Socialism before it was a four-letter word John Gurda, Milwaukee Journal, April 3, 2010
from the Milwaukee Journal files
One hundred years ago tomorrow, Milwaukee made political history. On April 5, 1910, we became the first (and only) major city in America to elect a Socialist mayor. A former patternmaker named Emil Seidel won a decisive victory in the spring election, beginning a period of Socialist success at the polls that would last until Frank Zeidler stepped down in 1960.
To those outside the city, Seidel's win seemed positively revolutionary, a bold and abrupt departure from the American norm. The truth is that municipal Socialism had been germinating here for generations. It mattered, first of all, that Milwaukee was the most German city in America and that some of its residents were genuine revolutionaries. An 1848 revolt against the German monarchs had ended in victory for the crowned set and exile for thousands of rebels, many of them well-educated idealists who wanted nothing less than to change the world.
A significant number of these "Forty-Eighters" found their way to Milwaukee, where they established music societies, theater groups, schools and other organizations that made their new home the "German Athens" of America. The exiles were as passionate about politics as they were about culture. Their Turner halls and freethinker congregations became forums for ideas that would come to life as Milwaukee Socialism.
European intellectuals may have supplied the seeds, but workers furnished the soil. As Milwaukee became a center of industry in the late 1800s, the city attracted legions of blue-collar immigrants who worked 10 to 12 hours for a dollar or two a day, without a dime in benefits. They were understandably open to the Socialist argument that workers deserved a greater share of the wealth they created.
The "laboring classes" were particularly receptive after state militia troops leveled deadly fire against a group of strikers marching for the eight-hour day in 1886. The shootings sparked a populist revolt that swept a number of factory hands into political office. They were swept out again when Republicans and Democrats joined forces, but Milwaukee workers were ripe for a rematch.
The regular parties offered a progressively weaker alternative. Like many American cities, Milwaukee became a cesspool of political corruption during the Gilded Age. Under Mayor David Rose, who held sway between 1898 and 1910, public morals reached their historic low point. Virtually everything that was not nailed down - from public hay supplies to aldermanic votes - was for sale to the highest bidder.
Milwaukee Socialism, finally, had superb leadership. Victor Berger, the movement's chief tactician, brought its rhetoric down from the clouds of abstraction and forged a highly effective alliance with organized labor. Although he believed firmly in the "cooperative commonwealth" envisioned by his comrades, Berger wanted to succeed in the here-and-now rather than wait for the sweet by-and-by.
His goal was to educate by governing, and you could govern only by winning elections. Berger's party began to field candidates in 1898, and its first successes, not surprisingly, came in the working-class wards of the German north side. The aldermen elected from those neighborhoods showed a diligence and a creativity that made their regular-party counterparts look like hopeless hacks by comparison.
There was, in short, a constellation of forces that aligned to produce the Socialist triumph of 1910. The party's desire for a new social order gave its members a motive. Disaffected industrial workers gave them the means. The open corruption of the Rose era provided an opening. Berger developed the strategy, and his comrades on the Common Council set the example.
Voters soon learned to trust the Socialists and, despite some shameless redbaiting by the regular parties, a rising tide of popular support finally crested in the landslide victory of April 5, 1910. Not only did Seidel win the mayor's race, but Socialists took a large majority of seats on both the Common Council and the County Board. Berger himself went to Washington as the lone Socialist in Congress.
To some party regulars, the 1910 sweep marked the dawn of a new era. To some capitalists, it represented the end of civilization as they knew it. The reality, as usual, fell somewhere in between. Milwaukee did change perceptibly. The brothels on River Street were closed, municipal services were expanded, and the minimum wage for city workers was raised. The Socialists tried to enact a host of even broader measures: improved public works, better public schools, more public parks, larger public libraries, sounder public health - all under the aegis of "public enterprise."
Other pet initiatives, including public ownership of the utilities and advanced social welfare legislation, never came to pass under the Milwaukee Socialists. Perhaps their greatest achievement was a shift in the tone and conduct of municipal government. The Socialists delivered, and the public came to expect, administrations rooted in honesty, efficiency, frugality, and concern for the working person. The result was continued success at the polls. Although Seidel lost his 1912 bid for a second term, voters kept Dan Hoan in office from 1916 to 1940 and Frank Zeidler from 1948 to 1960.
By the time Zeidler left City Hall, Democrats had long since captured the Socialist Party's labor base, appropriated much of its rhetoric, and even enacted some of its pet programs, notably Social Security. The party of Seidel and Hoan became a dwindling core of the faithful who stuck to their ideological guns but were no longer a credible threat at election time.
Although the party's ascendancy is long past, the Socialist period in Milwaukee's development is much more than a historical curiosity. Not only did the movement give us lasting amenities like a stellar park system, but it also embodied a deep and timeless blend of pragmatism and idealism. Although they worked for real-world reforms, the Socialists didn't stop there. They called their fellow citizens to a higher conception of the common good, one that placed cooperation above competition and mutualism above bare self-interest. They believed that a government based on those ideals was humanity's best hope for the future.
We seem to have lost that hope in recent years - the result of all-too-frequent misconduct by our elected representatives, certainly, but also of our own diminished expectations. The Socialist centennial reminds us that Milwaukee was once animated by a view of the common wealth that can be ours to reclaim for the twenty-first century.
The ideals of the Socialists were never fully realized, as ideals never are, but they can still serve as signposts to a sounder future - and it all started 100 years ago tomorrow.
John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian, writes for the Crossroads section on the first Sunday of each month.