Spring 1989, Volume 6.1

Socialists in Power: The Eureka, Utah, Experience-1907-1925

Americans today think socialism strange, alien, and irrelevant. As Michael Harrington noted in a 1980 issue of In These Times: "Socialists in this country are dismissed as either totalitarians, or as nuts, marginal people, or dilettantes" (2). The attitude Harrington identifies is itself interesting, in light of the fact that the United States is the only highly developed country without a strong socialist movement. Indeed, as Lloyd D. Gardner and William O'Neill point out, "What needs explaining is not why other countries at least pay lip service to socialism, but why the United States does not" (274). The question the German economist Werner Sombart asked in 1906 in the title of his book, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?, is still an important one. The early twentieth century is one place to look for answers because it is the only period in American history when a mass movement for socialism existed, and it is also the time when comparably developed countries, especially in Europe, acquired powerful socialist movements. The failure of the United States to do likewise is one of the great anomalies among industrialized nations and one of the things that make us unique.

Historians have written much about American socialism during its "Golden Age" in the first two decades of the twentieth century when the Socialist Party of America attracted widespread support among workers, intellectuals, and farmers, had considerable impact on the thinking of the day, and looked as if it might become a permanent part of the American scene (see especially Bell; Green; Howe; Laslett; Leon; Quint; Shannon; Weinstein). As some historians have pointed out, however, a major deficiency in present scholarship is the lack of studies at the state and local level (Critchlow 1-17). Most studies focus on socialism from a national perspective. The Socialist Party has been examined in only about a half dozen states and in about a dozen of the approximately 400 cities and 1-0 towns where socialists held office, and almost all of those studies deal with cities in the Midwest or the East Coast (for the best local studies see Bedford; Critchlow; Green; Stave). Little has been written about socialism in the West, even though, as James Weinstein points out, socialism's "greatest relative voting strength ... lay west of the Mississippi River in the states where mining, lumbering, and tenant farming prevailed." Nevada, Montana, Washington, California, Idaho, and Arizona were among the 10 states with the greatest percentage of socialist voters; and from 1910 to 1918 the majority of socialist state legislators were elected in Nevada, Montana, California, Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, Washington, Kansas, and Wisconsin (Weinstein 23-24).

For several years, we have been engaged in a study of the Socialist Party in Utah from its beginnings in 1901 until its demise as a political force in the 1930s. We have found that in many ways socialist patterns in Utah followed national ones (McCormick; McCormick and Sillito; Sillito; Sillito and McCormick). Utah socialists were active in electoral politics, and some 100 were elected to various offices in 19 communities throughout the state, Utah being 1 of only 18 states to have socialist representation in its legislature. Furthermore, the Socialist Party enjoyed the support of large segments of Utah's labor movement. Not only were many union officials and rank and file members socialists, but from 1911 to 1913 the Utah State Federation of Labor endorsed the Socialist Party and urged its members to support socialist candidates at the polls. Utah had an active socialist press, with nine publications centered in the state. The largest of these, the Intermountain Worker, had a circulation of 5,000 and at one point was the official publication of the Utah labor movement. Finally, the Utah Socialist Party attracted a diverse group of supporters to its ranks. Utah socialists included intellectuals, editors, clergymen, small business people, and reformers along with a solid working class and agrarian base.

A complicating factor in Utah was the pervasive presence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With Mormons comprising three quarters of the state's population, no political move-I ment could succeed even marginally without the church's support or at least its neutrality. Although individual Mormons could and did  I belong to the Socialist Party, the church hierarchy's opposition to socialism (which coincided with its aversion to unionism and its shift toward the American political mainstream) made it difficult for them to harmonize their politics with their religion. For example, in November 1911, the First Presidency of the LDS Church advised Mormons in Thatcher, Arizona, that they should "join only with the two great parties, Republican and Democratic ... and avoid the socialists" (Richards 2 Nov. 1912).

We have examined the growth and development of Utah socialism in several articles. In addition to what we have written elsewhere, an important part of our research recently has centered on an examination of the behavior of socialists once they were elected to office. What did people who sought the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement with the cooperative commonwealth, who advocated production for use instead of profit, do once they actually held political power? In this essay we will attempt to provide a preliminary answer to those questions by examining the situation in Eureka, where Utah socialists attracted the greatest support for the longest period of time.

Eureka was a silver and lead mining community located about 70 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Founded in the 1870s, it had a population of 3,000 by the turn of the century. Unlike many of Utah's mining towns, Eureka had an essentially homogeneous population. In the past it has often been suggested that socialists in the United States were aliens. By this, two things are usually meant: either socialists were foreigners, in particular of non-Anglo-Saxon origin, who lacked an understanding of American ideals and institutions; or they were dropouts, individuals separated or estranged from the ties and constraints of everyday life, people on the fringes of respectable society. This was clearly not the case in Eureka or, for that matter, in Utah as a whole.

In our research on Utah socialists, we have studied three separate groups: first, the more than 1,400 individuals who ran for office anywhere in the state between 1900 and 1925, or could otherwise be identified as party members; second, some 300 Eureka socialists in 1910-1911 as recorded in the local's membership book which is still extant (see Eureka Socialist Party Membership Book); and third, the 100 socialists elected to public office in Utah during the first quarter of the twentieth century. While slight variations exist, in general the statistics for each group tell the same story: Utah socialists were overwhelmingly male, married, and native-born (characteristics typical of the party nationally as well); approximately one third of Utah socialists who were foreign-born came primarily from the British Isles, Western Europe, and Scandinavia; moreover, the party was occupationally diverse, though a strong working class base existed; lastly, somewhat less than 50% of Utah socialists were members of the LDS Church.

In Eureka specifically, 90% of the 300 Socialist Party members were male and 80% were married. Several dry farmers from the surrounding areas belonged to the local, as did a few small business people and professionals, including the town's Baptist minister, the -first grade schoolteacher, and the proprietor of one of the town's many pool halls. Twelve percent of Eureka socialists were unskilled laborers, while three quarters were semi-skilled or skilled workers, most of them miners. Slightly over 60% were native-born, two thirds of whom were born in Utah. Of the 38% of Eureka socialists who were foreign-born, almost none of them were "New Immigrants" from Eastern and Southern Europe, and most were long-term residents of the United States, two thirds having been in this country for more than a decade when they joined the Socialist Party. Finally, about 40% of Eureka socialists were Mormons, a figure lower than that of the party state-wide, but higher than the Mormon population of Eureka itself. A Socialist Party local was organized in Eureka in 1901, and so cialists first ran for office in 1903. In a three-way race with Democrats and Republicans, they were third, receiving 21% of the vote. In 1905, the socialists moved up to second, with 32% behind the Republicans, and in 1907 they scored their first electoral success when Eureka voters elected six a socialists to office: a non-practicing Mormon carpenter as mayor, two practicing Mormon miners to the five member city council, a "class conscious" non-Mormon woman school teacher as treasurer, the town's Baptist minister as justice of the peace, and a non-Mormon miner as the city marshal. Clearly, Eureka socialists had fielded and elected a diverse slate of candidates.

Over the next 18 years, at least one socialist was elected at every election. A socialist mayor was voted into office three more times (1911, 1917, 1921), and socialists controlled the city council during three terms (1912-1914, 1922-1924, 1924-1926). While socialists were elected to various offices throughout Utah during that same period, in no other place did they attract the level of support or enjoy the tenure in office that they did in Eureka.

Once elected to office, how did Eureka's socialists proceed? What did they seek to accomplish? Basically their goal was one they stated time and time again in party platforms, campaign speeches, and newspaper advertisements: to provide, in the words of Mayor Andrew Mitchell, "good, clean, capable administration of city affairs" (Eureka Reporter 3 Nov. 1907). For the next 20 years, this was essentially their only goal. As elected officials, their primary concern was to counter the widespread view of socialists as either dangerous troublemakers seeking to pit one class against another or irresponsible, impractical dreamers who, though perhaps well meaning, had little patience or ability to deal with the problems of the real world.

The negative attitude with which Eureka's socialists had to contend, particularly among the town's political and economic establishment, fueled their determination to disprove these assertions. For example, on 3 November 1911, a few days before the municipal elections, the Eureka Reporter ran an article about the experience of Bingham, a Utah mining town that had elected a socialist administration in 1907. The paper asserted that "the promises made by the socialists of Bingham were about the same as the socialists of Eureka are making to the working men of Eureka. They were never kept; they were never meant to be kept. It would be impossible for any party to carry out the wild theories advanced by the socialists and preserve a government of law and order-or even a semblance of it." The paper further commented that it was "soon apparent" that the socialist administration of Bingham was "thoroughly incompetent" and consequently was "rooted from office and replaced by a businesslike administration." Voters who were interested in "the real progress and welfare of Eureka City," the paper concluded, would vote against socialists because they "cannot provide a safe, sane, and sensible city government." Eureka socialists always conducted their campaigns, and their tenure in office, under the shadow of similar assertions of incompetence and impracticality.

Once in office, Eureka's socialists spent the bulk of their time taking up routine matters rather than promoting "wild theories." During the first few months of their 1910-1912 term, they issued liquor and other business licenses, approved the use of the city hall as a regular meeting place for Eureka's city band, appropriated money for the city physician to attend meetings of the state board of health, discussed how best to deal with delinquent water bills, appointed new directors of the Eureka public library, approved the installation of a telephone in the city watermaster's office, bought a new boiler for the city hall, and "secured the winter supply of coal .......... .......... at the best rate." These kinds of routine matters continued to occupy most of their attention. During the council meeting of 2 June 1922, for example, Mayor John Church spent considerable time discussing the problem of "young men carrying flippers and air guns," and the council finally decided to instruct the city marshal to stop them (Eureka City Council Minutes).

Eureka's elected socialist officials did not resent, or resist, dealing with such mundane matters. In fact, they welcomed these challenges as a way of proving to voters, as well as to themselves, that they were capable administrators, that they could do what needed to be done, no matter how routine.

Beyond the day-to-day matters of city business, Eureka's socialists were concerned with other questions, particularly moral issues. In their 1907 platform, they pledged to enforce city ordinances banning the sale of liquor on Sunday and prohibiting gambling, and they criticized previous city administrators for failing to do so. As the local newspaper said, Eureka had been a "wide open camp since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary," but the socialists meant to change that. In the campaign they pledged to "put the lid on liquor," and once in office, they did. According to the Eureka Reporter of 20 January 1908, "the saloons of Eureka were closed up tight last Sunday, orders to that effect having been served upon the saloon men by Marshal Church [a socialist who would later serve as the city's mayor]. It was undoubtedly a dry day, not a drop of liquor being sold, and while no one died of thirst, such a thing might have happened had it not been for the fact that many made preparation for the day by carrying a few bottles home." Continuing in this lighthearted vein, the paper noted: "It was amusing to see the hundreds of men upon the street in the afternoon, the wealthier being exceptionally pleasant for the season, and while it was a good-natured bunch, some looked as though they were strangers in a strange land. The'bar boys! are figuring upon organizing a lawn tennis club in order that they may kill time on Sunday. Some of them have even threatened to go to church." A year later the paper reported that the socialist administration was still strictly enforcing the prohibition against saloons operating on Sunday and promised to continue to do so (Eureka Reporter 24 Jan. 1909).

Likewise, Eureka socialists quickly moved to enforce city ordinances against gambling. Examining the situation two weeks after they had taken office, the Eureka Reporter of 24 January 1909 commented that "a person strolling into one of the palaces of amusement-and there have always been many such places in Eureka-could no longer hear the familiar noise of the little ivory ball as it goes spinning around and then drops down into the wheel of the roulette; even the slot machines are now quiet, and no longer do we hear the musical voice of the poker dealer, the '21' dealer and the man who runs the crap game.... Every one has cashed in and departed. Even the dealers have left in search of greener fields where socialists, if they do exist, have not yet gained the prominence that they have in Eureka." When asked at the end of his term as mayor what he considered to be his greatest accomplishment, socialist Andrew Mitchell replied, "Closing the gambling houses and bringing about a more strict regulation of the saloons" (Eureka Reporter 20 Jan. 1908).

Even more important than moral issues for Eureka socialists were questions surrounding public health and safety, which received an early emphasis and continued to be of importance during the 20 years they held office. Upon taking office in 1908, socialists began construction of Eureka's first sewer system, and they gradually extended it in subsequent years. Also in 1908, they undertook the repair and extension of the city's water system. In the fall of 1912, they dug new water lines to a depth of 4 1/2 feet to prevent the problems of freezing water pipes that had plagued the city in previous winters. The next year they put in over 5,000 feet of new water line and installed a 25,000gallon redwood water tank. In 1912 they began Eureka's first program of regular garbage collection. During their tenure in office, they addressed other municipal reforms, including paving city streets for the first time, beginning a program of regular street cleaning and maintenance, increasing the number of electric street lights, cutting residential and commercial electric rates, establishing municipal ordinances requiring safety exits in theaters and public buildings, and appointing Eureka's first town dogcatcher. In addition, they passed Eureka's first ordinance "regulating the speed of automobiles and motorcycles," licensed peddlers to protect Eureka citizens against "cheap john outfits that regularly drift into town and land a few suckers," and directed that all electric power and telephone wires be transferred to one set of poles and the resulting extra unused poles be removed from the street.

An article in the January 1922 issue of Socialist World compared Eureka with another Utah mining town, Park City, where the Socialist Party had never attracted the degree of support it had garnered in Eureka, and where a socialist had never been elected to office. The article said the two towns stood in striking contrast: 'In Park City ... there is no sewer system and when the snow melts in the spring of the year the flood waters coursing down the mountain slopes flush the cesspools and the human offal is washed down into the yard of the residents below." Asserting that such "disease breeding and demoralizing conditions" demonstrated that Park City officials did not care for the "physical, moral, intellectual and spiritual welfare of the working class," the paper claimed that the situation was "different in Eureka," where the workers "had the good sense to elect the candidates of the Socialist party into complete control of municipal affairs"; these candidates had not only improved the sewer and sanitation problems but had made the "health and morale of the people ... decidedly better." The article concluded that the success of Eureka's socialist administration "proves the necessity of industrial and political solidarity of labor as taught by the Socialist party" (Herman 8).

That was not the lesson of Eureka's socialist administration, however anxious some were to draw it. Between 1907 and 1925, Eureka mirrored the socialist experience in office elsewhere in the United States. The few studies we have of socialists in office in American cities indicate that generally they were moderate reformers, preoccupied with immediate demands, and working within the existing framework of government and economy. In Milwaukee, for example, socialists pursued a program that called for honesty in office, economy and efficiency in government administration, and modernization of social services (Miller 23-24, 30-34). In Flint, Michigan, socialists offered measures that appealed to anyone with progressive inclinations: street maintenance, improvements in the city's sewer system, stricter enforcement of building inspections (Judd 96-97, 109-11). In Marion, Indiana, socialists called for the building of a sewer system and the extension of gas lines (Stevens 75-76).

There were, of course, socialists who sought to go beyond moderate reform, at least in small ways, hinting at what socialism ideally should mean-small steps forward through nationalization of the means of production and distribution, democratic planning, and production for use rather than for profit. Milwaukee socialists, for example, looked beyond providing new and improved public services toward basic measures of economic control. They advocated the establishment of municipal lodging houses, ice houses, slaughterhouses, and markets; opened a free employment bureau; offered strike arbitration services; and tried to reconceptualize the police department so that it was working class in orientation (Miller 33). Flint, Michigan's socialist officials made the same kind of effort to transcend reform, seeking to provide a medium through which workers could voice demands not traditionally considered the business of politicians. They called for trade unions, denounced factory conditions, and broadened their criticism in general to include attacks upon economic as well as political institutions (Judd 94-100).

Eureka's socialists did none of this. They bore the label "socialist," but that was the only thing that distinguished them from their non-socialist counterparts. They sought to provide good, efficient government, and no more than that, as a way of building popular support for socialism, the ultimate establishment of the cooperative commonwealth, and the triumph of the working class.

In their view such single-minded concentration was not just a desirable condition for the ultimate triumph of socialism, but an absolute necessity. Until people understood that socialists were honest, hard-working, capable people, as well as genuine idealists who sought a better world, no progress toward socialism would be made. Consequently, all socialist efforts had to be concentrated on achieving that central goal.

Competence in office, however, did not translate into long-term popular support for socialism. Indeed, it had just the opposite effect. Eureka socialists, like many socialists elsewhere, had dual personalities. On the one hand, their rhetoric was often radical. In party platforms, leaflets, and stump speeches, they called for a fundamental reorganization of society. Once elected to office, however, they supported reform, not revolution, providing the city with its first dogcatcher in lieu of the cooperative commonwealth. In so doing, they made socialism irrelevant. The argument that socialists were at least as honest and efficient as anyone else meant, in effect, that the reason to vote for them was not because they espoused socialism and would work toward a fundamental transformation of society, but because they possessed great personal qualities of mind and character. Some Eureka socialists came to verbalize this attitude. Following his election in 1917, Mayor Church, a longtime socialist, stated that his goal as mayor would be "good, clean, economical administration of public affairs" (Eureka Reporter 10 Nov. 1917). As long as city officials adopted that as their goal, he continued, voters did not care what party they belonged to or whether they called themselves Democrats, Republicans, or Socialists. Politics, he said, was a secondary consideration to city voters who were primarily interested in good government. Eureka socialists were elected by their neighbors in spite of, not because of, their commitment to socialism.

At the beginning of this article, we suggested that in the first two decades of this century the Socialist Party had an important impact on American politics, attracting a broad cross section of support to its banner. Such support translated into political success on the state and local level as thousands of socialists held elected office throughout the country. Once in office, however, American socialist politicians were presented with challenges not faced by their colleagues on the sidelines. As we have seen, the policies these men and women pursued differed from place to place. Eureka's socialists, while presiding over an administration implementing cautious reform, not fundamental change, believed that in their own way they were keeping faith with their socialist vision. Understanding their story and the story of their comrades elsewhere helps us better understand and assess the time when-to rephrase Werner Sombart-there was a movement toward socialism, if not socialism itself, in the United States.


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