Rediscovering Revolutionary Socialism in America:
The Marxism of Victor Berger at the Height of the Second International
Keywords:socialism, Victor Berger, Second International, American socialism, Socialist Party of America, capitalism, Marxism, philosophy
This article examines the pre-World War I editorials of America’s first Socialist con- gressman, Victor Berger, in order to recover the lost history of early twentieth-century American socialism from the obscuring lenses of Progressivism, Populism, anarchism, scientism, Soviet Communism, and American Exceptionalism. As I argue, talk of a Second Gilded Age today overlooks the vastly different roles “socialism” has played in the respective discourses. Rather than fighting for a stronger national welfare state, even the most conservative Socialists like Wisconsin Representative Victor Berger campaigned for the abolition of wage labour and the overthrow of global capitalism. Recognizing Populism’s failure to preserve its political independence as a working-class movement, Berger, like Debs, proposed that the working class should organize itself under the banner of a socialist party to take state power. In order to link the forma- tion of mass parties like the Socialist Party of America to a totalizing philosophy of history and international political revolution, Berger drew from Second-International Marxist dialogue in which it was enmeshed, not indigenous American traditions. The prolific editorial career of Victor Berger, head of the largest English-language socialist daily in the country, demonstrates how pre-war American Socialists did not merely “translate” Second-International Marxism but rather made up a constitutive part of its transatlantic development.