SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 144 - December/January 2010/11

The continuing impact of Jack London

Wolf: the lives of Jack London

By James L Hayley, Basic Books, 2010, £17-99

Reviewed by

Peter Taaffe

THE ‘POPULARITY’ of Jack London has ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of US capitalism and the reaction of the working class to this. This is underlined in the last paragraph of this new ‘literary’ biography by James L Hayley. He writes: "During the national hysteria of the ‘Red Scare’ in the 1920s, regard for him fell again in the glare of shallow patriotism. Under J Edgar Hoover the FBI compiled a posthumous dossier on his supposed anti-American sympathies, and during the McCarthy era of the 1950s he came into disfavour once more".

But it was "the unsinkable, compelling nature of the stories, underpinned still by The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea-Wolf, that prevented his assignation to literary ignominy. It has been left to our own generation, incensed by financial outrages on the part of corporate tycoons that devastated the middle class and led to the economic collapse of late 2008, to realise that London in his clarion calls for social justice was articulating abiding truths that our country seems doomed to have to learn over and over and over and over".

Yet Hayley is not consistent in this book, to say the least, in his admiration of London’s radicalism and particularly his advocacy of socialism. Here is one of the greatest socialist story tellers/novelists who ever lived. This reviewer considers he was the greatest. But Hayley writes about his "angry socialism", on one occasion using this term twice on the same page. London, as we do today, had a lot to be angry about, as he showed in his monumental People of the Abyss. This revealed the ocean of misery below the surface of the ‘glittering’ city of London. The thousands begging for thrown-away sandwiches in the same city today indicates that little has changed in ‘modern’ capitalism.

This book, it is claimed, is more ‘literary’ than previous ‘lite’ treatments of London’s life. But Alex Kershaw’s book, Jack London, A Life, produced ten years ago, as well as Irving Stone’s biography, were very worthy attempts at bringing to life this remarkable writer and revolutionary.

From the very first day that Jack London set pen to paper, bloodless academics never hesitated to subject his writings to one-sided empty ‘literary’ criticism. This is particularly true about his greatest novel, The Iron Heel. Hayley mentions this pulsating read almost in passing and obviously does not consider it is among one of the formidable achievements of Jack London. It has some inadequacies from a literary point of view, but this is far outweighed by London’s remarkable dissection of the direction in which capitalist society was heading. As Trotsky pointed out in the 1930s, London had foreseen the rise of fascism, its ideology and methods in 1908! This was at the time when great Marxist theoreticians such as Lenin, Trotsky himself and Rosa Luxembourg had not even begun to draw London’s conclusions of where capitalism was heading.

On its publication, the great American socialists Eugene Debs, Bill Haywood and others applauded its central message. However, the middle-class leaders of the US Socialist Party were "as scathing as the literary critics" of the time and today. Unfortunately, Hayley, while not as dismissive as London’s critics then, nevertheless only deals with The Iron Heel in passing, while laying great emphasis on London’s other works.

There is still, however, some important new material in this book which sheds further light on his life. For instance, London’s reporting of the war between Japan and Russia in 1905 is interesting in the light it casts on the harsh treatment he received at the hands of the Japanese military, who threatened to execute him for striking one of their officers. This tended to colour London’s frustrated attitude to the ‘Asiatic’ personality. But his observations on the changing character of war to ‘sieges’ and ‘extended’ lines and fortifications anticipated Trotsky’s analysis of the first world war when he was in the Balkans. The result of future wars, London concluded, would be "the loss of confidence in securities markets, currency collapse, loss of farm production leading to starvation, and, waiting at the end, revolution. And so it came to pass for the imperial houses of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary", writes Hayley.

Many famous writers adapted or borrowed from London. Writers like John dos Passos, John Steinbeck or even Jack Kerouac who wrote the first book about drifting across America were preceded by the tremendously exciting story by Jack London, The Road. George Orwell also drew inspiration from People of the Abyss when writing his Down and Out in Paris and London.

London compressed into a short 40 years many lives. At 16 he was the ‘prince of the oyster pilots’ in San Francisco’. At 18 he marched to Washington with the unemployed in ‘Kelly’s Army’; he was a gold prospector in the Klondike and Alaska, and a bestselling writer at 24!

Of course he had weaknesses; he was a product of his time and the limitations of the labour movement then. But some of his perceived weaknesses only existed in the minds of his critics and not London himself. For instance, in the books Martin Eden and The Sea-Wolf he is accused of being influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of the ‘Superman’. But as London himself pointed out, the ‘message’ in these novels is the opposite of the critics’ assessment. He shows the limitations of individualism and the ‘Superman’ idea. The central theme of London’s writing was the idea of the collective power role of the working class, shown in his War of the Classes and his socialist and radical short stories.

He expressed wrong views, at one stage, about the ‘superiority’ of the white man. However, as Hayley’s book indicates, London modified these views as a result of his experiences in sailing the South Seas, and particularly during his period in Hawaii. We cannot excuse his weaknesses but this should not allow us to overlook his enormous positive strengths and contribution, something which Hayley does not fully do. London always signed his letters "yours for the revolution". At one time when he was speaking at a meeting the legendary Mother Jones strolled to the front of the hall and kissed him on both cheeks. This was the measure of the affection of the US labour movement for Jack London.

Just before his death, he broke with the American Socialist Party whose leaders had become increasingly right wing and were supporting the first world war. This plunged him into despair and there were suggestions then and today that this led him to take his own life. He died just one year before the Russian revolution, which undoubtedly would have found him on the side of the workers of Russia and the world in the great events of 1917 and what followed.

The fact that Jack London emerged in the period that he did was not at all accidental. In the nineteenth century there was an expansion of the US through internal colonisation, grabbing the land of the Native Americans. This acted as a safety valve to direct the potential for rebellion and energetic layers westwards. This was completed at the end of the nineteenth century. Powerful movements of the working class then developed, of which London was an important part. Eugene Debs in the election of 1912 received one million votes standing on what would be seen today as a revolutionary programme. The equivalent figure in a US election today would be nearly eight million votes for a socialist!

Debs and London symbolised the reawakening of the US working class. Later developments cut across this radicalisation: the first world war, the tumultuous events of the 1930s and the long boom resulting from the second world war and its aftermath. These later tended to soften class relations. Therefore London was better known more for his powerful stories than his socialist message. That will now change as the colossal class polarisation develops in the US as a consequence of an economic and social crisis, with similarities to the capitalism of London’s day.

Even reading this book, flawed though it is in some respects, should encourage many to explore Jack London’s life and his writings. Read London in the original and wonder at the achievements of this giant of the US and the world labour movement who produced more than 200 short stories, 400 non-fiction pieces and 20 novels in the space of 18 years. Even the ‘bad’ or ‘not so good’ novels and short stories are interesting. His best work is simply a scintillating read.


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