Rise of the Radicals

David Berman extensively documents the history of anti-capitalism in the Mountain West

It is 1892. James Weaver, the Populist candidate for president, proclaims: "(T)he American people are today in the midst of the most tremendous upheaval that the world has ever known about, a political upheaval that extends into every county in the Republic. ... This is a battle between the people and the corporations. The corporations have driven the people to the wall, and flesh and blood amounts to nothing unless it has got dollars behind it now a days... You know the corporations of this country today ... dominate every state institution in this government and the federal government ... that they are corrupting your legislature and corrupting your ballot box."

Some things never change.

Radicalism in the Mountain West, 1890-1920: Socialists, Populists, Miners and Wobblies is a new book from David Berman that pulls back the lid from the bubbling cauldron of stew that makes up our radical past. Berman is senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy and professor emeritus of political science at Arizona State University.

Professor Berman defines radicals as people who didn't just want reform: They wanted to replace the capitalist system. He looks at their activities from 1890 to 1920 in the Mountain West, a swath of dirt and rock that includes Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

This was the era of Eugene Debs and William Jennings Bryan, of Joe Hill and Mother Jones, of Upton Sinclair and Ida Crouch Hazlett. They were heady, exciting, dangerous times for a nation in transition.

The native peoples had finally been co-opted, beaten into submission or slaughtered, so the invading Westerners were finally able to turn their attention to the issue of how to subjugate the very land itself and squeeze out their fortune. The problem was, all of these tough, rugged, pioneer individualists who had presided over the government-sponsored genocide had no capital to exploit the spoils of war. They became boomers, and advertised for investors back East to come one, come all, and make your fortune in the West.

You should always be careful what you wish for. The investors did come, and basically, they took over. Easterners primarily viewed the West as a source for raw materials, and the opening and running of mines was an expensive business. The tough, rugged, pioneer individualists became wage slaves to the very people they had invited to come and invest. The mines became dangerous hellholes, and their associated communities weren't much better for the average blue-collar worker.

Monied monopolies arose--they controlled the land, water, transportation and money. Conditions were right for someone to propose an alternative, one that was more equitable and fair to the people doing the actual physical labor, an alternative that promised to share the wealth that was being sucked out of the West and being deposited back East.

The groups that arose were the radicals. They tried to address head-on the concerns of the time--crappy wages, dreadfully long hours and scary working conditions--through either political activities or confrontation, or sometimes both.

Berman's book examines in sequence the Populists, the Socialists, the Western Federation of Miners, the International Workers of the World (the "Wobblies") and a host of other left-wing organizations, their various activities and agendas across the Mountain West, and the people who made it all happen.

We are a violent people--always have been, so of course we're fascinated with the more dramatic aspects of radicalism. The cover of Radicalism in the Mountain West features the remains of the blown-up union miners' hall in Butte, Mont. It's an interesting photo--the older men all face the demolished remains of the hall, while the kids are all looking at the camera. The past versus the future--it's all right here in this photograph, and in one way, it neatly sums up the book.

There was of course violence, on both sides. But Berman doesn't dwell or focus on this aspect. The book reveals what people were doing, what they were thinking, and how they were trying to find solutions to problems while faced with the realities of an unfeeling capitalist system and the need to make a living.

The amount of material that Berman has reviewed is almost overwhelming in its scale. There's so much, in fact, that the book suffers a little from a lack of context. It becomes a huge compilation of facts and quotes and numbers, without really telling us what it all means.

But that shouldn't detract from the fact that this book is vital to understanding where we come from as residents of the New West. Radicalism is part of who we are.

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