The People of the Abyss. By Jack London, Pluto Press, 1998.
First published in 1903, this has now been re-issued as a Pluto Classic, with the 1977 introduction by Jack Lindsay. Lindsay hails The People of the Abyss, along with The Iron Heel (1907), as "the two works in which [London] most fully uttered his socialist faith and integrated his vision". There is no doubt of the horror of his descriptions of life amongst the workers of the East End of London and the powerful impact which his experiences had both on him and on generations of his readers. Upton Sinclair described how "for years afterwards the memories of this stunted and depraved population haunted [London] beyond all peace".
It is as a record of a society polarised between the "sickly and underfed" and the "riotous and rotten" that London's book acquired the reputation of a "socialist classic". The photographs which accompanied the original publication are particularly striking (some of these are reproduced in The Streets of East London by William J Fishman). But to those with more than a passing knowledge of the East End, it is a partial picture. London's aim in writing this book was to focus on the conditions experienced by the homeless, destitute and unemployed. Members of the "respectable" working class featured only in so far as they lived in the constant shadow of destitution.
The result is a portrayal of such unremitting degradation that London (and his contemporary American readership) were unable to bridge the gulf between themselves and those whose lives he described. These became "a noisome rotten tide of humanity", "a menagerie of garmented bipeds that looked something like humans and more like beasts". These are not the phrases of empathy with fellow workers, but of fear and loathing of outcast people. Large sections of the population were not mentioned by London at all, such as the Jewish community in Whitechapel (where he undertook most of his investigations) and the Chinese community in Limehouse. This may have had more than a little to do with London's self-declared racism: "I am first of all a white man, and only then a Socialist". Or not a socialist at all . . .
Furthermore, as an analysis of how to get out of the abyss, the book is on shaky ground. The thread of outrage that runs through the book culminates in a chapter on "The Management" in which London addresses the question of whether "Civilisation bettered the lot of the average man". Despite it having vastly increased "producing power" (the means of generating wealth), civilisation (by which he meant the British Empire) had singularly failed to share this wealth equitably. This was due, he argued, to the criminal mismanagement of the economy by its ruling class. As a consequence, London judged that the slum dwellers of the East End lived in conditions worse than animals, and far worse than did the Inuit people, with whom he was familiar from his travels in Alaska. His conclusion was that "society must be reorganised and a capable management put at its head".
This is weak to say the least, after such a vivid portrait of poverty, and it is certainly not the socialist case. The clearest statement of London's political philosophy emerges from his discussions with the carter and the carpenter. Dismissing their talk of revolution as the talk of "anarchists, fanatics and madmen", he declared an "evolutionary belief in the slow development and metamorphosis of things". And he reserved his greatest praise, not for any socialist orator or trade unionist, but for Dr Barnardo and his work with the children of the poor (or, "the progeny of the gutter folk"). London's anger and his moral outrage on behalf of the poor were genuine and passionately expressed. He understood the relationship which existed (and still exists) between the riches of the rich and the poverty of the poor. He also understood the futility of addressing poverty as an individual failing rather than a social condition. But none of this makes The People of the Abyss a socialist vision, for we will not climb out of the abyss of capitalism by changing the management.