An Introduction of Socialism?

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An evaluation of Jack London's classic essay,"What Life Means to Me," and whether it is a good introduction to socialism.

Submitted: July 27, 2013

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Submitted: July 27, 2013

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An Introduction to Socialism?

Jack London has been a favorite author of mine for quite some time. I was introduced to him when I read his classic essay, “What Life Means to Me,” where he writes about his struggle to reach the upper class and his disappointment in the character of those who dwell there. I had already been exposed to socialist/communist ideas before reading London’s essay by reading Karl Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto,” which I found to be very complicated and hard to fully grasp. As a socialist myself, I feel that a good introduction to socialist philosophy should be simple, present capitalism as problematic and show its faults, reveal the current inequality between the social classes, and explain socialism and its benefits and faults. Overall, I think Jack London’s essay does a wonderful job introducing socialism.

One aspect of London’s essay that immediately struck me was how simple he made his ideas. For instance, he uses the analogy of the different floors or levels of a house to represent the social classes, with the lowest class being “the cellar of society,…[the] subterranean depths of misery…” (London 5). London also described the market system in the most simplistic terms I have ever seen. He writes of business:

I saw the naked simplicities of the complicated civilization in which I lived. Life was a matter of food and shelter. In order to get food and shelter [sic] men sold things. The merchant sold shoes, the politician sold his manhood, and the representative of the people, with exceptions, of course, sold his trust; while nearly all sold their honor….All things were commodities, all people bought and sold. The only commodity that labor had to sell was muscle…[which] did not renew. (London 5)

London goes on to explain how he hit the books and prepared to sell “brains” instead of muscle. This simplistic representation of ideas is remarkable, and I have not found an author as capable as London in making complex thoughts appear so simple. In order to understand the basic principles of socialism, it is very important that the material is easily understood, and London does an excellent job in this regard.

London does not have a lot to say about capitalism, but what he does say is damning. During London’s attempt at using business to climb the social ladder, he “owned a boat…and began to exploit his fellow-creatures” (London 4). He continues, “I had a crew of one man. As a captain and owner I took two-thirds of the spoils, and gave the crew one-third, though the crew worked just as hard as I did and risked just as much life and liberty” (London 4). He later writes about robbing a Chinese vessel: “It was robbery, I grant, but it was precisely the spirit of capitalism. The capitalist takes away the possessions of his fellow-creatures by means of a rebate, or of a betrayal of trust, or by the purchase of senators and supreme-court judges” (London 4). London clearly illustrates the inherent immorality of capitalism without going into a lot of detail.

London shows the sharp contrast between the poor and the rich that he experienced. After his unsuccessful business ventures and consequent bankruptcy, London found himself among the most impoverished, on the lowest rung of the social ladder which he describes as “[the] depths of misery about which it is neither nice nor proper to speak” (5), and “[where] flesh and spirit alike [are] starved and tormented” (3). London eventually explains how he educates himself thoroughly and joins the ranks of the wealthy. He portrays them as very materialistic, immoral, and hypocritical. London says of the ruling class, “It was the same everywhere, crime and betrayal, betrayal and crime” (London 8).

London does not explain socialism at all. He only hints at a system that promotes equality and does away with our current social structure. In the end of his essay he speaks of the socialist revolution he hopes to bring about: “[W]e'll topple it over, along with all its rotten life and unburied dead, its monstrous selfishness and sodden materialism. Then we'll cleanse the cellar and build a new habitation for mankind, in which there will be no parlor floor, in which all the rooms will be bright and airy, and where the air that is breathed will be clean, noble and alive” (London 8). This utopian vision of a new society is the extent to which he describes socialism. London does not examine any aspects of how socialism actually works and does not educate the reader at all in this regard. However, I believe that this essay is a good starting point that could intrigue the reader enough to seek further information about socialism.

Some may find faults in my evaluation of London's great essay. Some might find it to be less simple than I, and I admit that some of the phrases and words are somewhat odd since they are no longer used. For example, on more than one occasion in the essay London uses the word “forsooth.” London also uses many metaphors throughout the essay, some of which could be somewhat complex for the average reader. For example, the vision of socialism and equality that London concludes with could be slightly confusing to some, but the general tone and simplicity of the idea of amelioration of the situation is, I feel, still present. Some may also argue that London's intention was not to introduce socialism to the reader, but the social situation of inequality, and the lesson that reality is often harsh.

Some might argue that since the living conditions of the poor have been raised to a more acceptable level, capitalism has proven to be successful. They could point out that the exploitation of the working class was many times worse when London wrote the essay, and I must concede that. However, the inherent flaws of the capitalist system can never be totally addressed, in my opinion, without doing away with capitalism altogether. Although the poor live considerably more comfortably now than they did in the early twentieth century, income inequality is extremely high, and capitalist free trade is still exploiting workers in third world countries, perhaps even to a greater degree than in London's time.

Jack London had a unique mind and saw the simplicity in the world's complexity. London's essay is a pleasure to read, and many of his ideas he writes about in this essay are very easy to understand given the way he puts them. London’s essay is accessible to a wide audience range because he vividly and simply demonstrates the basic flaws of the capitalist system, without using confusing economic terminology. Anyone interested in getting an introduction to socialism or even sociology should read this excellent essay.

 

Works Cited:

London, Jack. “What Life Means To Me.” The Conscious Reader. Ed. Caroline Shrodes, Harry Finestone, and Michael Shugrue. New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985. Print.


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