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.
Although the spirit of the EPIC program is best summarized by the effort to correct the injustices described by point number five, it was the final point that made Sinclair’s platform into a movement. Because he advocated for a significant expansion of state bureaucracy through the creation of the California Authorities for Money, Land, and Production—three state agencies empowered to issue scrip and bonds, to commandeer disused land, and to seize abandoned and foreclosed factories and other means of production—Sinclair knew he was vulnerable to charges of Bolshevism that would wreck his chances at nabbing the Democratic nomination. Point number twelve and its elaboration were Sinclair’s attempt to distinguish the EPIC plan from a Soviet-style managed economy, and to immunize himself against charges of “socialist fascism.” Broad changes to economic organization, as point number twelve instructed, would be enacted at the ballot box. The plan insisted that decisions about production would be made by local cooperatives.
But Californians failed to realize their EPIC destiny. Although Sinclair won the Democratic primary, garnering more votes than six other Democrats combined, a Progressive candidate threw a wrench into Sinclair’s plan to make the gubernatorial election a head-to-head matchup between Labor and Capital by offering himself as a moderate alternative. Sinclair’s Republican opponent, Lieutenant Governor Frank Merriam, had acquired an unexpected advantage when his predecessor, James Rolph, died in office, elevating Merriam to incumbency several months before the election. Merriam protected his left flank by pledging nominal support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s economic recovery programs, resulting in his surprising endorsement by Dr. Francis E. Townsend, who had begun his famous campaign for old-age pensions the year before. Big-business interests united behind the cause of defeating Sinclair and recruited unusual allies: Hollywood studios, for example, required their employees to donate a day’s wages to the Merriam campaign. Meanwhile, Sinclair insisted on collecting only small contributions, accepting none more than a dollar. On Election Day, the Republican came away with just under 49 percent of the vote; Sinclair was a distant second at 38 percent, a difference of more than a quarter-million votes.
According to the wonky and policy-oriented “People’s History of California,” America as a whole would look much different today had Sinclair and EPIC prevailed. After establishing worker-controlled cooperatives with funds accrued from the sale of state bonds, a sharply graduated income tax, and the progressive abolition of inheritances, California would have become so prosperous and harmonious a place that Americans beyond the Golden State would have compelled the federal government to enact similar economic reforms on a national scale. The result, Sinclair believed, would be a society where the localized democracy Thomas Jefferson cherished could flourish once more. “By the end of the year 1938,” Sinclair’s imagined history concludes, “the political situation had changed forever. The Republican Party had sunk into harmless disuse. Nobody belonged to it, except the members of the Better America Federation and the Daughters of No More American Revolutions.”
Of course, none of this happened—but it wasn’t for lack of interest. Throughout the primary and general election campaigns, Californians heeded the call issued in point number twelve by establishing EPIC organizations across California. These were modeled on the scores of Nationalist clubs inspired by Edward Bellamy’s futurist novel Looking Backward, published in 1888. Basing their aims on the utopian society depicted in the novel, Nationalist clubs advocated for the public management of industry and income distribution in the United States.
Many of EPIC’s goals seemed lifted straight from the pages of Looking Backward. The logistics might have differed, but Sinclair’s proposed network of worker-run colonies and state-franchised industries resembled nothing so much as the Industrial Army described in Bellamy’s novel: an enormous, nationalized bureaucracy that had replaced the armed forces and private industry. Although far from a Marxist revolutionary, Bellamy was among those late Victorian liberals who feared that without a socialist overhaul to address the tremendous inequities and squalor wrought by Gilded Age capitalism, industrialized countries were in danger of falling into either violent mob rule or oppressive oligarchy. Looking Backward struck a chord, becoming an enduring if not immediate bestseller, with approximately half a million copies sold by 1891. Among the numerous responses to Bellamy’s work was William Morris’ 1890 novel News from Nowhere, in which Morris issued his critique of Bellamy’s program in the form of an alternate utopian future. Many other writers followed suit. Meanwhile, Nationalist clubs sprang up across the country, reaching a peak of 165 organized clubs by February 1891. About a quarter of them were situated in California, prompting Bellamy to embark on a lecture tour throughout the state. The chief activities of these clubs were limited to reading, discussion, and the dissemination of Nationalist propaganda. Discrete political gains therefore remained theoretical, and by 1892 the energies of the Nationalists were absorbed into the Populist movement.
Sinclair was among those who admired Bellamy’s book. While still residing in New Jersey, Sinclair organized a communal cooperative called Helicon Hall based on principles he adapted from Bellamy’s writings, as well as from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel The Home. More mainstream politicians also acknowledged Nationalism’s continued allure: at the start of the New Deal, FDR paid tribute to Bellamy with the title of his own 1933 book, Looking Forward. While FDR set his sights on the New Deal, Sinclair cast yet another nostalgic glance back at the unfulfilled potential of the Nationalist movement. Bellamy had laid the groundwork for precisely the sort of grassroots campaign that Sinclair would need to win passage of the EPIC program, and Sinclair hoped to improve upon Bellamy’s successes by focusing on immediate electoral gains. Local EPIC chapters were meant to support a statewide slate of EPIC candidates for the California legislature, delivering Sinclair the legislative majority he would need to pass his far-reaching social-reform programs. If necessary, these chapters could provide the infrastructure for a statewide constitutional referendum that would allow him to pack obstructionist courts and thereby deliver the voters’ will.
Like the Nationalists, EPIC activists undertook an evangelistic propaganda campaign by organizing reading groups and distributing “The People’s History” across California. More significantly, EPIC chapters spearheaded the development of buyers’ cooperatives across Depression-era California. These activities weren’t enough to sustain the twentieth-century movement, despite widespread interest. Together with the rollout of FDR’s ambitious New Deal programs, Merriam’s victory over Sinclair in California dissipated the energies of most EPIC chapters.
But Upton Sinclair was not the only Californian with a plan that promised to save America from its capitalist overlords. Another man waited in the wings with a scheme to harness the populist energies marshaled by the EPIC movement and channel them into a terrific fraud. His name was Arthur L. Bell.
In the year of Sinclair’s defeat, another curious text began to appear all over California: a textbook titled Mankind United: A Challenge to “Mad Ambition” and “The Money-Changers” Accompanied by an Invitation to the World’s “Sane” Men and Women. The verbose conspiracy theory named no author and listed the International Registration Bureau as publisher. In fact, it was written by Bell, who by 1937 was printing and distributing the book by the thousands.
No one had ever heard of the International Registration Bureau before, but the book’s first chapter helpfully describes the founding of the mysterious entity, whose existence had been kept secret for nearly sixty years. On Christmas Day 1875, a group of Christian philanthropists “met for the purpose of dedicating their lives and their fortunes to the establishment of a worldwide commercial organization” intended to raise a fitting tribute to “mankind’s greatly beloved exemplar and way-shower.” This was Jesus Christ, whose Golden Rule—“Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets”—offered an antidote to the usury and exploitation that had plunged so many into misery. With $60 million of their combined wealth, the cabal founded the International Institute of Universal Research and Administration, the future parent organization of the Registration Bureau. Its mission was nothing less than the elimination of poverty and war through the ceaseless promotion of the Golden Rule, in defiance of all who loved profit more than their fellow man.
These were lofty goals. But each of the original “Sponsors,” as they came to be called, were keenly aware of the difficulty of realizing them, due to the opposition they faced. They had formed their institute to thwart the designs of another international league, whom they referred to alternately as the “War Lords,” the “World’s Hidden Rulers,” and the “Money Changers” and whom they condemned as “moral idiots.” As stated in Mankind United,
Our Sponsors believed, (and their Research Department has since proven), that the principal known resources of the earth had been systematically withheld from mankind’s use for many centuries by a worldwide organization composed of a small group of families in possession of fabulous accumulations of wealth, which they were using to gradually pauperize and enslave the human race.
This conspiracy of the world’s wealthy and presumably anti-Christian families had secretly planned each of modern history’s wars and revolutions in order to cull the best men from the working classes, who otherwise might threaten their hold on power. Rather than deplete their fortunes with the expenditures of making war, the Hidden Rulers were the same bankers, manufacturers, monopolists, and arms traders who directly profited from the business of waging campaigns of death and destruction. World War I was but a laboratory the Rulers had devised for testing the efficacy of their latest instruments of devastation.
The anti-Semitic insinuations of this capitalist conspiracy were complemented by more exotic features. As they patiently accrued wealth and invented ever-more diabolical weaponry, the Hidden Rulers prepared to implement mass enslavement across the globe. First, they would have to exterminate 400 million of the world’s religious and educated people, who presented the most serious obstacle to their domination. Only after this mass execution would they be able to force the remainder of humanity into a rigid caste hierarchy designed to extract forced labor.
Wise to this heinous plot, the Sponsors had devised a plan to foil the Rulers’ scheme for world domination. Because the Sponsors knew that the conspiracy helmed by the “Hidden World Rulers had at its disposal hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth, consisting of gold, silver, and jewelry accumulated during thousands of years by families, organizations, and governments over which it had gradually gained control,” the metallic regime of money had to be overthrown if mass murder and slavery were to be avoided. This subversion of the world’s financial system would be accomplished by the union of at least 200 million of the world’s “clear-thinking men and women” into an organization powerful enough to “prevent the approaching civilization-destroying war, but also, without bloodshed or revolution, disband the world’s armies and navies, and literally change their cannon and swords into ploughshares.” This organization was to bear the name Mankind United. Its members would carry out the institute’s plans, which Mankind United proclaimed were the “One and Only Solution.”
The conspiracies elucidated in Mankind United were by no means the lonely delusions of a paranoiac. Bell played on what turned out to be legitimate fears. Eerie both in its prescience of general facts and in the way it erred in crucial particulars, Mankind United was published as the Nazis rose to power in Germany and less than a decade before Japanese internment camps disgraced the American West.
Lest their counteroffensive against the Hidden Rulers be spoiled, the Sponsors labored in secret until 1934, when they authorized the Pacific Coast Division of Mankind United to make itself public through the printing and dissemination of materials for recruiting the remainder of the 200 million men and women required for their success. Armed only with Christ’s wisdom, members of Mankind United would neutralize the Hidden Rulers’ financial power by withdrawing from the money economy and retreating into collective communities. Gold would thus be conquered by the Golden Rule. In this regard, the Sponsors’ plan offered an exaggerated version of the goals set forth by EPIC. Sinclair had argued that by establishing a public state-run bank empowered to issue its own currency under the California Authority for Money, EPIC would reduce the revenues and influence of Republican financiers over state policy; at the same time, the bank would finance the purchase of derelict land and abandoned factories where EPIC would establish its worker-run ranches and production colonies, and allow workers to prevent their savings from entering the coffers of their monopolist enemies over at Wells Fargo.
But Mankind United promised much more than Sinclair ever dared. Along with old-age and disability pensions, it guaranteed employment, a four-day workweek, a four-month annual vacation, and a minimum salary of $3,000 per year to every enlistee. These “dollars” would be paid in scrip, as on EPIC production colonies. Work, however, was renamed “service” to mankind, and the new currency would be based on units of service performed. It was another replica of the monetary system devised by Josiah Warren and Stephen Pearl Andrews for the anarchist Modern Times community of Brentwood, New York—a system that had been attempted and abandoned several times over. This checkered history notwithstanding, the idea of establishing collectivist communes would have appealed to the tens of thousands of unemployed Californians who dreamed of joining one of the EPIC ranches and production colonies that never came to be.
As EPIC receded, Mankind United kept the dream of collective enterprise and socialistic, worker-run colonies alive in the West. Riding the coattails of the EPIC movement, as well as the various occult societies that flourished in 1930s California, Mankind United established local chapters, called “bureaus,” throughout California. Bureaus were divided into districts helmed by a captain, and districts were further subdivided into areas led by a lieutenant, each of whom recruited his or her own enrollees and organized meetings. The militaristic nomenclature and hierarchy recalled terms and practices already used by the Salvation Army, and proved useful for Bell’s scheme. Lieutenants exhorted new recruits to buy Mankind United for themselves and their friends, leading to the distribution of more than 100,000 copies in several editions. According to information later collected by the FBI and the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California, “Most of the members were either elderly persons, or individuals who had suffered severe economic reverses.”
At the apex of this hierarchy was the superintendent of the Pacific Coast Division of Mankind United—the only division the Sponsors allowed to be named. Styling himself the “Voice of the Right Idea” in a putative attempt to eschew any cult of personality, Superintendent Arthur L. Bell was the Pacific Division’s sole link to the Sponsors. According to official Mankind United lore, Bell was one of the so-called Vigilantes selected by the Sponsors in 1919 to undergo a rigorous fifteen-year training program in preparation for his special role in the coming struggle against the Hidden Rulers. Although the Vigilantes were alleged to be numerous, Bell was the only member of the elite set to come forward publicly.
In his role as superintendent, Bell traveled throughout California to monitor and encourage the activities of individual bureaus, which concentrated on the dissemination of his anti-war and anti-capitalist propaganda. He often managed to preside over several meetings across the state in a single day by using body doubles and professing to “translevitate” between locations. Like Sinclair, Bell was inspired by Edward Bellamy. But unlike either Sinclair or Bellamy, Bell was a grifter who meant to live comfortably off a profitable pyramid scheme. Followers of Mankind United were expected to enroll in courses and training programs that cost $20 in tuition—a hefty sum in Depression-era America. Eventually members were asked to donate up to 50 percent of their salaries to the cause. An investigation by the State of California estimated that Mankind United accrued more than $4 million in revenue by 1945, nearly all of which was funneled back to Bell’s San Francisco headquarters.
Bell likely exaggerated when he claimed an “active” membership of 29,000 at the movement’s height. But Mankind United had gathered as many as 14,000 active adherents by 1940, according to the FBI, which had been monitoring Bell and his lieutenants since 1939 on suspicions of seditious, anti-American activity. Even before the United States joined the Allies in World War II, members of the Monterey chapter of Mankind United had been arrested in May 1941 for showing the 1935 documentary Dealers in Death, which purported to expose the international conspiracy of war profiteering undertaken by Krupp, Skoda, Schneider-Creusot, Vickers-Armstrongs, and unnamed American munitions manufacturers.
A year after the U.S. entered World War II, the feds decided they could no longer tolerate Mankind United’s internationalist conspiracy theories and anti-war propaganda: Bell and more than a dozen other leaders of the group were arrested in December 1942 and charged with violating the Wartime Sedition Act. Those charged had publicly discouraged the purchase of war bonds, advised followers on how to avoid the draft, maligned the intentions of U.S. allies, and claimed that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a conspiracy between munitions manufacturers and the FBI. Not long thereafter, several San Diego members of Mankind United were apprehended following the FBI’s discovery that they were hoarding gasoline in containers they claimed were filled with prune juice.
The following May, Bell and nine Mankind United associates, at least six of them bureau managers, were convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from one to five years in a federal penitentiary. One hostile witness at the trial had claimed that Bell and his wife had made a toast to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and had expressed hope for America’s defeat in the war. Yet all of the sedition convictions were overturned on appeal in 1947: three of the bureau managers charged were women, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that they had not been given a fair trial when they were convicted by an all-male jury.
This brush with the law rattled Bell and prompted him to react defensively. While still awaiting the outcome of the appeal and facing a five-year sentence, he moved to protect Mankind United’s liquid assets. In January 1944, the Voice and his attorneys established Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule, a nonprofit religious organization that proceeded to absorb Mankind United’s wealth through the purchase of communal residences and business endeavors. Using the pseudonyms J.J. Jackson and Ruby V. Chapman, Bell and his wife purchased numerous CCGR properties, as did other members of the newly established religion. By incorporating these properties as a religious organization, Bell brought them under the protections of the First Amendment and sought to shield the society’s vast holdings from civil seizure and any suits brought by disaffected members. Although Bell professed that Mankind United and Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule were entirely separate entities, he was installed as the sole trustee of CCGR.
Over the course of the next several years, the movement soldiered onward in spite of government attempts to end it. Bell was summoned to appear before the California legislature to answer questions about CCGR real estate holdings, estimated to be worth nearly $3.5 million by May 1945. Like his contemporary the black religious leader Father Divine, Bell was a shrewd real estate investor who snapped up properties at bargain prices. Church holdings included farms, laundries, retail shops, vacant lots, several beach clubs and mountain resorts, dozens of hotels and apartment buildings, Hollywood mansions, and numerous office buildings in downtown Los Angeles, including a twelve-story tower. The CCGR domain even stretched into Oregon, where the church owned a cheese factory, a fish hatchery, and a hydroelectric plant, among other properties.
Using methods redolent of Father Divine’s Peace Mission and later echoed in the well-documented practices of the Church of Scientology, this network of businesses—called “projects” in CCGR lingo—operated largely on unpaid labor. “Student ministers” lived free of charge in CCGR “seminaries,” provided they donated their labor to their assigned church project. Alternately described as “training schools” and “Laboratories for Abundant Living,” these communes were but the initial phase in what Bell called a “vast all-out cooperative” that would comprise 200,000 people and extend the length of the West Coast.
Yet by the time Bell made these claims, the movement was already in decline. The outbreak of World War II had curbed the cult’s ability to recruit; patriotism and economic recovery combined to blunt the sect’s appeal, and Bell had taken the prudent measure of suspending the printing and distribution of Mankind United following U.S. entry into the war. As the group’s recruiting mechanisms faltered, and as the postwar economy reinvigorated California’s labor market, Bell and his monastic church receded into obscurity. One by one, the Laboratories for Abundant Living ceased their experiments in communal harmony, and the church’s impressive real estate portfolio was liquidated. The Voice of the Right Idea made his final pronouncement in 1951. For mysterious reasons attributed to the will of the Sponsors, Bell handed leadership of the church to senior elder Adelaide P. Nordskott and thereafter vanished from public view.
Although neither Mankind United nor CCGR proved an enduring success, they each enjoyed greater longevity than a reasonable person reading Mankind United in 1934 might have supposed. Nor were members’ deeds without resounding consequences. The CCGR business model, adapted from previous generations of American political movements and communal societies, was to become an inspiration to one of California’s most notorious cults, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple.
A last holdout among the CCGR communes was Ridgewood Ranch, secluded in rural Mendocino County. Famed final resting place for the racehorse Seabiscuit, the CCGR ranch also hosted meetings of Peoples Temple after Jones and his followers moved from Indianapolis to Redwood Valley. Jones envisioned a merger between the Temple and CCGR, but his designs to gain control of Ridgewood Ranch ended in frustration—and with the Temple’s eventual expulsion from CCGR property. According to Peoples Temple survivor Garry Lambrev, Jones had studied H.T. Dohrman’s 1958 monograph on Mankind United and consciously modeled the development of Peoples Temple communes in Northern California on Bell’s empire of the Golden Rule. Like the EPIC worker colonies and CCGR’s Laboratories for Abundant Living, the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project at Jonestown, Guyana, derived from a two-hundred-year-old history of American experiments in religious and utopian communalism. That Jones’ revolutionary and putatively antifascist expatriate colony ended with mass murder-suicide is not a fact attributable to Upton Sinclair, EPIC, or Mankind United. But without the example these movements set, Jonestown might never have been built.