Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 5, 2016

California snapshots from “Campaign of the Century”

Filed under: electoral strategy,New Deal — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Reading Greg Mitchell’s “Campaign of the Century” provides insights not only into Upton Sinclair’s 1934 DP “EPIC” campaign for governor of California but the social history of the Great Depression as well. In the first excerpt, you will see the ramifications of Upton Sinclair becoming a Democrat. It is relatively easy to understand why one might make that mistake during the New Deal.

The second excerpt is a fascinating account of the rightwing politics of Earl Warren and Robert Sproul. Warren served as a 3-term Republican governor of California starting in 1943 and would be appointed to the Supreme Court by Eisenhower in 1952 in the expectations that he would move it in a liberal direction. In fact, for the average person Earl Warren is a name associated with progress but as Attorney General of California in 1941 he was responsible for rounding up Japanese-Americans and putting them into concentration camps. I guess he and the great New Deal president saw eye-to-eye on constitutional rights.

The excerpt also has some interesting things to say about Robert Sproul, the head of the U. of California. This is the same Sproul whose name adorns Sproul Hall and Sproul Plaza at Berkeley. Sproul was a member of the notorious Bohemian Club, where rich bastards would walk around naked and discuss how to rule the world without interference from the unwashed masses.

Upton Sinclair becomes a Democrat

It was almost one year to the day since Upton Sinclair set a remarkable social movement in motion, simply by changing his registration from Socialist to Democrat. A group of Democrats in Santa Monica led by Gilbert Stevenson, former owner of the landmark Miramar Hotel, had insisted that Sinclair run for governor. On four previous occasions in two states he had failed to tally more than sixty thousand votes running for office on the Socialist line, but now California seethed with discontent and Stevenson argued that Sinclair might be able to win as a Democrat. Sinclair, a constant crusader, could not resist the siren call. “I seem to have lost interest in novels,” he wrote to a friend, Fulton Oursler, back East. “That Hitler thing has made me realize the serious-ness of our danger.” He had written enough; what the world needed now, he said, was a deed.

So, on September I, 1933, Sinclair quietly switched his party affiliation from Socialist to Democrat, and started constructing a platform to run on, drawing on the writings of Edward Bellamy and some of his own books, from The Industrial Republic (1907) to The Way Out (1933). A few days later he completed a fable entitled I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty. It pictured a certain well-known California writer rallying a mass movement behind a twelve-point EPIC plan, which spurs him to victory in the 1934 governor’s race. Putting his platform into practice, Governor Sinclair eradicates poverty without much fuss (the only poor person left is a religious hermit who lives in a cave) and retires after one term in office to resume his career as a novelist.

By the time Sinclair had finished the manuscript, the story was becoming more and more real to him, so he self-published ten thousand copies of I, Governor and officially announced his candidacy. This marked “the first time an historian has set out to make his history true,” Sinclair boasted. Within weeks, I, Governor had become the hottest-selling book in California it was sixty-four pages long and sold for twenty cents and eager Sinclairites had organized several dozen End Poverty League chapters across the state. A few months after that, sales of the book topped ninety thousand and EPIC clubs exceeded a thou-sand.

Now, I, Governor read more like prophecy than fantasy. Congratulatory telegrams arrived at the Sinclair household in Pasadena from Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of The Nation, and Edward M. House, former adviser to Woodrow Wilson. One of the great American attorneys, Samuel Untermyer, wired from New York that he had analyzed Sinclair’s platform and found his policies “sound and workable.”

Even more significant was a wire from Dr. Michael Shadid, a member of the executive committee of the national Socialist party. For nearly a year, the SP had been in an uproar over Sinclair’s change in allegiance. (Among those denouncing Sinclair’s switch: his own son, David.) Even alter Tuesday’s landslide, Socialist leader Norman Thomas termed the Sinclair campaign a “tragedy to himself and to the cause of radicalism.” U pton was getting it from all sides. Democrats accused him of being a Socialist, and the Socialists disowned him for running as a Democrat. Politicians said he should stick to writing, and writers charged that he was selling out his art to politics.

From Dr. Shadid, however, came this profound expression of forgiveness: “You have justified your ‘defection,’ ” he wrote. Perhaps other SP leaders would jump on the bandwagon, recognizing that the Sinclair heresy might just be the greatest thing to happen to the Socialist cause since the days of Eugene V. Debs.

The most fervent testimonial, however, came from Mr. and Mrs. Clyde C. Marshaw, a Los Angeles couple on relief who on primary day became parents of a baby boy and named him Upton Sinclair Marshaw.

Night fell. Dressed in a gray three-piece suit and topcoat, Sinclair gathered up his battered suitcases and bid fond farewell to his wife, Craig, who was so self-conscious about her appearance she was no longer a Southern belle she would neither pose for photographers nor see her husband off at the station. When Sinclair, accompanied by two young assistants, met the train at midnight, he found a mob waiting to wish him well. Reporters cried out questions. Did he think Merriam would put up much of a fight? Yes, because Wall Street would send ten million dollars to California to destroy EPIC. Did he still consider himself a Socialist? “I’m through theorizing; I’m a Democrat now. I consider the President my boss.” Sinclair pointed to Roosevelt’s speech t hat afternoon as proof that Socialists were being invited into the party to push FDR’s “big program.”

Then, with a wave to the crowd, Upton Sinclair disappeared into a Pullman car, and at twelve-fifteen the Santa Fe Chief rumbled off into the black of night, New York bound.

Earl Warren and Robert Sproul

Earl Warren took a break from his duties as Alameda County district attorney to accompany Robert Gordon Sproul, president of the University of California, to the American Legion’s noontime anti-Communist rally at Oakland’s Municipal Auditorium. He could have skipped the evcnt; Warren had only token opposition in his race for a third term in office. But the forty-three-year-old D.A. was a rising star in the Republican party, and a new state chairman would be named within a month. According to party rules it was time for a Republican from northern California to get the nod.

It shaped up as an important autumn for tall, strapping Earl Warren. With his reelection assured, he campaigned to put on the ballot an Amendment to the state constitution extending the civil service system. For Republicans, whose one-party rule in the state was drawing to a dose, this was more of a necessity than an exercise in good government. Patronage was wonderful so long as the GOP held power, but no one wan led to give Upton Sinclair a chance to play God.

Back in his law-school days at Berkeley, Warren had considered Sinclair one of his favorite authors. He used to go down to the First and East Chance Saloon, the hangout for sailors on the Oakland estuary frequented by Sinclair’s friend and fellow socialist Jack London. Earl would buy a glass of beer, sit down at a rickety card table, and listen to London talk about his experiences in the far north and the South Seas. Warren, still known to his old school friends as Pink or Pinky because of his complexion, not his politics had no use for radicals now. Last week, in fact, he had sent a form letter to some of his constituents thinking them for joining with other citizens “in protecting life and property from the activities of Communists during the recent general strike.”

Public speaking was not one of Warren’s strengths, so he was happy to let Bob Sproul, another young man in a hurry, step front and center at the rally. Sproul, a gifted orator, had considerably more experience dealing with Communists than Warren. The University of California, by some accounts, was infested with Reds. Whether this was true was beside the point: it was the public perception, the newspapers exploited it, and so Sproul had to confront it daily.

For the past month, Sproul had been summoning professors to his office and gently telling them that he had received information that they were members of pro-Communist groups or were taking part in the activities of the Social Problems Club, which he had banned from campus. Sproul notified the president of the Alumni Association that he had been identified as a Red sympathizer and suggested that he “vigorously combat” that perception. The intimidation tactics worked. Most of the suspects promised to sever their links to leftist groups, and some even offered to act as informers. Others felt so threatened they confessed they favored Upton Sinclair apparently wishing to come clean before an informer fingered them.

The university-wide crackdown did not remain secret for long, al-though no one suspected Bob Sproul of taking part in it. In mid-August, The Nation reported that “liberal professors are terrorized with threats of expulsion” as part of the current witch-hunt in California. This meant trouble for Sproul, who in just four years as head of the university had established himself, along with the University of Chicago’s Robert M. Hutchins, at the forefront of the enlightened new generation of college leaders.

Sproul had managed to steer clear of the California governor’s race so far, but Upton Sinclair alarmed him. Years ago, Sinclair had referred to Sproul’s domain as the University of the Black Hand, dominated by “sycophants” and “sluggards” where immorality “is more common than scholarship.” Just yesterday, Sproul informed an adviser to the Daily Californian that it would be “unfortunate” if the student newspaper ran an interview with Sinclair, which would provide a “sounding board” for the EPIC candidate on campus.

The Oakland Municipal Auditorium was hopping this afternoon. The American Legion had lately earned notoriety for supporting (and in some cases leading) vigilante bands that beat up hundreds of labor organizers in California. According to this week’s Nation, “thousands” of workers had “been gassed, had their skulls cracked, been trampled upon and shot. . . . The class-conscious workers of California are living in terror today Except in Los Angeles, their movement has been driven underground.” Just this morning two farm workers were shot and scores more injured in clashes with police and self-styled security per-son nel in Salinas. A Legion official recently insisted that his group did not intend to “go out and string up anybody, but it wouldn’t affect my eyesight if it did.”

For Robert G. Sproul, the Legion’s anti-Communist rally represented a splendid opportunity to reason with his university’s harshest critics. It might be indiscreet to boast about intimidating radical professors, so Sproul took the high road of principle instead. On campus, no one is punished for his beliefs, Sproul told the crowd, and every ism is taught: from socialism to nudism. Freedom of thought, speech, and assembly is revered, and despite all of this freedom only a tiny number of faculty members and students chose to be Communists. “The University,” Sproul said, “respects personal belief as the private concern of the individual.”

In case this sounded a little too liberal, Sproul eagerly assured the a whence of his own patriotism. “I am no flag-waving Jingo,” Sproul insisted, “but I have grown infinitely weary of the deprecation of America and American institutions during the past few years. We are not even approaching political, economic or social bankruptcy.” The path out of he Depression did not veer to the left but “lies straight ahead,” Sproul declared. That seemed to make clear where this “sluggard” stood on Upton Sinclair, and it surely satisfied his friend Earl Warren, whose future as a statewide candidate might hinge on how ruthlessly this sentiment could be exploited over the next nine weeks, perhaps even by Warren himself.



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