The Iron Heel
© 1907 Jack London
Jack London was the first serious author I ever read, my first novel being his The Call of the Wild. I’ve been meaning to read something else by him for years, and when I heard of The Iron Heel I knew I wanted to experience it.
The first thirty-three years of the 20th century witnessed the ultimate downfall of Europe’s old aristocratic order and the rise of fascism, replacing the old monarchies with a terrifying new form of totalitarianism in light of liberal democracy’s apparant failure to maintain prosperity. Cultural pessimism had become the order of the day, allowing sweeping new approaches that claimed to be rooted in older principles.
Imagine if aristocracy and classically liberal democracy fell to authoritarian states, but not to fascism. Imagine if the capitalist nations, rather than having their institutions infinitely maintained as liberal democracies aspired to do or being overthrown as socialists and fascists wanted, had simply been realized in full. Imagine that decades of the “hands-off” approach to economics, coupled with the tendecies of capitalism to magnify wealth expotentially and concentrate that wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer hands through competition, has resulted in the overwhelming majority of the United States’ economy being owned by five large trusts who work together for mutual benefit. These trusts own the political machines that control the government, which might — through “trust-busting” politicians and regulation — by otherwise hinder their increasing power. These economic potentates control the resources of the land through the businesses and government, and as they grow they destroy the increasingly marginalized middle class and turn the general populace into industrial serfs, serving long hours for pitiful wages and utterly dependent on their masters for sustenance.
This is the world of Jack London’s Iron Heel, framed as a historical document complete with an introduction and running commentary from a historian centuries in the future. (Margaret Atwood may have borrowed this device for her The Handmaid’s Tale.) The fictional author of the text is Avis Everhard, wife of Ernest Everhard: the man who predicts the coming of the Oligarchy and leads the revolution against it. At first he speaks only for members of the Socialist Party, but when his confrontations with the economic masters force them to abandon subtly in favor of outright tyranny — using the state militias and private armies to oppress dissent and cause opponents to ‘vanish’ — he becomes the leader of a nationwide proletarian revolution against the rule of the Iron Heel. He is martyred in the cause (as our historian informs us in the introduction), and the “Everhard manuscript” is Avis’ tribute to him, written so that his role in routing the Oligarchy will not be forgotten. He is her idol, her “Eagle”: a hero of humanity, full of passion and might. She writes with hope on the eve of a planned Second Revolt against the Oligarchy, although the framing device makes it clear to the reader that the Second Revolt is an even greater failure, resulting in the Oligarchy’s global domination until its eventual downfall.
The Iron Heel is an interesting novel. It predates other dystopian works and introduces devices and themes used in the works* that followed, as is the case with the Atwood example. Like other dystopian novels, it functions as social criticism and as a warning to its reading audience of what may come if trends continue. London, writing in the Gilded Age — the age of robber-barons and industrial slums — warns against the possible total tyanny on the part of vast commercial interests. London’s flawless protagonist and the tone of the book’s opening give it the feel of an author tract: the first 150 pages follow Everhard’s rise as a socialist spokesperson, and through him London outlines his own grievances with the world of 1907 and why he believes in the socialist answer. Everhard addresses every class of society — urging labor to defend itself, attempting to convince the waning small businessmen that they cannot turn back the clock of progress Still, those pages caught my attention given my own political values and beliefs. Although this book is more than a century old, it grabbed my attention and did not let go, for I see London’s concerns as still valid today. What would he make of the ‘military-industrial complex’, of media monoliths and their role in politics?
While the book is an interesting future/alternate history work in its own right and possibly the progenitor of a genre of fiction, it also serves to advocate for a vision of a better future, London’s socialist vision in which conflicts of interests that lead to violence and hatred are removed completely. It’s almost the Communist Manifesto for a mass audience, using the dialouge approach between Everhard and various audiences to explain Marxist criticism and socialist politics. It comments on London’s world and ours in a decidely interesting way: definitely a book to remember, revisit, and reccommend.
*The phrase “the iron heel” brings to mind George Orwell’s 1984 quotation summarizing his dystopian world: “If you want a vision of the human future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”