Progressive politics, ideas & culture


Andrew Potter – sewer socialist

This Magazine Staff

On Buy Nothing Day, those kids at the Torontoist blog are showing their dedication to balance by interviewing lapsed culture jammer, Andrew Potter. It’s a great chat, so check it out.
I thought of Potter last night while I read an essay about the American socialist poet Carl Sandburg. I think Potter would like Sandburg. This Sandburg:
And then one day I got a true look at the Poor, millions
of the Poor, patient and toiling; more patient than
crags, tides, and stars; innumerable, patient as the
darkness of night – and all broken, humble ruins of nations.

– from Masses.
Andrew Potter has recently criticized the Left’s addiction to “The Big Idea”– see his short piece in the THIS Mag 40th Anniversary edition. The essence of his argument is this:
“The search for the big idea is the Achilles heel of the left. If it is to have any future as a serious political stance and as a viable electoral alternative, the left needs to ratchet down the rhetoric and the ambition, and learn to love the considerable virtues of the small idea.”
The essay on Carl Sandburg talks a lot about big and small ideas, and shows how Sandburg’s art was most effective when it stayed small. It’s in the September 29th Times Literary Supplement, which is locked away behind a subscriber wall — so, sorry no direct link today. I will, however, exercise my right under fair dealing to quote from the piece. Here’s a brief passage about Sandburg’s place in American socialism (emphasis mine):
Sandburg was the son of Swedish immigrants. He grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, volunteered for the Spanish-American war in an Illinois unit and, mostly, sat out the conflict in Puerto Rico – which made him a pretty typical recruit for the US socialist movement. After his stint as a stereopticon picture salesman, the Socialist Party offered him a job, and hired him as a Party organizer in Wisconsin. He contributed articles to the Milwaukee socialist newspapers, and became secretary to Milwaukee’s socialist mayor. In the old language of the Left, he could be described as a “right-wing” socialist, which meant an old-school European-style social democrat, cautious and plodding. More colourfully, but equally authentically, one could say that he was a “sewer socialist” – the kind of social democrat who worried more about improving municipal services than achieving a workers’ paradise.
So, small-idea socialists existed one hundred years ago. Andrew Potter is in effect pointing the North American Left back to its roots.

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