100% – The Story of a Patriot (1920)


If anybody still remembers Upton Sinclair, it’s probably because they learned in an American history class that his novel The Jungle was partly responsible for government regulations on the meat packing industry. Sinclair also ran for governor of California in the 1930s on a socialist platform called EPIC (End Poverty in California) and is the real source of the quote often attributed to Mark Twain that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” To further explore Upton Sinclair’s career is to discover the massive, buried history of American socialism.  Karl Marx may have been German and the first communist revolution may have happened in Russia but socialism is as American as apple pie.

100% – The Story of a Patriot goes a long way to explaining why the history of American socialism has been so completely forgotten. If you listen to Democracy Now you’ve probably heard Noam Chomsky’s description of how pivotal Woodrow Wilson’s pro-war propaganda in 1917 was to American history. In 1914, there was a vibrant, broad American left, which ranged from native born American populists in the South and on the Great Plains to German immigrant socialists in the Midwest to Jewish labor leaders and Italian anarchists in the Northeast to the IWW in the far West. By 1920 it was all gone, never to return. Many people also know about Wilson’s persecution of socialist leader Eugene Debs, how Debs was stripped of his American citizenship and jailed for life simply for making an antiwar speech. But until I read 100% – The Story of a Patriot I had never imagined what a sheer hell scape those years were, how violent the repression was, how completely the American left had been infiltrated by agent provocateurs hired the business interests.

This is not to say that 100% – The Story of a Patriot is a well-written novel.It has none of the poetry or narrative focus of Joseph Conrad’s masterful, and very similar novel The Secret Agent. 100% – The Story of a Patriot is more of a series of vignettes than a fully developed novel, or to be more accurate, a thinly fictionalized journalistic account of Woodrow Wilson’s reign of terror, something no newspaper at the time would have dared publish, but a story Sinclair himself was able to get into the public debate by sheer force of will. But while no Joseph Conrad, Upton Sinclair was a literary innovator. Many of the techniques he pioneered, the alienated little man with no ideas or will of his own who commits crimes he doesn’t entirely understand, later surfaced in Albert Camus’s The Stranger. George Orwell would later portray all pervading sense of paranoia, the idea that a malevolent power was always watching, the fear that you could trust nobody, for much different uses in his anti-communist novel 1984. In fact, one impression I had reading 100% – The Story of a Patriot, an impression I often get when reading turn of the century writers like Sinclair and Jack London is that a lot of the novels we are taught in schools are gentrified, and socially acceptable knockoffs of the great buried tradition of American socialist literature.

But what is 100% – The Story of a Patriot about? Peter Gudge is a homeless drifter, somewhere in his early 20s, who has recently been fired from his job as a gopher for the type of evangelical Christian grifter so familiar today. Desperate, broke and hungry he casually pockets a leaflet given to him by an leftist agitator, then continues walking aimlessly through “American City” (probably Chicago) looking for something to do. To his initial misfortune, and ultimate good fortune, for his background as an evangelical well prepares him to be an anent provocateur and a police spy, he walks right into a terrorist attack, a loosely fictionalized version of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago or the anarchist attack on Wall Street in 1920.  Gudge is “arrested” by a gang of private detectives, who take the leaflet in his pocket as proof of his guilt, tortured into making a confession, and forced to participate in framing a prominent labor leader for the crime. Sinclair never tells us exactly who carried out the bombing, although its strongly implied it was done by the business interests themselves.

A better stylist than Sinclair would have focused the whole novel on the initial terrorist attack and frame up but in 100% – The Story of a Patriot it’s simply the first episode in Gudge’s long career as an agent provocateur. A long, almost tedious litany of betrayals and frame ups follows, one after another, each the same as the one before, and the alienated, empty headed Gudge, who initially has no political opinions at all, eventually begins to consider himself as a “100 Percent American” patriot, a hero protecting White Anglo Saxon Protestant America from reds, Jews, anarchists, German spies and immigrants. The more of a patriot Gudge becomes, the more Sinclair reveals the rot underlying not only American society, but the radical movement that would provide an alternative. Everything, the police, the courts, the media, the military, the leadership of the antiwar movement, marriage, free love, sex, idealism, religion, is compromised and infiltrated by the business interests. Everything is corrupt. There is no alternative to self-interest and betrayal. Who can you trust? Nobody. Who rises to the top? Peter Gudge, the very worst self-interested and soulless little creep, the truest “100 Percent American” in what I might call Upton Sinclair’s dystopia were it not the world we live in today.

12 thoughts on “100% – The Story of a Patriot (1920)”

  1. Sounds like something I would like to read. I was much impressed with “The Jungle” and with “Oil!,” but haven’t seen the movie of the latter. Nice review, too.

    I’ve read several biographies of Wilson and believe he was despicable. He thought he was the second coming of Christ. A complete hypocrite, also a tool of the bankers, especially JP Morgan, who had his eye on Wilson and came to his inauguration as president of Princeton around 1900, I believe. I’ve often wondered if there’s some deal between Princeton and the Federal Reserve, considering the large number of Fed heads who have come from there.

    1. Princeton and the rest of the Ivy League tends to dominate most higher level positions in the US government. It’s partly why Warren had to lie about being Native American to get her position at Harvard. You’re not supposed to get where she is without an Ivy League pedigree.

      (It’s also partly why the Clinton cult detests Bernie Sanders, two years at Brooklyn College, two years at the University of Chicago, and no law degree.)

      I think this particular novel is more about the beginnings of the FBI and Cointelpro than about the Federal Reserve.

      Most of the repression in “100% Story of a Patriot” isn’t even done by the US government so much as private agents hired by the big corporations. I’m reading Sinclair’s novel about Henry Ford now and Ford made extensive use of organized crime as his own muscle to bust up unions and target “reds.”

      There’s a reason The Sopranos was so popular on Wall Street. There’s always been cross pollination between organized crime and big business.

      That scene where Tony trolls the mobster loving yuppies is dead on.

      1. I understand that it’s not about the Fed, but
        think there are lots of dead bodies in that era of history, and The Fed played a major role in getting the US involved in World War I in the first place. Wilson was its tool but he was one of many. Prohibition began January 16, 1920, and I’ve heard it gave organized crime its head start. That Ford used it to further his ends is no surprise, since he was a Nazi sympathizer and made a lot of money for Ford building Nazi war toys in Germany during World War II. Big business has never been on the up-and-up, and uses government to serve its ends. That’s how big business gets so big.

        I watched the video clip, but it was lost on me, because I never watched The Sopranos and am pop-culture-illiterate.

          1. The wealthy can get around all taxes, if they are so inclined. Or they use them to advantage, like Andrew Carnegie used the steel tariffs to monopolize the industry here.

            Foundations like the Ford foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Carnegie Foundation were started in advance of the income tax, to continue controlling their fortunes without having to pay income tax.

            Rather than follow the progressive income tax model proposed by Karl Marx and furthered by people like William Jennings Bryan, ask why the government is perpetually on the edge of insolvency. Could it be spending too much on disastrous policies like perpetual war?

            1. Marx wanted to end the wage system, so he was in favor of going well beyond a progressive income tax. But I think Summers is specifically referring to Warren’s billionaire tax. Basically she wants to take anything over 50 million dollars 2%, pretty mild but it would probably raise a good deal of money. The always excellent Richard Wolff has a good analysis.

              1. I watched the Richard Wolff video on Elizabeth Warren’s proposed 2% wealth tax, but the most significant thing I learned is stocks and bonds are the only wealth that are exempt from taxation. I knew they weren’t taxed, with the excuse being they are too liquid and volatile to keep track of their worth. I didn’t know they were the only wealth not taxed, which is probably why all the poor working suckers are so heavily invested in their retirement portfolios. Thus the sharks can gamble with their money for years before it’s claimed.

                The income tax was billed as a “class tax” at first, but FDR converted it into a “mass tax,” so I suspect any new tax is just a foot in the door for the increasingly greedy federal government to feed itself at taxpayer’s expense.

                Second, Wolff compares the tax on total assets over $50 million to income and property taxes but neglects to mention property taxes are local taxes for local services. They are not federal taxes.

                Third, he says the estimated amount of income to be raised is enough to “solve all of America’s problems,” I had to laugh, because we have already seen that money is not solving America’s problems. In fact it is creating them, and the government’s priorities for expenditures are digging an ever deeper hole for our collective casket.

                Finally, such a tax would lead to ever more government surveillance and/or oversight, as well as reporting demands for all Americans–no matter what they claim–with the most massive invasion of personal privacy we’ve ever seen.

                I’m waiting for just one person in Congress to suggest the government learn to live within its means.

              2. OK, let me re-phrase that. I would like to see anyone in Washington suggest the government is overspending. “Plans” to “reduce the deficit” all seem to come down to shifting more financial burdens onto taxpayers, rather than the government’s showing some fiscal restraint.

                There’s an implicit assumption that government spending “stimulates the economy.” No one except me seems to understand that government spending (and the taxation/inflation that it causes) takes money out of taxpayers’ pockets that they might otherwise use to “stimulate the economy” individual-by-individual.

              3. This is a game the Republicans have been playing since Reagan. They promise to reduce the deficit, then overspend on the military. Sadly it’s a game their voters understand. Lee Atwater admitted the basic scam years ago.

                The real solution is to massively cut the military and intelligence budget, and to shift social services from regressive local property taxes to progressive federal taxes. I think that’s the direction Bernie and AOC want to take us in.

              4. No one except me seems to understand that government spending (and the taxation/inflation that it causes) takes money out of taxpayers’ pockets that they might otherwise use to “stimulate the economy” individual-by-individual.

                Honestly this is another cliche. You hear it from every “libertarian” speaker on YouTube and every “money” show on CNN and Fox. “Libertarianism” is the ideology of the American ruling class as surely as Catholicism is the religion of Poland the Republican of Ireland.

                But of course government spending “stimulates” the economy. You tax the rich and put the money back in the economy. Otherwise, they just put it in Cayman Island bank accounts or buy property and let it sit doing nothing. That’s what’s been going on since 2008 when Obama filled his cabinet with Wall Streeters. They gave a ton of money back to the rich and the rich just let it sit there doing nothing. Not raising taxes on billionaires condemned the millennials and maybe even Generation Z to being “lost” generations.

                And it’s the fault of old people like us for buying into all the “libertarian” propaganda.

              5. You apparently don’t understand how “the economy” really works. The “poor” pay a lot more in taxes than the rich, because there are more of them. There are federal excise taxes on all the necessities and luxuries of modern of life, including utilities, telephone, gasoline, whiskey, and tobacco, to name a few. Government spending is based on anticipation of future taxes to cover interest to the Fed on national debt and depends on second-hand money collected from taxpayers. Taxes deplete individuals and “the economy” if you consider that “the economy” is being propped up by the Fed’s resurrected cash infusions into Wall Street’s money churners. These “cash infusions” consist of money being created out of thin air and cause inflation, which is a “hidden tax” because reduces buying power of individuals. People on fixed incomes, like salaries or Social Security, are particularly hard hit.

                A tax on the rich will only inflate government and will not, NOT, trickle down to the people, no matter what anyone claims. That’s how they sold the income tax, too.

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