Dora B. Montefiore Justice, 6 August 1910

The Meaning of Milwaukee

Source: “Our Women’s Circle, Justice, p.5, 6 August 1910;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

As the work and success of Milwaukee comrades has more than once been called it question as not being sufficiently revolutionary, it may perhaps be of interest to comrades in England to know something of the facts of the case, and thus possess a basis on which to form an opinion.

Milwaukee is a town on the west shores of Lake Michigan, of about 400,000 inhabitants. Its Socialist vote was in:-

1898 2,414
1900 2,473
1902 8,453
1904 15,056
1906 16,837
1908 20,887
1910 27,000

On this last occasion the Socialist vote elected a Mayor, a city comptroller, a city treasurer, a city attorney, and 21 aldermen in a council of 35. For years a Democrat Mayor had governed the destinies of the town; a Democrat majority on the council had been the obedient tool of the exploiting class. In the words of a Chicago Socialist paper: “Graft and corruption were so notorious that even the thieves themselves had to hold their noses.” As the result of these long continued abuses, the citizens of Milwaukee in 1910 determined to make a clean sweep of Democrat administration: and many Republicans threw their vote into the Socialist scale, so as to ensure the election of fellow citizens whom they knew to be upright and honourable both in public and private life. The Milwaukee Socialist majority in 1910 was, therefore, to a certain extent the result of a “vote of confidence” on the part of many fellow-citizens who were not convinced Socialists, but who were prepared to give Socialist administrators a chance. These non-Socialist voters further argued that “At any rate the workers whom they were trusting with power could not do much harm, as the City coffers were empty – therefore they could not waste money; and the State laws prevented them effectually bringing in any drastic and revolutionary Socialist measures.” Our Milwaukee comrades are perfectly aware these calculations of the enemy, but they mean to put up a good fight in spite of their immediate limitations; and on the other hand they are not going to be hustled by too eager and too critical comrades into starting off with a display of fireworks which might injure the chances of their carefully thought out platform.

In “The Call” of June 17 there is a letter by comrade Courtenay Lemon, headed “Anti-Milwaukee.” He attacks what he calls the Milwaukee apologists, who say: “We can’t do anything revolutionary in Milwaukee; the laws forbid it; we can’t abolish capitalism in one city”; and replies, “We do demand them to show something besides supine acquiescence to existing laws and conditions. Whence this reverence for capitalist made law imposed on the popular will by fraud and coercion?” In reply to this I pick out some of the leading items on the platform which carried the Milwaukee comrades to a Socialist victory: “Home Rule for the City.” which means getting rid of the outside laws preventing revolutionary action. “Initiative and referendum. Municipal ownership. Trades union conditions of labour. Eight hour day for labour. Cheaper gas. Cheaper ice, coal, and wood, by means of municipal plant. Corporations to pay their full share of taxes. Work for the unemployed at union wages and eight hour day.” And, further, Mayor Seidel is reported in a Milwaukee capitalist paper, “The Free Press” to have said at a meeting, when outlining the immediate changes contemplated: “Then there are the offices of harbour master and superintendent of bridges, where the duties are about the same, and where they are not busy all the time. If we can, and we shall attempt to do it by ignoring the law – we shall assign the duties of both offices to one man.” This does not look exactly like “reverence for capitalist made law”; but our Milwaukee comrades are feeling their way gradually, and are not attempting to run before they have learnt to walk. As a matter of fact, the job they have put their hand to is the cleaning of an Aegean stable of corruption, neglect, and graft, and they realise that if through lack of wisdom, or lack of judgment, they fail “to make good” there is nothing before them for their town but government by commission – or, in other words, administration by experts – who would lead to a narrow bureaucratic system.

That the capitalists realise the meaning of the Socialist victory as far as their workers are concerned is proved by an editorial in the Milwaukee Journal of May 4, in which “The Milwaukee bosses are warned to clean up before the Socialists get after them.” It may certainly be urged, and is urged by some, that these palliatives, improving the housing and industrial conditions of the workers, tend to prolong the system of capitalism. This maybe so; but, on the other hand, wise and just administration on the part of Socialists is one of the best object lessons to the people at large of what Socialism means; and that object lesson, faithfully repeated during two years, cannot fail but make Socialists – which, after all, is the raison d’Ítre of all our propaganda. Why I believe that Mayor Seidel, comrade Victor Berger and his wife, and the other Milwaukee “elected persons” have a special meaning and significance for international Socialists all over the world is just because many of the men who voted for them were not Socialists, but helped to elect these Socialists because they were so manifestly the best and most disinterested citizens they knew. Moreover, these Socialist men and women who have had these responsibilities placed on them are preparing themselves by specialist studies, and by taking the advice of college experts (many of whom are students of Socialist principles), to carry out the administration of their town on the most modern and scientific lines. The real Socialist is always a student; and these comrades who have been steadily undermining for the last twelve years the strongholds of capitalism in their own town have excellent libraries, and use them daily as sources of information and inspiration. Mayor Seidel’s home is thus described in “The Call” of May 8 as “a cheaply built story and a half frame cottage in the 20th ward. .... It is typical of the homes of the industrious working men, and his neighbours are exclusively working people. It has sitting room, dining room, library, kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms, and cost the Mayor the munificent sum of 1,100 dollars (£240). ... Mrs. Seidel was cleaning house when I visited this interesting cottage. She had her sleeves rolled up, and her hair was protected with a calico dust cap.” When asked if she intended to move into a larger house now that her husband could afford it, she said she loved the little home, and she had not even thought of leaving it. “We are still of the working class,” she said, “and we are not going to put on any airs because the working people decided my husband was to be their Mayor.” Comrade Victor Berger was for years a teacher of German in the town; of recent years he has edited the Milwaukee Socialist paper, and now he is besides doing excellent work on the Town Council. I spent an evening in their pleasant little home – the lower flat in a frame house in the suburbs of Milwaukee. The Bergers have two small daughters of 11 and 12 and have adopted a young nephew about the same age. As Mrs. Berger is very occupied with her School Board work, they employ a help in the domestic work of the house; but the keynote of the household is simple living and high thinking.

I attended meetings both of the Town Council and of the School Board, and heard discussions of various technical points; I also visited under Mrs. Berger’s guidance both elementary and high schools; and saw the excellent results obtained from co-educational methods. There is no doubt in my mind that the reason why women, both in Finland and in the United States, take a better position in our movement than they do in other countries is that they have been educated side by side with the men – mutual knowledge of and real respect for each other being the result. “Women,” said, Mayor Seidel, “are a great factor in this battle for justice, and the world will be made the better, when they are granted the right of franchise, as they surely will be. The women have always been found on the side of right. Judge Lindsay’s uphill fight in Denver would have been a failure but for the good women there.” Our comrades in Milwaukee have not the legislative power such as might be exercised by the representatives of the Labour Party at Westminster, but they believe so vitally in the existence of the class struggle that they mean to make the right to work a living issue in their town, and an object lesson to their fellow citizens in our party being the administrative and political expression of the international movement of the modern workers. How different this from the wasted opportunities of our Labour Party as regards the principles of the right to work! After having their first Bill voted down by an overwhelming majority of Conservatives and Liberals, they have for two sessions been running on a false scent at the tail of these Liberals; and, finally, when they ask this year for facilities for the second reading of their new Bill, they are curtly told by the Government that such facilities cannot be given, on the ground that as the issues raised by the Bill have been debated at great length in the Commons on tour successive occasions since 1906 the plea of urgency has no force. Milwaukee, with its Social-Democratic platform, has a real and vital meaning for international Social-Democracy. Until the present invertebrate Labour Party in England supplies itself with a similar platform, and speaks and votes, accordance with it, it can possess no real and vital meaning for international Socialism.