Victor Louis Berger (1860-1929) was the first Socialist elected to the U.S. Congress. A principal founder of the Socialist Party of America, he remained one of its most important figures until his death.
Victor Berger was born in Nieder-Rehbach, Austria-Hungary, on Feb. 28, 1860. His parents were prosperous innkeepers. Berger attended the universities in Vienna and Budapest. At the age of 18 he emigrated to Bridgeport, Conn., where he worked at a variety of jobs. In 1881 he became a teacher in the largely German-speaking city of Milwaukee, Wis.
Berger was active in Milwaukee politics almost from the beginning. The Germans of the city mixed old-country social-democratic politics with their athletic and social club activities, and Berger was suspended from his job once because of his radical ideas. Shortly after marrying in 1897, Berger abandoned teaching and became founder and editor of the Wisconsin Vorwärts, a German-language daily newspaper. Although he had been a member of the Socialist Labor party briefly, he was already head of his own local socialist organization. With Eugene V. Debs, and several others, he formed the Social Democracy of America in 1897 and the Social Democratic party in 1898. In 1900 and 1901 Berger helped engineer an alliance with a dissident faction of the Socialist Labor party: the product was the Socialist Party of America. Berger was elected immediately to the party's national executive board and never relinquished the seat.
Berger's Milwaukee branch of the party was by far its most successful. With a firm electoral base, Berger won additional support as the result of his cooperation with the labor movement and painstaking political organization. He set up locals in every precinct, saw that people voted, staged entertainments, and distributed patronage. Reward came in 1910, when Berger was elected to Congress (after several tries) and the Socialists captured the city administration. The party played a major role in the city's government for a half century, and Berger himself was reelected to Congress several times.
In 1918 Berger was sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment for his opposition to American entrance into World War I, but while free on appeal he was elected again to Congress. Congress refused to seat him, but at a special election in 1919 Berger was reelected by an even larger plurality. In 1921 the Supreme Court overturned Berger's conviction. He was seated in the House in 1923 and won reelection until 1928. On July 16, 1929, Berger died of injuries sustained in a streetcar accident in Milwaukee.
Berger was known as the head of the "right wing" of the Socialist party because of his advocacy of immediate, partial reforms while working for a socialist society. His more radical comrades spurned him as a mere progressive. His personal ambitions and vanity sometimes made him seem like a politico who was "using" the socialist organization to further his own career, but it is probably more accurate to describe him as cautious rather than conservative. He recognized that in a popular society such as the United States it was necessary to gain the confidence of the people in a party's right to rule before one could expect to be granted power, and that a political movement should not get too far ahead of its constituency.
Berger was a flexible politician, yet he could be irascible and petty in his intraparty dealings. His writings were considerable. In addition to his many pamphlets, Berger was the editor of the Vorwärts (1897-1901), the Social Democratic Herald (1901-1911), and the Milwaukee Leader (1911-1921).
There is no adequate biography of Victor Berger; one should first consult his writings. The best collection is his Voice and Pen of Victor L. Berger: Congressional Speeches and Editorials (1929). David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America: A History (1955), describes Berger and his policies objectively and sympathetically. An unsympathetic analysis may be found in Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement: 1897-1912 (1952). Howard H. Quint, The Forging of American Socialism (1953), provides a good account of Berger's movement. Marvin Wachman, History of the Social-Democratic Party of. Milwaukee, 1897-1910 (1945), is valuable but dated. More recent is Thomas W. Gavett, Development of the Labor Movement in Milwaukee (1965).