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In the name of defeated generations: Reflections on Jack London`s `The people of the Abyss`

by James Graham 

Posted: 16 November 2008
Word Count: 3248
Summary: Something I wrote about a year ago, and revised a little recently. I'm not sure how much interest there will be in it - it's rather heavy and very, very radical.

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In the name of defeated generations: reflections on Jack London’s The People of the Abyss


Feature articles in the daily press are almost invariably pegged to this week’s headlines. This article is pegged to a headline I have never seen in any paper: 26,000 CHILDREN DIED YESTERDAY. On whatever day the headline appeared, give or take a few hundred it would be true. Each day there are around twenty-six thousand child deaths globally from poverty-related causes - hunger, malnutrition, treatable diseases for which the medicines are unavailable or too expensive.

There are conundrums surrounding this missing headline. It doesn’t appear because these children die all over the place, in poverty-stricken villages, in shanty suburbs. If they all died in one place, it would be in the news for months. Even papers more interested in Amy Winehouse would print the story.

It doesn’t appear because if it were published one day it would have to be repeated every day. If it were published on one day and not on all the following days, it would seem that suddenly all was well. It never appears even once for the very reason that it happens all the time.

But the most significant reason for its absence is that here in the developed countries we are well removed from sight or awareness of desperate poverty. This is not to say there is no poverty in rich countries. The New Policy Institute lists 36 ‘essentials’ that a family should be able to afford in order to have a decent life, including a refrigerator, heating of some sort in all rooms, two pairs of all-weather shoes for each family member, fresh fruit and vegetables daily, and the cost of prescriptions. 20% of the UK population was found to lack three or more of these.

Without disparaging the struggles that so many people have in the more affluent societies, we have to say that their poverty really is ‘relative’. In the villages of sub-Saharan Africa or the villas miserias of Latin America, poverty is of a different order. And it is very far away.

The gaps left by that missing headline have been filled from time to time by committed writers. One of the latest is Mike Davis, whose Planet of Slums (2006) combines vivid documentary with in-depth analysis and impassioned polemic. Older classics in the genre include Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and Engels’ Condition of the English Working Class.But for me the most inspiring (though by no means the most comprehensive) is Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, his excoriating exposé of poverty in the East End of London at the turn of the twentieth century - a slum city-within-a-city as ‘far away’, as remote and unseen by the comfortable classes, as rural Zimbabwe or the impoverished suburbs of Mumbai seem to us today.

Jack London was an upside-downer. A kind of human sloth perhaps, except that for the sloth - one assumes - upside-downness is normal. It is not so for the portion of humanity into which I was born: the radical, revolutionary, subversive, misfit folk who pass their whole lives in a sort of upside-down position, not happily like the sloth but hankering for the world to to flip over. We’re forever wanting the last to be first, and the first to be last.

London, more than Engels but perhaps not much more than Orwell, was one of the misfit folk. And yet, nothing seems so right-way-up, moral, humane and rational than the 'simple criteria' he took with him into the abyss: 'that which made for more life, for physical and spiritual health, was good; that which made for less life, which hurt, and dwarfed, and distorted life, was bad'.

The People of the Abyss is full of sharp and sardonic comment on the many ways in which those already down are daily and nightly pushed even farther down. 'It is a law of the powers that be that the homeless shall not sleep by night.' Continually moved on by the police, their nights are a weary trek from doorway to doorway, street to street. At the Salvation Army, they must endure four hours of hymns and moral sermons before receiving a charitable breakfast of bread and cheese. At the workhouse, they have to pay for a meal of skilly by breaking stones. At every turn they are hurt, humiliated, and insulted, as if poverty itself were a crime for which they must be continually punished.

London's book is peopled with ruined men and women. A British Navy veteran he met in the poorhouse queue had 'served his Queen and country' for forty years, earning three good-conduct awards and the Victoria Cross, until one day he struck an officer who made a remark that 'referred to his mother'. For this natural reaction to an offensive remark he was given fifty lashes, dishonourably discharged, forced to give up his medal, and jailed for two years after his discharge. Jack London's account of this man is an exemplar of Walter Benjamin's redefinition of history as a 'struggle for the oppressed past in the name of defeated generations': a history turned upside down, in which most of the powerful from ancient kings to democratic leaders enter the stage merely as enemies of the people. In this sloth-history the old sailor's retaliation becomes a noble and tragic act; and the petty thieving and brawling of the poor become acts of desperation, class struggle without a purpose, for which the ultimate blame lies elsewhere.


In the twenty-first century, there is still an abyss. The shanty suburbs of poor-world cities are growing exponentially. Around rich-world cities there are still human dumping-grounds, their inhabitants no longer dominated by the poorhouse but enfeebled by drugs and alcohol. The abyss still exists even though the working class have made real, more or less enduring gains in some countries - the right, for example, to health care, and to be paid by the state when there is no work to be had. For this and many other reasons which should be clear from this article, I believe with every fibre of my being that we need to reconstitute the socialist tradition - including Marxism - in the twenty-first century. Meanwhile we can still do history in London's and Benjamin's way. And for me this tends to produce not so much a new historical method as a kind of historical snapshot album which can supplement Marxism and illustrate its more abstract analyses.

It may at times seem a whimsical way of looking at history, but it serves to memorialise the oppressed, elevate them, make them potential protagonists. Potential merely, because in their circumstances there was little or no historical agency they could get hold of; protagonists only in the sense that through the accounts we give of them, their often hopeless struggles can become the chief significance and dynamic of history.

One curious way to do this kind of history is to zoom in on actualities, on the scene in one place on one day a century or a millennium ago, instead of always zooming outwards and upwards into the upper air of statistics and generalities.

Zoom in, to begin with, on a spot in Spitalfields described by Jack London: ‘The shadow of Christ’s Church falls across Spitalfields Garden, and in the shadow of Christ’s Church, at three o’clock in the afternoon, I saw a sight I never wish to see again’. Needless to say, there is heavy intentional irony in London’s ‘shadow of Christ’s Church’, and intrinsic irony in this place - a decrepit square of grass and weeds surrounded with a spiked wrought-iron fence - being named a ‘garden’. Here London found ‘a mass of miserable and distorted humanity...a welter of rags and filth, of all manner of loathsome skin diseases, open sores, bruises...and bestial faces’. A baby lies asleep on a bench, exposed to a ‘chill, raw wind’. On another bench, ‘a woman trimming the frayed strips of her rags with a knife, and another woman, with thread and needle, sewing up rents...farther on, a man, his clothing caked with gutter mud, asleep, with head in the lap of a woman not more than twenty-five years old’.

Or zoom in on the Stone Room in London's legendary Newgate Prison, on a day at the end of August 1724, a few days after Bartholomew Fair. Here we find Jack Sheppard, famous and admired robber of London town, redistributor of goods already stolen from the poor by means of a system later to be called alienation of the labourer from the product of his labour. He works with consummate skill, through a sweet transmission from brain to hand, at his manacles and ankle-chain. He works his hands free of the cuffs; uses a rusty nail to break the ankle-chain; uses this chain to root out the iron bar that blocks his passage up the chimney; applies this bar to the forcing of four doors; emerges on a roof, and unable to get footholds to climb down, returns to his cell to fetch blankets to knot together. Sheppard was a young man of high intelligence, courage, and flair. Born in the ghetto of Spitalfields, two hundred years before Jack London but in the same abyss, lacking honest outlets for his intelligence and adventurous spirit he did what he could. As we flip over the history of the poor we need to remove all stigma (though not regret) from what are called their crimes: their thieving, their brawling, their acts of rebellion. In societies founded on theft - on landowning and capital accumulation - societies which continually provoke a dialectic of rebellion, such men as Jack Sheppard are true protagonists, and it is no wonder thousands wept and cried out their protest at his hanging.

Or zoom in to Hughson's tavern by the North River in Manhattan, in the spring of 1742, as Irishmen and Negroes, longshoremen, sailors and domestic servants buy and sell small items they have appropriated from their masters - stolen, these masters would say - and the Long Bridge Boys under the captaincy of John Gwin plot the burning of Fort George. For this act of rebellion, John Gwin and John Hughson were hanged and their bodies gibbeted in public and left to rot. Gwin's lover Peg Kerry was hanged too, and so their child was orphaned. Fifteen others were hanged, and thirteen (all of African origin) burned at the stake. (By 1776, the dreams of these hapless saboteurs were realised in the American Republic.) We need to weigh the so-called crimes of such as the Long Bridge Boys against the far more comprehensive, and self-legitimated, crimes of the ruling elites. We need continually to remind ourselves that we have a duty to act in their memory and in the interests of their successors.


Our upside-down history can also foreground the crimes of the powerful. This is even a matter of placing a stigma that is not always acknowledged as such, calling many wicked acts by the name of crime which have been exempted by those who make one law for themselves and another for the masses. Not only such crimes as the Nazi holocaust or the Stalinist gulag, those that have been singled out for infamy, mass oppressions carried out by maverick celebrity bad-men, but also those of mainstream governments, including modern democracies. Not only Hitler's concentration camps, but those of Spain in Cuba, Britain in South Africa, Kenya and Malaya, and the United States at Guantanamo Bay.

Not only the practice of total war on non-combatants as we see it in the despicable Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe, but the same practices wherever they are found: in the wars against Native Americans in the nineteenth century, the Armenian massacres of 1916, mass-murders by imperialist Germans in South-west Africa, French in Algeria, Americans in Vietnam. There's no need for us to paint every power-holding individual or group equally black; we can recognise (with more than a touch of condescension, perhaps!) the contribution made towards 'more life' by such men as Lincoln, F. D. Roosevelt, Castro or Mandela - acknowledge, at least, the element in what they did that was good by Jack London's criteria. But in partially or even largely exempting these men from censure, there is still the reservation that although they are remembered with respect, they can never be wholly separated from the context of power games and social control.

It's an effort to see clearly in a disfigured world. We can assemble this historical pot-pourri too by motifs and juxtapositions. The motif of separation of families, for example. Begin with the scene in Portugal on the 8th of August 1444, the arrival of the first large consignment of Africans enslaved by Europeans: 'What heart could be so hard,' wrote a chronicler of the time, 'as not to be pierced by piteous feeling to see that company'. 'There now arrived those who had charge of the division of the captives, and then it was needful to part fathers from sons, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers. No respect was shown to either friends or relations, but each fell where his lot took him'. Then pick up another piece of the picture, one that fits in spite of the march of linear time, in spite of the process from age to age of the history of kings and dictators. Child migrants arrive in Australia, mostly 'illegitimate' children and children of single parents transported from Britain to be put to farm labouring in the colonies. On the quayside, they are separated from their brothers and sisters. Some end up in Australian institutions run by such charitable organisations as the Christian Brothers. The Brothers cannot say the unspeakable, that the child was conceived in sin, and so they tell the children their parents are dead, and destroy letters that eventually arrive from home. In their loneliness the children try to rock themselves to sleep, and are beaten for it. There is another common theme here, one that Jack London clearly understands: a crime that far outweighs the crimes of the poor: the punishment of the common people for being who they are; the imputation of guilt for poverty, or black skin, or having been born at all.

And the motif of ghettos: juxtapose the East End as depicted by Jack London in the 1900s beside Warsaw in the 1940s, and that beside the villageisation policies and concentration camps of the British Empire. The effort to demarcate reservations for the poor, to corral them in no-go areas where, at best (and the best is bad enough) they can be economically useful but invisible to the tender conscience - or at worst, where they can be starved and dehumanised.


Our history can also bring into focus the reflexive struggles of the poor, not only those struggles directed against ruling elites in attempts to overthrow them (important as these are) but also the perennial struggles to build their own lives and constitute their communities and societies. In this case we can leap over time and see the continuity between, on the one hand, nineteenth-century Friendly Societies or 'box clubs' in which working-class people combined to supply what capitalism neglected - mutual security, insurance against sickness and old age - and the third-world people's banking and mutual-aid activism of our own time. And then there is the joy of which the oppressed have always been capable. The history of defeated generations is far from being a black history of toil and suffering, if we consign all coronations and military circuses to the shadows and bring to front stage the carnivals, games, excursions, home-made entertainments and comedies self-generated by the poor in all ages: generated in face of the poorhouses, factories, armies, churches, ghettos and slave-ships by means of which the ruling classes could manage them like domestic animals and deduct even these pleasures from the sum of their existence.

It's an effort to see clearly in a disfigured world: to see that the social order of humanity through the centuries has not been a natural order, but a questionable and alterable order; to understand that the nature of power has been such that too many of the powerful have been corrupt and criminal, makers of fear and pain, wasters of lives. It's not just a matter of 'highlighting' the history of the poor, giving them more of a shout as it were. It's an effort to change the paradigm, to conjure an extraversion of history such that the warmakers and wastemakers appear on the inside, and the old sailor in the workhouse queue and the man shot at dawn for 'cowardice' appear on the outside, on the surface, as the men and women from whom we draw our values and our inspiration.

Our historical pot-pourri, our alternative history of the world, may help us not only to name the enemy but familiarise ourselves with its many faces. We already know its name. It is not merely 'man's inhumanity to man' but something much more concrete: an amalgam of capitalist exploitation and economic expansion with a quest for world political power to make this expansion and exploitation possible. Capitalism employs many distorting instruments and dwarfing agencies, some (such as the Atlantic slave trade, or the Inquisition) at last abolished by public outcry but replaced by others. Religion is one of its most powerful weapons. Zoom in on the Christian Brothers again, a little closer this time. Lost boys break rocks, just as the poorhouse men had done, and heave great stones to build their school. By night, the Brothers creep into bed with them, offering a very special cure for their bed-wetting. The enemy is a many-headed monster - but the heads all belong to the same animal. It evolves over time, growing new heads - but it's the same species. Through all the multifarious examples, all the scenes of the dwarfing and culling of humankind, there is a common thread. In Jack London's words, 'Class supremacy rests on class degradation'.

It's the same the whole world over;
It's the poor what gets the blame;
It's the rich what gets the pleasure;
Ain't it all a bloody shame?

The English music-hall song, for all its down-to-earth alacrity, is almost as profound as anything in Jack London. It seems to sum up all the motifs and juxtapositions we can deploy, all the appalling inhumanity of political, economic and religious elites in a multitude of times and places. The more we assemble these anachronistic fragments, the more they multiply, the more reasonable revolution begins to seem.

It sums up the philosophy of the human sloths, the upside-downers, who will never be happy until the world flips over. And yet, how reasonable and commonsensical we all are! Writing of the ruined health and moral corruption brought upon the people of the East End of London by their filthy, overcrowded environment, Jack London sets out his Golden Rule: 'What is not good enough for you is not good enough for other men, and there's no more to be said.'


Jack London, The People of the Abyss, Centenary Edition (Pluto Press 2002)
Material on Jack Sheppard from Peter Ackroyd, London: a Biography (Chatto &Windus 2000)
Details of the burning of Fort George from Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: a History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Verso 2000)
Child migrants and the Christian Brothers: from BBC radio series The Child Migrants

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Comments by other Members

purpletandem at 10:48 on 22 November 2008  Report this post
Hi James,

A very powerful piece of writing. At first sight, I was a bit daunted, but once I started reading I was gripped to the end. Although ultimately I would probably draw different political conclusions to yours in terms of causes of and solutions for the issues you have tellingly described, it has made me think hard about my personal responsibilty for these issues and what my personal response to them should be. That must surely be the mark of good writing. I agree with you that it might be a bit 'heavy' for some audiences - but by no means all. Just finally, is there a case for a concluding section in which you pull together and summarise your thoughts/opinions/conclusions and make a proposal?


Richard Brown at 18:52 on 26 November 2008  Report this post
'Gripping' is the word that came to my mind also as I read - very, very powerful, beautifully crafted stuff and surely deserving of a wider readership. I know it's not easy to place such pieces but maybe it would be worth calling up the 'politics' list via the WW Directory and giving some of them a try (maybe you already have...)

My only reservation came via a couple of uses of the word 'black' to indicate bad things or outcomes. Maybe I'm being over-sensitive and I don't know what the received opinion is these days on this issue but I thought I'd mention it.

Graphic, moving, thought-provoking, learned, well-argued; all of these and more. I dohope you find a journal which will take it.


James Graham at 20:42 on 26 November 2008  Report this post
Pt and Richard, thank you for reading and commenting. When I tried to post this, I got the warning that it was too long and pieces of such length seldom attract comments. So special thanks for ploughing through it.

pt, I have no idea what proposal I could make at the end. There’s the one that’s been around for some years now, the ‘Tobin Tax’, named after the economist who proposed it (James Tobin, economic advisor to John F Kennedy). It would be a tax on the profits of international currency speculation. According to what I’ve read, these profits are so enormous (what’s the best word for unimaginably huge? Humungous? Brobdignagian? Thumping great?) that a tax imposed at 0.05% by all the rich countries acting together would generate enough to eradicate extreme poverty everywhere in the world. But the difficulties are enormous, e.g. if there was even one ‘offshore island’ all the money would find its way there and no tax would be paid. I’m afraid proposals would have to come from some radical economist.

Richard, the article is being ‘considered’ by the US journal New Politics which published an article of mine a couple of years ago. They’ve no room for it until June 2009, but they seem to like it.


portobelloprincess at 17:03 on 30 November 2008  Report this post
I found this to be an amazingly intelligent and well written piece; it is quite long but, so interesting that I didnt want to stop. It is not a crime to be poor but society makes what they refer to as 'lack of social status' into a crime. At the moment, there are unemployed people living on a pittance who are trying to earn a little extra for Christmas and the media is putting up ads as 'warnings' telling all that they are 'clamping down on benefit fraud' though they dont clamp down quite as quickly on banks that inundated people with offers of credit cards though these people had no real means of paying back the debts that ensued from these offers.
The Christmas thing of giving those who sleep rough a few nights shelter is another thing that I find appauling.
I will read Jack Londons book; it sounds remarkable.

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