Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Jungle, Still

"Dr. Winslow seems to think that the first dollar is a male dollar, and the second a female dollar, and that when the man puts them into the bank together they reproduce nickels and dimes, which by and by grow up to be dollars as big as their daddy! He doesn't understand that the thing he calls interest is wealth produced by another man and which the other man had taken from him!" — a socialist organizer at a debate, in a scene from The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, 1906

I just read Upton Sinclair's classic early twentieth-century novel The Jungle. After reading excerpts long ago in school, I picked up the book from a stack of paperbacks being discarded. I soon discovered that there was somewhat recently issued a version of The Jungle that restored the novel to its original longer form as published in a number of socialist publications at the time. The author had shortened and edited the novel at the behest of his commercial publisher, and proceeded to make quite a name for himself and his work; I wound up reading the longer, long-ignored work, "The Uncensored Original Edition."

The Jungle is the story of an extended Lithuanian family immigrating to the United States to find work in the meatpacking plants of robber-baron era Chicago. The book is usually remembered as an exposé of the harsh working conditions and disgusting, dangerous food-handling operations then prevalent. If you think e-coli on spinach is a big deal, you ain't seen nothing yet compared to what is detailed in Sinclair's accessible, engaging read. But what I discovered is that The Jungle is misremembered, perhaps by nature of its shortening, as quite a different book than it actually is. Because while The Jungle is indeed an exposé and a heart-breaking story of a family's suffering, the book is actually a book about socialism and how one downtrodden worker comes to understand not only why he is downtrodden but how he finds hope in building solidarity with his kind for a new, revolutionary world.

The Jungle is no doubt dated. Its writer displays all too much of the extreme racism and misogyny of white America ca the turn of that century. But its vision of socialism is simple, clear and very inspiring. The pre-World War I American socialism it depicts is ascendant, and not yet confronted by the complexities of the post-WWI revolutionary era. But it is an amazing book.

Setting aside for a moment the tragedy that over a hundred years after its writing the same problems persist with the same vital arguments remain valid, The Jungle is an amazingly relevant read. Check out this passage reporting the fury of the book's hero, Jurgis Rudkus, upon discovering that nothing under capitalism is as it seems:

"The store-keepers plastered up their windows with all sorts of lies to entice you; the very fences by the wayside, the lamp-posts and telegraph-poles were pasted over with beastly lies. The great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country — from top to bottom, it was nothing but one gigantic lie. The whole country was a lie; its freedom was a lie, a snare for pauper workingman; its prosperity was a lie of rich employers, its justice was a lie of grafting politicians."

The book concludes with a rousing explication of socialist ideals, including a thinly disguised speech by iconic socialist leader Eugene Debs. Reading this section I wanted to jump up and down with excitement at how clearly and inspiringly the case for socialism is made. And not the dumbed down, prettified vision of socialism we've come to associate with the welfare states of Europe, either: this is socialism as an egalitarian society where the bosses and their state have been overthrown, and where economic justice rules and oppression is finally overcome.

It was a revelatory read, and a reminder that the ground being tread by today's social justice movements has been tread before.


  1. I really need to reread so many books. I'm not sure I was really present the first time I read many of them in high school and college. thanks, Ian!

  2. I've been trying to alternate classics I missed with newer stuff. This one was really great. So was War and Peace, though that took forever to get through.