How Socialists Saved Milwaukee


By Lisa Kaiser

Local historian John Gurda is slated to give the second annual Frank P. Zeidler Memorial Lecture tonight on Milwaukee’s Socialist legacy. But he spoke with the Shepherd last week about his thoughts on how the Socialists saved Milwaukee. Here are some of his observations:

Shepherd: What was going on in Milwaukee when the Socialists emerged?

Gurda: They began to run candidates for office in 1898. That was the first year that David Rose was in office [as mayor]. Milwaukee was thoroughly corrupt. It was as bad as Chicago on a bad day. Everything was for sale, which was not atypical. That was the pattern in American politics back in what was called the Gilded Age. Milwaukee was also very heavily industrialized. This was a working-class town. More than half of the male working population would have been engaged in manufacturing of some sort. It was a visibly dirtier city than it is today with coal smoke and just incredible pollution in the rivers. It was also very compact and congested. When you look at the older part of town today there are a lot of open spaces, there has been renewal or removal of some kind. That was not true then. It was cheek by jowl.

Shepherd: Why did the Socialists take root in Milwaukee and not other parts of the state?

Gurda: The background is that you have a couple factors. You have a huge German population and a number of Germans who came here had fled a failed revolt in 1848. So there was at least a kind of intellectual seedbed for leftist ideas. People had read Marx and Lassalle. The Turners, who go way back to the mid-1800s, they were a Socialist organization in the early years. So you have the German intellectual tradition here, and you’ve got a huge working-class population, so you had a great deal of receptiveness to appeals to class consciousness. You have the shootings of 1886, when at least five demonstrators were shot dead by the state militia marching for the eight-hour workday. The voters did not forget that event. Then you had a guy named Victor Berger, who becomes kind of the presiding genius of the Socialist movement in Milwaukee. You put all of these things together and it was a city ripe for reform.



The standard bearers of reform here were the Socialists because Berger was determined to govern. He wanted to win elections. The left is famously fractious, will always divide. But Berger kind of looked beyond that and said they wanted to govern efficiently and effectively and lead people by example and education to the cooperative commonwealth. So he ran for office in 1898 and where the first successes were, not surprisingly, were the working-class wards on the city’s northwest side, part of the north side today. You had a small Socialist caucus on the Common Council and people learned to trust them. They were bright, incorruptible and creative. Sooner rather than later, people learned to say, ‘there’s nothing to fear here.’ The tide kept on rising, Rose kept on being a crook, and they swept the mayoral and aldermanic elections in 1910. That’s the watershed. All of a sudden, here they are. They’re in charge.

Shepherd: So it wasn’t a violent overthrow of government. They came to power through the ballot box.

Gurda: Absolutely.

Shepherd: Was it unique at the time for Milwaukee to have a Socialist mayor?

Gurda: For a city of our size, yes. What was even more unique was that we had Socialist mayors for most of the next 50 years. No one’s close. I think there were some examples in the northeast, in small towns, as experiments. You had Emil Seidel, who was there from 1910 to 1912, just one two-year term. Then the Republicans and Democrats kind of ganged up on him and had a fusion candidate. They found more in common than they did with the Socialists. So their divisions suddenly healed. But Dan Hoan was mayor from 1916 to 1940, 24 years, which was sort of the high point of public enterprise in Milwaukee. Then Frank Zeidler from 1948 to 1960. That’s a long time. That makes us unique in the country.

Shepherd: So how did the Socialist mayors govern?

Gurda: Emil Seidel, the first one, said:

“We wanted our workers to have pure air, we wanted them to have sunshine, we wanted planned homes, we wanted them to have 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.” 


It’s a great quote.

The Socialists were not ideologues insisting on one interpretation of doctrine. They were people who saw just problems screaming for attention and were determined to make life better for everybody. Seidel comes out and says it. There was an optimism, to some degree there was a romanticism to some of the way they governed. At the same time, there was a hard-as-nails determination that the entrenched interests would not rule, would not prevail. It was a very interesting group and politically savvy. They knew how to speak the language of the voter and they had an electoral organization. They called it the Bundle Brigade. They would publish these sometimes quite long circulars or flyers about whatever cause they were working on at the time. They could get one to any house in any language within about 48 hours. They were very effective.

Shepherd: Was it controversial to have Socialists in office?

Gurda: It was less controversial to have Socialists in office than to have crooks in office. [laughs] People looked to the Socialists as the party most likely to lead them to higher ground. So the crooks provided the opportunity for a new way of looking at things. Outside of the town, Milwaukee made the papers for turning over the keys to City Hall to the Socialists. That embarrassed the old-line parties, which is one reason why they ganged up on Seidel in 1912. But Milwaukeeans were fine with it. They trusted the Socialists, and they learned to trust them over the years. There was a perception that they made Milwaukee work.

Shepherd: They were dubbed the ‘sewer Socialists.’ What exactly does that mean?

Gurda: That term needs some explanation. The term comes from other Socialists. Seidel will talk about some of the more ideologically pure Socialists. They thought that Milwaukeeans were so obsessed with public works that they called them ‘sewer Socialists.’ It may have been meant in a less than flattering sense and Milwaukee Socialists embraced it. They were determined to be efficient, to be effective, and you also have to remember that during a time when public water supplies were very suspect, when you had uncontrolled dumping of sewage in the rivers, these were not polite infrastructure projects. This was a matter of life and death to a lot of citizens of Milwaukee. That was a very important cause of theirs and it goes to the whole notion of public enterprise. You spend public funds for the public good.

Shepherd: Was there public ownership of any entities?

Gurda: The one thing that they really campaigned for every year was public ownership of the utilities. That meant the streetcar company and the electric company, which are the same thing. The water works was municipal. Early on there were attempts at municipal electricity. That was probably — if there was a favorite kind of a villain that Dan Hoan liked to beat up on it was the power company, which is now We Energies. Back then it was the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Co. There were periodic attempts to have a light station that the city owned. They would pass ordinances trying to bring the utility to heel during the relatively few times that Hoan had a working majority. As it turned out it never happened. But the simple fact is that if the Socialists hadn’t been there constantly sniping it might have been a much more exploitative system than it was.


Shepherd: When we look at Milwaukee today, what are some of the visible legacies of the Socialists?

Gurda: Parks, parks, parks, parks, parks. [laughs] Charlie Whitnall was the godfather of the park system as we know it today. He was a Socialist. He was the city treasurer in 1910 and then he left office during the fusion sweep in 1912. But on his own time he became this impassioned planner and advocate for green space. He was patient and persistent and smart. He worked at the public bodies at the city and county levels. They both had park systems, both city and county. They weren’t merged until the end of 1936.

The template for the park system that he published in 1923 — the theory was that he wanted people to be within the influence of nature. Like many Socialists and others of that era it was believed that if you were in the presence of nature, that influence would be better on your personal life, as a citizen. The city was, frankly, anti-urban. There was a real sense that the city was a negative influence. The New Urbanists kind of cringe at some of this rhetoric. But Whitnall’s working philosophy was that it was waterways that you had to bring people in contact with. If you look at the park system, there are a lot of creeks and rivers, and also the lakefront. If you overlaid the present park system with Whitnall’s map in 1923, it’s pretty close. He was the mastermind.

Shepherd: What about the way our government operates?

Gurda: I think the big legacy is the expectation of honesty and efficiency. Milwaukeeans still want their government to work. In cities where that has not been the case, say, Providence, Rhode Island, or Chicago, places where there’s been kind of a culture of corruption and inefficiency over many years, those expectations will not be so high.

It’s just my theory, but the pension scandal — the outrage, the absolute blind rage that voters felt was precisely proportionate to their expectations. In other cities, it may have generated headlines for a while and gotten people angry, but here, Ament stepped down and supervisors were recalled. It was really a scandal of the first order. These things are hard to quantify but I would say that the reaction was based on the latent expectations that people have about government. And that goes back to the time when government was upright and outstanding.

Shepherd: So Scott Walker benefited from the Socialist legacy?

Gurda: Isn’t that ironic? And he proceeds to dismantle their legacy.

Shepherd: The Progressives have captured the affections of today’s reformers. What was the relationship between the Progressives and the Socialists?

Gurda: The Progressives were state and the Socialists were city. They had a lot in common. The Milwaukee Socialists would actually back La Follette in presidential and senatorial elections — Fighting Bob. There was kind of a working alliance on a lot of issues. A lot of legislation from 1910, 1912, workers’ comp, some of the really meaningful social welfare legislation that came out of the state, that was authored by Progressives and supported by Socialists, who would have had a bloc in the state Legislature.

There was a great deal of commonality in terms of what they stood for. In terms of their cultural backgrounds, the Progressives were much more Scandinavian and rural. There was a sociological divide of sorts and perhaps a little cultural discomfort between the two. The Socialists were heavily German and urban, and became multiethnic, and industrial. They were working-class folks, as opposed to farmers. So there was a sociological divide that kept them distinct. Ultimately in the 1930s they pretty much joined forces, sort of like the FLP [Farmer-Labor Party], farm-labor-progressives in Minnesota. It was an attempt to meld those two constituencies.

Shepherd: Are there many Socialists in Milwaukee today?

Gurda: There is still an active Socialist Party group. There’s also the Public Enterprise Committee, Frank Zeidler’s electoral body. They will run candidates for office but they’ve become more of a voice for a cause than an electoral force. That’s the big difference between what they are and what they were. A lot of the reason for that is that during the Depression you have the New Deal sort of co-opting labor and working-class votes, as well as Socialist rhetoric. Even Dan Hoan became a Democrat.

Shepherd: Are there any lessons we can learn from them that we can apply today?

Gurda: I think the public trust, once lost, is very hard to regain. If there’s a lesson from the Socialists of that period, it’s that they succeeded because they believed that government is [for] all of us. That message got through loud and clear to the majority of the population. What’s happened in the more recent past, the last half century, is that people have come to look at government as them. That’s a real change from what the situation in Milwaukee had been. That’s been a result of periodic instances of corruption, where people learned to see their elected officials as being there for their own self-interest. And it’s also a lack of outreach, a lack of that sense of public service.

Frank Zeidler’s kids were pretty small when he was in office, and they were instructed to tell their classmates, when asked what their father did, to say he was a public servant. Not ‘My dad’s the mayor.’ And Frank really meant that. I think a lot of people may go into office with a sincere desire to serve the public. But there’s also a lot of ego involved. I think if there’s a lesson, it’s that Milwaukee would be better if we could return to some of those motivations and traditions. That sense of mutuality is something that we lose at our peril.

First published by Shepherd Express.

7 responses to “How Socialists Saved Milwaukee

  1. Good and interesting interview, but its pretty strange that Gurda doesn’t even mention the Black Panther Party in Milwaukee, given that they were around a lot more recently (circa 1970s) and were tied to a nationwide revolutionary movement that was arguably the most powerful revolutionary communist movement that the United States has ever had. This seems like a fatal oversight if we are to talk about the legacy of socialism in Milwaukee.


    • I guess my questions would be: how big were they? How much public support did they have? And what did they do to improve the lot of (Black) folks in the city?


      • I know a lot more about Panther operations in Oakland, Chicago, and Detroit than I do about their operations in Milwaukee. But they were big enough and did enough good to have several books and journal articles analyzing their growth and evolution in Milwaukee, and the nature of specific programs like their breakfast programs and their free health clinics, as well as their relationships with other radical groups in the area.


          • “The Black Panthers in the Midwest: The Community Programs and Services of the Black Panther Party in Milwaukee, 1966-1977” should be a good one; I’ve only skimmed through the copy that is at my local library.

            There is a chapter in “Liberated Territory: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party” that focuses on Milwaukee.

            It might also be worth checking out more general histories of the BPP, like “Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party” that places their local chapters and dynamics into the context of the larger national and international movements.


  2. Pingback: Socialist Worker and Hillary Clinton Agree: Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Doomed | Revolutionary Democratic Socialism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s