Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Friday, June 23, 2006

Leon Trotsky on Ignazio Silone and Jack London

In December 1934, Leon Trotsky wrote the following about Fontamara by Ignazio Silone:

'This is a remarkable book. From its first to its concluding sentence it is aimed against the Fascist regime, its lies, brutalities, and abominations. Fontamara is a book of impassioned political propaganda. But in it revolutionary passion attains such heights as to result in a genuinely artistic creation. Fontamara itself is merely a poverty-stricken village in one of the most forsaken corners of Southern Italy. In the course of some 200 pages of the book this name becomes the symbol of agricultural Italy, of all its villages and their poverty and their despair and their rebellion.

Silone possesses an intimate knowledge of the Italian peasants. As the author himself tells us, he spent the initial twenty years of his life in Fontamara. Gaudiness of style and sugary sentimentality are foreign to him. He is able to see life as it is; he is gifted with the capacity first to generalize what he perceives by means of the Marxian method and then to embody his generalizations in artistic images. He tells his tale through the persons of the peasants, the cafoni and the village paupers themselves. Despite the extraordinary difficulty of such a presentation, the author handles it like a true master. This book has chapters of stupendous power.

Has this book been published in the Soviet Union? Has it come to the notice of the publishing houses of the Third International? This book deserves a circulation of many million copies. But whatever may be the attitude of the official bureaucracy towards those works which belong to the genuine revolutionary literature, Fontamara – we are certain – will find its way to the masses. It is the duty of every revolutionist to assist in circulating this book.'

On October 16 1937, Trotsky wrote to Joan London about her father Jack London and in particular his novel The Iron Heel. What follows is a rather poor translation of the original, which appeared in the New Internationalin April 1945.

'Dear comrade,

It is with a certain apprehension that I admit to you that it was only in these last days, i.e. with a delay of thirty years, that I read for the first time The Iron Heel by Jack London. The book produced on me - I say it without exaggeration - a deep impression. Not because of its artistic qualities: the form of the novel here represents only an armour for social analysis and prognosis. The author is intentionally sparing in his use of artistic means. He is himself interested not so much in the individual fate of his heroes as in the fate of mankind. By this, however, I don't want at all to belittle the artistic value of the work, especially in its last chapters beginning with the Chicago commune. The pictures of civil war develop in powerful frescoes. The book surprised me with the audacity and independence of its historical foresight.

The world workers' movement at the end of the last and the beginning of the present century stood under the sign of reformism. The perspective of peaceful and uninterrupted world progress, of the prosperity of democracy and social reforms, seemed to be assured once and for all. The first Russian revolution, it is true, revived the radical flank of the German social democracy and gave for a certain time a dynamic strength to anarcho-syndicalism in France. The Iron Heel bears the undoubted mark of the year 1905. But at the time when this remarkable book appeared, the domination of counter-revolution was already consolidating itself in Russia. In the world arena the defeat of the Russian proletariat gave to reformism the possibility not only of regaining its temporarary lost positions but also of subjecting to itself completely the organized workers' movement. It is sufficient to recall that precisely in the following seven years (1907-14) the international social democracy ripened definitely for its base and shameful role during the World War.

Jack London not only absorbed creatively the impetus given by the first Russian revolution but also courageously thought over again in its light the fate of capitalist society as a whole. Precisely those problems which the official socialism of this time considered to be definitely buried: the growth of wealth and power at one pole, of misery and destitution at the other pole; the accumulation of social bitterness and hatred; the unalterable preparation of bloody cataclysms - all those questions Jack London felt with an intrepidity which forces one to ask himself again and again with astonishment: when was this written? Really before the war?

One must accentuate especially the role which Jack London attributes to the labour bureaucracy and to the labour aristocracy in the further fate of mankind. Thanks to their support, the American plutocracy not only succeeds in defeating the workers' insurrection but also keeping in its iron dictatorship during the following three centuries. We will not dispute with the poet the delay which can but seem to us too long. However, it is not a question of Jack London's pessimism, but of his passionate effort to shake those who are lulled by routine, to force them to open their eyes and to see what is and what approaches. The artist is audaciously utilizing the methods of hyperbole. He is bringing the tendencies rooted in capitalism: of oppression, cruelty, bestiality, betrayal, to their extreme expression. He is operating with centuries in order to measure the tyrannical will of the exploiters and the treacherous role of the labour bureaucracy. But his most "romantic" hyperboles are finally much more realistic than the bookkeeperlike calculations of the so-called sober politicians.

It is easy to imagine with what a condescending perplexity the official socialist thunking of that time met Jack London's menacing prophecies. If one took the trouble to look over the reviews of The Iron Heel at that time in the German Neue Zeit and Vorwaerts, in the Austrian Kampf and Arbeiterzeitung, as well as in the other socialist publications of Europe and America, he could easily convince himself that the "romanticist" saw incomparably more clearly and farthar than all the social democratic leaders of that time taken together. But Jack London bears comparison in this domain not only with the reformists. One can say with assurance that in 1907 not one of the revolutionary Marxists, not excluding Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, imagined so fully the ominous alliance between financial capital and labour aristocracy. This suffices in itself to determine the specific weight of the novel.

The chapter "The Roaring Abysmal Beast" undoubtedly constitutes the focus of the book. At the time when the novel appeared, this apocalyptical chapter must have seemed to be the boundary of hyperbolism. However, the consequent happenings have almost surpassed it. And the last word of class struggle has not been said by far! "The Roaring Abysmal Beast" is the people reduced to the most extreme degree of control, humiliation and degeneration. One would not have to go so far to speak of the pessimism of the artist! No, London is an optimist, only a penetrating and farsighted one. "Look into what kind of abyss the bourgeoisie will hurl you down if you don't finish with them!" This is his thought. Today it sounds incomparably more real and sharp than thirty years ago. But still more astonishing is the genuinely prophetic vision of the methods by which the Iron Heel will sustain its domination over crushed mankind. London manifests remarkable fredom from reformistic pacifist illusions. In this picture of the future there remains not a trace of democracy and peaceful progress. Over the mass of the deprived rise the castes of labour aristocracy, of praetorian army, of an all-penetrating police, with the financial oligarchy at the top. In reading it one does not believe his own eyes: it is precisely the picture of fascism, of its economy, of its governmental technique, its political psychology (pages 299, 300 and notes on page 301 are particularly remarkable). The fact is incontestable: in 1907 Jack London already foresaw and described the fascist regime as the inevitable result of the defeat of the proletarian revolution. Whatever may be the single "errors" of the novel - and they exist - we cannot help inclining before the powerful intuition of the revolutionary artist.

I write these lines with haste. I fear that these extreme circumstances do not enable me to elaborate on my appreciation of Jack London. I will endeavour to read the other works later that you sent to me, and to tell you what I think. You can make of my letters the use that you judge necessary. I wish you success in the work which you are undertaking on the biography of the great man who was your father.

With my cordial greetings.

Leon Trotsky.'

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At 9:54 pm, Blogger Comandante Gringo said...

(Sylvester Stallone and Jack Lord, together..!)

No, seriously.
I was myself quite disappointed with the conclusion (and conclusions) of the Iron Heel, when I read it many years ago. I thought it defeatist. But Trotsky makes the important, historical-materialist point -- which is why he's such the great one -- that, taken in context of the 1905 Revolution and that period, London was describing a very probable path out of the defeat of the world working-class: fascism.

And so my 20/02 hindsight was apparently bunkum. I really must read this novel again, more critically.

And where do we find Silone's Fontamara, for that matter? Is it available in english?

At 8:35 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

There is a good discussion of Jack London's Iron Heel somewhere on the 'Monuments are for pigeons' blog - see my links - which I will try to find a proper link for at some point.

Fontamara should be available in English - though it might be out of print. Try abebooks perhaps?

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