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International Socialism, March 1975


Bryan Rees

In Dubious Battle


From International Socialism, No.76, March 1975, pp.39-40.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In Dubious Battle
John Steinbeck
New English Library, 50p.

JOHN Steinbeck, who wrote In Dubious Battle, considered it to be his best book. Yet for all that it has been the most difficult of his books to get hold of – most bookshops won’t have it in stock, and more often than not haven’t even heard of it. It hasn’t even made the Penguin Modern Classics series where most of his work can be found.

It is fortunate therefore that a new paperback edition is now available and at a price which workers can afford. For without any doubt, In Dubious Battle should have a place on every worker’s bookshelf.

Maybe it’s not so surprising that In Dubious Battle has not been widely available. It’s a political novel, a book about workers in a fight. Set in California in the 1930s, it centres on a strike by fruit tramps, whole families who move from place to place as the season progresses picking apples, oranges, even cotton; families with no security save the belongings they can get into their battered old cars and trucks. The strike begins as a result of an imposed wage cut by the ranch owners – if they succeed it means that in the next valley where the cotton crop is nearly ready to be picked the wages there will be cut even more. The pickers are angry but not organised, frustrated but with no direction.

Into this situation, Steinbeck introduces Mac and Jim – Mac, the experienced revolutionary and Jim, the new recruit, who is out on his first job in the field.

‘If we can get a good ruckus going down there we might be able to spread it over to the cotton fields in Tandale. And then we would have something ...’

The introduction of two organisers transforms the book. It is not just the story of the strike – it is an attempt to get to the roots of the situation – to move inside the characters and to examine their methods and reactions to the situation as it develops, to see how men function as a collective, to see the point at which they lose their nerve, and to show bom how men’s ideas of their abilities develop in a situation of struggle and how an idea of the future and change grows out of that struggle.

The book has an uncanny way of setting the reader in a situation which he or she can relate to their day-to-day experience in factories. Take Al Anderson, one of many sympathisers whose lunch wagon is smashed by the ranch bosses’ vigilantes. It forces him to make a decision to join the Party:

‘I want to be against ’em,’ Al cried, ‘I want to be fightin’ ’em all my life. I want to be on the other side!’

And then Mac breaks in:

‘By god it’s funny. Guy after guy gets knocked into our side by a cop’s night stick. Every time they maul hell out of a bunch of men, we get a flood of applications. Why, there’s a Red Squad cop in Los Angeles that sends us more members than a dozen of our organisers.’

In Dubious Battle is a fantastically stimulating book. It is not without its faults though. The way Steinbeck uses Mac and Jim in particular can be clumsy and even crude – it is difficult to know why this is. A possible answer is that Steinbeck seems to be isolated in the movement he is describing. How involved he was with the revolutionary left in the USA I don’t know, but the book gives a feeling of isolation.

Nevertheless it is a book that deserves a much wider audience among workers. There aren’t many books on our side-this one is.

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Last updated on 30.1.2008