Ah, The Iron Heel has everything that a young leftist should love in a novel: lengthy dissections of Marxist economics, revolutionary conspiracies, an imagined future of socialist utopia, and most importantly a young, beautiful, bourgeoisie woman who falls head over heels for a labor activist after hearing his impassioned words. This later point leads to a great deal of socialist rhetoric-inspired sex – certainly the best kind (at least until you grow up). The problem in The Iron Heel is its heavy-handedness and its excessive lecturing to the audience. Indeed, The Iron Heel makes the end of The Jungle appear like a gentle suggest for the reader to consider socialism. The arguments made by the protagonist throughout the novel on questions of class conflict (instead of class hatred), labor theory of value and exploitation, and the role of worker’s parties are interesting enough and help make this a useful text for readers in a course “Early 20th Century Socialism 101.” London showed himself to be a fairly good prophet in this text as well. He predicted a war with Germany as a result of the capitalist competition for markets, he predicted the rise of an oligarchy, and the growing assertiveness of labor in American politics. Whether contemporary America is a version of “The Iron Heel,” is perhaps a matter of interpretation, but there is certainly a domination of a oligarchy. I suppose none of this was unpredictable – Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair posited similar futures.
I am not interested here in reciting the tedious socialist arguments London presented throughout the text. In essence, he is making the same arguments he put forward in The People of the Abyss. That is, exploited labor leads to a degradation of society and a form of barbarism and “mismanagement.” In a post-scarcity situation, inequality is simply a matter of unjust distribution of wealth. London makes this argument explicitly in the chapter “Machine-Breakers” where the protagonist challenges some Neo-Luddites to save their machines because those machines lead to post-scarcity, which is what workers should desire. A socialist government will do a better job managing the resources of society and we should strive for the destruction of capitalism.
This novel is sometimes described as a “dystopian” novel, but I see it more as a critique of the turn-of-the-century American society and economy. It is set only a few years in the future. Unlike the most famous dystopias, London is more concerned with the transition to the future tyranny than a description of life under the “Iron Heel.” We are also made aware that the collapse of the “Iron Heel” occurred a few hundred years after the events in the novel, ushering in a “Brotherhood of Man.” As I see it, London is warning America of the consequences of industrial capitalism on freedom, solidarity, democracy, and equality (those old American values this blog is trying to unearth). Essentially, at this point in his life, London saw the socialist movement as the only force that could prevent the rise of the oligarchy.
The Iron Heel is presented as the memoirs of Avis Everhard. She spends most of the unfinished manuscript describing her relationship with Ernest Everhard and his political activities that led to a major revolt against the “Iron Heel” oligarchy. The manuscript is lost and rediscovered by historians 700 years in the future, about 400 years after the establishment of the “Brotherhood of Man.” The manuscript is edited and footnoted by these historians, which leads to some of the most interesting parts of the text. As the historians attempt to explain capitalist terminology, or even early 20th century conventions, we are often humorously reminded how ridiculous our economic system is. In one footnote, “Wall Street” is defined as: “so named from a street in ancient New York, where was situated the stock exchange, and where the irrational organization of society permitted underhanded manipulation of all the industries of the country.” (434) It works because it is obvious but so rarely stated. Sometimes there footnotes are almost embarrassing obvious. The “Brotherhood of Man” is certainly a society grounded in Jack London’s vision of socialism, which is rather unbelievable. Again, this novel works only as a critique of the economy, government and society of London’s time, not as science fiction.
The plot of the first half of The Iron Heel coves the early career of Everhard, his burgeoning relationship with the manuscript’s author (by the way, I find no evidence that London had a clue to writing as a woman), and the rise of the socialist party in the United States.
What we can learn from this text will be the subject of the next entry, but for now, let’s listen to David Simon (co-creator of The Wire) talk about oligarchy. As bad as this novel is at times, oligarchy remains something to be vigilant about and will keep The Iron Heel a contemporary novel for quite a while.