Since the presidential campaign began, the prospect that socialism would seize the Democratic Party has animated Republicans and created anxiety for many Democrats. Last Tuesday, hours before the Democratic debate, President Trump’s campaign flew a 105-foot-long banner reading “Socialism Destroys Ohio Jobs: Vote Trump” over the debate site in Westerville, Ohio.
At the same time, some progressives, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, have rejected any association with the socialist label. Warren has called herself a “capitalist to my bones” and stood up to applaud Mr. Trump’s declaration that “America will never be a socialist country” during this year’s State of the Union address. (Senator Bernie Sanders, the only major presidential candidate who identifies as a democratic socialist, remained seated.)
Mr. Sanders, who just received the endorsement of the country’s second-most prominent democratic socialist, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, has fended off Republican attacks by tying his economic ideology to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Mr. Sanders should also consider another remarkable American legacy: the one provided by the socialists who once ruled Milwaukee, the city that will host the 2020 Democratic National Convention and the only large American city that has ever been governed for a significant period of time by socialists.
Mocked by ideological purists for practicing “sewer socialism,” Milwaukee’s pragmatic socialists focused on winning concrete gains for their working-class constituents. From 1910 to 1960, they held the mayor’s office for nearly 40 years, elected numerous state legislators and aldermen, and won a congressional seat. Sewer socialists — who carried out measures to improve public health and investments in public infrastructure like schools, libraries, parks and, yes, sewers — were known for their integrity, their tactical ingenuity and their relentless organizing. Even today, when third-party politics are more untenable and labor unions are in decline, the sewer socialists’ blend of unwavering idealism and dogged gradualism offers valuable lessons for building and sustaining a progressive working-class movement.
The roots of sewer socialism go back to the mid-19th century, when a wave of German immigrants settled in Milwaukee. Some were refugees from the failed revolution of 1848 and had been members of the Turnverein, or Turners, a physical fitness movement that also encouraged intellectual development and liberal — sometimes radical — politics. German immigration and the Turner movement grew in the 1870s and 1880s, as Milwaukee transformed into “the machine shop of the world” and a central battleground for the American labor movement.
In 1886, workers across the city went on strike to try and win an eight-hour workday. That campaign ended in violent defeat when Wisconsin National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of strikers, killing seven people, including a 13-year-old boy. But workers in Milwaukee soon coalesced around the short-lived People’s Party, which advocated reforms like restrictions on child labor. Later that year, the People’s Party won many State Assembly seats, county offices and a seat in the United States House. Democrats and Republicans colluded to defeat the party in the next election, but its rise inspired an immigrant Milwaukee schoolteacher named Victor Berger to try and fashion a reformist, European-style socialist party for the United States.
In 1895, Berger visited Eugene V. Debs, the president of the American Railway Union, in prison in Illinois. Berger brought Debs, who had been jailed for leading a national railway workers’ strike, a copy of Marx’s “Capital,” a gift that Debs later acknowledged had converted him to socialism. Not long after, Berger and Debs helped found the Social Democratic Party of America, whose name was soon changed to the Socialist Party. (In Milwaukee, the party retained its original name, a reflection, perhaps, of the myriad definitions of “socialism” and of the fact that, as the Milwaukee historian John Gurda told me, Berger’s place “was on the right side of a left-wing movement”; Berger had called it “nonsense to talk of sudden bloody revolutions here.”)
A brilliant tactician, Berger built a cohesive party by employing precinct organizers, requiring membership dues, staging youth concerts, publishing newspapers and unleashing the “bundle brigade,” a volunteer army that could deliver the party’s literature, in any of 12 languages, to every house in Milwaukee within 48 hours. Berger’s strategy, which he called the Milwaukee Idea, was to create a party that was an extension of the labor movement.
In 1898, the first election in which Milwaukee’s socialists ran their own candidates, the party’s mayoral candidate won 5 percent of the vote. But the public’s rising disgust with corruption in the Democratic administration of Mayor David Rose led to steady and significant gains for the socialists, and in 1910 they won 21 of 35 City Council seats, 14 state legislative seats and the mayor’s office. That year, Victor Berger also became the first socialist elected to Congress.
There was no need to go on a “listening tour” to find out what the working class wanted, since so many of the party’s newly elected officials were workers themselves, including the new mayor of Milwaukee, a woodcarver named Emil Seidel. The eldest of 11 children, Seidel had been forced to go to work after grammar school. He and his fellow socialists in city government — including his personal secretary, the poet Carl Sandburg — instituted dozens of measures to improve their constituents’ lives.
They installed hundreds of drinking fountains, prosecuted restaurateurs for serving tainted food and compelled factory owners to put in heating systems and toilets. Most significantly, Seidel appointed an aggressive new health commissioner, whose department oversaw a reduction of more than 40 percent in the number of cases of the six leading contagious diseases, among them scarlet fever, whooping cough and smallpox, within two years.
The most widely admired trait of the sewer socialists was their integrity. “They never were approached by the lobbyists, because the lobbyists knew it was not possible to influence these men,” William Evjue, a Republican assemblyman, said of his socialist colleagues. Chicago, 80 miles to the south, was awash in corruption for decades, while Seidel’s administration had largely cleaned up Milwaukee’s municipal government in its brief run. But Democrats and Republicans joined forces to run a single candidate against Seidel, and he and most of the city’s elected socialists were defeated in 1912. (Later that year, when Debs ran for president, Seidel was his running mate, helping the Socialist Party win 6 percent of the vote, its highest percentage ever.)
One Milwaukee socialist who survived, however, was Daniel Hoan, the city attorney, who was not up for re-election that year. In 1916, Hoan avenged the socialists’ losses by winning the mayor’s office, which he held until 1940. Hoan oversaw further public investment, including the construction of the nation’s first public housing project, Garden Homes.
During Hoan’s tenure, an urban planner named Charles Whitnall designed sewer socialism’s most enduring achievement: the Milwaukee County park system, one of the most extensive and acclaimed in the country. The city added miles of new parkland along Lake Michigan’s waterfront, which had been dominated by private mansions.
Hoan adhered to sewer socialism’s tradition of spending taxpayer money frugally. “The objective is to give the best government possible,” Hoan once said. “But not necessarily at a low tax rate — at the lowest cost that can be paid.” During the Depression, he created a voluntary program in which city employees, including Hoan, took a 10 percent pay cut to fund public works projects that put nearly 15,000 unemployed people to work.
Unlike Berger, who held deplorable views on race and immigration, Hoan forcefully rejected racism. In 1924, with the Ku Klux Klan in Milwaukee boasting more than 4,000 members, Hoan declared that he would make the city “the hottest place this side of hell” if a K.K.K. member attacked one of his constituents, “whether he be black or white, red or yellow, Jew or Gentile, Catholic or Protestant.”
In 1948, after eight years of Democratic rule, Frank Zeidler, a former county supervisor, became the last socialist to win the mayor’s office. Two years later, Senator Joesph McCarthy of Wisconsin started the Red Scare, but remarkably Zeidler proceeded to win re-election twice during the height of McCarthyism.
Despite hostility from both parties and the press, Zeidler proved to be a highly effective mayor. The business magazine Fortune ran a series on the best-run American cities and ranked Milwaukee second. His appeal lay in his equanimity, and in his empathy, which was forged when Zeidler was a child. “He learned about poverty then,” his daughter, Anita, told me. “He had a job taking leftover newspapers to widowed, single females, who would use them to cover their dirt floors. Sometimes he took food packages, too.” That memory, Ms. Zeidler said, stayed with him throughout his life.
Zeidler’s commitment to his ideals ultimately cost him his political career. In 1955, he was photographed inaugurating an addition to Hillside Terrace, a public housing unit built a few years earlier. He pointedly handed the first sets of keys to two families: one white and one black. That moment contributed to a racist backlash against Zeidler that included violent threats against his family during the 1956 campaign and rumors that Zeidler was using city funds to pay for billboards in the South urging African-Americans to settle in Milwaukee.
“We had a policeman guarding the front and back of the house,” recalled Ms. Zeidler, who died last year. “We went to the F.B.I., but they wouldn’t do anything about it.” Those threats deterred Zeidler from seeking another term in 1960, but he continued battling the real estate industry’s use of blockbusting tactics, which fomented white flight, and never wavered in his commitment to sewer socialism’s egalitarian ideals. “He welcomed any citizen to the city,” Ms. Zeidler said. “He believed every person has equal rights and equal responsibilities.”
Though Zeidler’s decision effectively ended sewer socialism in Milwaukee, Democrats — as they descend on the city next summer to nominate their candidate — should look to sewer socialism’s commitment to economic equality, universalism, organizing, honesty and public investment, regardless of who the nominee is. They might also look, without fear, to the movement’s spirit of idealistic pragmatism, which was captured best by Emil Seidel in his unpublished memoirs.
“Some Eastern smarties called ours a sewer socialism,” Seidel wrote:
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.
Dan Kaufman is the author of “The Fall of Wisconsin.”
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