books The World That Municipal Socialists Built
Claiming the City: A Global History of Workers’ Fight for Municipal Socialism
In response to the widespread sense that progressives’ momentum in Washington has plateaued—particularly since Republicans secured a narrow House majority in the 2022 midterms—many on the left have called for a renewed commitment to grassroots activism and local representation. Indeed, sparking the revival of municipal democracy is one of the left’s most urgent priorities. Cities can and should provide meaningful avenues for pursuing our collective welfare. But complacency, if not outright apathy and disengagement, tends to reign when it comes to local politics; hopeful declarations of a “municipalist moment” have proved premature. Voter participation in local contests generally remains at or near historical lows, testing the limits of a strategy based on running left-wing insurgents against centrist incumbents.
How can leftists who see promise at the local level transform cities into sites of worker empowerment and social democratic experimentation? In his panoramic new book, Claiming the City: A Global History of Workers’ Fight for Municipal Socialism, labor historian Shelton Stromquist offers an invigorating portrait of an era that many socialists have recently rediscovered in hopes of finding a model for radical local politics today. The book is devoted primarily to the period stretching from the 1880s to the 1920s, when unprecedented global flows of capital and labor gave rise to the notion that cities are foundational to a socialist future. Stromquist explains how the seemingly piecemeal reforms of worker-led “urban populism” in that period laid the foundation for social citizenship and examines the era’s contests over propertied power and public resources. He shows how concrete demands for labor rights, publicly owned utilities and recreation, social housing, working-class political representation, proper sanitation and safe food, and home rule were echoed across the industrializing world. This phenomenon marked the rise of what Stromquist calls a “translocal” class consciousness, in which advances toward municipal socialism did not reflect each case’s unique circumstances but instead demonstrated a universal foundation for social democracy.
Just as the workers of the Second Industrial Revolution connected their immediate challenges to an international countermovement against oligarchy, today’s multiracial working class can conceive its battles against chronic insecurity and corporate domination as part of a global struggle for democracy. A platform for public control of the urban economy can build the social trust and popular enthusiasm necessary to effect a greater transformation of society. By the same token, any revival of municipal socialism must countervail neoliberalism’s insidious power to condition urban populations to accept a world in which cities are run by and for elites. Stromquist’s lessons in solidarity and public power must be adapted to contest the neoliberal ethos that still pervades urban life—to reconceive our modes of relation and consumption, and our expectations for the future.
“The most striking feature of labor and socialist politics at the municipal level in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” Stromquist writes, “lay in the remarkable uniformity of its programmatic vision.” What could appear on the surface to be narrow, cautious, and even discrete aims with no greater vision in fact comprised a universal method to effect socioeconomic change and achieve public representation. Municipal socialists had a keen understanding of capitalist accumulation and development. Inspired by Marx, they “prescribed a shift from a local capitalist marketplace to a collectivist world of consumption and public ownership, mediated by local government.” This meant coalescing the demands of trade unions and protests over dangerous living conditions into a legislative agenda that could mobilize working-class support for an expansive role for government—an important departure from the orthodox Marxist view that the bourgeois state could not be reformed.
The evolution of European cities over several centuries already pointed to the latent possibility of socialization. Guilds and nascent business associations assumed public responsibilities such as toll collection, the standardization of weights and measurements for trade, and the upkeep of infrastructure for local markets and rudimentary public health, enmeshing the haphazard growth of local government with private interest. Cities’ market-making power, and the obligations that sprung from maintaining the urban economy, lent credence to the Marxist theory that capitalism was the stage of history that not only preceded socialism but also unwittingly laid its basis. The dialectic of development created new interest groups, new forms of subordination, new sites of contentious politics, and new ideas about public welfare.
In parts of Northern Europe, for example, the threat of food riots and other protests prompted basic regulations to provide adequate staples at bearable prices and measures to improve public sanitation. Yet the commercial elite could not keep up with the rapid changes unleashed by nineteenth-century industrialization. Mushrooming slums, rampant pollution, and the growing ubiquity of wage labor precipitated a demand for civic welfare that local elites largely resisted. Classical liberal notions of improvement and progress had all but ensured reform only occurred when it did not fundamentally threaten the political and economic power of propertied interests.
The gulf between what the industrial city was and what it ought to be catalyzed a new political approach within local branches of left-wing parties. Rather than reducing socialism to parochial concerns, the pursuit of local self-government was understood as a step toward international solidarity. It stimulated concrete demands and objectives that echoed from the north of England and cities across Germany to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the epicenter of municipal socialism in the United States.
Laborers in the industrial centers of Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand understood capitalism as a production process whose fruits were distributed radically unevenly. Generations had suffered the environmental hazards of harsh dwellings and exploitative work conditions. They also discerned that preferential tax rates for business had inhibited the growth of social welfare. Workers and socialists comprehended how legal and political systems helped capital evade public accountability. Until the spread of universal suffrage after the First World War, weighted voting systems that favored property owners were a major obstacle for electoral socialists in Europe. In the industrialized United States, where male franchise was strongest, business groups and rural-dominated state governments concocted measures to dampen city dwellers’ electoral power.
Prominent orthodox Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky set their sights on revolution and rejected reformism, believing local socialist offices would compromise with business interests and undermine the discipline of parliamentary wings. Municipal socialists like Germany’s Hugo Lindemann, by contrast, understood the right to vote as crucial to improving the working class’s material conditions. Socialism was the logical end of republican self-government and vice versa. Though male-dominated, numerous female suffragists populated their ranks, reinforcing local socialist and laborite parties’ determination to actually govern. For municipal socialists, seizing even a portion of public administration could translate abstract appeals to worker solidarity into significant material and social change.
Municipalists’ demands on behalf of the everyday welfare of workers and their families fostered an “ethical” socialism greater than the sum of its policy and legal victories. Using organizing strategies derived from the trade union movement, they were committed to spreading socialist literature, agitating in the streets, and linking different industrial sectors in common cause. Such efforts were symbiotic with the cultivation of working-class culture: fostering empowerment and solidarity transformed subjugated workers into a collective force. In the industrial north of England, Stromquist writes, the municipalist movement sparked a contagious joy that spread throughout “a range of new forums,” including athletic clubs, labor churches, musical endeavors, and other forms of community organization. Stromquist likens this activity, particularly in the churches, to a “spiritual awakening” that manifested socialist progress in every facet of daily life.
This communitarian spirit, underpinned by what we would now call mutual aid, did not diminish municipal socialists’ drive to extract concessions from business and exercise political power. In addition to demanding an eight-hour day, trade union agreements for city-contracted projects, public works on behalf of working families, public agencies to inspect food quality and manage sanitation, environmental protection, business closures on the weekend, free meals for children, unemployment relief, rent control, and other types of market regulation, municipal socialists fought tirelessly for public ownership. Candidates for office, party activists, trade unionists, and socialist journalists developed proposals for public baths, laundries, and hospitals; public slaughterhouses, bakeries, general markets, and cooperatives; and, perhaps with the greatest success, municipal-owned utilities. This decentralized approach to challenging capital’s prerogatives over key components of city business departed from the bureaucratic tendencies, persistent orthodoxy, and parliamentary focus of national left parties.
At its core, municipal socialism envisioned economic and human development unfettered by the discretion of private enterprise. By proposing specific kinds of public ownership, and by using the law to raise wages and living standards wherever possible, municipal socialism augured a potential transformation in class relations. While its demands and initiatives did not threaten to extinguish class society as such, promulgating the idea that public ownership was feasible and superior to capitalism generated expectations of city government that spread beyond the ranks of local socialists. The definition of the public good was no longer to be determined by business elites and their allies; city government itself could be an instrument to raise class consciousness among workers and make good on the promise of popular democracy.
Claiming the City elevates a number of lesser-known working-class activists, both men and women, some of whom would otherwise be lost to the archives that Stromquist mines. While the achievements of municipal socialism, culminating in the social housing of 1920s Red Vienna, are viewed primarily as a European phenomenon by most observers, the trials and scattered successes of American socialists also stand out in Stromquist’s account. He favorably compares their efforts to those of their seemingly more left-wing counterparts in Europe, homing in on their repeated efforts to realign party politics in American cities along class lines. They challenged the axis of business associations and state government conservatives determined to quell labor insurgencies and use so-called good government measures to blunt workers’ influence. Like the Populists who combined statist and cooperative economic ideas with biracial organizing, they offered a tantalizing—if never fully realized—contrast to the sectional conflict that national Republicans and Democrats exploited, which had foiled class solidarities between native laborers and newer immigrants, Northerners and Southerners, and white and black workers.
There were other impediments to success, both within the U.S. socialist movement and the party system. Though black socialists such as A. Philip Randolph were influential voices within the movement, Stromquist writes that, overall, “the class-based ‘color-blindness’ of American socialists—the unwillingness of many to take seriously the special burdens of race faced by working people of color—conveniently fit Americans’ resistance to the idea of ‘social equality’ and the wider myopia of socialists worldwide on matters of race.” Meanwhile, the practice of fusionism, which in the 1890s formalized the alliance between Populists and the Democratic Party in federal elections, could just as easily be deployed by local Democratic and Republican elites to frustrate socialist campaigns in municipal elections.
By contrast, political entrepreneurs discontented with party machines could sometimes serve the municipalist agenda. Stromquist places Detroit’s Hazen Pingree and Toledo’s Samuel Jones, both highly unconventional Republicans, along with Democrat Tom Johnson of Cleveland, within the orbit of municipal socialism. While these mayors did not have pronounced ideologies and had been successful businessmen, their stated goals were in many respects the same as socialist Victor Berger’s in Milwaukee. All three advanced what might be called an urban model of populist developmentalism, with municipal ownership of key utilities as well as ample public spaces for working-class families at the center. Their convictions and explicit courtship of urban labor—far less mediated by the backroom deals and traditional emphasis on religion and ethnicity in urban machine politics—foreshadowed the big tent, labor-driven politics of future left-liberal coalitions, from the New Deal to Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns.
In an era of machine politics and ward-based paternalism, municipal socialism promised a more transparent and emancipatory government. The goal was to convert industrialism into collective welfare—to master technology and the new forms of interconnectedness it generated and use them to increase public wealth. Turn-of-the-century municipal socialists also intuited, perhaps better than anyone, the arguments about regulated yet broad-based economic growth that would define left-Keynesianism from the 1930s through the 1970s. They grasped the potential of a mixed economy rooted in decommodified spheres of public provision. In effect, urban social democracy could be the proving ground for a more fully developed market socialism.
Municipal socialists understood, moreover, that improvements to public health—including labor regulations, safe housing, infrastructure, transportation, clean public facilities, abundant recreation, and raising food and water quality—were integral to redistributive development. The less workers and their children were at the mercy of their employers and private charity, the greater their share of economic power. As the best elements of New Deal liberalism later proved, laws designed to reduce privation stemming from public safety failures, preventable workplace accidents, and disease all contributed to labor’s rising share of national income, just as union rights and progressive taxation did.
These trailblazing efforts to build the socialist city—largely forgotten in the United States in the postwar era and in Western Europe with the end of the Cold War—should encourage contemporary activists who are determined to pass rent control, build public housing, organize delivery workers, and add to the ranks of leaders like Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson. Those who are increasingly skeptical of electoral politics and reformism, however, may struggle to fully relate the legacies that Stromquist documents to the present. Part of this is due to the fact that the New Deal order subsumed the spirit of municipal socialism; many reforms that sprang from it or were devised in response to the political competition it posed are typically attributed to New Deal Democrats and a handful of progressive Republicans. Over time, co-optation of the municipalist agenda obfuscated its historical role in urban welfare and public development. For instance, we recognize in hindsight that something akin to social democracy existed in New York City during the mid-twentieth century, but until recently it was understood as a product of liberalism. The process of figuring out how to recover this socialist legacy underscores how much has changed. As formidable as the obstacles that municipal socialists faced in the past were, there are now even more ways to stymie a progressive agenda.
The ethnic machines, muscular campaigns, and transactional public administrations that characterized American cities from the late nineteenth century through the 1970s have been replaced by a far more impenetrable sphere of policy and dealmaking—one largely determined by the financial, tech, and real estate sectors and their quests for massive tax abatements. Among the consequences are the affordable housing crisis, frequent cuts to public services, and the increasing “gigification” of labor markets, all of which fuel atomization and the erosion of civic welfare’s collective purpose.
The ways in which municipal socialism contested industrial capitalism, moreover, are not entirely replicable in globalized service economies. The types of cooperative and public ownership advocated by Stromquist’s protagonists are difficult to expand upon due, in part, to the present global division of labor, the relentless push for labor flexibility by big and small businesses alike, and the normalization of just-in-time consumerism. The advent of factory life and mass production enabled a specific, visceral kind of class politics; deindustrialization and automation have fragmented the working class while perniciously normalizing both old and new forms of exploitation. Under many business models today, workers are constantly surveilled and easily isolated, preventing meaningful workplace camaraderie. The platform and gig economy, in particular, has deployed game-like software and manipulative prompts to instill workers with the notion that they must pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
In other words, municipal socialism relied on bonds and networks that globalization and technological change have sundered. While the infrastructure of the industrial age once sparked dreams of an emancipatory form of development that could be harnessed by the working class, the high-tech knowledge economy has often reinforced the decline of associational life. Though less stark than in rural and peri-urban counties, atomization in urban areas has been fueled by a host of digital services that have facilitated work-from-home arrangements for middle- and upper-class professionals; socioeconomic segregation and rising housing costs; and lingering isolation and pessimism wrought by the pandemic. Frequently, the leadership of blue cities has only made the problem worse. Their uncritical support for tech platforms over fixed investment, craven acceptance of gargantuan police budgets, studied aloofness over wage theft, and stubborn commitment to a neoliberal vision of public-private partnerships exacerbates pervasive feelings of disempowerment. The effect is that while many cities have retained a complex system of public administration under neoliberalism, there are few grand projects and initiatives to serve the public interest, let alone measures that actually deliver economic security to urban workers.
These obstacles can only be overcome through the resourceful actions of workers, their own articulations of what the urban economy should be, and their rediscovery of community. Well beyond pressing for reforms already entertained or enacted by center-left Democrats, such as universal pre-K, free school meals, and free public transit, municipal socialism must reclaim its ambitious vision of urban development. The emphasis must be on fighting for more public goods, services, and spaces, not just more progressive taxation to fund existing city services and more regulations to meet climate targets. Challenges to neoliberal logic ought to combine things like higher minimum wages, price controls, and cost-of-living subsidies via luxury taxes with massive and innovative public investment. As Claiming the City impresses upon us, municipal socialism is more than an ethic or fulcrum for organizing—it is a means of securing investment and redefining the public interest. Its revivalists must persuade ordinary people of what can be gained from democratic control of economic life.
Justin H. Vassallo is a writer and researcher specializing in American political development, political economy, party systems, and ideology.