Jack London’s The Iron Heel
By Graham Milner
The novelist Jack London (1876-1916) has been pilloried by some sections of the left for his Anglo-Saxon racism, and for adhering to an individualist philosophy partly derived from a reading of Nietzsche. But in spite of these important blemishes, London was nevertheless committed to a revolutionary socialist world outlook that was strongly influenced by the class struggle socialist ideas of Karl Marx.
London was born and brought up in the San Francisco working class, and left school at age 11. He led an adventurous life at sea and as an Alaskan gold prospector, before turning his adventures and his prodigious reading into the subject matter for a successful series of short stories and novels. Early examples included the novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang. How he turned himself into a successful writer is described in the revealing autobiographical novel Martin Eden.
In 1907 London, whose strong socialist views were well known, published an extraordinary novel that laid out a grim and apocalyptic future before the international labor movement—The Iron Heel. Although it has strong dystrophic aspects, the novel in fact predicts the ultimate triumph of socialist democracy several centuries hence. The text takes the form of the annotated “Everhard Manuscript,” which dates from a period of repression following an unsuccessful revolt against the Iron Heel, a regime established in the USA in the early 20th century bearing all the hallmarks of fascism. The manuscript, written by Avis, wife of Ernest Everhard, a revolutionary socialist leader, breaks off in mid sentence, and the exact fate of the Everhards remains unknown.
The Iron Heel is a political novel, and a novel of ideas, and because of this the characterization is admittedly by no means profoundly developed. But the early chapters of the novel, in which the ideas of Marxist socialism are put forward with great verve by Ernest Everhard, the working-class revolutionary leader, are instructive and inspiring. The descriptions of the socialist movement in the USA, the presentation of the international dimension of the struggle against capital, and the picture drawn of mass struggles by the labor movement against the ruling class, are all well done. But it is in the prescient description of the “Iron Heel—the rule of the capitalist oligarchy, with its storm troopers, secret police, mass repression and provocations against the left, as well as its alliance with the labor aristocracy, that brings to mind the reality of post-World War I fascism in Europe.
London was denounced by the reformist socialist leaders of his day for spreading pessimism and for reinforcing the “apocalyptic” view of socialist advance. His book caused a storm. The latter chapters of The Iron Heel describe, in graphic detail, the failed revolt against the oligarchy—a revolt that had its central location in Chicago. These chapters depict the heroism of the workers in the “Chicago Commune,” as they fight block by block, and skyscraper by skyscraper, against the soldiers and the mercenaries of the regime. These scenes stay in the memory of the reader.
Jack London’s daughter Joan sent a copy of The Iron Heel to the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico, in 1937. Trotsky read the novel and was deeply impressed by it. He wrote, of London’s vision in the book:
“...[S]till more astonishing is the genuinely prophetic vision of the methods by which the “Iron Heel” will sustain its domination over crushed mankind.... Over the mass of the deprived rise the castes of labor aristocracy, of praetorian army, of an all-penetrating police, with the financial oligarchy at the top.
“In reading it one does not believe his own eyes: it is precisely the picture of fascism, of its economy, of its governmental technique, its political psychology! The fact is incontestable: in 1907 Jack London already foresaw and described the fascist regime as the inevitable result of the defeat of the proletarian revolution.” (Leon Trotsky On Literature and Art, edited by Paul Siegel, New York, Pathfinder Press, 1970) pp.223-4]
The Iron Heel may not currently be in print, but if not it may readily be obtained second-hand through internet sites like Abebooks. Alternatively, the WA State Library system has compendium editions of the works of Jack London.