The sewer socialists of Milwaukee provide the clearest historical example in the United States of what socialists can achieve at the municipal level. In 1910, socialists claimed a majority on the Milwaukee City Council and the mayorship. 14 socialists were also elected to Wisconsin’s state legislature. The socialists’ majority on the City Council and control of the mayor’s office only lasted two years. But between 1910 and 1960, Milwaukee elected three socialist mayors that governed for 38 of 50 years. In 2020, the heirs to their legacy can be found 80 miles south of Milwaukee. Last year, six socialists were elected to the Chicago City Council. They made up 12 percent of the City Council, the largest share in any major city since the socialists of Milwaukee more than a century earlier. Recently, one member of this new Socialist Caucus, Andre Vasquez, was censured by Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA) and called upon to resign his membership due to his support for Mayor Lightfoot’s 2021 budget. It looks as though the Socialist Caucus now stands at five members. Socialists in Chicago still have a long way to go before they can wield the kind of power that socialists did in Milwaukee. But the accomplishments and shortcomings of the sewer socialists should provide a blueprint for Chicago’s socialists as they try to bring about big changes in the face of enormous opposition.
In early 20th century America, socialists had the biggest impact on local events in three major geographic areas: Milwaukee, New York City, and the western United States. Socialists in each of these three locations were operating in a period ripe for electoral and organizing success for the far left. The battles between labor and capital during the late 19th century had strengthened labor unions’ resolve. Progressives swept into political office throughout the country, including the White House. The Socialist Party of America was founded in 1901 and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in 1905. All of these developments happened before the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia ignited the Red Scare in the United States which resulted in a swift backlash against radicals.
New York City socialism was defined by its international character. German, Russian, and Jewish communities and their neighborhood newspapers were bastions of radical politics in the early 20th century in New York. This engagement with leftist politics led to enormous strikes such as 20,000 women garment workers walking off the job in 1909 and then mass demonstrations following the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 that resulted in the first major regulations of businesses in New York.
Meanwhile in the western United States, a more radical brand of socialism than the kind that took hold in Milwaukee flourished. Western socialism was born out of the Populist movement of the late 19th century. Bill Haywood, an industrial unionist and a founding member of the IWW and Socialist Party of America, tried to organize unskilled workers and farmers. Workplace conflicts in the mining and timber industries were common in the early 20th century. The most widely read socialist magazine in the country, Appeal to Reason, originated in Kansas. More than 175 socialists were elected to local and county offices in Oklahoma in 1914, including six to the state legislature. Eugene Debs received more than 16% of the vote in Oklahoma and Nevada during his 1912 run for president.
Milwaukee socialists had more political power than these other socialist hotbeds because of their ability to win the mayorship and a majority on the City Council. The enormous population of first and second generation German immigrants in Milwaukee, many of whom had been radicalized during and after the 1848 failed revolution in Germany, enabled socialists to seize power of municipal government in a fashion that was unprecedented in the United States. Milwaukee socialists were also more reformist than their New York City and western counterparts, a fact that undoubtedly made them more palatable to a large swath of the Milwaukee electorate. The socialist movement there was spearheaded by Victor Berger, a former teacher, newspaper editor, and political organizer who was one of the founding members of the Socialist Party of America along with Eugene Debs. He eventually became the first representative elected to the U.S. House as a socialist in 1910.
The Milwaukee socialist movement was born out of the struggles of trade unionists during the 19th century. Some of the earliest labor organizing in Milwaukee was by bricklayers and carpenters that formed unions in the mid-19th century. Unions representing transportation, clothing, and printing workers became popular before the city’s turn to heavy industry in the late-19th century. The Knights of Labor gained a foothold in Milwaukee in the 1880s. A demonstration by workers for an eight-hour-day in 1886 outside the Milwaukee Iron Company resulted in the deaths of seven workers when the state militia fired on them. The Bay View Massacre was a turning point that led trade unionists in Milwaukee to pursue political action. The Federated Trades Council (FTC) was created in 1887 and worked with Victor Berger to steer its members towards socialist positions. The FTC was largely composed of skilled workers such as German cigar makers, typographers, and molders and it was associated with the burgeoning American Federation of Labor (AFL). The moderate AFL, oriented around craft unionism, aligned with the reformist brand of socialism that developed in Milwaukee. The success of socialist politicians in Milwaukee would have been impossible without the support of these trade unionists who fought hard for socialist politics for years before 1910.
Once in office, the sewer socialists engaged in “good government” reforms meant to clean Milwaukee (both from political corruption and also literally from the pollution and grime that plagued the city). They were unresponsive to lobbyists and reversed the trend under the previous mayor, David Rose, of offering everything in the government – from public hay supplies to aldermanic votes – for sale to the highest bidder. Their mission was to expand “public enterprise.” The socialists pumped resources into public schools, public libraries, and most famously the sanitation department (which earned them their nickname). Their legacy is most clearly visible today in the Milwaukee park system that socialist Charlie Whitnall planned. One of their most impressive feats was creating a volunteer army with a thousand members called the “Bundle Brigade” that proved capable of delivering party literature to thousands of Milwaukee homes in up to 12 different languages within 48 hours.
Milwaukee became the envy of the rest of the country during the years when it was run by socialist mayors, and that was many years – Emil Seidel from 1910-1912, Daniel Hoan from 1916-1940, and Frank Zeidler from 1948-1960. As historian John Gurda described, “Time Magazine called Milwaukee ‘perhaps the best-governed city in the U.S.’ in 1936, and the community won trophy after trophy for public health, traffic safety and fire prevention. The health prize came home so often that Milwaukee had to be retired from competition to give other municipalities a chance.” After socialists transformed the city’s Board of Health in 1910 and Hoan took office as mayor, Milwaukee had the second lowest death rate of any major city in the United States during the Spanish Flu pandemic between 1918 and 1920.
Milwaukee’s socialists had numerous accomplishments, but leftists in the U.S. and Europe were quick to point out that they were far from revolutionaries. Vladimir Lenin dismissed municipal socialism “because it dreams of social peace, of class conciliation, and seeks to divert public attention away from the fundamental questions of the economic system as a whole, and of the state structure as a whole, to minor questions of local self-government.” His skepticism was shared by American radicals in the IWW. Victor Berger’s philosophy clashed with the IWW’s insistence on one big union fighting for a general strike. He had initially founded the Social Democratic Party and based his efforts at creating socialism in the United States on the social democratic parties of Europe. He disavowed revolution as a means to achieve socialism. John Gurda described the sewer socialists’ public spending practices this way: “Contrary to another popular myth, these were not tax-and-spend radicals intent on emptying the public coffers. They were, in fact, every bit as frugal as the most penny-pinching German hausfrau. The Socialists managed civic affairs on a pay-as-you-go basis, and in 1943, Milwaukee became the only big city in America whose amortization fund exceeded its outstanding bond obligations. It was, in other words, debt-free.”
And beyond their proclivities for frugality, they also did not bring about large-scale public ownership of utilities in Milwaukee. They did manage to bring the streetcar company under public control and had designs for socializing the electric company, but those attempts failed. Socialists across the country branded them “sewer socialists” to point out that these Milwaukee socialists were not true Marxist believers, but rather progressive politicians in disguise. They ended up wearing the moniker with pride. Emil Seidel, who also served as Eugene Debs’s running mate during the presidential election of 1912, famously said:
“Yes, we wanted sewers in the workers’ homes; but we wanted much, oh, so very much more than sewers. We wanted our workers to have pure air; we wanted them to have sunshine; we wanted planned homes; we wanted living wages; we wanted recreation for young and old; we wanted vocational education; we wanted a chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness. And, we wanted everything that was necessary to give them that: playgrounds, parks, lakes, beaches, clean creeks and rivers, swimming and wading pools, social centers, reading rooms, clean fun, music, dance, song and joy for all. That was our Milwaukee Social Democratic movement.”