Jack London: Burning Man Portrait of an American Socialist

I

On December 21, 1905, Jack London—the 29-year-old, California-born, best-selling American author of Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf—took the podium at Harvard to speak to a thousand or more undergraduates on the subject of revolution. London had written his talk on the Sacramento River, and delivered it for the first time, on January 20, 1905, to students at the University of California at Berkeley. All through 1905, when his own personal life whirled about in a state of upheaval—he divorced his first wife, married his second wife—he spoke to eager, enthusiastic crowds. By the time he stood before the audience at Harvard—wearing the white silk shirt that had become as much a part of his public persona as his wide-brimmed western hat—he’d mastered the art of public speaking.

“I received a letter the other day,” London began, as though talking to a small circle of his closest friends. “It was from a man in Arizona. It began ‘Dear Comrade.’ It ended, ‘Yours for the Revolution.’ I replied to that letter and my letter began ‘Dear Comrade.’ It ended, ‘Yours for the Revolution.'”  Two hours later, London finished his remarks, with two short, provocative sentences, “The revolution is here, now. Stop it who can.” Moments later, Mother Jones—the legendary working class organizer—climbed the stage and kissed him on both cheeks, while the students gave him a standing ovation and invited him to join them at a fraternity party—an invitation he eagerly accepted.

Much the same scenario played itself out wherever London spoke that year. Indeed, in 1905 Jack London could rightly claim to be the poster boy for American socialism. Even Emma Goldman, the Russian-born advocate of anarchism, birth control and free speech, and Eugene Victor Debs, the American-born Socialist Party candidate for President, played supporting roles in a drama that cast him in a staring, heroic role. A man on fire, caught up in the political fury of that era when socialism grew by leaps and bounds, he inspired a generation and found that his words reached workers and intellectuals around the world.

No one in the American socialist movement at the turn of the last century had a more global perspective—he traveled all around the world and wrote about the world from England to Korea, the South Pacific to Alaska. At the same time, no one plunged as deep down into the local and the regional as did London. Rooted in his native California, he brought to socialism a distinctly western American perspective associated with wild, wide-open spaces, and rugged individualism. Though he had lived a rough-and-tumble life on the road among vagabonds and tramps, he had a sensitive nature and a deeply spiritual perspective. He loved poetry—loved John Keats and Oscar Wilde—and loved to gaze at the stars in the night skies, and loved the divinity he saw in humanity. For Jack London, beauty and socialism seemed to go hand in hand.

If London’s body of work—his novels, speeches, essays and stories—seems less tarnished by the vicissitudes of time than the work of so many of his contemporaries, it seems fair to say that his art gave him his edge. He thought of rhetoric as an art, and propaganda as an art, and socialism as an art, too. An author who cared about language, and the sound of words, and about the felicities of style and form, he refused to crank out books with simple socialist sermons, or to deliver speeches with clichés about oppression. He wrote no formulaic fiction, no form letters, and created few if any stereotypical portraits of strikers, bosses, and working class organizers. Jack London put the “stamp of self,” as he called it, on almost every word he wrote. He would not become a cog in a machine or a movement, and he would not regard or treat readers as faceless, nameless masses, either. Time and again, he wrote from his own unique experiences as a worker and as a socialist, and time and again he called out to individuals and appealed to them on the basis of their individual humanity.

So, for example, in the talk he entitled “Revolution” he described the lives of specific men and women—Frank Mallin, Mary Mead, and James Gallin—not simply “oppressed workers.” Of course, at Berkeley, at Harvard, and in New York at the Grand Central Palace, where he spoke to women in furs and men in tuxedoes and black hats, he also managed to communicate a sense of the grandeur of ordinary human beings toiling to survive. Even The New York Times acknowledged his ability to make himself into an icon emblematic of the heroic worker. A January 1906 article that appeared soon after his Harvard talk, entitled “Jack London the Socialist—A Character Study,” noted that the author symbolized “the rugged honesty of labor” in its heroic battle with—and here The Times quoted London  himself—”the villainy of capital.” Indeed, as The Times article suggested, every revolutionary movement needs a Jack London, a youthful, charismatic figure in whose person a defiant generation sees the reflection of its own dreams and hopes. And, at the same time, no revolutionary movement can survive, much less thrive, if it’s made up only of Jack Londons. It took men and women like Eugene Victor Debs, Daniel De Leon and Mother Jones, who committed themselves to the long haul, day-in and day-out, to build the socialist movement in America. Of course, it takes all manner of men and women to make a revolution. London contributed in his own inimitable way and carved out a place for himself in the pantheon of American socialists, along with Debs, De Leon and Mother Jones.

At Harvard, London’s talk had been sponsored by the local branch of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society (ISS), an organization he created, with a little help from his socialist friends, in New York, in September 1905. Both literally and figuratively, the ISS gave birth to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the 1960s radical organization (ISS led to the formation of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), and LID led in turn to the formation of SDS). In large part, because London was the most famous socialist author in America, and perhaps the most charismatic public speaker, he had been elected president of the Society. Upton Sinclair, who had taken a break from writing a novel about the Chicago meatpacking industry called The Jungle, helped London create the ISS, and he’d been elected Vice President. Sinclair had become a socialist, in part, after reading London and he hoped to become as famous a writer as London and Jack helped him on his way. When The Jungle reached bookstores around the country in 1906, it carried a blurb from London in which he called the novel a masterpiece and noted that it did for “wage slavery” what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for chattel slavery.

These two writers—London from the West Coast, Sinclair from the East Coast, London largely self-taught and Sinclair a college graduate—called themselves friends and even comrades. And yet they were in many ways as different as two American socialists could be—as they themselves, and the larger socialist movement, recognized. Typically, when readers wrote to London to ask for his autograph he signed his name, Jack London, while Upton Sinclair would write, “The Author,” a gaff that had to be pointed out to him. In the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, Upton Sinclair played the role of the square—the “mollycoddle” as he called himself—while London played the role of the Don Juan and the libertine. When they got together informally, London drank martinis, smoked cigarettes, and regaled his milk-toast friend with tales of his own wild sexual escapades as a young man growing up in San Francisco, and on the waterfront in Oakland.

II

Born to a working class family in 1876, two years before Upton Sinclair, Jack London knew poverty and hardship of a kind that Sinclair never experienced. The daily grind of working class life—the long hours of seemingly useless toil and the unmistakable sense that hard work would never lead to wealth or success—indelibly shaped London’s outlook on the world. “I am a socialist, first, because I was born a proletarian,” he would write. Reading Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital only deepened his vision of the rapacity of capitalism, and his intuition that there had to be a far less barbaric and far more egalitarian way for human society to be organized. He also read widely in Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, and in the Darwinians, and for a time he applied the idea of the survival of the fittest to races, elevating Anglo-Saxons to an exalted position over other ethnic groups. But he also overcame this narrow perspective, for the most part, and developed a genuine respect for individuals from different cultures and races, especially if they were socialists.

Then, too, in a series of articles about boxing, he acknowledged the brilliance in the ring of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world and a symbol of the majesty of his race.

London’s radicalism also seems to have derived from his illegitimate birth, the facts of which encouraged him to see himself as a misfit, an outcast and an underdog with a mysterious past. His father, William Henry Chaney, abandoned Jack’s mother, Flora, and always denied the sexual relationship that led to her pregnancy, even when his son, as an adult, presented him with irrefutable evidence. When Flora married John London, a veteran of the Civil War, Jack then eight months old and still in the cradle, found himself with a kindly stepfather. Later, he would transform the rather ordinary John London into an intrepid pioneer—”a soldier, scout, backwoodsman, trapper and wanderer,” or so he told his publisher. 

Unlike Upton Sinclair, who was raised in the Episcopalian Church by middle class parents descended from wealthy Southern families, Jack London grew up among kooky California spiritualists. As a boy, he watched his mother perform seances and read the minds—she claimed—of Oakland’s citizens who paid her handsomely. As an adult, he believed in astral projection and believed, too, in his own power to read and predict the political future of America, even as he insisted he was a materialist and a scientific socialist.

Julian Hawthorne, the son of novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, interviewed him in 1905, shortly before his Harvard talk, and concluded, “He will not be consistent, but he can never be anything but honest.” London’s contradictory nature had appeared full blown in the 1890s, the decade that, more than any other, defined his personality, driving him far from California, and bringing him home again—a pattern of flux and fixity that followed him the rest of his life. In 1893, at the age of 17, he worked as an able-bodied seaman on a sealing schooner, Sophia Sutherland,in the Bering Sea. At 18, he set out with a contingent—or army, as men called themselves—of unemployed workers marching to Washington D.C. to demand jobs. But he parted company before long to travel on his own, prompting George Speed, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and one of his friends, to observe, “Jack was never in the army or of it.”

Collective life rarely if ever suited him, though he celebrated it in stories and novels. Individualism seemed to come to him naturally, and he did his best to make his own gospel of the self compatible with the creed of socialism. “The first principle” of the socialist movement,” he wrote, is “selfishness, pure, downright, selfishness.” His views on the subject were extreme, but even Daniel De Leon, one of the leading American socialist theorists of the day, defended the kind of individualism London admired. Capitalism had been “the destroyer of individualism,” De Leon wrote. “We of the socialist movement hold that we are the real promoters of individualism, or individuality.”

London made his way on his own to Buffalo, New York and promptly ran afoul of the law. Arrested on June 29, 1894, he served a 30-day sentence for vagrancy at the Erie County Penitentiary, an experience that instilled in him a life-long sense of kinship with men behind bars, and a hatred for prisons of all kinds, especially San Quentin in San Francisco Bay.

Back in Oakland, he attended high school, older and wiser than most of his fellow schoolmates, and published a fiery essay in the Aegis, the student magazine, in which he unfurled for the first time in print his emerging revolutionary sentiments. “Arise, ye Americans, patriots and optimists!” he wrote. “Awake! Seize the reins of a corrupted government and educate your masses.” Also in 1896, he joined the Socialist Labor Party, then under the leadership of Daniel De Leon, the American-born orator and pamphleteer who explained, “Reform means a change of externals; revolution means a change from within”—a sentiment that found a sympathetic chord in London, who aimed continually to recreate his own self and transform his inner life. 

Like De Leon and like Eugene Victor Debs, whom he admired and supported when he ran for the office of U.S. president, London became a flamboyant speaker with a loyal following. Seven nights a week, he climbed a soapbox to talk to the working class crowds that gathered outside Oakland City Hall. The Democrats and the Republicans were “remarkably similar,” he complained. The Democrats represented small capitalists and the Republicans represented big capitalists. The socialists stood for social and economic democracy—for genuine “equality of opportunity.”

Word of his verbal pyrotechnics spread quickly. The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed him “The Boy Socialist of Oakland”—he was just 20—and a reporter for the Raven noted, “To hear Mr. London is an education. His ideas are so unique, so free of convention, so overpowering.” In 1896, he was arrested while speaking on the subject of free speech and taken to jail. The following year he went off to Alaska to dig for gold and make his fortune only to return home empty-handed, but with his head bursting with ideas and images for stories of ice and fire, Indians and white men, silence and storms that soon spilled on to the page. Almost overnight, he became a national literary sensation and, even as his fame and his financial success grew by leaps and bounds, his commitment to socialism soared. In 1901 he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Oakland, as a socialist, calling for public ownership of utilities. When the anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in September of that year, London allowed that socialists did not believe in assassination. But he urged radicals everywhere to defend Czolgosz, and he encouraged Christian ministers to lead their congregations in prayer for his life.

In 1902, he traveled to London, England to write about the poverty at the heart of the British Empire. His timing couldn’t have been more propitious, coinciding as it did with the coronation of King Edward VII. Wearing “rags and tatters” to conceal his identity as an American reporter, he observed up-close the stark contrast between the façade of imperial grandeur and the overwhelming horror and despair of ghetto life. The People of the Abyss—the book that emerged from his experience—established his global reputation as an impassioned, yet unsentimental writer for the working class. Though London describes himself in The People of the Abyss as an evolutionary not a revolutionary, and though he calls for the “slow development and metamorphosis of things,” the book boils over with angry condemnation of class society, the monarchy and the British Empire itself.

“In a civilization frankly materialistic and based upon property, not soul, it is inevitable that property shall be exalted over soul, that crimes against property shall be considered far more serious than crimes against the person,” he wrote. London urged the British aristocracy to learn the “sociology of Christ.” He invited the government to reorganize itself and place “a capable management at the head.” Nowhere in The People of the Abyss did he suggest that the English working class might rise up, overturn their masters and create a government of their own. Indeed, when confronted by the lack of radical fervor among the British working classes, he seemed to lose his hope for a socialist future. “I should like to have socialism,” he wrote. “Yet I know that socialism is not the next step; I know that capitalism must live its life first.”

As soon as the revolutionary movements began to gather momentum again in Russia and America, his own political passions quickly rekindled. In 1904, he wrote optimistically, “The socialist movement is limited only by the limits of the planet.” Conservative newspaper editors began to denounce him as a menace to society. “Jack London is a firebrand and red-flag anarchist,” the San Francisco Newsletter proclaimed in March 1905. “He should be arrested and prosecuted for treason.” Indeed, in the talk he called “Revolution” he called for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, including acts of sabotage and even assassination. In “Revolution,” London discarded whatever remnants of reformism remained in his political arsenal. Now, he embraced class warfare. In the battle between the rich and the poor—the “oppressed” and their “oppressors”—he saw a confrontation between good and evil. “The capitalist class offers nothing that is clean, noble, and alive,” he exclaimed. “The revolutionists offer everything that is clean, noble and alive.” Never before had he been so absolute. In 1905, he allowed for no middle ground and no compromise, either.

The idea of revolution seized hold of his imagination and he pursued it wildly. “Here is romance,” he gushed when he spoke to students at Berkeley and at Harvard, hoping to seduce them into the fold of socialism. “Romance so colossal that it seems to be beyond the ken of ordinary mortals.” Proudly calling himself “Comrade Jack London,” he put himself in the harness of the revolution. He was even prepared to give up his own coveted individual freedom he explained in “What Life Means to Me” (1905), an autobiographical essay that was much admired by V.I. Lenin—an essay in which he compared American society to a rotten house. His own task, he said, was to join with other revolutionaries and, with “crowbar in hand,” rock “the whole edifice” and then “build a new habitation for mankind.” Now his dream was to live among “class conscious working men.” Money, success and fame no longer seduced him, he said. “I care no longer to climb,” he wrote, as though he’d attained a kind of inner peace.

III

In 1905, the same year he warned Americans that the Socialist Party would “confiscate all the possessions of the capitalist class,” London bought 129 acres of prime real estate in northern California, the first of several major real estate investments. He also began to accumulate all sorts of material possessions. No wonder Mark Twain remarked that London had better watch out—the radical movement he supported might confiscate his own property. Still, there was something in the nature of a utopian enterprise at “Beauty Ranch,” as he called his farm, and that often served as a home for ex-convicts from San Quentin. Then, too, he seems to have taken hold of the idea—expressed by the Industrial Workers of the World whom he greatly admired—of building the new society in the shell of the old. London became a pioneer in the burgeoning back-to-the land movement, and began to experiment with ecologically sound ideas about farming.

Though he would lead a comfortable bourgeois life, by almost anyone’s standards, he would go on calling himself a revolutionary and a socialist. “I am a hopelessly non-compromising revolutionist,” he wrote in 1909. He enjoyed his wealth and his status in the socialist party and he’d tell friends, with tongue in cheek, that he was the one and only socialist in America who made money from socialism. When the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910 he supported it, and that year, too, “Revolution,” his 1905 speech, appeared in print in a collection of his work entitled Revolution and Other Essays.  In 1912, he exclaimed, “I love socialism,” though he was quick to add, “there is the other passion in me. The sky, the sea, the hills, wilds—I just love them and must have them.” The sea pulled at his innermost being, and he traveled widely with Charmian, his second wife—a feminist, a socialist and an author in her own right—whom he had married in November 1905, and with whom he went on a honeymoon in Cuba in January 1906.

In the last decade of his life, London’s energies were devoted to ranching rather than to socialism. Moreover with the vast sums of money he made from the sale of his bestselling books, he bought all the material things that had once been denied to him—machines, and elegant clothes—though they never made him happy, as he came to realize. He wore silk pajamas to bed, and drank martinis that were pre-mixed and shipped to him in Sonoma County from a bar in Oakland. Then, too, he had a Japanese manservant who helped him dress, undress and prepare for his bath. The more material possessions he acquired, the emptier he felt. Without the immediacy of the socialist cause to buoy his spirits he became increasingly depressed and even suicidal.

But he continued to write until the end. In the last decade of his life, London developed his ideas in two major works of fiction that have, unfortunately, been ignored—while his dog stories have been widely heralded—perhaps because of their overtly political themes. In The Iron Heel (1908),afuturistic novel, he describes a bloody assault on the socialist movement, the murder of its Berkeley-born leader Ernest Everhard and the coming of a brutal dictatorship to America. It seems likely that he wrote the novel as a reply to Upton Sinclair, who had written a utopian novel entitled The Industrial Republic (1906) in which he predicted that the publisher William Randolph Hearst would usher in a socialist society. London would have none of that poppycock and he set to work describing a nightmare of repression come true in America.

Told in the first person by a fugitive in hiding from the police, the novel offers the vision of a nation living in fear and terror; not surprisingly, it influenced George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. When it was first published, The Iron Heel was often condemned in the socialist movement for its pessimism, but when World War I broke out and capitalist nations went to war with one another, it became a popular book, and London was praised for his prescience. In 1937, the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described London as a “revolutionary artist,” and praised him for describing in The Iron Heel what “official socialism” refused to see—the collaboration between elements of the working class and the ruling class to make fascism possible in Germany and Italy. In the 1960s, during the war in Vietnam, the novel enjoyed a rebirth and was lauded by both Americans and Vietnamese as a classic American work of fiction about imperialism.

In The Valley of the Moon (1913), London describes a working class couple who leave urban Oakland and settle in rural Sonoma County, where they begin an idyllic life close to the land. Clearly, London modeled his hero and heroine on himself and his wife Charmian. The first part of the novel offers a beautiful and moving account of working-class life, as fine as any in 20th-century American literature. The novel’s heroine, Saxon Brown, is a complex and convincing feminist. The hero, Billy Roberts, embodies the author’s own feeling that he had been betrayed by the socialist cause to which he devoted so much of his life. In March 1916, eight months before he died, he resigned from the Socialist Labor Party, not because he had lost his faith in socialism—he believed in “direct action and in syndicalism,” he said—but because socialists had lost their faith in revolution. Now, he claimed, the party was “doomed to become the bulwark of conservatism.” He began the letter, as always, “Dear Comrades,” and ended it, as always, “Yours for the revolution.” To the end, he seems to have thought of himself as a revolutionary, albeit with a sense of bitterness and betrayal.

In September 1916, just two months before his death, he wrote bitterly, “I gave a quarter of a century of the flower of my life to the revolutionary movement only to find that it was as supine under the heel as it was a thousand centuries before Christ was born.” In the wake of World War I, the socialist movement in America and in Europe had indeed lost much of its revolutionary fervor. Many internationalists who once urged the workers of the world to unite to defeat capitalism, turned into nationalists and patriots and so French workers and American workers went to war against German workers. London himself supported the U.S. entry into World War I and the defeat of Germany. The international solidarity he espoused in 1905 vanished, and he turned into a fierce defender of American sovereignty and the right of the nation to arm itself and protect its borders against enemies.

Near the very end of his life, London planned to write what he called his Socialist Autobiography, a book in which he would explain, he said, “Why I, an utter Socialist, ceased being an active socialist.” Since he never wrote it, we can only guess what he might have said. If he had shown the sort of honesty for which Julian Hawthorne and others gave him credit, he surely would have written about his own illusions and his disillusionment. He might have turned to Sigmund Freud and to Carl Jung, whose works he was reading, and whose ideas he admired, to explain and even psychoanalyze himself.

It’s also difficult to say what political path he would have followed if he had lived another decade or two. Floyd Dell, the preeminent socialist literary critic of the day, suggested that, like John Reed, he would have supported the Russian Revolution. Perhaps so. Lenin’s energy would have appealed to him, and he might have admired the daring of the Bolsheviks. But he loved truth too much to have remained silent about the crimes of the Stalin era. Unlike Upton Sinclair, who knew about the Soviet gulags and yet refused to speak out, London—with his hatred of prisons—would have spoken out strongly in condemnation.

Like other American radicals in the 20th century, he had been seduced by success, fame and money. And, like many of them, he came to discover the hollowness of success and fame, and the failure of money and material things to fill his deepest needs. In John Barleycorn, his memoir about his own abiding alcoholism, he talks about his suicidal feelings, and explains that success and recognition had come to be so many “dead ashes.” He also writes, “I am afraid I always was an extremist.” That he was. He wanted to be a meteor in the night sky, he said, and a raging fire. “I would rather be ashes than dust!” he exclaimed. “I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot.” Rot for London meant the bourgeois lifestyle to which he had become accustomed, and found stifling, and from which he meant to escape.

Perhaps Jack London accidentally took an overdose of the drugs—including morphine—that killed him. On the other hand, he may have deliberately chosen to take his own life. In any case, he burned out in a blaze of glory at the age of 40. The author of nearly 50 books, several of them classics of American literature, his work remained in print for most of the 20th century, while his role as a socialist was often forgotten and largely neglected.

Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary, would have understood London’s flamboyant personality. By temperament an extremist, Che chose to wage guerrilla warfare in Bolivia, a country he knew little about—rather than remain a government functionary in Havana. He, too, went out in a blaze of glory and became an icon. Other less global figures of 1960s radicalism, including Abbie Hoffman of the Yippies and Huey Newton of the Black Panthers—both of them immensely creative as well as deeply self-destructive—died while still relatively young men, Newton shot and killed in the streets of Oakland, Hoffman by his own hand. Unable to adjust to the conservative Reagan era, they chose to burn rather than to rot.

The notion of dying young on the barricades has long appealed to revolutionaries, and London and Hoffman and Newton were not immune to the call of martyrdom. Perhaps they all lost sight of something Daniel De Leon said, in his 1896 speech, “Revolution or Reform” that seems as timely as ever. “Reform means a change of externals,” he noted. “Revolution means a change from within.” That change from within eluded Jack London near the end of his life. Still, it was the change he wanted as much as any other, the change he dreamt about and wrote about, and that appeals to socialists today as clearly and as loudly as any call for revolution he ever uttered.

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