Parsing Out the Legacy of Sewer Socialism

by Sean Keith on March 15, 2017

(The latest in a series of articles addressing the political crisis hosted by the North Star. To retrieve articles in this series, click the Trumpism link under Categories to the right.)

Parsing Out the Legacy of Sewer Socialism:  The Municipal, Rebel City Movement in the Age of Trump Has A Precedent

The Rising, Municipal Left

In my last article, I examined what Trump’s win represented: not a revolt against neoliberalism, but a whitelash, in which a newly mobilized group of middle class white individuals inveighed against how the establishment, in the words of Pat Buchanan, is changing the “character” of the country.[1]

Interestingly, the character of America is changing not only racially, but also politically. An oft-cited 2011 Pew Poll shows that three times as many millennials (those ages 18-29) view socialism favorably when compared to those 65 and above.[2] And of course, by emphasizing its “democratic socialist” character, the Sanders campaign further invigorated the moniker of socialism. Despite the fact that the Sanders program was not socialist but social-democratic, this change in discourse and political attitudes is significant.

In fact, as emphasized by the left-leaning Matt Bruenig in his infamous spat with the Clinton loyalist Neera Tanden (a spat in which the Center for American Progress ultimately pressured Demos to fire Bruenig), the gap between Clinton and Sanders supporters was not one of race or gender, but age.[3] Sanders dominated the millennial vote in the primaries, and in some cases actually did best with female millennials and people of color.[4] And when we look at the current resistance against Trump, whether it be actions in Phoenix designed to disrupt ICE, the JFK airport protest against Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban,” or the large-scale Women’s Marches in cities like Boston, we see that the seedlings for ascendant, Left wing political movements are being planted in urban cities with young people of color often at the forefront of the movement.

Thus, the remainder of this column sheds light on the growing municipal movement against Trump, and borrows the concept “Rebel Cities” from David Harvey. From the fight to establish sanctuary cities, build worker-owned cooperatives, institute participatory budgeting, and restore the commons, the sociopolitical grounds for rising Left wing struggles are vast.

Yet, before delving into examples of these movements, it is important to understand that the Left in the United States has an efficacious but flawed tradition of spearheading municipal resistance that could build the infrastructure for a larger-scale revolution. It was efficacious in the sense that it was narrowly rooted at the municipal level, but eventually reverberated nationally, affected political change, and invoked fear amongst the capitalist class. It was flawed in the sense that it was dominated by leaders who at best did not pay sufficient attention to issues of how race relates to class struggle, at worst were outright racist, and were averse to radical, class-struggle socialism as represented by figures like Socialist Party member Eugene Debs and Industrial Workers of the World leader William (Bill) Haywood. This article does not by any means gloss over these significant faults — after all, the column defines Trump’s victory as a whitelash, focuses on the new, municipal struggle against racial capitalism, and positions itself as coming from an explicitly radical left-wing perspective. Rather, it shows that if 20th century municipal resistance was efficacious despite being explicitly reformist and insufficiently anti-racist, it can accomplish even more if it is sufficiently anti-racist and socialist in the true, revolutionary sense.

Building infrastructure means building independent political organizations that can withstand electoral vicissitudes, and at the city level, these political organizations must change the model of ownership in three areas: economic production, housing, and city utilities.

Remembering Sewer Socialism

One of the most prominent examples of municipal resistance took place during 20th century Wisconsin, a state heavily populated by left wing German Americans. As noted by Stan Nadel in his essay The German Immigrant Left in the United States, German immigrants “created one of the largest, most complex, and longest lived of all the varieties of American radicalism, one whose ideas and institutions of were often adopted by later groups of immigrant leftists.”[5] Numerous Germans fled their country after the Revolution of 1848 in which they pressed for issues ranging from political liberalism to explicit socialism. This group of Germans became known as the Forty-Eighters, first stopping in England and then settling in places throughout America like Milwaukee and New York City. Many actually fought for the Union during the Civil War, seeing the battle against slavery “as a continuation of their struggle for freedom in Germany.”[6]

As Nadel states, these very same Forty-Eighters dominated Milwaukee politics and effectively established hegemony, filling the city government with socialists. For instance, as Peter Dreier writes in his article Radicals in City Hall: An American Tradition:

In 1910 Milwaukee voters elected Emil Seidel, a former patternmaker, as their mayor, gave Socialists a majority of the seats on the city council and the county board, and selected Socialists for the school board and as city treasurer, city attorney, comptroller, and two civil judgeships. That year they also sent union leader and newspaper editor Victor Berger to Washington, making him one of two Socialists in Congress.[7]

With such political domination, they accomplished some impressive feats, especially when one considers the limited scope of city government. For example, the Sewer Socialists granted municipal employees an 8 hour work day, enforced tougher factory and building regulations (anticipating the future muckraking of the socialist Upton Sinclair), and most significantly began to fundamentally change the model of ownership in Milwaukee in the aforementioned three essential areas: economic production, housing, and city utilities.[8]

Socialist politicians aided the development of workers-owned cooperatives, economic units which challenge the capitalist system by extending ownership of capital along egalitarian lines and promoting true democracy at the workplace. In the words of Sewer Socialist mayor Frank Zeidler, “The socialist movement was inspired by the hope of a brotherhood of workers, the Cooperative Commonwealth [emphasis mine].”[9] They also did not shy away from establishing cooperative housing. In 1919, following the post-World War I housing shortage in Milwaukee, the Socialist Mayor Daniel Hoan sponsored the construction of the very first public housing project in the United States using Wisconsin state tax dollars.[10] The unit was a housing cooperative called “Garden Homes” for which tenants paid market price for the house and upon paying the downpayment, were protected from eviction or foreclosure by the company in the case of ailment or unemployment. In the words of Hoan, the goal of the Garden Homes was to transform conceptions of private home ownership in the United States by “promot[ing] the economic erection, co-operative ownership, and administration of healthful homes.”[11] And last but not least, they greatly expanded public works projects, otherwise known as the tax-payer funded development of vital infrastructure projects, which were publicly owned. As journalist John Nichols notes in his book The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, at a time where sewage commonly drained into rivers, Milwaukee socialists were able to construct an extremely well-run, efficient sewer system.[12]

Morris Hillquit, a New York socialist initially at the center of the Socialist Party, chided these Milwaukee socialists for being too narrowly focused on city projects, insufficiently radical in a national or global sense, and too loathe of radical socialists like Eugene Debs who were less interested to municipal reform and more disposed towards immediate class struggle. Thus, Hillquit sneeringly stereotyped them as “Sewer Socialists.”[13] The Milwaukee socialists transformed this term of derision into a term of endearment, embracing and promulgating the label as a perfect encapsulation of their politics.

Though Hillquit claimed that the Sewer Socialists were not sufficiently antagonistic to the capitalist class and antagonistic to more radical socialist tactics (and both claims, withstanding Hillquit’s many faults, are true), their gains did not go unnoticed by the titans of industry. Businessmen understood that if the municipal socialist movement was left unchecked and allowed to proliferate, capitalism would be threatened. And indeed, the movement did spread beyond Milwaukee. For instance, in 1912, Flint shocked the business community by electing a socialist mayor and three socialist city councilors.[14] To counter this, capitalists helped craft the nonpartisan ballot, in which candidates ran without listing their party in order to create the image of public servants who should be holistically devoted to the nonpartisan cause of the “business and professional community.”[15] After these nonpartisan elections, places like Flint stopped electing socialists mayors of any stripe — political radicalism was dealt a harsh blow.

Parsing Out the Legacy of Sewer Socialism

However, as stated earlier, it must be noted that the Sewer Socialists had numerous flaws, one of the most significant being their betrayal of their Forty-Eighters’ principled stand against racism. For instance, at worst, Milwaukee socialist congressman Victor Berger was an avowed racist who openly supported Jim Crow style segregation due to supposed biological differences between whites and blacks.[16] While not representative of all Sewer Socialists, he represented a very problematic, despicable strain of racist thinking that was present in the milieu. At best, Milwaukee Sewer Socialist mayor Frank Zeidler was an enthusiastic supporter of the Civil Rights movement despite surrounding union opposition. Yet, as union organizer Tula Connell notes, he also failed to effectively respond to “the simmering discontent among [Milwaukee’s] growing black community” and gain the substantive support of the black working class.[17] Thus, even the most race-conscious Sewer Socialist failed to create a truly inclusive political movement across class and racial lines.

Additionally, as hinted at earlier, the Sewer Socialists saw themselves first and foremost as evolutionary reformers and were opposed to the revolutionary tactics of the left wing of the Socialist Party. As New York University PhD sociology student Paul Heideman notes in his recent Jacobin article The Rise and Fall of the Socialist Party of America, Victor Berger bragged about Milwaukee Sewer Socialists sometimes opposing strike attempts by city workers and called for the deletion of all references to the Communist Manifesto in the 1904 Socialist Party platform.[18] Also, the right-wing of the Socialist Party, led by figures like Hillquit and Berger, spearheaded the purge against the Party’s left-wing members, thus precipitating its unraveling and eventual demise.[19]

Thus, when we examine the municipal movement against Trump today, we can note that though Zeidler and Berger had numerous failures and shortcomings, many of which were unforgivable, they also managed to accomplish a great deal. We can look to the good parts of Sewer Socialist movement and see that there is a clear precedent for local, efficacious action even when there are right wing forces at the national level. To think and act locally is not necessarily bad praxis or insufficiently radical. It does not have to be wedded to a reformist, anti-revolutionary politics. Rather, thinking and acting locally allots the most immediate terrain for political struggle, and nothing prevents municipal movements from linking together, inspiring one another, and, to quote Alexander Kolokotronis, galvanizing a municipal movement on the national level.[20] From Logan to San Francisco International Airport, from Chicago Teacher’s Union strike to New York Taxi Workers Alliance strike, the struggle against racism and capitalism can and must be connected.

And just like the rise of nonpartisan ballots in the age of municipal socialism, there will be immense national pushback. However, if the municipal movement against Trump can follow the example of the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists by building independent political power at the three levels of economic production, housing, and city utilities, it will be better equipped to weather the storm. Perhaps such independent political power can even form the basis and infrastructure for a future new party that so many on the Left like Seth Ackerman over at Jacobin seem quite keen on pontificating about.[19] And perhaps an explicit commitment to anti-racism and radical socialism will allow the new municipal movement to transcend the limitations of Zeidler and effect change for all people.

(Sean Keith is a second year undergraduate history student at Northeastern University. He is a member of Northeastern’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter and a recent member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). His areas of academic interest are America and China, and he is specifically interested in labor history, economic history, political economy, and the history of social movements.)


[1] Alexandra King, “Buchanan, Smerconish spar over whether election ‘rigged’ for Trump,” CNN, October 22nd, 2016,

[2] “Little Change in Public’s Response to Capitalism, Socialism,” Pew Research Center, December 28th, 2011,

[3] Kevin Drum, “The Great Matt Bruenig-Neera Tanden Kerfuffle Sort of Explained,” Mother Jones, May 20th, 2016,

[4] Samuel Sanders, “#BernieMadeMeWhite: No, Bernie Sanders Isn’t Just Winning With White People,” National Public Radio, March 28th, 2016,

[5] Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas, The Immigrant Left in the United States (Albany: State University of New York, 1996), 45.

[6] Ibid., 48.

[7] Peter Dreier, “Radicals in City Hall: An American Tradition,” Dissent Magazine, December 19th, 2013,

[8] Ibid.

[9] John Gurda, “Here, Socialism meant honest, frugal government,” Journal Sentinel, April 4th, 2009,

[10] Wayne Attoe and Mark Latus, “The First Public Housing: Sewer Socialism’s Garden City for Milwaukee,” Journal of Popular Culture, 10.1 (January 1976): 142-149.

[11] Ibid., 143.

[12] John Nichols, The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism (New York: Verso Books, 2011), 108.

[13] Ibid., 107.

[14] Jon C. Teaford, Cities of Heartland, The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Midwest (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 127.

[15] Ibid., 128.

[16] William P. Jones, “Something to Offer,” Jacobin Magazine, August 11th, 2015,

[17] Tula A. Connell, “FRANK ZEIDLER AND THE CONSERVATIVE CHALLENGE TO LIBERALISM IN 1950s MILWAUKEE” (Doctorate thesis, Georgetown University, August 29th, 2011), 468.

[18] Paul Heideman, “The Rise and Fall of the Socialist Party of America,” Jacobin Magazine, February 20th, 2017,

[19] Ibid.

[20] Alexander Kolokotronis, “Is America ready for a municipalist movement?” Roar Magazine, November 27th, 2016,

[21] Seth Ackerman, “A Blueprint for a New Party,” Jacobin Magazine, November 8th, 2016,


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

John Reimann March 17, 2017 at 2:08 pm

I think one main difference I have is that you really cannot separate out the different parts of “sewer socialism”, Victor Berger and the right wing of the Socialist Party and say “this was good; this I disagree with,” as if it weren’t one entire whole. Berger and his wing of the Socialist Party based themselves on the “middle class” – lawyers, doctors, etc. – who came to represent a significant party of the Socialist Party. As far as his municipal reforms, they did not come about through organizing workers from below; rather it was purely reforms from above and Berger, himself, actually had support from some of the capitalist class in Milwaukee as his reforms helped make capitalism more efficient.

Berger not only opposed the IWW and led the drive to expel their leaders from the Socialist Party, he also opposed industrial organizing in general. This was the central issue for the unions in those days, and insofar as his wing and he, himself, represented workers at all, it was the skilled, white, craft-conscious workers. (A big mistake of the Socialist Party in general was that they took a “hands-off” position on the issues within the AFL.)

Seen from this point of view, his overt racism was not some individual failing; it fit directly into his entire political orientation.

This is not just a matter of historical interest:

As far as the cooperatives, such as cooperative housing: Note that people had to buy into that housing at market prices. In today’s context, this would be next to useless as far as even slowing down the gentrification that we see in so many cities today. And as for worker cooperatives: There is a reason that Karl Marx opposed them. It might make for a more pleasant work place environment, but such enterprises must swim in the sea of the capitalist economy, and when that economy goes into a downturn or a crisis the cooperatives must respond as any other business does, or it will go under. As far as the worker/”owners” – my experience is that they are driven to think more in terms of owners (focusing on finding sources of cheap raw materials, credit, etc.) than on organizing a fight against capitalism itself. Rather than such schemes, socialists should be raising the very question of private investment as the sole driving force in the economy. We should be raising the need for public housing, democratically organized and run by the workers and tenants themselves. We should be fighting for public ownership vs. private investment.

Berger’s approach to the unions of his day also has a parallel today. Today, many socialists and others on the left ignore the issues which the rank and file union members feel most deeply – the commitment of the union leadership to help the employers make a profit, or the “team concept” (in one form or another), the granting of concessions after concessions without even a struggle and generally being MIA on the job. Instead of ignoring this abysmal situation within the unions, socialists today should be struggling to try to help rank and file union members organize against this approach of the leadership. They should be trying to help the members organize to transform the unions into the fighting, workers’ organizations they were meant to be. Socialists should be linking up the social issues with that internal union battle.

I also don’t agree with classifying the writings of some about the need for a mass workers’ party as simply “pontificating”. In many ways, this is the issue of the day in US politics – the fact that the US working class has no political party to even start to represent its interests, to even start to organize it as a coherent force in society. How, through what process, that can change should be discussed seriously, not dismissed as “pontificating”.

So, yes, socialists must organize where they are (which hopefully will be in the working class, in their neighborhoods, work places or schools) and they must organize around the issues which workers and working class youth feel every day. But they must also link those day-to-day issues with the more general ones. Workers, after all, do, whether consciously or not. As far as any improvements in the daily lives, in the day-to-day issues, we must always orient towards the workers themselves confronting capitalism and fighting for their interests as workers. In doing so, Victor Berger is an all-around example of what NOT to do.


Blank March 29, 2017 at 8:52 pm

I got through a few sentences of John’s comment above and quit reading after the inveteracies. Berger was a nasty bigot and not someone I admire. He did oppose the IWW, but was not against industrial unionism. You can call Milwaukee socialism middle class if you consider white, AFL workers middle class. They are “privileged” in todays discourse but they are not professionals, “lawyers, doctors, etc.” as you say.

You definitely should not object to the entire undertaking of Milwaukee socialism because of Victor Berger. The guy died in 1929 and there were socialist mayors up until 1960. Frank Zeidler, the last of the socialist mayors, actually took a lot of stick because he supported civil rights (as mentioned in this excellent article.)

Municipal socialism might have advanced further had Job Harriman been elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1911. The event that lost it for him was the MacNamara brothers’ guilty plea for blowing up the office of the LA Times. This was the event that precipitated the SPA to rule against sabotage — totally understandable given the circumstances. This was an incredibly stupid thing to do and its not any wonder the Party wanted to distance themselves from sabotage). People totally ignore the context of the anti-sabotage rule and act like the law barred striking or something. Had Harriman won maybe LA would have been a different place. He opposed the aqueducts and wanted to keep LA small. LA might not have been such a blight on the country.

The Milwaukee socialists great accomplishment was the series of parks and greenbelts along rivers and creeks. They wanted a decentralized “regional city” in which some of the important features of the natural environment were not ruined by dense settlement. Don’t get hung up on Berger. I’m for militant labor action, but I also see the value of parks and what not.


John Reimann March 30, 2017 at 6:04 am

According to Ira Kipnis (“The American Socialist Movement”), in 1909 Berger submitted a report to the national executive committee of the Socialist Party on the issue of the struggle within the AFL on industrial unionism. This report stated: “Our motto must be under all circumstances, join the union of your craft….”


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