View Full Version : The Philosophy of Jack London

Joe McCarthy
Sunday, October 3rd, 2010, 12:00 AM
This piece is a real gem. Sans the Marxism I regard London as a major influence on my own views.

By Joseph Sciambra, M.A.

In a September 7, 1915 letter Jack London wrote, "As a boy, the first heroes that I put into my Pantheon were Napoleon and Alexander the Great. Later on I destroyed this Pantheon and built a new Pantheon in which I began inscribing names such as David Starr Jordan, as Herbert Spencer, as Huxley, as Darwin, as Tyndall."

In this brief excerpt, Jack London mentions most of the men who influenced his often complex, and sometimes contradictory, philosophy. Major figures not mentioned in this particular letter are: Karl Marx, Ernst Haeckel, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903), English philosopher.

In a 1899 letter London wrote, Herbert Spencer's First Principles "has done more for mankind , and through the ages will have done far more for mankind, than a thousand books." In Martin Eden, the novel's namesake, drawn from London's own experiences, is enraptured by Spencer after reading First Principles:

"Martin had ascended from pitch to pitch of intellectual living and here he was at a higher pitch than ever. All the hidden things were laying their secrets bare. He was drunken with comprehension. At night, asleep, he lived with the gods in colossal ni.htmlare; and awake, in the day, he went around like a somnambulist, with absent stare, gazing upon the world he had just discovered." [Chapter 13]

As was the case with the fictional Martin Eden, London was highly influenced by Spencer. It was a fascination that lasted throughout his life. Spencer is especially important in understanding Jack London's racialism.
Contrary to popular belief, it was Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin, that first coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." He first used the phrase in the Principles of Biology (1864 - 1867). Spencer wrote,

"The survival of the fittest which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called "natural selection, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life."

Spencer adapted the theory of evolution into a social system in which those individuals, species, or races with the best acquired characteristics would survive. Spencer's writings were particularly responsible for the rise of Social Darwinism in the late 19th century.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900), German philosopher

One of Jack and Charmian London's favorite books was Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathusa. In this book, Nietzsche expounded his theory of the "beyond - man" or "superman." The "superman" was perfect in both mind and body. He was unmatched in strength and intelligence. He was also not encumbered by religious or social mores. It was the idea of the "superman" that Jack London would incorporate into many of his novels and short stories.

For Jack London there were two types of "supermen." London wrote, "I have been more stimulated by Nietzsche than by any other writer in the world." London considered himself an admirer of Nietzsche, but also an "intellectual enemy." London regarded both Martin Eden and The Sea Wolf as indictments against the selfish individualism of the "superman" theory. This is not to say that London disregarded the "superman" outright. Concerning his novel Burning Daylight, London wrote:

"Read my Burning Daylight, in which I show a successful superman who at the end of his triumph and career, throws his thirty million dollars to the winds in order to win to a greater thing, namely love."

London would have considered himself a "socialist superman," similar to the description above. This type of "superman," which includes a concern for others, was influenced by London's interest in socialism.
Wolf Larsen, in The Sea Wolf, and Martin Eden were the antithesis to Burning Daylight. In regards to Martin Eden, London stated that "One of my motifs, in this book, was an attack on individualism. I must have bungled for not a single reviewer has discovered it." London considered both Wolf Larsen and Martin Eden as doomed failures because their Nietzschean philosophy, as Jack's did, did not include cooperation, i.e. socialism.

David Starr Jordan (1851 - 1931) American naturalist and educator

According to David Starr Jordan's autobiography, The Days of a Man: Memories of a Naturalist, Teacher and Minor Prophet of Democracy (1922), Jordan and Jack London first met in Oakland where London attended a series of lectures Jordan gave on evolution. Jordan, the first president of Leland Stanford University in California, was a major supporter of Social Darwinism. Jordan was also a strong supporter of the eugenics movement in America. Eugenics is a science concerned with the control of human heredity through selective parenting. In The Blood of the Nation (1910), Jordan wrote:

"The most vital question concerning immigration, and the one most hard to solve, is the problem of eugenics, the problem of building up our nation with folks of sound heredity.'Like the seed is the harvest.' This is the great law of biology. It is the great law on which national permanence depends, as well as agricultural prosperity. The strength of the Republic can be maintained only by strong men, the sons of strong men."

In a September 5, 1913 letter, London voiced his own support for the eugenics movement. Since London and Jordan lived relatively near to each other, in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is likely that London became introduced to eugenics through Jordan.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 - 1895), English biologist

One of Charles Darwin's greatest supporters, Thomas Henry Huxely, often debated anti-evolutionist scientists and members of the clergy on the merits of Darwin's theories. Practically all of Huxely's works were controversial. For example in "Evolution and Ethics" (1893), he espoused that ethics and evolution were incompatible. He wrote "that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process...but in combating it." The most controversial was Man's Place in Nature (1863), in which he theorized the developmental relationship between apes and humans. In addition to his evolutionary theories, Huxely wrote about social reform, including his support for the emancipation of women and Negroes.

John Tyndall (1820 - 1893), Irish naturalist and philosopher

As was the case with his contemporary, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall was one of the major supporters of Charles Darwin's theories in the mid 19th century. Much like Jack London, Tyndall was a man of ordinary means who rose above his surroundings. Tyndall's writing never created the public controversy of Huxely's, but his dynamic personality indelibly made its mark on many. For young scientists, Huxely was a role model for inquiry into the new era of science.

Ernst Haeckel (1843 -1919), German naturalist

On July 8, 1907 the German naturalist, Ernest Haeckel, sent a postcard to London in which he thanked him for a copy of Before Adam, London gave him as a gift. Earlier, in a March 1, 1900 letter to his friend, Cloudesley Johns, London displayed his familiarity with Haeckel's work. Haeckel's most famous theory was that "ontogeny recapitulated phylogeny." This theory expresses the idea that the development of an animal embryo recapitulates the evolutionary history of its species or group. For Haeckel, this concept also pertained to humans beings. Haeckel, was not only an influence on London's scientific knowledge, but also an important source for his racialism. Haeckel in History of Creation, printed in America in 1876, wrote, the "woolly-haired" Negros were "incapable of a true inner culture and of a higher mental development."

Haeckel, such as many of his contemporaries, was greatly influenced by Charles Darwin. From Darwin's theory of evolution he created "Monism." Monism attempted to study the world, including animals, Man, and society, as an evolutionary whole. He eventually founded the Monist League in 1904 which was dedicated to political, social, and cultural change in Germany. The Monist League was an essentially German romantic movement which abhorred metaphysical thinking and promoted eugenics.

For an excellent analysis of Ernst Haeckel's philosophy, see Daniel Gasman, The Scientific Origins of National Socialism (London: Macdonald, 1971).

Karl Marx (1818 - 1883), German socialist and philosopher

In an August 24, 1896 letter to the Editor of the Oakland times, London made reference to Karl Marx's Capital. Marx's influence on London is most apparent in his collection of essays, "The War of the Classes" (1905). Much of the "The War of the Classes" also stems from London's own experiences during the years of economic and political discontent in the 1890's. Marx, and his collaborator Friedrich Engels, pushed for the overthrow of the capitalist system by the workers of the world. London's time in the canneries and jute mills, his knowledge of child labor, and the horrendous working conditions in most factories, made Marx's theories a viable alternative. London's concern for the working Man, lead him to advocate socialism. In "The War of the Classes," he wrote:

"The community branded me a "red shirt" because I stood for municipal ownership...And far be it from me to deny that socialism is a menace. It is it purpose to wipe out, root and branch, all capitalistic institutions of present day society. It is distinctively revolutionary, and in scope and depth is vastly more tremendous than any revolution that has ever occurred in the history of the world."

London's desire for a socialist revolution came to fruition in The Iron Heel (1908). The Iron Heel is a fictionalized account about the masses overthrowing the capitalist oligarchy in America. The book has often been confused with the Bolshevik Revolution though London was writing specifically about America, not Russia.
For more information on Jack London and his sociological writing, see Philip S. Foner, The Social Writings of Jack London; and Jack London, The People of the Abyss.


Jack London first became acquainted with ideas of socialism through the works of Karl Marx. For Marx, socialism was merely a stage between the age of capitalism and communism. Though Marx himself did not see socialism as a goal, many in the America and the United States believed in socialism as a cure for the economic, political, and social ills plaguing the industrialized West. Through socialism, ownership of the means of production and distribution are communally owned rather than privately owned.

During his early years in Oakland, California, London joined the Socialist Labor Party of Oakland. By 1897, the Oakland Times labeled him the "boy socialist." London's involvement in the Socialist Party continued through most of his life. He even ran for mayor of Oakland as a socialist candidate in 1901 and 1905. He lost in both elections, receiving 245 votes in 1901, and 981 in 1905. His candidacy were more a political statement than a serious quest for a career in government. London was always a great believer in individualism, but individualism must also be mixed with a social concern for the welfare of other. He wrote in "How I Became A Socialist" (1905):

"The women of the streets and the man of the gutter drew very close to me. I saw the picture of the social pit as vividly as though it were a concrete thing, and at the bottom of the Pit I saw them, myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat. And I confess a terror seized me. What when my strength failed" when I should be unable to work shoulder to shoulder with the strong men who were babes unborn""

Socialism provided the answer to this question. Through the adoption of socialism, men and women would no longer be thrown into the industrial Pit of poverty and death. London's frustration with the Socialist Party's inability to bring about the type of change he expected lead to his resignation from the Socialist Party of the United States in 1916. He retained his radical beliefs nonetheless.

Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882), English naturalist.

Including Ernst Haeckel's The Riddle of the Universe, Karl Marx's Das Kapital, John Milton's Paradise Lost, and Herbert Spencer's The Philosophy of Science, Jack London read Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species during his stay in the Klondike in 1897 and 1898. Darwin had his greatest influence on London through the writings of Herbert Spencer. Darwin, in On the Origin of Species, wrote "the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the 'Survival of the Fittest' is more accurate than 'Struggle for Existence', and is sometimes equally convenient." London reasserted much the same idea in White Fang:

"This was living, though he did not know it. He was realizing his own meaning in the world; he was doing that for which he was made - killing meat and battling to kill it. He was justifying his existence, than which life can do no greater; for life achieves its summit when it does to the uttermost that which it was equipped to do."

As London often did with other writers he read, he took their theories and incorporated them into the world of his novels and short stories.

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism was a late 19th century sociological theory which was primarily based on the writings of Herbert Spencer. Inherent in the theory of Social Darwinism was Spencer's "survival of the fittest." Borrowing from Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, Social Darwisnists believed that societies, as do organisms evolve over time. Nature then determined that the strong survive and the weak perish. In Jack London's case, he thought that certain favored races were destined for survival. Certainly the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic races, represented for London, the superior. In A Daughter of the Snows, London wrote:

"I am my father's son, and the line goes back to the sea-kings who never slept under the smoky rafters of a roof or drained the alehorn by inhabited hearth. There must be a reason for the dead-status of the black, a reason for the Teuton spreading over the earth as no other race has ever spread. There must be something in race heredity, else I would not leap at the summons."

As this passage shows, London's Social Darwinism usually mixed with his interest in racialism. There are several other novels that portray London's belief in the biological superiority of the white man, namely Burning Daylight, Adventure, and The Mutiny of the Elsinore.


There was a strong reemergence of racial thought in America and Europe around the turn-of-the-century. Jack London was not immune to the influence of writers who were interested in race. From Herbert Spencer, London learned that the theory of evolution also pertained to Man and society. Others who followed Spencer, such as Thomas Henry Huxely, Davis Starr Jordan, and Ernst Haeckel, became some of London's favorite writers. All of these men promoted the belief in the fundamental differences whether physical or mental between the races. Some were more extreme in their views, such as supporting racial supremacy or separatism, while others simply felt that the differences between the races should be recognized.

From The Son of the Wolf to "The Eyes of Asia," the issue of race repeatedly emerges in London's writings. In The Son of the Wolf (1900), he wrote,

"He thought of the tender women of his own race, and smiled grimly. Yet from the loins of some such tender woman had he sprung with a kingly inheritance, - an inheritance which gave to him and his dominance over the land and sea, over the animals and the peoples of all the zones. Single-handed against fivescore, girt by the Arctic winter, far from his own, he felt the prompting of his heritage."

The Son of the Wolf characterizes many of London's "Klondike" stories which tell of white men and women overpowering the harsh elements of the North. Other "Klondike" stories which include racial issues, include: A Daughter of the Snows, Children of Frost, White Fang, and Burning Daylight.
During the latter half of London's literary career much of the action in his stories moved to the South Pacific. In "The Eyes of Asia," London continued his interest in racial dynamics:

"Children of ours would be an anguish to contemplate Neither fish, nor fowl. Nor white, nor Asiatic, nor European. Blended misfits of out-crossed bloods. It would be awful - we could not forgive ourselves. Fancy it - the Anglo-Saxon staring at me from almond; the Japanese staring at you from Anglo-Saxon eyes, inscrutable, foreign, utterly, abysmally alien."

London's racialism spanned the gamut from racial superiority and struggle to racial separation. The earlier "Klondike" stories had as their central theme the struggle of white men to overcome the elements. In his stories of the South Seas the white man was still pitted against the environment, but also the other races. Good examples of this genre are Adventure, The Mutiny of the Elsinore, and South Sea Tales.


Atavism is a biological term referring to the reemergence of inherited ancestral traits in a person. In Before Adam (1907), London writes:

"I shall never forget the first time I saw blueberries served on the table. I had never seen blueberries before, and yet, at the sight of them, there leaped up in my mind memories of dreams wherein I had wandered through swampy land eating my fill."

The character in the book relives his past life as a primeval tree dweller in the far distant past. Certain traits he recognizes in himself, he relates to the life of his early ancestors. London's most explicit reference to atavism appears in his alcoholic memoirs, John Barleycorn (1913):

"And all my austere nights of midnight oil, all the book I had read, all the wisdom I had gathered, went glimmering before the ape and tiger in me that crawled up from the abysm of my heredity, atavistic, competitive, and brutal, lustful with strength and desire to outswine the swine."

In opposition to Before Adam, that which is inherited in John Barleycorn is far more destructive than a benign liking for blueberries.

Source: http://london.sonoma.edu/Essays/philosophy.html (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Flondon.s onoma.edu%2FEssays%2Fphilosophy.html)

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010, 12:14 AM
Frankly, I never understood how Jack London could be a socialism believer and an anglosaxon chauvinist at the same time. Still it is only fair to regard him as one of the greatest Americans ever. His "Martin Eden" is an instant classic you will love to hate. :thumbup

Joe McCarthy
Sunday, October 3rd, 2010, 12:30 AM
Frankly, I never understood how Jack London could be a socialism believer and an anglosaxon chauvinist at the same time. Still it is only fair to regard him as one of the greatest Americans ever. His "Martin Eden" is an instant classic you will love to hate. :thumbup

There are those who believe London was a sort of proto-National Socialist. There have been a lot of socialists-racialists. George Bernard Shaw once wrote a favorable review of Houston Stewart Chamberlain's The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century.

Angelcynn Beorn
Sunday, October 3rd, 2010, 01:07 PM
London is one of my favourite authors and a big inspiration to my personal philosophy. Although i've also had trouble understanding how he could champion individuality and the struggle for supremacy whilst still holding Socialist beliefs.