedy! … We do not propose to allow a great principle [the referendum] to be turned into a comical farce or to allow its edge to be turned against itself.(fn. Daniel DeLeon, comments of Sept. 28, in Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention…, op. cit., p. 252.)
Deposed President Sherman was not far wrong when he declared as a parting shot:
As you all know too well, those of you were in the last convention and those of you who served as the foundation stones, that while we started out approximately with a large membership, yet outside of the Department of Mining the organization was in a state of chaos. When Brother Trautmann and I took the office we went practically into the office empty-handed, and to this day I do not know what we would have done had it not been for the fact that we took over the property of the ALU with an agreement that we would pay off the standing indebtedness. * * *
We worked as mechanics worked in former year with our crude tools. We worked as brothers and cooperated in every act, until the very opening of our office, when Brother Trautmann came to me and said, “Brother Sherman, there is such an avalanche of work and correspondence here… do you not think it best to employ Brother Riordan, who has been in the office of the ALU and understands their locals…?” I immediately agreed, because I wanted to cooperate with him. * * *
Brother Trautmann and I never quarreled. We have had hot words in argument, but it always ended friendly…. He has traveled considerably with me, and he will have to take the terrible stigma upon his back of putting up at the same plutocratic hotels that your president did; we always roomed in the same hotel. My contention is this: that no organization at this time can exist without there is a government, and that the head of that government must be vested with certain powers and functions that he is empowered to carry out which the rank and file will respect. * * *
I regret that there are two sides to this convention. To the very depths of my heart do I regret it, because the action of this convention meant much as to the outcome of the case now pending in the Supreme Court [on the Haywood-Moyer affair]…
The records of this convention will show the plutocratic powers that they need have no fear of the Industrial Workers of the World’s influence or power, because the Industrial Workers of the World today is a corpse; the spirit will always live, and it will grow, but as an organization the Industrial Workers of the World is now ready for the funeral. * * *
In this convention I want to serve notice that your ex-president’s hands have been tied, but I want to serve notice that he is not licked. The fight ain’t over; it has just started.”(fn. Sherman, comments of Sept. 28, in Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention…, op. cit., p. 268-269.)
By the way, Debs did not appear at the Second Convention of the IWW, even for a day. He sent a virtually content-free congratulatory telegram at the opening which was dutifully read into the record. That’s it. He did not attempt to pull factional strings behind the scenes, and if he was kept abreast of the proceedings at all, there is no surviving record of the same. He was, as usual, above the fray — checked out from factional politics and pursuing his own agenda doing other things in other places.
While the pivotal Second Convention of the IWW was going on in Chicago, the outcome of which would be resolved in a very hands-on manner by his rival Daniel DeLeon, Debs was on tour in Pennsylvania, speaking for a fee on general socialist themes in Shamokin, Hazelton, Pottsville, Philadelphia, Allentown, and Allegheny, and presumably other smaller towns in the area.
The priorities and temperaments of the two top leaders of socialist parties in the period were never more clear.
• • • • •
The convention closed with a speech by Daniel DeLeon, who was called before the remaining delegates for a benediction:
I cannot express to you how happy I have felt from the time this convention settled down to work to now. For 15 years I have been made a target of the foe, and they have incarnated in me all the virtues that I have been struggling for. More than once when the convention seemed to be in a tangle, when I saw the line of cleavage between the two sides, when I saw them wrestling for life, my thoughts went back to 13 years ago [to the fight to oust Terence Powderly as head of the Knights of Labor]…
During that protracted struggle of a fortnight it became perfectly clear to me that the men with whom I was fighting to overthrow a crook in the labor movement, together with his allies — that these men with whom I was struggling … were as big as set of crooks as the crook whom we were fighting….
When I returned from Philadelphia 13 years ago I returned with mixed feelings of joy and sorrow. When I return to my home tonight, I return with unalloyed feelings of joy. Every man and woman of you who stood in this struggle — how clean you cut off the heads of the Shermans, the McCabes, the Kirkpatricks, the Cronins — all of you I take personally by the hand and tell you I am proud of having been in your company. * * *
There is a Bible story to the effect that the arch fiend took Jesus on one occasion to the top of a mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “All these I give unto you if you will bow down and worship me.” The arch fiends of this movement gathered around Sherman and they said to him, “All these myriads of workingmen will we give to you if you bow down before us and put the revolutionists [the SLP] out of the IWW.” Jesus said to the arch fiend, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Sherman succumbed. Sherman believed. Sherman proceeded upon that theory….
The danger was great. The conspiracy was deeply laid…. It was a conspiracy to squelch the revolution in this convention and to start all over again an AF of L. If we consider the odds against us, the chairmanships in the hands of a few individuals with all preparations ready, whereas we, you all know, never held a caucus and never organized our forces — if we consider that, then we must admit the danger was immense. Having escaped it we have double grounds to be delighted.(fn. Daniel DeLeon, Closing Speech, Oct. 3, 1906 in Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention…, op. cit., p. 608-610.)
The IWW was now organizationally split, financially strapped, its very existence imperiled — a mere corpse — but DeLeon and his allies had successfully orchestrated their coup, deposing the president and installing what they believed to be ideological unity.
He and the SLP would soon learn how wrong that supposition would be.
†- Interestingly, in the United States the Communist Party was formed out of a split — this being a 1919 break between left and center of the radicalized Socialist Party of America; the Socialist Labor Party looked askance at the entire process. In Great Britain, however, the Communist Party was formed more than a year later via a merger in which the radicalized British Socialist Party, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation, and the majority faction of the (DeLeonist) Socialist Labor Party were the main organizational participants. The British SLP, based almost exclusively in Scotland, was a gutted shell in the aftermath, with most of its leading cadres and rank and filers alike joining the CPGB.
‡- Unfortunately, no stenographer was employed during this first week of the convention, so the so-called stenographic report of the proceedings includes only terse and unilluminating official minutes for this initial phase. There was obviously a faction fight from the onset, with both sides attempting to win majority control of the convention through the credentials process. It seems that challenges were made of ST&LA delegates by the Sherman faction and of the Metal and Machinery Department delegates by the DeLeon-Trautmann faction.
I’ve essentially finished up the year 1906 this week. My database sits at 74 Debs items for the year, of which I’ve converted 29 into editable text. There are still a couple I need to look at, but I think I’ve found everything that’s a potential “keeper” for Volume 4.
The official deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 4 is October 15, 2019. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 17 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.
- “On Farm Workers and Small Farmers: Letter to J.E. Snyder” (May 4, 1906) — 380 words
- “Idaho Election Should Prove Historic” (July 28, 1906) — 1,760 words
- “Organization for Emancipation” (September 1906) — 1,067 words
- “Crumbling Capitalism” (September 1, 1906) — 675 words
- “A Square Deal in a Round Place: Election Speech at Brand’s Park, Chicago” (Oct. 7, 1906) — 2,440 words
- “The Labor Question and Humanity” (Oct. 15, 1906) — 477 words
Word count: 118,223 in the can + 6,799 this week +/- amendments = 125,052 words total.
David Walters will be running all of this material up on Marxists Internet Archive in coming days.
To find it, please visit the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive
Here’s the microfilm that I’ve scanned this week, available for free download. Bear in mind that there is generally a short delay between completion of the scanning and its appearance on MIA. Thanks are due to David Walters for getting this material into an accessible format.
• Chicago Daily Socialist — 1906 (Oct.-Dec.), 1907 (Jan.-Feb.)
• The Weekly People — 1907, 1908 (Jan.-March)
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