Published: May 20, 2021

Socialism, Then And Now

As I raced along in life, I could have spared myself a lot of time and trouble if I had paused to notice a consistent and conspicuous pattern. Every time I learned a lesson the hard way, it turned out that I had taken the long route to what I could have learned—with far less trial and error—from familiar folk sayings.

Like plenty of over-educated folks, I had drifted into the habit of thinking of those sayings as superficial and banal platitudes. But when I compared them to the lessons I had chosen to learn in the College of Hard Knocks (an educational institution that sometimes shares a campus with actual universities), these sayings were revealed to be tightly packed bundles of meaning.

That horse is out of the barn.
That cat is out of the bag.
That train has left the station.

With these three different ways of phrasing the same proposition, the folk of the past apparently realized that they were making a point that was too important to say just once. In each of those statements, the phrase makers of the past offered this guidance to posterity: “If you can pause to think about the larger context of the situation you face, you will get better results than if you head straight to alarm and agitation.”


Attending to Time:

What Century Is it?

In our times, an audible set of Americans have been sounding an alarm over the potential of socialism to inflict calamity on our nation.

To Western historians, those expressions of alarm seem to be a century too late.

The American West has already been there and done that.

Here’s what we know: Socialism held the loyalty of a significant number of Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Here’s what we don’t know: will that historical configuration of loyalty make a resurgence in the twenty-first century?

Some historical movements came into being and continued at full force over centuries. Other historical movements got going and then faded quickly into a shadowy vestige only remembered by a few.

And here is a third possibility that might apply to Socialism: some historical movements seemed to disappear, and then suddenly resurfaced with greater force than they had in their initial appearance.

If that third pattern is in the picture, people who fear that Socialism is going to make a resurgence as a political force will want to keep a close watch on North Dakota and Utah, two states where enthusiasm for socialism was particularly notable a century ago.

Could I really be proposing that North Dakotans and Utahns should be kept under close surveillance, on the chance that they may relapse into the ideology embraced by some of their ancestors and predecessors?

This idea meets every standard for dismissal as ridiculous.

But the idea also comes with a serious dimension: I am hoping to call attention to a form of public service that historians can offer to society today. When individuals and groups undertake to decide what seems alarming and disturbing in our own times, historical perspective could add an element of calm, good sense, and even humor.


Oh, Give Me a Home, Where the Socialists Roam:

North Dakotans Give Conventional Thinking a Rough Ride

In the years 1918-1919, an insurgent movement called the Nonpartisan League dominated the government of the state of North Dakota. As its name indicates, the Nonpartisan League (henceforth, NPL) was not a satellite or affiliate of the Socialist Party, nor the Republican Party, nor the Democratic Party. The main constituents of the NPL were small farmers who were facing every variety of economic trouble.

And yet the NPL—in its origins and its leadership—had a very direct connection to Socialism. In Political Prairie Fire, Robert L. Morlan’s thorough history of the League, references to Socialism appear frequently. Here is one reference worth reading in its entirety (and yes, I know that normal human beings always skip over long block quotations, but I swear this one is really worth reading):

It is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of the League’s organizers throughout the years were Socialists. Most of the League’s coterie of early leaders were Socialists or had some connection with the movement, and it was only natural that they picked men with whom they had been associated. Moreover, they found that men who had always been in the minority tended to be strong on argument and to know how to turn opponents into friends. They understood the underdog point of view, and in many cases had sharpened their speaking techniques in the rough and tumble of street corner oratory [the italics are mine, as you already guessed].

In other words, in North Dakota in the 1910s, the Socialist horse was already out of the barn. Even though many members of the NPL were farmers who would never have called themselves Socialists, through the NPL’s leaders and organizers, Socialism had an unmistakable impact on the main currents of political thought in that state. To a significant share of the NPL members, in Robert Morlan’s words, “Socialism was the ultimate objective, and the League was simply a means to that end.”

Socialism holds an unmistakable place in the history of North Dakota. Still, it would take a remarkably jumpy person to anticipate and fear a resurgence of Socialist thought and conviction in Bismarck and Fargo.


“Socialist Saints”

What was needed, according to the early revelations propounded by the church, was a system of relationships in which self-seeking individualism and personal aggrandizement would be completely replaced by common action, simplicity in consumption, relative equality, and group self-sufficiency.

Leonard Arrington (former Church Historian)
Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-Day Saints (1958)

In 1901, the national Socialist Party was founded. In that same year, the first Socialist Party locals were founded in Utah. The movement had an impact statewide: twenty out of twenty-nine Utah counties had Socialist organizations.

In an examination of nearly 1500 Utahns who ran for public office as Socialists or who held a position in a Socialist organization, historians John Sillitoe and James McCormick found that 40% of these people were Mormons. These “Socialist Saints,” Sillitoe and McCormick wrote, “combined allegiance for both Socialism and Mormonism.”

In the mining town of Eureka, Utah, four elections placed Socialists in the position of mayor, and in two elections voters chose Socialists as the whole roster of the town’s elected officials. Predictably, Utah Socialism had a greater foothold in mining communities, where non-Mormons were represented in greater proportions. But Sillitoe and McCormick still asserted that Socialism “appealed to a wide cross-section of Utahns, including many Mormons.” They held a range of occupations from educators to small businesspeople, from farmers to skilled workers, and  including an occasional bishop or other officials in the church network.

In Springfield, Utah, in 1913, a Socialist Saint named A. L. Porter placed a statement addressed “to my posterity” in the cornerstone of the new high school. “Our political faith is socialism,” Porter wrote, “our religious faith is (Mormon)  the Latter-day Saints.”

A year earlier,

In Emery County, Utah, when a Mormon woman named Lillie Engel ran for the office of County Recorder, she declared that she was “an advocate of scientific socialism . . . . born of thought and investigation.” In a longer statement, Lillie Engel explained her political choice:

Having concluded that Socialism is the only political movement that offers a solution for social ills, political corruption, undue wealth for the capitalist and unjust poverty for the workers, I have embraced Socialism for my politics . . . and now hold the office of secretary of the local branch of that party.

Anyone, who might be inclined to think that A. L. Porter and Lille Engel were rarities in early twentieth-century Utah, can recover from that inclination by scoping out John McCormick’s and John Sillito’s book, A History of Utah Radicalism: Startling, Socialistic, and Revolutionary (2011). Those two historians made a compelling contribution to a chorus of recognition of the distinctive reason why Socialism found strong support in Utah. As McCormick and Sillito put it, “The Mormon Church has a strong communitarian tradition.”

A crucial phase in that tradition took place in the 1870s, when President and Prophet Brigham Young put forward a program of economic cooperation called the United Order of Enoch. (In Latter-day Saint scripture, Enoch was a very honorable and wise figure who inspired the founding of the city of Enoch, where people lived with such virtue that the city itself was taken straight to heaven.)

Aligning themselves with the United Order, some Utah communities asked residents to consecrate their property to communal benefit and to unite in a shared economic destiny. Other communities took up less demanding—but still strenuous—enterprises in the creation of cooperatives, ranging from textile factories to tanneries. A few towns went much further in adopting customs of disciplined, communal living.

Here is how historian Leonard Arrington summed up the Church leadership’s appraisal of the United Order in the 1870s. This movement, the leaders believed, had “tempered the growing spirit of acquisitiveness and individualism with a more saintly selflessness and devotion to the building of the Kingdom.” Spiritual and material concerns came together: the United Order of Enoch contributed to the Utah economy, while also “heighten[ing] the spirit of unity and ‘temporal oneness’ of the Saints.”

Only a generation removed from the peak of activity in the United Order of Enoch, the early twentieth-century Socialist Saints had reason to see themselves as stewards of a tradition of communal commitment. There was no surprise in the fact that, as McCormick and Sillito summed up this story, “many Mormons found membership in the Socialist party compatible with their membership in the Mormon Church.”


Awaiting a Call:

Historians Ready to Lend a Hand

The dimensions of Western American history briefly presented here do not seem to have come to the attention of the public figures who are sounding the alarm over the rise of Socialism in our times.

But maybe a custom adopted by Hollywood’s movie makers could be of use in this arena?

Many movies now include the disclaimer, “No animals were harmed in the making of this film.”  Perhaps the time has come to ask public figures—when they are headed to the microphone to express alarm and agitation over socialism or any other political belief systems that have been around a long time—to begin with a similar disclaimer, “No historians were enlisted in the writing of this speech.” After a few deployments of that admission, a novel line of thought might suddenly come to mind: “Then why don’t I enlist a couple of historians before I give my next agitated and alarmed speech?”

In innumerable arenas of national life today, horses are out of barns; cats are out of bags; and trains have left the station. To undertake a productive reckoning with these situations, historians could be the essential workers.

But we wait to be summoned.

In ordinary circumstances, no one holds the right to speak for the dead. But in our unusual circumstances in 2021, I am—briefly and with great humility—going to exercise that right.

Here is what I think the Western American Socialists of a century ago might say to us today:

We would like you to remember that this nation, for all its troubles, has at its core a streak of idealism. We want to believe that this streak of idealism still survives a century after our lives ended, and we hope that you will be drawn, as we were, to dreams driven by that idealism. But we can pass on to you what we learned for ourselves: such dreams vary widely in practicality. And we can assure you that people who refer to themselves as Socialists are rarely of one unified mind when it comes to defining the actions that Socialists want to see at work in the world.

Burdened with my ventriloquism, these Western American Socialists of a century ago are proving to be very chatty time travelers. But when I plead with them to be succinct, here’s the result:

Howdy, posterity.
Here’s what we know, and what you will find out.
You, too, shall pass.
That horse is really out of the barn.


Patty Limerick's Signature
If you find this blog contains ideas worth sharing with friends, please forward this link to them. If you are reading this for the first time, join our EMAIL LIST to receive the Not my First Rodeo blog every Friday.

Photo Credit:

Horse & Barn image courtesy of: Pixabay

Cat in a bag image courtesy of: Pixabay

Train image courtesy of: Pixabay