MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of People
Untermann, Gerhard Ernest Sr. (1864-1956 )
Seaman, author, translator, newspaper editor, Director of the old Washington Park Zoo in Milwaukee, geologist, fossil hunter, and artist.
Ernest Untermann (he went by his middle name) was born in Brandenberg, Germany on November 6, 1864. He studied geology and paleontology at the University of Berlin before coming to America and joining the merchant marine, spending 10 years on board ships plying the South Seas trade routes. Back in America, he became a US citizen in 1893. Untermann was a member of the Socialist Labor Party in the 1890s and was a regular contributor to Algie Simons’ Workers Call, published in Chicago, as well as its successor, The Chicago Socialist. When Simons moved to Chicago to assume the editorship of International Socialist Review, published by the pioneer American Marxist publishing house, Charles H. Kerr & Co., Untermann’s work followed, and he was a frequent contribtor to that publication.
Untermann was the first American translator of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, beginning work on the massive project in the spring of 1905 while living on a chicken farm in Orlando, Florida and completing translations of volumes 2 and 3 for Kerr in 1907 and 1909, respectively. He also translated other socialist works for an American audience, including the memoirs of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel as well as The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, by Frederick Engels. In addition to translations from German and Italian, Untermann wrote original works on Economics and Natural History. Untermann’s books included Science and Revolution (1905), The World’s Revolutions (1906), Marxian Economics: A Popular Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx’s Capital (1907).
Untermann professed an adherence to the thinking of Karl Kautsky and Joseph Dietzgen. He held that science had a class basis and drew very radical conclusions from this premise without hesitation or pulling of punches, writing in his 1905 book, Science and Revolution, that
“I speak as a proletarian and a socialist. I make no pretense to be a scientist without class affiliation. There has never been any science which was not made possible, and which was not influenced, by the economic and class environment of the various scientists. I am, indeed, aware of the fact that there are certain general facts in all sciences which apply to all mankind regardless of classes. But I am also aware of the other fact, that the concrete application of any general scientific truth to different historical conditions and men varies considerably, because abstract truths have a general applicability only under abstract conditions, but are more or less modified in the contact with concrete environments.”
Untermann further indicated that “bourgeois science” was perpetually under assault in capitalist society and that “university professors have learned to their bitter disappointment that freedom of science is little respected when it runs counter to freedom of trade.” Hence:
“Under these circumstances, the proletariat cannot place any reliance on bourgeois science. it must and will maintain a critical attitude toward all bourgeois science, and accept nothing that does not stand the test of proletarian standards.
“So far as bourgeois science coincides with the findings of proletarian science, we shall gladly accept and foster every truth... But we shall on our part reject everything which tends to strengthen the ruling class, endanger the progress of the proletarian revolution, or interfere with the advance of human knowledge and control of natural forces in general.”
Rather unsurprisingly, his Science and Revolution was translated into Russian and published in Soviet Ukraine in 1923.
Untermann was on the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of America from 1908-10 and was the Socialist candidate for Governor of Idaho in 1910 and for US Senate from California in 1912. He believed strongly in support of the affiliated unions of the AF of L and opposed to the more radical approach of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Untermann was a delegate to the 1912 National Convention of the Socialist Party, serving on the Committee on Immigration. He was a chief author, along with Joshua Wanhope, of a resolution on immigration which was pro-exclusionary - called “racist” by its critics - backing the AF of L in its desire to stop manufacturers from importing cheap, non-union labor from the Far East. Untermann and Wanhope were joined as a majority on this point by journalist Robert Hunter and J. Stitt Wilson of California. John Spargo, Meyer London, and Leo Laukki were the minority on this committee, opposing exclusionism. Untermann and Wanhope’s majority proposal was effectively killed by the convention on motion by Charles Solomon of New York not to receive the committee’s report, but rather to hold the matter open for further investigation and final decision by the next party convention, scheduled for four years hence.
Untermann later served as Foreign Editor of Victor Berger’s socialist daily, the Milwaukee Leader, beginning in 1921.
Untermann was also a painter of great accomplishment, specializing in landscapes and prehistoric flora and fauna. He was known as ‘The Artist of the Uintas’. He contributed paintings, murals, and panels to the Dinosaur National Monument, the old Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum and has a large collection of paintings at the new Utah Field House of Natural History State Park museum in Vernal, Utah. His interest in paleontology and Geology led to his moving to Vernal, Utah..
Untermann died in Vernal on January 5, 1956.
Untermann’s papers are housed at two institutions, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in Madison, WI and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
1. Allen Ruff, “We Called Each Other Comrade,” Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997; pg. 90.
2. Ernest Untermann, Science and Revolution. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1905; pg. 6.
3. Ernest Untermann, Science and Revolution, pp. 154-155.
4. Mark Pittenger, American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993; pg. 179.
5. John Spargo (ed.), National Convention of the Socialist Party Held at Indianapolis, Ind., May 12 to 18, 1912: Stenographic Report by Wilson E. McDermut, assisted by Charles W. Phillips. Chicago: The Socialist Party, 1912; pp. 166-167.
6. Swanson, Vern G.; Robert S. Olpin; and William C. Seifrit, Utah Painting and Sculpture. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 1997.