The Iron Heel
A conflicted work, revealing a conflicted author: To mark the 100th anniversary of the 1908 publication of Jack London's The Iron Heel, The Socialist Standard published an article attacking the book as "a decidedly anti-socialist work... considered a classic of its time... for all the wrong reasons". This naturally piqued my interest, and put the novel on my radar to pick up from the library.The Iron Heel is presented as an historical manuscript discovered some seven centuries in the future, a draft of memoirs written in the early 1930s by Avis Everhard, a socialist revolutionary. Avis, assisted by footnotes from a future historian, relates the process through which first America and then the world is taken over by a brutal plutocratic dictatorship -- dubbed the "Iron Heel" -- in the years after 1912. The victory of the Iron Heel comes about despite the best efforts of Avis and her husband, Ernest Everhard, a brilliant socialist philosopher-warrior-prophet-king, "a super-man, a blond beast such as Nietzsche has described" (12), and, of course, the fictionalized persona of London himself. Right from the start, we are informed that the Iron Heel is to triumph and reign for centuries, all opposition forced underground into endless guerrilla warfare, which London modeled on the violent conflict between certain Russian revolutionists and the Tsar's Empire.The greatest strength of London's novel, emphasized by Jonathan Auerbach's introduction to the 2006 Penguin edition, is the way both the Iron Heel and the armed resistance opposing it mirror each other in their tactics, strategy, and even ideology. Both infiltrate each other's organizations, and then infiltrate each other's infiltrations; both judge and execute; both must kill or be killed; both know their cause is just and righteous, the source and protection of all that is good in the world; both view the masses/working class/common people as a primitive, backwards and barbaric force to be feared and manipulated against their enemies. The only character who does no harm is merely caught in the crossfire, anonymously gunned down in the streets of Chicago.Unfortunately, such positive aspects of the novel are largely overwhelmed by other features both irritating and troubling. On the purely irritating end, the future historian's footnotes are sometimes used to good effect, but often simply tack on quotes or citations that are too pedantic or artificial to fit in text itself. Forking these off into footnotes doesn't help. And speaking of artificiality, the political debates in the earlier chapters often read less like dialogue than like a simplistic Marxist catechism -- occasional question, long uninterrupted response.Much more disturbing is London's half romantic, half apocalyptic vision of ceaseless warfare between bands of Nietzschean supermen and the shadowy, oppressive state. Coupled with his (perhaps unconscious) racism and (very conscious) "social Darwinism", this helps account for the book's otherwise puzzling appeal to far-right "survivalists" and white nationalists. Indeed, although London's future historian comes from a peaceful, democratic socialist society, much of The Iron Heel is a thinly-veiled social-Darwinist attack on the Socialists of London's day. In the novel, the Socialists disregard Everhard's (London's) warnings about the coming struggle for survival. They are weak and pacifistic, relying on democracy, education, and mass organization to build the co-operative commonwealth, and so they fail. They are completely smashed by the Iron Heel, which persists for centuries before naturally falling apart under its own weight.The style of The Iron Heel as a whole struck me as much more like that of Ayn Rand than that of Karl Marx or any other socialist. The chief difference from Rand's works is that instead of caring only for themselves, London's super-men care (for reasons that are far from convincing) only for a working class that is almost completely invisible. Common people are helpless to liberate themselves, and all the Iron Heel has to do to retain power is buy off (or kill off) whatever super-men rear their heads amongst the "people of the abyss". No wonder the International Socialist Review of the time panned the book as "well calculated to repel many whose addition to our forces is sorely needed".Mussolini was far from the only ex-socialist whose views of struggle, strength, and survival led him to abandon democracy and buy into an Iron Heel of his own. Although Jack London died in 1916 at the age of 40, many see in his work strong suggestions that he was on a similar trajectory. In 1945, George Orwell mused that had London lived longer, "it is hard to be sure where his political allegiance would have lain... 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." In the end, I found the actual story in The Iron Heel considerably less interesting than what the book reveals about its author.