S Ani Mukherji. American Communist History. Volume 16, Issue 3/4. 2017.
In the midst of the January 1920 raids of the First Red Scare as thousands of Communists were being arrested across the United States, an editorial in the Socialist Milwaukee Leader foretold this ominous future. One may quibble with the details of this assessment. Certainly the Socialists had already been dealt a number of blows due to their antiwar position during World War One. And the dragnet raids and mass deportations of the Red Scare would be abandoned as tactics after other means of repression were developed. But from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, the basic sketch of the coming political transformation has proven accurate, if played out at a slower pace than the Leader‘s editors may have imagined.
Perhaps nowhere else has this upheaval appeared more dramatic than in Wisconsin, once a citadel of progressive and socialist politics and now an epicenter of conservatism. The state’s long history of radicalism dates to its earliest years, when the state was home to utopian socialists and political refugees who had fled the repressions that followed the 1848 revolutions in Europe. As industry grew in the southeastern part of the state over the course of the nineteenth century, so too did labor activism, with significant strike activity in both extractive and manufacturing industries. Under the leadership of Robert La Follette, Wisconsin became a leader in progressive reforms that limited the influence of corporate capitalism at the turn of the century. Many of these reforms were the product of collaboration between legislators and university faculty, a partnership still celebrated as the “Wisconsin Idea.” In Milwaukee, Socialists won a number of important elections including the mayoralty, enabling them to pass legislation that encouraged clean government, labor rights, education, health, and public recreation. Due to the focus on health, sanitation, and balanced budgets, revolutionary Marxists branded Milwaukee’s party as an organization for “sewer socialists,” an epithet that was eventually embraced as the city came to be widely recognized as a model for progressive urban governance.
But countervailing conservative tendencies also existed. To check the gains of labor and secure their property interests, local businesses organized strikebreakers, labor spies, and blacklists. The bloody suppression of strikes in Bay View (1883) and Kohler (1934) testify to a long-standing anti-radical political tradition in the state. Even under the rule of Socialists, the Milwaukee Police maintained a “red squad” that developed informants, trained infiltrators, and regularly raided the Communist Party headquarters. After World War Two, anti-radical leaders successfully directed a campaign to wrest control of local and state government, leading to a transformation that labor historian Tula Connell has dubbed the “conservative counterrevolution.” This tradition in the state begot a number of notable right-wing leaders including Senator Joseph McCarthy, Governor Tommy Thompson, and Representative Paul Ryan. Their agendas have been guided by influential Wisconsin businessmen such as William Grede, Harry Bradley, and John Menard. Under the leadership of Governor Scott Walker, the Republican state legislature has passed anti-union “right to work” laws and stripped funding for schools, welfare programs, and public transportation in recent years. As predicted by the editors of the Milwaukee Leader, this conservative assault on the public sector was made possible, in part, by the effective repression of labor and the left, beginning with an anti-radical campaign against the Communist Party.
But who were these Communists in Wisconsin? While scores of books and articles chronicle the history of Wisconsin’s socialists and progressive movement, almost nothing is known of the state’s Communists. At the most basic level, this essay remedies the absence of such scholarship, drawing a collective portrait of a group of talented activists and organizers including Party leaders like Fred Blair and Eugene Dennis, literary libertine Paul Romaine, Black radical Ray Hansbrough, labor leader Sig Eisenscher, and civil liberties advocate Cora Meyer. Around this inner cadre, a section of the Communist Party was organized in Milwaukee that, at its peak, was proportionately larger than the well-known Chicago branch of the Party.
This essay also provides a grounded assessment of the historiography of American Communism through a detailed local history. It has been over a half-century since the publication of Theodore Draper’s landmark volumes on the establishment of the Communist Party that presented a vision of a political organization whose aims and methods were distorted by Soviet influence and disconnected from American realities. In the time since, numerous scholars have complicated our views of the Party. Revisionists such as Paul Buhle, Alan Wald, and Michael Denning have broadened conceptions of Marxist thought, politics, and culture in the twentieth century. Local studies have emphasized the adaptability of the Party to particular conditions. Against the charge that Old Left organizations ignored questions of race and gender, numerous studies have illuminated the efforts of people of color and women in Party organizations. The most productive variants of this work have placed the Communists’ work within the frame of the “long civil rights movement.” Others have noted how the internationalism of the Party combined with diasporic radicalisms to provide politically enabling solidarity networks and oppose American empire across locations. The study of Communism in Milwaukee confirms the findings of much of this revisionist scholarship. In Milwaukee, as elsewhere, the Party was a heterogeneous formation that united immigrant nationalists, bohemians, the unemployed, factory workers, Black radicals, and feminist activists under a common umbrella of anti-capitalism. This essay traces the efforts of the CP and its mass organizations to unite these groups and offer a radical vision for the city.
Most importantly, this article offers a significant contribution to the history of Milwaukee and Wisconsin, highlighting the role of repression in the political transformation of the city and state. For much of the twentieth century, an anti-radical campaign focused on the Communist Party. In the 1920s and 1930s, the CP faced anti-labor industrialists, vigilante patriots, and red squads. They were frequently denounced by liberals and municipal Socialists who viewed the Communist Party as a dangerous distraction from meaningful reform and a potential electoral spoiler. After World War Two, the anti-Communist crusade escalated with a concerted media campaign, the destruction of CP-influenced unions, and the arrest of key leaders. Many progressives, hoping to distinguish themselves from the “reds” and survive McCarthyism, collaborated in the repression of the Party and its mass organizations during the early years of the Cold War. The strategy was not effective. Instead concessions to the anti-radical campaign to thwart Communist efforts to encourage militant labor activism, embrace inter-racial organizing, and seize control of public spaces paved the way for the conservative counterrevolution. This political transformation has resulted in the organized abandonment of the working class, the effects of which have been most acutely felt by African Americans who face state violence, impoverishment, and premature death. The roots of this herrenvolk neoliberalism that characterizes contemporary Wisconsin politics can be traced, in part, to the repression of the radical vision of the state’s Communists.
A Rough Start: The 1920s
Party organizer Charles Shipman described Milwaukee as the “least Communist” city that he visited during his tours of the country in the 1920s. In his memoir, he noted only two friendly contacts in the city: Thurber Lewis, a left-wing Socialist who joined the CP, and Girolamo “Nemo” Piccoli, a sculptor and bookstore owner. These contacts exemplified broader national trends in Communist Party membership during the 1920s. The son of a militant Socialist organizer, Lewis represented the small group of left-wing activists who broke from the Socialist Party (SP) to help form the Communist Party in the early 1920s. Lewis was joined in Milwaukee by Cora Meyer, a young socialist and leading figure in the National Prison Comfort Club, an organization dedicated to supporting prisoners of the “class war.” By the mid-1920s, Meyer had left the SP and was keeping the books for the Milwaukee branch of the CP, organizing events for the International Labor Defense (ILD) and Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU). She also connected the Milwaukee branch of the CP to a broader world of women’s activism through her regular correspondence with veteran radicals such as Lucy Parsons and Mother Jones.
While Lewis and Meyer were typical of the small cadre of left Socialists who joined Milwaukee’s CP, Shipman’s friend Nemo Piccoli epitomized a different source of support for the Party. Raised in Milwaukee, the sculptor returned to his childhood home in 1924 after a period of study on the East Coast in order to take a teaching position at the Layton School of Art. Located inside the downtown Layton Gallery, the School was an anchor in the city’s “Little Bohemia,” a block of Jefferson Street that was home to a theater, the offices of a literary journal, and cheap flats inhabited by a variety of artists. In the middle of the block was director Laura Sherry’s theater that served as headquarters for the Wisconsin Players, a Milwaukee-based troupe dedicated to developing modernist drama. On the north end of the street was Nemo’s Bookshop, owned by Piccoli who lived in the back of the shop with fellow artist Juanita Preval. As Piccoli had little interest in retail matters, the store was run by Samuel Pessin, an upstart writer who used an adjacent office to edit Milwaukee Arts Monthly, a short-lived avant-garde literary magazine with a particular emphasis on Midwestern writers. According to Shipman, these left-wing artists were attracted to the Communist Party out of their disaffection with Milwaukee’s brand of socialism that he characterized as “conservative,” “provincial,” and “stodgy.”
Another Communist from “Little Bohemia” was Paul Romaine, an aspiring actor, writer, and libertine. A Milwaukee-native, Romaine dropped out of school at the age of fifteen to join the Wisconsin Players. The precocious intellectual dove into the cultural life on the block. He was soon trying his hand at verse and short stories. He immersed himself in the city’s jazz scene. He did his best to dress the part of a bohemian, sporting “a velvet jacket, shirts with low collars and neckties with enormous loose knots.” Romaine soon befriended Harry Schwartz, then a staff assistant at the Milwaukee Arts Monthly and a dedicated bibliophile. Together, Schwartz and Romaine opened Casanova Books in 1927. At first, the shop was located in a beauty salon on the upscale East Side. It undertook a mixed business, selling high-end first editions and classics to pay the bills while peddling more prurient literature such as Havelock Ellis’s tomes on sexology, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, and the bowdlerized memoirs of the store’s namesake. Schwartz, Romaine, Pessin, Piccoli, and Preval all exemplified the “revolutionary culturalist” strand of early American Marxism that embraced the anti-Victorian modernism, discarded European artistic models, and celebrated open sexual expression and free inter-racial association. These bohemians were likely the most conspicuous Communists in the city during the 1920s. But they represented only a small sliver of the Party’s membership.
The largest demographic of Party members consisted of working-class immigrants—a population strikingly absent from Shipman’s account of barnstorming through Milwaukee—who belonged to foreign language federations. These federations had been organized in the early twentieth century as independent immigrant societies affiliated with the Socialist Party. They were particularly cherished for their cultural activities including dances, plays, concerts, and literary readings. During the split in the Socialist Party that resulted in the founding of the Communist Party, the federations joined forces with the newly organized left-wing revolutionaries. In northern Wisconsin, there was a particularly large component of Finnish workers (though at the time, they were organized under the Party leadership of District Nine in Minneapolis while Milwaukee was under the control of District Eight’s Executive Committee in Chicago). In southeastern Wisconsin, the South Slavic, Russian, and Jewish federations held sway. When district and national organizers such as Shipman came to Milwaukee, federation members often skipped meetings or disappeared during English-language proceedings. Their reasons seem to have been both nationalist and political. If English-speaking comrades did not attend their functions, why would they participate in what they might rightly have viewed as the “English-language federation?” But more importantly, the language federations bristled at the loss of their autonomy as the Party tried to centralize power and control in the mid-1920s. According to the minutes of a 1925 meeting, the leader of the South Slavic membership in West Allis, an industrial working-class suburb of Milwaukee, went on the record with his objection that “the methods of the Catholic Church should not be applied in the Party.” A sarcastic comrade then put to a vote the proposition, “Is it impossible for the Communist International to make mistakes?” District organizers complained to their superiors in the national office and in Moscow that these unruly language fractions were “untenable and inconsistent with Party discipline.”
In the late 1920s the Party’s leadership attempted to re-organize Milwaukee’s membership into shop and street nuclei to supplant the language federations. A bitter 1928 report observed that thirty percent of the city’s Communists were from the South Slavic federation, twenty percent Finns, and another ten percent Russian-language. Only a handful of Germans had joined the Party in Milwaukee and “almost no” native-born Americans were paying dues. Moreover, the Party was failing to reach the Cream City’s factories. More than half of the city’s labor force worked in the booming manufacturing industries. But there were fewer than five recruits at the Allis-Chalmers factory (out of 5,000 workers) and a total of four Communists were employed at International Harvester’s Milwaukee Works. Almost half of the local Party consisted of shopkeepers, the unemployed, and students in the Young Communist League. As the leadership imagined their ideal constituency to be industrial workers, they could only interpret these numbers as a measure of failure.
The Party did not fare much better in the electoral realm. After a dismal performance in municipal elections in 1928—five aldermanic candidates received a combined total of 120 votes—the Party ramped up their efforts. Key to their strategy was a program of increased attacks on the failures of the Socialist Party, focusing on Mayor Danial Hoan. There was also a new emphasis on “Negro work” following the Sixth Comintern Congress (1928). Party members reached out to local members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the AME Zion Church to work together on a militant anti-racist campaign.
Ray Hansbrough was central to the Party’s efforts to recruit African Americans and criticize the Socialist administration of Mayor Hoan. A former coal miner, Hansbrough grew up in Kentucky and migrated north to Buffalo before moving to Milwaukee in the late 1920s. He was a respected figure in the Black community, the Grand Master of the Wisconsin Prince Hall Masonic Temple, according to one remembrance. Like many Black migrants to the city, Hansbrough allied himself with the Socialists upon arrival, but later grew disaffected with the city’s leadership due to its failure to advocate for African Americans and its enforcement of discriminatory racial covenants that trapped Milwaukee’s small Black population in the worst housing conditions. Encouraged by the Communists’ strident anti-racism and support of Black self-determination, Hansbrough joined the Party in the summer of 1929, bringing with him several fellow Black workers from the Liberty Foundry, a local operation owned by William Grede, future president of the National Association of Manufacturers and a founder of the John Birch Society. By fall, Liberty’s workers were organized into a shop nucleus, producing their own factory newspaper typeset by CP factotum Cora Meyer and illustrated by the veteran radical Otto Zimmerman. Hansbrough also conducted daily classes on trade union activism and current events that were regularly attended by dozens of students.
As a result of the work of Hansbrough and other organizers, Party membership numbers were up by the close of the decade. Shop papers were being produced by active nuclei at A.O. Smith, Allis-Chalmers, Seaman Body, Harnischfeger Corporation, and International Harvester. Although the leadership still berated themselves for their small numbers in reports to Moscow, the Party had expanded beyond its former limited base of radical immigrants and bohemians, having made significant inroads in the city’s factories and Black community.
Taking It to the Streets: The Early Years of the Depression
The minor bump in membership in the late 1920s paled in comparison to the groundswell that followed the stock-market crash of 1929. Historians of Communism have attributed the Party’s increased popularity in this period to a renewed belief in the impending collapse of capitalism. In Milwaukee, however, it was not the failure of capitalism, but of municipal socialism that brought Communists new recruits. Foremost among those who felt abandoned by the Socialist leadership in the city was the growing army of the unemployed. Jobless rates soared in the months following the crash, creating a base for the largest movement of the unemployed in American history. By March 1930, more than 20,000 workers in Milwaukee had lost their jobs. Many unemployed engaged in a politics of resistance to ensure their survival, looting markets for food and bootlegging coal. Others formally assembled in radical movement groups.
Beginning in January 1930, the CP-led Unemployed Councils (UC) organized daily forums at the Milwaukee “Slave Market,” the area in front of the Public Employment Office where the hungry and unemployed gathered to seek daywork, typically for abysmal wages. Every day, Communist orators addressed these crowds, denouncing the failure of both capitalism and the relief system run by the city’s Socialists; speakers urged the unemployed to join the CP to demand “Work or Wages” from the government. They were joined by agitators from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the small splinter Proletarian Party which ran a soup kitchen. More important than this daily protest was the organization of neighborhood councils and block committees. As Franklin Folsom observes in his history of unemployed activism, the UC’s block committees were key sites of working-class solidarity as they “provided fellowship for those whose workplace relationships had been totally disrupted.” These local groups not only protested the relief system but also responded to individual cases—feeding the hungry, providing clothes, and stopping evictions. When CP member Anton Srok faced foreclosure after losing his job, he turned to the Party for help with legal representation. The Communist-led International Labor Defense (ILD) provided a lawyer and members of the local branch packed the benches when the court date arrived. The boisterous crowd helped the judge reach the decision to delay the foreclosure for ninety days in hopes that Srok could find work and start making payments again in the meantime. As in New York, Chicago, Birmingham, and southern California, such dedication to the unemployed movement drew in large numbers of new recruits.
The growth in numbers was evident on 6 March 1930, “International Unemployment Day,” when thousands of protesters around the world took to the streets. In Milwaukee, as elsewhere, the event turned violent. According to a hostile front-page account of the demonstration in the Milwaukee Journal, the march transformed into a riot when marchers began pummeling onlookers, motorists, and police. In order to restore peace, the police dispersed the crowd and arrested fifty-one people. The Party rejected this version of events, producing a flyer that defended the march and urged working people to support their incarcerated comrades. Contrary to the Journal‘s story, the Party noted the massing of hundreds of “police, detectives, Cossacks and stool pigeons” at the protest site, readied with clubs to attack “workers, women, and children” at the behest of Mayor Hoan. In fact, Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer had ordered 200 officers, including ten men armed with machine guns, to suppress the protest. The local “red squad” identified Communist leaders so police could charge them with “incitement to riot” instead of “vagrancy,” the lesser offense faced by most protesters. Ray Hansbrough was arrested at his home two days after the demonstration but charges were dropped when it was discovered that he had been working at the Liberty Foundry at the time of the march. The press made a spectacle of the trial of teenage activist Sonia Mason (b. Haia Magarchack), describing her father’s shame and tearful denunciation of his daughter in court. Working with federal immigration agents, the police screened the arrested to identify foreign-born “aliens” who could be subject to deportation. Despite these efforts of the city’s police and conservative newspapers to jail, deport, and discredit the Communists, jobless workers flocked to Milwaukee’s Unemployed Councils in the early 1930s.
In addition to the unemployed, increasing numbers of factory workers joined the Party in these years. In his case study of militant unionism, labor historian Stephen Meyer notes that following the dominance of open shop anti-unionism in the 1920s, “only the Communist Party voiced a strategy of resistance and urged Allis-Chalmers workers to fight the layoffs, short hours, and wage cuts.” This militancy matched the new mood of workers in the early years of the Depression. As a result, by August 1930, the Party counted eleven shop nuclei and 181 members. These numbers bumped up to fifteen shop nuclei and 203 members in July 1931. Less than a year later, membership had more than doubled to 503 members with thirty-five active shop nuclei advancing the CP’s message among industrial workers. This included over 120 unemployed workers and 36 African Americans. For comparison, Chicago, with almost six times the population of Milwaukee, was home to 2,009 CP members in 1932. Three years into the Depression, the language federations played an important role in the Party, but they were no longer the core of the District’s membership.
The importation of experienced organizers from other districts and the development of local leadership also strengthened the Party. Veteran organizer (and future FBI informant) Morris Childs was re-assigned to Milwaukee to impose discipline on the ranks. Recognizing the leadership potential in Ray Hansbrough, the Party selected him for cadre training at the Lenin School in Moscow. While a student in the Soviet Union, Hansbrough likely met other diasporic Black radicals such as George Padmore and Jomo Kenyatta in addition to anticolonial activists from across the globe. The Party also developed the political acumen of the bright young college drop-out Fred Bassett Blair, a native Wisconsinite of French-Canadian Metis extraction. Soon after joining the Party, Blair was thrust into prominent roles, running for Milwaukee mayor in 1930 and 1932 before gubernatorial campaigns later in the 1930s. Though he never came within striking distance of winning these electoral contests, the campaigns provided Blair and the Party with opportunities to spread their message and make connections throughout the state. Blair’s reputation was such that when the district office sent him to southern Illinois in 1931, the Milwaukee office objected that he must return home because he was “a good agit-prop comrade” and “has the political situation on his finger-tips better than any other comrade in the Section.”
The rapid expansion of Party ranks meant the elevation of many novices to leadership positions. At the district conference of 1932, almost half (78 out of 168) of the delegates had been members of the Party for less than a year. Seeing the need to prepare green recruits for leadership roles, local schools and training camps were established to introduce initiates to Communist aims, methods, and outlook. Armed with this knowledge, new activists combined with veterans to direct a variety of efforts to support the Party.
Cora Meyer’s wide sphere of activities demonstrates the importance of mass organizations in this period and the indispensable labor of women. As previously discussed, Meyer balanced the Party’s accounts and typeset shop newspapers. She also continued her campaign to support class war prisoners. She taught lessons on political repression at a Jewish school and in workers educations classes, encouraging students to write notes of solidarity to incarcerated radicals like the McNamara brothers, labor activists who had been accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times building in 1910. She contributed to the newly-established Wisconsin Voice of Labor, editing a regular feature called “Voices from Prison” that told the stories of political prisoners. She levied her position in the ILD to lobby the American Civil Liberties Union to take up the case of Adele Gordon, a Milwaukee nurse who had been arrested in a sting operation aimed to limit access to contraceptives and information on women’s health. Through these efforts, the Party established a broad coalition of supporters that included progressive Jews, industrial workers, birth control activists, and civil libertarians.
This alliance also included African Americans, many of whom were drawn to the Party in this period by the ILD’s famous campaign to defend the “Scottsboro boys,” nine Black youths who were unjustly accused and tried for rape in Alabama. Throughout the 1930s, Milwaukee’s ILD organized regular Scottsboro demonstrations, as did other front groups across the country and around the globe. At these protests, participants could purchase copies of periodicals including the Liberator and Negro Worker to learn about the anti-racist efforts of Communists from South Africa to San Francisco. The Party also made a point of demonstrating their commitment to racial equality locally. At a 1931 public hearing on budget priorities, Ray Hansbrough lambasted city hall for ignoring the problem of housing for African Americans in the sixth ward, urging the destruction of run-down housing and its replacement with new affordable living quarters. In 1932, district leader Morris Childs staged a “trial” of local member Frank Walters for racial chauvinism to showcase the Party’s intolerance for racism within its ranks. The charges against Walters were based on his comment that African Americans were “dumb, cowardly, and can’t be organized.” Similar trials had been staged in Stalingrad (indicting American workers), Moscow (disciplining American students), and Harlem (ousting Finnish American member August Yokinen from the Party). As in the Harlem trial, a Black CP member, Hansbrough, was assigned to defense counsel, demonstrating the Party’s commitment to inter-racialism and its hostility to racial animus of any type. Editors at the Chicago Defender commented on the Milwaukee trial: “We may not agree with the entire program of the Communist Party, but there is one item with which we do agree wholeheartedly and that is the zealousness with which it guards the rights of the Race.”
The Party also tried to reach more people by advancing proletarian literature and arts. Paul Romaine was the main force behind these efforts on the cultural front. As head of the John Reed Club, he organized talks on literature with Mike Gold, curated exhibits of local artists in his bookstore, edited the literary journal War, and helped found the Wisconsin Voice of Labor. He also acted as a field correspondent for The Daily Worker and New Masses, writing regular reports on politics and culture in Wisconsin for a national audience. In his off hours, Romaine worked on an epic historical novel of Wisconsin politics from trapping days to the early twentieth century in addition to pornographic short stories and doggerel often with obvious autobiographical content. In fact, Romaine seemed to maintain two writing personae: one, a dedicated proletarian journalist and critic; the other, a garrulous free love advocate. In a side note to one of his romantic sketches, Romaine confessed that such writing would surprise “friends who know me as a realist, one who has fought the Nazis and often police and strike breakers.” While the Party still appealed to Milwaukee’s bohemians in the 1930s, it also imposed upon them a sense of serious work.
Following Adolf Hitler’s rise to the Chancellorship in 1933, the Party endeavored to fuse the diverse cultural and political impulses gathered under their auspices into a united anti-fascist front. When German ambassador Hans Luther came to Milwaukee to speak at the City Club in late September 1933, the Communists staged a demonstration to show that fascists were not welcome in the city. Dozens of men and women gathered outside the club with placards reading “Workers Unite Against Fascism!” and “Luther—The Agent of Bloody Hitler.” Women took an especially prominent place in the protest. Their presence vouched for the Party’s inclusivity. It also created the potential for the unsavory spectacle of police beating unarmed women, stirring agit-prop to convince onlookers of the city leadership’s fascist sympathies. Officers on the scene obliged, forcibly dragging twenty-four Communists off the streets and placing them under arrest. The next morning Hearst newspapers Milwaukee Sentinel and Wisconsin News printed photographs of the arrests, conjuring a hysterical mass with headlines reading “Women Make Most Trouble for Police in Red Riot” and “Women Join in Fight.” The former article claimed that the women protesters proved “[Rudyard] Kipling’s idea of the deadliness of the female of the species” as they “scratched, tore, and bit police.” This monstrous vision combined the demonization of women and radicals as sources of disorder.
Unnoticed by the police and reporters, however, was the Party’s own media presence. Two months after the demonstration, the Party advertised “Police Exposed in Motion Pictures,” a film screening at Liberty Hall. Communist film-makers would present footage “actually taken at the demonstration” that would show how Milwaukee police and judges “supported Nazi Germany.” The dramatic representation of police brutality in the service of fascism capitalized on popular resentment of law enforcement in an era marked by the criminalization of poverty. In a Daily Worker article, Paul Romaine imaginatively recounted the story of an unemployed and homeless musician who joined the Party after learning about the protest. “Might as well die scrapping as sitting on a park bench, he thought.”
Romaine’s embellished account draws attention to a larger truth about Milwaukee’s Communists in the early years of the Depression: it was in the public spaces of the city, not in the factories, where they made their case and where they scored their victories. They occupied the “slave market” daily to appeal to the unemployed and homeless. They imposed their will at evictions and held sway in packed courts. They defended free access to birth control information and contraceptives for women in the city. They pushed for better housing in the Sixth Ward to improve life for the most exploited members of the working-class. By focusing their efforts on those excluded from the benefits of municipal socialism, the Party and its mass organizations built a movement that cobbled together diverse elements of the working class. Thousands of people turned out for their rallies. Milwaukee’s Communist Party had become a real presence in the city.
Strikes and Solidarity: The Popular Front Years
The inability to wield influence over workers at the point of production, however, remained a sore spot for Communist leaders. This was especially true as there was no dearth of labor militancy or strike actions in Wisconsin during this period. In 1933, the Milk Pool organized a series of strikes by dairy farmers in the state, facing down armed National Guardsmen. Workers at the Kohler Company walked out in the summer of 1934. Earlier the same year, employees of Nash Motors and Seaman Body went on strike in Racine, Kenosha, and Milwaukee uniting three locals in solidarity. The famous 1934 Milwaukee Streetcar strike lasted four days and drew crowds of thousands to shut down the system, almost resulting in a city-wide general strike. A strike of retail clerks at the Boston Store was organized to take place in November, coinciding with the holiday shopping season; while the action was not successful, it was notable in its attempt to secure better wages for the predominantly female work force and the coordination of a boycott and strike strategy. In all, 27,000 Milwaukee workers participated in at least 107 strikes in 1934 according to historian John Gurda. This wave of labor militancy transformed the political and cultural terrain in Milwaukee and across the country, inaugurating the Popular Front period.
Local anti-radicals—a bloc with a wide political span that encompassed extremist right-wing organizations like the American Vigilante Intelligence Federation (AVIF), the American Legion, anti-union business interests, conservative AFL leaders and anti-radical Socialists—were keen on seeing a “red menace” behind these expressions of working-class solidarity in Milwaukee. The police repeatedly raided Party offices and homes of leading members in 1934. Hungarian-born organizer Emil Gardos was stripped of his US citizenship and targeted for deportation. The American Legion in Racine spear-headed an effort to establish a “Vigilantes Committee” to drive radicals out of the city. Soon thereafter, the local Party headquarters were ransacked and Racine CP activist Sam Herman was kidnapped, driven out of town, and severely beaten. This repression not only incapacitated important leaders and activists, but also drained the Party’s financial resources. The pinch was acutely felt as much of the Party’s budget was already tied up in the defense of two dozen members facing charges from the Hans Luther protest. Consequently, even an established leader like Gardos was refused legal help by the local ILD for lack of funds.
The Party was, in fact, facing a crisis in 1934, chasing on the heels of a militant rank and file with no money and in the face of severe repression. In Party publications, authors did their best to emphasize what small role Communists played in the events of 1934. In his coverage of the Streetcar Strike, for instance, Paul Romaine highlighted the presence of CP mass organizations—the Unemployed Councils, International Workers Order, and John Reed Club—at demonstrations. But minutes of local Party meetings and reports to the national office reveal a deep sense of futility as militant action repeatedly surged forward without the Communists. “Milwaukee is putting itself on the map with its recent strike wave—but what role or part do we play in it?” asked one Party member. The Unemployed Councils—which had generated hundreds of new recruits in the first three years of the Depression—were losing numbers in part due to the passage of an unemployment compensation bill in Wisconsin.
The adversarial relationship with Socialists also took a toll, as SP leaders ordered their members out of CP “fronts,” devastating the strength of the ILD in particular. Hoping to connect with the rank and file during the Boston Store strike, CP organizers agreed to work with the AFL and Socialists, prematurely adopting Popular Front coalition strategies. Writers from the John Reed Club arranged a night of story telling during which department store workers publicly offered testimony that was to be incorporated into a long essay on the strike. By doing so, the Party was able to win over a handful of union members. But overall, the Party seemed to merely be along for the ride during the tumult of 1934. By the end of the year, district organizer Morris Childs would certainly have agreed with historian Michael Denning that the Party was on the periphery rather than the center of the Popular Front, at least in Milwaukee.
Three things changed in 1935 that greatly improved the Communists’ prospects. First, following the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, the Party promulgated a Popular Front strategy. This new policy, adopted chiefly to address political concerns in Europe, encouraged Parties to work with Socialists and liberals in an alliance against fascism. In some sense, the shift was merely the formal authorization of already existing collaborations and appeals to the masses, as noted above. The new line, however, allowed Party members to pursue these alliances without the obligation to criticize their allies, an onus that had thwarted a number of coordinated efforts in 1934. Instead, the Party abandoned its revolutionary pretensions, at least temporarily, in order to join a left-liberal bloc against fascism.
Second, a combination of new labor laws and an increasingly militant rank and file fostered the growth of bolder unions organized within the AFL and breaking out into the more radical Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Both union organizations swelled in numbers and moved to the left in this period. In 1932, 20,000 Milwaukee workers were organized in unions. By the end of the decade, there were 80,000 members of AFL unions and 55,000 members of new CIO unions. Historian Darryl Holter observes that many of these fresh recruits displayed a “sense of elan” and favored dramatic direct action, traits that surely resonated with the political culture developed by Milwaukee’s Communists in the early 1930s. Rather than trying to organize independent revolutionary shop nuclei, as it had in the Third Period, the Party could, under the new Popular Front policy, work with the new members and leaders of these unions. In fact, Party members became some of the most effective organizers in new CIO unions.
Third, a new district organizer was assigned to Milwaukee. In March 1935, Eugene Dennis arrived in the city, accompanied by his wife Peggy, after having been dispatched to work with the Comintern in Moscow and Pan-Pacific Congress in Shanghai. After her long stint of overseas activism, Peggy Dennis had to shake her habit of referring to the Soviet Union as “we” and the American people as “you” while giving speeches in Wisconsin. Gene, in contrast, had no such problems adjusting to the local scene. He immediately saw both the weaknesses of the local Party operations—a rag-tag uncohesive collection of mass organizations—and the possibilities for growth in the new breed of independent bold unionists. Gene was charismatic, tough, and worldly, traits that helped him connect with everyday workers, progressive intellectuals, and public officials. While the Party only had about 600 dues-paying members in 1935, under Dennis it grew to be an effective force with a tightly-knit inner cadre and connections to dozens of local labor leaders.
Dennis was particularly adept at recruiting and developing young, spirited Party members. One of them was Sig Eisenscher, the son of socialist Polish Jews who had migrated from Krakow to New Jersey. Eisenscher was radicalized in the early years of the Depression. He was particularly drawn to the heroism of Communists who took great risks to fight for the downtrodden, like New York union leader Morris Langer whose stand against corrupt bosses and their criminal henchmen resulted in his murder in 1933. Yet, when Eisenscher enrolled as a student at University of Wisconsin in 1934, he had not yet joined the Party. It was the timidity of Madison progressives in the face of mass unemployment and homelessness that convinced the young student to formally join the Communists. In contrast to the “squares” on campus, Communists stuck out in the capital city by “dressing rough” and organizing direct action in the streets. Eisenscher followed these young radicals to Milwaukee where he met Gene Dennis. Dennis immediately saw the potential in Eisenscher and invited him to stay in Milwaukee to build up the local organization. Rooming with ILD activist Farrell Schnering, Eisenscher was tasked with writing for the Wisconsin Voice of Labor and organizing the local Young Communist League. Within a few short years, he was moving in the highest echelons of Party leadership in the state, a mark of Dennis’s success in identifying and developing political talent.
Dennis also made a point of reconciling with the Socialists, even if he privately viewed their leadership as a group of cynical conservatives. Preparing for May Day festivities in 1935, Dennis proposed a united action, cajoling local Socialists, “Must we follow in the footsteps of our class brothers in Germany and be forced to unite only after we are herded together in fascist concentration camps?” At least some radical Socialists were sympathetic to this call for unity. Dennis also won over Meta Berger, the widow of famed Socialist leader Victor Berger. Meta had worked with Communists during the Boston Store strike. In 1935, she formally announced her sympathy with the Soviet Union and Communist Party, much to the chagrin of Socialists who saw her conversion as a betrayal of her husband’s legacy. Berger’s home in the northern suburb of Thiensville soon became a regular weekend retreat for the inner cadre of Party members and CIO activists. Among the guests at this Popular Front salon were future president of UAW Local 248 Harold Christoffel and Josephine Norstrand of the Wisconsin Conference on Social Legislation.
One indicator of the increased reach of the Popular Front was the turnout for a 1937 Scottsboro Defense Rally. Since 1931, the local ILD had sponsored numerous events to support the defense of the Scottsboro youth. Sponsored by Local 248, the 1937 protest, however, was far larger than any previous demonstration with a crowd of 600-1000 people. Moreover, earlier ILD rallies had been attended mainly by white protesters. The 1937 meeting was “mostly colored.”
Certainly, the influence of Communists was not welcome everywhere. When the director of the WPA Guide to Milwaukee project was informed that a number of Communists—including Blair, Schnering, and future Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteer Bob Collentine—were in his employ, he assigned them to research obscure topics or pushed them out of writing positions entirely. Furthermore, longtime Socialists still looked askance at coalitions with the Party. But with the rapid growth of the CIO and Dennis’s work at forming new alliances, it was becoming impossible for progressive forces not to work with Communists in Milwaukee. The Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation (FLPF) had long tried to exclude Party members and organizations from their work. But by the elections of 1936, Dennis wryly noted that several of the candidates endorsed by the FLPF were Communists. Under Dennis’s leadership, the CP had become a re-energized organization on the cutting edge of a Popular Front committed to labor militancy, anti-racism, and the defeat of fascism.
This accomplishment was a mixed blessing. Having demonstrated his abilities to organize an effective Popular Front campaign, Dennis was promoted in 1937 to the National Committee and relocated to New York City. Such upward transfers were typical. Like a minor league baseball team, Milwaukee’s branch of the CP suffered through success as it often meant that the best players would move up to the majors. Artists Nemo Piccoli and Juanita Preval had already left for New York in the late 1920s. Preval drew cartoons for the Daily Worker and New Masses as well as illustrating radical children’s literature. Piccoli made a living teaching in art schools and later took a prominent role in the New York City WPA arts project, publishing a layman’s guide to the principles and practice of sculpture. Not long after his return from Moscow, Ray Hansbrough was transferred to Chicago taking on a leadership role on the Southside. He was particularly well remembered as a mentor, working one-on-one with many Black workers and youths, including playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Under Hansbrough’s leadership, the Southside section of the Party grew into a powerful “machine-style organization.” Elevated to the position of secretary of National Negro Commission after World War Two, Hansbrough continued to push for the centrality of the “Negro question” to American democracy. After many years of seeking posts in New York or Chicago, Paul Romaine finally left provincial Milwaukee behind, starting his own bookstore in Chicago in 1937 which he continued to run for the next half-century, tutoring young Midwestern writers in his brand of heterodox Marxist cultural theory. A few veterans (Blair and Meyer) along with a small group of new leaders like Eisenscher remained to staff the Party as, once again, a new district leader, Ned Sparks, was brought in. But the loss of established Milwaukee leaders and Gene Dennis left Eisenscher, for one, feeling “orphaned” in a tumultuous time.
The Party also suffered when former ILD leader Farrell Schnering—who had been ousted from the ranks for excessive drinking—turned informant, possibly on the payroll of the Allis-Chalmers Company. On 22 June 1939, an affidavit by Schnering was entered into the record of the Wisconsin legislature. In the statement Schnering described how the Communist Party had transformed the CIO unions of Wisconsin into “totalitarian” organizations and “involved thousands of people innocently in Communist inspired campaigns.” Schnering’s testimony zeroed in on Local 248 and the Committee on Social Legislation, respectively the most successful union and electoral organization of the Popular Front. The account was summarized in the Journal; one legislator called for 500 copies of the denunciation to be printed for circulation. The signing of the so-called Hitler-Stalin Pact two months later dealt another blow to the Party and to the American League for Peace and Democracy, the anti-fascist mass organization that had been led by Peggy Dennis.
Few records of the Milwaukee Party from the wartime period exist. The mass organizations and unions of the Popular Front continued their work, as did the anti-Communists in the Wisconsin legislature and US Congress during the Red Scare of 1939–1941. Once the US entered the war, Party members rallied around the war effort. Sig Eisenscher served in Europe. Fred Blair ran for Governor in 1942 with the promise to “help unite the people of Wisconsin behind President Roosevelt for an all-out war effort and victory over Hitler in 1942.” As Black workers migrated to Milwaukee to fill factory positions (open to them following Executive Order 4402), they were largely welcomed by CIO unions who helped them apply for jobs through the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). Following the nation-wide race riots of 1943, the CIO and progressive African American organizations sponsored the Milwaukee Interracial Labor Relations Committee to support the FEPC and to advocate for better housing for Black workers. While the Party as such essentially ceased to function during the war, the spirit of the Popular Front was kept alive in militant unions and mass organizations.
The Cold War Years
The Party emerged from the war hopeful to capitalize on its influence in CIO unions and eager to take advantage of the popular antifascism that engulfed the country during the battle against Axis forces. Wartime industrial expansion continued after the war, encouraging militant workers to assert their power now that the no-strike pledge had ended. In 1946, a wave of strikes spread across the country, including Milwaukee, where at least 26 work stoppages involving 16,700 workers took place. Radicals were undoubtedly reminded of the 1934 strikes that had inaugurated the Popular Front years.
As State Secretary for the reconstituted Party, Fred Blair did his best to seize the moment and articulate a place for Communists in local, state, and national politics. Though remembered best for his organizing work, Blair was also a poet and literary impresario. In the 1930s, he had written short songs that were mimeographed, then sung at protests and pickets. Building on this experience, he defined a vision for popular proletarian poetry in the New Masses during the final days of World War Two. He criticized the influence of the “cult of Whitman” on left poetry and encouraged a “people’s poetry” that “should avoid obscurity like the plague.” In 1946, Blair tried his hand at a longer work based on this model, a booklet-length poem entitled Ashes of Six Million Jews, one of the first treatments of the Holocaust in American letters. True to the spirit of the Popular Front, the work was dedicated to the ten Wisconsin veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who had died in the Spanish Civil War and World War Two. The cover illustration by Joseph Eisler is a simple linocut rendering of carrion birds circling a destroyed tree; shreds of cloth hang loosely from a branch, an allusion to lynching scenes. The opening sections of the poem portray the ashes of Holocaust victims swirling around the globe, creating “a pall of dust that dims the day” and falling upon us, “[f]lavor to each one’s bread and meat, // Downy upon each nuptial sheet.” Yet the poem is not just a remembrance for the wartime dead and victims of the Holocaust. In its last sections, it turns to a call to fight present-day bigots who, like the German fascists before them, prioritize profits over people. The ever-present memory of the genocide, for Blair, demanded the building of:
A socialist society
That will destroy forevermore
The roots of famine, greed, and war,
The social roots that could produce
The ashes of six million Jews.
The poem may be criticized for its unsophisticated verse and simplistic conflations. But it was precisely these connections between fascism abroad and oppression at home, often voiced in unassuming language, that had fueled Depression-era antifascism, the anti-racist double-V campaign, and militancy among rank-and-file workers.
One finds much the same spirit in The Pavement Trail, a collection of prose, poems, and songs written by participants in the 1946 Allis-Chalmers strike and published by Milwaukee’s People’s Book Shop. In her foreword to the book, writer Meridel Le Sueur observes, “The voice of the people is not always so all-fired elegant, and sometimes they haven’t the time to polish it up—picket duty comes early, lasts long.” In fact, the most convincing pieces in the collection aren’t the poems, but the variants on songs that were sung by pickets. For instance, one worker penned “Build Your Union” as a patriotic hymn to be sung to the tune of the state’s anthem “On Wisconsin”:
Build your Union, Build your Union
Stronger every day
All the bosses will take losses
If you never sway.
Local 248 leader Robert Buse similarly altered “Solidarity Forever” with new verses specific to the moment:
We beat the fascists overseas;
We’ll beat them here at home.
They’ve tried to wreck our union,
But it’s built on solid stone.
In one of the few prose contributions, worker Ulys McQuitty created the character of an Allis-Chalmers janitor who offers his reflections on the ongoing picket, much in the spirit of Langston Hughes’ popular “Simple” stories that circulated widely at the time. In “Ole Sweeper Says,” the main character criticizes the Wisconsin State Labor Board as “NAMzie stooges,” introducing a clever portmanteau that combined the acronyms NAM (the anti-union National Association of Manufacturers) and Nazi. This Popular Front vision that linked anti-fascism, anti-racism, and pugnacious unionism did not live long, however, for the Cold War arrived early in Milwaukee.
In September 1946, six months after Winston Churchill described the descent of an “Iron Curtain” and a year shy of the articulation of the “Truman Doctrine,” the Milwaukee Sentinel began publishing a series of columns intended to expose the local Communist menace. Penned by the pseudonymous “John Sentinel,” the run of articles focused on documenting Communist infiltration of CIO unions, particularly UAW Local 248. The series had been organized by Allis-Chalmers in response to the strike of spring 1946, when 11,000 workers walked out. Using the company’s labor research files, speechwriter Ellis Jensen composed the “John Sentinel” articles to weaken the union, stir anti-radical vigilantes, and influence the coming fall election. Writing in late 1946, journalist A.B. Magil captured the situation and its significance:
I arrived in Milwaukee in the midst of a frenetic Red-baiting drive which may well be a laboratory test for the rest of the country. It is a combination of union-busting and political terrorism, and its aim is to defeat all candidates who are even mildly liberal, smash the Allis-Chalmers strike, which has been in progress for a half year, frighten the middle-class allies of labor, and send the whole labor and progressive movement scurrying into ignominious holes.
As Magil indicated, Allis-Chalmers and the Sentinel were not alone in their efforts to stoke anti-Communist fires. The Milwaukee Journal joined in the red-baiting of Local 248 and by 1947 the US House of Representatives was in on the act, calling hearings designed to eliminate Communists from the labor movement. Based on the testimony of professional witness Louis Budenz, Local 248 president Harold Christoffel was indicted for perjury. Vilified as the vehicle for a subversive foreign power, the union saw its membership plummet. Those workers who had participated in the 1946 strikes were blacklisted and driven into poverty.
Following this successful anti-radical campaign, Milwaukee’s anti-radical crusaders expanded the scope of their hunt to reveal how a Communist conspiracy touched the Civil Rights Congress, the Conference on Social Legislation, immigrant societies, and bookstores. The unmistakable goal of this defamation campaign was the break-up of the Popular Front and the marginalization of the working-class politics that subtended this alliance. In his detailed study of politics in Milwaukee during the “crucial decade” after World War Two, historian Eric Fure-Slocum describes a war over “‘the common sense’ of how a city works.” On one side of this contest was a working-class politics that emphasized five points: democratic decision-making over technical solutions; egalitarian provision of public goods (e.g. housing) for working people; municipal autonomy to respond to workers’ needs; access to public space for recreation and politics; and insistence that class shaped city life and politics. This set of ideas neatly combined long-held tenets of Milwaukee Socialism that were now articulated by some in the bolder language of the Popular Front. Competing with this vision was a politics of urban growth and efficiency that dovetailed with the Cold War repression of radical labor and civil rights challenges. Playing on racialized ideas of urban blight (as the African American population in the city grew), popular ideas of modernization, and anti-Communist patriotism, a coalition of business interests offered a vision for growth that figured working-class politics as outmoded and dangerous. The victory of this latter vision—part of what one historian has termed a “conservative counter-revolution”—was predicated on the repression of the Popular Front.
After Local 248 was crushed, CIO unions cut their ties with the progressive Conference on Social Legislation, ultimately starving the advocacy group. Red-baiters next turned their attention to the Civil Rights Congress, a national organization formed out of the merger of the ILD and National Negro Congress after World War Two. In addition to sponsoring protests of national civil rights cases such as that of Willie McGee, the Wisconsin CRC developed a number of local campaigns. When white residents protested against the placement of a Black family in the Greenfield Trailer Camp (a federal veterans’ trailer camp designed to accommodate the surge in Milwaukee’s population) in early 1949, the CRC joined the coalition of groups supporting integration of the site. This alliance included Mayor Frank Zeidler’s Commission on Human Relations, the Urban League, NAACP, the Catholic Church, and the American Legion. In July, the coalition organized a public meeting to air issues related to the desegregation of the trailer camp. Both liberal integrationists and conservative segregationists voiced their thoughts and concerns. But when Josephine Norstrand, representing the CRC, approached the microphone to speak at the public meeting, she was turned away and removed from the grounds by a member of the mayor’s Commission and sheriff’s deputies. While the speech of self-avowed racists was deemed acceptable, the taint of Communism led to Norstrand’s ejection. In a curious twist of Cold War racial politics, most of the segregationists later turned to embrace the Sanders family as fellow loyal Americans, some claiming that the problem had never been their racism, but divisive Communist agitation.
Defying the political repression of the early Cold War, the CRC continued to advance the Party’s post-war anti-racist activism. Outside Milwaukee, the CRC took up the case of exploited agricultural workers. After reading about the beating of a pregnant Black teenage worker in a cabbage field in Mazomonie, a small town outside Madison, Fred Blair organized an interracial committee to investigate conditions at the Mazo Food Products Company farm. Interviewing dozens of workers, the CRC committee discovered that local seasonal workers—mainly teenagers—along with migrants from the US South, Mexico, and Jamaica faced brutal violence and “peonage-like” conditions. Working with the left-wing Food, Tobacco, and Agricultural and Allied Workers (FTA-CIO) union, as well as the Madison branch of the CP, the CRC organized a week-long strike in August, resulting in a contract negotiated by CRC lawyer Michael Essen. But employers soon reneged on the contract, leading to another strike action on 9 September. The company, abetted by the local police, quickly broke this new strike by forcing about 100 striking Black migrants who had been recruited in Georgia and North Carolina onto buses headed back South. As a parting insult, the fare for this forced return migration was deducted from the final payment of wages to these workers.
While the strike at Mazo Foods proved unsuccessful in securing long-term gains for agricultural workers, it allowed Blair to imagine a new field of organizing for the Party and the CRC. Citing a US Department of Agriculture report, Blair noted that the number of agricultural workers in Wisconsin equaled the population of workers in the automobile and steel industries. Half of these 32,000 farm workers were migrants, like those he met in Mazomonie, a mix of southern African Americans, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, West Indians, and displaced persons from Europe. During the strike, Blair had been impressed by the Black workers, writing in an internal CP memorandum: “The leadership qualities displayed by a number of these workers who came forward during the strike once again emphasize the tremendous reserves of ability among the oppressed Negro people. The political clarity of the workers with regard to the Negro liberation struggle, and the connection of their own struggle with it, and particularly with the South, was evident all through the strike.” He also observed that the presence of Mexican and Jamaican workers would allow the Party to connect local labor issues to the colonial question and American imperialism. In a series of internal memoranda, Blair noted that with the growing Black population in Milwaukee, the Party needed to center its work on “Negro liberation,” a shift that demanded the preparation of existing members through classes, meetings, and the circulation of relevant literature. He also composed a proposal for the desegregation of Milwaukee’s breweries.
But there is no evidence that these campaigns ever came to fruition. At the same time that Blair was envisioning a radical new multiracial approach for the State organization, the anti-Communist vise was tightening as Wisconsin’s own Senator Joseph McCarthy turned the crank during his famous Wheeling speech in February 1950. In March, the Supreme Court upheld the verdicts and sentencing imposed on the national leadership of the Communist Party during the Smith Act trials of 1948–1949. After this, many in the Party correctly suspected that a new wave of arrests was on the way. Sometime after the incident at the Greenfield Trailer Camp, Josephine Norstrand disappeared out of state. Blair went underground in 1950; as a result, People’s Book Shop closed its doors. As the new director of the CRC, John Gilman faced regular harassment from the FBI including late night phone calls, attempts to sabotage his business, and efforts to enlist his friends and comrades—through money or blackmail—as informants. Along with Gilman, Sig Eisenscher was hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and ridiculed in 1955, though the record shows both men took it in stride. Later the FBI encouraged the Carpenters Union to expel Eisenscher from its ranks. By the late 1950s, this anti-radical campaign in Wisconsin expanded to include all manner of liberals and progressives. During the 1956 election campaign, Mayor Zeidler and his supporters faced the twinned tactics of race-baiting and red-baiting. According to the red-baiters’ accusations, Zeidler’s housing policies were both pro-Communist and evidence that he was a “nigger lover.” In a surprise result, the mayor won re-election, but by the 1960 election, Zeidler confessed that he was too exhausted by such attacks to run again.
This did not mean that the inferior housing conditions, discrimination, school segregation, and police violence faced by Milwaukee’s growing Black population went unopposed. Beginning in the late 1950s, a civil rights movement emerged in Milwaukee that ultimately culminated in the dramatic urban uprising of 1967. Despite the fact that the local Party had been eviscerated in terms of numbers and boldness, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover insisted, in Milwaukee as elsewhere, that the CP was the inspiration for the freedom movement. As such, he issued a directive to the local Bureau office to track and disrupt the CP branch in order to thwart subversive activities in the city. Using a typical COINTELPRO ploy, Party members were sent anti-Communist news clippings as part of an anonymous mailing campaign. Jewish activists, for instance, received Washington Post and Saturday Evening Post articles on the oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union. After John Gilman participated in a peace march in 1962, the head of the Parent-Teachers Association at his children’s school was sent a clipping from the Journal that identified Gilman as a Communist.
As leader of the state organization, Fred Blair was specifically targeted in a prolonged slander campaign. Hoover recommended that he be framed for drunk driving only to receive the reply that this tactic would be impossible to carry out as Blair didn’t drive an automobile. Encouraged to be imaginative, an agent at the local office devised a different approach. First, the agent wrote an anonymous letter from the “Committee to Reconstitute the Communist Party of Wisconsin” noting that “our Party has degenerated into nothing” and placed that blame on Blair, maligning him as “a tired old man with befuddled brain.” The letter was then sent to twenty local Party members and Gus Hall in the national office with hopes that it would “cause friction” and “raise suspicions.” And so it did. Party members immediately recognized that the letter was of dubious origins, but identified the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) as the likely culprit. Sensing an opportunity to stir tensions between the two Marxist organizations, the creative agent released another round of anonymous letters, this time including a poem:
There was an old radical named Fred
Who swapped his soapbox for a bed
He lives in the past
Drinks beer to the last
And from militant action has fled.
In response, a CP member—possibly Blair, the name is redacted in the FBI file—sent SWP members a short ditty entitled “Revoltin’ Boulton, the King of the Trots,” criticizing long-time SWP leader James Boulton for ultra-leftism in his striving to be “the revoltin’est yet.” Noting that the SWP’s Militant had recently carried a positive assessment of Communism in China, the FBI bard countered with “Ode to a Cracked Pot” which scored Blair’s complacency in contrast to forward momentum in the workers’ movement in the East:
The Orient seething has raised high the torch,
A choice to be dead or red,
While Fred sleeps one off on the back porch,
Is he asleep or dead?
At this point, the Bureau’s national office requested that the agent cease his career as a poet and return to old-fashioned methods of harassing the Party such as encouraging police to ticket activists for littering when handing out flyers or running ads in the newspaper exposing businesses owned by Communists such as Gilman’s linoleum store and Fred and Mary Blair’s bookstore.
It is tempting to view these FBI-orchestrated smear tactics as laughable foibles. But the public branding of Gilman and Blair opened the door to vigilantism. In July 1966, Gilman’s store was destroyed by a pipe bomb, an incident that police didn’t investigate until a similar bombing struck Milwaukee’s NAACP office. In November 1966, a teenager from the suburb of Brookfield entered Mary’s Bookstore on Juneau Avenue, then opened fire on Blair and a patron, yelling, “You’re a Communist. I want to kill a Communist.” The customer was shot in the arm while struggling with the youth whom Blair beat into submission with a baseball bat. When interviewed about the attack, Blair commented, “It’s part of the whole general pattern. On account of Johnson’s war in Vietnam, they feel that if they can kill Communists in Vietnam, they can kill Communists here.”
The escalation of the freedom movement and anti-war activism of the late 1960s encouraged the Party to re-organize. In 1968, Michael Eisenscher, son of Sig and Grace Eisenscher and veteran youth organizer of Wisconsin’s W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs, composed a long report on the history and future of the Party. Calling attention to the surge of New Left activism and the stirrings of labor militancy marked by the UAW’s disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO, Eisenscher observed that the growing alienation from President Johnson’s “Great Society” provided the Party with conditions not unlike those of the 1930s. But Communists in Wisconsin, in his opinion, were unprepared for the challenge because the timidity that had developed over “a decade and a half of McCarthyite terror” had “come to represent a way of life” in the Party. “We are out of touch with the times,” he concluded.
Eisenscher identified what he believed to be the most radical elements of the political scene in Wisconsin: African American youth in the city, anti-war activists on campus, and militant labor. What the Left lacked, and what the Party historically provided and could offer again, was a class analysis that united these disparate movements. Based on existing copies of the irregular bulletin Wisconsin Communist Viewpoint from 1970, the Party attempted to take up Eisenscher’s vision, bringing anti-war activism to factory workers, underscoring the racist nature of the Vietnam war, and emphasizing class in analyses of urban Black alienation. Eisenscher was particularly interested in bringing the Party’s anti-racism to white residents on the city’s Southside, organizing the Committee for Community Power, a small group “determined to work in the white community where work has just recently begun to eliminate political oppression, poverty and racism.” The Party also lent its support to Milwaukee’s vibrant welfare rights movement. But despite Eisenscher’s hopes that a renewed Party could take a leading role in these struggles, it remained, in essence, a group of aging activists acting as an auxiliary unit to other progressive movements.
By the 1980s, Fred Blair—still the Chair of the State Party—was reduced to the role of armchair critic as health problems limited his mobility. His fighting spirit remained, however, now channeled into writing entertaining, caustic letters to the editor and advocacy for overlooked Midwestern literary talent. He encouraged a greater readership for Sue Doro, a working-class poet from Milwaukee. He subscribed to Midwest Villages and Voices, a Minnesota-based newsletter of amateur rural writers. When the soap opera General Hospital indulged in a red-baiting storyline, he composed a biting editorial, noting that the series creators were the daughter and son-in-law of Meta Berger, who was certain to be spinning in her grave at Forest Home cemetery. Sandra Jones, a young Black activist, became district organizer during this period and launched a campaign to organize the unemployed explicitly modeled on the Party’s work in 1930s. At the same time, the Party lent its support to the Wisconsin Action Coalition, a union-sponsored political organization reminiscent of the Popular Front’s Conference on Social Legislation. But these efforts could not check the rightward drift in Wisconsin and across the nation. Still, Blair noted the work in letters to friends, bemoaning the fact that after a half-century of putting his body on the line, having absorbed countless blows and being jailed repeatedly, he could no longer summon the strength to march on the streets to protest the dreadful rule of Ronald Reagan.
If the policies of Ronald Reagan were anathema to Blair, it is hard to imagine how he would have reacted to Wisconsin politics under Governor Scott Walker. The radical vision for Milwaukee and Wisconsin advocated by Blair and his comrades offered a stark contrast to the conservative ideology that has come to dominate state politics. They fought for militant multiracial unions, adequate affordable housing, and basic protections for the unemployed. Their politics united diverse working people including immigrants, African Americans, and the unemployed. They stood in solidarity with the incarcerated, condemned state violence, and wove connections of mutual aid. The Party never won significant electoral victories in Milwaukee or Wisconsin. But by the end of the 1930s, Communists were leading important unions and mass organizations to advance their goals. Animated by a familiar combination of anti-radicalism and racial bigotry, conservatives crushed this vision through attacks on CIO unions, the CRC, and the Party itself during the early Cold War. By the late 1950s, this countersubversive crusade encompassed attacks on the remaining Socialists and liberal advocates of the public good.
In a recent essay, longtime activist Jack O’Dell observes that this post-war repression of civil rights unionism and labor agitation was the antecedent to the large-scale crisis of today. In Wisconsin, this crisis has manifested in the evisceration of labor rights, intense racial segregation, economic inequality, and the depredation of the social wage. Political repression has been institutionalized as mass incarceration. For scholars, the history of the Communists’ radicalism and the revanchist efforts to destroy their work sheds light on the origins of the conservative counterrevolution that made this organized cruelty possible. For those who seek a more just world, the legacy of Milwaukee Communists’ labor militancy and anti-racism offers a distinct Wisconsin idea, a valuable tradition that may be drawn upon in the struggle against herrenvolk neoliberalism.