Red Star Over Utah: A Counterfactual History
From Utah and the Great War: The Beehive State and the World War I Experience
Utah, in 1919, was in a constant process of becoming. Since the 1870s, the Beehive State’s non-Mormon population had grown steadily, while roughly 60 percent of Utah’s residents were still members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Most of the population resided in expanding urban centers. Salt Lake City and Ogden were the State’s two largest cities, with the capital featuring a rising skyline, an overall growth in its population, and the expansion of the capital’s neighborhoods.
Despite the collective, societal strength garnered from the surge of patriotism washing over Utah in the form of State and Liberty Bonds, victory gardens, and a rousing celebration by returning veterans and residents in SLC at the war’s end, people were afraid.
The production of zinc, silver, copper, and gold was 54 percent below 1918 levels, with major mining companies either closing their mines or laying off workers in large numbers. The price of wheat fell steadily throughout 1919, hurting farmers greatly.
Strikes hit hard. Prior to the seizure of political power by the SLC Council of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Sailors’ Deputies laws came forth from the State legislature which attempted to suppress the inevitable. These laws came in the form of the so-called Red Flag and Sabotage bills, passed by wealthy capitalist legislators.
The Red Flag bill was put forth by capitalist legislator J.E. Cardon, who asserted harshly that his bill was a “warning to agitators that there is no place for them in this State.” It passed easily, with only ten senators against. Twenty-four representatives voted for and only five against the accompanying Sabotage bill, with the former targeting the nascent SLC Council of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Sailors’ Deputies and the latter the syndicalist IWW.
The SLC Council of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Sailors’ Deputies met initially in February 1919, calling for “mass action to build up a real democratic government, a government of the workers, for the workers, and by the workers, to take control of politics and industry out of the hands of big business.” It would send letters to labor unions across the State asking them to join its cause.
Police were quick to act against radicals, using the two new laws to make arrests. The IWW offices in SLC were quickly shut down along with its press, resulting in IWW Solidarity editor Ralph Chaplin complaining to the SLC Council of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Sailors’ Deputies. Calls for a mass political strike were soon issued by the SLC Council of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Sailors’ Deputies followed by arrests made at one of its weekly meetings by plainclothes police officers. Despite the repression the mass political strike, slated for May 1st, 1919–May Day–moved ahead at breakneck speed as unionists, workers, Socialists, and Communists all worked to organize it.
On May Day, in the early morning hours, mail bombs ended up on the desks of attorney Frank K. Necker, reactionary Democratic senator William H. King, and conservative Senator Reed Smoot, killing all three individuals; a bomb also killed Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, orchestrator of the national Red Scare, however the other thirty-two recipients were left unscathed. The mail bombs were likely delivered by a lone wolf murderer bent on causing mass chaos. The successful bombings pushed not just the Utah State government but also numerous other States and the Federal government over to the attempted brutal crushing of the May Day strike movement.
The Beehive State was gripped by the May Day strike soon afterwards.
The mass political strike brought the economy and government in Utah to a grinding halt. Despite being a staunch progressive, Jewish and non-Mormon Governor Simon Bamberger was forced to call out the National Guard in response to the unrest. The National Guardsmen, echoing what took place in other States on May Day, fired into crowds of striking workers, radicalizing them further. Many troops joined the strikers, allowing for the formation of a statewide workers’ militia, which soon began taking over control of whole towns and cities which was paralleled elsewhere in the country. New social political and economic power became reality in SLC, with the SLC Council of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Sailors’ Deputies issuing a call to all revolutionary parties and movements to jointly create a “Socialist State of Utah” through the convocation of an All-Utah Congress of Councils of Workers’, Soldiers’, Sailors’, and Farmers’ Deputies in SLC.
The All-Utah Council Congress met in SLC on May 12th, 1919 eleven days after the mass May Day political strike brought down the old bourgeois order. In the interest of unity, the Utah Socialist and Communist Parties agreed to form a working majority, with anarchists, IWW delegates and a smattering of nonparty delegates staying out of the resultant multiparty socialist-communist coalition government while nonetheless remaining highly supportive of it.
The formation of a Utahan Socialist Red Workers’ and Farmers’ Army was announced, while decrees on land and industry were read out to the delegates followed by much applause. Electing an executive committee to act as the supreme legislative and executive power between sessions of the Utah Council Congress and, starting work on a socialist State constitution, delegates to the national Council Congress in Washington D.C. were named as the Utah Council Congress’s last act before closing for the day.
Utah was now a socialist State.
Eugene Victor Debs had been to Utah before, during his 1904 presidential campaign tour of the Beehive State. Then, the class struggle was hidden; now, it had broken out into full-blown social revolution. Arms outstretched, his lean, angular body bent forwards, Debs began speaking to the crowd of plain-clothed workingmen, soldiers, and sailors in the Salt Lake City Federation of Labor building. The SLC Council of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Sailors’ Deputies delegates whooped themselves hoarse as he did so.
His words broke through their throaty cheers, amplified by a microphone set up at the podium from which he stood: “There’s a new power in this great city, the combined political and economic power of the Salt Lake City Council of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Sailors’ Deputies–your power!” That produced yet more cheers, forcing him to wait for the crowd to grow silent again. He continued, saying “I declare this meeting of the Salt Lake City Council of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Sailors’ Deputies open!”
As the 1919 Socialist candidate for president of the Council of People’s Secretaries, he was given honorary chairmanship over the meeting. The actual council chairman banged his gavel at a nearby table situated below the stage he was on.
After some time, the council chairman banged his gavel down and adjourned the meeting. As Debs was about to leave the hall, a burly State workers’ militiaman came up to him. “Mr. Debs, sir, it was an honor to hear you speak for the first time. I’d heard from a fellow soldier in the trenches that heaven breaks when you speak, and boy did it break.”
“Good to know I broke heaven with my words, friend. It’s also good to know that you’ve stormed heaven. You have the looks of a miner. Did you work in the mines before fighting in the war?”
“Yes, I was a copper miner before the country’s bourgeoisie got us into that damned imperialist slaughter. Fought on the Western Front, against the stinking, baby-killing krauts.”
Debs frowned at the militiaman’s prejudiced words. Many a worker still thought not in internationalist class terms, but in terms of the old, racist bourgeois nation-state. Still, the veteran was doing his duty for the new socialist State of Utah, as evidenced by the green uniform that he wore. The two men shook hands after having exchanged a few more words. Parting ways, Debs left the Federation of Labor building and melted into the large crowd filing outside of the entrance before catching a bus back to the train station, his bodyguards following him every step of the way.
Hopping onto the train, he settled into a hard-wooden seat. The train rolled on its way to Ogden. As it did so, he couldn’t help but smile, placing a bony hand onto the hat that he wore over his bald head and running his other hand down across his dapper tweed suit. The people’s revolution rolled on its way to final victory, and so would he at its head.