Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the longest tenured socialist on the Chicago City Council, holds the Milwaukee socialists of the early 20th century in high regard. He name-dropped them on Twitter when it was announced that Milwaukee would host the 2020 Democratic National Convention:
“So happy for Chicago’s little cousin, Milwaukee, for landing the 2020 Democratic National Convention! The third coast is the best coast, and Bernie is going to feast on the finest cheese, beers, and brats, while he’s regaled with stories of the sewer socialists of yore. #DNCinMKE”
In an article published after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, Ramirez-Rosa cited the sewer socialists as evidence that Midwesterners have supported socialists before and yearn for socialism today. The geographic proximity of two of the only sizable socialist political contingents in major cities in U.S. history is noteworthy. But they are also separated by more than 100 years of developments that render socialist politics particularly precarious today.
Within the century that separates the Milwaukee and Chicago socialists, the Left faced staggering setbacks: two Red Scares and the subsequent purging of radical leftists from much of American society, the rise and fall of the American labor movement, and also the more recent ascendance of a neoliberal political and economic regime that makes a comeback for the anti-capitalist left that much more difficult. But Chicago socialists’ electoral success in 2019 is only one example of a comeback that may in fact be brewing. Bernie Sanders’s competitive campaigns for president, the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other left-wing members of the House of Representatives, the exponential growth of DSA, the strike wave of teachers and other workers in the last two years, and the largest demonstrations in American history last summer that demanded reforms to policing – all of these developments provide some degree of hope that the conditions that led to the electoral success of the sewer socialists in Milwaukee could one day be replicated.
Even if their success was replicated, the sewer socialists’ record reveals that they did not possess a tremendous amount of revolutionary potential. Their most prominent leader disavowed any hope for a socialist revolution. The reformist wing of the Socialist Party of America, partially made up of members of Milwaukee’s cadre of socialists, purged the radical labor organizer Bill Haywood from the national executive committee of the party in 1913. As Mike Davis outlines in his classic book about the history of organized labor in the U.S., Prisoners of the American Dream, the splintering of the American socialist movement in the 1910s into a reformist wing of craft unionists open to electoralism and a militant wing of industrial unionists with loftier ambitions of replacing capitalism was one blow to the American left in a long line of defeats during the 20th century. The Milwaukee socialists bear some responsibility for the failure of American socialists to mount a more credible threat to capital during the 1910s and beyond.
The 20th century Milwaukee model of socialism cannot be the only blueprint for 21st century socialists to follow, but there are lessons to be learned by analyzing their brand of politics at the municipal level. The sewer socialists did not represent a serious threat to capital in Milwaukee, but they still generated some important achievements. Peter Dreier chronicled their accomplishments for Dissent Magazine:
“They constructed the best municipal park system in the country, preserved and created additional public access to the city’s lakefront, and constructed decent housing for working-class families. They also expanded public education for the city’s working-class children (including free textbooks, lunches, and dental and medical programs), created an adult education program for workers, expanded the public libraries and playgrounds, and improved teachers’ salaries. The Socialists adopted tough factory and building regulations and inspections, reined in police brutality against striking workers, improved working conditions for rank-and-file cops, and sponsored public markets. They gave preference to union shops for city contracts for everything from printing to horseshoeing.”
Ken Germanson, the former president of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, even called the construction of the Milwaukee park system by socialists the “first Green New Deal” because it produced jobs and open space for the city. Milwaukee’s sewer socialists should provide inspiration to socialists in Chicago who could use their blueprint for electoral success – harsh critiques of municipal corruption merged with an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of the working class – to achieve more electoral success for themselves in the future. Milwaukee’s history demonstrates that socialist politicians pursuing a working class agenda can be immensely popular.
Chicago’s socialists should also try to build on what their Milwaukee counterparts accomplished. There are very different conditions in America’s urban areas today than in the early 20th century – the result of mass migrations, enormous changes in housing, and deindustrialization among other factors. These changes necessitate that Chicago socialists in 2020 address new issues and go further than the reformist sewer socialists in Milwaukee. In particular, efforts to address decades of racist urban policies in housing, employment, and education are imperative. Chicago socialists should maintain their focus on affordable housing for all their constituents, a dramatic reallocation of resources away from the Chicago Police Department and toward social services (87% of respondents to a recent citywide survey supported reallocating police money), and municipalization of private utilities.
The aldermen should foreground class antagonism in their work while also tying their politics to broader labor and socialist movements in the U.S. and beyond. The aldermen’s involvement with DSA and support for social and economic justice campaigns indicate that they have an allegiance to movements beyond Chicago. As some of the precious few examples of socialist electoral success in the U.S. in the 21st century, Chicago’s socialist aldermen, along with Chicago DSA and union organizers for CTU, have a lot of insights to share with workers and socialists throughout the country (and could also learn plenty from them).
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa believes in fundamentally remaking the American economy. When asked to define “democratic socialism” he said, “I start with the first word, which is democratic. And I talk about what is democracy, it’s control from the bottom up. So I say, ‘Look, we want to see a democratic public realm, but also we want to see democracy in the economy.’ We want an economy where workers control the means of production.” Chicago’s socialist aldermen have a long way to go before they can remake much of anything. They still occupy only five seats in a City Council with 50 members. They can only dream of wielding the type of power that Milwaukee’s sewer socialists had in the early 20th century. But they do not need to look very far to study an example of a version of socialism that had some real successes, even though it fell well short of a truly socialist vision. Milwaukee is only a stone’s throw away.