From Socialist Review, No. 225, December 1998.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The People of the Abyss
Jack London describes the horrors of working class life in East End London in 1902. He describes the misery of the homeless and unemployed but also the poor lives of a cook on a 90 hour week and a cobbler with teeth black and rotten from spitting metal tacks.
His descriptions of homeless lives ring true today. We are reminded that locked parks and spiked railings are to stop the homeless from sleeping on the grass at night. They sleep in the day not from laziness but because the police keep them on the move at night.
Brilliantly, he contrasts the colour and elaborate tomfoolery of Edward VII’s coronation with the grey misery of the East End. He hates the 500 hereditary peers who then owned 32 percent of the country’s wealth. The coronation was a ‘gala night for the homeless’, as they could sleep on the Embankment because the police were elsewhere.
The author identifies with workers and doesn’t sit in judgment: ‘The English working class may be said to be soaked in beer [but] not only is the beer unfit for people to drink, but too often the men and women are unfit to drink it. Hunger, squalor, overcrowding drives them to the glitter and clatter of the pub ... Man cannot be worked worse than a horse is worked, and be housed and fed as a pig is housed and fed, and at the same time have clean and wholesome ideas and aspirations.’ He attacks the upper class moralising ‒ ‘the lie they spread is thrift’ ‒ and argues the thrifty worker is a menace because he undermines wage levels and increases poverty. Poverty is not about individual character defects. He uses hard socialist facts about incomes and expenditure to show this and backs his case histories with figures on industrial accidents, infant deaths, pauperisation and the vicious class nature of the law.
Not all his writing is socialist. He has a racist admiration for the ‘best of the breed who helped build the British Empire’. There are contradictions and gaps in his understanding. He expresses vividly the waste and chaos of the system and class oppression ‒ ‘Why do millions starve when five men can produce bread for a thousand?’, but he strangely concludes that the fault lies with civilisation and mismanagement.
Nevertheless, this book is powerful. New Labour MPs wanting to undermine welfare should be forced to read it.
Last updated: 30.11.2010