A Lesson for 2016: Upton’s Sinclair’s 1934 End Poverty in California (EPIC) Gubernatorial Campaign

Yves here. If nothing else, this post o Upton Sinclair’s EPIC campaign will give you an idea of how tightly circumscribed political discourse has become in the US. Another reference point: I’m reading a biography of Talleyrand, the wily father of diplomacy and aristocrat from one of the most ancient families in France, who managed to serve four regimes despite the fact that none of them fully trusted him (one of his most famous early action was, as the Bishop of Autun, to recommend the nationalization of Catholic Church property and turning the clergy into employees of the state as a source of funds for the insolvent revolutionary government). Talleyrand’s defenders contend that he stayed loyal to his idea of France, and Talleyrand himself said he never betrayed a government before it betrayed itself.

On the eve of the Revolution, Talleyrand had to campaign to be elected as the representative of the clergy from his bishopric. His stump speech included such radical ideas as making education universal and invoking both liberty and property as sacred. But to the latter, he underscored that some things had come to be deemed as property when they really belonged to the people. Talleyrand later codified his ideas for public schooling and they guided France’s education ministry for over a century. So it is not an exaggeration to say that our finance-led counterrevolution is not merely seeking to undo the remaining New Deal programs, but to roll the democratic tide back as far as they can.

And before you pooh pooh Upton Sinclair’s ideas as pie-in-the-sky, remember that the worker-owned Mondragon cooperative has an admirable record of financial results and innovation, and is a major reason the Basque has suffered much less than the rest of Spain in its crisis.

By Louis Proyect, who has written for Sozialismus (Germany), Science and Society, New Politics, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Organization and Environment, Cultural Logic, Dark Night Field Notes, Revolutionary History (Great Britain), New Interventions (Great Britain), Canadian Dimension, Revolution Magazine (New Zealand), Swans and Green Left Weekly (Australia). Originally published at Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

In 1934 Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California as a Democrat, just like Sanders is doing today except that Sinclair was the party’s nominee after having won 3 times as many votes in the primary than his opponents combined. In 1992 Greg Mitchell wrote about his EPIC campaign, the acronym for End Poverty in California, in a book titled “The Campaign of the Century”. So unlike other bourgeois electoral campaign I always assumed that it was a 3rd party bid because Sinclair was for abolishing capitalism, not reforming it. It is useful to use the EPIC campaign as a benchmark for Sanders’s campaign this year. From Mitchell’s book:

It was 10:45 P.M. in Washington and New York, 9:45 in the Midwest, and 7:45 in California when Upton Sinclair, who was already packing his bags for the trip east, delivered his first nationwide radio address, originating from KHJ in Los Angeles. Until the past few days, the Sinclair campaign had received little notice nationally. Sinclair himself was a famous author, but what was he known for? Exposing the meat-packers, defending Sacco and Vanzetti, producing an Eisenstein film. What did that have to do with running for office and leading a social movement called EPIC? The author of The Jungle was portrayed by many in the press as a dangerous, demagogic champion of the underdog. Was he another Huey Long or Father Coughlin? And if he was, was that good or bad? With the New Deal faltering, anyone promising to end poverty, even in one notoriously eccentric state out West, deserved a listen, and so millions of Americans—bankers, breadliners, and Brain Trusters alike gathered around their radio sets to find out whether Upton Sinclair embodied their fondest hopes or their deepest fears, or perhaps a little of both.

“I have been asked to explain to you the political movement which has just achieved such an extraordinary victory in the state of California,” Sinclair began. “I did not make this victory, it has been made by the people of our state. It is a spontaneous movement which has spread all over the state by the unpaid labor of tens of thousands of devoted workers. They were called amateurs but they have put all the professional politicians on the shelf. In less than a year they have built a movement which has carried a state of more than six million population. It has been called a political miracle and the rest of the states will wish to know what it means.

“We confront today the collapse of an institution which is worldwide and age-old,” Sinclair exclaimed in his pinched, nasal tenor, with just the suggestion of a lisp, sounding a bit like a patrician Jimmy Cagney. “Capitalism has served its time and is passing from the earth. A new system must be found to take its place, and that event is the same thing to our society as childbirth is to the individual: The child may be born, but both child and mother may perish in agony.

“Consider what has happened in Germany. An obscene demagogue has seized power; a great civilized nation has fallen into the hands of gangsters. Liberty is at an end and the most scientifically advanced of modern states is sliding back into the dark ages. Do not think that was an accident! Do not attribute it to the magic of a demagogue’s tongue. Those events in Germany were planned, they were bought and paid for. It is the steel kings of Germany who have seized the country and prevented a new birth of freedom for the people.

“And now we have the same breakdown in the United States. The same poverty and insecurity. The same unemployment and suffering, the same Wall Street kind of bond slavery. Can we free ourselves or will Wall Street give us a dictator and fasten the chains about our ankles for a generation, and perhaps forever? Can democracy work? Can the peo-ple use its instruments in their own interest or can they be fooled and lied to and frightened away from their goal?

“We have put a plan before the people,” Sinclair said, his voice insistent but rarely wavering in pitch or volume. Whatever his words, lie was no fire-and-brimstone preacher, no Mussolini, no Huey Long.

“We have shown them the way out of the depression. We have made it as simple as possible. We have made it gradual so as to be painless. We are not proposing to replace the whole collapsing system by a new one all at once. We are proposing the first step, a trial stage.

“We say to the voters: There are half a million persons in our state out of work. They cannot be permitted to starve. These persons can never again find work while the present system endures. They are being supported by public charities, and the burden of that is driving the state to bankruptcy and the taxpayers to ruin. There is no solution to this problem except to put these unemployed at productive labor, to make them self-sustaining, to let them produce what they are going to consume and so take them off the backs of the taxpayers.

“That is the simple proposition. There can be no valid objection to it. But the whole power of vested privilege rises up against it. Why is this? The answer is because they are afraid of the precedent. They are afraid the plan will succeed, and show the unemployed how to produce for use instead of for profit. It will put into the minds of the unemployed the idea of getting access to land and machinery by the political method, by the use of their ballots. And once they get access to good land and modern machinery they will produce so much, they will make such comfort and plenty for themselves, that they will never again be content to support the parasites of Wall Street.”

Sinclair explained the foundations of the so-called EPIC plan. “There are a couple of thousand factories in our state standing entirely idle and the rest are working less than half time,” he asserted matter-of-factly. “Many of these concerns are running into debt, and to them the state of California will say, ‘We offer to rent your factories. Keep your organization going, call in your workers, and run your machinery under the supervision of the state.’ The workers will turn out goods and they will own what they have produced.

“The farmers of California, meanwhile, are producing huge quantities of foodstuffs for which they cannot find a market. The farmers are losing their land because they cannot pay their taxes. To these farmers the state will say, `Bring your foodstuffs to our warehouses and you will receive in return receipts which will be good for your taxes.’ The farmers will eagerly comply and the food will be shipped to the cities and made available to the factory workers in exchange for the products of their labor. These products will go out to the stores in the farmers’ communi-ties and be exchanged for more of the farmers’ goods. So we will get going, by the credit power of the state, a new system of production in which Wall Street will have no share.”

The EPIC plan also called for the establishment of what Sinclair referred to as land colonies. “All around our cities and towns are tracts of land which speculators have been holding out of use,” he insisted. “They also cannot pay their taxes and will be glad to rent the land to the state. The state can furnish machinery, and the unemployed can go to work and grow their own food, making gardens where now are patches of weeds.

“The possibilities of this system once started are beyond any man’s imagining. We are going to have to tax the great corporations of our slate to make up the present deficit. If we make these taxes payable in services and goods, we shall have lumber, cement, and other building materials out of which our people can make homes. We shall have heat, light, and gas for our offices and stores, and power for our factories.

“Our opponents have told you that all of this is socialism and communism. We are not the least worried, because we note that Mr. Hearst has been cabling from Europe that President Roosevelt’s policies are also communism,” Sinclair said, playing his FDR card at last. “Our enemies’ efforts to crush this movement by lies and intimidation are not merely an attack upon me in California, they are a preparation for the scrapping of the New Deal at the presidential election of 1936. Make no mistake about the meaning of the decision which you are going to make in November. The news has gone out to the whole country, and if the Democratic party of California adopts the EPIC plan, it will mean hope, courage, and guidance to the unemployed of all our forty-eight states.

“All my life I have believed in the people. All my life I have insisted t hat democracy could be made to work. The years since the world war have been years of cynicism and heartsickness. But all through these years I have stood by my faith, in spite of all ridicule. I have believed in the people, and the one thing the people of California have done for me is to vindicate that faith, out of which my life and books have been made.

“Our opponents have told you that we cannot put this plan through,” Sinclair confessed, his maiden speech as a national political figure drawing to a close. “Let me answer just this: If you should give me a chance to end poverty in California, and if I should fail to do it, life would mean nothing to me thereafter. All that I have taught all through the years would be without meaning. Believe me, and stick by me, and we together shall not fail!”

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  1. ng

    it’s a part of history i know little about. but i do know that he was defeated.

    i’ve heard it said that “they” used language from his novels to scare people.

    does someone know more?

  2. DakotabornKansan

    Upton Sinclair lost the 1934 race for the governorship of California. It was the birth of the modern political campaign. The stop “Sinclairism” at any cost propaganda, that stoked popular fears that the New Deal put too much power in the hands of working people and would lead to a nationwide revolution, had succeeded.

    In 1935, James W. Fifield, a Los Angeles preacher, started the Spiritual Mobilization movement to campaign against the Social Gospel and FDR’s New Deal socialism. The oligarchy of that era financed its propaganda, emphasizing free market capitalism and the spiritual causes of poverty, against the “welfare state.”

    Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the following on Spiritual Mobilization’s version of Christianity:

    “The movement entitled ‘Spiritual Mobilization,’ conducted by Dr. James Fifield of Los Angeles, is one of the worst forms of religious rationalization of a class viewpoint that we have had in American history. Dr. Fifield declares that the preservation of the ‘free enterprise system’ is a matter of religious concern because free enterprise is so intimately related to ‘freedom of worship’ in the whole democratic system that it becomes a religious duty to defend the one for the sake of preserving the other.

    “He claims that his movement is purely religious and not political because he never explicitly identifies the ‘pagan statism’ which he regards as the enemy of religious freedom. But it is quite apparent that what he is after is the general tendency toward political control of economic process which is associated in America with the ‘New Deal.’ His millionaire supporters are under no illusion about his identification. They give him all the money he needs to make his supposedly religious, but actually political, attack upon their foes.

    “Almost every aspect of Dr. Fifield ’s propaganda is dishonest. It is dishonest to identify a state that seeks for a larger measure of control of economic life with a state that makes itself God… The suggestion that only an archaic laissez-faire economics can save us from nazi totalitarianism introduces a stupid and dishonest fear into nice calculations that modern democracy must make upon this vexing subject…

    “The whole campaign of the ‘free enterprise’ proponents dishonestly obscures the real issues involved in the relation between political and economic power. But the religious campaign in support of free enterprise is particularly dishonest, precisely because it seeks to give an ultimate religious sanction to a particular social movement without offering a word of criticism from the religious perspective upon the perils of that movement.

    “Dr. Fifield claims to represent 52 per cent of American Protestant ministers. It is to be hoped that this is a falsehood. If over half of our Protestant clergy are either the knowing or the unwitting accomplices of a campaign to further the interests of the plutocratic class of the nation, the state of Protestantism in our society is even worse than we had assumed it to be.” – Reinhold Niebuhr, Love and Justice

    That same old time religion is still at work. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, is on a 50-state tour to energize Christians to vote: “An estimated 20 to 30 million Christians stayed home in the 2012 election. I’m going to every state in our country to challenge Christians to live out their faith at home, in public and at the ballot box.”

    And so is Red-baiting.

    “The Republicans won’t touch him because they can’t wait to run an ad with a hammer and sickle.” – Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)

    “No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices.” – Edward R. Murrow

  3. Disturbed Voter

    “first as tragedy, then as farce.” Nothing is really new and improved in the US, not even laundry detergent ;-(

  4. Uahsenaa

    Upton Sinclair was my very first sense of anything like revolutionary fervor, back when I was a stupid junior high student who still dutifully learned what he was told to learn. In history class, I recalled as little about Sinclair as I needed to for my exams (i.e. =the meatpacking thing in Chicago), but later that year I actually read The Jungle and realized it was about something fundamentally different from what I had been told to remember about it: the horrible treatment of immigrant workers in urban areas.

    Amongst my friends’ parents, mine were outliers. My friends’ parents were dutiful Republicans who spouted talk radio propaganda as if it were Gospel truth. I played along, because they were nice people, and no one needed to know that my father was one of those Union types they kept proclaiming to be the scourge of freedom and the American Way. I remained a stealth socialist for quite some time, even as I mouthed the dogma of meritocracy, in part because of writers like Sinclair, who were always close to my heart. If that sounds too sappy, I don’t particularly care.

  5. Kerby Miller

    Sinclair defeated William G. McAdoo for the Democratic Party gubernatorial nomination in the 1934 California primary election. McAdoo was the male Hillary Clinton of his era: Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law, a wealthy Wall Street lawyer, and the ultimate Party insider. Sinclair’s candidacy had several obvious liabilities. Yes, his Republican opponents, as unscrupulous then as now, used quotations taken from dialogue written for the most radical and violent of the characters in his novels, and attributed their opinions to him. Also, the major Hollywood studios contributed large sums to the Republicans, forced their actors to do likewise (only a few stars, like Cagney, were strong enough to refuse), and made fake “documentaries” that purportedly showed hordes of unemployed anarchists invading the state to support Sinclair. But what killed Sinclair was that FDR stabbed him in the back, by refusing to endorse or support him, and virtually the entire state Democratic Party bureaucracy either worked for Merriam, the Republican nominee, or sat out the election. On the “positive” side, at least Sinclair was allowed to live to write the story of his defeat (remember what happened to Huey Long the same year?), and when I interviewed him, decades later, what should have been outrage at FDR’s treatment had mellowed to insignificance.

  6. Greg Mitchell

    Thanks so much for the lengthy post and excerpt from my Random House book. Yes, the lessons for the Sanders campaign, and all of us, are real. This campaign was also, as my subtitle suggests, “the birth of media politiics” and the most influential race on the future of campaigns in the USA (the takeover by outside consultants, spin doctors, national funding, use of the screen for attack ads) and also Hollywood’s first “all-out plunge into politics” (before it turned “liberal”). My post via this link takes you to more videos and to how to find the book….thanks again. http://gregmitchellwriter.blogspot.com/2010/10/my-classic-book-just-published-in-new.html

  7. susan the other

    Tallyrand must have lived by a law of nature above both religion and political economies to say that he never betrayed a government that hadn’t already betrayed itself. Easy to say because betrayal is always lurking. If you “betray” the law and you are rich you get patted on the head; if you are poor you are hanged. It is sweet nostalgia to see Upton Sinclair in this clip; he belonged to a generation that still believed in self sufficiency – even the Republicans. Maybe the reason we always come back to the ideas of socialism is because we basically trust each other in spite of everything. Tho’ the oligarchs try to portray socialism as punitive, it is really the opposite of punitive. “Produce for use, not for profit” makes even better sense now. I do like the way it bypassed money. Money always perverts justice.

  8. Dan Lynch

    Agree with Kerby’s take on the Sinclair campaign.

    I take issue with Greg Mitchell’s negative references to the successful populist Huey Long. Huey was the real McCoy and you can thank Huey for FDR’s “second New Deal.” The then conservative FDR co-oped a water-down version of Huey’s “Share Our Wealth” platform in order to “steal his thunder” and head off the threat of a Huey Long presidential campaign.

    As a Senator, Huey was responsible for the Glass-Steagall banking regulation as we came to know it, particularly the amendment separating commercial banking from investment banking (the original bill was pro-Wall Street and would have driven small banks out of business).

    Unlike Bernie, who was merely a 1-term mayor, or Sinclair, who had no experience in government, Huey had a successful record of getting things done as governor. He made Louisiana boom while the rest of the country was in a depression. Huey was practicing Keynesian economics before anyone had heard of Keynesian economics.

    Later, FDR would embrace the rest of Huey’s platform as the “2nd Bill of Rights.” It’s hard to overstate how much influence Huey had in pushing FDR to the left.

    Yves, since you enjoy reading biographies, you would enjoy T. Harry William’s bio of Huey. And having been raised in the South, you will appreciate what an accomplishment it was to sell a progressive program in the conservative bible belt.

  9. Linda A

    “to produce for use instead of for profit” – That is the beating heart of it. Until we embrace usefulness instead of profit as the measure of success, I don’t see how we will never even out the scales of economic or social justice.

  10. Sluggeaux

    Terrific post and comments. My parents were kids in Depression-era California, and they shared powerful memories of what a scary place the world was at that time. Ironically, one of the Republicans to rise from the struggle to defeat EPIC was the great moderate, Earl Warren, who eventually became Governor as the nominee of both the Democrats and the Republicans, and later as Chief Justice of the United States led the overthrow of Jim Crow and the reform of voting rights and criminal procedure in favor of the individual against the power of the state.

    Just as the power of Daesh appears to be rooted in a culture that treats women as property and denies marriage to the poor, I feel like there is something deep in our psyche as human beings, formed in child-rearing, that makes us see the world as a dichotomy between punishment/fear (slavery) or praise/reward (socialism). Ever trained a dog? Does a fear of punishment for “bad” behavior make for a good companion, or eagerness to please in order to earn a reward for “good” behavior make the better pet? Punishing the masses for being poor is not a recipe for a healthy society.

    Sinclair knew this; so did Earl Warren…

    1. susan the other

      I like your comment Sluggeaux. I’d like to add this: when my daughter was a teenager she used to get tearful and angry and say I wouldn’t let her go do some crazy kid thing “because I didn’t trust her.” I always answered that No, it’s not that I don’t trust you, I just don’t trust circumstances. Government should do a little reading of the tea leaves also – anticipate where things will go wrong and plan accordingly.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Let us remember what “government” is any more — a power structure of Empire, joined at the hip with “business interests.” with the Eye of Sauron up there on top of that enigmatic pyramid on the “paper monney” in your wallet and mine. I’m dubious that “the people” have enough collective awareness of the machinery to have even the start of a clue how to muscle the control of the levers of power away from the cancerous critters who have glommed onto them long since.

        It’s not like the popular mythologies aren’t loaded with stories of elites killing off most of humanity so they could enjoy the planet all to themselves — Rainbow Six comes to mind. There is scant evidence that the Rulers have even a smidge of fellow feeling for the rest of us. But also scant evidence that the rest of us have any idea, collectively in large enough numbers, to achieve any of the so very decent and sensible ideas that Sinclair, and at a lesser scale Sanders, propound. And of course as “our” idiotic technology has “advanced,” the species now has nuclear weapons, ecological collapse, water depletion, and of course the widespread ability of people of little moral limits to create biological forms like viruses and bacteria and critters like anthrax to turn loose on the rest of us. After suitably vaccinating themselves.

        Don’t say it’s not in the cards, CRISPR and war bugs and weaponizing of everything being as easy as pie any more…

  11. charley

    Great post and excellent comments, thank you! These voices from 80 years ago highlight why I learn so much more from reading old history books than from new ones: our yearning for ‘consensus’ (since the red-baiters amputated the left half of political dialog) make the muddled middle literally unable to understand what it’s talking about. An inspired example: Henry Adams’ magisterial history of the Jefferson administration takes for granted that the diplomat demanding huge bribes at the heart of the great XYZ scandal was Talleyrand; tenure-tracked scholars of today can’t state the obvious without proof. Yet Adams proves that Napoleon and Talleyrand dumped Louisiana on America because France had lost Haiti forever (and so didn’t need its back-lot source of raw materials), therefore our country owes this extraordinary coup to the success of revolutionary slaves. This is eminently provable, but equally unspeakable. I’m glad to learn Upton Sinclair didn’t die depressed.

  12. ginnie nyc

    I just want to second (or is it third) the fact that Greg Mitchell’s account of the Sinclair campaign is a helluva book. It is very thorough, and the present-day political parallels absolutely cannot be ignored (of course, that was true in 1992, as well).

  13. JaaaaayCeeeee

    MGM’s screening of newsreels in cinemas across the country, warning of the migration and crime Upton Sinclair would unleash upon the respectable, to reverse Upton Sinclair’s 3 to 1 voting advantage, is worth noting.

  14. Keynesian

    Louis B. Mayer fake newsreels attack Upton Sinclair’s 1934 Campaign

    To put the 1934 California election in context which most media ignores, it was during Sinclair’s gubernatorial campaign that the incumbent Republican Governor Frank F. Merriam called out armed military troops (killing two strikers) and tanks to squash the San Francisco general strike in support of the crushed Longshoreman’s strike. And interestingly, this strike was the first time ever that teargas was used to control a crowd. Governor Merriam must have been really scared.

    Bad things happen when monopolies and oligopolies take over an industry and use their vast wealth to corrupt the political system. Steven Ross’ new book, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, examines the history of Louis B. Mayer, founder of MGM, who set up the first media propaganda network, and Republican political machine in Hollywood creating right-wing politicians like actor George Murphy (Senator of California in 1965) who mentored Ronald Reagan, who then in turn mentored Charlton Heston. Louis Mayer was close to Herbert Hoover. The Mayer machine carried out a dirty tricks campaign against Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair for California Governor (1934) with fake news reels (The Enquiring Cameraman) ran in movie houses using hired actors to play Sinclair supporters as black, drunk, homeless men in route to California, and Russian Communists.

    In “Hollywood Left and Right” Steven Ross reveals reveals how the film industry’s engagement in politics has been longer, deeper, and more varied than most people would imagine.

    Audio Interview with Steven Ross

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