Many may not be aware that the famed novelist Jack London, author of “The Call of the Wild” and “The Iron Heel” among others, was a socialist. Fewer still might be aware that the writer, who often wrote from the point of view of non-humans, inspired the creation of a powerful animalist organization. Sadly, London’s legacy was tarnished, above all, by his racism.
A member of the Socialist Labor Party before joining the Socialist Party of America, London launched a nationwide lecture tour on the subject of working-class revolution in 1906, according to Ira Kipnis. He was an admirer of the Industrial Workers of the World, and met with the Wobbly leader ‘Big Bill’ Haywood, “although he never joined them in going so far as to recommend sabotage,” Clarice Stasz said. After London died at the age of 40, the great socialist Eugene Debs expressed his condolences in a letter to the writer’s widow. “Your beloved husband was very dear to me as he was to many thousands of others who never had the privilege of laying their eyes upon him,” Debs said. “I felt the great heart of him, loved him, read nearly everything he wrote, and rejoiced in applauding his genius.”
London was, according to Lucy Robins Lang, a proselytizing vegetarian for a time, before returning to omnivority. One is unsure whether his temporary abstinence from meat was motivated by concern for animals, and if so, whether his return to flesh represented the abandonment of what he merely saw as a symbolic gesture toward non-human solidarity or the low priority he placed on animal lives and suffering.
In the preface to his novel ‘Michael, Brother of Jerry,’ which was published after his death, London argued readers should join animal-welfare organizations. “First, let all humans inform themselves of the inevitable and eternal cruelty by the means of which only can animals be compelled to perform before revenue-paying audiences,” London wrote. “Second, I suggest that all men and women, and boys and girls, who have so acquainted themselves with the essentials of the fine art of animal-training, should become members of, and ally themselves with, the local and national organizations of humane societies and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals.”
London advocated walkouts of performances that exploited animals as entertainment. “We will not have to think of anything, save when, in any theatre or place of entertainment, a trained-animal turn is presented before us,” London said. “Then, without premeditation, we may express our disapproval of such a turn by getting up from our seats and leaving the theatre for a promenade and a breath of fresh air outside, coming back, when the turn is over, to enjoy the rest of the programme. All we have to do is just that to eliminate the trained-animal turn from all public places of entertainment.”
According to Earle Labor, his call “was answered with the formation of the Jack London Club dedicated to this crusade. The club achieved an international membership of nearly one million before its disruption by the Second World War.” In 1925, in response to protests by the Jack London Club, the Ringling-Barnum and Bailey circus removed all animal acts from their performances, according to Diane L. Beers. As modern socialist animalist Jason Hribal stated, this was “an extraordinary feat which no contemporary organization, such as PETA, HSUS, or the ASPCA, has yet to accomplish.” Sadly the victory was short lived. “Just five years later, Charles Ringling announced that his show would once again include trained big cats,” Beers said.
Again, it should be mentioned that London’s legacy was marred by racism. “As therapy Jack plunged into the works of Nietzsche,” according to London’s biographer Alex Kershaw. “Nietzsche, like Jack, believed that different races inherited different traits, although he condemned racism. Jack overlooked this key distinction, or perhaps chose to ignore it. Anglo-Saxons, he believed, were the only true supermen. Lesser breeds — racial weaklings — should make way for the Anglo-Saxons, who would alone determine the destiny of the human race.”
The socialist George Orwell argued that London betrayed other right-wing tendencies. I don’t know enough about London to have an informed opinion on the matter. But Orwell went further, seeming to identify London’s empathy with non-humans as indication of latent fascism, which is puzzlingly problematic. “In an intellectual way London accepted the conclusions of Marxism, and he imagined that the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism, the unconsumable surplus and so forth, would persist even after the capitalist class had organized themselves into a single corporate body,” Orwell said. “Temperamentally he was very different from the majority of Marxists. 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.”
Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. Visit his website at JonHochschartner.com.