Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Upton Sinclair, guileless muckraker

After a day of lessons at a nearby public school, Mr. Israel (I never learned his given name) would come to our yeshiva on New York’s Lower East Side to teach English to a somnolent 10th grade.
He wore an oversize black yarmulke – provided by his employers – over a receding hairline. His bohemian credentials were conveyed by his longish black hair, goatee and ubiquitous turtleneck worn under his shirt.

I recall looking forward to his arrival, four afternoons a week; he was like a herald from another planet. Our enforced insularity otherwise sheltered us from the rebellious early 1970s.
I was reminded of Mr. Israel by the publication this month of Upton Sinclair, Radical Innocent by Anthony Arthur, a retired Los Angeles English professor. The connection: Mr. Israel had assigned Sinclair’s most well-known work, The Jungle, to our class, and its message made a powerful impression on me.

The Jungle is, to paraphrase the afterward by Robert B. Downs in my 60-cent Signet edition, a saga of unrelieved tragedy, pessimism and despair.

Published 101 years ago (originally in installments in The Appeal to Reason magazine), the book is both a novel and a muckraking work of socialist propaganda. It tells the heroic story of Jurgis Rudkus, a new Lithuanian immigrant to Chicago at the turn of the century, whose American dream turned into a nightmare as he labored in the horrific meat-packing industry. Sinclair described the factories as “the greatest aggregation of labor and capital ever gathered in one place.”


THE NOVEL is the graphic account of how Jurgis and his family are relentlessly victimized by the heartless capitalists who own the slaughterhouses, by the strike-breaking police who are in their pockets, and by the merciless landlords who feed off this environment of exploitation.
The downtrodden workers persevere as long as they don’t admit – most importantly, to themselves – that the capitalists are defeating them. But even the resourceful Jurgis is eventually crushed, his family left to starve, his wife forced into prostitution, his infant son drowned in a stinking pool outside his wretched shack.

“Nowhere does Sinclair spare the squeamish reader in his realistic portrayal of the filth, the stench and cruelty of the stockyards,” summarizes Downs in his afterward.

At the end of the day, writes Sinclair of the workers, “They are beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside… They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child[ren] grow up to be strong. And now it was all gone – it would never be!”

With the realization that under capitalism defeat was inevitable, Jurgis concludes that socialism is the workers’ only salvation.


THIS WAS precisely the kind of straightforward morality tale, having clearly-defined good and bad guys and not a whole lot of nuance, that any adolescent with a budding social conscience could appreciate. Maybe that’s why Mr. Israel assigned the book.

When Sinclair wrote The Jungle socialism was still a unblemished ideology. Lenin, Stalin, the Soviet gulags and the Khmer Rouge killing fields were all in the future.

So I’ll excuse Sinclair’s naivete when, toward the end of the book, he rhapsodizes about a messianic era in which a class-conscious proletariat rises up to create a world in which the means of production are commonly owned and democratic management provides the necessities of life; an era when the labor of humanity belongs to humanity.

Sinclair wasn’t just a dreamer. His expose led the US Congress, in 1906, to pass the Federal Pure Food and Drug Act providing sanitary standards those of us privileged to live in the developed world now take for granted.

But Sinclair didn’t want to reform the system, he wanted it overthrown.


IN A telephone interview, I asked Prof. Arthur how long it took Sinclair, who died in 1968, aged 90, to accept that the answer to “extreme capitalism” was not “extreme socialism.”

Sinclair stuck with his dogma, the author of Upton Sinclair, Radical Innocent told me, through the 1939 Soviet-Nazi Pact, and probably didn’t have serious doubts until the early 1950s.

Perhaps that was to be expected.

The problem with ideological politics – and not just for socialists – is that it places you in a philosophical straitjacket. On the one hand, ideology gives you a coherent set of beliefs which provide meaning and context to events, personalities, and policies. On the other hand, it can rob you of the ability to creatively analyze the changing world, to value gradualism, to see nuance, to embrace solutions at variance with your original tenets.

Sinclair, who has been described as both a humorless crank and an idealist, used the proceeds of The Jungle to establish a socialist commune in New Jersey. He unsuccessfully sought election to the US House of Representatives and the governor’s mansion in California.

Eventually he devoted himself to writing a series of 11 novels featuring the hero Lanny Budd, illegitimate son of an arms dealer (the third volume won Sinclair a Pulitzer Prize).
All told, Sinclair wrote over 80 books and probably went to his grave still believing that if only socialism prevailed, so would the natural goodness of man.


SURPRISINGLY, The Jungle is still selling (it ranks in the top 2,000, give or take, on Amazon’s bestseller list). And I wonder: Is Mr. Israel still out there assigning Sinclair to a new batch of high-school students?

Can the book really speak to Generation Y? Perhaps. It’s not that hard to read between the lines and view the Chicago stockyards of 100 years ago as symbolizing the evils of globalization today.
I just hope students who make that connection realize that, as history shows, the solution to “extreme capitalism” is not necessarily its opposite.

The further along the road you are from high school, the more you realize that political life isn’t a straightforward morality tale with clearly-defined good and bad guys; and that the serious work of politics demands thinking in shades other than black and white.

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