Marxist Utahpia | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Marxist Utahpia 

And you thought it was dead. Marxism is alive and well at the University of Utah.

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When Al Campbell was drafted, he couldn’t afford the one-way trip to Canada. Instead, he told the Army he was a Marxist and that he would continue to actively organize opposition to the Vietnam War. He wasn’t lying, but they took him anyway, and taught him how to repair chemical-weapon equipment. Not a bad skill to have, especially if the revolution gets nasty.

“I can repair flamethrowers, repair gas masks, I can make napalm. In basic training, I took the marksmanship test and did very well,” he says. “I used to always joke about it, and tell the officers, ‘You guys are doing a great job training me—these skills may be useful later on.’”

He didn’t learn to sew in the Army. That came after the war, when Campbell moved to Boston and got a job making women’s clothes in a garment factory. He wasn’t there out of love of brassieres and blouses—he was there to organize, to spread the word according to Marx and to find some believers to join him in the workers’ paradise. His two years there were peaceful—no napalm was used, not even when his bosses talked about canning him—but pretty ineffective. His co-workers were upset about the war in Nicaragua and about Ronald Reagan’s lies, but hell, it’s hard to say you want a revolution when you’ve got mouths to feed.

Hans Ehrbar can relate. He spent seven or eight years—he can’t quite remember—trying his damnedest to first not get knocked upside the head and, second, to help organize his auto assembly-line co-workers. They weren’t interested, and plus, they were too busy making sure the German dude with a Ph.D. in math survived the Dodge plant and the streets of Detroit.

“I wasn’t a very effective organizer. Maybe I shouldn’t have done it for so long,” he says. “I couldn’t lead those people—they were too busy looking out for me.”

Mehmet Civelek’s hands aren’t callused like Ehrbar’s. He hasn’t worked in an auto factory yet, nor has he had the opportunity to discuss the finer points of the socialist utopia while stitching a skirt.

He’s only 23, young and somewhat naïve by his own admission, and he’s been busy learning from the two failed labor organizers, who now teach at the University of Utah. With the help of the professors in the school’s economics department, Civelek is trying to stuff as much information inside his head as possible and lug it home to Turkey. When he returns to Turkey for good, he plans to unleash that knowledge like good-natured napalm.

In 10 years, when you read about the socialist revolution in Turkey, you might have Campbell, Ehrbar and Civelek to thank—as well as the University of Utah economics department.

School Colors

Red is not just a school color in the U’s econ department, although any talk of vibrant hues seems inappropriate in the drab hallways of the Kendall Garff Building. Tucked away in a building named after a car salesman are the offices of some of the most prominent and important Marxist economics scholars in the country, if not the world. There, in offices that are crammed full of weighty books containing even weightier ideas, professors like Ehrbar and E.K. Hunt draw paychecks by critiquing capitalism and condemning the status quo. Their work isn’t always popular.

“You can tell if the stuff you’re doing is liked or not,” Ehrbar says. “A past president of this university, who will remain nameless, wished he could fire everyone in the economics department and start new. They’re still trying to starve us, to slowly turn off the money faucet. We have a Ph.D. program that’s really good and there’s a demand for it, but we can only fund about half the students who come here.”

Civelek’s one of the lucky ones—he’s got a little help from the university, as well as emotional support from political connections back home. He didn’t grow up in Turkey dreaming about attending the University of Utah—most kids in Utah don’t even do that—but when it came time to pursue his interest in Marxism, there was only one school worth applying to.

How the economics department within a relatively conservative public school in an overwhelmingly conservative state developed an international reputation for Marxist thought and revolutionary theories is a miracle on a scale of the crickets and the seagulls.

The U’s tango with Karl Marx started at about the time pinko commie bastards worldwide were staring at the wrong end of nuclear warheads. The LDS Church decided after World War II to loosen its control on the university—mostly due to money. This is an economics story, after all. Thinking the state would attract more white-collar workers with a more prestigious university, the church backed off and started seriously talking about academic freedom.

During this relaxation, the school was successful in landing prominent geologists, chemists, physicists, anthropologists and engineers, but attracting social scientists proved to be a harder sale. So hard, in fact, that the school shrugged its shoulders when a group of unconventional professors from Berkeley was hired by the economics department.

They were big names, but in the midst of a Cold War, few schools were willing to hand the chalk over to left-leaning Keynesians, who advocate a strong government presence in the regulation of the economy, and other assorted perceived lunatics. Except Utah—we love lunatics out here, especially if it thickens the state’s wallet.

“The U’s department has been different from the beginning. It was an usual department in the 1950s,” says Korkut Erturk, the department chair. “People came here from Berkeley and set the tone of the place for decades to come, and they weren’t mainstream by any means. They weren’t just Marxists.”

These “out-there” professors eventually reproduced a new batch of red-diaper babies to take their place—guys like Ehrbar, Erturk and Campbell. The miracle is that university administrators, perhaps constrained by academic freedom, haven’t yet skulked down those dimly lighted hallways in the Garff Building to demand a more “practical” approach to teaching economics.

“We’re different here,” Ehrbar says. “We haven’t been drifting as much [as other economics departments]. You can kind of tell we are alone because when we try to hire someone, it’s very difficult.”

Difficult because Marxism is about as sexy now as those blouses Campbell was sewing back in the ’80s. Nobody’s doing it anymore. It’s no coincidence that the econ department’s main office is in the Business Building’s classroom wing—the only surprise is that the department still isn’t interested or pressured into churning out tomorrow’s venture capitalists.

“I figured the department would be dominated by business interests and crapping out students for business,” says Mathew Bradbury, an econ undergraduate. “I was glad to see a department that was really devoted to serious academic interests. Given the way Marxism and socialism are characterized, I was very surprised to find a Marxist department embedded in this conservative community. Who would have thought the theocracy would allow it?”

Sacrificing for a belief

“Allow” is a good word. So is “tolerate.” That’s about the length of the university’s leash, even though the school benefits by filling a need for non-traditional, heterodox economics that isn’t met elsewhere.

“This is one of the few places that does” take a heterodox approach, Erturk says. “It definitely puts us on the map.”

While the university administration leaves the professors alone, don’t expect any May Day parades over in Presidents’ Circle—or too many thanks sent the department’s way.

“I wish the university administration would know how lucky they are that they have such a good economics department,” Ehrbar says. “We have some very good people here.”

Teaching is usually a thankless job, but even more so when your bookshelf is crammed full of Marxist tomes. It’s not easy being red, not even if undergrads in Turkey, Ethiopia and Taiwan dream about studying at your feet, not even when you type in “Marx’s Capital” on and see your name at the top of the list.

“How many promotions you get and what salary you can get is largely determined by publishing in journals,” Campbell says. “The journals in the United States are overwhelmingly conservative in economics. If you choose to take a mainstream approach, you will find it easier to publish, especially in more prestigious journals, and you’ll get promoted much faster. You always have to decide how often you’re going to be up-front about your Marxist viewpoints.”

Norm Waitzman, a comparatively mainstream professor within the department, disagrees slightly. He says the department has gone to great lengths to approve all kinds of journals, maximizing opportunities for professors of all persuasions to publish. However, he does agree Marxists have it tougher.

“It’s absolutely harder to get a teaching job, no doubt about it,” he says. “[But] anything you do in your life, you’re giving up something else. There’s a potential cost to things you do and it’s true that any time you engage in a serious pursuit, there will be sacrifices.”

Like having trouble finding work, like finding out one of your college buddies was really a government informant. Campbell had both. He got involved with the socialist movement while he attended Brown University in the late ’60s. He worked on a political campaign (for a Republican, no less) as an undergraduate and got a sour taste of democracy. Thinking there had to be a better way than political machines and controlling votes with dollars, he looked for alternatives. He was drawn to Marxism because of its “solid humanism.”

“At the center of Marxism is a belief that human beings can be much more than they are right now,” he says, “and that we have these potentials that aren’t being fulfilled because of the system.”

Hoping to change the capitalist system, which he believes reinforces “greed, selfishness, human disconnection and alienation,” Campbell got involved with a radical group and became one of the central figures. Another key player was the informant.

“The system doesn’t like people who work for change,” Campbell says. “I’ve definitely paid a price for it—academic advancement, salary range, harassed by the Army brass for two years, that’s the sort of thing. Other people pay a lot higher price.”

Ehrbar wanted to know if somebody had been watching him, too, so he filed a request, under the Freedom of Information Act, to see his FBI file. He didn’t have one.

“I was pretty disappointed,” he says.

Disappointment and frustration is something you learn to deal with after fighting for something that probably won’t come to fruition in your lifetime.

“Frustration—you live with it if you’re an activist,” he says.

And then there is that lingering fear that someday it might not be so quaint to hang a Marxist poster on your office wall. The fear increases with every attempt by John Ashcroft to invade civil liberties, with every step closer to routine government-sanctioned surveillance.

“They are getting equipped to really crack down and get information on people,” Ehrbar says.

He adds that he’s planning to become more outwardly active. “I’m becoming an old socialist and I feel like going all out.” His increased activism coupled with the political climate of the United States is something that concerns his 28-year-old daughter.

“The first thing my daughter said was ‘Don’t end up in prison.’”

Civelek says his family in Turkey fears he’ll be arrested some day. If the government “knows you’re a Marxist, there can be troubles,” he says. “Many people have reasons to be afraid but I’m not because I believe my thoughts are solutions to problems all over the world.”

Civelek has been actively fighting for change in his homeland since he was 14. He’s risen quickly in political circles, and in between his undergraduate studies in industrial engineering, he served in a delegation that advocated change of U.S. foreign policy.

“Everything starts with politics,” Civelek says, adding that after he graduates from the U he’ll go into Turkish politics. “I don’t think we could change problems just by declaring ourselves to be Marxists.”

He has actively protested against the Turkish government, the International Monetary Fund and the United States—specifically, against its foreign policies and how it affects Turks. He has to be creative on government forms. He has not been arrested.

Classroom Fights

Mark Price is locked up—in his office in the basement of the Business Building. He’s nearing the end of his Ph.D. program, and between studying and grading final exams, he has been busy sending out job applications. He’s not a Marxist, but he still takes a leftist, heterodox approach to economics. It’s a tough job market, especially when that economics diploma bears the seal of the University of Utah. He’s about to find out first-hand what Campbell and Ehrbar have been talking about since he started his program in 1998.

“The way it works is a particular department will advertise for somebody who does work in labor economics,” Price says. “Their main concern [about U graduates] is, ‘Does this person know mainstream thought as well as heterodox thought?’ As long as you can demonstrate you have the skills on both sides, you’re OK.”

That’s one reason Price has rarely emerged from his water-damaged office. Knowing its graduates are facing certain perceptions, the economics department makes the grad students work twice as hard.

“The advantage of the graduate program is they expect us to know mainstream thought and heterodox thought,” Price says. “You get double the work.”

And sometimes, you get twice as many headaches from the undergraduate students. It’s hardly surprising that not everybody in the economics department wants to cuddle up with Marx’s hoary beard. Even much of the faculty bristle at the department’s characterization as Marxist, and most point out that the only true description is “heterodox.” Many of the undergrads, born and bred in places like Sandy, don’t want a revolution, and don’t really want to learn about why one is impending.

Ryan Sorensen had heard rumors that the econ department at the U was crawling with commies. That didn’t stop him, however, from transferring to the school from Salt Lake Community College.

“It’s really not that bad until you get into the upper-division theory classes,” he says, “where there are discussions on philosophers and who’s better. That’s when it really comes out.”

In-class arguments seem to be as much a feature in the economics department as the ubiquitous May Day posters hanging on the back wall of the main office.

“We have people for and against Marxism,” Ehrbar says. “Of course, there are people who are opposed to Marxism and try to argue. There are always others who refute the argument. People teach each other.”

Sorensen says most of the faculty does embrace a back-and-forth exchange. But sometimes, there are little things that make him shake his head.

“We have a History of Economic Doctrines textbook written by E.K. Hunt and he’s one of the top three experts on Karl Marx,” Sorensen says. “You read through the textbook and it’s very obvious—there are about 25 economists he talks about and all of the ones that are pro-capitalism are critiqued. … In every single chapter about the Marxists, you don’t find anything negative about them.”

Annoyances aside, Sorensen feels like he’s getting just as good an education at the U as anywhere else, and isn’t bothered enough by some of his professors’ ideas to transfer. Besides, he feels those in-class arguments and differences of opinion add to what could otherwise be a very boring, very dismal science.

“It would seem counter-productive if everything you were taught at the university mimicked the predominant culture,” he says. “I think the best approach is to take all the different views and use their stronger points.”

That’s exactly what the econ department hopes to do with its undergraduate students, says Erturk.

“We want to make sure they look at [heterodox approaches] as one way of looking at economics but not necessarily the best way,” he says.

Undergrads, says Waitzman, “are not going to be at any detriment compared to graduates from any other school.” In fact, he adds, if they’ve taken a broad course load, “they’re going to be able to enrich a discussion that somebody else might not be able to do.”

Of course, nobody’s getting rich by enriching discussions.

The Inevitable Revolution?

Civelek could make a lot of money as an engineer. It comes easy to him, and he laughs at Americans’ difficulties in math. But going back to Turkey and working a 9-to-5 job just doesn’t seem right. And so at 23 years old, Civelek is dedicated to the cause, which brought him under the tutelage of University of Utah professors.

He’s learning a lot just from sitting in on Ehrbar’s classes. He hopes to implement the theory and turn Turkey into a better place.

“I’m hopeful to change the wrongs. Who knows, maybe I’m too young,” he says. “My family says all the time, ‘You’re too young.’ They have this saying that if you’re not a socialist when you’re 20, you don’t have heart, but if you’re a socialist when you’re 40, you don’t have brains.”

Campbell has heard similar anecdotes, and even offers one of his own: “It’s stupid not to be selfish—you end up with less money, less food.” His office door is covered in political cartoons, a newsprint shrine to the tragic comedy that is capitalism. Crowded by all the hypocrisy pointed out in the cartoons are several printed quotations that express hope for a better world. When Campbell closes the door behind him and walks into his classroom, he brings a little bit of that optimism along.

“I see some big changes about to happen,” he says. One of them is an eventual Marxist revolution, which Campbell says will be brought about by the dominance of the world’s most famous democratic nation.

“We had for 30 or 40 years a balance between the United States and the Soviet Union that kept things from changing. But now, the U.S. has become the dominant power. History has shown that whenever a dominant power emerges, whether it’s Britain or Rome, that dominant power starts to do things that cause everybody to react to them,” Campbell says. “The people who don’t have power aren’t going to accept it forever.”

Ehrbar, too, is hopeful change is on the way. Both he and Campbell point to low minimum wages, racial and gender discrimination, impending war with Iraq and a smog-choked environment as potential battlegrounds. And leading the charge for revolution might be none other than George W. Bush.

“I think Bush is helping organize people for us,” Ehrbar says. “He’s polarizing things for us, and giving people hope. In the last couple of years, since Bush came into power, a lot of things have been put in motion. The people who were hibernating and were resigned to sit out came out of the hills and are doing things again. I’m optimistic. Things are happening, even right here in Salt Lake City, of all places.”

Campbell says the seeds of the revolution have been planted by the capitalists, and that individual decision-making will be going the way of hot pants.

“I think [the revolution] can happen and I think it will happen. This society right now, it rests so much on everybody doing their own individual thing. But we’ve created too many problems that can only solve themselves with collective decisions, which will help us move to a collective society,” he says. “People will have to eventually make some decisions collectively on the environment and the population problem.”

Campbell and Ehrbar are trying to do their part. They might not be working side-by-side with the proletariat, or walking the fine line between getting fired and court martialed or not, but they’re still on the front lines of a movement once thought dead.

“For society to change, two things have to happen. First, you have to be aware of what the problems are, and then you have to have a belief that you can actually change it,” Campbell says. “Me teaching here is a piece of that. I happen to be in academics and that’s one place to get out ideas. People outside of academics have great ideas too. We’re all working to try to convince people that a better world is possible.”

Some of Campbell’s audience is listening. Same with Ehrbar’s. Bradbury, the undergrad surprised with the department’s heterodox tendencies, believes.

“I’m afraid it’s inevitable,” he says, of the revolution. “It may not happen in the same way Marx said it would happen, but it’s going to happen.”

Time will tell, of course.

Something that doesn’t need the benefit of time, however, is the immediate impact the University of Utah’s economics department has had on impressionable young people like Mehmet Civelek. He’s spending his winter break in Turkey, and in between visits with his family and Besiktas soccer matches, he’s going to sit down with his political associates and fill them in on the education he’s getting in Utah. He’ll probably share something a little like this: “I want a revolution. The production of the market needs to be changed. The current system is a false consciousness of the people and it needs to be flipped upside down.”

And when his vacation is over, he’ll return to the U to learn some more from the former flamethrower repairman and the failed labor organizer.

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Shane McCammon

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