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Understanding alt-Right obsessions

Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

May 23, 2019   4 mins

Jack London had a fascist strain. The American author was a socialist, sure – but one who, as Orwell noted, was “temperamentally… very different from the majority of Marxists”. He worshipped the natural world, as well as the physical strength of ‘alpha’ males, and he was deeply impressed by the Social Darwinist writers of his day.

This element, detectable in his later body of work, feels like a first cast of the ideological tendencies of today’s Alt-Right – with their narrative that men have grown weak and ‘beta’ under the tempering influence of a feminised society.

London explores the tendency most explicity in The Mutiny of the Elsinore, a novel published in 1914, two years before he died.

Ostensibly about a cargo vessel and its crew, as they sail for Seattle from Baltimore via the treacherous Cape Horn, The Mutiny is narrated by a lone passenger – the wealthy yet world-weary young playwright, John Pathurst. There are two worlds aboard this ship: a small elite of men naturally inclined to rule, and their social inferiors – the poor and non-white, who are relegated to the level of sub-humans.

As Pathurst recounts colourfully: “And we sit on the poop, Miss West and I, tended by our servants, sipping afternoon tea, sewing fancy work, discussing philosophy and art, while a few feet away from us, on this tiny floating world, all the grimy, sordid tragedy of sordid, malformed life plays itself out.”

A bloody and unforgiving struggle between the two classes ensues after a mutiny among the crew – depicted as a collection of madmen and scum. The revolt is violently put down by the ship’s officers.

Events aboard the Elsinore feel at times like an exaggerated metaphor for the sort of class-ridden, hierarchical society that London quite possibly intended to lampoon. But in doing so, in his descriptive zeal, the author reveals something of himself. He details the brutalities of the ship’s crew with relish and a distinctive “streak of savagery”. The racist assumptions of its day echo throughout the book and look forward to a time when the same assumptions would birth the rapid rise of fascism.

Pathurst is a fervent snob and racist. He describes one member of the crew as a “a loathsome, non-human thing”, whereas the “mental and muscular superiority” of the ship’s officers is driven home in gushing tones throughout. Those who control the ship are said to be “as of another species to the sailors under them”. Captain West is referred to as “The Samurai”, a Nietzschean archetype.

Of course, there is always a danger in treating works of fiction – and especially words uttered by fictional characters – as synonymous with the prejudices of their authors. Yet some of the views expressed by Pathurst are of a piece with the Social Darwinist and racialist theories that were popular at the turn of the 20th century – theories which London also subscribed to. In an 1899 letter, London wrote that First Principles – a book by renowned Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer – had “done more for mankind, and through the ages will have done far more for mankind, than a thousand books”.

In recent years, a more strategically astute version of this race science – one that purports to be espousing inconvenient politically incorrect truths – has made a comeback. As Gavin Evans put it in an essay for the Guardian: “The idea that certain races are inherently more intelligent than others is being trumpeted by a small group of anthropologists, IQ researchers, psychologists and pundits…” In this way, The Mutiny was a century ahead of its time.

London enjoys this theme. His other sailing stories, for example, feature white men taking on the elements and asserting their natural dominion over supposedly inferior races. His non-fiction, meanwhile, teems with visceral language about lesser humans. In The People of the Abyss, his epic 1903 foray into the underclass of the east end of London, the author discovers “a thousand ragged wretches”, people he refers to as the “refuse of a human sty”. Along with the eugenicists of his day, London was obsessed with the apparent degeneration of the human stock.

Today, once again, the Alt-Right is obsessed with the degeneration and the supposed decline of western civilisation. “Future historians will likely look back on the contemporary West as a madhouse,” wrote the author of a recent blog on the influential website Alternative Right.

By the time London sat down to write the book his commitment to the cause of socialism was waning. By 1914, he had already dropped out of socialist activism and resigned from the Socialist Party. He welcomed the First World War in language similar to that deployed by proto-fascists of the day, describing it as a “cleansing that can only result in good for humankind”.

London understood the emotional appeal of fascism precisely because he was willing to take his own political temperature. He could comprehend the contempt with which fascists viewed non-whites and the poor, largely because he felt similar pangs himself. Even though he called himself a socialist, he held reprehensible views that grew more pronounced towards the end of his life (London lived to just 40-years-old).

But such insight was useful. He was the opposite of most contemporary progressive writers: their ‘wokeness’ rests upon their purported moral purity. As a result, fascism is today understood in a theoretical rather than emotional sense. Fascists are treated as if they were born rather than made; they are depicted in popular culture as a motley cast of deplorables who appear on the scene like ghosts, only to vanish again.

For an ordinary person to confess to fascist impulses today – as the actor Liam Neeson did recently – is to invite the braying hostility of the mob. Such opinions are cancelled and so our understanding of the ideology and its appeal is limited.

The Mutiny of the Elsinore, therefore, is an interesting text for our times. London’s concept of socialism, as can be seen from the book, was an exclusively Anglo-Saxon one, whereby notions of equality were parochial and restricted to a dominant ‘race’ or in-group. From there, it was not a huge leap to portray those who fell outside of this favoured class as inferior types who were temperamentally inclined to savagery. And that gave on to the path towards fascism.

The path London’s socialism eventually took him down,  as captured in the book, offers a cautionary tale to those today enamoured by repackaged theories of racial and class-based superiority. And it should also serve as a warning to those on the contemporary Left whose altruism stops abruptly at the shores of the English Channel.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.


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