In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck – Reviewed by Guy Portman
In Dubious Battle is a politically engaged novel that was, at the time of its publication at the height of the 1930’s Depression, highly controversial. The book follows Jim Nolan, a young man from poverty stricken circumstances, who is disillusioned with a system that he perceives as unjust, in which his father fought a losing battle for justice all his life, while his mother futilely sought salvation in a God that does not exist. Joining a group of communists determined to bring about a new world order, Jim is desperate to prove his devotion to their ideals and an opportunity soon presents itself. It has been announced that pay rates have been reduced for the apple pickers in the orchards that year, this after the arrival of itinerant workers at the site. The organisation decides to manipulate this disharmony to bring about a general strike amongst the workers. Jim is to serve as an apprentice to the experienced Mac McLeod, a shrewd, idealistic and courageous labor organiser and campaigner.
As the ensuing strike develops it becomes apparent that the radicals are less interested in whether the strike is successful and more in mobilising support for the ongoing war that lies ahead. Steinbeck is adept at capturing the turmoil of the times in his description of the escalating hardships of the disenfranchised migrant workers; the poverty, hunger, the fear of the police and the ever present threat of vigilantes, as the strike rises in intensity, destruction and ultimately ends in tragedy. The worker versus capital confrontation is described in great depth from the tactics deployed by both sides to the psychology of manipulation, the importance of gathering public support and the significance played by propaganda, factors that have lost none of their relevance today.
This thought provoking novel is perhaps one of Steinbeck’s most compelling works, in which the author skillfully resists the temptation for commentary, leaving the reader to reach their own conclusion on where the real exploitation lies and whether its deployment is justifiable as a means to an end.