Jack London, Racist Progressive

Jack London is remembered today mostly for writing inspiring novels about dogs and the Alaskan wilderness. In his own time, however, he was also known as a prominent advocate of socialism and a virulent racist. At Slate, Johann Hari has an interesting review of a new biography of London:

The United States has a startling ability to take its most angry, edgy radicals and turn them into cuddly eunuchs…..

But perhaps the greatest act of historical castration is of Jack London. This man was the most-read revolutionary Socialist in American history, agitating for violent overthrow of the government and the assassination of political leaders—and he is remembered now for writing a cute story about a dog…..

The richer London became, the more radical his politics were. He was soon praising the assassination of Russia’s political leaders and saying socialism would inevitably come to America. Even as he employed small battalions of servants, he insisted he was a Robin Hood figure: They would be made to wait on the tramps and trade unionists he invited to his mansion.

And yet there is an infected scar running across his politics that is hard to ignore. “I am first of all a white man, and only then a socialist,” he said, and he meant it. His socialism followed a strict apartheid: It was for his pigmentary group alone. Every other ethnic group, he said, should be subjugated—or exterminated. “The history of civilization is a history of wandering—a wandering, sword in hand, of strong breeds, clearing away and hewing down the weak and less fit,” he said coolly. “The dominant races are robbing and slaying in every corner of the globe.” This was a good thing, because “they were unable to stand the concentration and sustained effort which pre-eminently mark the races best fitted to live in this world.”

And for those who are not “best fitted to live in this world”? In his 1910 short story “The Unparalleled Invasion,” the United States—with the author’s plain approval—wages biological warfare on China to decimate its population. It then invades and takes it over. It is, the story says, “the only possible solution to the Chinese problem.”

London’s simultaneous advocacy of racism and socialism was no anomaly among early 20th century Progressives. As co-blogger David Bernstein and Princeton economist Tim Leonard document here, many Progressives had a similar combination of views (see also here). Indeed, large-scale government intervention in the economy was justified in part by the supposed need to protect white workers from competition by members of “inferior” races.

Even by the standards of the time, London was extreme in both his socialism and his racism. As Hari notes, London thought that the Socialist Party was far too moderate. Very few American Progressives shared his belief that the Chinese and at least some other non-white races should actually be exterminated, as opposed to merely subordinated to whites. But the basic combination of racism and economic leftism was all too common in the early 20th century.

The racist elements of Progressive ideology don’t prove that economic interventionism is racist by nature, or that the policies Progressives defended in large part on racist grounds can’t be justified in other ways. Still less do they prove that modern left-wingers are necessarily racist as well. But they do undercut claims that racism is primarily a product of the “right” and that economic leftism and racial progress necessarily go together. Indeed, many of the early advocates of racial equality were mostly libertarian on economic issues, including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and civil rights lawyer Moorfield Storey, one of the founders of the NAACP.

Despite London’s reprehensible racism and socialism, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to admire his novels on literary grounds. We can admire Dostoevsky’s work even though he was a rabid anti-Semite and apologist for czarist repression. Still, knowing London’s political and racial views make it a little hard to love White Fang quite as much as before.