1946-01 Introduction to What Means This Strike? [Petersen]


More than four decades have passed since Daniel De Leon delivered his great speech before the striking textile workers of New Bedford, Massachusetts. When it appeared in print it was instantly recognized as one of the great speeches of our times. It contains all the elements that combine to make a speech a great classic. It measures up to Daniel Webster’s claim as to the requirements of a great speech: The Man; the Subject; the Occasion. The Man: eloquent, gifted, fully informed, fearless, uncompromising, and the very soul of integrity. The Subject: a great, irrepressible issue, and the need of stating it in simple, yet withal correct and scientific terms. The Occasion: a supremely important manifestation of that fundamental, irrepressible issue — a typical and illuminating effect of the basic cause of the universal conflict of our times, the STRIKE. And presently the merging of Subject and Occasion into the Man, the speaker, who (tirelessly and patiently proclaiming the truth born of new occasions) pointed to the true goal of the victims of modern injustice — clear and specific beyond any doubt or wavering as to the nature of that goal, and the means imperative and essential for its attainment.


The strike is the manifestation of two primary factors: The fact of a social system based on classes, one of which exploits and feeds upon the other; and the indomitable spirit and unconquerable mind of slaves worthy to be free, and destined to become freemen. Around these two manifestations revolve our entire social problem and the relations of modern classes,, and the solution of that problem. In his famous speech De Leon probes the cause of the strike. The cause, being shown to be the struggle between the capitalists and the workers over the « division » of the wealth produced by labor alone (the question of length of working day being a mere variant of the same thing), De Leon proceeds to show what are wages, and what profits, and the whence and wherefore of both. He establishes the fact that the share of the capitalists in; production is nil, that the « work » they do is no more productive than « the intense mental strain and active ‘work’ done by pickpockets is directly or indirectly productive. » He shows how the owners of capital came into possession of their « original accumulation. » He analyzes the class struggle, and outlines the development of capitalist society. He disposes of the myth that inventors reap the benefit of their genius, showing that, on the contrary, it is the useless, unproductive owner of capital who appropriates the fruits of the inventor’s genius. He demonstrates the never-ceasing process of concentration of capital, with its destruction of smaller competitors who join in the labor market the workers displaced by improved machinery. And last, but not least, he projects the principles and the structure of the organization which the workers must build if they would free themselves from wage slavery, and without which the strikes in and by themselves would become and remain idle and hopeless gestures of despair against the all-crushing power of capital, that is, of the strongly entrenched and powerfully organized capitalist class.

« What Means This Strike? » is the class-struggle primer par excellence. It is the handbook, the textbook, of the exploited worker seeking to understand the meaning, the sense, of strikes, and what to do when they take place. Strikes, in the language of Marx, are the « unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. » Guerrilla fights are disorganized skirmishes by individuals or separate groups or bands (usually in a losing struggle) carried on against highly organized armies in aggressive pursuit. That correctly describes the struggle of the modern workers on strike in their present form of organization against the solidly organized power of capital. Hence, the form of organization, its avowed purpose and objective, are of the highest significance to the workers, whether on strike or not. That strike, therefore, is lost (no matter what the temporary gain may seem to be] which does not take heed of the structure and objective of labor unions. And experience has proved that in the situation and set of circumstances so brilliantly and eloquently portrayed by De Leon, the workers, in order to seize the crown of victory, MUST ORGANIZE COMPACTLY INTO SOCIALIST INDUSTRIAL UNIONS FOR THE PURPOSE OF ENDING CAPITALIST WAGE SLAVERY — FOR THE PURPOSE OF ESTABLISHING THE SOCIALIST REPUBLIC OF FREE LABOR. Not merely for a few more crumbs, not simply in order to ease the chains of slavery, but in order that the workers may secure the whole loaf which they alone produced; in order that .slavery itself may be forever banished from the earth. Strikes are rife throughout the country during this postwar period. The immediate cause is, of course, the return to « peacetime » production standards. During World War II, capitalism-backed financially and otherwise by the power of government-produced for « use » — that is, for war use. Costs, expenses, were no more a consideration than were human lives. The workers, through overtime pay and uninterrupted labor, enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. Shifted back on a peacetime production basis, all this came to an end. Capitalism, when it is not producing for war and destruction, is producing for a market. The question of keeping workers employed, or paying at least a living wage, concerns the capitalists not at all. Hence, the workers, employed in decreasing numbers, were offered wages that fell far below those received during the war. To their credit the workers have rebelled. They have refused to sell their labor power below its value, that is, below the amount required to maintain the minimum in a bare living.

And so the struggle is on. The corporations, entrenched behind their tremendous economic resources, can afford to wait. Moreover, they even benefit by keeping their plants idle, at least until the huge tax reductions become effective. For a time, at least, it was as profitable for them to keep their plants closed down as to operate them, and evidently they feel that they are in a position to starve their wage slaves into submission. In view of the fact that the working class is not organized in Socialist Industrial Unions, prepared to take over the operation of industry for itself and society at large, the plutocratic exploiters may be right. Then, again, they may be wrong — they may be stretching the bow too far. For these are not the halcyon days of prewar capitalism — these are not the days when workers would submit — grumblingly to be sure, but submit nevertheless — to the caprices of the market, and the whims of capitalist exploiters. A world war has been fought during which the workers were told that they were fighting and producing for a « victory » that was to bring peace and plenty. The workers have had a taste of higher standards, and many of them swallowed whole the promises of capitalists and politicians. But now they stand, with empty hands, or « enjoying » a starvation diet, with increasing millions out of work. And they don’t like it. And despite efforts on the part of the labor fakers to hold them back, they are forcing these to act.

Meanwhile, the capitalist class and its political and editorial spokesmen are howling and denouncing the workers. The familiar fake arguments are advanced — the dear « public » is menaced, « inflation » is being caused by the workers’ demands, and, horror of horrors, the sacred private-property interests and prerogatives of the ruling class are being placed in jeopardy! Dire threats issue from the halls of Congress, threats of repressive legislation, anti-strike laws, compulsory arbitration, and so forth. In 1941, Representative Hatton W. Summers of Texas raucously shouted from his privileged seat in Congress: « … I would not hesitate one split second to enact legislation to send them [striking workers] to the electric chair. » Similar barbarous cries may soon be heard again, from Congress, from the press and radio — aye, even from the pulpit. For the ruling class of America has learned little from the fate that befell its kindred spirits, the Hitlers and the Mussolinis. And thus we may find history repeating itself on this side of the ocean where economic fascism is as rampant as ever it was in Hitler’s and Mussolini’s slave empires before they met their doom.

The menace confronting the working class can be met only by organized resistance to the exploiting, useless owners of industry. But that resistance, to become effective, and in order to place the workers in an offensive instead of a defensive position, must manifest itself through powerful Socialist Industrial Unions a& urged by the Socialist Labor Party, and the goal of Socialist freedom must be proclaimed by the working: class thus organized. For there can never be peace, plenty and general social well-being without Socialism. May the workers soon fully realize this.


What De Leon said in his memorable New Bedford address forty-three years ago holds good today — in some respects even more so. Here and there the text has become somewhat « dated » by the relentless march of events, and the enlargement and deepening of the science of Socialism. On page 43 of this pamphlet De Leon speaks of the workers bringing the government under their control, implying that the State would be controlled by the workers in their interest, and that that would be Socialism. State ownership is not Socialism; Industrial Union administration and operation of industry is. And organizing in Industrial Unions, and capturing at the ballot box the political government and dismantling it, will alone establish Socialism — not the « industrial unions » headed by the John L. Lewises, Philip Murrays, Sidney Hillmans, etc. These are not industrial unions in any proper sense. They are in reality agencies of capitalism and, structurally as well as ideologically, almost identical to Hitler’s « Labor Front » and Mussolini’s « corporate State. » They are, in short, instruments of slavery and not of freedom. The same now erroneous implication is found on page 45, second paragraph. The reference to « shop organization » on page 50 must now be read as « Socialist industrial organization » in order to render the argument valid. The same applies in a measure to the language employed on pages 52 and 53. The Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance ceased to exist in 1905 when it merged with the Industrial Workers of the World organized that year in Chicago. The Industrial Workers of the World until 1908 represented Socialist Industrial Unionism in its true, though incomplete and undeveloped, form. In 1908 it was captured by an Anarchist element, disrupted and is now practically out of existence.

On page 53, De Leon also speaks of the workers boldly marching out upon the streets, organizing monster parades, etc. Street demonstrations, parades, and the like have proved vain and futile efforts in the class struggle. Today the watchword is: Organization on class and industrial lines.

Here and there, De Leon speaks of profits when, strictly speaking, he should have used the scientific term « surplus value. » The occasion was hardly one that lent itself to the use of terms which required involved or lengthy explanation. And though the word « profit » was technically wrong, it did express the general idea.

On page 36, De Leon speaks of « the brown of his brains being exhausted…. » This is probably a typographical error. The sentence no doubt should have read: « his brawn and his brain being exhausted

On pages 19 through 22, De Leon presents some arbitrary figures to illustrate a point. Through what the erudite would call a lapsus linguae, De Leon failed to correlate the figures properly. The argument, however, is not affected.


Apart from these minor or incidental corrections, De Leon’s « What Means This Strike? » remains after more than forty years the same instructive and inspiring introduction to a study of Socialism which it proved to be when first released. And the basic principles and arguments will remain sound and irrefutable while capitalism persists as the blight of the fair earth and the curse of man.

To this pamphlet there has been added an appendix which is a resolution on strikes adopted by the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Labor Party in May session, 1940. It should be read carefully as a supplement to De Leon’s masterpiece. Absorbing the knowledge which these important documents impart, the worker will be fortified and aided in his struggle, and, acting upon the knowledge and lessons imparted, by organizing correctly, politically and industrially, his early freedom will be assured. And out of the present chaos, darkness and slavery, there shall then emerge order, light and freedom for all.


January 24, 1946.

Une Réponse to “1946-01 Introduction to What Means This Strike? [Petersen]”

  1. Neues aus den Archiven der radikalen (und nicht so radikalen) Linken « Entdinglichung Says:

    […] (1947) * Arnold Petersen: Preface to Socialist Reconstruction of Society (1930) * Arnold Petersen: Introduction to What Means This Strike? (1946) * Socialisme Mondial: Majorité consciente et violence (1974) * Jules Guesde: Une formule […]


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