Book Review: ‘The Iron Heel’

A Future With No Future

‘The Iron Heel’, by Jack London. (Journeyman Press; paperback 75p., hardback £2.50)

This is the first of a series of reissues of working-class and radical “classics”. The Iron Heel was last published in Britain in 1947 and — apart from more sumptuous American editions — is generally available only in second-hand copies from the old Mills & Boon shilling edition of all Jack London’s works. A new French edition (Le Talon de Fer) appeared in 1972.

Jack London wrote over fifty books in a short life. The majority were written in haste; they include childish trash, four or five first-rate novels, and a number of outstanding short stories. In most of his writing the chief idea in one form or another comes from a crude version of Darwinism. It is either the survival of the fittest under savage conditions, or the depiction of a physical and intellectual superman who overshadows his fellows.

The Iron Heel was written in 1906 and published in 1907. It was received with misgivings by London’s fellow-members of the American Socialist Party. In the International Socialist Review John Spargo called it “an unfortunate book” whose tendency was

    “to weaken the political Socialist movement by discrediting the ballot and to encourage the chimerical and reactionary notion of physical force, so alluring to a certain type of mind  . . .”

It describes a “revolution”, i.e. a large-scale working-class revolt led by “socialists”, breaking out in the United States and being crushed by the totalitarian methods. Following that, society is ruled by a class of tyrants called the Oligarchs, while the socialists carry on an underground struggle in which Fighting Groups of terrorists play a heroic part. The dominant figure is Ernest Everhard, the revolutionary leader, and the book is written by his wife after this presumed death. Everhard is presented as a paragon of physical strength, learning, foresight and bravery. He was, London’s daughter wrote, “the revolutionist Jack would have liked to be if he had not, unfortunately, also desired to be several other kinds of men” (Jack London and his Times by Joan London, 1939).

The place of The Iron Heel in the literature of the working-class movement is due mainly to the early chapters in which the need to overthrow capitalism is vigorously stated and exemplified, with Everhard expounding Marx’s theory of value. But in all the ensuing action, what should be understood is that London was consciously rejecting ideas of Socialism when he wrote it. Much of it was intended to express his disillusionment with political activity and his disbelief that the masses were capable of helping themselves.

The book’s immediate impulse came from the Russian upheaval of 1905; the guerrilla groups were “modelled somewhat after the Fighting Organization of the Russian Revolution”. However, London was also strongly influenced by W. J. Ghent’s Our Benevolent Feudalism, published in 1902. Ghent predicted the growth of monopolies into a single monolith: “A gigantic merger of all interests, governed by a council of ten, may supplant the individual dukedoms and baronies in the different industries.” This appealed to London’s imagination and his conviction that the revolution could only be a contest between the fittest and strongest.

Other fragments of ideas are incorporated in The Iron Heel. The earliest economic thought which London met was that of “General” Coxey, whose “army” of tramps features in London’s novel of his own hobo experiences, The Road. Coxey’s “good roads” theory was a primitive Keynesism: setting the tramps and the other unemployed to build better roads, financed by openly inflationary budgets, would solve the economic problems of America. For comparison, Keynes in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money wrote:

    “If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal-mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again  . . . there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.”

This is the economics of the Oligarchy’s pyramid age of “magnificent roads” and “wonder cities” in The Iron Heel. Jack London may have tasted Marx, but the doctrine he swallowed was Coxey’s. Thus, his hero’s indictment of the capitalists is not that their system is incapable of working for the majority, but that they have failed to make it work:

    “You have made a shambles of civilization. You have been blind and greedy . . . You have failed in your management of society, and your management is to be taken away from you.”

One other curiosity is that the chapter “The Bishop’s Vision” was plagiarized word for word from an article by Frank Harris in a British publication. Many people, including Trotsky, A. M. Lewis, Anatole France and Orwell, have seen The Iron Heel as prophetic, but it is not. The best thing is not to take the contradictory borrowed ideas at all seriously, and read it as a strongly-written fantasy in the manner of H. G. Wells (whom London admired) with a political setting.

The present edition is well produced (though the cover design strives overmuch for an up-to-date message), and many people will be glad of the chance to get a new copy at a reasonable price.

Robert Barltrop

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