The April 2017 issue of the Swedish-American Historical Quarterly has published a chapter from my recent book, Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics.
The chapter, “Radicals in exile,” is about some of the thousands of radical and blacklisted Swedes, who left their home country and settled in Minnesota, where they continued their political and union activities as members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the socialist and communist parties of America, seeking to improve the lives of working men and women in their new home country.
It’s not a widely known story of the Swedish immigration to the United States, but it is an important part of how these Swedes and other Scandinavians became involved in and shaped U.S. and, particularly, Minnesota politics.
“Radicals in Exile”
by KLAS BERGMAN
“My grandfather never mellowed. He used to say to me, ‘to be radical is to get to the bottom of things.’ ” Brad Engdahl, a successful lawyer in Minneapolis, remembers with fondness his grandfather Walfrid Engdahl, who was twenty years old when he arrived in Minnesota in 1910 after being blacklisted and forced to leave Sweden following the General Strike of 1909. Born in Ellenö in western Sweden’s Dalsland province not far from the Norwegian border on March 5, 1890, Walfrid Engdahl was almost ninety when he died in Minneapolis on January 29, 1979.
Engdahl was among the Scandinavian immigrants who came to America in the second big migration wave after the turn of the twentieth century. They often came alone, looking for work and settling in America’s cities. Many of them, like Engdahl, had been active in the battles for political and union rights in their home countries and were forced to emigrate for political reasons. They were, in a sense, radicals in exile in America, in a country that, it would turn out, had little appetite for their brand of politics. Like so many other immigrants, Engdahl made his way in the new country by doing odd jobs, working the railroads all over the West and Canada and eventually becoming a carpenter. He was for almost sixty years active in the labor movement, both as an organizer and a writer. He joined mainstream politics in Minnesota and held several positions in the state government before retiring in 1955. He became a leading voice in Swedish American organizations and a prominent pen in the Swedish American press. He left a mark.
These radicals in exile, these political firebrands, came from all over Scandinavia. Their newspapers tell their stories: Norwegian Gaa Paa (Forward) in Minneapolis; Finnish Työmies (the Worker), Sosialisti, and Industrialisti on Minnesota’s Iron Range; and Swedish Forskaren (the Investigator) and Allarm in Minneapolis. There were also radical papers in English: New Times came out in Minneapolis between 1910 and 1918 and was closely allied with the Minnesota Socialist Party and socialist mayor Thomas Van Lear, and Truth, started by Scandinavian socialists and published in Duluth between 1917 and 1923, was militantly socialist and a strong supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Two Harbors Socialist, published in the small North Shore town, was run for years by Swedish and Norwegian socialists.
The records of these radical Scandinavian immigrants are often limited. Some died unknown in the new country; some returned or were deported to Scandinavia, where they often continued their political and union activities. Some remained radical all their lives, while others joined the political mainstream and ran for political office as members of the Farmer-Labor Party or its successor, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL). Walfrid Engdahl’s story is well documented and gives a good picture of the life of one of Minnesota’s many radical Swedish immigrants through his unpublished and unfinished memoir, “My Life,” and through lengthy interviews in English and Swedish for two oral history projects.
Walfrid Engdahl’s father was a skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker and also cultivated a small piece of land. His mother, a midwife, was an avid reader of religious books but could not write. Walfrid had five siblings, including his twin sister, Ellen, who, he writes in his memoir, was the perfect playmate. She died just four months before he finally made it back to Sweden in 1966 for the first visit since leaving for America fifty-six years earlier. “That is something I regret, very, very much,” he adds.
He left school at thirteen and landed a job as a bricklayer’s assistant at a local hospital construction project. It paid “good money,” six to eight Swedish crowns a day, about a dollar, most of which he gave to his parents so that his father could build a new home. The bricklayer Walfrid worked for was a man named Jonas Larsson, who had worked as a miner in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and been active in the radical Western Federation of Miners. Larsson fled to Sweden after the union members were rounded up following the murder of Governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905. Larsson, Engdahl writes, was one of the finest men he had ever met. He once gave him the book Merrie England by Robert Blatchford, a British socialist and journalist: “From then on I dedicated my life to socialism and to the workers. To me, no cause could be more worthy of one’s dedication and efforts than to make the world a better place for all of us.”
At fifteen, Engdahl moved to Stockholm, where he became a member of Stockholms Norra, a social democratic youth club founded in 1892. By 1902, it had 130 members, many of whom would later find their way to America, where they continued their political and union activism. That same year, these young socialists participated vigorously in the big political strike for the right to vote, which Swedish men did not achieve until 1909 and Swedish women not until 1921.
Politics was often discussed at work. Henrik “Hinke” Bergegren and Hjalmar Branting were the two leading social democrats of the time. Branting’s speeches were “genuine” road maps for how the “working class would win its socialist society,” writes Engdahl. Meanwhile, Bergegren “wanted revolution in a bold, open way,” arguing that politics could never establish a socialist society and that only a general strike could destroy the capitalist system. He favored a more revolutionary approach over the parliamentary strategy pursued by Branting, who later became Sweden’s first Social Democratic prime minister. In 1908, Bergegren was expelled at the party congress.
The 1909 General Strike in Sweden was a turning point for Walfrid Engdahl and for thousands of other Swedish workers. The conflict was both a workers’ strike and a massive lockout by employers. It lasted for more than three months and involved a total of three hundred thousand workers. The conflict led to 11.8 million lost days of work and losses of 25 million Swedish crowns. “It changed my whole career,” writes Engdahl in “My Life.” Anyone who took part in the General Strike of 1909 was assumed to have radical ideas and was blacklisted. As an activist in the syndicalist movement in Sweden, Engdahl was blacklisted, and he went home to work for his father until, “I shall never forget that day, when my father told me that I had to leave Sweden because of my activities in the strike of 1909 and my involvement in the radical labor movement in general,” writes Engdahl. His father told him that the bank had refused him a loan for the construction of the community-owned poorhouse because Walfrid was on his payroll. He suggested that his son leave for America; he would lend him the money for the trip. “I did not have ‘America fever,’” Engdahl later said in his 1978 interview with Lennart Setterdahl. “I would have preferred to stay in Sweden. But there were no jobs.”
Engdahl left Sweden for America just as he turned twenty, arriving at Ellis Island in New York on April 1, 1910, one of thousands of blacklisted Swedish workers forced into exile during this period. Accord- ing to official statistics, Swedish emigration jumped to almost 22,000 people in 1909 from 12,499 the previous year. The numbers were particularly high during the last months of 1909, after the General Strike. In December that year, the number of people leaving Sweden was three times as high as in December 1907. In 1910, the numbers climbed even higher, reaching almost 28,000.
During the General Strike, a total of eight hundred young socialists were criminally charged and five hundred were handed sentences ranging from fines to prison terms for giving speeches, insulting the monarchy, or trying to organize. Workers were persecuted at their jobs; many were fired and evicted from their homes. An estimated twenty thousand Swedish workers left for North America because the employers’ blacklists made it impossible to find work. Once in America, many of these men continued to be active in politics and in the unions. They often joined organizations and clubs most similar to the ones they had left behind. The social democrats went to the Scandinavian Socialist Labor Federa- tion, part of the Socialist Party, and to the identically named Scandina- vian Socialist Labor Federation, a wing of the Socialist Labor Party. The young socialists and the syndicalists formed a Scandinavian section of the syndicalist/anarchist Industrial Workers of the World in the United States. The anarchists also gathered around a Chicago monthly called Revolt. Many joined temperance groups, such as Verdandi. Temperance was an important part of their identity, as it was for Engdahl—a lifelong temperance man.
The period following the 1909 General Strike was not the first time Swedish workers left for America after a labor conflict, although never before in such large numbers. In fact, these were years of extraordinary labor unrest, with some three thousand labor conflicts from 1879 to 1909. The Sundsvall strike of 1879 was the first big strike among industrial workers in Sweden. It was followed by the Norberg strike of 1891–92, and the Ljusne conflict in 1905–06. All of them ended in defeats for the workers, and all of them triggered a dramatic increase in emigration to the United States. In the Sundsvall strike around five thousand workers from twenty sawmills participated. The strike was broken up by the military, and work resumed under conditions set by the employers. Isidor Kjellberg, editor of the daily Östgöten, wrote after a visit to the Sundsvall area: “If any plan for the future can be called common there, it is that of leaving, the sooner the better, the present home for America, where many fellow workers—some say 2,000 counting wives and children— have already moved after the breaking of the strike. America is the thought for the day and the dream of the night.” The Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter wrote: “It is terribly sad for the stranger to come into contact with a whole population that has given up all hope and only wants to leave the country. All thoughts are concentrated on America and how they are to find the means to travel there.”
Emigration numbers from the Sundsvall area during these years confirm that story. While six people emigrated in 1876 and only two in 1878, 264 people left for America in the strike year 1879, followed by 286, 330, 251, and 110 over the next four years. The events of 1879 “tended to destroy the hope of reaching a better position in the near future and induced them [workers] to carry out their plans to emigrate,” and because of disappointment and frustration that better working and living conditions could not be attained, “the labor disputes in Sweden had a direct bearing on emigration to America.” Swedish historian Fred Nilson writes that to emigrate became a choice between eating in America or starving in Sweden: “Emigration became for many in the working class an emergency solution to acute difficulties to survive that often resulted from the employers’ blacklisting.”
The Norberg strike of 1891–92 was actually three strikes in quick succession, with the last as the biggest, involving eight hundred to nine hundred iron mine workers. It lasted almost six months and hinged on demands from the workers for the right to participate in wage negotia- tions. The union was crushed and lay dormant for fifteen years, and none of the strike leaders could get a job afterward. In 1892, eighty people left for America and another forty-two in the first half of 1893. Several of the strike and union leaders were among those who left. In the Ljusne conflict of 1905–06, all political and union activities were prohibited and the right to organize was the core issue. Eventually, in 1906, out of a total labor force of twelve hundred, 105 people left for America, including forty-six members of the Young Social Democrats’ Association, again pointing to “a clear connection between socialist political activity and emigration.”
The General Strike of 1909 was the first nationwide labor conflict in modern Sweden, and the country came to a standstill. The conflict ended in a victory for the employers, as the strike funds for the workers dried up in spite of generous financial support from, among others, Scandinavian workers’ organizations in America. The workers in Sweden had “experienced the tensions and the repressions of expanding industrial capitalism already before leaving for America,” and so when they arrived in the new country, the “confrontation with industrial America was no shock to them.” On the contrary, many of them “were well prepared to take part in the struggle of the American working class.”
Engdahl, once in Minneapolis, wasted no time in rejoining the labor movement. He was equipped with the addresses of the American Federation of Labor Carpenters Union Local 7, founded in 1892 by a group of Swedish socialists, and the local branch of the IWW. He knew no English, but the secretary of the union was a Swede, and with his help, Engdahl started working immediately. His first job was to help build the first hospital unit at the University of Minnesota. Work took him to the Dakotas, Montana, Washington State, and British Columbia.
These first years did not seem to be particularly happy ones, judging from Engdahl’s three letters to Hinke Bergegren, the radical Swedish socialist. The elegantly penned letters were written after Bergegren was expelled from the Social Democratic Party. Engdahl laments the fact that Bergegren had resigned as editor of the young socialists’ paper Brand (Fire)—“our beloved newspaper”: “I left Sweden almost a year ago and all my friends were almost convinced that here we would forget our socialist, or, rather, anarchist, outlook. You do not need to do that. If you start to stir in the American society it is more and more likened with a dung heap, and a rotten one at that. . . . The big and beautiful idea of syndicalism is much misunderstood here. . . . But, the day will come when our revolution will appear and step forth just as thunderous and mighty as we have dreamed of.” He thanks Bergegren for fighting for his ideas, which “also are mine,” and adds, “we will never forget you.”
A new job at the Swedish-language paper Forskaren (the Investigator) was the reason for Engdahl’s return to Minnesota. It launched his career as a journalist and writer. The paper was founded by two Swedes as “an organ of socialism and free thought.” Forskaren, called by the British scholar Michael Brook “a Swedish radical voice in Minneapolis,” was not the first radical Swedish newspaper in Minnesota, starting already in 1876 with Agathokraten (One Who Believes in the Rule of the Good), according to Brook, and Rothuggaren (the Radical) in 1880. In 1891, Gnistan (the Spark), subtitled “A Swedish Radical Weekly,” was founded by the Reverend Axel Lundeberg, who had worked in Sweden with August Palm, the father of Swedish socialism, before Lundeberg came to Minnesota. Gnistan closed in 1892. Forskaren lasted much longer, first as a newspaper and then, for nineteen years, as a periodical. It was closely associated with Frihetsförbundet (the Scandinavian Liberty League), founded in Minneapolis by radical Swedes. It held Sunday school for the children of the members of temperance groups such as International Order of Good Templars and Verdandi together with the First Scandinavian Unitarian Church in Minneapolis, started by David Holmgren, an ordained minister who, facing imprisonment for financial irregularities, fled to America in 1906.
Engdahl became a Wobbly—a member of the Industrial Workers of the World—shortly after arriving in Minneapolis. IWW was a union founded in Chicago in 1905 by Eugene Debs, “Big Bill” Haywood, and a couple of hundred other delegates, among them some Swedish immi- grants. The Wobblies urged direct action through strikes and other means, and they scorned the political process. Their rallying cry was “One Big Union.” At the time, Minneapolis was said to have one of the biggest local IWW organizations in America.
In “My Life,” Engdahl expresses great affinity and admiration for the IWW. There were “no secrets” there; the members were “resourceful and brave” and “enemies of private competitive capitalism in all its wasteful, brutal, and dishonest appearances. Some day they were going to take over the production and distribution of all commodities and urged its members to read and study the essential functions in a free society so that none would live in hunger, want, or slavery.”
At the end of 1915, Engdahl started writing for Allarm, a Swedish- language monthly published by the Scandinavian Propaganda League of the IWW in Minneapolis. The paper had been founded in Seattle earlier in the year under the name Solidaritet (Solidarity), but had moved to Minneapolis. It had a circulation of about two thousand copies. “We tried to tell the truth the way we saw it,” Engdahl said in the Minnesota Radicalism Project interview. “We have always criticized the profit motive, the competitive motive instead of the cooperative motive. We have told about the insane exploitation of the national resources. We have criticized the destruction of foods to hold up the prices.”
One of Engdahl’s first articles was about IWW activist and fellow Swede Joe Hill, whose songbook, To Fan the Flames of Discontent, the IWW published in 1916. Born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, in 1879 and also known as Josef Hillström, Hill left for America in 1902 and became a migrant worker out west, eventually joining the IWW. He was sentenced to death and shot by a firing squad on November 19, 1915, in Salt Lake City, Utah, for a murder and robbery he most likely did not commit.
Engdahl writes in Allarm: “Today, I learned to my horror that comrade Hillström had been shot. Today, November 19, 1915. How can something like that happen today? Sleep well tonight, Mr. Governor! What crime has Josef Hillström committed? He was a discontented slave, and he was intelligent. God, that is enough to be criminal!” On the first anniversary of Joe Hill’s death, Engdahl again wrote about his fellow IWW Swede, asking why he should be praised and answering, “because he was a man! In one of his last letters, Hill wrote, ‘Don’t waste time over my memory—organize!’ Those are manly words worthy of remem- bering for everyone.”
Engdahl wrote for Allarm until its last issue in May 1918. He believed being a revolutionary was the “self-evident duty of the awakened worker,” and it is “preferable to die as an honest revolutionary rather than to defend the mortal enemies on Wall Street. It is more honest to die for freedom than for the private capitalists. We are the defenders of freedom and nothing can suppress us.” Is there anything “more rotten than politics,” he asks in another article and calls the approaching World War I the “greatest curse.” It was better to die in an “honest revolution than on the bloody and stinking battlefields.” Engdahl believed that the IWW was the only group that dared to take action.
On September 5, 1917, agents of the US Department of Justice raided forty-eight IWW halls across the country and arrested 166 Wobblies on charges of violating the US Espionage Act. In the final six months of Allarm’s existence, much space was devoted to these arrests and the subsequent trial in Chicago. Among the arrested were three Swedes: the editor of Allarm, Carl Ahlteen; its business manager, Sigfrid Stenberg; and Chicago-based Ragnar Johanson, a painter, IWW activist, and frequent contributor to the paper. A fourth Swede, Edward Mattson, managed to avoid arrest by fleeing to Canada. Returning to Sweden, he became a leading figure in the syndicalist movement.
At the trial, Ahlteen was sentenced to twenty years in prison and fined $20,000, while Stenberg and Johanson each received ten-year prison sentences and fines of $30,000. They never served their full prison terms. In a deal with the US government, they were released in early 1923 and deported to Sweden. A photo in the Swedish syndicalist paper Arbetaren from January 24, 1923, shows three smiling young men in overcoats and elegant hats arriving by boat in Göteborg, welcomed by friends and colleagues.
Carl Ahlteen, spelled Althén in Swedish, came to America from Grimslöv in Småland in southern Sweden soon after the General Strike. According to Michael Brook, Ahlteen prided himself on his hardness and realism, always insisting that the workers must fight for themselves. Power and power alone must be the motto of the working class, Ahlteen writes in Allarm in June 1916, and when the worker wakes up, the time has come when “our comrades once again can breathe freely.” Back in Sweden, Ahlteen’s political and union activities faded, and it is possible that Ahlteen again left Sweden in the 1930s and that he died in Colombia soon after World War II.
Ragnar Johanson was a prominent syndicalist before leaving for America in 1912. Called “a silver tongued orator,” he frequently wrote for Allarm and became a leading itinerant agitator for IWW among Swedish immigrants in America. Once back in Sweden he continued his syndicalist activities and was for many years a manager at the syndicalist publishing house Federativ. He died in 1959.
Sigfrid Stenberg, born in Stora Tuna in the province of Dalarna in 1892, worked in the lumber industry and as a painter before coming to America in 1912. He was Allarm’s business manager until his arrest in 1917. The evidence on which Stenberg’s conviction was based was a telegram he wrote that said in Swedish, “Sänd Allarm”—meaning “Send Allarm,” the paper—which the prosecutor translated as “Send all weapons.” Stenberg also continued his union activities in Sweden. He joined SAC, the Swedish syndicalist organization, and worked as a journalist at SAC’s newspaper Arbetaren until his death in 1942, at the age of fifty.
The three, Engdahl writes in “My Life,” “were intelligent, honest, and idealistic. They had the courage to follow their inner light regardless of consequences.”
After Allarm ceased publishing, Engdahl started writing for other newspapers and periodicals, often about culture, literature, music, and poetry. He wrote for Henry Bengston’s Svenska Socialisten (the Swedish Socialist) in Chicago, the organ of the Scandinavian Socialist Federation, founded in 1910 in Chicago and which had at its height over thirty-seven hundred members, mostly Swedes. He wrote for Bokstugan (the Book Cabin), a literary magazine and official organ of the Verdandi Study League, also in Chicago, started in 1919 by Wallentin Wald, a young painter from Engdahl’s Young Socialists Club in Stockholm who had left for America after serving a prison sentence for distributing pacifist leaflets in Stockholm. At Bokstugan, Wald surrounded himself with a group of enthusiastic literary contributors, among them Engdahl. They were not academically trained, but they were all “serious thinkers and well able to express themselves in both verse and prose.” Bengston said Bokstugan, which published articles in both Swedish and English, “reached a, by far, higher literary standard than any of its Swedish contemporaries in the United States.” September 1928 was its last issue. Wald died in 1946. Later, between 1958 and 1969, Engdahl was a frequent contributor to Kulturarvet (Swedish Heritage), also edited by Bengston and published by the Swedish Cultural Society of America, which elected Engdahl its chairman in 1964. Engdahl also wrote a regular column for the Minne- apolis Labor Review and showed great fondness for early progressive Swedish American politicians in Minnesota, such as Magnus Johnson and Charles A. Lindbergh Sr.
Parallel to writing, Engdahl worked as a carpenter, was active in the Twin Cities Carpenters’ Union No. 7 in Minneapolis, and was secretary of the Twin City Carpenters’ District Council. He also joined the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In a speech on the local radio station WCCO on May 8, 1931, published that day in the Minneapolis Tribune, Engdahl makes a strong case for the working man and for organized labor “to make this world a better place to live in.” He said the “day is at hand when people will understand our motives. The day is at hand when through our effort there shall come an era of happiness such as the world has never seen before, when the morning sun shall shine upon the smiling faces of our children who, in turn, shall dedicate their lives to preserve the cause of liberty, justice and equality which the workers, through endless struggle and sacrifice have won for them.”
In the early 1930s, Engdahl joined the Farmer-Labor Party and held several positions in Governor Floyd B. Olson’s administrations. Until the mid-1950s, Engdahl was in charge of the construction and mainte- nance of the public welfare buildings in Minneapolis. Governor Olson also named him the first union representative of organized labor on the building commission for a new office building. When Engdahl was unable to prevent the commission from setting the pay scale 20 percent below union wages, he went to Olson ready to hand in his resignation. But the governor refused to accept it, and at a meeting to decide on the wages, Olson, according to Engdahl’s account in “My Life,” gave “one of the most factual and forceful speeches I have ever heard. When he was through, the chairman stated, ‘Gentlemen, you have just heard one of the greatest speeches by the greatest governor in the USA supporting the proposition of establishing the union scale as the prevailing scale on our office building. It is up to you to decide what to do.’” The motion to pay union scale carried.
“We had a great governor,” Engdahl writes. “We did not realize the magnitude of the man.” In his interview with Lennart Setterdahl, Engdahl said that “Olson would have been a good president. There was no speaker like him. He was radical, but clever.”
Walfrid Engdahl slowly made peace with the country that had pushed him away. When Augusta Engdahl went to Sweden in 1948 to visit her relatives, her husband chose not to go. For him, Sweden remained a “pariah,” and it was not until the mid-1960s, when Walfrid and Augusta Engdahl spent almost a year in Sweden, that his picture of the old country changed. By then, Sweden was a nation transformed by democratic reforms and the rise to power of the labor movement to which he had helped give birth. To Setterdahl he said, “I got a very good impression of Sweden when I visited in 1967–68. There was a sense of security and happiness. I did not see one sad face during the whole year.” And his grandson, Brad, recalled with a laugh that when his grandfather returned to America, “he said that Sweden was the greatest country, and he was so pleased and so impressed.” Engdahl later wrote in Kulturarvet about Sweden’s rich culture and the big changes that had taken place there: “Much of what we, in our youth, dreamed of has become reality. In a more fortunate way than in any other country, a bloodless revolution has transpired in Sweden, which has given the working people and the elderly free and joyous human dignity. The fear of destitution and old age is now only memory about hard and cruel times that are no more.”
Carl Skoglund and Walter Malte Frank were contemporaries of Walfrid Engdahl in Minnesota. Both, also blacklisted, left Sweden for America as young men in their twenties in the immediate aftermath of the 1909 General Strike. And both left their mark on radical politics and labor relations in their new home country—Skoglund as a militant strike leader and a revolutionary communist until the end of his life, and Frank as a prominent union leader and a man of the political establishment in Minnesota who helped launch the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota and ran for political office—a “typical centrist,” as Skoglund once called Frank.
For Skoglund and Frank, as for Engdahl, America did not seem to be “the thought for the day and the dream of the night,” as Isidor Kjellberg had written after the Sundsvall strike in 1879. They were not struck by “America fever.” Skoglund said in a 1960 interview for Minnesota’s Radicalism Project, “I had not thought about leaving Sweden, or emigrating. I had intended to stay, but because of this situation I had very little choice.” And Frank, who refused to serve in the Swedish army, later explained that his three choices were army, jail, or emigration, and he chose emigration.
Skoglund, born in 1884, hailed, like Engdahl, from the province of Dalsland in western Sweden, more precisely from Svärdlungskogen, near the town of Bengtsfors. Growing up in Sweden, Skoglund described a hard life of strife and great poverty, where “conditions were very primitive.” His father was a “semi-feudal serf.” “In reality, my generation became the break between the old semi-feudal life and the new industrial life,” Skoglund said. Skoglund barely had three full school years behind him when he went to work at a paper mill. At twenty-one, he was drafted into the Swedish army like all other young men at the time. After the army, he went back to school for six months and also went back to work at the paper mill, but as he became involved in organizing the workers, he quit, or was forced to quit, and found that there were no jobs anywhere for him. He left for America, arriving in Boston in 1911 and continuing directly by train to Minneapolis, where a series of different jobs fol- lowed—cement mixer, lumberjack, night fireman, and janitor. These were hard years. “At the time, I had carried in my mind to commit suicide and to sit on the Minnesota River to jump in and drown myself,” he said.
Skoglund helped Engdahl edit Allarm, and by that time he had started working for the Pullman Company’s railroad. He also started to write a column called “Kvarnstad Krönika” (Mill City Chronicle) for Svenska Socialisten in Chicago. At Pullman, he helped organize the Pullman workers into a new union, the Brotherhood of Railroad Car Men, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). A nine-month- long strike in 1922 cost him his job, and Skoglund never worked for Pullman again.
Shortly after arriving in Minnesota, Skoglund became a member of the IWW, but he did not support its antipolitical syndicalist policies and moved on, joining, in 1914, the Scandinavian Socialist Federation of the Socialist Party. When the Socialist Party split after the Russian Revolution in 1917, Skoglund sided with the left wing, which went on to form the Communist Party of America. In 1928, he was expelled from the Communist Party for opposing Stalinism and supporting Trotsky, and in 1938 he helped form the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. By then, Trotsky lived in exile in Mexico, and Skoglund had planned to join other party leaders there for political discussions. He never went, fearing he would not be let back into America since he was not a US citizen. In a letter to Skoglund at a hotel in Laredo, Texas, on the border with Mexico, Trotsky writes, “I am profoundly chagrined that you are handicapped by some judicial obstacles to come here. . . . I would be very happy to meet a representative of the ‘old guard’ who many comrades consider their teacher. Natalia and I embrace you fraternally.”
Following the outbreak of World War II, Skoglund and eighteen other Trotskyists were arrested under the Alien Registration Act of 1940, also known as the Smith Act. They were sentenced to jail and Skoglund spent 1944–45 in a federal prison. The Smith Act had made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the US government and also stipulated that all non–US citizens had to register with the government.
Carl Skoglund, or “Skogie” as his friends and fellow workers called him, is best remembered for his central role in the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters’ Strike, a “landmark in the labor history not only of Minnesota but of the United States.” The strike, which took place at the height of the Depression, when one-third of the workers in Minneapolis were unemployed, was led by Skoglund and Vincent Raymond Dunne. They had met in the Minneapolis coal yards and came to play “critical roles in the struggle for union recognition in Minneapolis.” Dunne was of Irish and French-Canadian descent, born in Kansas City in 1889, but he grew up on a farm in central Minnesota. He became a lumberjack and a Wobbly and a socialist in his youth. In 1920 he joined the Communist Party and later became a Trotskyist, which he remained until his death in 1970.
“Skoglund was a socialist and a very able man,” Dunne recalled in an interview for the Minnesota Radicalism Project. “He became a very well-known labor leader in this town. He was a thorough-going socialist, an international revolutionary socialist. Once he said to me, ‘This is the place, Vincent Dunne, you have to learn what you didn’t learn when you were a kid.’ I took that seriously. I thought that was a great thing. He turned out to be a very, very good tutor. He was not only a skilled mechanic but he was also an intellectual of considerable stature. . . . He was my first real teacher in the party as a revolutionary socialist. Skoglund knew thousands, and thousands knew him, because he was one of their leaders in the strikes they held. He was one of the outstanding leaders because he was a man that was well educated and so forth, but still a working man.” When Skoglund died in December 1960, his obituary in the International Socialist Review said, “the American working class lost one of its best, most experienced and loyal defenders.”
Skoglund and Dunne had joined Local 574 of the Teamsters Union, and later Dunne’s two brothers, Grant and Miles, also joined. Together, the four were “in competence, resourcefulness, and devotion to the labor movement without peers.” In organizing Local 574, Skoglund and Dunne tried something new. Instead of organizing around occupational special- ties, as was the tradition in the American labor movement at the time, they gathered all the workers together in a new industrial model, which, eventually, became the foundation of the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Skoglund and Dunne “perfected a new motorized form of pickets as flying squads, roving the streets in their own trucks and cars, preventing strike breakers from making their deliveries.” They demon- strated an effective mastery of 1930s communication technology, used their telephones effectively, and published a daily strike bulletin. Local mass rallies mobilized support for the strike.
Dunne and Skoglund were more than ideologues; they knew how to put their ideas into practice, and they were well liked among their fellow workers. Skoglund, described as stocky and well built, was a good mechanic and a man who loved astronomy, was a “generous and nice fellow and most of the fellas knew him and if he asked you to join a union, you pretty much had to.” But Minneapolis’s powerful pro-business, pro–open shop Citizens Alliance fought the union all the way and refused to negotiate with it directly. However, a short strike in February 1934 led to some modest wage increases, and union membership rose sharply, to nearly seven thousand by June. The battle now hardened. Encouraged by the New Deal’s National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which gave labor the right to organize and bargain collectively, Local 574 leaders Dunne and Skoglund announced new demands for a closed shop, wage increases, and extra pay for overtime. But they acted on their own. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, conservative and averse to strikes, refused to authorize a strike, and the AFL warned its affiliate, the Central Labor Council, not to cooperate with Local 574. The Teamsters charged that the “real objective of the Communists [in Local 574] is to enlist Minnesota in the revolution they hope to start in this country to overthrow the constitution and the laws of the land.” The Citizens Alliance grew greatly alarmed over the development and decided to stand firm. Violence followed. Picketers were arrested. It was close to class warfare. The strike lasted thirty-six days, ending after intervention by Governor Floyd B. Olson, federal negotiators, and even, indirectly, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The conflict cost Minneapolis $50 million and millions in lost wages for the workers and left four men dead and scores injured. But the union was recognized, Minneapolis ceased being an open-shop town, and “the dictatorship of the Citizens Alliance was smashed.”
Carl Skoglund never returned to Sweden. Because he never became a US citizen, he lived under a constant threat of deportation for his political and union activities. At one point, the US immigration authorities had him on a Norwegian ship in New York harbor, preparing to deport him, but he was saved at the last moment by American socialist leader Norman Thomas. In a poem from 1949 called “The Saga of a Swede,” Miles Dunne, chairman of the Minnesota Section of the Civil Rights Defense Committee, wrote:
“We’ll never let him send him back, Or start him on his way. Join the fight With all your might, Away with darkness, welcome light. Carl Skoglund’s here to stay.
Skoglund died in 1960 at the Marxist School in New Jersey. In Minneapolis in 1984, the hundredth anniversary of Skoglund’s birth was celebrated with speeches and a Swedish smörgåsbord for the “profound contribution Carl made to maintaining the continuity of the revolution- ary socialist movement.”
Frank was, like Skoglund, involved with organized labor in Scandi- navia before coming to America in 1913, with the Swedish sailors’ union and in the machine and metal union in Oslo. Unlike Skoglund, he was raised in a fairly well-to-do family but disagreed with their philosophy of life and struck out on his own. Once in Minnesota, Frank studied engineering at the University of Minnesota. He joined the IWW and went to work out west in harvest and lumber camps. During this time he met Joe Hill—“no doubt about that, he was framed,” Frank said in an interview for the Minnesota Historical Society. Frank’s later union activities involved the Lathers Union and the Building and Construction Trades Council. In a speech in Stillwater, Minnesota, on Labor Day in 1926, he urged his audience to join in the fight for a powerful, militant industrial union within the trade-union movement to build a true class-oriented Farmer-Labor Party. In 1932, he was appointed National Chairman of the AFL Trade Union Committee for Unemployment Insurance and Relief. He was active in the Farmer-Labor Party and ran for the state senate in 1930, but lost. In 1948, he ran for the US Congress as a candidate for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, but lost again.
Frank cooperated at various times with the more radical Popular Front and the Trotskyists, as well as with the Central Labor Union’s moderates. He left the Popular Front after the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939, and in 1948 Frank was expelled from the Central Labor Union’s political committee for supporting Henry Wallace’s failed third-party efforts to the left of Harry Truman and the Democratic Party. Throughout the 1930s, Frank was often a main speaker at major political and union rallies in the Twin Cities, appearing together with prominent speakers such as Farmer-Labor governors Floyd B. Olson and Elmer Benson. Later in life he talked about the dangers of fascism in America and expressed strong views about the “mistake” of the Vietnam War. “I felt it necessary,” he explained, “to participate in every endeavor to bring forth the real aspirations, principles and ideals, and the power of the working people, and all the connecting issues, and thus to participate also in the parliamentary . . . campaigns.”
Like Skoglund, Walter Frank also encountered problems with the American immigration authorities, although he was a US citizen. In 1951, as he planned a trip to Europe that included a visit to his relatives in Sweden, he was denied a passport. The trip was deemed not to be “in the best interest of the United States,” according to the US State Department. It took Frank more than four years to get his passport and only after interventions from, among others, Hubert Humphrey, then US senator from Minnesota, and after swearing that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. A letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower on September 24, 1956, starting with the salutation “Dear Fellow Citizen,” signaled the end of Frank’s long fight to obtain a passport.
From the late 1880s to the mid-1950s, a remarkable stretch of time, the Scandinavian Left provided leadership to the labor movement in Duluth. Richard Hudelson—labor historian, former philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin–Superior, and a Duluth resident—points to the sheer number of Scandinavians in Duluth. By 1870 a third of the city’s population was Swedish, along with 13 percent Norwegians and three percent Danes. The Finns came later. By 1920, 75,000 out of a population of 99,000 were foreign-born or children of foreign-born, and the Swedish population in Duluth was one of the largest concentrations of Swedish immigrants in the urban Midwest, proportionally larger than even Chicago and Minneapolis. And they became politically involved early. The members of the Duluth Scandinavian Socialist Local “brought a radicalism” with them from Sweden, and “there is strong evidence for the importance of the connection with Ljusne [labor conflict] in the history of the local” in Duluth.
In 1917, the radical Swedes in Duluth started a paper called Truth. It was an English-language paper, and not Swedish, clearly showing that the Swedes, who were the largest foreign-born group in the city, felt confident enough to reach out to other ethnic groups. Affiliated with the Scandinavian Socialist Federation in Chicago and the American Socialist Party (SP), Duluth’s Scandinavian Socialist Local was one of the strongest in Minnesota. Its membership was almost entirely Swedish and largely blue collar. Socially, the members were close, spending free time together and holding Sunday picnics. Many members also belonged to the IWW, which had first established itself in Duluth in 1911.
As the official organ of the Socialist Party of Duluth, Truth saw its circulation quickly rise to twenty thousand copies. The Duluth Scandi- navian Socialist Local’s members, of which there were more than four hundred, provided the leadership behind their newspaper, “the rock upon which Truth was built.” The paper eventually moved left and took its place on the side of revolution, which meant open support of the IWW as well as of the Russian Revolution.
Jacob O. (J. O.) Bentall was editor of Truth between 1918 and 1922. He had come from Sweden to Minnesota in 1871, only one year old, brought to America by his father, who began to farm in Meeker County. The son worked on the farm and then went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, graduating in 1896, followed by four years in graduate school at the University of Chicago. He had trained as a Baptist minister and had been a pastor of the First Baptist Church in St. Anne, Illinois, south of Chicago, as well as editor of the Christian Socialist, founded in 1904 by the Christian Socialist Fellowship. Bentall believed that the principles of Christianity were incompatible with capitalism and that socialism offered a way in which the Christian principles could be attained. He wrote that “to destroy Capitalism was our job.” Bentall was imprisoned twice and ran for governor of Minnesota twice, first in 1916 as a socialist candidate, receiving 23,306 votes, or 6.7 percent of the total, then in 1928 as a candidate for the Communist Party with 5,760 people, or 0.6 percent, voting for him. He was a fierce opponent of World War I and was arrested in the summer of 1917 for violating the wartime Espionage Act. Appeal followed appeal until, in 1922, three years after the war was over and when Bentall was editor of Truth, he started serving a two-year sentence at the Leavenworth federal prison in Kansas. His comment on the verdict was, “Tell them I laugh at it, tell them I laugh at it. Ha, ha, ha.”
President Warren Harding ordered Bentall’s release in July 1923.
In 1929, Bentall was expelled from the Communist Party. By then, Truth had long ago ceased publication and the Duluth Scandinavian Socialist Local had faded away; in Truth’s last issue, its bitter comment was “due to lack of funds caused by the apathy of the workers.” When Bentall died in New York in 1933, he was called the “well-known communist leader” by the Swedish American newspaper Vestkusten (The West Coast). And Jack Carney, Bentall’s predecessor as editor of Truth, wrote: “Comrade Bentall is no spotlight artist, he is one of the best and truest comrades that the movement has produced.”
The thousands of radical Scandinavians, mostly Swedes but also Norwegians and Danes, were often reluctant immigrants, forced into exile to find jobs, to survive. They left their home countries at a time of profound change, when a budding working class started its struggle for political and union rights. They lost that struggle, and they left for America. Many of them, blacklisted for their political and union activities, continued to be activists in their new home country. Engdahl, Skoglund, and Frank belong to this group. The impact of these radical immigrants on Minnesota and state politics was never great. They often moved in narrow circles, among ideological and personal friends, socializing with one another and reading their own newspapers. The exception—and it is a big one—was the Minneapolis Teamsters’ Strike of 1934, with Carl Skoglund as one of its leaders. The strike became a landmark in US labor history as the rights of the union were recognized and Minneapolis ceased to be an open-shop city.
Skoglund kept his communist faith all his life and remained a political outsider, while Engdahl and Frank mellowed politically with time, joining mainstream Minnesota politics as active members of the Farmer-Labor Party.