Of Revolution’s Embrace: A Review of Craig Livingston’s “From Above and Below”

Joseph M. Spencer

In 1981, Jacques Rancière published his first book, The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France. It serves nicely as an introduction to his now massive oeuvre, as he explained in 2002: The Nights of Labor “endeavored to reveal the specific nature of the intellectual revolution assumed by the emergence of working-class thought,” to outline the workers’ movement’s “transgressive will to appropriate the ‘night’ of poets and thinkers, to appropriate the language and culture of the other, to act as if intellectual equality were indeed real and effectual.” The Nights of Labor, in other words, launched a trajectory of works, all of which have together asserted that emancipation is first and foremost a question of education, of intelligence, of truths. Rancière has thus taken up a position within a quadrangle of important thinkers articulating what is being called “subtractive politics,” a radical political theory that tries to take the larger Marxist project one step further, one step beyond the more-and-more-lamented disorientation of the Left. But if Rancière’s work thus generally deserves attention, it seems to me that The Nights of Labor deserves particular attention—especially from Latter-day Saints.

In the end, The Nights of Labor is a kind of history of the workers’ movement in France, a close reading of the archival traces recording the trajectory that led from the initial Paris entanglements of the Saint-Simonians and the Fourierists to the American settlement—primarily in Nauvoo, Illinois—of the Icarians. The work deserves particular attention from Latter-day Saints for two important reasons. On the one hand, it traces a political history that is not only contemporary with but also almost constantly parallel to that of early Mormonism. On the other hand, because these two generally parallel histories eventually intertwined in the shape of the conversion of Icarian Louis Bertrand, Rancière’s study provides a philosophically—and hence, implicitly, theologically—rich exposition of how a committed French communist made a perfect convert to Mormonism in 1850. Taking these two reasons most seriously, one could in fact turn Rancière’s book into the first volume of a three-volume study of both the political and theological importance of Bertrand’s conversion: The Nights of Labor could appropriately be paired with a parallel philosophically rigorous analysis of the political trajectory of early Mormonism (up through, say, the mid-1850s), and the two paired volumes could be followed by a translation of and commentary on Louis Bertrand’s own autobiographical Mémoires d’un Mormon.

If Leonard J. Arrington’s well-known, extensive work on Mormon communitarianism—all written from the (confessedly limited) perspective of economic history—lays the basic groundwork for such a project, a 2001 dissertation by Craig Livingston may perhaps have begun to take the necessary next step toward completion. Entitled “From Above and Below: The Mormon Embrace of Revolution, 1840-1940,” Livingston’s dissertation chronicles connections between Mormonism and revolutionary politics during the century preceding World War II. Setting aside the introductory first chapter, as well as the concluding tenth chapter, Livingston’s study is essentially a composite of three detailed analyses of the relationship between Mormonism and revolutionary political history. The first of these is a thematic analysis of revolutionary rhetoric, imagery, and metaphor in the writings of Latter-day Saints in the 1840s and 1850s (chapter 2). This is followed by a much lengthier survey of Mormon attitudes toward specifically European radical politics and political events stretching from the revolutions of 1848 to World War I and the revolution of 1917 (chapters 3-5). Finally, Livingston finishes out his analysis with a history of Mormon entanglements with the Mexican revolution during the first part of the twentieth century, laying heavy emphasis on the figures of Anthony W. Ivins, Rey L. Pratt, and Melvin J. Ballard (chapters 6-9). Tracing a trail that thus stretches from Nauvoo and Liverpool to Salt Lake City and Colonia Juarez, Livingston provides a three-pronged exploration of what must, in the end, be called Mormonism’s openness to revolutionary politics.

Parts of Livingston’s dissertation have already appeared in more polished form in academic journals: in 2002, Dialogue published “Lions, Brothers, and the Idea of an Indian Nation: The Mexican Revolution in the Minds of Anthony W. Ivins and Rey L. Pratt,” and in 2005, the Journal of Mormon History published “Eyes on the Whole European World: Mormon Observers of the 1848 Revolutions.” However, it appears that these publications are only to be precursors to the publication of Livingston’s entire dissertation—carefully reworked—sometime during 2010 or 2011. The following discussion, then, while being first and foremost a review of Livingston’s dissertation, is meant also to draw attention to Livingston’s two recently published articles, as well as to serve notice about Livingston’s forthcoming book. I will take up each of what I have identified as the three parts of Livingston’s dissertation in turn.

The first—and shortest—part of Livingston’s study is unfortunately the least satisfying. Using a methodology arguably borrowed from John Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire, Livingston strings together what is ultimately a rather scattered assortment of early Mormon images, metaphors, and rhetorical tropes that might have had some connection with radical politics. Unfortunately, likely in the name of brevity, Livingston often ignores context in the references he cites, and he seldom considers other possible referents for early Mormon images and metaphors. In particular, he overlooks the possibility that much of what he catalogs may simply have come to Mormonism and nineteenth-century radicalism from the same source, most often the Bible (or the broader Christian tradition). However, though these oversights make his case less convincing, he nonetheless brings together a surprising number of convergences between Mormon discourse and that of nineteenth-century revolutionary politics. Taken not as evidence of a direct borrowing from radical politics, but as evidence that Mormonism was parallel, in its own radicalism, to nineteenth-century radical politics, Livingston’s impressive register of revolutionary rhetoric, metaphor, and imagery is quite suggestive. At the very least, it raises interesting questions about what Livingston goes on, in the other two parts of his study, to chronicle as Mormonism’s persistent openness to revolutionary politics.

Whatever deficiencies in historiographical rigor might be said to mar the first part of Livingston’s dissertation, however, disappear in the second and third parts. The second is dedicated, as mentioned above, to the period stretching from the revolutions of 1848 to World War I and the Russian revolution. Here Livingston employs a historical methodology quite distinct from that employed in the first part of his study. Leaving off catalogs of intriguing but often passing references to what seem to be revolutionary themes, Livingston takes up the task of working carefully through more extended articles and discourses published and presented by Latter-day Saints during the period in question. His primary focus, not unsurprisingly, is on the Liverpool office of the Millennial Star, the Church’s official periodical in England during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries. But he often ventures from the privileged center of nineteenth-century European Mormonism, dealing as much with other European figures like Louis Bertrand as with the distant Saints in the Salt Lake Valley. (Louis Bertrand had been, before his conversion to Mormonism, not only an Icarian, but the political editor for Etienne Cabet’s newspaper, Le Populair. Heavily oriented by Hegel’s philosophy, Bertrand went on to write Mémoires d’un Mormon, which was in part a Mormon re-reading of French radical theory.) Positioning Bertrand’s obviously central work in a narrative that reveals surprising similarities of opinion between figures like Charles W. Nibley and B. H. Roberts, Livingston shows a Mormonism that was not only unquestionably attuned to the political atmosphere in Europe, but deeply interested in and supportive of France’s several revolutions (1789, 1848, and 1871).

However, not unsurprisingly, Livingston sees the second half of the nineteenth century as a period of decline, for Mormons, in interest in things revolutionary. As he tells the story, interest in and attunement to the revolutionary spirit comes more and more to be limited to those located specifically in Europe, those most interested in international politics, and those most apocalyptic in character. Livingston is, of course, quick to assert that a kind of latent Mormon radicalism made itself known during the most heated periods of conflict between the Saints and the United States. But, ironically, Livingston is equally quick to point out that a marked decrease in interest in international revolutionary movements inevitably coupled itself with the increase of local revolutionary fervor. But if the pattern was thus always for Mormonism to move further and further away from what Livingston sees as its revolutionary or radical origins, Mormonism seems nonetheless not to have lost its implicit—and perhaps structurally unavoidable—openness to radical politics on the broader scale.

With the third part of his dissertation, Livingston employs yet another historical methodology, leaving off broad narratives for close, sustained analyses of just a few figures. In part, this change in methodology seems—like the change from the first to the second parts of the study—to have been a consequence of the further distancing of Mormonism from its original revolutionary fervor. Finding himself, after the almost systematic institutionalization of the Church during the first years of the twentieth century, with only a few characters heavily interested or invested in revolutionary politics, Livingston can only look carefully at what he essentially regards as a few revolutionary holdouts. Because of the shift, after 1917, of the center of revolutionary action from Europe to the Americas, the third part of Livingston’s dissertation is a history of the curious entanglements between Mormonism and the Mexican revolution (and, in passing, other early twentieth-century New World revolutions).

Here, in my opinion, Livingston is at his best. Whether because he assumes less familiarity on the part of his reader with the political history of Mexico than with that of France, or whether because he employs such a distinct historiographical methodology, this third part of his dissertation is much more of an informative history of the Mexican revolution, intertwined with a careful, detailed reconstruction of the involvement of just a few Latter-day Saints. Anthony W. Ivins, Rey L. Pratt, and Melvin J. Ballard are all examined, their increasing (and, at times, decreasing) interest in Latin radical politics are traced in all their contours, and a picture of the vital importance of the Church being cognizant of radical politics in the countries to which it proselytizes is painted. (Ivins became an apostle in 1907 and a member of the First Presidency in 1921; Pratt served as president over the Mexican mission from 1907 until his death in 1931 and was a member of the First Council of Seventy from 1925; and Ballard became an apostle in 1919. All three figures were given assignments in Mexico or South America and so became heavily involved in Latin American politics—Ivins in particular with Pancho Villa’s militant work in Northern Mexico; and Pratt in particular with the Zapatistas in Southern Mexico; Ballard was more distant from actual political action. As Livingston summarizes the work of Ivins and Pratt specifically, when they found themselves entangled in the rise and swell of Mexican revolutionary action, they “selectively drew from the left and center of the American ideological spectrum while adding their own conviction: the belief that revolutionary action would redeem the Indians from their subservience and allow them to fulfill their destiny as a blessed remnant of the House of Israel.”) Here—perhaps because he is writing of a Mormonism that had already begun to move beyond its nineteenth-century parochialism, or perhaps because his main characters embrace revolutionary politics after the “modernization” and institutionalization of the Church, or perhaps again because of the pressing political situation that still obtains today in Latin America—Livingston presents a story that seems drastically more relevant to contemporary concerns than does the rest of his dissertation. His story of Mormon involvement in revolutionary politics between the two world wars is the story of a few remarkably committed Mormons (all, importantly, leaders in the Church) who, regardless of the rising conservatism (and liberalism) of Latter-day Saints generally, saw reason to support revolutionary endeavors, often employing uniquely Mormon scripture to justify their support.

But Livingston’s story stops short with the dawn of World War II. As he argues in his conclusion, this is because World War II marked a sharp transition point in Mormonism. As he describes it: “Stripped of historical context, the new Mormon orthodoxy stressed past achievements over an unfinished future.” It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the first, hesitating steps of the “new Mormon history”—which would quickly come to dominate Mormon intellectualism for decades—were taken during the years precisely in which World War II was raging: Fawn Brodie’s research during those years would be published in 1946 in the shape of No Man Knows My History. With the publication of and response to that book, the shift to a Mormonism focused on the past instead of the future—both on the “liberal” and on the “conservative” front, as much heterodox as orthodox—was arguably complete.

Thus for Livingston, as for most academic historians of Mormonism, the first years of the twentieth century are a marked era of assimilationism, this side of which there is relatively little to commend. This capitulation on Livingston’s part to what unfortunately remains one of the grandest myths of Mormon history is regrettable, not because it reflects unsound scholarship, but because, by claiming that the tradition of Mormon engagement in revolutionary politics came to a more or less definitive end, it suggests that an either/or confronts the Latter-day Saint interested in radical politics: either Mormon or revolutionary. In reality—as, for example, The Mormon Worker makes clear—that dichotomy is patently false. Perpetuation of that myth—whether it is promoted by either “liberals” or “conservatives”—is unproductive at every level. One thus hopes that Livingston’s forthcoming book will mend this one major flaw in his dissertation, opening—rather than closing—the question of continued Mormon engagement in revolutionary politics.

However Livingston ultimately constructs the overarching narrative he has to tell, his dissertation, articles, and forthcoming book bring together a good deal of helpful material. Paired with Arrington’s work on the history of Mormon economic enterprises, Livingston’s research provides a kind of timeline of important figures in and facets of Mormon history, each of which ought to be explored in greater depth, and particularly with the theoretical rigor necessary to draw implications for the relationship between Mormonism and politics today. In the meanwhile, the Latter-day Saint with radical commitments—or even leanings—would do well to keep an eye on Livingston’s work.