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Socialism, Capitalism, Social Darwinism, and Nietzsche in Jack London's The Call of the Wild

Updated on May 27, 2013

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Jack London's Call of the Wild has been the subject of much critical inquiry for the implications of Buck's venture into that wild. In this near state of nature, there exists a theoretical ground from which the concepts of Darwinism as well as self-sustenance as a virtue can be investigated. An extratextual fact that may be read into the text as much as taken from it is the notion that London was interested in socialism. The wild, a place where currency is eventually disavowed, is indeed evocative of Marxist disillusion with capital. The coexistence of a very pervasive theme of Darwinist "survival of the fittest," however, serves to complicate any simplistic readings of socialist arguments within while the inverse is also true; the celebration of labor also prevents a purely capitalist reading of the text. Likewise, London's known interest in Nietzsche and the presence of ostensibly Nietzschean themes in the text present further problems in taking away coherent philosophical messages from it.

What would Mr. Marx think of this book?
What would Mr. Marx think of this book?

Socialism, Marxism in the text

The joy Buck takes in pulling the sled is the most clearly socialist idea presented in the text. This celebration of labor shown via Buck's fulfilling experiences as sled leader seems to teach the lesson that when one extricates themselves from a capitalist society, a new relationship with labor is possible. Speaking about the tough work under the "Scotch half-breed," Buck "[took] pride in it after the manner of Dave and Sol-leks, and seeing that his mates. . . did their fair share" (27). Taking pride in one's work and the notion of each individual contributing their fair share are major tenets of socialism and key components of Marxist rhetoric. The implication of the text is when Buck was in California, capital had led him to lead a lazy and rather meaningless existence. Not only was he alienated from his labor, he was without labor. Buck's ultimate restlessness and desire for the wild can be explained as his innate desire to sustain himself through labor. This sort of instinctual desire to labor is part of Marx's certainty that the proletariat will eventually overthrow the bourgeoisie. However, it is important to note that there lacks such a revolutionary feel to Call of the Wild. Buck, after all, was given away and did not willfully enter a situation in which he labors. If Buck was originally considered a part of the bourgeoisie, living in luxury with the Judge, then perhaps there is more potential for this sort of message.

Darwinism, too, pervades

Darwinian notions of "survival of the fittest" are pervasive once Buck is taken from his home. He first learns of the so-called "law of club and fang" when he sees Curly murdered by the other dogs. Throughout his adventure, he witnesses and participates in various fatal acts by the dogs and other animals. The battle with Spitz typifies this notion and the fact that Buck comes to believe in it. Either Spitz or Buck had to die because only the fittest leader ought to survive. When Francois and Perrault attempt to make Sol-leks the new team leader, Buck becomes indignant. After all, if survival of the fittest is the law of the land, he had earned that position. Buck believes "it was his by right. He had earned it, and would not be content with less" (25). This is important because by now, the notion of natural selection occurring in nature is rather uncontested. Buck, on the other hand, is not operating in nature. While he has left civilization, he is in a micro society of sorts on the sled team. His sincere belief is that his society should be ruled by this law of nature. The fittest dog should be given the privilege of leadership, even if in a self-governing society there are other fathomable options than social Darwinism. This is particularly troublesome if one wants to believe the text is supportive of any kind of socialist message. A socialist society lacks delineated leadership positions and would settle conflict by cooperation, not fights to the death. Popular opinion would be stronger than fighting skill.


The Nietzschean "death of God"

Buck's descent into the wild can be seen in terms other than just Darwinian ones. One can associate the loss of Judge Miller as owner as the Nietzschean death of God for Buck. Instead of the state of nature, then, what Buck deals with in the wild is a battle against nihilism. God, or in Buck's case Judge Miller, has given meaning to the world and Buck's existence. Before nihilism, though, Buck comes to know master-slave relations. Shortly after the savage killing of Curly, Buck demonstrates his quick assumption of slave morality. His reaction can be summed up with "so that was the way. No fair play" (9). The master morality may see good in the death of Curly: a weak dog is eliminated, the other dogs are more practiced in fighting, there is more food to go around, and other considerations both utilitarian and noble. Buck's negative reaction shows that he has taken on the slave morality, in that the malicious intent of the savagery overshadows any potential goods of the event. However, he takes on the master morality before long when he beats Spitz in their fight to the death. In the heat of battle, the reader is told "mercy was a thing reserved for gentler climes" (24). Upon winning, Buck "stood . . . the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good [emphasis added]" (24). In the span of just a few moments, Buck both disavows the mercy he once wished for Curly while proclaiming his rather senseless fight that kills Spitz a good development. This is a clear transition from slave to master morality. However, this proves unsatisfactory for Buck; he then begins dealing with nihilism.

Did you know that the original texts of Nietzsche's work were edited by his anti-semitic sister and brother-in-law and it was many years later before scholars realized that his original manuscripts were not racist at all?
Did you know that the original texts of Nietzsche's work were edited by his anti-semitic sister and brother-in-law and it was many years later before scholars realized that his original manuscripts were not racist at all?

From nihilist to Übermensch

Buck's brush with nihilism is where Nietzsche's distaste for socialism kicks in. After the death of God and conquering the guilt of slave morality, Buck becomes the master of a world without rules. Buck's first method of dealing with this is to find a new God: John Thornton. He was at times very pleased with this replacement god, feeling "love, genuine passionate love. . . for the first time" (42). After the death of God, though, a new God figure for Buck seems just as vulnerable to death; he ultimately feels unfulfilled in this relationship. Instead of nihilism, Buck can be said to be striving to be the Übermensch. His pull to the wild is not for the wild's sake, it is for the sake of transcending society and being worldly instead of other-worldly (disavowing the supernatural). According to Nietzsche, "man is a bridge and not a goal" (Nietzsche 198). Man is the bridge between the abyss of nihilism and ultimately becoming overmen or Übermenschen. While the Übermensch in Thus Spoke Zarathustra is quite clearly someone who will come in the future, it is very American of Buck to try to become the Übermensch himself. The Übermensch is "him who breaketh up their tables of values. . . he, however, is the creator" (Nietzsche 25). We can see this very much in Buck as well: "because of his very great love, he could not steal from this man, but from any other man, in any other camp, he did not hesitate an instant" (44). Buck both breaks the laws of common society by stealing but forms his own new sets of values by deciding who is and is not worth of being stolen from. This is the ultimate way man deals with the death of God, by allowing the Übermensch to create a new set of values.

The Nietzschean "last man" and socialism

The antithesis to the Übermensch is the "last man." The last man, or last men, are valueless nihilists that live in an egalitarian society. The last men appear to live in a socialist society. Nietzsche, speaking through Zarathustra, says "one still worketh, for work is pastime. . . One no longer becometh poor or rich. . . Who still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too burdensome" (Nietzsche 20). The joy of labor is there for the last men and both class and political divides appear to be dissolved as well. The last men will say, "we have discovered happiness" and "formerly all the world was insane" (Nietzsche 20). However, to Nietzsche, this is the worst kind of existence; socialism is the worst kind of existence. Nietzsche once remarked more explicitly that socialism is "the tyranny of the meanest and the most brainless" (Levy 102). If the capitalist implications of the group dynamic do not sully the socialist messages of the work, the extensive presence of Nietzschean themes certainly does.

Thanks for the classic novel, Jack London!
Thanks for the classic novel, Jack London!

So, is The Call of the Wild Nietzschean, socialist, capitalist, Darwinist?

The Call of the Wild toys with various philosophical ideas as it pertains to society. In light of their somewhat conflicting messages, one might think that the text advocates for some sort of hybrid system. Certainly, most American socialists have advocated for socialist reforms within the democratic, private-ownership system that exists in the USA. There exists a clear espousal for individual greatness while an equally important vindication of labor for its own sake exists. In the end, the novel seems to be an amalgam of contemporary social and political thought and somewhat unsophisticated in their synthesis. However, this is not meant to be a slight to London; this very well may typify the status of these somewhat new and undeveloped philosophies at the time. How can we utilize these ideas to better existence? It is unclear; perhaps man needs to head to the proverbial wild to find out for himself.

Works Consulted

Levy, Oscar. The Complete Works Friedrich Nietzsche Vol XIV : The Will to Power: An Attempted Transvaluation of All Values. London : T.N. Foulis, 1910-1014, 1933. Web. 26 Mar. 2013.

London, Jack. The Call of the Wild. Dover Publications, 2012. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Thus Spake Zarathustra A Book for All and None. Trans. Thomas Common. 2012. Print.


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