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History is what you make of it?


Johann Hari’s review of Wolf: The Lives of Jack London suggests that its author, James Haley, says nothing about its subject that has not been long known.* The only people who would be surprised by the facts of Jack London’s life and life of mind, then, are those who know nothing about him, like Ilya Somin, who uses the occasion of Hari’s review to condemn the group he describes as “early 20th century Progressives,” claiming

London’s simultaneous advocacy of racism and socialism was no anomaly among early 20th century Progressives.

Was London a racist and a socialist? Absolutely. Did he believe in progress? He did. Did he align himself with the Progressives? He absolutely did not.** Not only did he despise the lukewarm commitment of populists like Williams Jenning Bryan to the socialist cause, he publicly quarreled with the Progressive Party’s one and only Presidential candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, five years earlier, when the then President declared him a “nature fakir” after reading his account of a lynx killing a dog-wolf. Far from being a Progressive standard-bearer, London couldn’t even agree with this lot about the finer points of dog psychology.

The first problem with Somin’s argument, then, is that he applies the term “Progressive” to someone who was an avowed “Socialist.” London was a capital-S Socialist who believed in lowercase-p progress, but he was not a capital-P Progressive. Teddy Roosevelt was a capital-P Progressive, but he didn’t believe in progress and was neither a socialist nor a Socialist. These are distinctions with difference to everyone who cares more about history than contemporary politics. They must be made to obtain.

The second problem with Somin’s argument is that its logic lacks logic. Smudging your greasy fingers on the glasses of history only obscures your view of its record:

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.

Proving that Jack London was a racist only proves that Jack London was a racist. It weakly suggests, and then only by extension, that those who shared his ideological commitment to socialism—which, it bears repeating, is only the same thing as Progressivism if you consider Teddy Roosevelt a socialist—might be racist. What it does not and can never prove is anything at all about people who were not London and did not share his beliefs.

Anyone who thinks otherwise was likely also impressed by Jonah Goldberg’s masterful Liberal Fascism: Two Words Next To Each Other, and deserves to be taken about as a seriously.

*Part of the reason that the details of London’s life are already familiar is that, as he wrote S.S. McClure at the beginning of his career, “[he] took the facts of life . . . added to them many other facts of life gained from other sources, and made, or attempted to make, a piece of literature out of them” (10 April 1906). Be it in the Yukon stories of The Son of the Wolf (1903), his time among the English poor in The People of the Abyss (1903), his Tales of the Fish Patrol (1905), his account of The Cruise of the Snark (1913), or his struggles with John Barleycorn (1913), Jack London made certain the world knew “the facts of [his] life.” Moreover, his compulsion to rewrite the narrative of his intellectual development, as manifested in The Sea-Wolf (1904), The Iron Heel (1908), and Martin Eden (1913), always included an oblique, but still extensive, bibliography of the “other sources” that inspired his philosophy.

**The closest he came were a few late-in-life publications in a magazine called The Progressive.

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