Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lesson from Milwaukee - Socialism meant honest, frugal government

Lesson from Milwaukee - Socialism meant honest, frugal government


Here, Socialism meant honest, frugal government


by John Gurda


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - JSOnline - April 4, 2009


"Are We All Socialists Now?" That was the plaintive

title of a panel discussion at the recent Conservative

Political Action Conference in Washington. The word

"socialist" is being heard all over America these days

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

Soviet Communism.


The view from Milwaukee is radically different. I'm not

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, Milwaukee was just

as corrupt as Chicago at its worst. Our mayor at the

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 America entrusted

its government to the Socialists, much less kept them

in office for most of 50 years. That record makes

Milwaukee unique in the nation.


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

workers, the Cooperative Commonwealth; by a fierce

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,

from Germany, in the baggage of assorted intellectuals

who had fled a failed revolt against royal rule in 1848

and transplanted their ideals in Milwaukee. It also

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 Milwaukee's Socialists is the

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

political sewer, Milwaukee became, under "sewer

Socialists" Seidel, Hoan and Zeidler, a model of civic

virtue. Time Magazine called Milwaukee "perhaps the

best-governed city in the U.S." in 1936, and the

community won trophy after trophy for public health,

traffic safety and fire prevention. The health prize

came home so often that Milwaukee had to be retired

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, Milwaukee became the

only big city in America whose amortization fund

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 Milwaukee mayor has faced.

But let's not allow "socialist" to become a dirty word

in the current debate.


As it came to life in Milwaukee, the Socialist movement

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. "Cream City

Chronicles," a collection of his best columns, is available at area bookstores or online at



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