The resurrection of socialism

Democrats on the far left embrace redistribution of income and other modern-day socialist ideals

By MIKE NICHOLS | April 2019

It’s hard to know whether socialist icon Victor Berger — were he to wake up today at the spot on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive where he went down after being nailed by a Milwaukee streetcar in 1929 — would be more aghast or gratified.

A virulent racist, he surely would be aghast at the name of the road, which was known as Third Street when he died and renamed after the civil rights leader in 1984. Like most socialists and many a Progressive, Berger believed in equality only so much as it extended to others who thought and looked like him.

But, then, the onetime newspaper editor and U.S. congressman might find much to revel in today as well, including a renewed interest in socialism — at least the modern version of it.

The “definition of socialism” Berger wrote in 1898, “is the collective ownership of all the means of production and distribution,” and for most of his life at least, he was an ardent believer. Capitalists, in his eyes, were “exploiters” and “tyrannical.” Socialism was inevitable.

“Just as feudalism followed the ancient customs of slavery,” he wrote, “so will socialism follow capitalism.” While he — like other Milwaukee socialists who followed — pushed somewhat incremental reforms, he saw them as “stepping stones.” The ultimate aim, he wrote, was “to abolish the capitalist system entirely.”

Berger preferred to be called a Social-Democrat because, unlike the revolutionaries, he believed in “the use of the ballot” — at least at first. “We do not deny that after we have convinced the majority of the people, we are going to use force if the minority should resist,” he wrote in an essay titled “Real Social-Democracy” in 1906.

There’s much debate over whether the far left of the Democratic Party nowadays is fairly described as socialist. While U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has pronounced capitalism “irredeemable,” no one has suggested the outright transfer of the means of production to the government. Perhaps in a nod to political expediency, even U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has pronounced herself “a capitalist to my bones.”

Austrian economist F.A. Hayek, were he still alive, would find that laughable. Hayek began writing “The Road to Serfdom” in the 1930s, and it was published in the mid-1940s.  

“At the time I wrote, socialism meant unambiguously the nationalization of the means of production and the central economic planning which this made possible and necessary,” he wrote many years later in the preface to the 1976 edition.

By the 1970s, things had changed.

F.A. HayekSocialism, Hayek wrote, came “to mean chiefly the extensive redistribution of incomes through taxation and the institutions of the welfare state. In the latter kind of socialism, the effects I discuss in this book are brought about more slowly, indirectly, and imperfectly. (But) I believe that the ultimate outcome tends to be very much the same.”

By that measure, much of what is advocated on the left today — universal, government-funded health care, the Green New Deal, “free” college, the $15 minimum wage — is indeed a latter kind of socialism that Hayek feared could slowly destroy the market economy and smother the creative powers of a free civilization.

Socialism, he also might point out, is today marked by more than mere misguided economics. It is eerie how some of the language and strategy of the far left echo the socialist impulses that have historically metamorphosed into totalitarianism: i.e., the rise of group-think so counter to individual freedom, the vicious demands for intellectual adherence to acceptable opinion that others have likened to “struggle sessions,” the maligning of big business and banking.

Berger perhaps might be gratified by the resurrection of socialist thought were he to reappear — though, like many socialists, his disdain of profit and capital turned out to be pretty theoretical.

In “The Family Letters of Victor and Meta Berger,” it appears even he occasionally realized the absurdity of his beliefs. Berger, in fact, bought land and acquired stock in several companies.   

Toward the end his life, according to the book, Berger came to lament “that I feel like a sinner at times — since I had the natural ability to make money in any business, and thus having had the gift easily to secure a comfortable and care-free old age for my wonderful wife and for myself — and to leave some wealth for my children — that I missed these opportunities by spending my life in a thankless movement.”

Those who want to bestow upon Berger some sort of nostalgic socialist sainthood might be chagrined to find that, in the end, he didn’t even have steadfast convictions — except, it seems, racist ones of the worst kind. 

Mike Nichols is president of the Badger Institute and editor of Diggings.

► Related story: Victor Berger: Virulent bigot