Victor L. Berger: Wikis


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Victor L. Berger

Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Wisconsin's 5th district
In office
1922 – 1929
Preceded by William H. Stafford
In office
1911 – 1913
Preceded by William H. Stafford
Succeeded by William H. Stafford

Born February 28, 1860(1860-02-28)
Nieder, Rehbach, Austria-Hungary
Died August 7, 1929 (aged 69)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Political party Socialist Party

Victor Louis (Luitpold) Berger (1860—1929) was a founding member of the Socialist Party of America and an important and influential Socialist journalist who helped establish the so-called Sewer Socialist movement. The first Socialist elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1919 he was convicted of violating the Espionage Act for his anti-militarist views and as a result was twice denied the seat to which he had been elected in the House of Representatives.




Early years

Born to a Jewish family in Nieder Rehbach, Austria-Hungary (now in Romania) on February 28, 1860, Victor L. Berger attended the Gymnasium at Leutschau (today in Slovakia) and the universities at Budapest and Vienna. He emigrated to the United States in 1878 with his parents,[1] settling near Bridgeport, Connecticut. From there he moved to Woodstock, Illinois in 1880, and then to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1881, where he was a schoolteacher and newspaper editor.

Berger was credited by trade union leader Eugene V. Debs for having won him over to the cause of socialism. Jailed for six months for violating a federal anti-strike injunction in the 1894 strike of the American Railway Union, Debs turned to reading:

"Books and pamphlets and letters from socialists came by every mail and I began to read and think and dissect the anatomy of the system in which workingmen, however organized, could be shattered and battered and splintered on a single stroke....

"It was at this time, when the first glimmerings of socialism were beginning to penetrate, that Victor L. Berger — and I have loved him ever since — came to Woodstock [jail], as if a providential instrument, and delivered the first impassioned message of socialism I had ever heard — the very first to set the wires humming in my system. As a souvenir of that visit there is in my library a volume of Capital by Karl Marx, inscribed with the compliments of Victor L. Berger, which I cherish as a token of priceless value."[2]

In 1896 Berger was a delegate to the People’s Party Convention in St. Louis.

In 1897 he married a former student, Meta Schlichting. The couple raised two daughters, Doris and Elsa, who at first spoke only German in the home, indicative of their parents' cultural orientation.[3] Berger was short and stocky, with a studious demeanor, and had both a self-deprecating sense of humor and a volatile temper. Although loyal to friends, he was strongly opinionated and intolerant of dissenting views.[4] His ideological sparring partner and comrade Morris Hillquit later recalled of Berger that

"He was sublimely egotistical, but somehow his egotism did not smack of conceit and was not offensive. It was the expression of deep and naive faith in himself, and this unshakable faith was one of the mainsprings of his power over men."[5].

1900 NEC members

Berger was a founding member of the Social Democracy of America in 1897 and led the split of the "political action" faction of that organization to form the Social Democratic Party of America (SDP) in 1898. He was a member of the governing National Executive Committee of the SDP for its entire duration.

Berger was a founder of the Socialist Party of America in 1901 and played a critical role in the negotiations with an east coast dissident faction of the Socialist Labor Party in the establishment of this new political party. Berger was regarded as one of the party's leading revisionist Marxists, an advocate of the trade union-oriented and incremental politics of Edward Bernstein. He advocated the use of electoral politics to implement reforms and thus gradually build a collectivist society.[6]

Berger was a man of the written word and back room negotiation, not a notable public speaker. He retained a heavy German accent and had a voice which did not project well. As a rule he did not accept outdoor speaking engagements and was a poor campaigner, preferring one-on-one relationships to mass oratory.[7] Berger was, however, a newspaper editorialist par excellence. Throughout his life he published and edited a number of different papers, including the German language Vorwärts ("Forward") (1892-1911), the Social-Democratic Herald (1901-1913), and the Milwaukee Leader (1911-1929). His papers were tied to the socialist movement and organized labor through the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council.

First term in Congress

Berger ran for Congress and lost in 1904 before winning Wisconsin's 5th congressional district seat in 1910 as the first Socialist to serve in the United States Congress. In Congress, he focused on issues related to the District of Columbia and also more radical proposals, including eliminating the President's veto, abolishing the Senate,[8] and the social takeover of major industries. Berger gained national publicity for his old-age pension bill, the first of its kind introduced into Congress. Although he did not win re-election in 1912, 1914 or 1916, he remained active in Wisconsin and Socialist Party politics.

Berger was very active in the biggest party controversy of the pre-war years, the fight between the SP's center-right "regular" bloc against the syndicalist left wing over the issue of "sabotage." The bitter battle erupted in full force at the 1912 National Convention of the Socialist Party, to which Berger was again a delegate. At issue was language to be inserted into the party constitution which called for the expulsion of "any member of the party who opposes political action or advocates crime, sabotage, or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class to aid in its emancipation."[9] The debate was vitriolic, with Berger, somewhat unsurprisingly, stating the matter in its most bellicose form:

"Comrades, the trouble with our party is that we have men in our councils who claim to be in favor of political action when they are not. We have a number of men who use our political organization — our Socialist Party — as a cloak for what they call direct action, for IWW-ism, sabotage and syndicalism. It is anarchism by a new name....

"Comrades, I have gone through a number of splits in this party. It was not always a fight against anarchism in the past. In the past we often had to fight Utopianism and fanaticism. Now it is anarchism again that is eating away at the vitals of our party.

"If there is to be a parting of the ways, if there is to be a split — and it seems that you will have it, and must have it — then, I am ready to split right here. I am ready to go back to Milwaukee and appeal to the Socialists all over the country to cut this cancer out of our organization."[10]

The regulars won the day handily at the Indianapolis convention of 1912, with a successful recall of IWW leader "Big Bill" Haywood from the SP's National Executive Committee and an exodus of disaffected left wingers following shortly thereafter. The remaining radicals in the party remembered bitterly Berger's role in this affair and the ill feelings continued to fester until erupting anew at the end of the decade.

Berger and World War I

Victor Berger, in Literary Digest, 1920.

Berger's views on World War I were complicated by the Socialist view and the difficulties surrounding his German heritage. However, he did support his party's stance against the war. When the United States entered the war and passed the Espionage Act in 1917, Berger's continued opposition made him a target. He and four other Socialists were indicted under the Espionage Act in February 1918; the trial followed on December 9 of that year, and on February 20, 1919, Berger was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. The trial was presided over by Judge Kenesaw Landis, who later became the first commissioner of Major League Baseball. His conviction was appealed, and ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court on January 31, 1921, which found that Judge Landis had improperly presided over the case after the filing of an affidavit of prejudice.[11]

In spite of his being under indictment at the time, the voters of Milwaukee elected Berger to the House of Representatives in 1918. When he arrived in Washington to claim his seat, Congress formed a special committee to determine whether a convicted felon and war opponent should be seated as a member of Congress. On November 10, 1919 they concluded that he should not, and declared the seat vacant. Wisconsin promptly held a special election to fill the vacant seat, and on December 19, 1919, elected Berger a second time. On January 10, 1920, the House again refused to seat him, and the seat remained vacant until 1921, when Republican William H. Stafford claimed the seat after defeating Berger in the 1920 general election.

Second stint in Congress

Berger defeated Stafford in 1922 and was reelected in 1924 and 1926. In those terms, he dealt with Constitutional changes, a proposed old-age pension, unemployment insurance, and public housing. He also supported the diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union and the revision of the Treaty of Versailles. After his defeat by Stafford in 1928, he returned to Milwaukee and resumed his career as a newspaper editor.

On July 16, 1929 Berger was struck by a streetcar at the corner of 3rd and Clarke Streets in Milwaukee. The accident fractured his skull, and he died of his injuries on August 7, 1929. Prior to burial at Forest Home Cemetery his body lay in state at City Hall and was viewed by 75,000 citizens of the city.[12]


Victor Berger's journalism was voluminous, but rarely reproduced in book or pamphlet form. A massive number of editorials were produced for the pages of the paper he edited, the Milwaukee Leader. In addition, two books collecting Berger's writings were published, Berger's Broadsides (1912), and Voice and Pen of Victor L. Berger: Congressional Speeches and Editorials (1929). Victor Berger's papers are housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, as is the complete run of the Milwaukee Leader on microfilm.

See also


  1. ^ Sally M. Miller, "Victor Louis Berger," Historical Dictionary of the Progressive Era, 1890-1920. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988; p. 38.
  2. ^ Eugene V. Debs, "How I Became a Socialist." The Comrade [New York], v. 1, no. 7 (April 1902), pp. 147-148.
  3. ^ Sally M. Miller, Victor L. Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910-1920. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973; p. 22.
  4. ^ Miller, Victor L. Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910-1920, pp. 22-23
  5. ^ Morris Hillquit, Loose Leaves from a Busy Life. New York: Macmillan, 1934; p. 53.
  6. ^ Miller, "Victor Berger," p. 38. In her short thumbnail sketch, Miller notes that Berger "opposed orthodox Marxists, who, in turn, called [Berger] an opportunist". This actually refers to the revolutionary socialist left wing rather than the "orthodox Marxist" followers of Karl Kautsky, which was the majority tendency in the Socialist Party of this era.
  7. ^ Miller, Victor L. Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910-1920, pp. 23-24.
  8. ^ House Member Introduces Resolution To Abolish the Senate
  9. ^ Amendment to Article 2, Section 6, proposed by William Lincoln Garver of Missouri. John Spargo (ed.), National Convention of the Socialist Party Held at Indianapolis, Ind., May 12 to 18, 1912: Stenographic Report. Chicago: The Socialist Party, [1912]; pg. 122. Hereafter: 1912 National Convention Stenographic Report.
  10. ^ Speech of Victor Berger1912 National Convention Stenographic Report, pg. 130.
  11. ^ Berger et al. v. United States, 41 S.Ct. 230, 235 U.S. 22 (1921).
  12. ^ Elmer Beck, The Sewer Socialists: Vol. I, The Socialists Trinity of the Party, the Unions and the Press. Fennimore, WI: Westburg Associates Publishers, 1982; p. 133.

Further reading

  • Beck, Elmer A. The Sewer Socialists: A History of the Socialist Party of Wisconsin, 1897-1940 (2 vols.). Fennimore, WI: Westburg, 1982. ISBN 0874230314
  • Kipnis, Ira. The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952.
  • Miller, Sally. Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910-1920. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973.
  • Muzik, Edward J. Victor L. Berger: A Biography. Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 1960.
  • Muzik, Edward J. "Victor L. Berger: Congress and the Red Scare," Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 47, no. 4 (Summer 1964).
  • Nash, Roderick. "Victor L. Berger: Making Marx Respectable," Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 47, no. 4 (Summer 1964).
  • Quint, Howard H. The Forging of American Socialism: Origins of the Modern Movement. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1953.
  • Stevens, Michael (Ed.). Family Letters of Victor and Meta Berger, 1894-1929. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1995. ISBN 0-87020-277-4
  • Wachman, Marvin. History of the Social Democratic Party of Milwaukee, 1897-1910. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1945.

External links

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
William H. Stafford
United States Representative for the 5th Congressional District of Wisconsin
Succeeded by
William H. Stafford
Preceded by
William H. Stafford
United States Representative for the 5th Congressional District of Wisconsin
Succeeded by
William H. Stafford
Preceded by
William H. Stafford
United States Representative for the 5th Congressional District of Wisconsin
Succeeded by
William H. Stafford


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