The Iron Heel - Jack London

When it comes to accolades for the most lauded prophetic dystopian satirical novels of the early twentieth century, there’s no doubting which are the big two. The hyper-Stalinist all-surveillance paranoid nightmare of Orwell’s 1984, and the distorted DNA-as-play-doh playground of Huxley’s Brave New World. Occasionally Zamyatin’s We gets a look-in as a curio, a minor precursor to both, appearing as it did in 1920, long before that of Huxley (1932) and Orwell (1949). There is one however which always gets passed over, despite being written before both the others, way back in 1908. And overlooked despite being written by one of the most widely revered American authors of all time.

Orwell’s warning about the grotesque parody of socialism offered by Stalin and his acolytes which plagued the twentieth century, and the grim auger from Huxley on the eugenic, anaesthetic aesthetic threatened by scientific consumerism which stalked both this century and the last have been analysed, critiqued and celebrated to death. There is, however, a third more straightforward great evil of the modern age. The rich crushing the poor, the propensity of the forces of capital –when vicious push comes to deadly shove -to react with the most monstrous and tyrannical violence against the organised labour which seeks to grab more of it’s fair share from them. The evil that led to the bloody regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and their tin-pot descendants. This was prophesised just as uncannily in Jack London’s long-neglected novel.

The action of the book begins in the years immediately following when it was written. Labour relations in the USA are plunging as rapidly as the economy, while the thuggery of big-business against the unions increases in turn. Goons break limbs at picket-lines as families go hungry. No fiction there. Poverty spreads apace, and slower but just as surely does the Socialist movement of America (strange fantasy it may seem now, but as London wrote the US Socialist Party, led by Eugene Debs, was growing rapidly, at one point gathering over a million votes even as its leaders were being jailed.)

The book is written as the memoir of Avis Everhard, wife of labour leader Ernest Everhard who comes to lead the workers’ insurrection. Avis is the daughter of a prominent US academic, and begins her account as the pampered intellectual circles her family frequents find it a delightful parlour game to invite Ernest for debates, much as panel games will have the token revolutionary on our TV screens today.

Ernest, long-suffering, self-taught and assured union man has steely determination and razor intellect. He rips their arguments to pieces, and the smug smiles subside. In the final confrontation he manages to get one more forthright and honest plutocrat to admit the truth and discard the flannel. In the end their power over the worker has no moral basis and must be set in steel, “In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched.”

“It is the only answer that can be given” replies Ernest. “Power. We know, and well we know by bitter experience, that no appeal for right, for justice, for humanity can ever touch you. Your hearts are as hard as your heels as they tread upon the faces of the poor.”

Avis is entranced not only by the power of Ernest’s magnetic charisma, but also by the unpleasant but unassailable truth of the frightful poverty which he points out props up her own class's wealth. She begins to notice the wretched poverty, only streets from where she lives. The scenes of misery are jaggedly drawn, once again, without any need for exaggeration from what London saw daily with his own eyes.

We see both the Everhards and the wider union movement as a whole as they’re wrenched to snapping point. As America’s oligarchs realise the conflagration to come is a fight to the death, they stealthily cast off the flimsy pretences of democracy. They organise into the great Dictatorship of the Iron Heel. The bloodiest repression seen in humanity’s history ensues.

The novel’s narrative skilfully shifts focus from the small scale to the large and back again, the snapshots of poverty signifying the minutiae of the bigger vista. We see as the dictatorship takes hold it does so steadily, creepily. The insidious little signs -the silencing and ostracising of academics, the blackening of the names of campaigners, - are shown as Avis’s father is hounded from his job, and a reformed priest the family know is hounded into a mental institution. The icy paranoia of the witch hunts is evoked chillingly.

The story continues to centre around the Everhards as the years go on and the Iron Heel kicks in. Congress is suspended, dissenters are machine-gunned. Scenes of conflict on a gargantuan scale ensue, interspersed with the individual intrigues within. The desperate hopes of the revolutionaries are evocatively told in between the details of their struggle. There is indeed no compromise up until an apocalyptic finale.

As prediction, satire and warning, The Iron Heel is in many ways more prophetic than either 1984 or Brave New World. Orwell merely exaggerated, exemplified and hypertrophied elements of a Stalinist dictatorship which had existed for over twenty years, while the ruminations of Huxley set still further in the future remain something of an allegory. London was describing with exactitude a streamlined mechanised totalitarian dictatorship, backed by big business, specifically designed to crush the labour movement, when no-one dreamt of such a thing, and which would not actually be in place for decades.

Of course his vision was vastly off the mark in many ways. America managed to crush a far weaker socialist presence by far less draconian methods, and real fascism arrived on another continent. But then we’re not currently living in a post-nuclear dictatorship with cameras in our living rooms, and no-one’s being bred in tanks yet either. He got a lot more right than he got wrong.

In The Iron Heel London laid bare the whole machinery of a mechanised dictatorship, of the class-based mass murder to come, and did so during a pastoral, pre-First World War era when the worst nightmare most Western audiences could imagine was a cavalry-charge. The novel was ridiculed at the time in popular reviews because of its bloodthirsty “sensationalism”. Even London himself may have intended the grotesque blood-bath he portrays in the novel’s later chapters -the full-scale warfare between the haves and the nots - as more hyperbolic warning than prophecy. These scenes do indeed curdle the blood and wrench the gut, and may have seemed like fantastical pornography at the time. But they’re no Somme, and they’re no Auschwitz. The grim reality dwarfed even his savage imagination.

In other ways, it is not such a mystery why The Iron Heel has been passed over in favour of its rivals in dystopia. As a novel of ideas, as an imagining of intricacies into the minute grim possibility of the future it does not live up to them. There is no innovation to excite the troubled imagination as much as the telescreens, doublethink, Room 101 and Big Brother of Orwell, and the mandatory happiness, Soma and biological caste-system in Huxley. Being more narrowly political than either it does not lend itself to flights of speculative futuristic fancy. No-one is likely to base a reality TV show on one of its observations.

Orwell himself noted that there was a strong streak of the Social Darwinist in London, a sadistic revelling in the cult of violence and the survival of the fittest. Given that London was sadly prone to the most vulgar white supremacist racism too, his failings could well have turned him to Fascism were it not for the strength of his commitment to the working-class cause. Race itself is almost absent from the novel altogether, a good thing given London’s proclivities, though an obvious and glaring blind-spot in a novel about an American class-war. A curious fear of “the mob” when pushed to its limits is in evidence too, the auto-snobbery against workers who don’t follow your cause:- the perennial flaw of theoretical socialists.

Far more importantly though as a novel by the test of plot, persona and prose it is not up with London’s best either, and in that sense too falls well short of Orwell or Huxley. The cult of personality London indulges in sadly undermines the characterisation of the hero Ernest Everard, who is ever-so-slightly too much of the Nietchzhean superman to convince, even given his occasional endearing awkwardness. He veers too close to an icon in a Soviet mural. There is a slightly stilted characterisation in other main players too. In the grand epic of human destiny being described in book less than 300 pages long, people come can close to being ciphers, including the narrator Avis herself.

There is no doubt that as a convincing and holistic piece of writing, The Call of The Wild, that thrilling adventure story which also laid bare London’s Nietzchean sadism, is a better read, more deserving of its ubiquitous place on the world’s school curricula, and a better example of London’s gift with the written word.

The Iron Heel is a great deal more than an insightful piece of propaganda however. London always writes with a stern poetic vividness. Both stark and lurid, passage after passage in the book grasp so hard it’s impossible not to be drawn in. The narrative is charged with honest emotional energy, and it convinces as a blood-curdling thriller too. This is a short novel dealing with an enormous scope of ideas and events, essentially attempting to dramatise a Marxian analysis of US society. Yet there is never a dull moment. London has the gift of investing the forays into theory with the same excitement as exists in the scenes of bloody conflict

The “footnotes from the future” device tagged at the end of each chapter (in which we discover Avis’ memoirs have supposedly been discovered in a future socialist age) give the novel a lighter satirical edge too, off-setting the book’s occasional slouch into portentousness.

And while individual characters may stray near caricature, in the bigger picture London possesses a rather more nuanced insight into the psychology of those at both ends of the class conflict. The workers are the heroes of course, but London does not shirk on the corrupting and brutalising effect revolution inevitably has on its agents. And, even more importantly, he recognises that the ruling-class are not just crooks and thugs. They’d be a lot easier to deal with if they were.

They, as a class, believed that they alone maintained civilization. It was their belief that if they weakened, the great beast would engulf them, and everything of beauty and wonder and joy and good in its cavernous and slime-dripping maw. Without them, anarchy would reign, and humanity would drop backward into the primitive night out of which it had so painfully emerged…….This was the beast to be stamped on, and the highest duty of the aristocrat was to stamp upon it. In short, they alone, by unremitting toil and sacrifice, stood between weak humanity and the all-devouring beast; and they believed it, firmly believed it.

Many is the fascist and war criminal utterly convinced they have humanity’s interest at heart but scarcely has it been so well put.

The Iron Heel then is a flawed but fascinating read, undeniably entertaining, and containing some of the most deadly insights of the last century. By one of America’s best known writers too. And yet for so long, out of print. This book is a landmark, and has been ignored for too long. Here's hoping its republication by Penguin will see it gain the wider readership it deserves.

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2006]