This post is a continuation of yesterday’s post “Jack London: The Iron Heel Part 2”
And for those just visiting this blog, my goal is a systematic reading of the Library of America (that is the American literary, political, and cultural tradition) from an anarchist perspective. Please look to my first post for more details.
The second half of The Iron Heel explores the reaction of the oligarchy to the emergence of a credible socialist party in the United States, the co-option of the labor elite, the suppression of the socialists/Grangers/labor activists, and the uprising that suppression inspired. The novel ends with the abrupt ending of Avis Everhead’s manuscript and the apparent execution of her husband.
Looking at the book as a whole we see the transformation of America from a stratified class society (something we know enough about) where the elite could engage in intelligent conversations with radicals like Ernest Everhead to a situation of intense class war and the rise of a fascist, corporatist oligarchy. I think it is in this warning that The Iron Heel speaks most loudly to us. London was also warning the working class to prepare for that class war, which they would almost inevitably lose. Through Ernest Everhard, London condemned efforts of socialists to bask in electoral victories. At one point he was confronted with optimistic socialists declaring after an election: “In another month we send fifty men to Congress. Two years hence every office will be ours, from the President down to the local dog-catcher.” Everhard responded: “How many rifles have you got? Do you know where you can get plenty of lead? When it comes to powder , chemical mixtures and better than mechanical mixtures, you take my word.” (474-476) In the novel, the revolt when it came failed utterly and it would take 300 years for “The Brotherhood of Man” to finally overturn capitalism. London gives us a bleak choice: either die in useless revolt or suffer injustice and oppression.
London lived in a time when radical movements were attempting various electoral challenges to emerging capitalist oligarchies. The Populist Movement – first an independent political movement of farmers and later an adjunct to the Democratic Party – and the Socialist Party both achieved impressive electoral successes at the local and even national level. In 1892, the Populist candidate won over 1 million votes and 22 electoral votes. Eugene Debs received 900,000 votes in 1912. London seems to have little faith in these movements, predicating the violent smashing of any threat to the oligarchy. In one of Everhard’s last public speeches as a socialist member of the house of representatives, he condemned the entire political systems and was labelled an anarchist for his views.
London is careful not to idealize the class war that led to the rise of the Iron Heel. The areas of most acute conflict experienced the self-destruction of working people in internal conflicts brought on by the co-option of the labor elite. The “Granger states”, secessionist movements inspired apparently by the Farmer’s Alliance, were violently suppressed in military campaigns compared to the Indian Wars. The socialists, ever London’s beacon of hope, survived because they devoted their energies to internal security, espionage into the Oligarchy, and the formation of military organizations. I doubt Lenin directly influenced London here (had he even written on the role of a vanguard revolutionary party yet?), but London certainly predicated the essential role of a secretive, authoritarian movement. “There was no trust, no confidence anywhere. The man who plotted beside us, for all we knew, might be an agent of the Iron Heel. We mined the organization of the Iron Heel with our secret agents, and the Iron Heel countermined with its secret agents inside its own organization. And it was the same with our organization. . . Men were weak, I say, and because of their weakness we were compelled to make the only other reward that was within our power. It was the reward of death. Out of necessity we had to punish our traitors. For every man who betrayed us, from one to a dozen faithful avengers were loosed upon his heels. . . . The Revolution took on largely the character of religion. We worshiped at the shrine of the Revolution, which was the shrine of liberty. . . We were lovers of Humanity.” (484-485). Reading this novel after the 1930s, we have little doubt that had Everhard been successful in his revolt, the result would have been a revolutionary dictatorship. By placing his utopia 700 years in the future, London can avoid these difficult questions. The footnotes provide few hints about how the “Brotherhood of Man” emerged, except that it did take new revolts.
Despite some of my reservations, I think this novel is useful both as a product of a period of class warfare in American history – a history that is often forgotten in the elitist history of presidents and robber barons – and as a warning against oligarchy. London also warns against putting our faith in the political system and suggesting the need for serious self-defense against corporate power. These are all useful lessons. As individualist as London was (a theme we will explore in future selections of his works) his socialism was essentially statist. As displaying in People of the Abyss, London was not really capable of granting the working poor the agenda to rule themselves or make the right choices. Everhard is needed. Thankfully, the ever smitten Avis defended him as a hero and London did not need to truly imagine the post-revolutionary situation.