Upton Sinclair Shakes Things Up

Upton Sinclair Shakes Things Up

The grimy Chicago meatpacking industry was nothing compared to the sordid world of California politics.


With the slogan “End Poverty in California,” Upton Sinclair’s campaign to be governor of California is EPIC in more ways than one.

Upton Sinclair has written me a pleasant note to the effect that he had read my tribute to Josephine Roche, adding: “I’m not a bit jealous. But it happens that our movement also is important and you ought to tell The Nation’s readers about it. When you were out here, you said nobody thought that I would get the Democratic nomination. Today you would be correct if you would say that nobody thinks anything else. I do not know a single political observer who has said anything but this.”

Well, Upton Sinclair would have been justified in reminding me more severely. I have been remiss in not again calling attention to his candidacy and to the extraordinary run he is making for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. While I do not agree with him about the extent of the favorable opinion as to his chances–the New York Times Los Angeles correspondent speaks of his victory as a “possible contingency”–there can be no doubt that his candidacy has gone like wild-fire. Arthur Caylor, writing in the San Francisco News, declares that one prominent Democrat is willing to bet that if the election were held now Sinclair would poll more votes than Senator McAdoo did in the Roosevelt landslide. The Republicans are equally worried because they have just as many unemployed as have the Democrats, and each of the old-line parties is blaming the other for not having taken notice of the Sinclair prairie fire until it had gotten away from them. They were saying in April that Sinclair hadn’t a chance for the nomination, having neither a political organization nor money. There they were wrong, too. Sufficient money has poured in–not all that he would like to have by any means–and if any of our readers should wish to help they would be doing a most welcome and worthwhile deed. But I do not think that his success will depend upon having a few thousand dollars more or less. In the 1923 election the British Labor Party began work utterly hopeless because of the lack of funds. Only Harold Laski declared that they didn’t need much money and ought not to have a lot. He pointed out that the party had a rich bank to draw upon in the enthusiasm of the young men and women of the labor ranks, which, being unpaid, is worth infinitely more than the paid labor of party hacks and heelers who usually give about fifty cents’ worth of work on the dollar.

So I believe Upton Sinclair’s campaign has gone on with very little reference to the amount of money put in. His gospel has spread because even in California people are ready for a new deal, eager for new teachings, ready to listen to Sinclair as a Democrat when they would not hear him as a Socialist. The plain people of California have been much more ready for a change than the big-business gentlemen who own California have known or been willing to admit. I even found in the conservative organizations that I addressed in that State last winter an astounding readiness to listen to things that I have been saying ever since the war, but which I wouldn’t have been asked to say before those organizations five years ago. There is deep unrest in many portions of the State; the great harbor-workers’ strike is in its second month; the workers in the Ojai and Imperial valleys, held down by brute force, are more nearly at the breaking point than ever before; the unemployed in the southern portion of the State are still extremely numerous and there are groups like the school teachers that are really ready for a radical change. These are some of the explanations for Upton Sinclair’s startling run.

Of these facts the most interesting is that Sinclair is making such a bid for the governorship upon the Democratic ticket. It shows again, in my judgment, that there is no hope for the Socialist Party in the United States. Upton Sinclair can offer the same goods on the Democratic ticket and have a market for his wares. He would not be listened to under the Socialist flag. Of course, to the Socialists, he seems a traitor; but they themselves split so seriously at their recent convention that this summer will tell whether the two wings will be able to continue to work together or go their separate ways. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a radical program in the United States makes a lot more headway under any other name than socialism, and Sinclair has been realistic enough to recognize this fact and to act upon it.

If Upton Sinclair wins the Democratic nomination there will be a battle for fair with all the big-business Democrats flocking together with the Republicans to try to keep him out of the governorship. All the forces of privilege will come together to head off the Socialist in the garb of a Democrat. It will be a struggle which the whole country should watch and I have no doubt that the Roosevelt Administration will throw itself behind Sinclair, even at the risk of having the Simeon Fesses, the Mark Sullivans, and the William Wirts make use of the opportunity to insist once more that the Roosevelt Administration is really a Bolshevik one.

“End’ Poverty In California” is Sinclair’s slogan, which abbreviated gives the word EPIC, and this his campaign may well turn out to be. Innocent men in prison will have a friend in the capital, and if he won’t have something to say about the suppression of liberty in the southern portion of California, I shall miss my guess. I know that there are many people who doubt his executive ability. That would have to be proved. There are others who fear his trustfulness, his readiness to believe what he is told whatever the source, and a certain inaccuracy in reporting. These might hurt his efficiency as a governor, but they would be, I am convinced, accepted cheerfully, if they should develop, as the price for having at Sacramento a man of unfailing industry in the cause of the people, who has shown a devotion to the welfare of the masses surpassed by none.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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