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Jack London's The Iron Heel

London’s widely read book of this title was published a hundred years ago.
 But how realistic was it and how much of a socialist was Jack London?

By the time he had published The Call of the Wild in 1903 and White Fang in 1905, Jack London had established a reputation as the author of highly profitable popular fiction and adventure stories. He had risen to become the highest-paid American author of his era and with his income secure he set about writing a novel expressing his individualistic brand of militant politics. Aroused by the failure of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the inability of the Socialist Party of America to build on earlier electoral successes and the popularity of the serialisation of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s novel about working conditions in the meat-packing industry, London quickly completed a new  novel, The Iron Heel, which was published one hundred years ago in 1908. After his death the work became an influential classic of anti-capitalist literature with prophecies and warnings that, according to the introduction to the most recent Penguin edition, ‘Aryan nationalists and communists alike have championed’ ever since. 

The novel combines two narrative themes: an inner autobiographical narrative set mainly in the period 1912-1918 and a secondary narrative providing an historical commentary on the fictional ‘Everhard Manuscripts’ from centuries in the future. The work is essentially the autobiography of Avis Everhard, a woman steeped in social prejudice who falls in love with and later marries a ‘socialist leader’ and then discovers the realities of capitalism. Under the guidance of her husband Ernest she becomes a revolutionist seeking to overthrow the ‘Oligarchy’ – the combination of the large monopoly trusts that had bankrupted smaller capitalists and reduced farmers to serfdom and the majority of workers to slaves.

This elite has created a military caste – the ‘Mercenaries’ – as a private army and undermines working class solidarity by establishing a privileged ‘labour caste’ from skilled workers in essential industries. The ‘Oligarchy’ has absolute authority over civil law and political institutions, exercising power through force and intimidation, bolstered by the prejudices propagated through the press, church and education system. The novel ends after the unsuccessful ‘First Revolt’ against this elite.

The Iron Heel was not an entirely original work, heavily influenced by the work of other authors. London took inspiration from H.G. Wells’ apocalyptic fantasy When the Sleeper Walks (1899) and from the idea of a ‘double-view’ achieved by opening a second narrative in the future, in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards (1888). To this he adds images of summary executions and unrestrained violence from the 1871 Paris Commune, using this as a historical model for his ‘Chicago Commune’ that stirred memories of the infamous Chicago Haymarket Massacre of 1886.

The novel was also closely modelled on Ignatious Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1890), a melodrama set in the New York of the future which, like London’s later work, revolved around political intrigue, secret agents, disguises and spies. Both novels are interwoven with love stories and end in cataclysm. London relocates the scene of this cataclysm from the New York to Chicago. His central theme was drawn from W. J. Ghent, the author of Our Benevolent Feudalism, a work ‘which foresaw the “complete integration of capital” into an iron fisted dictatorship’ (Richard O’Connor, Jack London – A Biography). Even London’s title, The Iron Heel, which is the condemnatory phase dramatically used by London’s hero Ernest to describe the ‘Oligarchy,’ turns up in many other contemporary political and literary works as a symbol of oppression.

Much of what is related in the narrative of Avis Everhard London gleaned from newspaper articles and the printed views of ‘muckrakers’ such as Lincoln Steffens and regular contributors to the Oakland newspaper Socialist Voice, including William McDevitt and Austin Lewis. London’s opportunistic reliance on this newspaper was demonstrated in 1906 when at a time when it was publishing articles denouncing organised religion, London – for the only time in his literary career – denounced the church, and he devotes several chapters in his novel to the theme.‘Borrowing’ ideas and phrases was second nature to London and he was repeatedly accused of plagiarism. Moreover his habit of appropriating the work of others was not just confined to newspaper articles. Chapter seven of his novel, The Bishop’s Vision, is almost identical to Frank Harris’s essay ‘The Bishop of London and Public Morality’, published years earlier. London tried to explain his tendency to plagiarise to Elwyn Hoffman, by saying: ‘expression with me is far easier than invention. It is with the latter I have the greatest trouble, and work the hardest’ (Andrew Sinclair, A Biography of Jack London). 

London was not widely read in the works of socialist literature and he never really understood socialism. His politics were a blend of conflicting theories: a mixture of emotional demands for ‘social justice’ acquired during his early life, interwoven with ideas of racial superiority and social Darwinism. He had joined the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) in 1896, a period in which the SLP supported a programme of ‘immediate demands’. When these were dropped in 1900, London was one of those who left the Party and after standing as the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for the mayor of Oakland in 1901 he joined the reformist Socialist Party of America (SPA). London’s ‘socialism’ was always overshadowed by the conviction that the strongest must inevitably triumph over the weak and by a resolve to drag himself out of the ‘social pit’ by becoming a prosperous writer even when this meant being criticised for compromising his principles and political convictions. 

After completing People of the Abyss, an account of working class life in the East End of London and arguably the only truly ‘sincere work’ that he ever wrote, London became increasingly disillusioned with the ‘underfed parodies of humanity’ who refused to ‘fight’ for a new society. By 1903 his frustration with the working class and his views on social Darwinism were widely acknowledged and drew criticism from the membership of his own political party. He responded with accusations that the SPA leadership was weak and doomed to fail and though he stood as its candidate for the mayor of Oakland in 1905, it was clear, even before he began his novel, that his sporadic flirtation with ‘socialism’ was over.

Although he remained a Party member, believing his ‘socialist credentials’ enhanced his reputation, it is certain that by 1906 that London had already ‘parted ways with the idea of a mass working-class movement to overthrow capitalism and establish a new society’ (Robert Barltrop, Jack London, the Man, the Writer, the Rebel). The Iron Heel’s reputation as a ‘socialist’ classic, deriving from London’s scathing attack on capitalism in the first half of the novel, does not conceal the fact that it was ‘also his statement why socialism was not achievable in the foreseeable future’ (Barltrop). The novel is London’s pessimistic declaration that the working class is incapable of self-emancipating and in it he does not even credit the ‘socialist’ movement with the eventual downfall of the fictional ‘Oligarchy,’ which instead implodes under its own internal weaknesses and divisions.

London unquestionably believed that capitalism should be replaced, but never explains ‘socialism’ or how it can be achieved. His main indictment of the capitalist system in The Iron Heel is that it is managerially incompetent, ‘blind and greedy’, and wasteful. As well as this, London is convinced that an alternative society cannot be achieved without leaders. He creates the character Ernest as his alter ego, a ‘socialist leader’ (a contradiction in terms) who stands above the working class as an embodiment of London’s image of ‘socialist’ man, a ‘blond beast such as Nietzsche has described’, the personification of self-sacrifice and martyrdom.

Ernest is the leader that London always wanted to be. But Ernest is betrayed – in the same way that London felt he had been - by comrades who refuse to listen to him and by an irresponsible working class, ‘the refuse and scrum of life’, incapable of helping itself and unworthy of his leadership. London’s fictional ‘socialists’ view the working class with dread and refuse to build class solidarity with what they see as an abject and uncontrollable mass. The novel concludes on a note of disgust aimed less at the detested ‘Oligarchy’ than at the working class, whose mindless behaviour is said to have contributed to the defeat of the ‘First Revolt.’ The remnants of the ‘socialist’ movement are driven away to continue a terrorist war for centuries into the future until the weakened ‘Oligarchy’ finally yields.

The vision articulated in The Iron Heel is the social Darwinian struggle in which the strongest must always be supreme. It is developed within the framework of a quasi-religious fable. The setting is summed up by one critic in the following way: ‘For the individual capable of it, a transforming moment of inspired vision; for those in society incapable of such a vision, a providential catastrophe and ultimately the regeneration of society through martyrdom’ (Charles N. Watson, The Novels of Jack London). The work is peppered with biblical phraseology and religious symbolism as Avis experiences ‘a new and awful revelation of life’. The story builds towards an apocalyptic conclusion reminiscent of religious deliverance when the ‘evils’ of capitalism will be purged from the world and, through sacrifice and martyrdom, society will be reborn as ‘The Brotherhood of Man.’ 

The dramatic idealisation of the main protagonists, the heightened romanticism of the action, and the virtual absence of the working class for much of the novel all accentuate an infatuation with leadership. Some have justified the novel’s lack of realism in various ways. Trotsky, for example, explained the work as a didactic tale where the author was interested ‘not so much in the individual fate of its heroes as in the fate of mankind’ (Joan London, Jack London and His Times). But is this an adequate defence for a tale whose core message is one that consigns the working class to an essentially passive and insignificant role in the social revolution?

So The Iron Heel is a decidedly anti-socialist work by an author who wrote more from his heart than his head. When it was first published the novel received unfavourable reviews even from so-called ‘socialist’ journals and the International Socialist Review described it as ‘well calculated+to repel many whose addition to our forces is sorely needed’. It is difficult to disagree with Robert Barltrop’s judgement that London’s ‘socialism’ was always a self-deception where ‘the pleasures of intellectual company, of being lionised, of always having a platform waiting, caused him to set aside or rationalise the differences which were plainly there’. It is perhaps not surprising that London’s egotism, overblown self-esteem and overriding preoccupation with his personal finances led Mark Twain’s to remark: ‘It would serve this man London right to have the working class to get control of things. He would have to call out the militia to collect his royalties.’

Jack London died in 1916 at the age of 40. In 1945, George Orwell said that had he lived ‘in our day, instead of dying in 1916, it is hard to be sure where his political allegiance would have lain’, and went on: ‘One can imagine him in the Communist Party, one can imagine him falling victim to the Nazi racial theory, and one can imagine him the quixotic champion of some Trotskyist or Anarchist sect.’ The Iron Heel, still open to all kinds of unsettling interpretations, will undoubtedly continue to be considered a classic of its time, although worryingly perhaps for all the wrong reasons.

STEVE TROTT