Click the image to learn more. The Socialists' ardent support for the labor movement is evidenced here by Mayor Daniel Hoan's speech before hundreds of strikers at the Seaman Auto Body plant.

Many German immigrants came to Milwaukee in the mid-nineteenth century influenced by the doctrines of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Ferdinand Lassalle. And in the process, they came to form the core of Milwaukee socialists. Holding their early meetings in German, this informal socialist Vereinigung (or association) initially did not expand to the wider community. Originally, some of these individuals had been members of the Socialist Labor Party, the first socialist party in the United States, but left in the 1890s because of infighting and the tactics of its leader, Daniel De Leon, who subscribed to revolutionary tactics to change government.[1]

On the other hand, Milwaukee socialists were noted for their eagerness to participate in the electoral process and become involved in municipal governance. In 1894, they joined the Cooperative Labor Party, comprised of populists and trade unionists, part of a long political partnership with labor that set Milwaukee socialists apart from their counterparts elsewhere. That year, John Ulrich, an elementary school principal, ran for mayor on a fusion slate, garnering 3,583 votes, compared with 24,053 for the Republican candidate and 18,815 for the Democratic candidate.[2]

By 1898, backers of socialism and members of labor organizations who had unsuccessfully sought a political voice through various working-class parties formally launched the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the city and state. Led by Victor Berger, an Austrian émigré and editor of the daily socialist newspaper Milwaukee Vorwärts (Forward), the SDP ran its first candidate for mayor that same year, winning 5 percent of the vote.[3]

In 1901, Berger joined with Frederic Heath, a “Yankee” and co-founder of the Milwaukee Ethical Society, and Eugene V. Debs, the charismatic president of the American Railway Union, to form the Socialist Party of America. At that point, Milwaukee socialists began to broaden their reach beyond the city’s German North Side. Through a highly structured party system, socialists collected membership dues, fielded precinct organizers, and held public events like lectures and concerts. Socialists’ “bundle brigade” could leaflet the entire city in forty-eight hours.[4]

The socialists’ alliance with the labor movement was another crucial factor in gaining supporters. Vorwärts became the official voice of the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council (founded in 1887) and the Wisconsin State Federation of Labor (founded in 1893). For decades, Milwaukee trade union leaders often were also Socialist Party members, including Berger, who was president of the local International Typographical Union. The Trades Council, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), shared the same office building with the Socialist Party. Although some socialists saw labor as subordinate to the party, those socialists elected to office were overwhelmingly union members.

Like Berger, Milwaukee socialists believed government must be changed through a process that was evolutionary, not revolutionary. Later, this willingness to work within the government, their emphasis on achieving immediate demands rather than fomenting class warfare, and their focus on bread-and-butter issues over municipal ownership of industries led to schisms within the Socialist Party nationally—but proved effective in electing Milwaukee mayors aligned with the party.

Their advocacy of clean municipal government, consumer safety protections, and worker rights resonated with Polish Catholics, the city’s second largest ethnic group, and with Milwaukee’s growing middle class. The new Socialist Party fielded candidates for mayor and Common Council in each election, and in 1904, the party won nine of forty-six seats on the Milwaukee Common Council.[5] Six years later, middle-class voters joined those in the working class to back Emil Seidel and his Socialist Party slate to throw out the corrupt government of Democratic Mayor David Rose, an administration that faced 276 grand jury indictments against eighty-three individuals. (Ironically, Rose was one of the few in his administration who escaped indictment.)[6] Seidel’s victory made Milwaukee the largest of thirty-three socialist-run cities in the nation. That same year, Socialist Party victories included more than half of Milwaukee County’s sixteen supervisors, two judges, and Berger’s first election to Congress.[7]

During his two-year term (1910-1912), Seidel (a patternmaker by trade), along with the Common Council’s socialist majority, increased the minimum wage for city laborers from $1.75 to $2 a day; made an eight-hour workday the standard for municipal crews; tightened voting procedures; and stepped up Health Department inspections of factories, schools, and milk plants.[8] In 1912, the Milwaukee Continuation School began to offer classes, becoming one of the largest schools for workers in the country and ultimately becoming today’s Milwaukee Area Technical College. Moreover, city business was steered toward union shops. Seidel famously employed future poet Carl Sandburg as his personal secretary.

Another notable socialist member of the Seidel administration, City Treasurer Charles Whitnall, was the visionary of Milwaukee County’s far-reaching parks system. Whitnall, whose family who operated a large floral business in Milwaukee, went on to become a leader of the area’s two most important planning agencies: the city’s Public Land Commission and the county’s Park Commission. Through his persistence and political skills, Whitnall’s 1923 master plan ultimately resulted in eighty-four miles of green space along the county’s watercourses, including Milwaukee’s three-mile parkway rimming Lake Michigan. His plans became the official guide for local land-use planning. In 1927 Milwaukee County formalized its approach, adopting one of the nation’s first county zoning ordinances.[9]

Seidel’s victory in 1910 spurred Wisconsin lawmakers to make the election of socialists much more difficult. Democrats and Republicans, embarrassed over their loss, joined forces to create an ethnically balanced ticket to rid Milwaukee of “Red” rule and defeated Seidel in 1912. (The Republican and Democratic parties had first used the “fusion” slate tactic in 1887 to defeat a coalition of populists running as the People’s Party.)[10] In the aftermath of their 1912 victory, fusionist leaders convinced the state to enact nonpartisan elections for cities “of the first class” (that is, those over a certain size), which in this case included only Milwaukee. Practically, the law, which is still in effect, meant that candidates could not be identified on the ballots by party, eliminating the ability of residents to easily cast their votes along party lines.[11]

Seidel’s eventual socialist successor, Daniel Webster Hoan, who as legal counsel for the Wisconsin American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1911 drafted the nation’s first state workers’ compensation law, continued Seidel’s good government practices. Hoan, elected in 1916, was re-elected until his loss in 1940 to Carl Zeidler, a conservative.

During his decades in office, Hoan always sought to avoid municipal debt. Through incremental tax increases and the issuance of “baby bonds,” Hoan kept the city debt under control during the Great Depression, avoiding municipal default while providing for its citizens’ needs. During the 1930s, Milwaukee’s work-relief program offered an average $50 per month to families, compared with $7.31 in Virginia and $8.18 in Kansas. At a time when government-backed violence against striking workers was common, Hoan promoted in 1935 the Boncel Ordinance, which empowered the mayor or chief of police to close any strike-bound plant when an employer refused to negotiate with workers. Hoan nearly doubled the size of the city from twenty-six square miles in 1922 to roughly forty-two square miles in 1929 through annexation of adjacent townships and suburbs.[12]

Unlike Seidel, Hoan lacked a socialist majority on the Common Council throughout nearly all of his twenty-four years in office. Both Seidel and Hoan (in the 1916-1920 period), also were handicapped by the lack of home rule in the face of an antagonistic state legislature and weakened by the requirement for a three-quarters majority on the Common Council for passage of procedural changes.[13]

The 1932 elections gave Hoan his only Common Council majority (twelve of twenty-seven aldermen were Socialist and two non-Socialist Polish aldermen sided with Hoan, giving him a majority vote).[14] During that four-year term he attempted the first move toward public ownership of a large industry. Yet he did not do so by fiat. Hoan put the decision of whether the city should run its electric power system up for a referendum vote. Voters rejected it. By that time, socialism as a third party option was waning in the city. At its peak in the years before World War One, Milwaukee’s Socialist Party had fewer than 5,000 members.[15] In 1936, the Socialist Party counted around 3,000 dues-paying members within a city of nearly 580,000.[16]

Nationally, the efforts of Hoan and others to compete in the political mainstream had separated them so much from East Coast socialists (who were themselves divided between revolutionary militants and a Marxist old guard)[17] that long-term Socialist Party Chairman Morris Hillquit derided them as “‘practical’ Socialists” who worried more about elections: “I do not belong to the Daniel Hoan group to whom Socialism consists of merely providing clean sewers of Milwaukee.”[18]

“Sewer Socialism” quickly became shorthand for the type of political movement Milwaukee socialists championed and is the center of scholarly debate over whether such a pragmatic and evolutionary approach constituted “real” socialism.[19] Other unresolved questions focus on whether a municipal administration could be considered socialist if the socialists who held political power did not attain some measure of public ownership and if a majority of its lawmakers were not socialists. Regarding Milwaukee, the highpoint of local socialism is seen as peaking in 1910, before Milwaukee socialism began to move away from the goal of public ownership, the cornerstone of East Coast socialists.[20] A counter argument posits that all socialists should be considered as such if they use that label to characterize their politics.[21] Yet however much they disagree about what constitutes socialism, most scholars see a clear connection between socialist victories at the ballot box and the party’s close relationship with local labor movements.

Jacob F. Friedrick is illustrative of the symbiosis between socialism and the labor movement. Like many socialist labor leaders, Friedrick energetically participated in municipal governance. Immigrating to Milwaukee in 1904 at age 12, Friedrick became a machinist, president of the local machinists’ union, and ultimately general secretary of the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council. He served on city and metropolitan sewerage commissions, and regularly took part in school board meetings to preserve funding for students. Friedrick had a hand in forming the Milwaukee Labor College, a workers’ night school sponsored by the Federated Trades Council, and also labored with Wisconsin economist John R. Commons to create the first of its kind state unemployment compensation law, passed in 1931.[22]

Milwaukee socialists were keenly aware of the need to reach the public through the media to further their electoral gains, and until 1938, they published the longest-lived socialist paper in the nation, the Milwaukee Leader. Founded by Victor Berger in 1911, the Leader was published six days a week and included comics and sports coverage—“something for the whole family”—part of Berger’s goal to reach the native middle class. The Socialist Party in Milwaukee also aired its views on a local radio station in the early 1930s on “The Socialist Quarter Hour.”[23]

Like their counterparts around the nation, Milwaukee socialists supported equality for women and other minority groups, but believed that an uneven distribution of wealth and private ownership of public services was the source of inequality. Their conviction that all disparities would disappear under socialism often translated into an unwillingness to take extra measures at inclusion of these groups. While Milwaukee socialists created special “women’s groups,” Socialist Party leadership remained consistently male. (Lack of representation of African Americans and Latinos in the city’s socialist leadership was less an issue in Milwaukee than in other cities because of its miniscule non-white population. For example, African Americans comprised only 0.3 percent of the city’s total population in 1910, rising to about 1.6 percent in 1945).[24]

In large part because of the Boncel Ordinance and Hoan’s attempt at municipal ownership of the electric power industry, in 1936 Hoan for the first time faced a bitter campaign fight. That year, Hoan’s share of the votes dwindled from over 60 percent in 1932 to 54 percent when he faced Milwaukee County Sheriff Joseph Shinners, an Irish Democrat with a family of ten who was backed by both the American Legion and the Nazi Friends of New Germany.[25]

The diminishing strength of the Socialist Party nationally after the launch of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was mirrored in Wisconsin. Leaders of the Wisconsin State Federation of Labor, who once were identified with the Socialist Party, demanded in 1935 that the Socialist Party take its name off the state ballot. State labor leaders sought to unite the left under the Wisconsin Progressive Party so as to improve chances for electoral victory. This new party had emerged from the Republican Party’s progressive wing, led by Robert M. La Follette, Jr. and his brother, Philip. Because the Republican Party’s progressive wing actively competed with Socialists for votes in Milwaukee County, the result often led to the election of more conservative Democrats and Republicans. To improve their electoral chances, Wisconsin Progressive Party members, socialists, and leaders from the Wisconsin Federation of Labor, and the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council formed the Progressive Party in 1935.[26] The Socialist Party returned as a separate entry on the state ballot in 1942, but by that time, many in the working class had aligned with the Democratic Party.

Hoan’s loss in 1940, declining support for the Socialist Party, and a business environment increasingly hostile to workers, formed the backdrop to Milwaukee’s first post-war municipal elections. Mayor John Bohn’s decision in 1948 not to run for re-election opened the doors to a large pool of candidates. Bohn had served as mayor through the war years, replacing first-term Mayor Carl Zeidler, who left office in 1942 to join the war effort following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was killed in action that same year. The crowded field of 15 contenders in the 1948 primary included Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, several factions of Communists, Hoan, and Frank Zeidler, Carl Zeidler’s younger brother.

Although a life-long Socialist, Frank Zeidler ran on the slate of the Municipal Enterprise Committee (MEC), a coalition of socialists, Democrats, and progressives that he helped form before the primary. No other candidates joined the slate. MEC members backed a platform that called for the public ownership of services when the private sector could not meet the needs of taxpayers. Zeidler and Democrat Henry Reuss, a lawyer and World War II army hero, led the primary field for mayor, with the 36-year-old Zeidler going on to defeat Reuss in the general elections. Zeidler won two additional terms in office.

Despite running on the MEC platform, Zeidler’s identification with socialism was well-known in Milwaukee. Zeidler had become secretary of the Milwaukee County Socialist Party in 1937 and had run on the Socialist Party ticket in several unsuccessful races, including governor in 1942 and mayor in 1944. Even though support for socialism was minimal in an era of Cold War fervor that often equated socialism with communism as twin evils, Zeidler had several advantages. First, many voters did not distinguish between him and his war-hero brother. Crucially, the union movement backed his candidacy, support essential in a city where a majority of households had a union member. Union members extensively campaigned for Zeidler at workplaces and in their neighborhoods. Zeidler also was supported by several colleagues on the Milwaukee school board where he served, and he ran an intensive publicity campaign fueled by volunteers from across the left and liberal political spectrum.

Zeidler carried on the Milwaukee socialist tradition of clean government, and like Hoan, was determined to keep the city out of debt. The postwar housing crisis occupied his immediate years in office, with war veterans returning to find little or no housing, forcing them to live in cramped and unhealthy conditions. However, Zeidler’s efforts to expand affordable housing, following passage of the federal 1949 Housing Act, fell short of his goal. In 1951, an anti-housing citizens’ group won a referendum that effectively stopped public housing projects. Ultimately 3,200 public housing units[27] were constructed during Zeidler’s three terms, short of the 10,000 he set as goal in 1948.[28]

Despite a Common Council that often opposed his proposals, Zeidler’s achievements included instituting a model civil defense program; creating a public television station and a museum; establishing the Milwaukee branch of the University of Wisconsin System; expanding the public library; completing the civic center; paving hundreds of miles of streets; adding dozens of miles of street lighting, gutters, curbs and sidewalks; and widening and repaving dowdy Wisconsin Avenue to make it once again the downtown’s “Magnificent Mile.” Many of these improvements were made without incurring debt, a feat aided in part by studies the city commissioned, at his urging, to determine how revenue streams could be bolstered and unnecessary costs trimmed.

Zeidler’s municipal governance was acclaimed by Fortune magazine, cited with approbation by political scientist Edward Banfield, and provided the model for a federal government official’s 1956 text, American Local Government and Administration.[29] In one of his major accomplishments, Zeidler expanded Milwaukee’s geographic base from forty-six square miles to ninety-six square miles, allowing the city to broaden its tax base.

Zeidler declined to run for office in 1960, citing health issues and an unwillingness to put the city through another mayoral election like the one in 1956 when Zeidler was the target of a vicious race-baiting campaign. Years later, in 1972, the Socialist Party/Social Democratic Federation[30] was torn apart, causing Frank Zeidler to head one group, the Socialist Party, USA. It then nominated him for president four years later, a mantle he reluctantly accepted. The Socialist slate qualified for the ballot in seven states and its write-in votes were counted in six more. Zeidler received roughly 6,000 votes, most of which, 4,298, came from Wisconsin. Believing younger leaders should take the reins, Zeidler declined to run again.[31]

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Elmer Beck, The Sewer Socialists: A History of the Socialist Party of Wisconsin, 1897-1940, vol. 1 of Socialist Trinity of the Party, the Union, and the Press (Fennimore, WI: Westburg Associates Publishers, 1982), 2-3.
  2. ^ Beck, The Sewer Socialists, 3.
  3. ^ John Buenker, The Progressive Era, 1893-1914, vol. III of The History of Wisconsin (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1998), 165.
  4. ^ Buenker, The Progressive Era, 165-166.
  5. ^ John Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee (Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999), 209.
  6. ^ Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee, 200-202.
  7. ^ John Buenker, “Cream City Electoral Politics: A Play in Four Acts,” in Perspectives on Milwaukee’s Past, eds. Margo Anderson and Victor Greene (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 27-29.
  8. ^ Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee, 214-215.
  9. ^ Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee, 268-271.
  10. ^ Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee, 160.
  11. ^ “Nonpartisan Vote Setup Is Outgrowth of Fusion” Milwaukee Journal, March 23, 1948.
  12. ^ Daniel W. Hoan, City Government: The Record of the Milwaukee Experiment (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1936; reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1974), 128-143; 220; 312.
  13. ^ Sally Miller, “Casting a Wide Net: The Milwaukee Movement to 1920,” in Socialism in the Heartland, ed. Donald T. Critchlow (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), 32.
  14. ^ Aims McGuinness, “The Revolution Begins Here: Milwaukee and the History of Socialism,” in Perspectives on Milwaukee’s Past, eds. Margo Anderson and Victor Greene (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 90.
  15. ^ Donald Pienkos, “Politics, Religion and Change in Polish Milwaukee, 1900-1930,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 61, no. 3 (Spring 1978), 208.
  16. ^ “Wisconsin: Marxist Mayor,” Time, April 4, 1936.
  17. ^ See “Understory: Socialism in the United States,” under the “Explore More” tab.
  18. ^ Morris Hillquit, quoted by Frank Zeidler, “‘Sewer Socialism’: The Pragmatics of Running a Good City,” speech, Society for Economic Anthropology, Milwaukee, April 27, 2001.
  19. ^ See “Understory: Socialism in the United States,” under the “Explore More” tab.
  20. ^ Miller, “Casting a Wide Net.”
  21. ^ McGuiness, “The Revolution Begins Here,” 79-80.
  22. ^ “Biography/History,” Jacob F. Friedrick Papers, 1931-1968, Wisconsin Historical Society; “Jacob F. Friedrick in 1954,” Milwaukee Journal, November 18, 1954.
  23. ^ Beck, The Sewer Socialists, vol. 1: 36, 121; Thomas Gavett, Development of the Labor Movement in Milwaukee (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965), 173; Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee, 217; Beck, The Sewer Socialists, vol. 2: 253.
  24. ^ U.S. Census Bureau, “Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for Large Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States,” prepared by Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung Population Division, Working Paper No. 76, February 2005, Table 50,, last accessed October 23, 2017.
  25. ^ Sarah Ettenheim, How Milwaukee Voted, 1848-1968 (Milwaukee: Institute of Governmental Affairs, University Extension, University of Wisconsin, 1970), 125-127; “Wisconsin: Marxist Mayor,” Time, April 6, 1936.
  26. ^ Joe William Trotter, Jr., Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 149.
  27. ^ Jim Arndorfer, “Cream City Confidential: The Black-Baiting of Milwaukee’s Last Pink Mayor,” The Baffler no. 13 (Winter 1999), 75-75.
  28. ^ Frank Zeidler, “The Struggle for Public Housing and Redevelopment,” chapter 4 in “A Liberal in City Government” (unpublished manuscript), 75, box 342, Carl F. and Frank P. Zeidler Papers, 1918-1981, Local History Manuscript Collection Mss #352, Milwaukee Public Library. See also Frank P. Zeidler, A Liberal in City Government: My Experiences as Mayor of Milwaukee (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Publishers, 2005).
  29. ^ Harold Alderfer to Zeidler, November 16, 1956, box 197, folder 1, Carl and Frank Zeidler collection, Milwaukee Public Library; Harold Frederick Alderfer, American Local Government and Administration (New York, NY: Macmillan Co., 1956).
  30. ^ See “Understory: Socialism in the United States,” under the “Explore More” tab.
  31. ^ Stephen K. Hauser, “Frank Zeidler, Milwaukee’s Presidential Candidate,” Milwaukee History 3, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 51, 56.

For Further Reading

Beck, Elmer The Sewer Socialists: A History of the Socialist Party of Wisconsin, 1897-1940. 2 vols. Fennimore, WI: Westburg Associates Publishers, 1982.

Gurda, John. The Making of Milwaukee. Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999.

McGuinness, Aims. “The Revolution Begins Here: Milwaukee and the History of Socialism.” In Perspectives on Milwaukee’s Past, edited by Margo Anderson and Victor Greene, 79-107. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Miller, Sally “Casting a Wide Net: The Milwaukee Movement to 1920.” In Socialism in the Heartland, edited by Donald T. Critchlow, 18-45. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.

Explore More [+]



Socialism in the United States

At the start of the twentieth century, German sociologist Werner Sombart posed the question: “Why is there no socialism in America?” Since then, historians have implicitly engaged Sombart in this debate. Historians who support Sombart’s thesis posit that socialism never existed in the United States because domestic socialism bore little relation to the fundamental Marxian mandate for sweeping institutional reform. See Daniel Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1952, 1996); Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement: 1897-1912 (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1952); and David Shannon, The Socialist Party of America: A History (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1955).

Other scholars argue that if local municipal governments are examined, socialism did in fact exist in the U.S. See Douglas Booth, “Municipal Socialism and City Government Reform: The Milwaukee Experience, 1910-1940,” Journal of Urban History 12, no. 1 (1985): 51-74; Donald T. Critchlow, ed., Socialism in the Heartland: The Midwestern Experience, 1900-1925 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986); and Henry Gruber Stetler, The Socialist Movement in Reading, Pennsylvania, 1896-1936: A Study in Social Change (Storrs, CT: self-published, 1943).

Vital to this debate is the fact that the U.S. socialist movement often was riven by internal dissention. By the 1930s, the Socialist Party of America was dividing into two major factions. The Old Guard was a group of early (and aging) socialist leaders led by Morris Hillquit, a New York Socialist leader who with Victor Berger and Eugene Debs helped found the Socialist Party of America in 1901. The Old Guard’s evolutionary approach to establishing socialism was scorned by another faction, the more revolutionary Militants. In 1937, the Socialist Party formally split, with the Social Democratic Federation of the United States of America (SDF) created as a political party by the Old Guard faction. The Militants subsequently split as well and soon expelled from the Socialist Party the leftist Militant faction led by former Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

The SDF later merged again with the Socialist Party in 1957 to form the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation (SP-SD). However in 1972, the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation split, with former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler emerging as leader of one faction, the Socialist Party, USA. This group soon moved its headquarters from New York to Milwaukee. The other faction, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee led by scholar and political activist Michael Harrington, was later re-named Democratic Socialists of America.

Tula Connell