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.

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How American Socialists Fought for Labor Using Control over Local Government

ballot“Socialist administrations were most often elected in small or medium-sized railroad, mining, or industrial centers. Where the worker was not a worker or trade unionist himself, others in the administration often were. In Butte, Montana, the Socialist mayor was a minister; the police judge and city treasurer elected with him in 1911 were miners. In Lackawanna, New York  where a socialist mayor (occupation unknown) was elected in 1919, the two Socialist councilmen were trade unionists. Similarly in Davenport, Iowa, which elected a Socialist doctor to the mayoralty in 1920, the Socialist city clerk was a machinist. Continue reading

Communist Power and Influence Inside the American Political System

“The Communists also discovered that they could exert political power through local Democratic (and sometimes Republican) parties far better than they could in their own name. The American political system’s amorphous character, its direct primaries, and the absence of a really cohesive national party made this possible. Thus, in Minnesota, the Communists could parley with the Farmer-Labor governor, Floyd Olson, without embarrassment; they were instrumental in achieving the fusion of the Farmer-Laborites and the Democratic Party in that state. In Washington and Oregon, it was the left, including publicly known Communists, who built the ‘Commonwealth Federations‘ that became powerful ginger groups within the formal Democratic structure. In Philadelphia, the Communists connected themselves through local reform movements based on the citywide C.I.O. councils (whose flexibility and autonomy of action the Communists were quick to appreciated and exploit) in such a way as to exert powerful leverage on the Democrats. So successful was this strategy that the Party’s ideological opponents, both the Social Democrats and the Trotskyists, tried the same tactic, in the Michigan Commonwealth Federation for example. Continue reading

American Socialism, Strongest West of the Mississippi

Debs 1912 county results“Before the World War, American socialism was diffuse geographically as well as in its tendencies. Until 1918 the greatest relative voting strength of the movement lay west of the Mississippi River, in the states where mining, lumbering, and tenant farming prevailed. New York, since 1917 the bastion of socialism in the United States, placed 29th and 24th in the percentage of Socialist votes in 1912 and 1916. Even in New York, the Party’s greatest strength was upstate. Until 1917, Schenectady was the Socialist stronghold, electing the Reverend George R. Lunn as mayor in 1911 and 1915, and sending a Socialist to the state assembly in 1911. The states with the greatest percentages of Socialist voters in the prewar years were Oklahoma, Nevada, Montana, Washington, California, Idaho, Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Texas. In that order, all appeared among the top dozen states in the presidential elections of both 1912 and 1916. Oklahoma had the largest and most complete organization: 12,000 Party members in 961 locals, 38,000 subscribers to the Appeal to Reason, 53,000 Socialist voters in the state in 1914. In that year, five Socialists were elected to the Oklahoma assembly and one to the state senate, along with more than 130 Socialist county and township officers.


“In 1911, four years after statehood, Oklahomans adopted their first flag. Flying above our State Capitol was a bright red plane emblazoned with a single, centered, white star, emblematic of leftist flags flown first in 18th century France and contemporary to those of Russia and China during the Communist Revolution.”Derek Dyson

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Deindustrialization or Post-Industrialization?

In Search of Workers’ Power” by the Red Atlanta blog is an interesting Marxist attempt to grapple with the changes in the U.S. economic and class structure over the past quarter to half century. It combines fresh and original insights about the changes in the nature of the workforce, political organizations, and intellectual trends with a strong dose of ill-conceived nostalgia for the certainties of the past when Marxist orthodoxy concerning the industrial proletariat seemed to be confirmed by the course of the existing class struggle. Nowhere is the contradiction between the author’s forward-thinking and backward-looking approach captured than in the essay’s second paragraph: Continue reading