A Marxist Analysis of Jack London’s A Piece of Steak

Jack London’s 1909 short story A Piece of Steak is a story of a prize fight between the old veteran Australian boxer Tom King and the young up-and-coming Sandel. Traditionally viewed as a struggle between the old and the new, a classical marxist analysis reveals that in addition to this struggle between old and new this story is one of the commodification of boxers and their labor in the production of entertainment. 

Tom King was a professional fighter. For twenty years his life was spent in the boxing ring. His job, his life, and his profession centered around the spectacle that was boxing.  

“Audiences assembled and paid for the spectacle of men knocking each other out. The winner took the big end of the purse. When Tom King faced the Woolloomoolloo Gouger, twenty years before, he knew that the Gouger’s jaw was only four months healed after having been broken in a Newcastle bout. And he had played for that jaw and broken it again in the ninth round, not because he bore the Gouger any ill-will, but because that was the surest way to put the Gouger out and win the big end of the purse. Nor had the Gouger borne him any ill-will for it. It was the game, and both knew the game and played it.”

Tom king understood his role, and understood that his fighting was his work. He became a top-fighter, a man known in all the pubs and taverns who consistently won fights. In his youth he was irreplaceable. He was the spectacle, the pinnacle of the production of entertainment for the masses. 

“Tom King was getting old; and old men, fighting before second-rate clubs, couldn’t expect to run bills of any size with the tradesmen.”

As Tom ages, he can no longer consistently win fights. Money and credit which once flowed freely in the years where he was expected and known to win fights is dried up and gone, and he is left with a starving wife and hungry children. 

“It was all he had in the world, with the rent overdue, and her and the kiddies. And he was leaving it to go out into the night to get meat for his mate and cubs–not like a modern working-man going to his machine grind, but in the old, primitive, royal, animal way, by fighting for it.”

As he walks to his next fight he mourns his position. 

“He found himself wishing that he had learned a trade. It would have been better in the long run. But no one had told him, and he knew, deep down in his heart, that he would not have listened if they had.”

In the age when Tom was the pinnacle of the cog of his small piece of the entertainment industry he could not have been persuaded against his role. His commodification in the dialectic was unknown to him but held him in irons. It is only in his age as he contemplates his opponent that he realizes that escaping the system or at one time avoiding it altogether may have led to a better life than a poor misery. 

“[Sandel] had everything to win by it–money and glory and career; and Tom King was the grizzled old chopping-block that guarded the highway to fame and fortune. And he had nothing to win except thirty quid, to pay to the landlord and the tradesmen. And, as Tom King thus ruminated, there came to his stolid vision the form of Youth, glorious Youth, rising exultant and invincible, supple of muscle and silken of skin, with heart and lungs that had never been tired and torn and that laughed at limitation of effort.”

His opponent Sandel, was no different than the young Tom King, commodified to the extreme, the new source of entertainment and delight for the masses. Just as Tom had taken on and dispatched the old vanguard of fighters in his day, Sandel had a record of old veterans already beneath his belt. To Sandel, Tom King is nothing more than the next old soldier to fall in the battlefield, the next small man to give way to the emerging giant of industry. 

“Tom King was an old un, but a better old un than he had ever encountered–an old un who never lost his head, who was remarkably able at defence, whose blows had the impact of a knotted club, and who had a knockout in either hand.”

In a fight that Jack London immortalizes in harsh beauty, Tom King comes close to defending his life, his finances, and his place in industry. But he fails, and Tom knows that there will be no more fights for him. 

“Well, a man had only so many fights in him, to begin with. It was the iron law of the game. One man might have a hundred hard fights in him, another man only twenty; each, according to the make of him and the quality of his fibre, had a definite number, and, when he had fought them, he was done.”

Unable to hold himself against the tide of his opponent, Tom’s last fight is over, and his use value is spent. Tom bares no ill-will to the young man, after all fighting was a business to him. 

“His gloves had already been removed, and Sandel, bending over him, was shaking his hand. He bore no ill-will toward the man who had put him out and he returned the grip with a heartiness that made his battered knuckles protest. Then Sandel stepped to the centre of the ring and the audience hushed it’s pandemonium to hear him accept young Pronto’s challenge and offer to increase the side bet to one hundred pounds.”

Tom King the man was not capital. Tom King fighting for the entertainment of the crowd was his capital. As a man with no capital, with no use value left in his industry, Tom King finally, having fully experienced the cruelty of his line of work, understands that he was witnessing himself in Sandel, and as he had put away the other old ‘uns another would come to put away the older Sandel. 

“He covered his face with his hands, and, as he cried, he remembered Stowsher Bill and how he had served him that night in the long ago. Poor old Stowsher Bill! He could understand now why Bill had cried in the dressing-room.”

This interpretation of A Piece of Steak, shows the complete commodification of the Boxing Society of early 20th century Australia. The industry was a continual cycle of commodified individuals using their bodies and fighting ability as capital in order to produce entertainment, the products of the industry. The coercion of their industry affected the old and the new in different ways. For the new young boxers, the coercion was that of success and importance. Lauded as great men, greater than the old ‘uns before them, the young champions waste their lives in a career that destroys any ability for long sustainability. Tom King is forty years old in his fight with Sandel, a career of twenty years in a world where life is long is not fair exchange.

“He felt weak and sore, and the pain of his smashed knuckles warned him that, even if he could find a job at navvy work, it would be a week before he could grip a pick handle or a shovel.”

Coercing the young to a life of poverty in exchange for a brief spell of glory transforms into the commodification of the old. The old guard of fighters serve as steps to bring glory to the new. They are coerced through poverty and finances, bills, rent, and the need to sustain a family. They must sell what little use is left in their bodies in order to fight losing battles against the young men who they cannot weather the tide against. But fight they must. 

Perhaps Tom could have avoided his fate by going into a trade or being industrious with his money and saving for himself in retirement. However the coercion and commodification, being complete with Tom, he could not see the future beyond his own glory. 

It had been so easy. Big money–sharp, glorious fights–periods of rest and loafing in between–a following of eager flatterers, the slaps on the back, the shakes of the hand, the toffs glad to buy him a drink for the privilege of five minutes’ talk–and the glory of it, the yelling houses, the whirlwind finish, the referee’s “King wins!” and his name in the sporting columns next day.

Nor could the industry function with financially wise old men. The glory of the youth only existed if they could walk atop the broken bodies of once-legends. The struggle of old and new is perpetuated by the industry so it can survive. Industry for industry sake. One might interpret Sandel as the Bourgeoisie  bashing the proletariat KIng, however I would posit that it is the tradesmen, the proprietors of the boxing clubs, and the men who make the bets in the boxing circles who make their money and livelihoods off the cycle of the old and new clashing. The boxing industry sucessfully monetized the replacing of the guard, the generational shift and it is tragic. London writes a short story in which we root for the old man, desping the young Sandel and perhaps showing a reader the value of caring for the old. However, this Marxist view may allow the world to also shed a tear for Sandel, for it will be likely less than twenty years that he will the old ‘un put out by some new young fighter, and that it will be Sandel crying during a long walk home after he lost a fight over a piece of steak.   

Source Used:

“A Piece of Steak–Jack London (1876-1916).” Classic Short Stories, www.classicshorts.com/stories/steak.html.