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The Soul of Jack London, Part 4


Jack London near the end of his life

3,060 words

Part 4 of 4

Jack London was a fervent and active member of the American socialist movement for many years. He, however, possessed a radically different interpretation of socialist doctrine from that of the mainstream of the movement. Frederick Palmer, who served with him as a war correspondent during the Russo‑Japanese War, described him in his autobiography, With My Own Eyes, as:

. . . the most inherently individualistic and un‑Socialistic of all the Socialists I have ever met. . . . [H]e preferred to walk alone in aristocratic aloofness, and always in the direction he chose no matter where anybody else was going. He had his own separate mess and tent: general and private of his army of one, he rode in front of his two pack‑donkeys, which jingled with bells, the leader bearing an American flag.

For London, socialist internationalism extended only to the brotherhood of the White man. On his return from the Russo‑Japanese War he delivered a tirade against the Orientals in an address to the Oakland chapter of the Socialist Party. One of the auditors, Edmundo Peluso, recalled the event: “With evident pleasure, he described the wiliness of these ‘human burnt candles,’ as he called the officers of the Japanese General Staff, and used stronger expressions with regard to them. But his gorge rose not only at the Japanese General Staff; he cursed the entire yellow race in the most outrageous terms. Some of the comrades present were somewhat embarrassed.”

The struggle against race prejudice, especially against hatred of the “yellow” races, was part of the daily work of the socialist branches on the Pacific Coast and it was hard to conceive of Jack London, one of the foremost members of the branch, evincing race chauvinism.

Convinced that there was some misunderstanding, one of the comrades began talking to him about classes that exist in Japan as everywhere else. Another called his attention to the slogan decorating the wall over the portrait of Marx: “Workers of all countries, unite!” But this did not touch him in the least and only served to increase his passion. Pounding his fist on the table, Jack met their arguments with, “What the devil! I am first of all a white man and only then a Socialist!”

His socialist friend, Cloudesley Johns, criticized London for his combination of racialism and socialism. London refuted Johns’ criticism with the following letter, dated June 23, 1899, in which he very succinctly defines his interpretation of socialism:

Socialism is not an ideal system, devised by man for the happiness of a life; nor for the happiness of all men; but it is devised for the happiness of certain kindred races. It is devised so as to give more strength to those certain kindred favored races so that they may survive and inherit the earth to the extinction of the lesser weaker races. The very men who advocate socialism may tell you of the brotherhood of all men, and I know they are sincere, but that does not alter the law.

Johns continued to argue the matter, which brought another frank response from London in a letter dated December 12, 1899: “I do not believe in the universal brotherhood of man. I think I have said so before. I believe my race is the salt of the earth. I am a scientific socialist, not a utopian . . .”

Despite London’s maverick views and continual embarrassment of the socialist movement, his fellow socialists could not resist the temptation to capitalize on his immense popularity as a novelist. And he wrote vast quantities of socialist propaganda for them. But here, as elsewhere, his outspoken views on race and eugenics are blatantly evident. The following is from his article entitled “What Communities Lose by the Competitive System,” published in the November 1900 issue of Cosmopolitan:

The stronger, the braver, the more indomitable, are selected to go to the wars, and to die early, without offspring. The weaker are sent to the plow and permitted to perpetuate their kind. As Doctor Jordan has remarked, the best are sent forth, the second‑best remain. But it does not stop at this. The best of the second‑best are next sent, and the third‑best is left. The French peasant of to‑day demonstrates what manner of man is left to the soil after one hundred years or so of military selection. Where are the soldiers of Greece, Sparta, and Rome? They lie on countless fields of battle, and with them their descendants which were not. The degenerate peoples of those countries are the descendants of those who remained to the soil.

London expressed his concern about human intervention interfering with natural selection on the human species in the article “Wanted: A New Law of Development,” published in the August 1902 issue of The International Socialist Review. He foresaw a time when the progeny of men of lower and higher quality would possess an equal opportunity for survival, which would allow for the devolution of man. He expressed the hope that under socialist rule a premium would be placed upon the strong and efficient so that man might continue on the upward path. And in other works, such as “The Tramp” (published in The Advance, San Francisco, January 25, 1902) he attempted to distinguish between the hereditary inefficients and the worthy yeomanry that together comprised the working class.

The Iron Heel, published in 1907, was London’s most important and most militant socialist literary work. The novel has been labeled as both a “blueprint for Fascism” and a forerunner of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. London took his theme from W. J. Ghent’s Our Benevolent Feudalism, which described the integration of capital into a dictatorship. The book purports to be derived from a manuscript discovered in a hollow oak tree, seven centuries in the future. It is written by Avis, the wife of Ernest Everhard, the leader of the socialist revolution in America, and covers the struggle from 1912 to 1932. “The Iron Heel” is the term London applies to the oligarchy of American capitalists who seized power early in the 20th century, when a socialist victory at the polls seemed a real threat to them.

Even in this most important work of socialist propaganda, London’s unconventional socialist views show. In the first few pages of the book, Ernest Everhard, the socialist hero, is given the following introduction to the reader: “I have said that he was afraid of nothing. He was a natural aristocrat ‑‑ and this in spite of the fact that he was in the camp of the non‑aristocrats. He was a superman, a blond beast such as Nietzsche has described . . .”

With growing unrest occurring in the socialist camp, the oligarchy begins to crack down. Vigilante groups destroy the socialist presses and disrupt radical meetings. Strikes are suppressed by the police and the military, with thousands herded into concentration camps. The population is gradually enslaved, with no protest from the press, the churches, or the universities.

Meanwhile, the socialists and trade‑unionists naively maintain their faith in the electoral process, despite Everhard’s warnings that they must be prepared for revolutionary action. The labor movement, weak from inner divisions, is crushed, its leaders jailed and secretly executed. The Iron Heel stamps out all opposition with the aid of the Mercenaries, a professional military corps. Everhard then leads the socialists in a campaign of terrorism.

The socialist revolution is drowned in blood, Everhard is executed, and the Oligarchs rule for 300 years, until their own internal decay and a new uprising by the proles brings about the final triumph of socialism in the 22nd century AD.

The Iron Heel was never a success in the United States. The book was denounced by the American socialist movement, which claimed that its harsh and bloody scenes would discourage the proletariat. The International Socialist Review stated that the book was “well calculated . . . to repel many whose addition to our forces is sorely needed.”

The Iron Heel was followed in 1909 with another major socialist novel, Martin Eden. Written as an indictment of extreme individualism, it too drew fire from the socialist camp for its unflattering portrayal of the socialists. The novel’s protagonist is, ironically, the extreme individualist Martin Eden, a disciple of Nietzsche and Spencer who rejects socialism ‑‑ and whom London created in his own image. For, more than any of his other novels, Martin Eden is autobiographical ‑‑ and more than any other, its hero manifests the divisions in London’s own soul.

The following excerpt from Martin Eden, a description of the hero’s reaction to a Jewish socialist speaker, seems to say much about London’s own conflicting feelings toward the Jews. Remember, it was written at a time when his intellectual estimate of them still was changing, from that of a race of idealistic benefactors of mankind, whose socialism was purely altruistic, to that of Aryan man’s natural enemy, who merely used socialism as a means of organizing the Untermenschen against their natural superiors. It was the latter estimate, of course, which coincided with the gut reaction he always had felt toward them:

The speaker, a clever Jew, won Martin’s admiration at the same time that he aroused his antagonism. The man’s stooped and narrow shoulders and weazened chest proclaimed him the true child of the crowded ghetto, and strong on Martin was the age‑long struggle of the feeble, wretched slaves against the lordly handful of men who had ruled over them and would rule over them to the end of time. To Martin this withered wisp of a creature was a symbol. He was the figure that stood forth representative of the whole miserable mass of weaklings and inefficients who perished according to biological law on the rugged confines of life. They were the unfit. In spite of their cunning philosophy and of their antlike proclivities for cooperation, Nature rejected them for the exceptional man. Out of the plentiful spawn of life she flung from her prolific hand she selected only the best.


Model of Wolf House

Perhaps one of the most disturbing items for London’s socialist friends was his plan for the construction of “Wolf House,” an impressive, castle‑like residence, which brought protests that he was setting himself up as a feudal baron. Indeed, he intended that the house, which was being built in a redwood grove on his 1500‑acre ranch overlooking the Valley of the Moon, would house a London dynasty.

London had returned to the soil, just as his characters in The Valley of the Moon, leaving the outside world and creating his own. He envisioned a utopian revolutionary community arising on his ranch. He hoped that it would become self‑sufficient and would sustain his colony of relatives, guests, and workers. The community was to have its own school; and a non‑profit general store, slaughterhouse, and refrigeration plant.

Wolf House was built on a huge, floating slab large enough to support a 40‑story building, as an anti‑earthquake precaution. Redwood logs, maroon volcanic rocks, blue slate, boulders, and cement were chosen as primary building materials. Large redwood logs with their bark intact formed the carriage entrance, the pergolas, and the porches. The logs in the gables and balconies were interlaced with fruit twigs, providing a natural, earthy effect.


The ruins of Wolf House

By August 1913 the magnificent structure was completed. On the night of August 22, a few weeks before the Londons were to move in, Wolf House burned to the ground. All that remained was the outer stone shell. The cause of the fire has never been conclusively determined. Jack believed that it was set by some hysterical socialist who did not wish to see the plans for Wolf House realized.

By this time London was growing frustrated, especially with the socialist movement. He had abruptly ceased vigorous socialist activism after 1909 to devote his time to the development of his ranch. He had turned to agrarianism for his spiritual replenishment, and he was traveling the road further with Nietzsche and with the ideology of race. In notes for a book he scribbled, “My religion ‑‑ not deep and learned and philosophical ‑‑ but going Nietzsche‑like to the root of things.”

On March 7, 1916, London tendered his resignation from the Socialist Party, realizing that there was no longer a place for him in the movement. In the closing of his letter of resignation he wrote:

My final word is that liberty, freedom, and independence are royal things that cannot be presented to, or thrust upon, races or classes. If races and classes cannot rise up and by their own strength of brain and brawn wrest from the world liberty, freedom, and independence, they never, in time, can come to these royal possessions ‑‑ and if such royal things are kindly presented to them by superior individuals, on silver platters, they will know not what to do with them, will fail to make use of them, and will be what they have always been in the past ‑‑ inferior races and inferior classes.

Despite his troubles with the American socialist movement, London has enjoyed immense popularity in the Soviet Union. With the outbreak of revolution in Russia in early 1905, he became a propagandist for the struggle, signing a proclamation calling on American socialists to support the revolution and lecturing in various California cities on the subject. The Soviet government in turn has translated his books into 32 languages and printed more than 30 million copies of them. A complete set of his works, consisting of 24 volumes, was published in the U.S.S.R. between 1928 and 1929. In 1956 an eight‑volume edition of his works, with a printing of 600,000 copies, was reported to be completely subscribed to within five hours of the announcement of publication.

It would be easier to understand the Soviet government’s enthusiasm for London if none of his books had ever been published in the Soviet Union. As his colleague Frederick Palmer noted, he was the most unsocialistic of socialists ‑‑ if one thinks of socialism in the Marxist sense ‑‑ and this fact was nowhere more apparent than in his books.

Even The Iron Heel, the most militantly “socialistic” of his books, does no more than pay a cursory lip service to Marxism, by enunciating Marx’s theory of surplus value. In the book there is both a grudging admiration for the Oligarchs of the Iron Heel and a hardly concealed revulsion for the mindless and ignoble proletarian masses. The book is anti‑capitalist and pro‑revolutionary, but not egalitarian and certainly not Marxist, except as noted.

What is easy to understand is London’s hatred of the capitalist system and what it has done to the spirit of our race. If nothing else, his own experiences as a child of the oppressed proletariat, working 12 hours a day as a teenager for a wage of ten cents an hour, led him to support the socialist movement. But it never made a true Marxist of him.

Jack London’s socialism, in fact, was National Socialism, although it was not known by that name during his lifetime. Had he lived another 20 years he himself would have proclaimed the fact to the world, and had he still been writing he would have been a far more fervent propagandist for Hitler’s National Socialist revolution in Germany than he had been earlier for Lenin’s communist revolution in Russia. The tragedy of his life is that he was a revolutionary idealist born a generation too soon, and so blundered into the wrong revolution: a revolution in which he was never spiritually at home.

By 1916 Jack was in worsening health, his condition having steadily declined during the last two years. He suffered from failing kidneys, and the resultant uremia sent him into long bouts of pain and disability. He was a changed man. He had become old and tired at the age of 40 from an accumulation of injuries and physical self‑neglect during an incredibly fast‑paced and adventurous life.

On the morning of November 22, 1916, Jack was found in his bed in a coma. After repeated attempts to revive him had failed, he died that evening. It has never been conclusively determined whether his death came from the accumulation of poisons from his inoperative kidneys or from an overdose of morphine taken to relieve the pain ‑‑ or to deliberately end his life.


Jack London's grave

The funeral and burial were conducted as Jack had requested ‑‑ simple and with no prayers. His ashes were buried on a knoll above his ranch house, admidst a grove of white oaks and manzanita. A giant volcanic boulder from the building of Wolf House was then rolled over the grave. No inscription marks the site; his life and work would speak for themselves.

Charmian, Jack’s wife, would quote him as saying, “Mate‑Woman, I tell you I am standing on the edge of a world so new, so terrible, so wonderful, that I am almost afraid to look over into it.” The world that Jack London envisioned differed markedly from that of his socialist contemporaries. Years after Jack’s death, an old socialist mentor would remark that, from 1899 on, Jack “stood with one foot in social democracy and the other in the philosophical teachings from which have sprung Fascism.”

Jack London was a remarkable man. With keen perception he attempted to determine what was right and true in charting his own course, and he was honest enough to alter that course when the evidence warranted it. His combative and adventurous spirit, genuine concern for the well‑being of his people, and instinctive striving for truth set him far above the common run of men. The Aryan spirit so perfectly conveyed through the racialist and Nietzschean themes of much of his writings and manifested in his personal life should serve as a strong source of inspiration for every intelligent, racially‑conscious member of the White race.

Jack London’s personal credo provides a fitting finale for the story of his life and work:

I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.