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
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!”