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Sewer Socialism was a term, originally pejorative, for the American socialist movement that centered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin from around 1892 to 1960. The term was coined by Morris Hillquit at the 1932 Milwaukee convention of the Socialist Party of America, as a commentary on the Milwaukee socialists and their perpetual boasting about the excellent public sewer system in the city.
With the creation of the Socialist Party of America, this group formed the core of an element that favored democratic socialism over orthodox Marxism, de-emphasizing social theory and revolutionary rhetoric in favor of honest government and efforts to improve public health. The Sewer Socialists fought to clean up what they saw as "the dirty and polluted legacy of the Industrial Revolution", cleaning up neighborhoods and factories with new sanitation systems, city-owned water and power systems, and improved education. This approach is sometimes called "constructive socialism".The movement has its origins in the organization of the Social Democratic Party, a precursor to the Socialist Party of America.
Victor Berger was one of the prime movers of Sewer Socialism, often compared to Robert La Follette and his representation of Progressivism. He was an Austrian Jewish immigrant who published English and German daily newspapers, distributing free copies to every household in Milwaukee before elections. He was the best-known local leader of this tendency. In 1910 he became the first of two Socialists elected to the United States House of Representatives, representing Wisconsin's 5th congressional district (The second was Meyer London of New York.) Berger was reelected in 1918, but was barred from his seat in the House because of his trial and conviction under the 1917 Espionage Act for his public remarks opposing U.S. intervention in the First World War. A special election was called, in which Berger again emerged victorious, but he was denied the seat and it was declared vacant. Berger served the 5th district again from 1923 until 1929, and during his tenure introduced proposals for numerous programs that were subsequently adopted, such as old age pensions, unemployment insurance, and public housing.
In 1910, the Socialists won most of the seats in the Milwaukee city council and county board. This included the first Socialist mayor in the United States, Emil Seidel, who also received the nomination for Vice-President on the Socialist Party ticket in the 1912 election, when the Socialists netted 6% of the vote, their highest-ever percentage. Seidel and Berger both lost their campaigns in 1912, but in 1916, a new Socialist mayor was elected, Daniel Hoan, who remained in office until 1940. Socialists never regained total control over the local government as they did in 1910, but continued to show major influence until the defeat of Daniel Hoan in 1940. The Sewer Socialists elected one more mayor in Milwaukee, Frank P. Zeidler, who served for three terms (1948-1960). A Socialist has not been elected mayor of a major American city since the end of Zeidler's tenure.
Relationship with the Progressives
Although the Socialists had many ideas and policies similar to those of the Wisconsin Progressives, tensions still existed between the two groups because of their differing ideologies; Socialist Assemblyman George L. Tews during a 1932 debate on unemployment compensation and how to fund it argued for the Socialist bill and against the Progressive substitute, stating that a Progressive was "a Socialist with the brains knocked out". Although as a rule the Progressives and Socialists did not run candidates against each other in Milwaukee, they rarely co-operated on elections. One notable exception was the 1924 Presidential campaign of Robert M. La Follette, Sr., who was endorsed by the Socialist Party of America. A factor that affected this lack of collaboration was the relationship of each party to the Republican Party. Socialists were outright opposed to the party while the Progressives sometimes worked with their parent party.
In 1961, Progressive editor William Evjue wrote of the Wisconsin Socialist legislators he had known, "They never were approached by the lobbyists, because the lobbyists knew it was not possible to influence these men. They were incorruptible."
- Beck, Elmer A. The Sewer Socialists: A History of the Socialist Party of Wisconsin, 1897–1940. Fennimore, WI: Westburg Associates, 1982.
- Bekken, Jon. "'No Weapon So Powerful': Working-Class Newspapers in the United States," Journal of Communication Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 104–119 (1988)
- Kerstein, Edward S. Milwaukee's All-American Mayor: Portrait of Daniel Webster Hoan. Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966.
- McCarthy, John M. Making Milwaukee Mightier: Planning and the Politics of Growth, 1910-1960. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.
- Miller, Sally M. Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in Early Twentieth-Century American Socialism. Garland Reference Library of Social Science, vol. 880. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1996.
- Zeidler, Frank P. A Liberal in City Government: My Experiences as Mayor of Milwaukee. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Publishers, 2005.
- "Socialism in Milwaukee". Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
- Louis Waldman, Labor Lawyer. New York: Dutton, 1944, p. 260. Hillquit was running against Milwaukee mayor Dan Hoan for the position of National Chairman of the Socialist Party at the 1932 convention, and the insult may have sprung up in that context.
- "Milwaukee Sewer Socialism". Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
- Miller, Sally M. Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism Westwood, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1973
- Kaveny, Edward T. "$10,000,000 Tax: Assembly Passes Compromise Bill by 73 to 15 Vote" Milwaukee Sentinel January 6, 1932; p. 1, cols. 7-8
- Evjue, William T. "Hello, Wisconsin," Capital Times November 9, 1961, p. 3, col. 1.