From International Socialism (1st series), No.96, March 1977, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Jack London – the man, the writer, the rebel
by Robert Barltrop
Pluto Press 1977; 224pp, £4.50
ANYONE who has ever been under the spell of Jack London’s writings can never wholly escape from it, and for them Barltrop’s book will be of absorbing interest. It must also have a strong appeal to all who are involved in the international socialist movement: for London was not only a wondrous teller of tales, read by millions throughout the world, he is also a part of the revolutionary socialist tradition, and it is in this light that Barltrop views his life activity.
It is beyond question that London was, and still is, widely regarded as a man of the revolutionary left. I recall a comrade of the late twenties, Bill Gribble, woodworker, ex-I.W.W. agitator, whose constant injunction to all and sundry was – read Marx, read Jack London! At my hand is an advertisement for the old The Plebs magazine that bears also the legend – Read the Works of Jack London; and I see that Patrick Renshaw in his book The Wobblies (1967) lists The Iron Heel under ‘IWW fiction’.
The theme of most of his writings was the struggle for survival, usually in terms of the individual, and this, as Barltrop shows, is at the root of the worst side of London – his racism and sexism. But, as Barltrop explains, the circumstances of London’s childhood and youth, the ferocious character of the class-struggle then raging, made him a rebel against the existing social order. Imbued with an insatiable thirst for knowledge he read voraciously all the available literature on the social question and came to see that only the proletariat, through its struggle as a class, could overthrow the old world and build the new.
Of London’s books there are two that have a particular appeal to socialists: The People of the Abyss (1903) and The Iron Heel (1908). The first is a profoundly moving account at first-hand of the East End destitute, the slum-dwellers, the people ‘at the bottom of The Pit’. Barltrop quotes London:
‘Of all my books, I love most The People of the Abyss. No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor.’
But how could Barltrop make such a blanket indictment of London’s other books by saying that this book was ‘perhaps, the only truly sincere work he’ wrote’?
Again, I must part company with Barltrop on his assessment of The Iron Heel, which is not far removed from that of Orwell, who wrote:
‘London could foresee Fascism because he had a Fascist streak in himself; or at any rate a marked strain of brutality and an almost unconquerable preference for the strong man against the weak.’
This, of a man who gave his four preferences for a career as ‘music, poetry, the writing of philosophic, social, and political essays, and last, and least, fiction writing’. He disagrees with Trotsky’s view: ‘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’, averring that London could not have been ‘conscious of fascism as a political creed’. Even granted that fascism had a coherent political creed, this is not the point. The point is, was it possible for London to foresee the emergence, in his words, of ‘despotism as relentless and terrible as any despotism that has blackened the pages of the history of man’?
For London and his peers the terrorism and murderous violence resorted to by the ‘robber barons’ against the American labour movement was a matter of undeniable fact. The Chicago police frame-up (1886), the Homestead Steel Strike (1892), the Pulman rail strike (1894), and a host of like events demonstrated the lengths to which the ruling class would go to maintain their power to exploit the masses. They would stop at nothing. Their attitude was well summed up in the words of one of the robber barons, Cornelius Vanderbilt:
‘Law? What do I care about law? Hain’t I got the power?’
It was not therefore difficult for London’s imaginative genius to conceive of the possible reign of ‘the Oligarchy,’ even if similar ideas had not already been in the air for some time. In a series of articles published in The International Socialist Review (May, 1905 to October 1906) Louis Boudin had written:
‘Certainly there is nothing in the capitalist system to prevent it from relapsing into a sort of feudalism or slavery, with the collective ownership of production by an aristocracy of the capitalist class, instead of developing into a socialist-democratic system’.
Barltrop sees The Iron Heel as carrying ‘the message of Jack’s loss of faith’, as his farewell to socialism. Trotsky, and with him Bukharin, saw it as a dire warning of what occurred if the proletariat failed to obtain the leadership requisite to its historic mission. Bukharin related the lesson of The Iron Heel also to the inner-party struggle in Russia (he also used the phrase in his Imperialism and World Economy). Degeneration of the party would lead to the iron heel of ‘a militaristic state capitalism ... among the elites the vilest militarism intensifies, as does the brutal and bloody repression of the proletariat’ (see S.F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, 1974).
One of the merits of Barltrop’s study is that it raises many issues that are of immediate concern to the revolutionary movement of today. For example, Everhard, the ‘hero’ of The Iron Heel – does he represent merely the concept of elitism or a recognition of the vital importance of leadership? How important is the role of the individual (Trotsky – ‘... the October Revolution would still have taken place – on condition that Lenin was present and in command’)!
In reply to right-wing critics who charged that his extreme views had set back socialism by five years, London replied that, on the contrary, he had advanced the cause ‘by at least five minutes’. The claim was modest enough, and more than justified. He was a phenomenon of the working people, who in a short but eventful life produced work that gave joy to vast numbers and brought many recruits to the armies of liberation. In reading of him let us never forget that, with all his many faults and failings, at the heart of him was always the noble urge to serve the common people and thereby all mankind.
Last updated: 25 February 2010