Victor Luitpold Berger (1860-1929) was one of the most important figures in the history of the Socialist Party of America — and one of the least appreciated. A college-educated Austrian Jew, Berger emigrated to the United States with his family in 1878, leaving university without having completed his studies and earned a degree.
The Berger family made their home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but eldest son Victor made his way westward, winding up in 1881 in the German-American metropolis of Milwaukee, Wisconsin — a city which in 1900 could say that 150,000 of its 285,000 residents were either German-born or the first generation American-born children of German immigrants.
There Berger became a German teacher in the city’s public school system. He would marry a former pupil, Meta Schlichting, in 1897; the couple’s two daughters would be raised speaking German as their first language in the home. (fn. Sally M. Miller, Victor L. Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910-1920. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973; pp. 17-18.)
Berger’s biographer, the outstanding historian of American radicalism Sally M. Miller, described him thus:
In appearance Berger was short and stocky, and in expression studious and somber. His mustache and steel-rimmed glasses enhanced the impression of a Viennese academic… He had a sense of humor with a gift of poking fun at himself, his accent, and his peculiar constituency…. He also had a temper which might flare easily in an argument, and at times cost him support. With his associates he was congenial, loyal, and forthright…. He was a very human mixture of bombast, affability, confidence, and generosity.
His dominant characteristic was ambition. Energy, drive, and aggressiveness were the offshoots of this quality, and even friendly commentators considered Berger capable of ruthlessness. (fn. Miller, Victor L. Berger, pp. 22-23.)
Socialist Party leader Morris Hillquit was a frequent political antagonist to Berger from the late 1890s before eventually becoming a close associate late in life. In his posthumous memoir, written after Berger’s death, Hillquit recalled:
Victor Berger had none of the ecstatic fervor and ardent idealism, nor the sentimental nature and expansive manner of Eugene Debs. He came from different soil and stock and was of different temperament and makeup. * * *
He was not an orator and disdained eloquence in speech and writing, but he had a thorough mastery of the socialist theory and an abundant fund of knowledge in the spheres of social science and history. He had strong convictions on every subject and a rare gift of clear and simple exposition. In party councils he was inclined to be self-assertive and domineering and utterly intolerant of dissenting views.
He was sublimely egotistic, 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.
Berger and I clashed often and violently on questions of Socialist policy, and in these clashes we rarely spared each other’s feelings; but we were always friends, and the bond of friendship between us tightened with advancing years. (fn. Morris Hillquit, Loose Leaves from a Busy Life. New York: Macmillan, 1934; pp. 52-53.)
• • • • •
Berger the Publisher
Berger’s basis of power was that of newspaper publisher, first and foremost in the German language. The first Berger newspaper was Vorwärts (Forward), launched in 1887. This paper went to a daily frequency in 1893, with the name changed slightly to Wisconsin Vorwärts, serving as the official organ of the Federated Trades Council of Milwaukee — part of the American Federation of Labor.
The expanded Sunday edition continued to be known simply as Vorwärts, and this would ultimately survive and supersede the daily edition after its termination in August 1898 for financial reasons. The weekly Vorwärts would in fact outlive even its publisher, continuing even after Berger’s accidental death when he was hit by a streetcar in 1929. The paper would finally shut down on December 31, 1932.
The Wisconsin Vorwärts also had a “weekly edition” containing the best content of the daily edition for readers who wanted to keep abreast of the labor and social democratic movement but who chose to subscribe to another German-language paper for their daily news. This was Die Wahrheit (The Truth), launched in January 1898, and serving as a German-language official organ of the Social Democratic Party of America after its formation in June of that year. (fn. Anne Spier, “German Speaking Peoples” in Dirk Hoerder (ed.), The Immigrant Labor Press in North America, 1840s-1970s: Volume 3, Migrants from Southern and Western Europe. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987; pp. 496-497, 499-501.)
This also continued after the suspension of the daily Wisconsin Vorwärts from whence it sprung in 1898. Although content of the Vorwärts and Die Wahrheit is said to have differed little, (fn. Spier, op. cit., p. 497) in practice there seems to have been a party orientation for Die Wahrheit and an trade union orientation for the Vorwärts.
In June 1910, Die Wahrheit suspended publication, leaving the Vorwärts as the sole German language newspaper in the Berger stable. The key editor of Berger’s German papers, it should be mentioned before we move along, was Jacob Hunger.
Berger moved into English language socialist publishing in 1901 when he acquired the failing official organ of the Chicago Social Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Herald, moving the paper from Chicago to Milwaukee and bringing along its editor, Alfred Shenstone Edwards.
Even specialist librarians are confused about the date of this switch, with substantial misinformation existing about a lengthy phantom suspension in the summer of 1901. For the record, the paper continued in Chicago through July 27, issue whole no. 160, and picked up again in Milwaukee on August 17, confusingly misnumbered as whole no. 159. Thus there was a two-week lapse for change of ownership and the move of facilities.
With Berger’s right hand man, Frederic Heath, soon appointed the paper’s editor in place of the departing Edwards, the Social Democratic Herald would continue its weekly publication schedule until termination in September 1913.
By this time the Social Democratic Herald had been succeeded by the best known of Berger’s newspapers, the Milwaukee Leader, launched in December 1911. The Leader was fourth socialist daily in America, following the Daily People (SLP, NYC, 1901), the Chicago Daily Socialist (1906), and the New York Call (1908).
The Leader lasted longer than any of these, surviving perhaps due to its more general newspaper orientation and feel (with socialist content tacked on) rather than standing as a transparent socialist propaganda weapon. It featured coverage of theater, fashion, sports, and so forth in the manner of any daily newspaper of the day, with politically charged articles packed up front or on a party page in the back. One needn’t to have been a party member to appreciate its value as a news source — so despite the SPA’s attenuation, the paper survived.
It, too, would ultimately survive wartime suppression from the mails (making use of home delivery), the financial difficulty associated with the decline of the Socialist Party in the early 1920s, and even Berger’s death in 1929, continuing until its sale in April 1938. The paper was then temporarily rebranded as the New Milwaukee Leader, before continuing for a final short-lived run in 1939 and 1940 as the Milwaukee Evening Post.
• • • • •
Victor Berger on Party-Trade Union Relations and the IWW
Milwaukee socialist publisher Victor L. Berger is frequently caricatured as the essence of unprincipled right wing opportunism in the socialist movement. He’s seen as a toady to the established trade unions of the AF of L (who advertised heavily in his newspapers) and a malignant saboteur of industrial unionism.
Real life was far more complicated. There was strategic thinking and principle behind the practice. Take some time to read this with an open mind. Listen to what he is saying:
Now I for one want Messrs. [Samuel] Gompers and [John] Mitchell to understand that scientific socialists — I means socialists who are students — would not expect very much for socialism even from a reconstituted American Federation of Labor, with more brainy men than either Gompers or Mitchell at the helm.
And for the following reasons:
Trade unions as such recognize the capitalist system. They stand upon the same economic basis as the defenders of capitalism. The trade unions as such are at the present time the greatest conservative force in the country, just as the trusts are the greatest revolutionary force — Mr. Gompers is at liberty to quote this to his millionaire friends in the Civic Federation.
So we have no reason to expect a change of the economic system to come through the trade unions.
Yet it is the duty and the task of the trade unions to bring about certain social reforms, as for instance sick benefits, old age pensions, national accident insurance, protection in the case of being out of work, etc. But for all these things not even a beginning has been made in this country, and Gompers and Mitchell and their satellites oppose them as “socialistic.” And that is where Gompers and Mitchell and the rest of them will come to grief very soon. * * *
Here is the Milwaukee idea, which is rapidly gaining ground among socialists all over the country.
We do not want the trade unions to serve the [Socialist] Party, any more than we want our party to be the servant of the trade unions. Both of them are a necessary part of the organized labor movement — they are like the two arms of the same body. One is the political arm, reaching out for the powers of the state; the other is the trade union arm, disciplining and organizing the industries. Each of the two branches of the labor movement has its own sphere of usefulness, yet each of them can help and must help the other without in any way losing its identity or becoming subordinate to the other. In … having the same persons take an active interest in both, the trade union and the political movement — we find the strongest connecting link between the trade union organization and the [Socialist] Party.
This nation, as every other civilized people, is now relieved from deciding whether it will have socialism or not. We shall have it, no matter what we decide on the subject. Any trade union leader who is opposing it will find himself in the ridiculous and dangerous position of a billy goat trying to stop a railroad train coming at full speed. Driven by economic conditions, the capitalists, the workingmen, and even the middle class are unitedly and irrevocably working towards socialism, no matter how some of them may hate and abhor it. We are simply growing into socialism as the world grew into feudalism and capitalism. (fn. Victor L. Berger, “Against the Economic Trend,” SD Herald, Jan. 14, 1905, p. 1.)
Responding to the January industrial union manifesto (signed by Debs at the last minute after already having been written) calling for establishment of a new labor organization at a Chicago convention slated for June 27, Berger had nothing but scorn:
Two weeks ago a number of leaders of the American Labor Union and their friends held a meeting in Chicago…. The movement thus inaugurated is directed against the American Federation of Labor. The circular…caused quite a sensation in Milwaukee, because the name of Eugene V. Debs was connected with the movement.
The entire capitalist press of Milwaukee and Chicago call this movement a campaign of the Socialists against the American Federation of Labor, having for its object the disruption of that organization…. This movement was not wholly unexpected, as far as I am concerned, and I wish to make the following remarks concerning it.
The Socialist Party, or the Social Democracy, as an organization has nothing whatever to do with this movement, or with the reorganizing of the American Labor Union, which is essentially its object. The resolutions adopted by our national conventions expressly prohibit our party or any of its organizations from any interference in trade union matters. Hence if Eugene V. Debs signed this circular calling for the session in Chicago, he did so upon his own responsibility, just as he helped to bring into the world the American Labor Union solely upon his own impulse… And as is well known, the great majority of our party members at that time did not approve his actions, and they will not follow him now.
The comrades in Milwaukee, where the [Socialist] Party and the progressive trade unions are in one and the same camp, in the best sense of the word, will certainly not flock to the new banner. Our local unions are an integral part of the great national and international labor unions, and even if they so wished, could not sever their connection with them without injuring their own interests and the interest of the labor movement.
Milwaukee, which Gene himself calls his second home, has always highly esteemed Debs, but as it is “not that I love Caesar less, but that I love Rome more.” The American labor movement would suffer great injury if any appreciable number of progressive trade unions should allow themselves to be misled into joining this movement, and we will not join it.
There is no one who will accuse the Milwaukee comrades, and particularly Victor L. Berger, of having any special love for Gompers, Mitchell, or the rest of the grand old cripples of the AF of L….
For us blindly to begin a fight with the American Federation of Labor at this time would be a crime against the trade unions and a fatal error in the Socialist propaganda. If the AF of L is to die, it must die of its own disease. (fn. Victor L. Berger, “A Timely Warning Against Unwise Action” SD Herald, Jan. 21, 1905, p. 1.)
Together with Max S. Hayes, publisher of the Cleveland Citizen, Berger attempted to continue the work of “boring from within” the American Federation of Labor, attending its November 1905 convention in Pittsburgh as a delegate of the International Typographical Union, sharing a room with future National Secretary of the Socialist Party J. Mahlon Barnes.
The delegates endured a 3-1/2 hour report by AF of L President Samuel Gompers, during which he spent about 15 minutes attacking the IWW and the socialist movement for supporting it. “I cannot do very much at this convention and I really wish it was over,” he admitted in a letter home to his wife Meta. “Barnes and I will try to soldier a few sessions and see Pittsburgh and vicinity.” (fn. VLB to Meta Berger, Nov. 13, 1905, in Michael E. Stevens (ed.), The Family Letters of Victor and Meta Berger, 1894-1929. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1995; pp. 70-71.)
Whatever the deficiencies of the IWW and its dual unionist strategy, it is clear that by the end of 1905 Berger — who never believed in that mission — had simultaneously lost all faith in transformation of the American Federation of Labor through organization of a socialist caucus within the national organization.
For him, the struggle had devolved to practical, local level politics — and that implied maintaining a status quo relationship with the powerful established national labor organization and its member unions and pushing these activists and institutions to as much progressive political action as they would be capable. The entry of the IWW in the field at a national level was an unwelcome development, an effort doomed to failure and not seriously to be considered.
Debs, on the other hand, remained an enthusiast for the new union in its earliest phase, with a religionist’s passion.
A storm was brewing.
• • • • •
Debs the Journalist breaks with Berger the Publisher
Berger’s opposition to the IWW brought him to a parting of the ways with Gene Debs, who was a founding member and enthusiast of the new industrial union. There is no surviving correspondence to illuminate this split, so far as I am aware, but a split there was nonetheless.
The placement of Debs’s journalistic output tells the tale.
After the Chicago Social Democratic Party founded by Berger and Debs merged with the rival Springfield organization to establish the Socialist Party of America in the summer of 1901, Debs continued to write for the former official organ of the Chicago SDP — the Social Democratic Herald, even though it had been sold to Victor Berger, moved to Milwaukee, and been made a privately-owned publication at the time of the Unity Convention.
Debs saw the paper as the lineal successor of his beloved Railway Times, which had rebranded as The Social Democrat before being abandoned in the 1898 split of the Social Democracy of America. It was to the Social Democratic Herald that his primary loyalty lay as a socialist writer. After a fitful start in 1901, Berger’s editors — A.S. Edwards, then Frederic Heath — ran Debs material almost weekly, whether original output or reprints from other publications.
Debs was clearly disillusioned in the second half of 1901, writing just five articles and one substantial open letter in the last five months of year, the period after the Unity Convention. Of these, only 2 pieces (33%) were written especially for the Herald. The paper frequently reprinted Debs speeches and articles from previous years, to be sure, but the output of original material by Debs was at the lowest ebb of his entire life.
In 1902 EVD became greatly involved in the first part of the year with strikes of the Colorado hard rock miners and the coal miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. This took time. Debs spoke more and wrote less than he would in some subsequent years, but he was reactivated. Despite the time constraints he faced, Debs managed to pen approximately 35 articles for the press in 1902 — of which, by my count, 13 (37%) first appeared in the Herald. There were also a couple letters written directly to the editor of the Herald which were subsequently published not counted in this total.
Debs wrote about 48 articles in 1903, of which, according to my tally, 21 (44%) were written for the Herald as the first publisher of the piece.
Continuing to escalate his pace as a writer, I spot 59 articles from 1904, of which by my reckoning some 22 (37%) were first composed for the Herald.
Then came 1905, the year of the IWW.
Victor Berger was one of three dozen labor leaders and socialist journalists invited to the January organizing meeting for the IWW — he refused to attend, as did his close associate Max Hayes. During the first six months of that year, the period immediately before the new organization was formally launched, Debs wrote approximately 17 articles for the press, of which only 4 (24%) were placed first in the Herald.
After the IWW founding convention, during the last six months of the year, 25 articles were written, with just 4 (16%) of these original to the Herald.
My 1906 raw list of Debs articles hasn’t been worked over enough yet to provide a solid total article count, but I can give you this number: Debs does not seem to have written a single original piece for publication in the Social Democratic Herald in that year. Nor in 1907.
Eugene V. Debs the socialist writer and Victor L. Berger the socialist publisher had made a break.
• • • • •
Debs’s IWW Speeches of 1905, another redux
A quick amendment to last week’s blog. My self-imposed Saturday blog deadline bit me in the butt. I’ve subsequently discovered a piece in which Debs directly states that he attended five mass meetings under the auspices of the IWW while he was in New York in December 1905. It turns out that he delivered full speeches at four of these and short remarks at a fifth, sharing the stage with other IWW orators.
Therefore, taken in addition to the three well-known mass meetings at which he spoke in Chicago in November, we find that Debs spoke explicitly under IWW auspices a total of eight times in 1905, not the “four-times-max-six” that I guesstimated in last week’s post.
Here are the New York City-area dates and locations, for what it’s worth:
- Sunday, Dec. 10, 1905: NEW YORK CITY at Grand Central Palace (Lexington Ave. between 43rd and 44th Streets)
- Monday, Dec. 11: Main speech — BROOKLYN at Grand Central Hall (corner of Leonard and Scholes Streets); afterwards, short speech in NEW YORK CITY at Grand American Hall (7-9 Second Avenue).
- Tuesday, Dec. 12: PATERSON, NJ presumably. It’s known he spoke there and this was the open date… No additional information available at this time.
- Wednesday, Dec. 13: BRONX at Muller’s Bronx Casino (994 Third Ave.)
At all of these he shared the podium with Daniel DeLeon. Charles O. Sherman was at all but the late night speech on the 11th. General starting time was 8 pm and admission was free.
We learn as we go. That’s the way research works.
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 19 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.
This week I’m finishing up with 1905 and getting started with 1906. For the record, my database (which fluctuates as new items are discovered or eliminated as duplicates) currently stands at 69 Debs items for 1905, of which 32 have been converted to editable text and 35 have been examined and passed over. There are still 2 remaining to be located, only one of which has any prospect of being further processed.
- “Amsterdam Congress the Year’s Great Achievement” (Jan. 1, 1905) — 569 words
- “Political Evolution and the Socialist Mission” (Jan. 14, 1905) — 1,542 words
- “The Russian Uprising” [expanded version] (Jan. 26, 1905) — 1,237 words
- “The New Union” (July 22, 1905) — 435 words
- “The Chautauqua Platform and Its Opportunities” (Aug. 26, 1905) — 878 words
- “What Socialism Proposes” (Sept. 23, 1905) — 1,230 words
- “The Coming Labor Union” (Oct. 26, 1905) — 1,455 words
- “Graft Unionism and the Progressive Alternative: Letter to the Chicago Socialist” (Dec. 23, 1905) — 1,440 words
- “The 1905 Mayoral Election in New York City” (Jan. 6, 1906) — 2,021 words
- “Arouse, Ye Slaves!” (March 10, 1906) — 954 words
Word count: 73,687 in the can + 11,761 this week +/- amendments = 84,848 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.
• Social Democratic Herald — 1905, 1906 (Jan.-June)
The Idea of Democratic Socialism in America, by Robert J. Fitrakis, seems to have begun as a dissertation in 1993 before being published as a trade paperback in 2007 by the essentially unknown CICJ Books of Columbus, Ohio — meaning that I’ve been oblivious to this 361-page tome for a decade.
One can deduce the political line of a book about political parties by the individuals to whom chapter-length attentions is paid. For example, if I were writing a book about the Socialist Party, you could be sure that Gene Debs, Victor Berger, and Morris Hillquit would figure most prominently — and that would tell you something about me and it, pre-communist Marxism of the glory days… Fitrakis shines his spotlight on Gene Debs (1855-1926), Norman Thomas (1884-1968), and Michael Harrington (1928-1989). Unsurprisingly, then, we find here a long view with a distinctly modernist social democratic orientation.
Fitrakis finds common “deep religious roots” in all three of his heroes of the story, with the “old testament prophets” Debs and Thomas said to have “fused with and drew from the dynamism of Protestant revivialism by offering democratic socialism as the gospel solution,” while Mike Harrington’s background in the Catholic Worker movement is given prominent attention. (pp. 10-11)
Harrington, the founder of the predecessor organization of today’s Democratic Socialists of America, is depicted as the least successful of the three leaders, with his group — not unfairly given the time of writing — characterized as “little more than an [Americans for Democratic Action]-style pressure group using democratic socialist rhetoric while doing lay work for liberal [Democratic Party] candidates.” (p. 8) Harrington’s apparent failure is said to have been directly related to a “dogmatic adherence to ‘lesser evilism’ in politics.” (p. 12)
In the age of Trumpism and the reactionary onslaught on American institutions wrought in association, combined with the growth of DSA today into a mass organization, surely an assessment published today would draw a rather different conclusion, both as to the potential of DSA and the necessity of pursuing the tactic of lesser-evilism in an era when the welfare state and democracy itself is under attack from the proto-fascist forces that dominate the Republican Party.
As for Debs, Fitrakis pinpoints a specific Dec. 24, 1899 letter in the dissident SLP People published by editor Algernon Lee as decisive in hardening his negative opinion of the bolting anti-DeLeon faction. If true, one is a little baffled by Debs’s lack of reading skills or his inability to accept anything less than full-throated support.
Said letter (sarcastically) notes:
Debs does not train in our camp, therefore Debs must be killed. [Christian socialist Toledo mayor] Jones does not speak after our fashion, Jones must be vilified. The Workers Call and the Class Struggle don’t follow our [specific path] to the goal: therefore these papers must be branded with treason. All this effort must be sacrificed to the negative god.
This same god must be served and honored locally with all the ardor developed by the close range of personal contempt. The demonstration is … a false and brutal attack, a long organized and desperate attempt to break the power of the positive forces…
Debs does not train in our camp, but Debs, with a great fund of human sentiment, but Debs reveals to the mind of the … unconscious mass that a great wrong is being done the human race by the human race. With the plow of injustice and the harrow of social crisis the call of the heart and mind is fitted to receive the higher revelations of social science. Debs to the assertive workers, to the positive side of the SLP organization is welcomed. His activity puts a higher obligation on them, to more closely define the difference between the knowledge of socialism and the sentiment of socialism, both prime and necessary factors to the propaganda. (fn. Author illegible, “Correspondence,” The People [dissident] vol. 9, no. 39 (Dec. 24, 1899), p. 4.)
Did aspiring socialist leader Debs in this period really have such a thin skin and so poor a comprehension of the written word that something like this set him off? It seems unlikely — but still, there was a thick and heavy bitterness that Debs felt towards the former SLP faction that must have had an origin in something.
One is hard-pressed to find anything in the surviving issues of that group’s official organ to merit Debs’s visceral antipathy. Perhaps a full run of this paper will emerge in fully legible form to solve this small mystery of intellectual history.
Fitrakis’s book is another one for the shelf, but I don’t think that it’s compelling me to look at the world in a different way.