Milwaukee Socialists’ Triumph & Global Impact

In 1910, the new mayor didn’t promise speed, but pledged “to do all our limited means permit to make Milwaukee a better place for every citizen.”

113 years ago today, on April 5, 1910, the world was stunned by socialists’ victory at the ballot box in Milwaukee. The city’s Social Democratic party elected eleven country supervisors, twenty one aldermen (out of a total of thirty-six in the city), and, most importantly, the mayor. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, the world asked: just how had this happened?

The Milwaukeeans’ victory in 1910 had roots that reached back to the late nineteenth century with a deeply grounded, municipally oriented and labor-affiliated local movement that grew out of the remnants of urban populism.1 Over two decades, socialists in Milwaukee constructed a party of formidable strength in the municipal arena, closely tied to the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council (FTC). Building on the city’s Populist movement and aligning with Eugene Debs’s Social Democracy of America, they had become a political force during the late 1890s.2 The Social Democratic Party of Milwaukee (SDM) won endorsement of the AFL-affiliated Milwaukee FTC in February 1900 and provided inspiration to the “constructivist” wing of the Socialist Party of America after 1901. Despite initial optimism, the SDM polled only 2,473 votes in the 1900 city election, a mere 29 votes more than in 1898, and failed to elect a single alderman.3 But with the spring election of 1902, the socialists’ fortunes began to ascend. With 8,400 votes, they claimed a sixth of the electorate, and doubling their vote in 1904, they elected nine alderman to the Common Council.4


And Cuba Shall Lead Them

By Andrew Klein

Although the new socialist councilmen were a small minority in a city council of forty-five members, they demonstrated discipline and a willingness to challenge the established agenda and procedures by which council conducted its business, a pattern with parallels in Wellington, Brisbane, Bradford, Keighley, Frankfurt, and other municipalities around the world. Their nominees for president and clerk of the council went down to defeat with only the support of the nine Social Democrats. Undeterred, they proposed a remarkable array of initiatives in the face of Democratic mayor-elect David Rose’s warnings about the use of “partisan tongue and partisan pen.” Echoing the traditional view of governing elites, he claimed elected officials had a duty to be responsive to “the whole people rather than to party.” At the second meeting of the council, socialist Frederic Heath, urged on by the Federated Trades Council, moved that city council meetings henceforth be held at 7:30 pm rather than the customary 4 pm in order to facilitate workers’ participation. The chair referred the motion to the Rules Committee, from which it failed to emerge. Reintroduced in early 1905 by another socialist, the proposal met the same fate.5 Within their first six months on council, the minority of nine socialists submitted motions for equitable expenditure for street repairs in the wards, and for a municipal ice plant and coal and wood yard; they proposed creating space and speaker stands for open-air meetings in public parks, urged the council to solicit bids for a long-promised children’s “isolation hospital”; they argued for eight hours as the standard for all city workers whether directly employed or on contract, and sought state legislation to tax street railway businesses and light and telephone companies at the high rate established for railways. All these initiatives, except the isolation hospital and the lobby for new tax legislation, disappeared into committee, were recommended for “indefinite postponement,” or were eventually voted down on committee recommendation. Where votes were taken, the nine Social Democrats almost always stood alone as a group.6

Municipalizing the electric light plant proved complicated for the Social Democrats but also for their “nonpartisan” opponents. In repeated referenda, Milwaukee voters had asserted their support for a municipally owned electric utility. Democratic mayor Rose acknowledged the mandate in his opening address to the council. After rehearsing the results of the various votes taken, he said simply, “It is now up to us to carry out the instructions of the people and build the plant.” However, the Social Democrats’ motion to appoint a committee of aldermen and experts to visit other municipal plants and develop a concrete proposal failed adoption. When a committee of aldermen and the city engineer did eventually undertake the investigation, the council deferred further action. The socialist councilors repeatedly submitted petitions of citizens in support of erecting a municipal plant, but still the council failed to act. Only the election of a full socialist administration in 1910 would move the city forward after fifteen years in which the public’s desires had been “denied by the men who made the same perennial election pledge.”7

The Milwaukee socialists’ forward electoral march continued in 1906 with the capture of five additional aldermanic seats, but victory came at a price. By 1908, the State of Wisconsin imposed an at-large municipal electoral process that meant an even larger socialist vote (nearly one-third of the total vote) produced only nine aldermanic seats once again.8

Appealing to a broader social reform constituency, the socialists rebuilt their strength at the ward level and made serious inroads into the southside neighborhoods inhabited by new immigrants, predominantly Polish and Eastern European laborers and their families. Here, the socialists found a winning strategy.9 They worked methodically and painstakingly for victory in 1910. Cleveland reformer Frederic Howe, visiting Milwaukee not long after the socialist success in 1910, observed that “the Socialists have been represented in the Council for eight years [sic]. Since 1908 they have had a vigorous group of ten Aldermen [sic] who have given a suggestion of the honesty of the party . . . The public had grown accustomed to the name and the spectacle of Socialists in office.” Berger put the case more simply: Milwaukee had become a “convinced Socialist city,” its politics “saturated with Socialist doctrine.”10

In the end, the Milwaukee Social Democrats won not by virtue of the support of middle-class social reformers but because of their gains among immigrant workers.11 Berger did not mince words. “Our growth was not among the wards where independent voting is prevalent. Our great gains were among the Poles . . . And once they have voted the Socialist ticket, the workingmen never desert us.”12

Milwaukee’s Social Democratic Party in April 1910 stunned the nation and the world by electing a mayor, twenty-one of thirty-six aldermen, and eleven of sixteen county supervisors. Also impressive were the election of Victor Berger to Congress and thirteen socialists to the state legislature the following November. Both pragmatic and visionary, the Milwaukee Social Democrats worked for urban home rule and immediate, tangible reforms, but they also spoke of “the cooperative commonwealth as a guiding star” of their reform program.13 Mayor-elect Emil Seidel mocked the inefficiencies of capitalism and advocated an expanded public sector. “See how easily we get along when the idea of profit is absent,” he observed. The Social Democratic Herald carried a regular column, entitled “Seidelberg,” on the socialists’ work in the Common Council. They proposed an expanded public sector and largely succeeded in accomplishing it: municipal ownership of streetcars and other city services, a city-owned terminal station, municipal baths, markets, and cold-storage plants, a public garbage disposal plant, a municipal ice plant, public works employment for the unemployed, free medical dispensaries and hospitals, an expanded system of parks and swimming pools, free textbooks, and the opening of schools as community social centers.14 Having been burnt by the advent of at-large elections in previous cycles, the socialists continued to oppose at-large elections, short ballots, and commission forms of government. Berger in 1911 offered a devastating critique of the political reforms offered by many progressives. Such reforms, he argued, “confuse the minds of the workers regarding the fundamental issue of today—the class struggle between the workers and owners. It tends to make workmen look to ‘good men’ and to reformed methods of election for relief, instead of working for a change of economic conditions.” Speaking as a good machine politician, even if a socialist, he astutely observed that political reforms were “not good mechanical devices for a democracy, for they limit the power of the people and tend to the establishment of an oligarchy.”15

In a pattern all too common in other cities, where competing parties temporarily fused in order to defeat them, the Milwaukee Social Democrats did not succeed themselves. By 1916, now in the context of the Great War, the Social Democratic Party did reassert itself and elect as mayor Daniel Hoan who had been city attorney in the first socialist administration. Despite their wartime travails, Social Democrats would play a major role in Milwaukee municipal politics over the next forty years.16 They reconstructed the city’s public space and culture in ways that made it, at least in some respects, a “workers’ city.”


Why Renters Fought NYC’s Push for Ownership

By Benjamin Holtzman

The novelty of Milwaukee socialists’ victory in 1910 may have been enhanced by a perception that socialism’s progress in the United States lagged behind other countries, especially following publication in 1906 of Werner Sombart’s provocative 1906 study, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? Nonetheless, in the months following the 1910 victory in Milwaukee, congratulations poured in from around the world. In Germany itself, that enthusiasm may have been tempered by the SPD’s own internal struggle over revisionism and the marginalization of its municipal socialists by the party’s central leadership. Albert Südekum, a leading spokesman for the kommunalsozialisten and the editor of Kommunale Praxis, arrived in Milwaukee in November 1910 on an extended lecture tour in the United States. He told the Social Democratic Herald that “from the time I landed in New York until I came here I heard of nothing but Milwaukee. So, you can imagine how much I anticipated my visit here.” He noted the high level of interest in municipal affairs in Germany, more so than in England, though “the English make more fuss about what they do.” He proudly spoke to his Milwaukee hosts about the advanced level of municipal work in Germany:

It is the Socialists who are the propelling power in municipal reform in Germany. We have some 7000 councillors (i.e. officials of about the rank of alderman or supervisor here) who are members of the Social Democratic party. Though in numbers these are about one third of the total membership of the various local government boards, the influence they wield is about two-thirds, because they are sincere, earnest workers. They make up in zeal and knowledge what they lack in numbers and the other parties continually allow them to shoulder the responsibility.17

In Britain, enthusiasm for Milwaukee, though noteworthy, was somewhat qualified. Harry Quelch, a leader in Champion’s Social Democratic Federation had sent “congratulations to the socialists in Milwaukee” in May.

One swallow does not make a summer, and the capture of a single town by the Social-Democracy in the United States of America does not mean the social revolution; but it is an indication of progress and is a shrewd blow dealt at the citadel of capitalism. It meant more than that. Nothing succeeds like success; and one such victory will inspire hundreds of others and will rally many thousands of erstwhile doubters to the red flag of international Social-Democracy.18

Greetings poured in following Berger’s congressional victory in November. George Barnes, chairman of the Labour Party, wrote to say “Milwaukee has proved itself the pioneer in this as well as in the more local application of socialist principles.”19 Others from England joined the chorus of celebration—Ramsay MacDonald, J. S. Middleton, and Keir Hardie (“as much for the movement’s sake as for your own”) and from Germany Karl Liebknecht, Luise Kautsky, and the editors of Die Neue Zeit.20 Early in the new year, the Worker, published in Sydney by the Australian Workers Union (AWU), proclaimed a “Great Socialist Victory in USA.”

By the election of these latter [county officials] the Socialists have taken complete possession of the Milwaukee county courthouse, and now entirely control the local government of the city and the county. This great victory must be taken as an enthusiastic endorsement of the administration of Milwaukee by the Socialists during the past year . . . This will infuse new life, new hope, and new activity in the Socialist movement throughout the United States and beyond .21

The next issue of the Worker carried a lengthy, detailed review, “Socialism—Naked and Unashamed,” that recounted the Milwaukee socialists’ progress in the previous six months. The author quoted Mayor Emil Seidel on their practical goals. “We do not expect to usher in the Cooperative Commonwealth in one year or five years, but we intend to do all our limited means permit to make Milwaukee a better place for every citizen. We shall disappoint a few capitalists; we shall not disappoint the working people.”22

The socialist administration’s defeat in 1912 brought postmortems from German municipal socialists that stressed the constraints under which the Milwaukeeans operated. They noted an adverse state legal environment that hamstrung the administration, the anti-socialist fusion of Republicans and Democrats, and nevertheless, an increased socialist vote. Kommunale Praxis argued that there was no basis for claiming a decline of support in “our movement, for which Milwaukee had for two years fought the greatest battle in the United States.” In an extraordinarily detailed review, the editors devoted eleven columns to an analysis of the Seidel administration’s accomplishments, along with much briefer attention to Schenectady and thirteen German cities with socialist majorities.23


Ideas Alone Won’t Tame Capital

By Katharina Pistor

Despite the limitations under which municipal socialists everywhere operated in the prewar period, progress at the municipal level of politics across many countries proved noteworthy. In 1908, even before their impressive victory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Social Democrats distributed a campaign advertisement titled “Social-Democracy the only Practical Programme” that highlighted their struggles in the city council and state legislature. “Nine Social-Democrats in the city council of Milwaukee and six in the state legislature of Wisconsin have stimulated more progress, advanced more progressive measures and raised a higher ideal of civic life than all the other parties combined.”24

The measure of that “progress” can only be assessed in the local context of the municipal governing bodies where Social Democrats engaged the battle. They carried on that fight in literally thousands of cities around the world. The victory that Milwaukee’s municipal socialists achieved in 1910, however fleeting in the short run, held heightened meaning for socialists and labor party activists around the world. It represented the conquest of a large city and challenged the perception that the US socialist movement faced uniquely impervious barriers. In many ways the socialist victory in Milwaukee fit a broader pattern of municipal gains around the world that made it more exemplary than exceptional in the prewar era. The optimistic message that “the commissioner from Milwaukee,” socialist evangelist Walter Thomas Mills, carried with his travels in 1911 spoke in compelling ways to the circumstances municipal socialist comrades faced in England, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, Austria, and elsewhere. Their “localist internationalism” drew inspiration from their comrades’ far-flung successes and strengthened their resolve to build a new social democracy from the bottom up in cities across the industrializing world.


Excerpted with permission from Claiming the City: A Global History of Workers’ Fight for Municipal Socialism by Shelton Stromquist. Courtesy of Verso Books. icon

  1. We still have remarkably few studies of “urban” populism. One of the classics is Chester M. Destler’s essay on Chicago in idem, American Radicalism, 1865–1901: Essays and Documents (New London. CT: Connecticut College, 1946). See also, Leon Fink, Workingmen’s Democracy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983) 204–11.
  2. On the Milwaukee socialists’ alliance with the Populists, see “Vote with the Peoples’ Party for Public Ownership of Public Utilities,” and “Platform of the Peoples’ Party, in City Convention, March 20, 1896,” Scrapbook, Frederic Heath Papers, Milwaukee County Historical Society; Leon Fink, Workingmen’s Democracy, Frederick I. Olson, “The Milwaukee Socialists, 1897–1941,” unpublished PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 1952, 28–38, and on the formation of the Social Democratic Party see Olson, 39–53, Marvin Wachman, History of the Social-Democratic Party of Milwaukee, 1897– 1910 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1945) 13–29, and Sally M. Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910–1920 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,19730.
  3. Milwaukee Journal, March 24, April 4, 1900.
  4. Selig Perlman, “History of Socialism in Milwaukee (1893–1910),” BA Thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1910, 38–40, 46. Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison; also, Proceedings of the Common Council of the City of Milwaukee, April 19, 1904, Milwaukee Public Library; and “History of Milwaukee Social Democratic Victories,” Milwaukee Social Democratic Party, 1910, p. 63, Wisconsin Historical Society.
  5. Minutes, Milwaukee Common Council, April 25, 1904, 20; January 9, 1905, 1295.
  6. Minutes, Milwaukee Common Council, May 31, July 11, 25, October 24, November 14, December 12; February 6, 20, 1905, 392–3, 515, 936, 1039–40, 1136, 1142–3; 1411–12, 1427.
  7. Minutes, Milwaukee Common Council, April 19, July 25, September 19, October 31, 8, 1904, 461, 759, 982; April 19, 1910, 5–6.
  8. Selig Perlman, “History of Socialism in Milwaukee (1893–1910),” 41–2, 46; A. W. Mance, “History of Milwaukee Social Democratic Victories,” (Milwaukee: Social- Democratic Herald, 1911), p. 64; on the shift to at-large rather than ward representation as a strategy to undermine working-class electoral strength, see Samuel P. Hays, “The Politics of Reform in Municipal Government in the Progressive Era,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 55 (October 1964), 157–69.
  9. Social Democratic Herald, March 7, 1908, quoted in Wachman, History of the Social Democratic Party of Milwaukee, 1897–1910, 64. For discussion of 1906 and 1908 campaigns, see Wachman, 58–65, Olson, “The Milwaukee Socialists, 1897–1941,” 155–160.
  10. Frederic C. Howe, “Milwaukee, a Socialist City,” The Outlook, June 25, 1910, 414, 416–17.
  11. The Milwaukee socialists’ campaign tactics are discussed in Wachman, History of the Social Democratic Party of Milwaukee, 1897–1910, 62; A. W. Mance, “History of the Milwaukee Social-Democratic Victories,” 15–18, and Robert Lewis Mikkelsen, “Immigrants in Politics: Poles, Germans, and the Social Democratic Party of Milwaukee,” in Labor Migration in the Atlantic Economies, Dirk Hoerder, ed., (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), 289–90.
  12. Mikkelsen, “Immigrants in Politics,” 289–2.
  13. Wachman, History of the Social Democratic Party of Milwaukee, 1897–1910, 70–73.
  14. Howe, “Milwaukee, a Socialist City,” 416, 420–421. A. W. Mance, “History of Milwaukee Social-Democratic Victories,” 50–52.
  15. Frederick I. Olson, “The Milwaukee Socialists, 1897–1941,” 115. See also, Sally M. Miller, “Milwaukee: Of Ethnicity and Labor,” in Socialism and the Cities, Bruce M. Stave, ed. (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1975), esp. 51–4. For more on the fight against municipal “reforms” such as at-large elections, commission, and city manager governments, see below.
  16. The experience of German social democrats in Bielefeld, Offenbach, and Mühlhausen offers a parallel story, as do Redfern in New South Wales and Nelson in Lancashire. See chapters 3, 4, and 5. For a study that emphasizes the resiliency of Milwaukee’s social democratic politics in a very different era, see Eric Fure-Slocum, Contesting the Postwar City: Working-Class and Growth Politics in 1940s Milwaukee (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
  17. Social Democratic Herald, November 19, 1910.
  18. Social Democratic Herald, May 21, 1910, p. 3.
  19. George Barnes to Victor Berger, November 9, 1910, Berger Papers, Box 11 (Mf # 14).
  20. Ramsay MacDonald (November 10, 1910), J. S. Middleton (November 10), Keir Hardie (November 19), “Liebknecht” (November 7), Luise Kautsky (November 17), Die Neue Zeit (November 19) to Victor Berger, Berger Papers, Box 11 (Mf # 14). Included in the communications was a fictive letter of congratulations from “Elysian, November 1910,” signed “Paul Grottkau,” Berger’s journalistic predecessor in Milwaukee socialist circles, by then deceased for twelve years.
  21. The Worker (Sydney), January 4, 1911.
  22. Ibid., January 5, 1911.
  23. “Ausland. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, (Sozialistische ‘Wahlniederlage,’)” Kommunale Praxis, v. 12, n. 21, Mai 25, 1912, 666, and “Sozialdemokratische Gemeindemehrheiten . . . Amerika. Milwaukee,” Kommunale Praxis, v. 13, n. 38/39, 20 September 1913, 1235–46.
  24. La Crosse Leader Press, October 28, 1909, Scrapbook, Victor Berger Papers, Microfilm edition, Reel no. 11, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Featured image: Panoramic view of Milwaukee, Wis. Taken from City Hall tower / The Gugler Lithographic Co. c/o WIKIPEDIA