I’ve been reading a biography of the celebrated American poet Carl Sandburg—winner of two Pulitzers for his verse and another for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. I hadn’t realized that Sandburg was a committed Socialist, who stumped and campaigned tirelessly for the party in the presidential elections of 1908.
According to his biographer Penelope Niven, there were over 3,000 socialist organizations in the United States at that time. The Communist Party wouldn’t be founded for another decade. Instead, socialists comprised an enormous range of working Americans whose labor was undervalued by the system, from tenant farmers in Oklahoma to miners in the coal fields of Pennsylvania to sweatshop seamstresses in New York.
Sandburg was one of them, his father a Swedish immigrant who toiled ceaselessly and saved unsparingly but steadily lost ground—particularly after a home he purchased turned out to have a hidden lien, hitting him heavily with unexpected debt.
Before turning to poetry, his son Carl turned out political tracts hoping to convince readers that wealth and poverty were both social creations—neither the achievement of independent entrepreneurs nor shiftless shirkers but rather results of impersonal economic forces. A series titled “Letters to Bill” that he wrote were epistles addressed to an imaginary manual laborer:
Do you see, Bill, how your interests and mine and everybody else’s are all tangled up and woven in with each other? Do you see how society, all of us together, produced Rockefeller, Thaw, and the one-legged man on the corner selling pencils? A modern locomotive of the latest model is said to represent ideas contributed by more than eleven thousand men …
Yet just a handful profited from owning the railroads, which ought to serve the interests of all.
Sandburg’s own convictions were expressed in the words of another fictional character he created, a white-haired old man in a country village:
I have been reading history and science for forty years and from all that I have studied as to how nations are born and grow and then die, it seems to me that just as soon as a nation gets to the point where a small part of the people are rich and a large part of the people are poor—then that nation is starting to die, the death of it is beginning.
What would Sandburg’s sentiments be today, when the gulf between rich and poor has reached an extreme not seen since the 1920s? Sandburg never lost his faith in the capacity of the masses of people to eventually arise and organize on their own behalf, as expressed in his famous poem "The People, Yes!"
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback …
Men like Sandburg make me think that socialism is just another word for democracy, which should include not only popular government, but an economy of the people, by the people, and for the people ... not for a monied few.