29 October (1919): Carl Sandburg to Romain Rolland

Carl Sandburg
Carl Sandburg

In 1919, passions inflamed by the emergence of the U.S.S.R., the French author and Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland sent an appeal to the “intellectual workers of the world,” attempting, ultimately, to wrest from them a firmer—and more public—commitment to the Bolshevik cause. Among this number was Carl Sandburg; his response to Rolland is below. 

TO ROMAIN ROLLAND: 

October, 1919

Dear Sir:

You ask me to belong to something. You wish me to join a movement or party or church and subscribe to a creed and a program. It would be easy to do this. It is the line of least resistance. If I have a fixed, unchangeable creed then I am saved the trouble every day of forming a new creed dictated by the events of that day. If I have a program and a philosophy and a doctrine, crystallized in an organized movement, then the movement is supposed to do for me what I ought to do for myself. I am a socialist but not a member of the party. I am an I.W.W. but I don’t carry a red card. I am an anarchist but not a member of the organization. I belong to the modernists of the Catholic church but I have not made the sign of the cross with holy water in two decades. I am a Francis Heney Republican and a Frank P. Walsh Democrat and a Victor Murdock Progressive but I am free to vote any ticket or back any candidate I pick in the next campaign. I belong to everything and nothing.

If I must characterize the element I am most often active with I would say I am with all rebels everywhere all the time as against all people who are satisfied. I am for any and all immediate measures that will curb the insanity of any person or institution that is cursed with a thirst for more things, utilities and properties than he, she or it is able to use, occupy and employ to the advantage of the race. I am for the single tax, for all the immediate demands of the socialists, for the whole political program of the American Federation of Labor, for the political and economic measures outline in the Progressive and Democratic party platforms, and the trend of legislation and activity voiced by Woodrow Wilson in “The New Freedom,” and I believe the most important correctives and the most imperative human rights collectively attainable at this time, are given in proportionate statement in the report of the federal industrial relations commission. I am for unrest, discontent, revolt and war to whatever extent is necessary to obtain the Russian Bolshevik program which centers on the three needs: bread, peace, land. Until the earth is a free place to free men and women wanting first of all the right to work on a free earth there will be war, poverty, filth, slums, strikes, riots, and the ands of men red with the blood of other men.

I am against all laws that the people are against and I respect no decisions of courts and judges which are rejected by the people. I believe all property is sacred for which men have wrestled with the wilderness or in any way toiled with their hands or brains or suffered and exchanged their lives and years to create. I repeat that all property created by man’s labor is sacred to me and such property should be protected, invested with safeguards and an automatic machinery of production and distribution whereby and wherethrough the man who works would receive the product of his work. In other words, the institution of property should be so ordained that no man should be granted ownership and title to property for which he has not rendered an equivalent, or nearly an equivalent, of service to society. Property is so sacred to me that I want to see it only in the hands of those who are able to take it and use it and make it of the greatest service to society. I believe that in order to attain an institution of property so ordained it is not so necessary to have a specific and detailed program of measures, policies and plans as it is that the people shall be strong enough and wise enough to take what they want and use what they need.

Any steps, measures, methods or experiences that will help give the people this requisite strength and wisdom, I am for. I can not see where the people have ever won anything worth keeping and having but it cost something and I am willing to pay this cost as we go along—rather let the people suffer and be lean, sick and dirty through the blunders of democracy that to be fat, clean and happy under the efficient arrangements of autocrats, Kaisers, kings, czars, whether feudal and dynastic or financial and industrial. I can not understand how the people are going to learn except by trying and I do not know any other way to honestly conduct the experiment of democracy than to let the people have the same opportunities of self-determination that belong of right to nations small and large, the same opportunities of self-determination that are the heritage of a healthy child. In their exercise of the right of self-determination I expect the people to pass through bitter experiences and I am aware it is even possible that the people shall fail in the future as they have failed in the past. Yet I cannot see it otherwise than that we are nationally and internationally a lot of hypocrites and liars unless we have [line missing] verse of this viewpoint I would write that the reputed wise men of the books, newspapers and platforms have often been only the unwitting mouthpieces of cruel and willful masters and it is not outside of reasonable prophecy for a man to say that the people may surprise those who sneer a perpetual despair at what the people would achieve in administration of government, industry, transportation and land.

The republics of France, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have been surprises in history and though the outcome of the great war can not be envisioned in the concrete workings of the surviving nations, it is conceded that political government is an institution that must pass from the hands of feudal and dynastic autocrats. That is, the nations of the world are now getting ready to do what France and the United States did in the nineteenth century in spite of those who sneered their despair at the people. The deep but quietly passionate affection that men the world over have for France traces in degree to the fact that France as a nation has loved the people and voiced and fought for the aspirations of the people of self determination. It was a surprise of history when France overthrew the third Napoleon and established a political democracy instead of picking another crowned head. It was a surprise of history when the doubts, wranglings and conspiracies of the thirteen American colonies ended not with one more king but with a new republic. It was still another surprise when the United States fought a civil war sacrificing two million lives, the bloodiest war in history, [line missing] the majority rule of which democracy depends for life.

It was still another surprise when the wronged and betrayed people of Russia refused to hang their czar. A Polish philosopher has written that humanity consists of mob at the top of and mob at the bottom, at one extreme an ignorant, idle and incompetent leisure class, at the other extreme the vags, bums, down-and-outs, the rickety, malnourished, tubercular and anemic men, women and children of the slums. Our Polish philosopher neglected taking account of the vast section of people between these two mobs. I have a theory—with no authenticated facts to support it—that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the lower mob through a conspiracy organized by the secret diplomacy of the upper mob and therefore, the mercy of the Russian mob toward its former czar should stand as the classic instance rather than the crucifixion of Christ and the ride of humiliation on the rump of a jackass roundabout the walls of Jerusalem.

I wonder if I make myself clear in venturing to suggest that I am for reason and satire, religion and propaganda, violence and assassination, or force and syndicalism, any of them, in the extent and degree to which it will serve a purpose of the people at a given time toward the establishment eventually of the control of the means of life by the people.

 

Carl Sandburg 

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FURTHER READING

For the full text of David James Fischer’s Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), click here