Milwaukee Sewer Socialism

While early twentieth century politics were largely associated with the Progressive party, it was also the era of Socialism in Milwaukee. Often referred to as "sewer socialism" for their back-to-basics strategy, Milwaukee Socialists sought to reform the legacy of the Industrial Revolution on the local level by cleaning up neighborhoods and factories with new sanitation systems, municipally-owned water and power systems, community parks, and improved education systems. Progressivism and Socialism had different leaders and spoke different languages, but were, in many ways, remarkably similar in practice. Socialists rejected the Progressive idea of government regulation of industry. Instead, they sought to replace the capitalist system with a planned economy of state-owned industries that would protect workers from business monopolies. Socialists believed that this change would be inevitable as the working class became increasingly oppressed by powerful businesses. Although they believed in a type of class warfare, Socialists did not advocate a violent revolution as a means of achieving their goals. Rather, Socialism was to come by ballots. Until that time came though, Socialists supported measures to improve conditions for the working class and to achieve a more efficient administration of government.

The first formal manifestation of Socialism in Milwaukee came with the establishment of the Social-Democratic Party in 1897. After the violence and chaos of the eight-hour day campaign in 1886, Milwaukee's laboring classes had turned to political action. A Labor or People's Party ran candidates for governor and Congress in 1886. Labor candidates continued to run for city and state offices, and the Populist or People's Party, under the leadership of labor leader Robert Schilling, gained much of its support from Milwaukee labor in 1892 and 1894. In 1897, Milwaukee Socialists joined with labor to form a new political party, the Social-Democrats, and Milwaukee became the first Socialist city in the United States.

Just as Robert La Follette came to symbolize Progressivism in Wisconsin, Victor Berger became the symbol of Milwaukee Socialism. An Austrian immigrant, Berger developed a program of political action that, while operating under the name of Socialism, was really a variety of moderate reform. Berger organized the Socialists into a highly successful political organization by drawing on Milwaukee's large German population and active labor movement.

For years, Berger published both a German and English newspaper, distributing free editions to all Milwaukee homes on the eve of elections. Milwaukee Socialists played down social theory and, like the Progressives, emphasized the need for honest government, a popular appeal in a city long notorious for corruption and administrative inefficiency. In 1910, with three parties in the running, Socialists won major electoral victories in Milwaukee. Emil Seidel became the nation's first Socialist mayor. The party also got most other city offices as well as a majority of seats on the city council and the county board. Most significantly, Victor Berger went to Washington as the first Socialist Congressman.

Both Seidel and Berger lost in 1912, but by 1916, Milwaukee citizens had elected another Socialist mayor, Daniel Hoan. Although the Socialists never again completely controlled city government as they had in 1910, Hoan remained in office until 1940 and Socialists continued to exert a powerful influence in Milwaukee politics.

In 1918, Berger again won a seat in Congress, but the House of Representatives refused to permit him to take his seat for violating the federal Espionage Act. The previous year, Berger had supported the anti-war statement of the 1917 Socialist Convention in St. Louis, denouncing World War I as a vehicle of U.S. capitalism and imperialism. The government had also suspended mailing privileges for his English-language newspaper, the Milwaukee Leader. Wisconsin's governor, Emanuel Philipp, called a special election to fill Berger's seat in 1919, but voters again elected Berger to Congress. The House still refused to seat him. Berger ran once again in 1920 but was defeated by Republican William Stafford. Although he lost the 1920 election, Berger's conviction was overturned and his mailing privileges were restored. In 1922, Berger ran for Congress and won. This time, the House allowed Berger to take his seat and he served for three successive terms.

Milwaukee Socialism came to be increasingly a program of municipal reform under the leadership of Berger. Although similar, Socialists and Progressives were suspicious of the other and managed to cooperate on only a few campaigns, including La Follette's 1924 presidential campaign. The Socialists wanted nothing to do with the Republican Party, the parent party of the Progressives, who they saw as weak on reform. Milwaukee Socialists and La Follette Progressives both proved by example that an honest, efficient government could work on the state and local level. Socialists got support from Milwaukee voters for their city-wide reform programs rather than for their allegiance to the tenants of international Socialism. Many professional people supported a Socialist mayor because he helped give Milwaukee a reputation as the best-governed city in the United States.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol. 4 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Berger, Meta. A Milwaukee Woman's Life on the Left, ed. Kimberly Swanson. (Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin Press, 2001); Hamilton, Shane "A Victor Without Peace" American History 102 (online at]

Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: Berger's death signals a change in the Socialist Party, 1929Berger's death signals a change in the Socialist Party, 1929
Link to article: "Bergerisms:" Amusing incidents in the political life of Victor Berger"Bergerisms:" Amusing incidents in the political life of Victor Berger
Link to article: A sketch of the life of Meta BergerA sketch of the life of Meta Berger
Link to article: Victor Berger, the first Socialist elected to CongressVictor Berger, the first Socialist elected to Congress
Link to article: A visit to the home of Victor and Meta Berger in 1906A visit to the home of Victor and Meta Berger in 1906
Link to article: A review of the career of Milwaukee mayor Daniel Hoan.A review of the career of Milwaukee mayor Daniel Hoan.
Link to article: A survey of socialist viewpoints, 1918A survey of socialist viewpoints, 1918
Link to book: Meta Berger describes her husband's election to Congress in 1910Meta Berger describes her husband's election to Congress in 1910
Link to images: Campaign poster for Victor Berger (ca. 1918)Campaign poster for Victor Berger (ca. 1918)
Link to images: Milwaukee's former mayor speaks out against WWIMilwaukee's former mayor speaks out against WWI
Link to images: A Socialist Party campaign poster from 1920.A Socialist Party campaign poster from 1920.