Here, Socialism meant honest, frugal government
by John Gurda
"Are We All Socialists Now?" That was the plaintive
title of a panel discussion at the recent Conservative
Political Action Conference in
"socialist" is being heard all over
as the federal government takes over banks, tells
automakers what to do and tightens regulations in an
effort to pull our economy out of its current tailspin.
The label is not generally intended as a compliment. To
many Americans, socialism means being governed by the
government - suffocating under layers of bureaucracy
that sop up tax dollars and smother individual initiative.
And that's the positive view. Some critics carelessly
lump socialism together with anarchism or even
communism. After invoking the "s" word at the recent
conservative conference, former Arkansas Gov. Mike
Huckabee said, "Lenin and Stalin would love this
stuff." He conveniently forgot, or perhaps never knew,
that most American socialists were sworn enemies of
The view from
a socialist and never have been, but I can testify that
Socialism - with a capital "S"- was one of the best
things that ever happened to this city. Without
realizing it, even the most red-blooded capitalists are
enjoying the fruits of their efforts, from spacious
parks to clean streets and from a working
infrastructure to an expectation, however frequently
disappointed, of honest government.
Before the Socialists took charge,
as corrupt as
turn of the 20th century was David Rose, a political
prince of darkness who allowed prostitution, gambling
dens, all-night saloons and influence-peddling to
flourish on his watch. Grand juries returned 276
indictments against public officials of the Rose era.
"All the Time Rosy" escaped prosecution himself, but
district attorney (and future governor) Francis
McGovern called him "the self-elected, self-appointed
attorney general of crime in this community."
In 1910, fed-up voters handed Socialists the keys to
the city. Emil Seidel, a patternmaker by trade, won the
mayor's race in a landslide, and Socialists took a
majority of seats on the Common Council. The election
was not a fluke. Seidel served from 1910 to 1912,
Daniel Hoan from 1916 to 1940 and Frank Zeidler from
1948 to 1960. No other big city in
its government to the Socialists, much less kept them
in office for most of 50 years. That record makes
What did the Socialists stand for? In his tellingly
titled memoir, "A Liberal in City Government," Zeidler
described the party's tenets as a hybrid of lofty
thoughts and real-world concerns: "The socialist
movement was inspired by the hope of a brotherhood of
opposition to war; by a belief in the rights of people;
by a passion for orderly government; and by a contempt
for graft and boodling."
Where had Socialism come from? It came, first of all,
who had fled a failed revolt against royal rule in 1848
and transplanted their ideals in
came from the city's huge population of industrial
workers, many of them German, who were attuned to any
and all appeals to class consciousness. And it came
from the fertile mind of Victor Berger, the Austrian
immigrant who became the movement's chief strategist.
Left-leaning parties always have been famously
fractious, prone to splintering over doctrinal fine
points. Berger saw through the ideological trees to the
electoral forest. He became a convinced gradualist - an
"evolutionary moderate," in Zeidler's phrase - who
believed that the "cooperative commonwealth" would come
only after a long period of education and reform.
How better to educate and reform than by governing? The
Socialists set out to win elections, and they built a
remarkably effective campaign organization. It was
based on a hand-in-glove alliance with organized labor
and fueled by the famous "bundle brigade," a platoon of
party workers who could reach any household in the city
with literature on any issue in any of several
languages within 48 hours.
And what did they do once they were in office? They
governed, first of all, with unimpeachable integrity.
Berger was fond of declaring that honesty was the
highest virtue to which a Democrat or a Republican
could aspire. "With us," he said, "this is the first
and smallest requirement." The Socialists applied that
honesty to the practice of creative government.
Contrary to popular belief, they did not try to
socialize everything in sight. With the exception of
the streetcar company, whose services they felt
belonged in the public domain (and eventually got
there), they accepted the American premise of private
ownership. When one of Zeidler's 1948 opponents charged
that he would socialize the corner grocery store if he
were elected, Zeidler promptly went out and got the
endorsement of the Independent Grocers Association.
The key to understanding
idea of public enterprise. They didn't just manage, and
they didn't just enforce laws and regulations. They
pushed a program of public necessities that had a
tangible impact on the average citizen's quality of
life: public parks, public libraries, public schools,
public health, public works (including sewers), public
port facilities, public housing, public vocational
education and even public natatoria.
Underlying their notion of public enterprise was an
abiding faith - curiously antique by today's standards
- in the goodness of government, especially local
government. The Socialists believed that government was
the locus of our common wealth - the resources that
belong to all of us and each of us - and they worked to
build a community of interest around a deeply shared
belief in the common good.
The results were plain to see. After years in the
Socialists" Seidel, Hoan and Zeidler, a model of civic
virtue. Time Magazine called
best-governed city in the
community won trophy after trophy for public health,
traffic safety and fire prevention. The health prize
came home so often that
from competition to give other municipalities a chance.
The Socialists governed well, and they did so without
breaking the bank. Contrary to another popular myth,
these were not tax-and-spend radicals intent on
emptying the public coffers. They were, in fact, every
bit as frugal as the most penny-pinching German
hausfrau. The Socialists managed civic affairs on a
pay-as-you-go basis, and in 1943,
only big city in
exceeded its outstanding bond obligations. It was, in
other words, debt-free.
I'm aware that running a city is different from solving
a global economic crisis. The scale of the problems
confronting the Obama administration is worlds removed
from the difficulties any
But let's not allow "socialist" to become a dirty word
in the current debate.
As it came to life in
had a moral gravity and a passion for results that
still resonate in our civic life. Honesty, efficiency,
creativity, frugality? If that's Socialism, let's bring
it back tomorrow.
John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian, writes in Crossroads the first Sunday of each month. "
Chronicles," a collection of his best columns, is available at area bookstores or online at