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Utah's Radical History

John McCormick: LDS helped lay socialist foundation


John McCormick - RACHEL PIPER
  • Rachel Piper
  • John McCormick

John McCormick is a historian and the dean of the School of Humanities & Social Sciences at Salt Lake Community College. With John Sillito, archivist at Weber State University, he co-wrote A History of Utah Radicalism: Startling, Socialistic & Decidedly Revolutionary, which argues that the Mormon settlers were Utah’s first radicals and that their community-based social systems helped lay a foundation for a significant statewide socialist movement in the early 20th century. Sillito and McCormick gave a recent lecture at the University of Utah on the topic, and McCormick spoke with City Weekly about Utah’s radicalism.

Why is Utah’s history of radicalism something we don’t often hear about?

We refer to a term I used called “disappearing knowledge,” that is, the idea that there are aspects about the past that tend to disappear from our consciousness, things that were once known. So, if you ask somebody in 1910 whether they aware that there were socialists in Utah who were running for office and being elected to office, holding regular meetings on street corners and at Liberty Park, etc., they would say yes. If you ask people today, they usually say no. People die and therefore their memories go with them, but I also think that there are certain aspects of the past that people are more comfortable with than others.

For a long time, the idea was that Utah history was mainly the story of one people, one experience and one point of view; everything else was sort of not particularly important and confined to the margins and didn’t really amount to much. It’s easy to accept that view of things and not challenge it. It’s also the view that serves certain interests. There are certain individuals and groups who have an interest in promoting and supporting a certain view of the past. That is, a view of the past that argues that the way things are now is the way they ought to be. And if you challenge that, that can seem dangerous.

For me, one of the most important chapters in the book are the chapters on the response of the Mormon church in the early 20th century to the socialist movement. And the point is that they were very much opposed to it for a whole bunch of reasons. The idea that the Mormon people might support socialism rather than capitalism seemed very dangerous to church leaders.

How does your book explore this history?

The core of the book is examining in great detail the socialist movement of the early 20th century, the rhetoric of the socialist party and the arguments that were made in behalf of socialism in opposition to capitalism. The basic argument was an ethical one, that capitalism is an immoral system that not only impoverishes people, but treats them as objects. We talk about the culture of socialism, the speeches and the rallies and the picnics and the socials, the Red Sunday celebrations and the Socialist days at Saltair; we talk about their newspapers; and we talk about the free-speech fights, where socialists are arguing for the right to hold regular meetings on downtown street corners and in Liberty Park, and they’re meeting with increased opposition from businessmen and the police department and in the city council. And then we talk about the obstacles that socialists face in the early 20th century, one of which was a really long-standing increased opposition from the Mormon church. We spend the last chapter sketching out the radical presence in Utah since the demise of the Socialist Party.

Were the pioneers really Utah’s first radicals?

Our argument is that early Mormons, at the time they came to Utah beginning in 1847, were radicals. I think it’s fair to call them “Utopian Socialists,” who were at odds with their contemporary society in a range of ways. Early Mormons were polygamists in a monogamous society, they were theocrats in a democratic society, and they were communitarians in a capitalist society. They’re at odds with their larger society in really fundamental ways. That changed over time and they evolved over time in the direction of accepting the values that they’d once opposed, trying to fit in and become more Americanized. They did it under great pressure. But at the time they came here, they were radicals.

When we characterize early Mormons as radicals, most Mormons today don’t agree and are really uncomfortable with that. Most Mormons today I don’t think would agree that early Mormons were Utopian Socialists, and so they not only don’t agree, they’re really uncomfortable with that and regard that as sort of an attack. So it can be easy for some people to see what we say about the Mormon church as anti-Mormon, and I don’t intend that at all. We’re just trying to understand what was going on.

How did the Mormon settlers practice socialism?

They advocated and, at various, times, tried to practice what they called the United Order, or the United Order of Enoch or the Law of Consecration. The idea was that there would be no individual ownership of land and resources. That land, for example, would belong to the entire community, not to individuals. Individuals would consecrate, or turn over, to their local religious leader the land that they owned. The church would then turn back to individuals what they needed, depending on their own circumstances—the size of their family, for example. The basic principle was that everyone should get what they needed; no one should get more than they needed. And basically everyone would be equal in terms of material possessions. That was an expression of their communitarian impulse.

Did the Mormon settlers’ faith play a role in their radicalism?

Their faith was an expression of their radicalism. These are people that take religion very seriously, who feel like it’s extremely important to understand what God expects and asks of them, and to do it. Among the things they say that God expects is they will be a unified society, they will not be at odds with each other, they won’t be divided. He expects that they will pay close attention to the advice of their church leaders—in a sense it will be a theocratic society—and God expects that they will they will follow communitarian—that is, collectivist economic policies—rather than individual ones. God expects them to establish what they call the Kingdom of God on Earth. The question is, what would be the features of that society? It would be a unified society, it would be a theocratic society, it would be a communitarian society. It would be a society where there’s very little separation between temporal and religious affairs, with a primary emphasis on the well-being of the group.

Did the pioneers need the United Order to survive life on the frontier?

Utah was not the easiest place to found communities and to make a living. It was a demanding environment. And the conclusion was that the best way of surviving—and not just surviving, but flourishing—in this demanding environment would be to proceed in a group way rather than leaving things to individual effort. So that emphasis on group effort seemed both in the abstract, desirable, and in fact, necessary.

Did those community-based social systems establish a foundation for socialism to be popular later?

Yes, it did. The United Order was first announced before Mormons came to Utah, in the 1840s, and once they came to Utah, they periodically tried to practice it—the last time was in the 1880s. But what that meant is that when a socialist movement emerged in the United States and in Utah, and it found expression in various political parties—the Social Democratic Party and the Social Democracy of America and, ultimately, the Socialist Party of America—many of the people who were attracted to the Socialist Party were Mormons. Between 1900 and 1920, more than 100 socialists were elected to office [in Utah]. Five towns on seven different occasions elected a majority of city officials. You had a Socialist elected to the state Legislature and re-elected. And this is all just reflects what is going on nationally at the same time.

The question is, what kind of people in Utah were attracted to the Socialist Party? What kind of people are attracted to the statement that capitalism is only a dark period in American history and we’re going to evolve beyond it to something that’s fairer and more equitable? And the answer is lots of different kinds of people, including a significant number of Mormons. I think a lot of the attraction was because of the communitarian roots of the Mormon church. One of the reasons practicing Mormons are attracted to the Socialist Party is because of their experience with the United Order.

Is radicalism still a part of Utah’s identity?

By 1920, basically the Socialist Party of America in the United States and in Utah was on the decline and was an increasingly insignificant presence. But the radical impulse continued, so one of our arguments is that there’s always been a radical impulse. An impulse that, in Utah, has said that the existing situation is unjust and unfair, it requires a radical restructuring. We’re not talking about just tinkering in small ways with the system; we’re talking about fundamental changes. The analogy that radicals for a long time have used is that accepting the existing capitalist system and making small changes is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. That’s not going to avert disaster. So there’s always been this radical impulse that’s taken various forms. That impulse continues to the present. There are Mormon Socialists today. There are Mormons who are aware of those utopian roots and they embrace them.

It’s been stronger at some points than others. It was particularly strong in the ’30s, during the Great Depression, because the Great Depression affected Utah as badly as is it did any state. The unemployment rate in Utah throughout the 1930s was the fourth highest in the country. In 1932, it was 36 percent. For the decade as a whole, it was 26 percent. So that generated a radical impulse in the early 1930s; members of the Communist Party ran for office in Salt Lake City for mayor and city council. They got 15 percent of the votes. They didn’t come close to getting elected, but one out of six or seven voters in Salt Lake City in 1931 voted for communists.

The radical impulse was strong again in the 1960s and that’s seen in a variety of ways: Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a very strong anti-war movement, the Utah Peace & Freedom Party, for example. And it has existed ever since. In the 1980s, a local group of a national organization existed called the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) was founded and had a fairly strong presence here, and that continues to be the case.

Right now, there’s a Utah socialist organization. And there’s a DSA. There’s a group called Revolutionary Students Union. A few years ago, a group of women organized a group called Utah’s Radical Cheerleaders, whose slogan was “Pom-Poms Not Bomb Bombs.” Occupy Salt Lake City—that’s a real expression of a radical impulse by which I mean the idea that the existing political and economic system is fundamentally flawed, that the solution is not just to make changes within the existing system, but to replace it with another system. A system based on fundamentally different practices and values and incorporating different practices. And there are some people who are active today who have been active for a long time. And there are people today still alive who have devoted their lives to this radical project. And then there are people who come to it all the time, more recently.

Why is it important to study the history of radicalism at the local level?

This question comes up all the time, “Why study history?” After all, it’s in the past. One of my basic answers is that for me, one of the values of studying history is because it demonstrates that things don’t have to be the way they are, necessarily. That is, in the past, there were always choices to be made, and there were alternatives. So what happened was not inevitable. And it’s important to realize that, because the way we think about the present and the future is influenced by the way we think about the past. If we think, for example, that there’s never been a radical impulse, that people have always been satisfied with the way things were, or if we think that radical impulse has always been relatively small and insignificant and confined to the margins, then it’s easy to think that the odds of challenging anything today are overwhelming.

Utah right now is very conservative, politically and culturally. I think people oversimplify not only Utah’s present, but past. Utah has always been a very complex place. It’s never been the story of one people and one point of view. It’s always been the story of many peoples and their complex interaction. It’s always involved conflict involving race and class and gender and economic issues. If you think of it as complex in the past, that leads you to a different conclusion about the present and future than if you think about it as relatively uncomplicated place. I think that the study of the past and the study of history can be an instrument for social change. It’s not just something that may be interesting to know that has no particular relevance. It can help us work toward a better society.

Though radical movements from the left are often seen as essentially footnotes to the main story of the United States and Utah history and meriting nothing more than passing interest, paying serious attention to them is important. Doing so can illuminate the past in new ways. A different picture emerges, not only in details, but in essentials, challenging the "master narrative" and requiring us to think differently about the past, and also then, about the present and the future.

Radical movements were responsible in part for much of what we take for granted today, including the right to vote; reasonable work days and conditions; the continued, if unfulfilled, promise of equality of opportunity; and the guarantees, however tenuous and fragile, of freedom of speech and assembly. Without movements for radical change from the left emphasizing inclusion, social justice and egalitarianism, our society would be less democratic, less open, less tolerant, less free and less humane.