Today in labor history: Jack London, writer, socialist, dies at 40


Jack London, novelist and passionate advocate of labor unions, socialism, and the rights of workers, died at age 40 from kidney failure on Nov. 22, 1916. Best known to U.S. readers as the author of Call of the Wild, London also wrote several powerful works dealing with workers, capitalism and socialism - these include his famous dystopian novel The Iron Heel, his non-fiction critique of capitalism and poverty The People of the Abyss, and an essay collection titled The War of the Classes.

Born in San Francisco in 1876, John Griffith London was the child of an unmarried mother who had come from a once wealthy family that had fallen on hard times. He took the name of John London, a partially disabled Civil War veteran his mother married in 1876, the year Jack was born.

Growing up in poverty, London had a youth filled with hard work and adventure. Before he reached the age of 19, he worked in a cannery, a jute mill, and a streetcar power plant, sailed as a seaman on a sealing boat, hoboed around the country, and joined Kelly's Army of unemployed protesters against economic inequality in the U.S. At 19, he crammed a four-year high school course into one year and then enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, but quit after a year because of financial hardship. Instead he joined the Klondike gold rush.

London only spent a brief time in the Klondike in the winter of 1897. Like most gold seekers, he suffered extreme physical hardship and his prospecting efforts failed. But he returned to California with a trove of stories that eventually made him wealthy. He published his first stories of the Alaskan frontier in 1899, and eventually produced over 50 volumes of short stories, novels, and political essays. His 1903 novel about a domestic dog who joins an Alaskan wolf pack, The Call of the Wild, brought him lasting fame.

Despite his early identification with rugged individualism and fierce competition, London, through his life experiences, became an outspoken socialist and supporter of the American labor movement. He colorfully described his transformation in a 1903 essay titled How I Became a Socialist.

A commentator describes London's novel The Iron Heel as "London's attempt to consolidate his ideas about the struggle between the working class and the looming spectre of capitalism, as epitomised by the shadowy The Oligarchy. It was Marxism for fans of ripping yarns."

"One message of the novel stands true today: those on the poverty line can only achieve some sort of economic level playing field against the ruthless elite - identified today as that 1% of the planet who own 50% of the wealth - by joining together for common causes."

Photo: Portrait of young Jack London. UC Berkeley, The Bancroft Library


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  • Thanks to the inimitable Ben for his guidance and information in comment.
    We do not see enough of this kind of identification of divisive trends in U. S. history, socialist, and U. S. labor history, and the recording of it.
    The Asian,(this includes the Native American, in its various tribal breakouts) Latino, and especially African contributions to U. S. labor and what will have to be done to continue these contributions, will have to be recognized as the warp and woof of labor in the United States of America.
    We will have no progress in socialism, democracy, peace, land nor bread and butter without combating the "White Only" menace to labor and humanity.
    "White Only" advocates and their apologists, are enemies of humankind and labor no matter what "classic" they write.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 11/22/2013 3:53pm (2 years ago)

  • ummm wasn't he an open white supremacist?

    "I am first of all a white man, and only then a Socialist."

    Posted by Mike, 11/22/2013 3:30pm (2 years ago)

  • It is troubling that you would publish an article on Jack London without discussing and critiquing his open white supremacy. This was not an incidental part of his politics, and was not just a matter of being a product of his time. He was a bitter enemy of the anti-racist wing of the SPUSA, fought for resolutions against Asian workers, embraced social-Darwinist logic for imperialism and declared "I am first of all a white man, and only then a Socialist."

    This information is all over the internet, even his Wikipedia article, so I assume your writers came across it and chose to exclude it.

    I am all for recovering the lost history of socialism in U.S. history, but if this is not combined with a penetrating critique of that history, I don't see what good it does. The CPUSA was formed precisely to separate from the fools like Jack London, so why rehabilitate him 100 years later?

    Posted by Ben, 11/22/2013 3:14pm (2 years ago)

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