Jack London and Socialism

Jack LondonI spent much of yesterday over at the Jack London State Historic Park. Not being much of a fan of his writing, I wasn’t that keen on it. But it turned out to be fairly interesting. It was also a good excuse to walk ten miles through the woods.

A lot is made of how the Londons (Jack and Charmian) encouraged their friends to visit them. Indeed, the whole complex seems to be set up for entertaining. But I think that the Londons had much the same experience that other rich people have when they build their dream homes in the middle of nowhere. Basically: it’s boring. So unless people are visiting there isn’t much to do. But given that they did have interesting artist friends, it sounds like it was a fairly fun place.

Of particular note is the Wolf House. This four story mansion (it might be more accurate to call it a castle) was clearly designed for entertaining. It must have been magnificent when it was completed. But it burned down before the Londons were even able to move in. But the ruins are still there, with the four story high fireplaces buttressed by steel supports.

Wolf House

What I find most interesting about London is how strong a supporter of socialism he was publicly. But you would hardly know this touring the site. In the House of Happy Walls Museum, there is one small display about London’s socialism. And most of it talks about how his socialism was somewhat theoretical, in his person he was a rugged individualist. We can’t cause the American visitors any consternation about the one true path of dog-eat-dog capitalism to the promised land of neo-feudalism!

Of course, London wasn’t what one could call an intellectual socialist. He believed in labor unions and seemed to have a practical bent in the philosophy, as he did in most things. George Orwell thought that London was more of a fascist based on his writing. In My Country Right or Left 1940-1943, he wrote, “With his love of violence and physical strength, his belief in ‘natural aristocracy,’ his animal-worship and exaltation of the primitive, he had in him what one might fairly call a Fascist strain.” I think there is a lot to be said for that view. In terms of his fiction, I see much Ayn Rand in Jack London with the romantic characters and the rugged individual against the world.

Regardless of all that, once London settled down in Glen Ellen, he lost interest in the worker struggle. It is hard not to conclude that his main interest in socialism was his desire for a bloody good fight. I’ve known a lot of young radicals who weren’t interested in social change so much as shouting and throwing rocks. London was in his late thirties when he was settled on his ranch. It isn’t that he repudiated his former beliefs so much as that he was simply bored with them.

By far the most interesting item in the whole collection was a letter from Jack London to the workers on his ranch. It is a list of rules. And some of it is kind of nice like his mention that he doesn’t care about the morality of the workers. What they do on their own time is their business. But the overall tone of the letter is that these working class stiffs were determined to do as little as possible and steal from him. In fact, the very first rule involves how “lost” tools will be charged to the employee. Hero of the working man!

Another thing that is very clear is that towards the end of his life, he’s just pumping out crap for money. He even says so—repeatedly. He’s just writing to build his ranch. In Americans and the California Dream, Kevin Starr said that there was always “a good deal of pose” to London’s socialism. And he quotes Mark Twain as saying, “It would serve this man London right to have the working class get control of things. He would have to call out the militia to collect his royalties.”

What I came away with from my visit is that London was an upper class bohemian with attitudes that were entirely typical of his class and time. It’s probably best to think of him like John Lennon who also died at the age of 40. That isn’t to say that either man was bad. I’m sure if I ever had anything even close to their success, I would be a far worse person. But great social reformers and thinkers they were not. Overall, they were on the right side of history. And they both left some art that rightly lives on. That’s not bad.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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