Book Review from the March 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
The People of the Abyss by Jack London. Pluto Press, Centenary edition, £10.99 paperback, 192 pages.
Those vaguely familiar with Jack London know him as a skilled writer, basing many of his stories on experiences from his rich, colourful and often dangerous life. Few remember him as the skilled political commentator and social critic who exposed many of the inequalities of his day. The People of the Abyss is Jack London the investigative reporter giving an impassioned account of the degradation and squalor endured by the people of the East End of London in 1902, and this year marks the centenary of his visit to this part of London.
Living in the East End doss houses, London posed as a stranded American sailor, down on his luck. He mingled with the poorest of the poor, worked alongside them, ate with them, drank with them and slept amongst them in the workhouses. His observations are documented in full; and this is no work of fiction. This is the London in the days when the Socialist Party of Great Britain was about to be formed, and reading Jack London's account of the privation endured by millions of his fellow workers, one can't help but ask why the clamour for an end to capitalism was not being screamed from every rooftop. He attempts an answer himself:
“Unhealthy working and living engenders unhealthy appetites and desires. Man cannot be worked worse than a horse is worked, and be fed and housed as a pig is fed and housed, and at the same time have clean and wholesome ideals and aspirations.”
And who could blame them? For many in the East End of London in 1902, the daily struggle to live absorbed all their energies. Their life expectancy was 30 years; 55 percent of children died before the age of five. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished men and women yearned only the public houses and alcohol in a pathetic attempt to “express their gregariousness” and because intoxication finally “brings the oblivion that nothing else can bring”. This is the England “where a constant army of 8 million lives on the border of starvation”; where hundreds of thousands of families inhabit one room, and where “children take turn about in sitting up and drive the rats away from the sleepers; where the lucky go insane and the courageous commit suicide. And all of this when Britain had the largest empire ever know and milked the world
The Socialist Party was not alone in the formative years of the 20th Century in pointing out that we live in the world of potential abundance. Lamenting the widespread starvation of the day, the “hunger wail” that echoed across the British Isles, London comments:
“And this in face of the fact that five men can produce bread for a thousand; that one workman can produce cotton cloth for 250 people, woollens for 300 and boots and shoes for 1000 . . . and who dares to say that it is not mismanaged, this big house, when five men can produce bread for a thousand, and yet millions have not enough to eat?”
The People of the Abyss is a masterly recording of the lives of the masses in 1902, and a poignant indictment on the capitalist system, and London is to be commended. However he affords us no solution to the ills of the system he lambasts, but rather finishes with a lengthy note about how it is being mismanaged by its rulers, before ending:
“There can be no mistake. Civilisation has increased man's producing powers an hundred-fold, and through mismanagement the men of Civilisation live worse than the beasts, and have less to eat and wear and protect them from the elements than the savage Inuit in a frigid climate who lives today as he lived in the stone age ten thousand years ago.”
The People of the Abyss deserves to be read, for a century after this book was written it is still possible to record the same, in spite of all the scientific and technological breakthroughs that have occurred since 1902 and which should be benefiting humanity.