In 2016, Bernie Sanders brought the concept of “democratic socialism” to national attention in his run for the Democratic nomination for president. As an admitted socialist, he has convinced a significant number of Democrats that socialism is good. Sanders himself, however, is not a member of the “Socialist Party”, but there were two members of Congress who were: Victor Berger of Wisconsin and Meyer London of New York.
Victor Berger (1860-1929) had been a founder of the party with its notable presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs. In 1910, he challenged incumbent Republican William Stafford of Milwaukee for his seat and won.
Berger was thought of by many in Congress as something of a quirky figure, putting forth proposals for government ownership of railroads, radio, and telegraphs. He also called not for the direct election of Senators, but for the abolition of the Senate itself, making Congress a unicameral legislature. He also staunchly advocated for old-age pensions, which would ultimately become reality in the form of Social Security (Stevens). In 1912, he lost reelection to Stafford, but Berger wasn’t quitting. In 1918, he would defeat him for reelection, but since the U.S. had entered World War I and Berger had engaged in anti-war speech, he was not seated by Congress while being prosecuted by the Wilson Administration. Although convicted, Berger’s conviction would be overturned by the Supreme Court and he was free to run for Congress. In 1922, he once again unseated Stafford. On his return, he opposed income tax cuts, opposed Coolidge Administration debt resettlement bills with war debtor nations, supported McNary-Haugen farm relief legislation, and opposed federal flood control legislation. In 1928, the Hoover landslide proved too much for Berger to weather, and he was unseated by Stafford. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t have an opportunity to run for Congress again as he sustained a fractured skull as a result of a streetcar accident, and died of complications of his injuries weeks later.
New York City’s Meyer London (1871-1926) first ran for Congress in 1914 against Democrat Henry M. Goldfogle, who was a staunch Tammany Hall man, and won.
While backing President Wilson’s progressive agenda, he was staunchly anti-war, and voted against American involvement in World War I as well as the Espionage and Sedition Acts. However, he also supported the war effort, which was condemned by his socialist base. Ultimately, he was being attacked from both sides on the war question. He was not backing it enough, or he was backing it too much. As London himself stated, “I wonder whether I am to be punished for having had the courage to vote against the war or for standing by my country’s decision when it chose war” (Simkin, 2014). Ultimately it was his opposition to these measures that proved too much for his constituents, who voted him out in favor of Goldfogle in 1918. However, once war had come to an end, the constituents of New York’s 12th district saw fit to send him back in 1920. On his return, London opposed the Harding Administration’s economic agenda, which included tax cuts and tariff rate hikes. In 1922, he faced a strong challenger in Tammany Hall Democrat Samuel Dickstein, and he was defeated. London would never return to Congress, being accidentally struck by a motorist in 1926, dying in the hospital that evening. A popular figure, his funeral was attended by over half a million New Yorkers.
Representative Victor Berger of Wisconsin, the First Socialist Member of Congress. History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives.
Simkin, J. (2014). Meyer London. Spartacus Educational.
Retrieved from http://spartacus-educational.com/Meyer_London.htm
Stevens, M.E. Victor Berger. Encyclopedia of Milwaukee.
Retrieved from https://emke.uwm.edu/entry/victor-l-berger/