1990s >> 1999 >> no-1135-march-1999

Book Reviews: ‘The People of the Abyss’, ‘A Weapon in the Struggle’, & ‘Work – An Anthology’

Out of the abyss

‘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.


Culture and Capitalism

‘A Weapon in the Struggle: The Cultural History of the Communist Party in Britain’. Edited by Andy Croft. Pluto Press. 1998.

This is one of those irritating books the title of which offers a set of expectations which is almost totally out of kilter with its content. Thus the reader isn’t offered a cultural history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but rather a series of essays about the work and impact of various so-called Communist artists and critics living in Britain—some of whom, coincidentally, were members of the Communist Party.

Only in the short, six-page introduction, written by Andy Croft, is there any considered reference to the cultural policies and practices of the British Communist Party and, significantly, this introduction largely ignores the essays which follow. As Andy Croft put it himself: “These essays [consider] some of the achievements and failures of communist artists who, though mostly forgotten now, once had an extraordinary impact on British cultural life.”

This said, such references as are made to cultural policies of the Communist Party of Great Britain, suggest that they were frequently hostile to the work of artists, including many of the artists who are the subject of the essays in this book. For the most part the CP’s official attitude seemed based on the “norms and expectations being imposed by Zhdanov and the cultural policemen of the Soviet Union”.

Indeed, Emile Burns (the chairman of the CP’s National Cultural Committee in the early 1950s) went so far as to argue that nothing was to be learnt from the “decadent culture of capitalist society”, and that “it is absolutely vital to the working class that they should see culture for what it is—the culture of a decaying class”. Leaving aside the fact that culture can heighten our awareness of the world we live in, and thus affect a critique of capitalism, the idea that such cultural figures as Mozart, Shelley, Hogarth and Zola were mere apologists for the capitalist class is grotesque.

But if the title of the book causes readers to wonder about the possibilities of taking action under the terms of the Trade Descriptions Act, many of the essays are interesting and revealing. It helps that the focus of attention is wide rather than narrow and that it encompasses graphic art, pageants, jazz and folk song, in addition to poetry, the novel, film, classical music, and literary criticism. I particularly enjoyed Robert Radford’s essay on “the graphic art of the three Jameses” (Boswell and Fitton and Holland), and the accompanying trenchant cartoons; Gerald Porter’s piece on folk and vernacular songs; and Hanna Behrend’s thoughtful article on Marxist literary criticism.

The latter faces four square the apparent paradox of economic relations determining the ideas that exist in the superstructure of society, whilst at the same time these same ideas provide the basis for further economic transformations. It also hints at a further dilemma: how can a political party judge the value and worth of cultural artefacts, both in terms of their political power and their cultural merit, in such a way as to favour some and criticise others? More about this would have been welcome but given the book’s studied avoidance of the implications which flow from its own title, though I wasn’t surprised that no more was forthcoming. Nevertheless a rewarding read not least because, if my reaction is typical, it will inspire a lot of further thought in readers.


Poetry work

‘Work: An Anthology’. Edited by Dinah Livingstone with the Common Words Group, Katabasis, 1999, pb. £12.95

Call me a philistine if you wish, but I find much contemporary poetry boring. Poets, lacking anything significant to say about change, retreat into reflective abstractions and introspective indulgence. I am not hoping for all literature to be “politically meaningful”, but neither should it be precious, remote from the world and proud in its inaccessibility. Poets should seek to be understood.

Work is an anthology by poets who clearly want to be understood. As importantly, they clearly understand what it is they are writing about. This is not an observer’s view of work but the testimony of people who have themselves had to work in order to live. The book breathes experience. It is a superb collection, comprising new works by writers who have a record of publication and reputation and others who were hitherto unpublished.

The anthology begins with an extract from Morris’s How We Live and How we Might Live which serves as a political foreword to the volume, rooting it explicitly in a political recognition of how employment turns the worker into “but an appendage to profit-grinding”. Poems within the anthology return to this again and again, few more powerfully than Christopher Hampton’s exposure of “the leash” of wage slavery; Sandra Smith’s wonderful comparison between workers and birds; and Dilys Wood’s moving evocation of a miner’s life. There is much more: short, sharp pieces on odd jobs such as the chiropodist by Anna Robinson and Dinah Livingstone’s brilliant “assistant birdman of Regent’s Park”. Mimi Khalvati writes beautifully on the work of being a poet. And these are just some. There are prose pieces, including direct reports from the Hillingdon hospital workers (Asian women who were on strike for four years for refusing to take a pay cut; their employer is a member of Blair’s Low Pay Commission) and an account of a young worker killed by casualisation.

Ernest Fischer, whose The Necessity of Art remains probably the finest Marxian analysis of the role of art, describes how poetry began in the rhythm of the work song, itself produced by the repeated movements of physical work. So it is appropriate that this fine anthology of poetry should return to the subject of work—to its frustrations, its creativity, its rhythms and its pitiful rewards. The next Katabasis anthology will be on the theme of Home. I’m looking forward to it already.

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