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In Jack London‘s “dystopian” novel, The Iron Heel (1908), revolutionary communism is put to the test and it fails resoundingly. The events of the novel may demonstrate that America’s ruling Oligarchy or “The Iron Heel” is morally indefensible in exploiting the working class, but it seems to be almost as certainly indestructible, in using the power of its wealth and all of the resources of the state to buy off enough of society to ensure its own survival. From his standpoint centuries in the future, the narrative’s “editor,” Anthony Meredith, is concerned purely with scholarly details. Perhaps London foresaw how Marxism would eventually dwindle from practical politics into empty academia, for all that reaches us from the other side of the Revolution is pedantic scholarship. We are given a utopia only in footnotes, and Meredith will never reveal the crucial circumstances in which the Oligarchy was broken, suggesting, contrary to the hero’s claims for Marxism, more the magic than the “mathematics” of a dream.

London’s modern biographer Andrew Sinclair defines his man as, “an impresario and a populariser in the eyes of the rigid Marxists, neither a good party member nor sound on doctrine, but his heretical opinions were pardonable because he was so personable.” From a biographer’s proximity, Sinclair finds that London’s socialism was merely a shadow of his melancholy, so that, “when he was depressed and full of a sense of his own corruption, he clung to the idea of the brotherhood of man. When he felt strong, he preached personal supremacy.” Yet London was increasingly unable to find solace in the brotherhood of man, and an earlier biographer, Robert Barltrop, claims that The Iron Heel rings the death knell for his socialism:

Jack’s period as a socialist was over. He found no need to disavow it, or to cease his associations formally. It was a part of his reputation that he did not wish to renounce, any more than he relinquished being an authority on social questions. Nevertheless, he had parted ways with the idea of a mass working-class movement to overthrow capitalism and establish a new society. His enthusiasm for it had always been sporadic, shadowed by conflicting beliefs and rising over them only when there was some special stimulus. The lecturing and headline-making of 1905 were its last surge. It was to be followed by loss of interest, depreciation and near-contempt. The socialists, by criticizing him, confirmed his conviction that they were weaklings who would fail.

Yet The Iron Heel is not an expiring revolutionary groan. We instead find London engrossed in laying down an intricate and prolific mosaic of contemporary socialist thought. Despite being often heralded as one of the “first” dystopian novels, and a work which would inspire subsequent dystopian visionaries such as George Orwell, The Iron Heel seems to have been pilfered from half a library. London took the idea of a future people brooding upon today’s circumstances from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887), whilst the final massacre in The Iron Heel recalls the trigger-happy ending of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee (1889) and the apocalypse of New York in Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1890). The novel’s footnotes, for what they are worth, acknowledge the influences of W J Ghent and H G Wells. More broadly, The Iron Heel recycles passages and observations from London’s own essays and from those of an array of contemporary journalists.

Oddly, even one of the novel’s clumsiest details – the comically phallic name of its hero, Ernest Everhard – was also second-hand, borrowed from a cousin whom London had met in Michigan in 1894. The Iron Heel may merely practice what it preaches, in abolishing property, so to speak, and stealing from wherever it can, but it remains a poorly made book. Leon Trotsky, reviewing the novel in 1937, politely describes London as being “intentionally sparing in his use of artistic means” and more concerned with “social analysis and prognosis” than with “artistic qualities.” But a piece of Marxist propaganda should still not be narrated by a drippy damsel in distress, who shows all the critical sophistication of a schoolgirl who is infatuated with her teacher. One should not recruit a Nietzschean “superman” as the hero only to demote him to a supporting role half way through the book. And one should not simultaneously discredit the hero’s effectiveness and maintain that he will be eventually vindicated by history.

In the absence of any consistent narrative strategy, the question for the perplexed reader is whether London had carelessly stitched together a dystopian Penny Dreadful for the mass market, without treating it as a means to formally autopsy or bury his socialist ideals; or whether this book has a more honourable intention, in seeking to imaginatively explore the nature of the class struggle. London’s second wife Charmian recalled her husband remarking on The Iron Heel that “I didn’t write the thing as a prophesy at all,” but London himself confided in his editor George Brett that, “Personally, I think from a pseudo-scientific standpoint the situation of The Iron Heel is plausible.” Trotsky believed that The Iron Heel anticipated the rise of fascism, but despite the uncanny similarity between the Iron Heel’s bomb attack on Congress and the Nazi’s Reichstag fire, London’s oligarchy has no deliberate programme of social eugenics and it remains distant and faceless, rather than relying upon any cult of personality.

Indeed, the charismatic superman Ernest Everhard conceivably resembles what Hitler would have looked like had he instead settled on Marxism. It is not just Ernest’s name that raises an eyebrow, for he is essentially a sort of wholesale human phallus, his shrivelled, unremarkable personality swelling and bulging with the lifeblood of revolutionary rhetoric. Avis remarks on his characteristic “awkwardness” in social situations, which is meant to be a humanising detail, but even this may leave one with the impression of an erection in the drawing room. For the first third of the book, civilisation is silenced by Ernest, who beards its representatives in their own parlours. The oligarchs’ responses to Ernest’s demands and criticisms are so pathetic that one almost wishes that London had asked another, more reactionary author to script them, merely to give his book a bit of balance.

Yet whilst the Iron Heel cannot match Ernest’s passion for the future, the comparatively unflashy oligarch Wickson will simply shut down the debate, by confessing that his own class will fight purely out of self-interest, however persuasively Ernest may reason. The previously phallic Ernest now shrivels, to be bundled away in the proletariat’s pocket. If the oligarch’s metaphysicians succeed in reducing God from a “gaseous vertebrate” to an “invisible wraith,” much of the same fate befalls Ernest at London’s hands.

In the light of the complex subterfuge which characterises the later stages of the struggle, Ernest’s rhetoric seems to be tactically disastrous in warning the oligarchy about the forthcoming attack. The revolutionary phallus repeatedly exposes himself whilst the oligarchy remain shadowy and distant, and after the General Strike, the oligarchy decisively seize the day. They come to an accommodation with the aristocracy of labour, who duly receive higher wages and shorter working hours, whilst the rest of the workers decline into an uneducated lumpen proletariat. Any threat from the entire working class is thus effectively neutralised.

Revolutionaries such as Ernest and Avis are left stranded outside the class system and, in this respect, they are consigned to the same classless detachment and loss of identity that London had himself experienced as a writer. In his essay “What Life Means to Me” (1905), London describes bouncing around the class system and finding none of it very satisfactory. He was “sickened” by work, the underclass “scared” him “into thinking,” whilst the thinking classes so repulsed him that “I went back to the working-class, in which I had been born and where I belonged.” Yet like his utopia in footnotes, this cheery return to the working class, along with his blithe faith in a forthcoming revolution, was an ultimately unconvincing fantasy. London would never allow his voice to fade away into the streets, just as Ernest will fare better in the class struggle as a congressman than as a blacksmith. The revolutionaries can only sow the whirlwind of class warfare from outside the system:

The abysmal brute would roar anyway, and the police and Mercenaries would slay anyway. It would merely mean that various dangers to us were harmlessly destroying one another. In the meantime we would be doing our own work, largely unhampered, and gaining control of all the machinery of society.

Rather than leading a revolutionary social movement, Avis ends up shrunken to an insignificant figure, tottering about within the carnage, dwarfed by social forces which she cannot control nor even follow. Her husband has computed the miscalculations of a “nightmare,” rather than “the mathematics of a dream.” She will be rescued by forces of the oligarchy, which is not quite the sort of dialectical synthesis that Marx had required. But even if the revolutionaries had wrested the means of production from the oligarchy, they would have had an infinitely greater job to reconcile the pampered labour castes and rabid underclass to their new system, not least because there are countless more of them to convince.

London was politically a socialist, but he was aesthetically a realist. Whilst he could not blend these incongruous ingredients into a smooth fiction, as George Orwell would do, he nevertheless articulated some astute and unsettling prophesies – an achievement which renders his book greater than the sum of its disasters. He stumbled on some of the details: the working class would fall hook, line, and sinker for the First World War, rather than derailing it with a General Strike. But as the literary critic Jonathan Auerbach recognises, London’s oligarchy survives by consolidating a hegemony and manufacturing consent, and it will not be sunk by Ernest’s unsophisticated and already-inadequate Marxist “mathematics.” In other words, London is anticipating later Marxist and post-Marxist interpretations, which did not make the mistake of underestimating the power of the ruling class.

Whilst the revolutionary guerrilla warfare under the Iron Heel can be dismissed as so much melodrama, London got the basics right: the oligarchy would use its surpluses to buy security, imprisoning the underclass in ignorance, appeasing the most important sectors of the working class, and investing in beauty and technology to inspire its followers (a bus ride across modern Beijing will put the latest images to London’s concept of “wonder cities”). The Oligarchy handed back most of its surpluses in order to remain in charge, rendering Ernest’s “mathematics” largely irrelevant as he ends up fighting for pure power rather than the financial spoils. As a regime of spies, the revolutionaries are necessarily at home within the existing system, and indeed at some points it seems possible that there are so many of them that they actually uphold it. Wincingly, we find Avis and Ernest working as “agents-provocateurs in the scheme of the Iron Heel” prior to the First Revolt.

The revolutionaries are thus repressed into society’s subconscious, or rather it seems that every formal agent of the oligarchy may be secretly an ineffective revolutionary. The revolutionaries and the oligarchy become indistinguishable, identically infiltrating each other’s organisations and pointlessly executing each other, until it seems that the only difference between them is that the revolutionaries are on the losing side. The virtue of a nominal class warfare conducted outside the class system is that, aside from the massacre in Chicago, the working class are largely spared any danger and inconvenience.

Whereas Ernest had once been “aflame with democracy” and his wife describes the revolutionaries as “lovers of Humanity,” both of these values are deemed secondary once the demands of guerrilla warfare render them no longer practical., Avis returns to Walden Pond, rather like London retreating to the Californian countryside, exchanging the nightmare of modernity for the simplicity of nature. One senses that London is no longer wholly on the side of these people. Ernest was deliciously described by London’s daughter Joan as, “the revolutionist Jack would have liked to be if he had not, unfortunately, also desired to be several other kinds of men.” “Often we were betrayed,” Avis recounts, adding that her people were so ferocious that “it became a greater peril to betray us than to remain loyal to us.” She has been betrayed by the very force that created her and the picture of these frustrated, gore-splattered revolutionaries can only lend support to established authority. Perhaps London knows that he has been ultimately distracted, and even bought off by his own fictional villains:

There were artists, scientists, scholars, musicians, and poets among us; and in that hole in the ground culture was higher and finer than in the palaces or wonder-cities of the oligarchs. In truth, many of our comrades toiled at making beautiful those same palaces and wonder-cities.

It was going to be a long struggle.