It is an irony of history that Jack London should be remembered today mainly for dog stories - the children’s fictional stories Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1905) remain his best-known works.
It is often forgotten that London was a socialist. A recently published collection of his writings edited by Jonah Raskin, The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution (University of California Press) goes a long way towards restoring his place in the history of the international labour movement.
Jack London was born in 1876 on the cusp of American industrialisation, and this is reflected in his writing. He would spend much of his early life in California, but in the course of his literary career he travelled widely to Alaska, England, Mexico, Korea and Australia.
London became an active socialist in the 1890s. Already notorious before the age of 20, he had written an article “What Socialism is” for the San Francisco Examiner at the end of 1895. In 1896, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about the “Boy Socialist”. In 1896 he joined the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), led by Daniel De Leon, and later that year had a letter published in the Oakland Times urging readers to study Marx’s Capital.
London would leave the SLP and join the breakaway socialists around Eugene Debs, running as the Social Democratic Party candidate for mayor of Oakland in 1901 and as the Socialist Party candidate for the same post in 1905. During the early years of the twentieth century, he wrote and spoke up for the burgeoning socialist movement, spreading the message far and wide and leaving a literary legacy around which organisers could recruit.
In “The Scab” (1903) London provided a fitting epithet for those who ignore workers’ solidarity. He wrote that workers apply “the opprobrious epithet ‘scab’ to the labourer who takes from him food and shelter by being more generous in the disposal of his labour-power. The sentimental connotation of scab is as terrific as that of ‘traitor’ or ‘Judas’, and a sentimental definition would be as deep and varied as the human heart… The labourer who gives more time, or strength, or skill, for the same wage, than another, or equal time, or strength, or skill, for a less wage, is a scab. This generousness on his part is hurtful to his fellow labourers, for it compels them to an equal generousness which is not to their liking, and which gives them less of food and shelter…”
In 1905, London founded the Intercollegiate Socialist Society to propagate socialism among students. London spoke at Harvard, Yale and other Ivy League universities, spreading the message of class struggle. In “Something Rotten in Idaho” (1906) he defended the miners’ union leaders Bill Haywood and Charles Moyer, who had been arrested and fitted up for murder.
London died when he was forty, after writing 50 books in 17 years. Shortly after his death in 1916, Debs wrote to his widow Charmian Kittredge: “Your beloved husband was very dear to me as he was to many thousands of others who never had the privilege of laying their eyes upon him… I felt the great heart of him, loved him, read nearly everything he wrote, and rejoiced in applauding his genius”. (25 February 1917, Letters of Eugene V. Debs, Volume 2)
The younger generation of American socialists were raised on his prose. According to Bryan Palmer’s recent biography, James P. Cannon learned his early socialism from London’s books, especially The People of the Abyss (1903), London’s account of the East End of London sweatshop workers, and the Iron Heel (1908).
And his significance extended far into the international socialist movement. Lenin had a collection of London's essays, War of the Classes (1905), in his library in the Kremlin. According to Krupskaya’s memoirs, she read London’s fiction to Lenin in the days before his death.
It was probably The Iron Heel that made London’s reputation politically, although it was not well received at the time. Trotsky received a copy of the book from London’s daughter Joan while he was living in Mexico. He wrote a fitting eulogy on 16 October 1937, first published in New International, April 1945. His response is worth quoting at length:
“The book produced upon me - I speak without exaggeration - a deep impression… The book surprised me with the audacity and independence of its historical foresight. The world workers' movement at the end of the last and the beginning of the present century stood under the sign of reformism. The perspective of peaceful and uninterrupted world progress, of the prosperity of democracy and social reforms, seemed to be assured once and for all…
“Jack London not only absorbed creatively the impetus given by the first Russian Revolution but also courageously thought over again in its light the fate of capitalist society as a whole. Precisely those problems which the official socialism of this time considered to be definitely buried: the growth of wealth and power at one pole, of misery and destitution at the other pole; the accumulation of social bitterness and hatred; the unalterable preparation of bloody cataclysms - all those questions Jack London felt with an intrepidity which forces one to ask himself again and again with astonishment: when was this written? Really before the war? One must accentuate especially the role which Jack London attributes to the labour bureaucracy and to the labour aristocracy in the further fate of mankind…
“However, it is not a question of Jack London's pessimism, but of his passionate effort to shake those who are lulled by routine, to force them to open their eyes and to see what is and what approaches. The artist is audaciously utilising the methods of hyperbole. He is bringing the tendencies rooted in capitalism: of oppression, cruelty, bestiality, betrayal, to their extreme expression. He is operating with centuries in order to measure the tyrannical will of the exploiters and the treacherous role of the labour bureaucracy. But his most `romantic' hyperboles are finally much more realistic than the bookkeeper like calculations of the so-called sober politicians. It is easy to imagine with what a condescending perplexity the official socialist thinking of that time met Jack London's menacing prophecies.
“If one took the trouble to look over the reviews of The Iron Heel at that time in the German Neue Zeit and Vorwärts, in the Austrian Kampf and Arbeiterzeitung, as well as in the other socialist publications of Europe and America, he could easily convince himself that the thirty-year-old `romanticist' saw incomparably more clearly and farther than all the social democratic leaders of that time taken together. But Jack London bears comparison in this domain not only with the reformists. One can say with assurance that in 1907 not one of the revolutionary Marxists, not excluding Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, imagined so fully the ominous perspective of the alliance between finance capital and labour aristocracy. This suffices in itself to determine the specific weight of the novel…
“No, London is an optimist, only a penetrating and farsighted one. `Look into what kind of abyss the bourgeoisie will hurl you down, if you don't finish with them!' This is his thought. Today it sounds incomparably more real and sharp than thirty years ago. But still more astonishing is the genuinely prophetic vision of the methods by which the Iron Heel will sustain its domination over crushed mankind. London manifests remarkable freedom from reformistic pacifist illusions. In this picture of the future there remains not a trace of democracy and peaceful progress. Over the mass of the deprived rise the castes of labour aristocracy, of praetorian army, of an all-penetrating police, with the financial oligarchy at the top. In reading it one does not believe his own eyes: it is precisely the picture of fascism, of its economy, of its governmental technique, its political psychology! The fact is incontestable: in 1907 Jack London already foresaw and described the fascist regime as the inevitable result of the defeat of the proletarian revolution. Whatever may be the single `errors' of the novel - and they exist - we cannot help inclining before the powerful intuition of the revolutionary artist.”
What Trotsky didn’t know in the 1930s was the extent to which London had prefigured his fiction in socialist propaganda in the ten years prior to the publication of The Iron Heel. Probably his most farsighted article was “The Question of the Maximum”, a speech first given to the Oakland section of the SLP on 26 November 1899, but only published in the War of the Classes collection.
London posed the question about the potential and limits of capitalist development, in the context of competitive capitalist states. He wrote:
“Never has the struggle for foreign markets been sharper than at the present. They are the one great outlet for congested accumulations. Predatory capital wanders the world over, seeking where it may establish itself. This urgent need for foreign markets is forcing upon the world-stage an era of great colonial empire. But this does not stand, as in the past, for the subjugation of peoples and countries for the sake of gaining their products, but for the privilege of selling them products. The theory once was, that the colony owed its existence and prosperity to the mother country; but today it is the mother country that owes its existence and prosperity to the colony. And in the future, when that supporting colony becomes wise in the way of producing surplus value and sends its goods back to sell to the mother country, what then? Then the world will have been exploited, and capitalistic production will have attained its maximum development.
“Foreign markets and undeveloped countries largely retard that moment. The favoured portions of the earth's surface are already occupied, though the resources of many are yet virgin. That they have not long since been wrested from the hands of the barbarous and decadent peoples who possess them is due, not to the military prowess of such peoples, but to the jealous vigilance of the industrial nations… Capital stands in its own way, welling up and welling up against the inevitable moment when it shall burst all bonds and sweep resistlessly across such vast stretches as China and South America. And then there will be no more worlds to exploit, and capitalism will either fall back, crushed under its own weight, or a change of direction will take place which will mark a new era in history.”
London suggested that these tendencies might lead to war, or at least to the further concentration and statisation of capital. But they also gave birth to a powerful, international working class. He wrote:
“This change of direction must be either toward industrial oligarchies or socialism. Either the functions of private corporations will increase till they absorb the central government, or the functions of government will increase till it absorbs the corporations. Much may be said on the chance of the oligarchy. Should an old manufacturing nation lose its foreign trade, it is safe to predict that a strong effort would be made to build a socialistic government, but it does not follow that this effort would be successful. With the moneyed class controlling the State and its revenues and all the means of subsistence, and guarding its own interests with jealous care, it is not at all impossible that a strong curb could be put upon the masses till the crisis were past. It has been done before. There is no reason why it should not be done again. At the close of the last century, such a movement was crushed by its own folly and immaturity. In 1871 the soldiers of the economic rulers stamped out, root and branch, a whole generation of militant socialists.
“In other words, the oligarchy would mean the capitalisation of labour and the enslavement of the whole population. But it would be a fairer, juster form of slavery than any the world has yet seen. The per capita wage and consumption would be increased, and, with a stringent control of the birth rate, there is no reason why such a country should not be so ruled through many generations.
“When capitalistic production has attained its maximum development, it must confront a dividing of the ways; and the strength of capital on the one hand, and the education and wisdom of the workers on the other, will determine which path society is to travel.”
London did not believe that socialism was inevitable. In fact he foresaw a long period of rule by the bourgeoisie. But he expressed the hope that workers would win out in the struggle:
“It is possible, considering the inertia of the masses, that the whole world might in time come to be dominated by a group of industrial oligarchies, or by one great oligarchy, but it is not probable. That sporadic oligarchies may flourish for definite periods of time is highly possible; that they may continue to do so is as highly improbable. The procession of the ages has marked not only the rise of man, but the rise of the common man. From the chattel slave, or the serf chained to the soil, to the highest seats in modern society, he has risen, rung by rung, amid the crumbling of the divine right of kings and the crash of falling sceptres. That he has done this, only in the end to pass into the perpetual slavery of the industrial oligarch, is something at which his whole past cries in protest. The common man is worthy of a better future, or else he is not worthy of his past.”
If the potential of the working class was somewhat cryptically expressed in 1899, London’ article “Revolution” (1908) was more straightforward. Inspired by events in Russia, he argued that there had never been anything like the workers’ revolution in the history of the world, and that it was not analogous to the bourgeois American and French revolutions. He summed up the essential solidarity of socialism:
“They call themselves ‘comrades’, these men, comrades in the socialist revolution. Nor is the word empty and meaningless, coined of mere lip service. It knits men together as brothers, as men should be knit together who stand shoulder to shoulder under the red banner of revolt. This red banner, by the way, symbolises the brotherhood of man, and does not symbolise the incendiarism that instantly connects itself with the red banner in the affrighted bourgeois mind. The comradeship of the revolutionists is alive and warm. It passes over geographical lines, transcends race prejudice.”
“We are revolutionists”, London wrote, warning that socialism made the expropriation of capital by the workers.
“The cry of this army is, ‘No quarter! We want all that you possess. We will be content with nothing less than all that you possess. We want in our hands the reins of power and the destiny of mankind. Here are our hands. They are strong hands. We are going to take your governments, your palaces, and all your purpled ease away from you, and in that day you shall work for your bread even as the peasant in the field or the starved and runty clerk in your metropolises. Here are our hands. They are strong hands’.”
The idea of working class socialism was central to this revolution. London wrote:
“Another thing must be clearly understood. In spite of the fact that middle-class men and professional men are interested in the movement, it is nevertheless a distinctly working-class revolt. The world over, it is a working-class revolt. The workers of the world, as a class, are fighting the capitalists of the world, as a class. The so-called great middle class is a growing anomaly in the social struggle. It is a perishing class (wily statisticians to the contrary), and its historic mission of buffer between the capitalist- and working-classes has just about been fulfilled. Little remains for it but to wail as it passes into oblivion, as it has already begun to wail in accents Populistic and Jeffersonian-Democratic. The fight is on. The revolution is here now, and it is the world's workers that are in revolt.”
He also warned again that the capitalist class would resist:
“The revolution is a revolution of the working-class. How can the capitalist class, in the minority, stem this tide of revolution? What has it to offer? What does it offer? Employers' associations, injunctions, civil suits for plundering of the treasuries of the labour unions, clamour and combination for the open shop, bitter and shameless opposition to the eight-hour day, strong efforts to defeat all reform child-labor bills, graft in every municipal council, strong lobbies and bribery in every legislature for the purchase of capitalist legislation, bayonets, machine-guns, policemen's clubs, professional strike-breakers, and armed Pinkertons -- these are the things the capitalist class is dumping in front of the tide of revolution, as though, forsooth, to hold it back.”
London dropped out of any active socialist politics by the end of the noughties. In 1914 he supported the allied side in WWI. He resigned from the Socialist Party in early 1916. He wrote that he had left “because of its lack of fire and fight, and its loss of emphasis on the class struggle”. The criticism was right, but he too had withdrawn from agitation to the comfort of his ranch. Yet even in his departure, he stated what it was all about: “I believed that the working class, by fighting, by never fusing, by never making terms with the enemy, could emancipate itself”.
To read London today is to recall the great tradition of the American labour movement a century ago. As Raskin points out, London “often uncritically reflected the received notions of his time” – notably on race, gender and empire. Nor was London the kind of socialist who did the nitty-gritty organisational work. His limits are plain, even in his best writing. But socialism was central to London’s life. Raskin gets it right with his verdict: “socialism gave him life, infused him with passion, and he poured all his passion into socialism, too, until nothing remained”.