on October 20, 2010
This edition is incomplete. The full, original work is a frame-story, kind of like Bellamy's "Looking Backward". The editors chose to cut out London's all-important Foreward, which sets the "novel" up as an incomplete manuscript discovered (rather implausibly inside of an oak tree, if I recall correctly) centuries after its writing.
Buy the Lawrence Hill version, which is complete and has a good contemporary critical introduction.
In 1905 the troops of the Tsar crushed the Russian revolution of 1905. Although the uprising did force Nicholas II to establish a constitution and a parliament, the Russian revolution of 1917 would change the face of the world. However, the uprising also had the interesting effect of inspiring two of the more interesting utopian novels of the early 20th century. One was "Red Star," the socialist utopia on Mars created by the Russian writer Alexander Bogdanov, a Bolshevik and intimate of Lenin. The other was "The Iron Heel," by Jack London, the American author best known for "The Call of the Wild." Whereas Bogdanov forsees the ultimate victory of the socialist and scientific-technical revolutions, London predicts global revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces ending up in an apocalyptic battle betwen the impoverished workers and the privileged minorities. Consequently, the two authors share a common socialist perspective, although Bogdanov writes a utopian novel and London creates a dystopia.
"The Iron Heel" was written in 1908 and remains one of the more prophetic novels of the 20th century. His track record with regards to a national secret police agency, the rise of Fascism, the creation of attractive suburbs for the middle class while the unemployed and menials live in "ghettoes," is markedly better than that of Edward Belleamy's "Looking Backward," Aldoux Huxley's "Brave New World," or George Orwell's "1984," the novels that are usually lauded and judged by their prescience in terms of utopian literature.
The novel presents the story of the American revolutionary Earnest Everhard, as told by his wife Avis, who is actually the more effective revolutionary leader. London tells how the manuscript was unknown for seven centuries, to be discovered long after the final triumph of socialist democracy in the yar 419 B.O.M. Avis Everhard describes the struggles of the working masses against the oligarchy, and how they were ruthlessly suppressed, especially in the Chicago Commune that is the main setting for the action. There is a strong current of violence, with Black Hundreds wrecking the socialist presses,a bomb exploding in the House of Representatives, and revolutionaries being hunted down by the military arm of the government known as the Iron Heel. The Everhard Manuscript breaks off in the middle of a sentence, a footnote explaining that history does not know if the author escaped or was captured.
The story is somewhat atypical for London in that it does not represent the white supremacist and male dominant vision of the world we usually find in his novels. London's message is the blatant warning that if you allow the Revolution to be defeated, then the ruling class will "grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces." Ultimately "The Iron Heel" is a novel whose importance clearly outstrips its literary quality. The problem is that with the end of World War II and the defeat (essentially) of Fascism that London's novel was no longer of interest as the world was confronted with a new set of problems. Yet, London's dytopian novel is one of the works in that genre that deserves to be reconsidered more often.
on November 10, 2006
Jack London's story paints the dark days of pure capitalism where `children, six and seven years of age, working every night at twelve hours shift', where the people of the abyss live like beasts in great squalid labor-ghettos and where `my father lied, stole and did all sorts of dishonorable things to put bread in my mouth.'
In pure Marxist style, a tiny Plutocracy (seven powerful groups) has taken hold of all powers in the US. It has at its beck and call the police, the army, the courts, the schools and private militias. The press became `suppressage'. Its policy is to print nothing that is a vital menace to the established and to mould public opinion.
The Church is also their mouthpiece: `the command to the Church was `Feed my lambs', but out of the dividends magnificent churches are built where your kind preaches pleasant platitudes to the sleek, full-bellied recipients of those dividends.' When one of its ministers speaks out for the poor, he is put in an asylum for being `insane'.
In order to keep control of the proletarians, the Plutocrats force a split in the unions between the strong unions in the monopoly corporations and the rest of weakly organized labor.
Another means of control is terrorism and `agents provocateurs' whose bloody attacks are foisted on the shoulders of their enemies.
The only opposition to the rule of the oligarchs consists of the `Brotherhood of Man', a socialist semi-clandestine organization.
A Marxian capitalistic endgame explodes with a bloody war between the few and the many ...
This forceful revolutionary book is brushed in an idealistic tone, with rather naïve black and white (the good and the bad) colors.
Unfortunately, it is partly still very topical. The struggle between right and left in the US became the global struggle between North and South. Terrorism, control of the media, the influence of education and religion, control of the courts are still red hot topics today.
This book is a real find. Not to be missed.
on February 23, 2010
This text is an interesting adventure for Jack London into futurism. Probably his only complete attempt at Science Fiction. He depicts the rise and struggles of Socialism against the Oligarchy in an eerily premonitory way. While this tale predates the Soviet and Chinese actions of the past century, it seems to not only predict them, it actually helps to explain them. I'm told that Jack, who was an avid Socialist for most of his life, actually resigned from the Party not long after finishing this work. In a way, he struggles to answer his own questions about the future of social systems here. After this work, he turns back to tales of adventure and finishes his days sailing the South Pacific.
on May 12, 2000
Jack London gives a chillingly realistic tale of the rise of "The Iron Heel", which is a term for the capitalists who control some 75%-90% of the wealth of the world and use it to keep power. When Ernest and Avis Everhard try to lead a socialist revolution, The Iron Heel steps up and attempts to crush it. The Iron Heel mercylisly slaughters the proletariat and the socialists. While Eric Blair's (George Orwell) 1984 was a great warning and Zamyatin's We was frighteningly logical, London's The Iron Heel is unquestioningly the most realistic of the genre.
I am certain most people have heard of Jack London before, probably due to his stories about nature and man's place in it. But London was also a hard-core socialist, a big name in a time when industrialism and its deleterious effects swept the country like a tidal wave. Upton Sinclair went so far as to refer to this offer, albeit obliquely, in his seminal 1905 novel THE JUNGLE. London's socialism emerged from his rough childhood in California and a period spent in a New York prison as a convict laborer. Through rigorous self-education, the author raised himself out of the squalor of the lowest classes and began to write stories and books. He became wildly popular, eventually becoming the highest paid writer of his time. London's own success hardly quelled his love for socialism. He spoke to workingmen across the country, touting socialist candidates for political office while scorning the plutocrats who ran the country. London eventually took his political views one step further, penning THE IRON HEEL in 1907 in order to express his views on how the capitalists and socialists would eventually lock horns. The result is a bleak novel about how capitalism will eventually resort to fascistic principles to protect the wealthy.
The structure of this novel takes the form of a diary, written by one Avis Everhard, the wife of socialist firebrand Ernest Everhard, in the early part of the twentieth century. The diary contains footnotes inserted 700 years after the events depicted in the novel, after the socialists won the battle against capitalism. The first part of Avis's account describes her first encounter with Ernest, at a dinner her famous physicist father threw to see how his capitalist friends would deal with a young socialist. Avis predictably falls in love with the virile, intelligent Ernest and quickly falls under his spell. The following chapters describe Avis's conversion to socialism under the tutelage of Ernest. She discovers that the law courts and print media are under the control of industrialists, and the universities and social organizations function as mere shills for big business. Avis's father soon converts as well, as does a bishop who originally opposed Ernest's brash ideas. Ernest continually preaches that the capitalist system will collapse, citing as proof Karl Marx's idea about surpluses. In short, according to Everhard, capitalist countries always produce too much. In order to get rid of this abundance of goods, corporations must move into underdeveloped countries and dump their products. This leads to rapid development and then a new surplus in this region that must then seek another area to develop. Eventually, capitalism will reach a finite limit as all areas of the globe attain development. This eventuality, according to Marx/London, will lead to socialism's triumph.
Of course, the collapse comes quickly when an economic downturn leads to widespread strikes. The plutocracy, which London refers to as the oligarchs, seize power using totalitarian tactics. Relying on laws passed through a corporate friendly congress, the oligarchs sends in troops to crush labor uprisings. The upper classes want all of the wealth, so they squeeze out the middle class in order to dominate everybody else through the creation of giant trusts. Threats soon lead to gunshots as the lower classes battle the rich for control of the country. With the power of the military and institutions on their side, the oligarchs gain control over most of the country and its citizens. The rest of the book describes the civil wars and rebellions that break out in America, with footnotes from the future describing how things eventually turned out. The book concludes with a grim chapter about an enormously bloody uprising in Chicago where the oligarchs and the socialist revolutionaries finally duke it out in large numbers.
The introduction explains that the Ernest character is actually a symbolic representation of London himself. This makes sense because Ernest Everhard is one of those perfect souls who can do no wrong. During the dinner at Avis's house, Ernest holds his own against a slew of highly educated individuals who simply cannot form a coherent argument against socialism. For Everhard, and by extension London, a man who uses "facts" always defeats those who do not. The facts here concern the realities of the working classes and the condition of the factories. Theories cannot and will not solve the problems of capitalist exploitation because these theories assume that business has little or no responsibility for the well being of humanity. I would simply ask Everhard one question: how will you solve the inevitable problem of motivation? That is, under socialism, how will you convince people not to strive for a higher social station? We know how the communist regimes in Russia, China, and Eastern Europe answered this dilemma; they simply killed off anyone who dared question the dictatorship of the proletariat (as if the proletariat ever had any influence whatsoever in any of these governments). In London's futuristic socialist world, one assumes there are no secret police directorates, no political intrigues, and no questioning of the system. Yeah, right. Like every human being will embrace one overarching political regime.
THE IRON HEEL contains copious amounts of action, espionage, political intrigue, and even a little romance. Although I don't agree with London's ideas, at least he knows how to write an appealing story. The book is difficult to classify since it embraces both dystopian and utopian ideas. London never leaves the reader in doubt as to ultimately wins the war for control of the world, and reading about it does provide a measure of amusement that makes THE IRON HEEL a worthy read for socialists and capitalists alike.
on February 26, 2014
As London explained in a letter to the editor of a socialist weekly, The Appeal to Reason -"I don't know whether or not I can succeed in serialising The Iron Heel in one of the big magazines. If I can do so, and get 10,000 dollars for it, why I'll certainly do so. I am mortgaging my ranch in order to build my boat, and such a deal would help me out. Also some very excellent socialist propaganda will be thereby spread. (Letters p 224)
The need for money and the need to spread what, with characteristic modesty, he called "very excellent socialist propaganda" indicate that he sought as wide an audience as possible for this book.
In a letter to Macmillan's in 1908, London said "I think that this is the psychological moment for The Iron Heel to appear, and that, what of the panic, the general trade depression, and the general situation in the United States for the past year, that the public is ripe to boost it along into large sales."
London's "War of the Classes" - a collection of socialist essays - was first published in April 1905. It was reprinted in June, October and November of the same year because of its enormous popularity. London hoped to build on this success with "The Iron Heel". "War of the Classes" had been very popular with activists of the then Socialist Labor Party who in turn encouraged new recruits and potential recruits to read it. Thus it was to the "workers and peasants" of America that the Iron Heel was addressed.
The propagandist function of the novel was twofold. On the one hand the arguments of socialists against religion (but not the "true religion" which Christ preached), against the idealistic notions of small businessmen and against the ideology of the ruling class are presented in turn. The fact that the early part of the novel explains Avis's conversion to socialism from her former conservative beliefs and values can be seen as an invitation to the reader to do likewise - to take up a particular instance such as the case of Jackson's arm and see what generalisations about the nature of society they can draw from the experience; to check their own assumptions about life against the facts, to see whether the socialist theories about society "work" and then to "trust their lives" to the socialist movement.
Secondly, the novel indirectly attacks the growing reformism of the Socialist Party leaders (The SLP split in 1906 to form the Socialist Party and the syndicalist "Industrial Workers of the World") by showing the limitations of their "socialism". In response to criticisms of his "pessimism" London said, "I didn't write the thing as prophecy at all. I really don't think these things are going to happen in the United States. I believe that the increasing Socialist vote will prevent - hope for it anyhow. But I will say that I sent out, in The Iron Heel, a warning of what I think might happen if they don't look to their votes. That's all."
It was Lord George Brown - who could scarcely be described as a raving revolutionary - who said, "No ruling class in history has given up its power without a struggle, and that usually meant a struggle with no hold barred". The implications of this idea are graphically illustrated in the novel - especially its closing chapters.
The Role of the Hero
on September 20, 2006
The book has a simple idea behind it. The story is treated like a manuscript written by Avis Everhard, the wife to Ernest Everhard the American Revolutionary. Written in the early 20th Century is if found seven centuries later.
Jack London's insight in the workings of how those who have power keep it is amazing. The street fighting, the bombings, the use of military force, all happened in one form or another in the years following the book's publication in 1907. Before Facism, before thw world wars, he sees a class struggle for control of our machine civilization (a term other authors will pick up) and his vision is very, very crisp.
I find the fact that the American Oligarchy had a jail in Cuba kind of ironic. And that one of their great wonder cities, the one called Asgard, was completed in 1984 to be kind of funny in a way.
But Jack's picture of a socialist revolt and maybe future society is not very pleasing to the eye. As the conflict grows both sides become ruthless, heartless, clones of each other. They kill, bomb, spy and use people. They both use the lower class, those poor folks in the abyss, the very ones the socialists are trying to save.
In the fighting in Chicago Avis sometimes can't tell the difference between those comardes fighting on her side and the soldiers fighting for the government. When she sights a wounded man, a man from the bottom of the class system, a beast so low that he knows he will recieve no help from anybody, she does not even OFFER to help. Many of the female socialists, bomb tossing terrorists, refuse to have children because it would take them away from fighting for the cause. In other words having a family gets in the way of killing people. No wonder it took them three centuries to overthrow the Iron Heel.
The fact is both sides want the same thing - to rule the planet. By the end of the book I was not really cheering on either group. Also much of the book, when there isn't any action, is one large boring lecture.
In the end it was worth reading because of my interest in dystopia fiction but that is it.
on May 27, 1998
With "The Iron Heel," Jack London does a much better job of predicting today's world than George Orwell's book "1984." London depicts a world where government serves the business community, not the people, and there has been an incredible concentration in the ownership of the means of communication and the media. Speak out against this and the iron heel crushes you.
This book is an exciting, political adventure romance that you can't put down -- as long as you get through the first 40 pages of downright boring socialist polemics. If you want to really understand where we are headed, read "The Iron Heel" it today. Hard to believe it was written in 1906.
on February 4, 2000
I have consistently believed that Jack London's social writings are even better than his fictional works. The Iron Heel actually gives a realistic though (on a time scale) exaggerated view of the oppression of individual rights under a government based on a symbiosis between business and the state. London predicted the rise of European fascism with chilling accuracy. London was brilliant to have seen the evils of an all powerful state, but he errs in believing the working class is the only hope against totalitarianism. This work will appeal to social thinkers, historians, literary junkies, science fiction addicts, the dispossessed, as well as people of mass wealth. It would be worth reading once, but it gets better with each subsequent reading.