Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin
- This article deals with the Wisconsin state affiliate established in 1897 of the Social Democratic Party of America and its successor, the Socialist Party of America. For the current party affiliated with the Socialist Party USA, see Socialist Party of Wisconsin.
The Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin (SDPW) was established in 1897 as the Wisconsin state affiliate of the Chicago faction of the Social Democratic Party of America. When that organization merged in 1901 to form a political party known as the Socialist Party of America, the Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin became the state affiliate of that organization, retaining its original name. The party was responsible for electing the first socialist member of the United States Congress and was the governing party in the city of Milwaukee for many years, electing several long-time mayors.
Socialism was by no means new to Wisconsin, a fair percentage of the émigrés from Germany in the dozen years prior to the Civil War, the so-called "Forty-Eighters," had been exposed to radical ideas and been participants in a continent-wide battle against absolutist monarchy. Milwaukee was, among other things, an enclave of German-American radicalism, with some 24% of the city German born in 1895. it was there that the American Socialist movement sank deep roots.
The first socialist newspaper in Wisconsin appeared in Milwaukee in November 1875, a small sheet called Der Sozialist. The paper had a Lassallean political orientation and survived for only about one year. The first English-language paper appeared the next year, when a weekly called Social Democrat saw print. As with Der Sozialist, this paper proved to be short-lived.
Chicago radical publisher Paul Grottkau came to Milwaukee in 1886, bringing with him his newspaper, the German-language tri-weekly the Arbeiter Zeitung (Workers News). This publication continued without interruption, although undergoing a name change to the Volks Zeitung (Peoples' News), until it was sold in January 1893 to a young school teacher named Victor L. Berger and transformed into the Wisconsin Vorwärts ('Wisconsin Forward'). Berger assumed the role of both editor and publisher of the publication, and his emergence in this capacity marked a turning point in the history of the socialist movement in the state. Berger grew his paper by attempting to de-emphasize revolutionary change in favor of incremental reform, and made a conscious effort to forge alliances with the trade union movement of his city and state.
The minimum program which Berger espoused included such things as the municipal ownership of public utilities, the national ownership of mines, abolition of child labor, establishment of income and inheritance taxation, and establishment of state standards for working conditions as well as old age pensions and insurance against sickness. Additional political demands included abolition of the United States Senate and the veto power of the executive branch, and the elimination of the standing army and restrictions upon immigration. Berger's consistent advocacy of this "constructive" program began to be felt and by the end of the 1890s the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council was won over to support of the practical immediate demands espoused by Berger.
In 1901 The Social Democratic Heralld, the official organ of the Chicago-based Social Democratic Party of America, moved its office to Milwaukee. This paper would continue as the English-language voice of socialism in Wisconsin through September 1913.
Behind Milwaukee's socialist press, there was an evolving political organization. Between 1874 and 1876 there was a Milwaukee branch of the International Workingmen's Association — the so-called "First International" in which Karl Marx played no small role. Many of the members of this pioneering group, which met at a place called Casino Hall, would go on to become leading members of the Social-Democratic Party during the decade of the 1890s.
The direct forerunners of the Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin Included the German language Sozialistischer Verein, in which Victor Berger played a leading role, and a small English-language group styling itself as the "Fabian Society," in which Frederic Heath was the most active participant. Berger's group was part of the turner movement — a network of social and gymnastic organizations established in America by emigrants from Germany.
On October 9, 1893, with a city election in Milwaukee less than a month away, members of the Sozialistischer Verein and Fabian Society gathered with individuals associated with the Socialist Labor Party of America, the People's Party ("Populists"), and unaffiliated trade unionists to decide upon a common plan of action. A committee of 15 was elected, who managed to hammer out the differing views of the various participating organizations into a coherent platform behind a set of nominees called the "Cooperative Ticket."
The alliance of reformers and radicals had no great delusions of their prospects of success, but instead sought to make their united effort at the polls a cause for building the organized strength of the working class. This alliance lasted until the summer of 1894, when the Populists severed themselves from the socialist movement by banning admission of Victor Berger and two dozen socialists as delegates to their state convention.
Relations between the socialists and the Populists continued to sour over the next several years, with Berger declaring at the time of the November 1896 elections that socialists should support the Populists at the polls only until a national political party was established for the working class.
Berger and his co-thinkers had not long to wait for such an organization. On January 2, 1897, trade union organizer and orator Eugene V. Debs announced in an open letter that he was severing himself from the increasingly conservative People's Party, owing to his conversion to Socialism. Berger had been instrumental in winning Debs to the socialist cause, visiting him with books in hand during the time of his incarceration in Woodstock Jail in Chicago in 1895, and he wrote to Debs exploring the formation of a new explicitly socialist political party. This would take shape later that same year as the Social Democracy of America, from which Berger and Debs would split in 1898 to form the electorally-oriented Social Democratic Party.
On July 7, 1898, Eugene Debs made his first public speech on behalf of the Social Democracy at a meeting held at West Side Turner Hall in Milwaukee before a large and enthusiastic audience. Two nights later, Milwaukee saw the establishment of Branch 1 of the Social Democracy of America, with Debs again on hand to provide a keynote address to the session. Between 75 and 100 of the city's residents, including many German-American immigrants, turned out to help establish the new organization.
From the earliest days, left wing opposition existed to the new organization in the form of the Socialist Labor Party, which sought to debate Debs and the Social Democracy on the nature of Socialism. One historian of this interlude has intimated that such a desire for debate was natural, characterizing party leader Daniel DeLeon of the SLP and Victor Berger of the Social Democracy as "the sages behind two opposing schools of socialism."
Debs had planned to stay in Wisconsin helping to establish the Social Democracy in other cities around the state, but he was ultimately called away to the West Virginia coal fields to help organize striking miners then engaged in a heated economic battle with mine-owners.
Berger and Heath, the two leading figures in the Wisconsin movement, sought to expand the size and influence of their movement among Wisconsinites by establishing a daily newspaper, which they hoped to launch on New Year's Day, 1898. In a surprising move intended to unite the warring factions of American socialism, an offer was made to Daniel DeLeon to come to Wisconsin from New York City in order to edit the new paper. There is no evidence that DeLeon ever answered this proposal, which seems to have been made in good faith. The idea for an English daily was ultimately abandoned at this time.
The first city convention of the Social Democratics in Milwaukee was held on February 1, 1898, and included substantial representation from the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council and individual unions. An initial slate of four candidates was put forward by the organization to run in the Milwaukee municipal election which followed on April 5. Those nominated were the first of many subsequent Socialist candidates to be bound to the party program through the submission of signed-but-undated "blank resignations," which were entrusted to the party organization to be dated and submitted if the elected candidate were to ever lose the party's trust.
The electoral platform guiding these candidates has been described by one historian as one of "detailed reformism," including calls for city-owned utilities, public works projects, free textbooks for schoolchildren, and the development of recreation areas in poor sections of the city of Milwaukee.
The Social Democratic candidate for mayor, machinist Robert Meister, ultimately received 2400 votes, trailing the 26,000 ballots received by the Democratic Party's victorious nominee and the 18,000 votes for his Republican opponent.
The Social Democratic campaign was taken statewide for the first time in the fall of 1898, with a platform calling for establishment of a progressive income tax and a new property tax to replace the current system of taxation, universal suffrage for all literate adults, establishment of the initiative and referendum, abolition of the veto power of the governor, abolition of the Wisconsin State Senate, and prohibition of child labor and night work for women. This set of substantial reforms was not met with favorably by the electorate as the Social Democratic ticket generated results no better than the Milwaukee mayoral effort, polling a mere 2,544 votes in a statewide race.
The Social-Democratic Party was buoyed to some extent by an onslaught against the Socialist Labor Party, an ideological battle lead nationally by the Appeal to Reason, a large circulation weekly based in the rural town of Girard, Kansas. The Appeal's 1898 onslaught was followed by a split of the SLP over the question of trade union tactics in the following year. Dissatisfied former member of the SLP in Milwaukee bolted for the Social-Democratic Party, swelling its ranks and reducing the physical and rhetorical volume of its left wing opponents.
In 1900 dissident former members of the SLP and the Chicago-based Social Democratic Party managed to patch up their differences long enough to run a joint ticket for the presidency, headed by Eugene Debs for President and Job Harriman of California for Vice-President. Although the SDP leadership remained leery of the former SLP members, organizational unity eventually followed, formalized by a convention in Indianapolis which was gaveled to order on July 29, 1901. The Socialist Party of America was thereby born.
The Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin broke through electorally in 1904, first winning office in the Milwaukee city election in April. That successful campaign saw nearly 20,000 votes cast for the SDP, with ten party members elected as city aldermen and another four as city supervisors. In addition, two party members won positions as justices and two more as constables. Among those elected to office for the first time as incoming aldermen were pioneer English-speaking socialist Frederic Heath and future Mayor Emil Seidel. Newspaper editor Victor Berger finished third in his bid to become Mayor of Milwaukee, but he nonetheless recorded a respectable 15,343 votes (27.2% of those cast) in a three-cornered race.
Success continued in November 1904 when the party saw five of its candidates elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly and one other elected to the Wisconsin State Senate. That election also saw the first Congressional campaign of the party's patriarch, Victor Berger, when he stood for election in Wisconsin's 5th Congressional District, centered in Milwaukee. During this campaign the SDP refined its electoral tactics, dividing the distribution of campaign literature in the urban center of Milwaukee on a carefully planned block-by-block basis and managing to distribute 100,000 pieces of campaign literature, hitting every dwelling in the city, in a 24-hour period. An efficient political machine to rival those of the so-called "old parties" was thereby developed — a factor not to be underestimated in any assessment of the organization's electoral success.
The SDP scored its biggest electoral triumph to date in the spring of 1910 when Emil Seidel was elected as Mayor of Milwaukee. One key factor behind socialist success in this race was a breakthrough by the SDP among working class Polish-American voters, who had traditionally supported candidates of the Democratic Party. Seidel's victory capped a decade of steady SDP growth in Milwaukee mayoral elections, in which the party's candidates had seen the number of socialist votes cast grow by a factor of 8 between the election of 1900 and the end of the decade.
In the fall 1920 election, the Socialist Party of Wisconsin elected 3 State Senators and another 9 of its members to the Wisconsin Assembly. This was topped in the 1922 election, which saw the return of Victor Berger to Congress, while 2 party members were elected to the State Senate and another 10 were sent to the Assembly. The party did not run a candidate for U.S. Senate in 1922, avoiding a race which was handily won by popular progressive Republican Robert M. La Follette, Sr. over his Democratic challenger by a margin of nearly 5-to-1.
The SDPW was the center of what was derisively termed "Sewer Socialism" within the socialist movement: an element which favored democratic socialism over Orthodox Marxism, deemphasizing 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.
In December 1972, when in convention a majority of the Socialist Party voted to change the name of the organization to Social Democrats, USA so as to better work within the Democratic Party, a secessionist Wisconsin contingent was influential in the formation of a new organization dedicated to the traditional vision of independent political action, the Socialist Party, USA.
- Milwaukee Arbeiter Zeitung (1886-1893) —Tri-weekly, published previously in Chicago.
- Wisconsin Vorwärts (1893-XXX) —Edited by Victor Berger.
- Die Wahrheit [The Truth] (1893-1910) —Edited by Victor Berger.
- Social Democratic Herald (1901-Sept. 1913) —Weekly, published previously in Terre Haute and Chicago.
- The Vanguard. (1900s) —Monthly theoretical magazine.
- Milwaukee Leader (Dec. 1911-1940s)
- Wisconsin Comrade (1914-May 1916)
- The Coming Nation (June 1916-March 1917)
- Marvin Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, 1897-1910. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1945; pg. 9.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 11.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 10.
- F.G.R. Gordon, "The Social Democratic Party in Wisconsin," Social Democratic Herald [Chicago], vol. 2, no. 37, whole no. 87 (March 3, 1900), pg. 4.
- Sally M. Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910-1920. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973; pg. 32.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pp. 11-12. Wachman quotes Heath as having recalled in June 1942, "We took that name because it sounded good." (pg. 12).
- According to Wachman, Berger was also president of Turnbezirk, the governing body of turners in the Wisconsin district. See: Wachman,Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 12.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 13.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pp. 13-14.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 14.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 15.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 17.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 18.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 19.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 20.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 21.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pp. 21-22.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 23.
- Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, pg. 35.
- Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, pp. 35-36.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 29.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 30.
- Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pg. 31.
- "Great Victory for Socialism," Social Democratic Herald, vol. 6, no. 50, whole no. 297 (April 9, 1904), pg. 1.
- Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, pg. 38.
- Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, pg. 21.
- Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, pg. 37.
- "Socialists Win in City; Lose County: 12 Socialists Gain Seats in Legislature," Milwaukee Leader, vol. 11, no. 285 (November 8, 1922), pg. 1.
- "Vote for U.S. Senator and State Offices," Milwaukee Leader, vol. 11, no. 285 (November 8, 1922), pg. 3.
- "Milwaukee Sewer Socialism". Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
- Louis A. Arnold, Men of Wisconsin: They Have Silenced the Voice of Freedom But Votes Speak Louder than Words: Let Your Answer Be Victor L. Berger for US Senator (Socialist Ticket). Milwaukee: Louis A. Arnold, n.d. (1918).
- Victor L. Berger, "A 'Dissolved' Trust," The Vanguard, vol. 5, no. 10, whole no. 54. Milwaukee: Social-Democratic Publishing Co., 1907.
- Berger's Broadsides. Milwaukee: Social-Democratic Publishing Co., 1912.
- Voice and Pen of Victor L. Berger: Congressional Speeches and Editorials. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Leader, 1929.
- Winfield R. Gaylord, County Option: Where Labor Stands at Present on the Liquor Question: Address Delivered in the Debate on County Option in the Wisconsin Legislature, March 31st, 1909. Milwaukee: Social-Democratic Publishing Co., n.d. (1909).
- Daniel W. Hoan, Inaugural Address of Daniel W. Hoan, Mayor of Milwaukee: Delivered to the Common Council of Milwaukee, Wis., April 16, 1918. Milwaukee: n.p., n.d. (1918).
- Ralph Korngold, Brain Jolters. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Social-Democratic Publishing Co., n.d. (c. 1914).
- Paul Porter, Which Way for the Socialist Party? Milwaukee: State Executive Board, Socialist Party of Wisconsin, 1937.
- Emil Seidel, Which Must Go? America or Private Ownership of Railroads? Milwaukee: Socialist Party of Wisconsin, n.d. (c. 1920).
- Norman Thomas, Collective Security and War. Milwaukee: Socialist Party of Wisconsin, 1938.
- Carl D. Thompson, Ferdinand Rehfeld, and Max Grass (eds.), Milwaukee Municipal Campaign Book 1912, Social-Democratic Party. Milwaukee: County Central Committee of the Social-Democratic Party, Milwaukee County, Wis., 1912.
- R.W. Tucker, The Debs Caucus: A Party Within a Party. Milwaukee: Socialist Party of Wisconsin, 1970.
- Some Anti-Socialist Voices of the Press on Victor L. Berger, Representative of the Fifth Wisconsin District, and his Work in Congress. Milwaukee: Social-Democratic Publishing Co., n.d. (c. 1912).
- Socialist Party of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Socialist Platform, 1918," Milwaukee Leader, vol. 7, no. 337 (Aug. 31, 1918), pg. 8.
- Elmer A. Beck, The Sewer Socialists: A History of the Socialist Party of Wisconsin, 1897-1940. In Two Volumes. Fennimore, WI: Westburg Associates, 1982.
- Edward A. Benoit, III, A Democracy of Its Own: Milwaukee's Socialisms, Difference and Pragmatism. MA thesis. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2009.
- Nichali M Ciaccio, Because It Had to Be: the Milwaukee Leader, Socialism and the First World War. MA thesis. 2011.
- Winfield R. Gaylord, "The Legislative Program of the Social-Democratic (Socialist) Party in the Wisconsin Legislative Session of 1909," American Political Science Review, vol. 3, no. 2 (May 1909), pp. 226-230. In JSTOR
- Rosalind Margaret Drosen, The History of Socialism in Milwaukee, 1910-1930. BA thesis. University of Wisconsin, 1931.
- Elizabeth A. Joswiak, 'The City for the People': Milwaukee Municipal Recreation and the Socialists, 1890-1917. PhD dissertation. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1997.
- Arnold Kaltinick, Socialist Municipal Administration in Four American Cities (Milwaukee, Schenectady, New Castle, Pennsylvania, and Conneaut, Ohio), 1910-1916. PhD dissertation. New York University, 1982.
- James J. Lorence, "'Dynamite for the Brain': The Growth and Decline of Socialism in Central and Lakeshore Wisconsin, 1910-1920," Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 66, no. 4 (Summer, 1983), pp. 250–273. in JSTOR
- John McCarthy, "Dreaming of a Decentralized Metropolis: City Planning in Socialist Milwaukee," Michigan Historical Review, vol. 32, no. 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 33–57.
- Sally M. Miller, Victor Berger and the Promise of Constructive Socialism, 1910-1920. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973.
- Frederick I. Olson, The Milwaukee Socialists, 1897-1941. PhD dissertation. Harvard University, 1952.
- Frederick I. Olson, "The Socialist Party and the Union in Milwaukee, 1900-1912," Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 44, no. 2 (Winter 1960/61), pp. 110–116. In JSTOR
- William J. Reece, "'Partisans of the Proletariat': The Socialist Working Class and the Milwaukee Schools, 1890-1920," History of Education Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 1981), pp. 3–50. In JSTOR.
- Robert C. Reinders, "Daniel W. Hoan and the Milwaukee Socialist Party during the First World War," Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 36, no. 1 (Autumn 1952), pp. 48–55. In JSTOR
- Kevin D. Smith, "From Socialism to Racism: The Politics of Class and Identity in Postwar Milwaukee," Michigan Historical Review, vol. 29, no. 1 (Spring 2003), pp. 71–95. In JSTOR
- Kenneth Neil Teitelbaum, Schooling for 'Good Rebels': Socialist Education for Children in the United States, 1900-1920 (Curriculum: New York City, Rochester, New York; Milwaukee, Wisconsin). PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1985.
- Marvin Wachman, Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, 1897-1910. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1945.
- Frank P. Zeidler, Ninety Years of Democratic Socialism: A Brief History of the Socialist Party USA. Milwaukee: Socialist Party USA, 1991.
SDPW average paid memberships
Year Average Paid Membership Exempt Members National SPA Membership 1901 n/a 4,759 paid (of 7,629) 1902 n/a 9,949 1903 n/a 15,975 1904 n/a 20,763 1905 n/a 23,327 1906 n/a 26,784 1907 n/a 29,270 1908 n/a 41,751 1909 1,831 n/a 41,470 1910 n/a 58,011 1911 n/a 84,716 1912 n/a 118,045 1913 95,957 1914 93,579 1915 79,374 1916 3,092 83,284 1917 3,694 80,379 1918 5,160 (first 6 mos.) 82,344 1919 104,822 1920 26,766 1921 13,484 1922 11,019 1923 10,662 1924 10,125 1925 8,558 1926 8,392 1927 7,425 1928 7,793 1929 9,560 1930 9,736 1931 10,389 1932 16,863 1933 18,548 1934 20,951 1935 19,121 1936 11,922
- Sources: Carl D. Thompson, "The Rising Tide of Socialism," The Socialist (Columbus, OH), Aug. 12, 1911, pg. 2; St. Louis Labor, Feb. 22, 1902, pg. 5; Socialist Party Official Bulletin and successors, Executive Secretary state-by-state membership summaries, January issues;"Socialist Party Official Membership Series,' (1932). Report to 1937 Convention, cited in "Socialist Party of America Annual Membership Figures," Early American Marxism website. Adoloph Germer, Report of Executive Secretary to the National Executive Committee: Chicago, Illinois — Aug. 8, 1918, pp. 5-6. "Exempt" members denote those receiving special dispensation from the state office due to unemployment starting 1913. 1909 figure from Socialist Party Official Bulletin, April 1910, pg. 10.
- "Socialist Party Papers, 1897-1980s, finding aid," Milwaukee County Historical Society, Collection Mss-0770.