Justice  /  Retrieval

Mankind, Unite!

How Upton Sinclair’s 1934 run for governor of California inspired a cult.

When muckraker and novelist Upton Sinclair decided to make a third run for the California governor’s mansion in the election of 1934, he released an innovative piece of campaign literature to launch his bid. Titled I, Governor of California—And How I Ended Poverty, the novella-length tract contained an imaginative text titled “The People’s History of California.” Written in 1933 at the nadir of the Great Depression and narrated from an imagined 1938, this “history” described the momentous events that transpired in the years between, a period that coincided with a Sinclair administration in California.

By today’s standards, publishing fictive future history might be deemed a catastrophically self-indulgent way to begin a campaign. But readers in the 1930s recognized that Sinclair was resuming the reasonably esteemed late Victorian practice of using utopian and dystopian fiction to animate a political movement. Following in the footsteps of Edward Bellamy, William Morris, William Dean Howells, and Jack London, among others, Sinclair believed that what contemporary politics lacked was imagination. Another way of doing things was possible.

Sinclair couldn’t have known that although his visions of California’s future would not materialize, the movement he inspired—and the literary catalyst he used to build it—would nevertheless leave a deep impression on the state. His campaign helped give shape to two California cults: one an ingenious fraud, the other a deadly dream.

I, Governor of California begins in 1933, when friends and confidants urged Sinclair toward another run for governor—this time as a Democrat rather than as a Socialist. The text then describes Sinclair’s steady progress to the Democratic nomination and eventual elevation to power in Sacramento by a margin of 100,000 votes.

Sinclair the future historian did not take personal credit for this landslide, which was due to the extensive grassroots political organization inspired by the End Poverty in California campaign, better known as EPIC. Outlined in I, Governor of California, the plan comprised twelve points that were calculated to win popular appeal in the darkest years of the Great Depression.

EPIC declared:

1. God created the natural wealth of the earth for the use of all men, not a few. 2. God created men to seek their own welfare, not that of masters. 3. Private ownership of tools, a basis of freedom when tools are simple, becomes a basis of enslavement when tools are complex. 4. Autocracy in industry cannot exist alongside democracy in government. 5. When some men live without working, other men are working without living. 6. The existence of luxury in the presence of poverty and destitution is contrary to good morals and sound public policy. 7. The present depression is one of abundance, not of scarcity. 8. The cause of the trouble is that a small class has the wealth, while the rest have the debts. 9. It is contrary to common sense that men should starve because they have raised too much food. 10. The destruction of food or other wealth, or the limitation of production, is economic insanity. 11. The remedy is to give the workers access to the means of production, and let them produce for themselves, not for others. 12. This change can be brought about by action of a majority of the people, and that is the American way.

Each plank in the platform supported Sinclair’s ambition to implement democratic government in California by driving big business from its positions of influence over municipal and state affairs. By returning control of agricultural and industrial production back to the workers, a fair distribution of the fruits of their labors might at last be achieved.