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Kurt Vonnegut on the socialists who fought for workers
Celebrating socialism in the U.S.

November 2, 2001 | Page 8

KURT VONNEGUT is one of America's best-known novelists, with half a century of writings and close to 20 books to his name.

He's also earned a reputation as an opponent of war and injustice, both in his literature and as a public speaker who has participated in movements for change.

In October, Vonnegut was given the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library–and used the opportunity of his speech to discuss Sandburg's commitment to socialism.

Sandburg's poetry and essays can be found in many grade-school literary anthologies, but few people learn that he got his start as a writer as a labor and socialist journalist.

For example, in the early decades of the 20th century, Sandburg wrote regularly for the International Socialist Review, an ancestor of Socialist Worker's sister magazine of the same name.

His fiery articles took on the greed and corruption of big business, government repression and–in his commentaries on the famous evangelist Billy Sunday, for example–the way that religion was used by the powers that be to prop up their rule.

Here, with permission, Socialist Worker prints Vonnegut's acceptance speech.

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WE ARE America's Great Lakes people, her freshwater people, not an oceanic but a continental people. Whenever I swim in an ocean, I feel as though I am swimming in chicken soup.

I thank you for this honor, although it is a reminder that I am not nearly the passionate and effective artist Carl Sandburg was. And we are surely grateful for his fog, which came in on little cat feet.

But tonight seems an apt occasion as well for celebrating what he and other American socialists did during the first half of the past century, with art, with eloquence, with organizing skills, to elevate the self-respect, the dignity and political acumen of American wage earners, of our working class.

That wage earners, without social position or higher education or wealth, are of inferior intellect is surely belied by the fact that two of the most splendid writers and speakers on the deepest subjects in American history were self-taught workmen. I speak, of course, of Carl Sandburg of Illinois and Abraham Lincoln, of Kentucky, then Indiana, and finally Illinois. Both, may I say, were continental, freshwater people like ourselves.

Hooray for our team!

I know upper-class graduates of Yale University who can't talk or write worth a nickel.

"Socialism" is no more an evil word than "Christianity." Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women and children are created equal, and shalt not starve.

Adolf Hitler, incidentally, was a two-fer. He named his party the National Socialists, the Nazis. Hitler also had crosses painted on his tanks and airplanes. The swastika wasn't a pagan symbol, as so many people believe. It was a working person's Christian cross, made of axes, of tools.

About Stalin's shuttered churches, and those in China today: Such suppression of religion was supposedly justified by Karl Marx's statement that that "religion is the opium of the people." Marx said that back in 1844, when opium and opium derivatives were the only effective painkillers anyone could take. Marx himself had taken them. He was grateful for the temporary relief they had given him. He was simply noticing, and surely not condemning, the fact that religion could also be comforting to those in economic or social distress. It was a casual truism, not a dictum.

When Marx wrote those words, by the way, we hadn't even freed our slaves yet. Whom do you imagine was more pleasing in the eyes of a merciful God back then: Karl Marx or the United States of America?

Stalin was happy to take Marx's truism as a decree, and Chinese tyrants as well, since it seemingly empowered them to put preachers out of business who might speak ill of them or their goals.

The statement has also entitled many in this country to say that socialists are anti-religion, are anti-God, and therefore absolutely loathsome.

I never met Carl Sandburg, and wish I had. I would have been tongue-tied in the presence of such a national treasure. I did get to know one socialist of his generation, who was Powers Hapgood of Indianapolis. After graduating from Harvard he went to work as a coal miner, urging his working-class brothers to organize, in order to get better pay and safer working conditions. He also led protesters at the execution of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts in 1927.

We met in Indianapolis after the end of World War Two, and he had become an official in the CIO. There had been some sort of dust-up on a picket line, and he had just testified about it in court. The judge had interrupted the proceedings to ask Powers Hapgood why, with all his social and economic and educational advantages, he had chosen to lead such a life. And Powers Hapgood replied, "Why, because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir."

Another of our freshwater ancestors was Eugene Victor Debs, of Terre Haute, Indiana. A former locomotive fireman, Eugene Debs ran for president of the United States four times, the fourth time in 1920, when he was in prison. He said, "As long as there is a lower class, I'm in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I'm of it. As long as there's a soul in prison, I am not free."

Some platform. A paraphrase of the beatitudes.

And again: Hooray for our team.

And our own beloved Carl Sandburg had this to say about the fire-belching evangelist Bill Sunday:

"You come along–tearing your shirt–yelling about Jesus. I want to know what the hell you know about Jesus? Jesus had a way of talking soft, and everybody except a few bankers and higher ups among the con men of Jerusalem like to have Jesus around because he never made any fake passes, and he helped the sick and gave people hope.

"You come along calling us all damn fools–so fierce the froth of your own spit slobbers over your lips–always blabbering we're all going to hell straight off, and you know all about it. I've read Jesus' words. I know what he said. You don't throw any scare into me. I've got your number. I know how much you know about Jesus.

"You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to fix it up all right with them by giving them mansions in the skies after they're dead and the worms have eaten 'em. You tell $6 a week department store girls all they need is Jesus. You take a steel trust wop, dead without having lived, gray and shrunken at 40 years of age, and you tell him to look at Jesus on the cross and he'll be all right.

"You tell poor people they don't need any more money on pay day. And even if it's fierce to be out of a job, Jesus'll fix that all right, all right. All they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.

"Jesus played it different. The bankers and corporation lawyers of Jerusalem got their murderers to go after Jesus because Jesus wouldn't play their game. I don't want a lot of gab from a bunkshooter in my religion."

Hooray for our team.

And I now take advantage of your hospitality by declaring myself a child of the Chicago Renaissance, powerfully humanized not only by Carl Sandburg, but by Edgar Lee Masters and Jane Addams and Louis Sullivan and Lake Michigan, and on and on.

And I propose a toast to an individual who wasn't an artist or working stiff of any description. She wasn't even a human being. Ladies and gentlemen of Chicago, I give you Mrs. O'Leary's cow.

And I thank you for your attention.

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