Jack London Defends Labor-Union 'Terrorism'

Police break up an 1874 protest of 7,000 unemployed laborers in New York's Tompkins Square Park. (Library of Congress) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In hindsight, Jack London probably wasn’t quite the right fit for The Atlantic. When he sent his first submission in 1899, the editors called his writing “vigorous” and “essentially healthy.” But they took issue with his byline. “We venture to suggest the use of the more frequent form of the Christian name,” they wrote to him. Jack refused to become John, and after that, The Atlantic rejected three of his short stories—including his now-legendary “The Law of Life,” which they called “forbidding” and “depressing.”

London’s final contribution to The Atlantic, published in January 1904, was “The Scab,” an essay denouncing capitalism and defending violent labor uprisings:

When a striker kills with a brick the man who has taken his place, he has no sense of wrong-doing. In the deepest holds of his being, though he does not reason the impulse, he has an ethical sanction … Terrorism is a well-defined and eminently successful policy of the labor unions. It has probably won them more strikes than all the rest of the weapons in their arsenal.

The editors published “The Scab” with a cautious note at the top, calling it “an interesting contribution, from a radical point of view.” A few months later, they wrote London a Dear John letter, explaining that his passionate editorials weren’t quite the right “style of address” for The Atlantic. London responded graciously: “Thank you for your kind rejection of May 25. Now this is not sarcastic at all, and I am thanking you for the best and most genuine rejection I ever received in all my life.”