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books A Not so Distant Mirror

Jack London, who died 100 years ago last November, was one of the most prominent socialist writers of the early 20th century. Here is a look at some of his political writings.

Having myself been homeless for most of 2012, I was struck by the recognition that life for the poorest among us, the unhoused, is today very much what it was a hundred years ago when Jack London wrote about his own experience of poverty. Like me, London knew the general torpor into which poverty drives you because, having no money, you can find simply nothing to do; the hostility which the comfortable direct at you, and the ease with which they pass judgment; and the small humiliations, such as the exhausting hours spent waiting in line for a bed in a shelter only to be turned away when you finally reach the front of the line because the place is suddenly full.

Things were different in the mid-twentieth century. FDR responded to the Great Depression by initiating major reforms in the relations between capital and workers, dissipating much of the revolutionary energy that had been building in the union movement in the 1920s and into the 1930s. And after World War II, American businesses were enriched by the fact that most of the other major industrial powers had been reduced to rubble, making it painless to share some of their bounty with working men and women. Furthermore, as the Cold War developed, capitalists wanted to undercut the appeal of the enemy’s economic ideology. But by the end of the twentieth century, the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed the American triumphalists to assert that Communism, along with its weaker sister, Socialism, had failed, thereby disproving its ideals. Thereafter the Reagan Revolution (and Clinton’s continuation of it in NAFTA and welfare reform) succeeded in largely dismantling the union movement, eliminating many of the programs providing aid to the poor, and negotiating treaties that enabled the exportation of manufacturing jobs, returning the United States to economic conditions similar to those of the Gilded Age.

In the following decades, the Digital Revolution, far from ameliorating the exploitation of labor, resulted in the “gig economy” in which were reborn the evils of piece-work, of unlimited working hours, and of no medical or retirement benefits. The protections which had been won by unions in the decades after London’s death became irrelevant as increasing numbers of workers were no longer considered employees but were called “independent contractors” instead. Thus the two “Revolutions,” Reagan’s and Steve Jobs’s, have left an increasing number of American citizens living as so many did in Jack London’s lifetime, as members of a new kind of lower class referred to by economists as “The Precariat.”

Jack London advocated a different revolution, a Socialist one. The various books, articles, and speeches referred to as his Socialist writings, though now little read in the United States, sold well when first published and have been avidly read all over the world. The Iron Heel, for instance, sold over 50,000 copies in hardback, and Wikipedia lists translations of the novel into thirty-two languages (including Esperanto). According to Alex Kershaw (in his Jack London: A Life), the novel “was…passed along production lines throughout the nation,” and it was quickly “devoured” by many in the International Workers of the World, the “Wobblies.” Kershaw also notes that “Lenin and Trotsky both praised the novel, and it is the only American book in Bukharin’s bibliography of Communism.” On the last two nights of his life, the bedridden Lenin apparently asked his wife to read to him from the works of Jack London.

In 1896, when Jack London was twenty, the San Francisco Chronicle had referred to him as “the boy socialist of Oakland.” His fame grew out of his power as a public speaker. Week after week he stood on a soap box in the little park in front of City Hall arguing that the unbridled capitalism of his day condemned a great many of his fellow citizens to lives of degradation and misery while enriching a small number outrageously. Dozens of speakers held forth in the park every week, but Jack London always drew the biggest crowds and held their attention better than any other speaker. And in 1897, when Oakland passed a law forbidding public meetings on public streets, London challenged the law by getting himself arrested for climbing on that soap box and speaking. Oakland authorities were surprised that instead of paying the fine or consenting to spend a few days in jail, London demanded a jury trial. Acting as his own lawyer, London argued that the law violated the constitution’s guarantees of the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and he won.

Even at that young age, London already had long experience in the exploitation of labor and the difficulties suffered by the poor. He had worked in a fish cannery, in a coal mine, and in a jute factory, and as a fisherman, a seal hunter, an oyster pirate, and an officer in the Fish Patrol. He had traveled across the country as a hobo jumping trains. He had spent thirty days in jail in upstate New York on a charge of vagrancy.

London had returned to Oakland in 1895 and enrolled at Oakland High School, where he regularly published articles in the student paper, The Aegis. In December of that year, he delivered one of his articles as a speech in a student assembly at the school, and the effect he had on his audience was stirring enough for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner to print the essay, “What Socialism Is,” on December 25, 1895. It was only a few months later that the Chronicle gave him his epithet.

When I started to read The Iron Heel, I felt I was in familiar territory. As a graduate student, I studied eighteenth-century British literature, much of which is didactic, as is London’s novel. The first half of the book is particularly so, recounting conversations between the revolutionary hero, Ernest Everhard, and characters who represent various classes within American society: clergymen, middle-class businessmen, academics, the “progressive” bourgeoisie, and, most dramatically, powerful capitalists. As philosophical arguments, these conversations are clear and logical, but they are, as fiction, unconvincing.

The novel, however, takes on a new tone with the conversation—or, more accurately, the confrontation—between Everhard and a group of capitalists. The scene is a meeting of a secretive club, the Philomaths, whose members are what we now call the One Percent. There Everhard delivers a lecture much like the speech which London delivered to a similar club in Stockton, California. The speech is an indictment of capitalists for mismanaging the economy.

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Everhard denigrates and condemns the ruling class with his intellectual taunts and bullying, and he concludes with a promise on the part of the working class to take from them all their wealth and power. The members of the club sputter and rage in response. Then one member of the oligarchy, Mr. Wickson, rises to answer Everhard with a chilling prophecy:

When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purple ease, we will show you what strength is. In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine guns will our answer be couched. We will grind you revolutionists under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces.

This brutal imagery initiates a fundamental change in the novel, as it becomes a more modern narrative of action and suspense. The representatives of the social classes cease to be participants in Socratic dialogues and come to life. As the story progresses, we see how the Iron Heel can use various levers of power to ruin its critics professionally and financially. We see how the courts and the media can be used to discredit and ultimately destroy any enemies of corporate power. And finally we witness the brutal military repression of protest and resistance when an uprising by the working class is violently crushed by paramilitary, military, and police forces.

I am not alone in finding the book prophetic. Anatole France, in his introduction to the French translation of the book, wrote that London possessed “a special knowledge enabling him to anticipate the future.” I do not believe that London had some “special knowledge”; rather, I believe that London was able to conclude from empirical observation of the society in which he lived that the plutocracy would co-opt the political institutions of democracy and that it would crush any nascent revolution of the working class.

Jack London was no philosopher, nor did he aspire to be. In both fiction and nonfiction, he sought to observe the world around him closely and to describe what he observed accurately, concretely, and in detail. London’s devotion to close observation and to accurate description of the concrete informs his best fiction. In stories such as “To Build a Fire” and “War,” London shows us in detail the material world in which and of which we are. His observations of the material world also tell us about the psychological and emotional dimensions of his characters. The prophetic aspect of The Iron Heel is best understood as a result of the same materialistic habit of thought. By disciplined and relentless attention to detail, and a corresponding avoidance of intellectual abstractions, London could discern the shape of coming events. He needed neither a Christian God nor a Hegelian History to analyze the dynamics of his society.

It was, however, the adherence to abstract ideology that led most of London’s fellow socialists in 1908 to denounce the novel and its author. They viewed as incorrect his view that the working class was unprepared for real revolution and that the middle-class was incapable of understanding that it too would be ground down under the Iron Heel. For his part, London complained in his resignation from the Glen Ellen Socialist Party that the Socialists were too willing to “[make] terms with the enemy,” rejecting the class struggle to pursue “peaceableness and compromise.”

London’s fellow socialists were largely bourgeois intellectuals and artists who wanted to help the working class from which London himself came. He had seen enough of the cruelty and casual violence with which capitalists treated workers in their factories, railroads, and other businesses. He knew the lengths to which they would go to get an extra penny of profit from the suffering of their workers. He had witnessed the loss of limb and even of life by workers who were forced to operate unsafe machines that the capitalists valued more highly than human life. London knew that the oppression of the working class could not be ended by political strategies advocated by bourgeois socialists: the revolution would have to be initiated by and carried through to victory by the workers themselves. He also knew that it would have to be violent. The rich and powerful will not give up their riches or their power easily, and wresting the wealth and power from them, London believed, would take a long time.

Everhard, whom commentators routinely describe as a “mouthpiece” for London’s ideas, disappears from the second half of the book. However, toward the end of the book he reappears briefly. He expresses skepticism about the readiness and strength of the revolutionists to counter the might of the Iron Heel. While other leaders debate strategy and tactics, Everhard fades into the background, becoming a lone and tired voice uttering a terrifying refrain. As the others prepare for what we know is a doomed attempt at rebellion, Everhard mutters over and over, “How many rifles have you got? Do you know where you can get plenty of lead? As for powder, chemical mixtures are far better than mechanical ones, you mark my words on that.”

I began reading The People of the Abyss because I was interested in Jack London’s political ideas. I did not expect to find myself engrossed in the lives of so many vividly portrayed individuals. It seems odd to say of a sociological study, but The People of the Abyss is a page-turner with as much narrative drive and as many sharply observed characterizations as any of London’s famous adventure tales.

The People of the Abyss is a record of the two months that Jack London lived in the slums of London’s East End during 1902. It is a work of what is now called New Journalism: a personal account of the reporter’s experience and of the conditions he observed. Except for occasional sarcasm in his characterizations of hypocritical authorities and casual moralists, London does not pass judgment on those about whom he writes. The book is all the more powerful for withholding any sermons from either the pulpit or the bench.

London begins with an account of his preparations for going into the East End and mingling with the people there in disguise as one of them. His tone in the first chapters is ironic and humorous, using dialogue that imitates British bourgeois speech to reflect the prejudices of the middle class toward the classes below them. Here London pokes fun at these prejudices with the sort of gently satirical humor that Mark Twain was using around the same time. Readers who do not know that London was born into abject poverty, began working at age ten, and struggled to educate himself and to lift himself out of a life of manual labor might think their narrator holds the same prejudices.

But the moment comes when London, having traded his well-tailored clothes for the frayed, used clothing of a down-and-out member of the working class, goes out into the street and finds that his appearance grants him a liberating transformation:

No sooner was I out on the streets than I was impressed by the difference in status effected by my clothes. All servility vanished from the demeanor of the people with whom I came in contact… [I]n place of the fawning and respectful attention I had hitherto received, I now shared with them a comradeship. The man in corduroy and a dirty neckerchief no longer addressed me as “sir” or “governor.” It was “mate” now—and a fine and hearty word, with a tingle to it, and a warmth and gladness, which the other term does not possess… And when at last I made it into the East End, I found that the fear of the crowd no longer haunted me. I had become a part of it.

This moment brought—and brings—tears to my eyes. I spent a year “out,” as we say, living on the streets of San Francisco. In my case the word of welcome was “brother,” not “mate,” but the tingle, warmth, and gladness were the same. And like London, I found that my middle-class fear of the crowd on the sidewalks of the Tenderloin disappeared.

Most of the people about whom London writes had begun their lives in the relative comfort and health of the middle class. Then at some point “the thing happened,” as London puts it. Some fell ill and were hospitalized for months only to emerge from hospital to find their job gone and their bodies too weak to compete for another. Others had depended for support in their old age on their children, whom they raised well and who had steady work at good wages; but then the children got sick and died, and the aged man or woman, with no family on whom to depend, had been forced into the streets and to the misery of seeking food and a place to rest. Personal responsibility, self-discipline, and making good choices are no help once “the thing happens.”

London sticks to the actual people and events that he observed while in disguise among the poor, but although he eschews abstract principles and hypotheses, he does from time to time address his comfortable bourgeois reader directly:

O dear, soft people, full of meat and blood, with white beds and airy rooms waiting you each night, how can I make you know what it is to suffer as you would suffer if you spent a weary night on London’s streets!… But when the dawn came, the nightmare over, you would hale you home to refresh yourself, would tell the story of your adventure to your admiring friends… Not so with these homeless ones … There are thirty-five thousand of them, men and women, in London Town this night… Please don’t remember it as you go to bed; if you are as soft as you ought to be you may not rest as well as usual.

Again and again, London informs these “dear, soft people” of the cruelty and violence that others suffer so that they can enjoy their comforts and their ease. “Class supremacy,” he ultimately tells them, “can rest only on class degradation.”

In the second half of the book, London considers poverty in more analytical and scientific ways. He incorporates the observations and opinions of other writers, politicians, social workers, and clergymen, and supports them with statistics, newspaper stories, and anecdotal evidence. He draws on statistics culled from studies of the economic and medical conditions in which the East Enders lived. The modern American reader might wonder what it means to live on thirty shillings a week, but London’s descriptions of the housing that such wages afford, of the unhealthy food consumed in a futile attempt to stave off hunger and malnutrition, and of the lack of adequate medical care make clear the reality of the lives lived in the East End.

Reading The People of the Abyss, I had the sense that the twentieth century might as well not have happened. In the first part of the century, labor won the right to unionize, and through the middle of the century labor got the government to establish the minimum wage and the eight-hour day, to end piece-work, to outlaw child labor, and to create the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. With the exception of child labor and minimum wage, most of these accomplishments were largely undone in the last part of the century, as government came to be seen as the servant of business, not of the people.

In The People of the Abyss London addresses many problems that we face today: homelessness, food insecurity, a corrupt criminal justice system, inadequate wages, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, inadequate or unattainable medical care, pollution, contagious diseases, and gentrification. He shows us the hypocrisies of the elites, of politicians, of the wealthy, and of religious institutions. He analyzes the plutocracy’s control of the news media. And although he is here reporting on conditions in Britain, he makes the same points about the United States in the essay “Revolution” and in The Iron Heel. The world of Jack London is our world, and 1902 was yesterday.

Howard Tharsing, who holds a PhD in English from Johns Hopkins University, spent the majority of his professional life in financial services.