Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Before Adam (2002)

Book Review from the July 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Before Adam' by Jack London, University of Nebraska Press. $12

Jack London's tale of prehistoric men (sic) has recently been reissued after many years of out-of-printness. Like most of his books it is a “good yarn” in Boys Own style. However it is also of interest since London has been claimed as a socialist.

Much of the commentary accompanying the novel revolves around the ways in which London got it wrong or right about the behaviour of prehistoric people. But conformity to the facts has never been a requirement for a novel about prehistory. As William Golding of The Inheritors discovered half a century later, the prehistoric tale is an open field for a bit of agit-prop about human nature. We know what Golding was up to but we might view London in a different light due to his ostensible Left sympathies.

However, in essence London practises the old Flinstones technique: his Folk, roughly equivalent to what we would call Australopithecines, are modern men (but stupider) in pre-modern conditions; they are monogamous, patriarchal, blood-thirsty, murderous and genocidal. By relating these qualities in a Hobbesian state of nature setting, London makes them become innate rather than a product of particular economic and social circumstances. The “naturalness” of the genocide which they practise must have had particular resonance in early 20th century America vis-à-vis the extermination of the native “Red Indians” which London himself always thought was the natural outcome of a competition between a ”superior” race and an “inferior” one.

For Golding human nature could only be mitigated by religion. London however reveals his preference: the state. In explaining the Folk's inaction in dealing with a murderer he explains that they “had not yet developed any government to speak of” whereas, in fact, existing stateless societies have a good record of dealing with anti-social behaviour such as murder.

This book, despite its seeming irrelevance, gives a good insight into London's real political views and explains why he can be viewed as an early proto-fascist rather than as a socialist.

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