Jack London was his own lawyer and he won

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.


Jack London advocated a different revolution, a Socialist one. The various books, articles, and speeches referred to as his Socialist writings, though now little read in the United States, sold well when first published and have been avidly read all over the world. The Iron Heel, for instance, sold over 50,000 copies in hardback, and Wikipedia lists translations of the novel into thirty-two languages (including Esperanto). According to Alex Kershaw (in his Jack London: A Life), the novel “was…passed along production lines throughout the nation,” and it was quickly “devoured” by many in the International Workers of the World, the “Wobblies.” Kershaw also notes that “Lenin and Trotsky both praised the novel, and it is the only American book in Bukharin’s bibliography of Communism.” On the last two nights of his life, the bedridden Lenin apparently asked his wife to read to him from the works of Jack London.

In 1896, when Jack London was twenty, the San Francisco Chronicle had referred to him as “the boy socialist of Oakland.” His fame grew out of his power as a public speaker. Week after week he stood on a soap box in the little park in front of City Hall arguing that the unbridled capitalism of his day condemned a great many of his fellow citizens to lives of degradation and misery while enriching a small number outrageously. Dozens of speakers held forth in the park every week, but Jack London always drew the biggest crowds and held their attention better than any other speaker. And in 1897, when Oakland passed a law forbidding public meetings on public streets, London challenged the law by getting himself arrested for climbing on that soap box and speaking. Oakland authorities were surprised that instead of paying the fine or consenting to spend a few days in jail, London demanded a jury trial. Acting as his own lawyer, London argued that the law violated the constitution’s guarantees of the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and he won.

Most of the people about whom London writes had begun their lives in the relative comfort and health of the middle class. Then at some point “the thing happened,” as London puts it. Some fell ill and were hospitalized for months only to emerge from hospital to find their job gone and their bodies too weak to compete for another. Others had depended for support in their old age on their children, whom they raised well and who had steady work at good wages; but then the children got sick and died, and the aged man or woman, with no family on whom to depend, had been forced into the streets and to the misery of seeking food and a place to rest. Personal responsibility, self-discipline, and making good choices are no help once “the thing happens.”

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