This article was last modified on April 10, 2013.

Four Decades of Socialism in Milwaukee, 1904-1940

In 1904 Emil Seidel was one of nine Socialists to win electoral victory as Milwaukee city aldermen, elected in the city’s 20th ward. He served two terms in that position before being elected as an Alderman-at-Large in 1909.

In 1910 Emil Seidel was elected mayor of Milwaukee and became the first socialist leader of a major city in the United States. The same year Daniel Hoan became Milwaukee’s city attorney, winning election by a plurality of more than 7300 votes out of about 59,000 votes cast over Democratic and Republican opponents. Over the next six years Hoan clamped down on the corruption of public officials.

During Seidel’s administration the first public works department was established, the first fire and police commission was organized, and a city park system came into being. Seidel cleaned the town up with strict regulation of bars and the closing of brothels and sporting parlors (modern-day casinos). It was also during his administration that he employed the noted American poet and author Carl Sandburg for a brief time. It was Seidel’s socialist inclinations that attracted Sandburg to Milwaukee.

Seidel then chose to run for Vice President of the United States on the Socialist ticket with Eugene V. Debs, and the pair won a respectable 901,551 votes in the 1912 presidential election (6% of the total).

In 1916 Hoan was elected as mayor of Milwaukee. Unlike many members of the Socialist Party, Hoan did not oppose United States entry into the First World War. Hoan remained mayor for twenty-four years, the longest continuous Socialist administration in United States history.

He brought in a large number of progressive reforms including the country’s first public housing project, Garden Homes, started in 1923. Hoan also led the successful drive towards municipal ownership of the stone quarry, street lighting, sewage disposal and water purification.

Julius Kiesner had never held public office until his successful 1918 bid for the Assembly to replace fellow Socialist Herman O. Kent. In his last race, in 1926, he ran unopposed (one of three Socialists to run unopposed in the 1926 election).

In 1926, Herman Kent was the Socialist nominee for Governor of Wisconsin. He came in fourth in a six-way race, with 40,293 votes (7.28%) out of 552,912.

Otto Kehrein had never held public office until his successful 1928 bid for the Assembly, succeeding fellow Socialist Julius Kiesner. Kehrein was elected to the Milwaukee County Board in the spring of 1932, serving in both capacities until his Assembly term expired in January 1933. After this, Kehrein switched to the Republican Party.

During his administration the first bus system in the United States came into being after a number of pedestrians were run over by street trolleys that ran down the middle of the road. Among the victims of such streetcar accidents was Milwaukee newspaper editor and Socialist Party founder and leading light Victor Berger, who was killed in 1929.

At the May 1932 convention of the Socialist Party, Hoan ran for National Chairman of the party against incumbent Morris Hillquit. In addition to the “constructive Socialists” from Wisconsin, Hoan garnered the support of the young Marxist “Militant” faction and the radicals around Norman Thomas, but this bloc was insufficient to unseat Hillquit, who won reelection by a vote of 105-86.

In 1933, Andrew Biemiller came to Milwaukee to work for the party, serving as educational director of the party from 1933 to 1936, editing the Milwaukee Leader from 1934 to 1936, and working with various organizations. He became an active member of the Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation as well as the Socialist Party. Biemiller was a member of the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Newspaper Guild, served on the executive board of the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council and was vice-president of the Wisconsin Turner District.

Jewish labor leader Baruch Charney Vladeck began corresponding with Hoan in late 1933 and early 1934, and urged him to unite the Socialists with Robert LaFollette’s Progressives. Vladeck argued that the Progressives were moving in the direction of socialism, and that the Socialist Party did not have the numbers or power to control the state — a union would bolster them. Hoan disagreed that the Progressives were heading towards socialism, and said they had hopped on Roosevelt’s “bandwagon”.

The Wisconsin Socialists helped form the Wisconsin Farmer-Labor Progressive Feeration in 1935, which advocated a “production for use” platform. For the Federation to endorse a candidate, they must have subscribed to such a platform. This was approved by the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party in 1936.

In 1936, Biemiller was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly on the ticket of the Wisconsin Progressive Party. He soon gravitated away from the Socialist Party, and by 1944 switched to the Democratic Party.

Paul Porter wrote to Norman Thomas in February 1937, complaining about the Zam-Tyler Clarity position, defending the Wisconsin Socialists, and supporting the Altman-Murray Gross faction in New York.

Porter released a pamphlet in 1937 called Which Way for the Socialist Party? He argued that a Marxist perspective required an analysis of the social and economic forces at work in the United States. Porter believed the future of socialism was within a national farmer-labor party — the members would not be socialists, but socialists could work through such a party to educate workers. He said that in such states as Florida, where only Democrats were on the ballot, the proper course of action would be to join the Democratic Party’s left wing rather than run against them as another party.

The underlying message Porter preached was unity, and he singled out Trotskyists for their “sectarian” politics. Socialists, Communists, Progressives and others shared many common goals and would be more successful in alignment than as a series of fragments. Norman Thomas respected Porter’s view, but feared Porter did not understand the overall strength of the Communist Party (which was weak in Wisconsin, but strong in New York).

Hoan was defeated in the Milwaukee mayoral campaign of 1940 and the next year left the Socialist Party and joined the Democratic Party.


Warren, Frank A. An Alternative Vision: The Socialist Party in the 1930’s Indiana University Press, 1974

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