(Originally published June 5, 2009)
Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel detailing the conditions of laborers in early 1900s Chicago has had a great impact on American thought for more than a century.After seeing Adam’s sharp criticism of this book…I had to read it for myself. Sorry folks…no pictures in this review. 😉
“The Jungle” is primarily concerned with Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus, a hardworking man determined to provide for his fiancee and their families. Upon arriving in Chicago after a traumatic transatlantic passage, Jurgis seeks work in “Packingtown” – a low-income district filled with slaughterhouses and meatpackers. He and the other men in his family rapidly find jobs and proceed to purchase a home for themselves.
Unfortunately, the “land of opportunity” turns out to be anything but that. Jurgis quickly realizes that he and his family are being exploited by vicious bosses bent on getting as much as possible out of their workers before discarding them. Taking advantage of their workers’ naivete, the lords of Packingtown arbitrarily hire and fire individuals based on their profit-making capabilities. Suffering under dehumanizing conditions, the Rudkus family begins to slide downhill.
Through a chain of increasingly heart-wrenching events, Jurgis becomes disillusioned with the capitalist ideal of the American Dream. After a string of catastrophic losses, Jurgis becomes an alcoholic drifter, wandering from job to job in search of his next meal. He even goes so far as to enter the criminal underworld of Chicago, struggling to make ends meet, before finally finding solace..
…in the arms of the Communist Party.
That is the moral of “The Jungle” – that capitalism is a perverse, exploitative ideology that will inevitably be overcome by socialism. Sinclair expertly depicts the horrors of life in Packingtown and the workers’ desperate lot, making “The Jungle” a brutal apologetic for Marxism. (Suffice it to say that reading “The Jungle” was almost enough to make me swear off eating sausages forever). Capitalists are unequivocally portrayed as the source of all pain and death in the world, while socialism is depicted as the ideal philosophy that will result in the salvation of humanity.
(It is interesting to note that many of the ideas in “The Jungle” were rebutted in George Orwell’s classic novel “Animal Farm.” Orwell even borrowed Jurgis’ motto “I will work harder!” for the character of Boxer – a devoted socialist horse who eventually becomes a victim of the very philosophy espoused by Sinclair.)
From a purely literary standpoint, “The Jungle” is both horrifying and oddly compelling. It is a well-written story that sinks in its claws and never lets go, dragging readers into the filth and grime of turn-of-the-century Chicago. Depictions of the sufferings of the Rudkis family – including the account of a young woman forced into prostitition to feed her family – are truly agonizing. It is an unforgettable story in this regard…a tale of desperation, degradation, and a fight for survival. Parts of the story are hard to stomach…but it is undeniably important to understand the motivations behind the rise of socialist thought.
But in the face of such horrible atrocities, how can one logically defend capitalism? If capitalism results in such oppression…should not everything possible be done to end it?
A careful reading of “The Jungle” provides some answers.
Capitalism is not the problem. The horrors of “The Jungle” arise through flagrant violations of the laws put in place to protect individual workers. Greed is the ultimate root cause – a cause that will not be eliminated by embracing socialism. As history has demonstrated time and time again, socialism simply changes the identities of the leaders. For the majority of workers, suffering will continue – just under a different name. Greed is an innate human flaw, not something that can be solved by altering our economic ideologies.
Socialism might have been a good idea. Problem was…it didn’t work. It led to injustice, oppression, and the deaths of untold millions. (Incidentally, Ayn Rand pointed out many of these flaws in her novel “Atlas Shrugged” – which is basically the polar opposite of “The Jungle”)
If all the laws mentioned in “The Jungle” were followed and enforced, there would be little or none of the abuse that Sinclair documents. Unfortunately, rich bosses have bribed government officials to overlook violations. That isn’t a problem with capitalism – it’s a problem with enforcement of the laws. Once again, that problem won’t go away by placing different authorities in charge. Greed isn’t going away anytime soon – whether under the banner of capitalism or of communism, it’s something that humans have been experiencing since the dawn of time.
Should you read “The Jungle”? It’s not a particularly pleasant read. Nonetheless, any students of American history, government, or economics would be well served by understanding the motivations behind the 20th century’s most influential philosophy.
A linchpin of early socialist thought. Worth reading for a better understanding of socialism.