Upton Sinclair

Sinclair and the EPIC Campaign: Can We Capture the Democratic Party?

“I say, positively and without qualification, we can end poverty in California . . . I know exactly how to do it, and if you elect me Governor, with a Legislature to support me, I will put the job through—and I won’t take more than one or two of my four years.” With these words, Upton Sinclair embarked on a campaign that would come within a few hundred thousand votes of winning the governorship of California.

Most remember Sinclair as a prolific left-wing author and muckraker who wrote well-known books such as The Jungle and the journalism exposé “The Brass Check.” Fewer people know about his insurgent campaign during the 1934 California gubernatorial election. Sinclair—a lifelong member of the Socialist Party—changed his party registration to the Democratic Party, and ran a popular left-reformist campaign to End Poverty in California (EPIC). The state’s existing government and business establishment was up in arms about his candidacy, and carried out a ruthless media campaign against his personal reputation and against his political platform. It is even suspected by many that Sinclair would have won the election were it not for these slanders and blatant fraud by the Republican Party on election day.

Despite his unquestionable sincerity in wishing to help the poor and unemployed of California, a little scrutiny reveals that Sinclair’s platform was far from any real threat to the capitalist system. This was eventually recognized by the more forward-thinking elements of the ruling class. Established members of the Roosevelt administration appear to have eventually welcomed Sinclair into the Democratic Party, no doubt having recognized in him an unwitting ally in the crusade to save capitalism from the crisis of its own creation (though Roosevelt himself seems to have eventually taken part in a backroom deal handing the election to the Republican incumbent Frank Merriam).

In 1934, the state of California was in the midst of the Great Depression, and had just witnessed the historic 1934 longshoremen’s strike, in which militant maritime workers had fought with right-wing militias, police, and the National Guard, and which had culminated in a four-day general strike. Crops were being destroyed or left to rot in the fields, while people starved from lack of food, or were left to barely scrape by on relief payments, which also had the side effect of quickly depleting the state treasury. It was in this context that Sinclair came up with the key plank of his political platform, which he called “Production for Use.”

Certain workers in California and in other states had come up with different kinds of industrial and agricultural cooperatives in order to feed and clothe themselves and their families. Usually, these enterprises produced very little beyond what was needed for subsistence, but any excess could be bartered with other cooperatives for other needed products. Sinclair’s plan was for the state to take over idle factories and farmland, and to invest in capital improvements so that these cooperatives could be set up for all of the unemployed. There is more than a little utopianism in this demand, but it was actually marginally better than what the Socialist Party, which Sinclair had split from, was offering at the time. If it wasn’t for Sinclair’s redirection of the movement into the Democratic Party, it might have even served as a rallying call for a movement challenging capitalism. Alas, Sinclair’s attempt to find a shortcut to the masses proved to be a short cut off a cliff.

Sinclair justified his entrance into the Democratic Party on the assumption that it could be taken over by left-wing forces. In his book, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, Sinclair laid out his reasoning as follows: “My general statement is that where the direct primary exists; where anyone can join the party of his choice and name its candidates, there is no sense in starting a third party. The same amount of effort will persuade the people to become Democrats, and the same number of votes that are needed to elect new party candidates will elect EPIC candidates on old party tickets. What is needed is a program, and leadership which can be trusted. Old party politicians, with their crooked habits, need not trouble you too much; as soon as you have carried the election, they all move out.”

This all sounds nice enough, but it was completely falsified by his actual experience as a Democratic Party candidate. He says that what is important is the program, and that the old party politicians will leave the party. But what actually ended up happening is that the old Democratic Party machine simply attached itself to Sinclair and his popularity, while always exerting more and more pressure on his platform until it was robbed of even the smallest amount of progressive content. Despite his firm protestations otherwise, by the end of his campaign there was nothing in his program which would mark him as significantly different from any other New Deal Democrat.

Very quickly he gave up on his demand for the confiscation of idle factories and land—instead, they were to be rented, with the owner to be guaranteed a certain amount of profit for their trouble. Even his call for tax increases on the rich was turned into Swiss cheese by exceptions and reductions. He even found himself fishing for the endorsement and financial support of so-called “progressive” capitalists. Rather than Upton Sinclair having captured the Democratic Party, it would appear that the Democratic Party succeeded in capturing Upton Sinclair.

Before the 1934 election, the Democratic Party in California was little more than a shell, with the majority of its support coming from only a few districts. A large section of the party leadership was blatantly corrupt, with their sole purpose in political office being graft and personal advancement. In the aftermath of the election, things had completely turned around—at least on the surface. The party was enjoying record public support in the state, but it would not be fair to assume that it had become any less corrupt, or that it was any more of a progressive organization than it had been before the election. The Democratic Party was, as before, a capitalist party.

Those starry-eyed idealists who had followed Sinclair into the party may have ended up in positions of influence, but like Sinclair himself, they found themselves bowing to realpolitik and the need for cold, hard cash. The EPIC campaign boasted that it had managed to get several EPIC-endorsed Democrats elected to state office, and moved the party to the left. But one need only look at the party’s subsequent history up to the present in order to see how little impact this actually had.

Today we have our own share of “left-wing” Democrats. But as the old Christian adage says, “The tree shall be known by its fruit.” Rather than moving the Democratic Party into conflict with capitalism, these figures have always served to keep working-class discontent within the safe confines of the party. There are clear parallels between Upton Sinclair and the self-declared socialist, independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. He has his eyes set on the presidency of the United States, and has decided on the Democratic Party as his vehicle to challenge the billionaires and to “save the middle class.”

Sinclair’s attempt to reach the masses through the Democratic Party was a utopian scheme which, consciously or not, served to channel working-class discontent into directions which did not pose a revolutionary threat to the capitalist system. This strategy was a failure for Sinclair and the California working class, just as it was a failure for Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America, and for many others who have attempted to do something similar. Unfortunately, it will also be a failure for those well-meaning reformists who are supporting Sanders as a left challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party primary. As with Sinclair’s campaign, had Sanders run independently of the Democrats, it could have been the start of something substantial, lasting, and transformative. Within its confines, it can only lead to disappointment, no matter how well he does or does not do.

Despite all of these experiences there are still those who, even if they do not advocate actually joining the Democratic Party, believe it is possible to move the Democratic Party significantly to the left through outside pressure, and that they can “dialogue” with “progressive” groups within it. It is true that many individuals who consider themselves supporters of the Democrats (as a “lesser evil” to the Republicans) can be won to socialist ideas. But fomenting any illusions whatsoever in the Democrats as such can only result in a tail-ending of the liberal movement and the subordination of the workers to the capitalists, who firmly control the purse strings and apparatus of the party. The Democrat Party leadership will have no qualms about moving rhetorically to the left in order to capitalize on growing social discontent, but in the end, they will continue to defend the rule of capital.

The key lesson is the following: there are no shortcuts by which revolutionaries can reach the masses. This can only be done through hard and patient work, by fighting alongside the working class in its own organizations. Revolutionary Marxists should not only maintain their independence from the Democratic Party, they must actively call for the mass organizations of the working class to break from this capitalist party, and support rank-and-file efforts to achieve this aim. Only a class-independent, mass party of labor based on the unions, armed with a socialist program, can truly take up the fight to end poverty in California, the United States, and the world.

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