December 30, 2002

The Iron Heel -- Jack London's Vision of Fascism

Today Jack London is remembered mostly for The Call of the Wild and White Fang and some other adventure stories. But besides being an adventurer, Jack London was a Socialist and very concerned with social and political issues. He has the distinction of having preceded Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, and Zamyatin's We with an anti-utopian vision of society in his book The Iron Heel.

Political theory only lightly cloaked in a fictional form, The Iron Heel is stunning in its insight into how a fascist society could take shape. Though the century-old language seems quaint in some ways, it is clear that London had insight into the mechanism by which unrestrained capitalism could turn society into an extremely oppressive and dismal environment for human beings. The story prefigured the growth of fascism in Italy, Germany and trends toward fascism in the United States. The novel portrays a society under the control of a group of monopoly capitalists called The Oligarchy or The Iron Heel. The book was written 1906, published in January 1908.

The Iron Heel was written well before World War I. It was in July 1908 that the national police for was first formed, the Bureau of Investigation, later called the FBI.

On January 2, 1920, a raid was carried out simultaneously in 20 cities by J. Edgar Hoover, then a deputy of the attorney general. Workers were dragged from their homes and beaten, printing presses were destroyed and 10,000 activists were imprisoned. Four years later, Hoover was made head of the newly renamed FBI.

In 1922 the Fascists took over Italy. An edition of The Iron Heel published there in 1929. Within months the regime banned all cheap editions to keep it out of the working class, allowing expensive editions to remain.

In the Foreword of the 1980 edition, Rutgers professor H. Bruce Franklin, itemizes some of London's specific descriptions of the world that was to come.

Franklin: London foresees: the creation of attractive suburbs for the relatively privileged strata of the working class while the central cities are turned into what he calls "ghettoes"for the masses of unemployed and menial laborers, shoved into the darkest depths of human misery; the deliberate economic subversion of public education in order to spread illiteracy and ignorance; adequate food, health care, and housing priced above the reach of more and more people; the ubiquitous secret police infiltrating all organizations opposing the government; the establishment of a permanent mercenary army; the government conspiring in real and phony bomb plots, in the suppression of books and the destruction of printing presses, in witch hunts aimed at dissident labor leaders, professors, and authors, in destroying the reputations of some of its opponents, imprisoning many others and murdering the few it finds too formidable; spontaneous mass rebellions of the downtrodden people of the central cities; urban guerrillas battling the government's army of mercenaries and police in the canyons of the cities.

According to London's vision, what we call fascism is the form that the capitalist state assumes when the ruling oligarchy feels that its economic and political power is seriously threatened by working class revolution.

The Christian religion had been sufficiently twisted to accommodate forced labor from human beings. In 1835 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church proclaimed that "slavery is recognized in the Old and New Testaments, and is not condemned by the authority of God."

The same year, the Charleston Baptist Association also proclaimed: "The right of masters to dispose of the time of their slaves has been recognized by the Creator of all things, who is surely at liberty to vest the right of property over any object whosoever He pleases."

The hero of The Iron Heel is Ernest Everhard, a more or less typical Londonian superman, an alter ego of the author. He is portrayed, like London himself and his fictionalized version of himself in the autobiographical novel Martin Eden, as a man who worked his way up from the working classes to the upper classes: "He spoke of his birth in the working class, and of the sordidness and wretchedness of his environment, where flesh and spirit were alike starved and tormented..."

When he is on the bottom, he imagines the upper class world to be a paradise:

"Up above me, I knew, were unselfishness of the spirit, clean and novel thinking, keen intellectual living," Everhard says. "I knew all this because I had read Seaside Library novels in which, with the exception of the villains and adventuresses, all men and women thought beautiful thoughts, spoke a beautiful tongue, and performed beautiful deeds. In short, as I accepted the rising of the sun, I accepted that up above me was all that was fine and noble and gracious, all that gave decency and dignity to life, all that made life worth living and that remunerated one for his travail and misery."

When he does rise in society, he is bitterly disillusioned: "He was surprised at the commonness of the clay. Life proved not to be fine and gracious. He was appalled by the selfishness he encountered, and what had surprised him even more than that was the absence of intellectual life. Fresh from his revolutionists, he was shocked by the intellectual stupidity of the master class. And then in spite of their magnificent churches and well-paid preachers, he had found the masters, men and women, grossly material. It was true that they prattled sweet little ideals and dear little moralities, but in spite of their prattle the dominant key of the life they lived was materialistic. And they were without real morality - for instance that which Christ had preached but was no longer preached."

The Oligarchy, as represented by one Mr. Wickson, responds to those who rebel against its control in harsh terms, similar to those used by Orwell's Party in 1984: "This, then, is our answer. We have no words to waste on you... We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel and we will walk on your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain."

Ernest Everhard's description of the early 20th century industrial revolution has something in common with our situation a century later. He says, "Never in the history of the world was society in so terrific flux as it is right now. The swift changes in our industrial system are causing equally swift changes in our religious, political, and social structures. And unseen and fearful revolution is taking place in the fire and structure of society. One can only dimly feel these things. But they are in the air, now, today. One can feel the loom of them - things vast, vague, and terrible."

I include below a series of selections that are striking in comparison with our historical situation a century later.

"When the combination of trusts will control all legislation, then the combination of the trusts will itself be the Government..."

"There is such a thing as civil law," Mr Owen insisted. "Not when the Government suspends civil law. In that day, when you speak of rising in your strength, your strength would be turned against yourself. Into the militia you would go, willy-nilly. Habeas corpus, I heard someone mutter just now. Instead off habeas corpus you would get post mortems. If you refused to go into the militia, or to obey after you were in, you would be tried by drumhead court martial and shot down like dogs. It is the law... (88)

"How is it we've never heard of this law?"...

"First, there has been no need to enforce it. If there had, you'd have heard of it soon enough. And secondly, the law was rushed through Congress and he Senate secretly, with practically no discussion. Of course, the newspapers made no mention of it. But we Socialists knew about it. ... (89)

"But your strength is detachable. It can be taken away from you. Even now the Plutocracy is taking it away from you. In the end it will take it all away from you. And then you will cease to be the middle class. You will descend to us. You will become proletarians...

"One and all, the professors, the preachers, and the editors hold their jobs by serving the Plutocracy. Whenever they propagate ideas that menace the Plutocracy, they lose their jobs, in which case, if they have not provided for the rainy day, they descend into the proletariat and either perish or become working-class agitators. (101)

"I tell you we are on the verge of the unknown," he insisted. "Big things are happening secretly all around us. We can feel them. We do not know what they are, but they are there. The whole fabric of society is a-tremble with them. Don't ask me. I don't know myself. But out of this flux of society something is about to crystallize. It is crystallizing now. The suppression of the book is a precipitation. How many books have been suppressed? We haven't the least idea. We are in the dark. We have not way of learning. Watch out next for the suppression of the socialist press and socialist publishing houses. I'm afraid it's coming. We are going to be throttled.' (107)

"The Black Hundreds are being organized in the United States," he said. "This is the beginning. There will be more of it. The Iron Heel is getting bold." (108)

"The Oligarchy wanted the war with Germany. And it wanted the war for a dozen reasons. In the juggling of events such a war would cause, in the reshuffling of international cards and the making of new treaties and alliances, the Oligarchy had much to gain. And furthermore, the war would consume many national surpluses, reduce the armies of unemployed that menaced all countries, and give the Oligarchy a breathing space in which to perfect its plans and carry them out. Such a war would virtually put the Oligarchy in possession of the world market. Also, such a war would create a large standing army tat need never be disbanded, while in the minds of the people would be substituted the issue 'America versus Germany,' in place of 'Socialism versus Oligarchy' (130)

"I know of nothing that will influence you," he said. "You have no souls to be influenced. You are spineless, flaccid things. You pompously call yourselves Republicans and Democrats. There is no Republican Party. There is no Democratic Party. There are no Republicans or Democrats in this house. You are lick-spittlers and panderers, the creatures of the Plutocracy. You talk verbosely in antiquated terminology of your love of liberty, and all the while you wear the scarlet livery of the Iron Heel" (160)

"They were taught, and later they in turn taught, that what they were doing was right. They assimilated the aristocratic idea from the moment they began, as children, to receive impressions of the world. The aristocratic idea was woven into the making of them until it became bone of them and flesh of them. They looked upon themselves as wild-animal trainers, rulers of beasts. From beneath their feet rose always the subterranean rumbles of revolt. Violent death ever stalked in their midst; bomb and knife and bullet were looked upon as so many fangs of the roaring abysmal beast they must dominate if humanity were to persist. They were the saviors of humanity, and they regarded themselves as heroic and sacrificing laborers for the highest good.

"They, as a class, believed that they alone maintained civilization. It was their belief that if ever they weakened, the great beast would engulf them and everything of beauty and wonder and joy and good in its cavernous and slime-dripping maw. Without them, anarchy would reign and humanity would drop backward into the primitive night out of which it had so painfully emerged....(190)

"The condition of the people in the abyss was pitiable. Common school education, so far as they were concerned, had ceased. They lived like beasts in great squalid labor-ghettos, festering in misery and degradation. All their old liberties were gone. They were labor slaves. Choice of work was denied them. Likewise was denied them the right to move from place to place, or the right to bear or possess arms. They were not land-serfs like the farmers. They were machine-serfs and labor-serfs. When unusual needs arose for them, such as the building of the great highways and air-lines, of canals, tunnels, subways, fortifications, levies were made on the labor-ghettos, and tens of thousands of serfs, willy-nilly, were transported to the scene of operations. (192)


December 31, 2002

Source of the title The Iron Heel?

I'm glad to see a feature on "The Iron Heel". I discovered it a few years ago, and have been telling friends about it ever since.

Only a couple days ago did I discover the possible origins for the title of London's book. I got this quote from Grover Cleveland, from an article by Thom Hartmann:

On December 3, 1888, President Grover Cleveland delivered his annual address to Congress. Apparently Cleveland had taken notice of the Santa Clara County Supreme Court headnote, its politics, and its consequences, for he said in his speech to the nation, delivered before a joint session of Congress: "As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people's masters."

Hartman's article can be found at: great going,

Back to Home Page