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Paul Schapiro

Workers Bookshelf

Jack London, American Rebel

(7 June 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 23, 7 June 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Jack London, American Rebel: A Collection of His ‘Social’ Writings
edited by Philip S. Foner
The Citadel Press, 533 pp., $3.50

Jack London’s socialist writings inspired a generation of working-class militants all over the world. The two great leaders of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, both expressed admiration for London’s novel The Iron Heel. The power lodged in this book and in some of London’s other indictments of capitalism still retains its explosive force. It is good, therefore, that a collection of his socialist writings has recently been published.

The collection, to be sure, leaves a good deal to be desired. Its editor, Philip S. Foner, a Stalinist academician, has appended to it a biographical study comprising one-fourth of the text. Although he gives an adequate account of the tragedy of London’s life, his study is lacking in psychological insight. We see the conflicting drives within London that finally, for all his tremendous vitality, destroyed him, causing him a few months before his death, which was probably by suicide, to give up the socialist movement which was the source of his strength. We see only hazily, however, the origins of these drives and how they worked themselves out.

The book has selections from London’s autobiographical writings dealing with the life of workers sweated dry in their labors for the bosses and of tramps and slum-dwellers submerged in the cesspool of capitalist society in which London is at his revolutionary best. His carefully reasoned essays are derivative and at times spuriously literary, forLondon thought with his blood rather than with his brain. But his descriptions of his experiences are glowing with life.

The Iron Heel

The book also has some of the best passages of The Iron Heel. Although London was not a theoretician, The Iron Heel, which embarrassed the reformist socialist leaders by its vivid depictions of brutal reaction and revolutionary struggle, so that they complained that it gave “a new impetus to the old and generally discarded cataclysmic theory,” has proved to be a remarkable prophecy of fascism. London had learned from his own experience the meaning of the class struggle. “History shows,” he once said, “that no master class is ever willing to let go without a quarrel.” This basic understanding was made real for him not only by his observation of the ruthless strike-breaking methods of the American corporations but by his reading of the murderous suppression of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and of the heroic fight of the Russian workers.

With this fundamental insight and his artist’s imagination London produced his blood-stained vision of triumphant counter-revolution, Condemned as romantically lurid at the time of its publication in 1908, the vision is pale beside the reality of the fascist police-state which he prophesied.

The Iron Heel, however, is not only a grim warning which still retains its validity; it is a statement of faith in the working class, which London portrays as being delivered to the Iron Heel by the criminal blindness of its reformist leaders, sold out by the labor bureaucrats and savagely repressed by a huge police force whose secret agents ferret out the revolutionists in labor’s ranks, but as being indestructible, constantly renewing itself and finally, inevitably victorious. This warning and statement of faith is presented in vigorous, sometimes electrifying prose. A vividly written, graphic tract rather than a novel with fully rounded characters, The Iron Heel in such passages as the description of the Chicago Commune becomes literature of a high order.

The Iron Heel was Jack London’s great contribution to the revolutionary movement. Eight years after its publication he resigned from the Socialist party “because of its lack of fire and tight, and its loss of emphasis upon the class struggle.” Spiritually weakened and confused by his own internal contradictions, he was unable, however, to carry on a fight against reformism in conjunction with other left-wingers. But although London could not carry on the fight, he did state the premise on which it had to be conducted: “The working class, by fighting, by never fusing, by never making terms with the enemy, [can] emancipate itself.” This revolutionary intransigence, violated by the opportunists of all stripes, from the Social-Democrats of the First World War to the Stalinists of the Second World War, has been the fundamental tenet of the revolutionary movement from the time of Marx.

Among the productions of this great historical movement that can inspire working class militants of today as of yesterday aye the socialist writings of Jack London.

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Last updated: 17 October 2022