I come to you today to discuss Jack London’s The Iron Heel. Jack London was and still is considered one of America’s premier authors and a fascinating character to study in his own right (while I will not go into great detail about this in this article, his life story personifies the proper usage of the old adage “write what you know” ie: “make sure that what you know is interesting”).
This is not one of his more well-known works (ask Joe Schlub on the street about Mr. London, and, presuming he doesn’t give you a blank stare followed by scrotum scratching, he’ll probably tell you about Call of the Wild, White Fang, or To Build a Fire), but it still bears an analysis as it is a politics-heavy work—albeit politics distinctly to the left, as were his own politics. However, this book is almost as relevant to “our side” as it was to his.
Beyond politics, the book is notable for probably being the first work of dystopian science fiction ever published, establishing tropes that would be utilized in works such as Blade Runner and all of its derivatives.
With all that being said, the book is…not particularly great, serving more as an interesting historical and cultural “stepping stone” then a work of compelling literature:
The framing device of the story is that archaeologists in the year 400 Brotherhood of Man have discovered the Everhard Manuscript in the ruins of a California estate. This manuscript, written by one Avis Everhard (nee Cunningham) is an account of the tumultuous years between 1912 and 1932, in which a cabal of powerful industrialists took over the United States government, and shortly thereafter the world as well. Officially known as “The Oligarchy”, this tyranny is colloquially dubbed “The Iron Heel” (for reasons similar to that famous Orwell quote about a boot grinding into a human face). They are opposed by the First Revolt, led by one Ernest Everhard, a musclebound Ubermensch who has nevertheless chosen to fight for l’internationale and conquer the Iron Heel, after conquering the aforementioned Avis Cunningham through the power of his bombastic socialist oratory. Through the framing device, we learn that despite all of their efforts, the rebellion fails, and Ernest is executed. The book opens and closes with Avis planning a second Revolt, which also fails. The Iron Heel exists for 3 centuries before finally being overthrown by the benevolent socialist global order, which, in the revolutionary tradition, establishes a new calendar and initiates a Year Zero, year zero being the year of victory.
As stated above, this novel is not the most enjoyable read. It’s very much a soapbox for Jack London’s leftist political views, and his hamhanded socialist preaching gets in the way of that whole “plot” and “characterization” thing. As the framing device is that of an academic historical text written in the far future, it has footnotes, which in reality are Jack London prattling on about socialism, framing his political preaching as verbalization of the socialist tenets that are common knowledge in this far off time.
Very dry segues abound in the book along the lines of “* Robert Hunter, in 1906, in a book entitled “Poverty,” pointed out that at that time there were ten millions in the United States living in poverty.** In the United States Census of 1900 (the last census the figures of which were made public), the number of child laborers was placed at 1,752,187.”. And that’s a short one.
If The Iron Heel is discussed at all in literary circles, it is usually to discuss how this was one of, if not THE, first works of dystopian science fiction, and frankly its plot of “corporations take over the government and are opposed by plucky rebels” has been done a lot better since 1912.
So what’s the relevance of this left-wing tract to us, you might be asking? Two things: one is that not only is this book a criticism of corporate America, it also takes quite a few swipes at people on the left that Jack London was not particularly fond of, and many of his criticisms are similar to ours. Take for example, this passage towards an early form of champagne socialist: I was surprised to see that they existed, and were just as unlikable then as they are now:
“Each of you dwells in a cosmos of his own making, created out of his own fancies and desires. You do not know the real world in which you live, and your thinking has no place in the real world except in so far as it is phenomena of mental aberration.”
He also finds time to criticize the brutality that strikers inflict upon scab workers: “D’ye see the scars on me head where I was struck with flying bricks? There ain’t a child at the spindles but what would curse me name. Me only friend is the company. It’s not me duty, but me bread an’ butter an’ the life of me children to stand by the mills. That’s why.”. But surely leftists today don’t turn upon “their own” when they change opinions, right?
The other reason this novel is worth reading is that, inadvertently, the book was prescient in one major respect: corporations have indeed gained more power and influence in the past 50 years, and the working man throughout the world has lost enormous amounts of ground (in the 1950s, the American labor force was almost 40% unionized, whereas now it’s less than 10%)-but this has simultaneously occurred with an undeniable cultural leftward shift. What has happened is something that Jack London would never have expected: l’internationale has won without fighting, and has shifted itself towards cultural upheaval rather than economic upheaval, which has allowed it to collaborate with corporations quite easily. Or perhaps London, a man who criticized and ultimately split from the American Socialist Party due to its multicultural aims (“liberty…is a royal thing that cannot be…thrust upon a race or class”), and was himself criticized by socialists for being a pseudo-aristocrat with plans to build a stately manor for himself, might have seen this shift coming all along. But I digress.
Many quotes can be appropriated for our purposes without any change or paraphrasing:
“We all know that many of the most influential members of the Bar make it their task to work out bold and ingenious schemes by which their wealthy clients, individuals or corporations, can evade the laws which were made to regulate wealth for the interests of the public”
“When they take me out of Congress and put me up against a wall, what then?” “We’ll rise in our might” “More like you’ll welter in your gore. I’ve heard that song a lot, and where are the rising masses?”
And so forth. But beyond direct quotes that have a direct (albeit ironic) parallel to modern day society, a few of the descriptions of the Oligarchy’s day-to-day functions are worthy of a raised eyebrow: some of these, such as the establishment of a unified government without borders, from Canada to Chile and all in between, are amusing due to that essentially being what “our betters” want right now. Some are ironically amusing, such as London’s mentioning that “no longer having to cater to the bourgeois, the elites will create great wonders of art for themselves”. It’s ironic because modern leftist elites basically worship ugliness, in dress, art, and architecture
Also worth noting is that London points out how the proles became unto beasts specifically due to being stripped of the right to choose their work, the right to bear arms, and that they were housed in wretched barracks where “family life cannot exist, and decency is replaced by savagery”, showing that, despite the book being blatant socialist propaganda, he is in many ways more like us than the modern descendants of l’internationale.
Yet with all of its relevance, I can’t really recommend reading this book beyond either using it to mine ironic quotes from it to poke fun at leftists, as I have been doing throughout the body of this article, or for the sake of intellectual curiosity (as it is one of the first of its genre). As a fan of Jack London, I will plainly say: the man has done much better. If there is anything for us to take from this book, it is to learn that a lot of the criticisms we make of the left were pointed out at the time by other leftists, whether intentionally or not. So in that respect, it might be worth a read. Just mentally prepare yourself for a bit of drudgery.
I will leave you with a quote from this novel that sums up what I and my compatriots do:
“The Iron Heel offered traitors prosperity and wealth, and safety. We offered nothing but reaching for an ideal”.
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