The untold story — finally — of Milwaukee’s socialist icon and his appalling views toward blacks, immigrants and women
On the day it was announced that Milwaukee would host the Democratic National Convention in July 2020, the executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party said the decision made perfect sense.
“No city in America has stronger ties to socialism than Milwaukee,” Mark Jefferson said in March. “And with the rise of Bernie Sanders and the embrace of socialism by its newest leaders, the American left has come full circle. It’s only fitting the Democrats would come to Milwaukee.”
Milwaukee historian John Gurda was interviewed by The Washington Post to fact-check Jefferson’s assertion. Gurda, as he has done so many times over the past few decades, recounted the story of how socialists cleaned up Milwaukee’s political corruption and built the much-admired parks system and public water system, hence the nickname “Sewer Socialists.”
Grateful Milwaukee voters, Gurda said, elected three socialist mayors over a span of 50 years: Emil Seidel, Daniel Hoan and, finally, Frank Zeidler, who served until 1960. Perhaps more significantly, Milwaukeeans sent the first socialist to Congress: Victor L. Berger.
A few years ago, Berger was named one of the “100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century” by Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College. To plug his book of the same name, subtitled “A Social Justice Hall of Fame,” Dreier wrote an essay for The Huffington Post asking, “Why Has Milwaukee Forgotten Victor Berger?”
Unlike the much-beloved socialist mayors of Milwaukee, Dreier lamented, not a street, a building and certainly no bridge is named after Berger. “Unless we know our history, we will have little understanding of how far we have come, how we got here and how that progress was made thanks to the moral convictions and political skills of great Americans like Victor Berger,” he wrote.
Perhaps this exploration of the ideas and beliefs of Berger, the founding father of American socialism in the early 20th century, will help the socialists, economic redistributionists and social justice warriors descending on Milwaukee next summer heed Dreier’s call to know their history.
Forgotten or overlooked by Gurda, unmentioned in the biography of him by the Wisconsin Historical Society and unknown to many modern historians is the fact that Berger was a virulent racist.
Although an immigrant himself, Berger was steadfast in his opposition to immigration. And while the national and local Socialist parties favored it, Berger also railed against women’s suffrage, which he insisted would “delay the triumph of Socialism.”
The peculiar evolutionary socialism subscribed to by Berger and others in the right wing of the Socialist Party at the time, with its hierarchy of races and blacks doomed to extinction, would much later be wrenched into the national socialist philosophy of the Nazi Party.
On the afternoon he stepped into traffic at Third and Clarke streets and was struck by a slow-moving streetcar, according to a Milwaukee Sentinel article from July 17, 1929, Berger was nearly a decade removed from national Socialist Party politics. But it is impossible to imagine the recent re-emergence of distinctly American socialism without returning Berger to his rightful place, alongside Eugene V. Debs, as a founder of the movement.
Milwaukee’s German migration
Born to a Jewish family in 1860, Berger came to Milwaukee in 1881, three years after his parents, prosperous innkeepers in the Nieder-Rehbach region of what was then the Austrian Empire, immigrated to Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Milwaukee was then known as the German Athens of America, its development spurred by successions of German immigration. At the end of the 19th century, more than 150,000 of the city’s 285,000 people were either born in Germany or were children of Germans.
Educated at the universities of Vienna and Budapest, Berger began teaching German in the Milwaukee public schools. His passion, however, was for the ideas of the German industrial workers who fled the societal strictures of the German unification in 1871 and comprised Milwaukee’s second great German immigration. By 1892, Berger had purchased a German language newspaper, calling it Wisconsin Vorwaerts (“Forward”), using it primarily to proselytize for his socialist ideas.
As his foremost biographer, historian Sally Miller, wrote, Berger contributed nothing to the body of socialist theory. He believed in the eventual government takeover of the means of production but refused to be wedded to Marxist doctrine. He thought socialism could be transcendent without a violent revolution.
Berger “argued that it was possible to act on the basis of relevant socialist principles within the American political system,” Miller wrote in her long-out-of-print book, “Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism.”
This eagerness, which was critical to him being elected to Congress five times, formed a schism with a Socialist Party left wing that would have agreed with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) contention that the capitalist system within which Berger set out to work was “irredeemable.”
There was a second yawning gulf between the Socialist Party wings of the time — that of the place of African Americans in the movement.
In his 1903 essay, “The Negro in the Class Struggle,” Debs, the leader of the party’s left wing, wrote, “We have nothing special to offer the Negro.” The much-repeated quote is not only truncated but taken out of context.
The full quote ends with, “and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races,” and Debs declared, “The Socialist Party is the party of the working class, regardless of color — the whole working class of the whole world.”
Blacks deemed inferior
Berger offered up a very different idea of what socialism had to offer African Americans in an editorial he wrote and published in May 1902 on the front page of the second newspaper he had acquired, The Social Democratic Herald.
The “negro question” will someday give socialists “a good deal of headache,” he wrote, but socialists shouldn’t trouble themselves now with the travail of future generations. Berger was straightforward in his reasoning.
“There can be no doubt that the negroes and mulattoes constitute a lower race — that the Caucasian and indeed even the Mongolian have the start of them in civilization by many thousand years — so that negroes will find it difficult ever to overtake them,” Berger wrote.
“The many cases of rape which occur wherever negroes are settled in large numbers prove, moreover, that the free contact with the whites has led to the further degeneration of the negroes, as of all other inferior races,” he added.
“In the case of the negro all the savage instincts of his forefathers in Africa come to the surface,” he continued.
Miller, whose views on Berger’s brand of socialism are measured but admiring throughout her biography, referred to him as a “virulent bigot.”
In the July 1971 Journal of Negro History, Miller said Berger had made it clear in his writings that he believed African Americans were incapable of being organized and were a societal problem outside the scope of party ideology and politics.
“In almost a pyramidal view he spelled out distinctly superior and inferior racial and ethnic classes. White was at the top of the color pyramid, yellow below and black at the bottom, and potential for education, unionization and even morality progressively declined,” Miller wrote. “All contemporary strains leading toward racism coalesced in the European-born Berger.”
While marginalized by recent histories, these contemporary strains played a significant role in the development of American socialism. Some socialists, including Berger, had by the 1880s found in the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer a scientific framework for explaining the inevitability of socialism.
Lewis Henry Morgan, an American anthropologist who died in 1881, laid out his theories of racial hierarchy in “Ancient Society,” an 1877 book that influenced the later work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Morgan built on the work of naturalist Ernst Haeckel, the great popularizer of Darwin in Germany. Twenty years earlier, in his book, “Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte,” or “The Natural History of Creation,” Haeckel posited that there were 10 distinct races. At the top were Caucasians. At the bottom were Negroes, whom he compared in physical makeup to “four-handed apes” and whose relative lack of development eventually would lead to their extinction.
Haeckel was, not unlike many Germans of his generation, an anti-Semite, which lent a nationalist frisson to his supposed scientific work. As University of Chicago professor Robert Richards has written, Haeckel’s work would survive and decades later provide a scientific underpinning for the theory of racial purity that helped define the national socialism of the Nazis under Adolf Hitler.
However “virulent” Miller found Berger’s bigotry, it’s important to place it in the context of his time and particularly of his place. Although he became internationally known as a socialist leader, Berger’s worldview sprang organically from and never really left Milwaukee.
Milwaukee’s blacks ignored
At the turn of the century, in a city of 150,000 Germans, there were fewer than 900 African Americans in Milwaukee. In 1915, that number had increased to just 1,500. And even with an influx of workers for wartime industrial jobs, the African American population in 1920 was about 2,200.
Race was neither the defining social issue nor the political force it would become decades later. Berger and the rest of the Milwaukee socialists could readily afford to ignore African Americans at little cost to their electoral success.
This casual ignorance is reflected in the substantial collections of documents and personal papers of Berger’s at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison and the Milwaukee County Historical Society.
The consideration of race is almost entirely absent, for example, in Frederick Olson’s nearly 600-page seminal study from 1952, “The Milwaukee Socialists, 1897-1941.” There are no demands for racial justice in the platforms of the turn-of-the-century Social-Democratic Party of Milwaukee, formed in 1897 when Milwaukee Socialists joined with the labor movement.
The overwhelming predominance of Germans and their predisposal to socialist and unionist ideas made the rise of Berger and his party not only possible but inevitable. Membership in the Socialist Party nationally grew from about 16,000 in 1903 to more than 118,000 a decade later. The gains during that time in Milwaukee were much more dramatic.
Milwaukee’s Social-Democrats began entering local political races in 1898. While candidates promised voters public utility ownership, parks and infrastructure projects, inevitably, they turned their attention to the major-party corruption at City Hall.
Berger — variously described as egomaniacal and self-effacing, ruthless and generous, loyal and unsparing, “with a deep and naive faith in himself” — orchestrated all of these socialist campaigns, including his own. The father of the socialist movement in Milwaukee would export it to the rest of the nation.
In the spring of 1910, Milwaukee voters elected Emil Seidel, a Berger protégé and the city’s first socialist alderman, the first-ever socialist mayor with a commanding plurality. All seven aldermanic candidates and two civil judges on the Socialist Party ticket also were elected.
First socialist congressman
In the fall of 1910, Berger was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The work of the socialists who cleaned up rampant corruption in Milwaukee in the early 1900s was impressive, although their sometimes extreme budget-consciousness would be more recognizable in today’s Republicans than Democrats.
Berger’s two-year term in Washington, D.C., was another matter.
He was praised for demanding and getting a federal investigation of a crackdown on striking woolen mill workers in 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He also was assigned to a committee to oversee affairs in the District of Columbia.
There, he introduced nothing that might have aided the large African American population in D.C., Miller wrote. “He remained indifferent to the plight of the black population.”
And when given his first opportunity to address the House on June 14, 1911, Berger used the issue of tariffs to launch an attack on the immigration of Armenians, Italians, Russians and Slavs, “modern white coolies” whose presence in America threatened the jobs of the settled working class from the previous German and British immigrant waves (Pages 2025-30 in the Congressional Record).
Against the advice of his fellow socialists that year, Berger warned Congress against women’s voting rights. Women, he said, “are not as favorable to Socialism as men are. Vast numbers of women are still under the domination of reactionary priests and ministers with regard to social and political matters and would vote against Socialism if they had the chance.”
Berger lasted just one term. He had managed to lose touch with his local base of support, at the same time alienating the Socialist Party’s left wing, which disdained his prostituting himself in electoral politics.
Berger’s war opposition
Shorthand histories say World War I killed the Socialist Party in the United States. Party membership, however, had been dropping for three years after hitting its 1912 high and actually ticked up a bit and flattened out as America’s involvement in the war became a fait accompli.
Only in Milwaukee could a socialist — particularly one opposed to the war — get re-elected to Congress. For the first and last time in his political career, Berger chose to stand outside of the system, arguing that America had little to gain and much to lose by going to war. His position was the opposite of European socialists eager to exploit the chaos and misery of war and an American public that would come to despise opposition to it.
“Berger’s momentous blunder led to the party’s complete alienation from the American public and to its own political failure,” Miller wrote.
The socialist demise was hurried along by the wartime overreach of the federal Committee on Public Information, which had been created to drum up support and stamp out opposition to entering the war. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 followed, giving the government the authority to censor and punish anyone thought to pose a threat to national security.
Socialist editors, including Berger, lost their second-class mailing privileges, crippling their ability to make a living through their publications. Next, he and four others were charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act, were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
It took until 1921 for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the convictions. “Crucifixion had cost him the promise he had seen in the party, the paper and the country,” Miller wrote.
The remaining left-wing members made official their leaving Berger behind by voting at their 1919 convention to leave the party themselves, splitting into two competing communist parties. Socialist membership in 1920 was less than 27,000, about the same as it was in 1906.
In Milwaukee, Daniel Hoan would continue as an enormously popular mayor for 26 years, the longest tenure in the city’s history until Henry Maier served 28 years from 1960 to 1988. Socialist Frank Zeidler would serve 12 successful years in between.
Those mayors quietly had adopted the same inclusionary positions on civil rights, suffrage and immigration as the ragged remainder of the Socialist left.
Although Milwaukee voters sent Berger back to Washington for four terms between 1918 and 1929, he essentially was done with national socialist politics. He acknowledged the rise of Wisconsin’s Progressives by persuading Socialists at the very least not to oppose Robert M. La Follette’s last U.S. Senate campaign in 1922. Berger’s hope for a Socialist coalition with the Progressives in Wisconsin never came to pass.
Berger’s death at age 69, a couple weeks after his streetcar accident, put a coda on his quirky brand of socialism.
In the April 2019 edition of American History magazine, noted journalist and historian Richard Brookhiser singles out Berger as the most successful of all of the socialists, reformers and radicals of his time. And like most of the modern accounts, there is no mention of Berger’s virulent racism or opposition to new immigration or basic women’s rights.
In his paean to Berger, Dreier mentions that there once was a Victor Berger Elementary School in Milwaukee. It was slated in the fall of 1991 to become one of the first two immersion schools exclusively for Milwaukee’s African American children, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
A year later, the name of the school, at 3275 N. 3rd St., was changed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, as it is to this day.
Whether the name Victor Berger or what he stood for had anything to do with the change has, like many of the essential and disturbing facts of who he really was, been lost to history.
Mark Lisheron is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. He spent 30 years as a reporter for newspapers, including 14 for The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
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