Monday, May 15, 2006

 
"Berger's approach to politics flowed from his understanding that there was no immediate prospect for a transition to socialism in the United States -- of, for that matter, in any other part of the world. That led him to take the long view, and to seek alliances with other reformers. Among other things he was a leader of the Milwaukee local of the International Typographical Union and editor of the Milwaukee Federated Trades council's official publication. This approach led his detractors to call Berger a "sewer socialist" -- a reference to the Milwaukee local's promise to build a sewage system designed to last fifty years. In fact, the sewer was built, and it was only a part of the local reforms and stable electoral organizations that Berger championed -- all of which helped to make him the party's most successful politician." [James Weinstein: 2003 The Long Detour]

Of course, in those days sewage and safe drinking water were life or death issues. Having bad water meant serious illness or a horrible and rapid death. No antibiotics. Often the purity of the water improved with income, sometimes not. A good sewage system meant life. While his more ideologically pure contemporaries might have scoffed at these reforms, perhaps believing that they were unworthy of their lofty goals, or for their exalted persons, Victor Berger helped get the sewer built. One assumes that this action saved lives, improved lives, perhaps made people stronger to fight for their rights. One of the most important political results would have been that it provided a tangible example of what the left could do for people. Nothing impresses people like not having to worry that the water is going to kill their children. Avoiding such vulgar projects, the pure of heart felt a higher calling. Which produced talk.

Victor Berger might have failed to enter the pantheon of the more legendary leftists, he was not a failure with the voters. Milwaukee sent him to the congress in 1910, the first Socialist to be elected to the congress and seated. It elected him twice more, though by then he had been convicted of essentially opposing the First World War and was not allowed to take the seat. But even that one time he did serve in congress he racked up a record that betters most of the more remembered leftists in our history. And after winning the right to his seat in court he was reelected twice in the 1920s.

What does this mean for us a hundred years later? Berger's practicality, of facing the situation without wishful thinking and of working with the means possible to produce real improvements for people is the model we need to follow. Nothing contained in the most brilliant minds with the highest ideals with the greatest daring and the most solid commitment to the cause is as radical as a bill voted on and made into a law that overturns a bad law. No brilliant idea, rigorous in its logic and comprehensive in its supporting facts is as good as a small civil service project that improves living conditions for people. It is only when the idea is made into law by people who hold elected office that the truly radical can happen, lives improve. Words, true and well chosen, only matter when they are put into effect and change material reality. It is simply a fact that political change relies on politicians who are dependent on the consent of the governed. If the governed see results they will support the politicians who deliver them.

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