Strange bedfellows, or Everything old is new again

SocialDemocraticPartyBookI always have my eye out for unusual books about Milwaukee history, and History of the Social Democratic Party of Milwaukee: 1897-1910 by Marvin Wachman (University of Illinois Press, Urban, Illinois, 1945) seemed to fit the bill.

I don’t have much interest in politics, but the book covered a sufficiently early time period that I thought someone (probably not me, but I do have customers) might find it interesting. Plus it met one of my primary criteria: There weren’t many copies on line.

Although I didn’t expect to be riveted by the content, I did flip through the book while cataloging it and was surprised at how much information of interest it contained.

Even though I had always known (learned in school or picked up somewhere along the line) that Milwaukee once had a Socialist mayor, I always dimly thought that was just the name of his party. By the time I was aware of such things, “Socialist” was used almost interchangeably with “Communist.” Communists were evil, and Milwaukee would never be associated with anything like the socialism that got such a bad rap during the cold war.

Boy, was I wrong!

Milwaukee’s socialist party platform was all about destroying capitalism and giving the workers control of the means of production. Interestingly enough, though, it distanced and distinguished itself from Communism, as explained by Victor L. Berger, one of the movers and shakers of the party.

…Our aim is Socialism, not Communism. We want this understood. Between Socialism and Communism there is a great deal of difference….

Socialism simply demands the collective ownership of the means of production and distribution. we will produce in common, but the consumption will remain individual. socialism will control only our capital, not our property. A Socialist Commonwealth will not do away with individual ownership of property, but only with individual ownership of capital.

It is Communism that denies individual ownership of all property. The communists want to produce and consume in common.

(The Vanguard, VI (January, 1908), 79-80)

Still sounds pretty red to me, as do other elements of the Socialist Democratic platform, such as: We demand that the city be given the power to take over and manage such public industries as are not in private hands…

But that’s not what really captured my attention. What was really interesting was the issue of an armed citizenry. Victor L. Berger (who was almost synonymous with the Social Democratic party), wrote in The Social-Democratic Herald (Milawukee. April 15, 1905):

…I would like to see a systematic way of arming all the people. Not for the sake of “revolution,” but for the sake of peace and progress.

Frederic Engels once said: “Give every citizen a good rifle and fifty cartridges and you have the best guarantee for the liberty of the people.” Thomas Jefferson held the same views exactly.

An armed people is always a free people. Even demagogues and parasites would have a great deal less to say than they have today….

With the nation armed in a systematic way the capitalist class need not fear any sudden uprising — there are less riots in Switzerland where the people are armed, than in Russia where they are disarmed. But with the nation armed, the workingmen are not in danger of being shot down like dogs on the least provocation.

Frederic Engels, by the way, co-authored (along with Karl Marx)  The Communist Manifesto. Whether he shared any other views with Thomas Jefferson is unstated by Berger, but he does seem to share some views with the modern National Rifle Association.

What I find fascinating is not only the argument for gun ownership, but the shift in those propounding it. Who would have thought that the super patriotic NRA would have anything in common with Marxists and Socialists?

This entry was posted in Milwaukee history. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>