A History of Utah Radicalism

by Troy Williams

An interview with John McCormick and John Sillito, the authors of A History of Utah Radicalism: Startling, Socialistic and Decidedly Revolutionary.

Podcast the entire interview here:


Utah has earned it’s reputation as a conservative state.  But you may surprised to discover that Utah has long been the home of radical and subversive social movements.

In 1911 Utah elected 37 socialists to office including 6 mayors & 22 council members.  Murray, a town just south of Salt Lake City, was once a hotbed for socialism.  They elected a Socialist Party mayor, councilman and an auditor. And then re-elected them.  Cedar City and even the small mining towns of Eureka and Bingham also elected socialist mayors.

These radicals advocated a social order that was cooperative rather than competitive.  They spoke out against the mentality that viewed all human life in terms of exchanges on the market.

McCormick and Sillito restore the forgotten story of socialists, utopianists and other radical revolutionaries to their proper place in the Utah historical cannon.

Troy Williams: You describe Mormons as the very first radical revolutionaries to arrive in Utah.  What in the name of Mitt Romney are you talking about?

John McCormick: (laughs) Well, the focus of the book is on the Socialist Party in Utah in the early Twentieth Century.  But they weren’t the first radicals.  There was a whole history, beginning with the settlement of Utah in 1847 by the Mormons.  Early Mormons were utopian socialists.  They were radical.  They were radical critics of their contemporary United States.  They advocated a very different social, economic and political order.  And for that reason they met with a lot of opposition.  It wasn’t just that people regarded their religious doctrines as strange, they regarded their economic and political views strange as well.  Mormons initially (though present day Mormons don’t like to acknowledge this) were anti-capitalists. They were talking about a socialistic order that was more consistent with their view of the Kingdom of God they were trying to establish.

TW: Talk about early Mormon attitudes toward capitalism. What did Mormons see as the origins of income inequality and poverty?  

JM: They identified certain glaring problems that existed; poverty, extreme inequality and the tendency in a capitalistic society to value everything in terms of it’s profit making potential.  Poverty, inequality, exploitation, etc., they said this was all the result of an economic system based on private property, competition and the ownership of the means of production by the few. You had a system divided into haves and have nots.  All of these things were seen as a direct result of an economic system. If you are going to solve those problems you have to change the system.

John Sillito: They saw themselves as building up the Kingdom of God in both a spiritual and temporal sense.   The desired outcome was equality in each area.  One of the things happening in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is what historians have described as the “Americanization of Utah” for statehood.  At one point the politics of Utah was divided among religious lines between a Liberal (non-Mormon) Party and a People’s (Mormon) Party.  When those parties were later replaced by Republicans and Democrats  anything that seemed to separate Utahans from those two capitalist parties was regarded as something that should be avoided.

TW: This communitarian thrust of early Mormons didn’t come out of nowhere.  There were other competing utopias contemporary to them.  

JS: Very much so.  Mormonism came out of that period in the 1840’s that was called the Age of Reform.  You had a variety of utopian socialists both spiritual and secular in nature.  Many of them had interesting marital patterns or economic views outside the mainstream.  Mormon communitarianism was very much apart of early nineteenth American communitarianism.

TW: These communitarian ideas are very bound in Mormon scriptures.  You find it in the Book of Mormon and in the Doctrine and Covenants.  Joseph Smith said, “if you are not equal in earthly things, you cannot be equal in heavenly things.” these concepts were integral to Mormon theology.

JS: Yes, let me just add, I’m not a scriptorian so I can’t quote it exactly, but there is a passage in the Book of Alma that says, “and thus in their prosperous circumstances the people did not turn away those who were hungry, or sick or ill clad or ill housed.” The gist of it was this was a way of providing for people in both a temporal and religious sense.  Many Mormon were able to combine a commitment to both Mormonism and socialism.  They didn’t see the two in contradiction.

JM:  They were completely compatible in fact.  They had a concept of what the Kingdom of God would mean.  And a certain kind of economic system would be compatible with the Kingdom.  It was a socialistic, communitarian, communal economic order.  It was not a capitalist economic order.  Today that seems like heresy to many Mormons but the fact is that early on Mormons looked at things very differently than they do today.  One of the things we do in the book is trace that evolution of Mormon thinking on these matters.

TW: You write that in many ways Mormons helped prepare the way for socialists in America.  How did they set the stage?

JS: In part because they were one of the most successful of those various communitarian movements in the Nineteenth Century.  Successful in a relatives sense. They were constantly besieged throughout their history. But they did represent a viewpoint that did become established and somewhat successful.  And in many ways they trade that for a different, more modern kingdom.  The politics of that transformation is very interesting.

TW: That leads us nicely to the Godbeites.  Talk about William Godbe and his role as a different kind of radical.

JM: They were a schismatic group within the Mormon Church that reacted against what Mormons were trying to do.  They reacted against efforts to isolate themselves from the larger  society.  They reacted against the theocratic tendencies of the Church.  They reacted against the cooperative.  They were radical in the sense that they were offering a fundamentally different view from Mormons.  They wanted to see Utah integrated into larger society economically, socially and politically.  Godbeites did not tend to be socialists.  They were capitalists.  But they were reacting against the predominant tendency within Utah.

TW: A Mormon hegemony. You described them as “counter-revolutionary”.  I don’t tend to think of Mormons as revolutionary.  But you are describing it as that.

JS: Well central to the hegemonic presence is Brigham Young.  Much of what the Godbeites are reacting to is the control, politically, socially, economically of Utah by Young.

TW: Had they just stuck around for 40 years their ideals would became mainstream Mormonism.

JS: In many ways, yes, that’s true.

TW: Godbeite Henry Lawrence said, “we have millionaires by the hundreds and paupers by the millions.” That awareness and class consciousness seemed to be on people’s minds.  People seemed to have a language then to describe class inequality.

JS: In various times in Utah’s history, with the Godbeites, later the Populists and certainly the Socialists — people wanted a tangible vehicle to understand, explain and do something about that inequality.  I tell my students you can agree or disagree with the solutions of the time.  But it’s hard to disagree with the assessment that America was a class stratified society.  Just like we have a movement today that talks about the top 1%, that was true then.

TW: Talk about the emergence of the Socialist Party of America.  Where did they come from and what were some of the distinguishing ideas they proposed?

JS: The Socialist Party comes out of various strands of socialism in late Nineteenth Century. The party emerges out of the Unity Convention in 1901.  The party was very much committed to electoral politics as a vehicle. It advocated what they called a “cooperative commonwealth” where there would be production for need not for profit.  And a much more equal playing field for folks. It was a party divided into several factions but united by key concepts.

TW: how would they describe this ideal of the commonwealth? How did they envision that?

JS: They talked about democracy in both a political and economic sense.  They talked about the importance of working people making decisions in the places they worked.  Sometimes those who emphasized the electoral politics more than the point of production politics were sometimes at odds.  The party was endorsed by the Utah Federation of Labor in the early Twentieth-Century.  They saw the Socialist as the political expression of what they were trying to accomplish in the trade union.

JM: What always struck me about socialist movement is the emphasis on democracy.  What they were saying is that under a capitalist system people were not free.  They were confined and restricted in a range of ways. They were not in control of their own lives.  They were trying to figure out why that was and what could be done about it.
JS: They would argue that the working class had no friends in either the Republican or Democratic Party.  That those were divisive elements in society.  They argued the Socialist Party was the only political party that represented the interests of the working class.

JM: One thing that socialists commonly said, we only had a one party system with two branches.  The differences between Republicans and Democrats are not very great.  they were both parties that represented the corporate class.

TW: And people argue that exact same thing today.

JM: It’s an old argument.  It was appealing in the United States and Utah in the early twentieth Century.  That argument seems to have an increased appeal today.

TW: Today people speak of socialism as a foreign thing — it happens in Europe and Russia — you write that early Socialists saw themselves as very American — as the natural heirs of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

JM: You’re exactly right.  They did make the argument that they were American.  They said we “represent fundamental American values. We represent the values upon which America was founded. We represent the ideas of people like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.”  The other way to understand the Socialist Party in Utah is to look at their membership. We wanted to find what kind of people joined the Socialist Party.  We collected the names of nearly 1,500 people active in the Utah Socialist Party in one way or another.  What we found was that a large majority of them were native born.  They were not mainly immigrants.  Second; the majority of them that were born in other countries had immigrated to Utah many years before their activity in the Party. The Party had very deep American roots.

TW: There was a lot of nuance.  There were different kinds of socialists.

JS: Within the party you have tendencies.  One of which is a more conservative, practical, “get things done” wing of the party.  You have a true revolutionary wing that spins off in the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W).  You have Christian socialists who say “replace the rule of gold with the golden rule!”  Like any political party, the Socialist Party was a big tent.   It united people who agreed on a number of things, and yet disagreed on other things.  The commitment to the electoral approach was very strong among all the various factions. Now there were some unique differences in Utah –  mainly the Mormon  component — what John and I refer to as “Socialist Saints” – active Mormons who were also active in the Socialist Party.  Utah Socialists saw themselves as a part of a national, international movement.  They read the Socialist Party papers.  They supported the Socialist candidate for president.  They brought him to Utah to campaign.  They saw themselves as integral to a broader movement to bring about change.

TW: There was a Christian element.  People tried to connect the ideas of Karl Marx with Jesus Christ.

JS: Sometimes. I don’t know if people who said they were Marxists really were Marxists.  I don’t know if you’ve read Marx but he isn’t the easiest read. Often they would say that but I can’t find it in their analysis.  I find them closer to Jesus than to Marx.  You had Christian Socialists in just about every protestant denomination.  Two bishops of the Utah Episcopal Church called themselves socialists.  Ministers who were Baptists and Methodists used that label to describe themselves.  Now of course we had many, many more clergy who rejected that label and would not see the Socialist Party as an expression of Christianity, but others were comfortable enough to use it.

TW: Talk about the Mormons who were attracted to socialism.  Talk about Virginia Snow Stephen. Why is she significant?

JM: You’re right, we found a lot of active Mormons who were attracted to the Socialist Party in the early Twentieth Century.  When you run across a name like Wilford Woodruff Freckleton or Joseph Smith Jessop or Parley Pratt Washburne you know that likely they have Mormon roots.  We were particularly interested in these Socialist Saints in a Church that was moving increasing to the right, leaving and denouncing and denying it’s socialist roots.  Virginia Snow Stephen was a Mormon daughter of the fifth president of the Mormon Church, Lorenzo Snow.  She was an instructor at the University of Utah and a supporter of labor and socialist causes in Utah.  She was connected nationally.  She knew Emma Goldman, the foremost anarchist in the country.  She was a strong supporter of Joe Hill.

TW: Which led to her being fire from the University of Utah.

JM: Yes. Soon after that she later married another a member of the Wobblies.  They moved from Utah and settled in California.

JS: They moved to northern California and they struggled with whether or not they should have left the fight in Utah.  There goal was to  provide a place where radicals could come and get some R&R.  She’s in touch with a lot of different groups.  She’s in touch with the Modern School  which was a progressive education movement.  Emma Goldman referred to Steven as one of her circle of friends in Utah.  She’s very in touch with all that.  Though it’s clear she distanced herself from Mormonism.

TW: Talk about the impact of the Edmunds-Tucker Act and it’s impact on Mormon communitarianism.

JM: Almost from it’s founding the Mormon Church was met with intense criticism. That was the case before coming to Utah and after.  The question is why?  We argue that because Mormons were initially at odds in fundamental ways with the larger society.  They were polygamist in a monogamist society.  They were theocratic is a democratic society and they were communitarian in a capitalistic society. After they came to Utah the pressure from the federal government culminated in the late 1880’s with the passage of two pieces of legislation; The Edmunds Act and the Edmunds Tucker Act which threatened the very existence of the Mormon Church.  This outlawed polygamy resulting in 1,300 Mormon polygamists being sent to jail.  It disincorporated the Mormon Church and confiscated its property, etc. The question facing the Church was what do in the face of that enormous pressure?    The answer was accommodate to the larger society.  We give up the things that made us so different.  We give up polygamy.  We give up theocratic practices.  We give up communitarianism.  And we launch a campaign to assimilate ourselves into the larger society and prove that we really are Americans.  A big part of that campaign was to explicitly adopt and embrace capitalism.  And also spin out an ideology of capitalism  The Mormon Church then became capitalist in both theory and practice.

TW: A lot of Mormon coops were then privatized.  There was Utah Power, Utah Sugar…

JM: And ZCMI.

TW: Milton Friedman would have loved this, right? This is essentially his shock therapy philosophy.  You take a political or economic crisis and while everyone is disoriented — you use the crisis as a pretext to radically alter the economy in favor of the free market.

JM: Never let a crisis go to waste to advance an agenda.

JS: It’s also very interesting, you have Mormons arguing in the 1840 period that they are not like the prevailing society. It’s 180 degrees different today.  Once the decision is made to become mainstream, the leadership of the Church goes out of it’s way to reinforce that in every way it can.  To raise money during the Spanish-American War. To donate wheat to the war effort in W.W.1. The argument is often made that in the 1930’s the Mormon Church came up with a system to provide for it’s members in economic need. True enough.  But Utah is one of the highest states in terms of receiving federal aid. History is an interesting thing in the sense that those people who use it to advance that agenda sometimes over look some important truths.  While they weren’t socialists, Utah went for Roosevelt all four times.  We went for Truman.  In this period of becoming part of the mainstream it was also a period of competitive politics.  That’s something that has changed over the past half century, certainly.

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About Troy Williams

Troy is currently the public affairs director of KRCL 90.9 FM in Salt Lake City and the executive producer of RadioActive. His work has been featured in The Nation, Interview Magazine, Huffington Post, The Gay Times and OUT Magazine. He also co-wrote the one-woman show, The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon. In 2011 Troy will appear in the new Errol Morris documentary, Tabloid.
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