The Iron Heel
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Cover of the first edition
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
It is considered to be "the earliest of the modern dystopian" fiction, it chronicles the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States. In The Iron Heel, Jack London's socialist views are explicitly on display. A forerunner of soft science fiction novels and stories of the 1960s and 70s, the book stresses future changes in society and politics while paying much less attention to technological changes. The book is unusual among London's writings (and in the literature of the time in general) in being a first-person narrative of a woman protagonist written by a man. Much of the narrative is set in the San Francisco Bay Area. Other events take place Sonoma County.
The novel is told via the framing device of a manuscript found centuries after the action takes place and footnotes by a scholar, Anthony Meredith, circa 2600 AD or 419 B.O.M. (the Brotherhood of Man). Jack London writes at two levels, often having Meredith condescendingly correcting the errors of Everhard yet, at the same time, exposing the often incomplete understanding of this distant future perspective.
Meredith's introduction also acts as a deliberate spoiler (a term which did not exist at that time) in revealing that the protagonist's efforts will fail, which give the work an air foreordained tragedy.
The story proper begins a daughter of a renowned physicist with the socialist Ernest Everhard. At first, Avis does not agree with Ernest in that the whole contemporary social system is based on exploitation of labour. She proceeds to investigate the conditions the workers live in and those terrible conditions make her change her mind and accept Ernest's worldview. Similarly, Bishop Morehouse does not initially believe in the horrors described by Ernest but then becomes convinced in their truth and is confined to a madhouse because of his new views.
The story covers the years 1912 through 1932 in which the Oligarchy (or "Iron Heel") arises in the United States. Japan conquers East Asia and creates its own empire, India gains independence, and Europe became socialist. Canada, Mexico, and Cuba form their own Oligarchies and are aligned with the U.S. (London remains silent as to events transpiring in the rest of the world.)
In North America, the Oligarchy maintains power for three centuries until the Revolution succeeds and ushers in the Brotherhood of Man. During the years of the novel, the First Revolt is described and preparations for the Second Revolt are discussed. From the perspective of Everhard, the imminent Second Revolt is sure to succeed. Given Meredith's frame story, the reader knows that Ernest Everhard's hopes will go unfulfilled until centuries after his death.
The Oligarchy is the largest monopoly of trusts (or robber barons) who manage to squeeze out the middle class by bankrupting most small to mid-sized business as well as reducing all farmers to effective serfdom. This Oligarchy maintains power through a "labor caste" and the Mercenaries. Laborers in essential industries like steel and rail are elevated and given decent wages, housing, and education. Indeed, the tragic turn in the novel (and Jack London's core warning to his contemporaries) is the treachery of these favored unions which break with the other unions and side with the Oligarchy. Further, a second, military caste is formed: the Mercenaries. The Mercenaries are officially the army of the US but are in fact in the employ of the Oligarchs.
Asgard is the name of a fictional wonder-city, a city constructed by the Oligarchy to be admired and appreciated as well as lived in. Thousands of proletarians live in terrible poverty there, and are used whenever a public work needs to be completed, such as the building of a levee or a canal.
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Jack London ambitiously predicted a breakdown of the US republic starting a few years past 1908, but various events have caused his predicted future to diverge from actual history. Most crucially, though London placed quite accurately the time when international tensions will reach their peak (1913 in The Iron Heel, 1914 in actual history), he (like many others at the time) predicted that when this moment came, labor solidarity would prevent a war that would include the US, Germany and other nations.
Further, London assumed that the Socialist Party would become a mass party in the United States, strong enough to have a realistic chance of winning national elections and gaining power, while remaining a revolutionary party still committed to the dismantling of capitalism. The whole book is based on Marx's view that capitalism is inherently unsustainable. This would precipitate a brutal counter-reaction, with capitalists preserving their power by discarding democracy and instituting a brutal repressive regime. Although this exact scenario never came to pass in the US, where the Socialist Party remained small and marginal, events closely followed London's script elsewhere; for example, in Chile in 1973, where the government of socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. This prompted later publishers of London's book to use a cover illustration depicting a poster of Allende being ground beneath the heel of a boot.
The idea of a strong and militant mass Socialist Party emerging in the US was linked by London with his prediction that the middle class would shrink as monopolistic trusts crushed labor and small- to mid-sized businesses. Instead the US Progressive Era led to a breakup of the trusts, notably the application of the Sherman Antitrust Act to Standard Oil in 1911. At the same time, reforms such as labor unions rights were passed during the Progressive Era, with further reforms during the New Deal of the 1930s. Further, economic prosperity led to dramatic growth of the middle class in the 1920s and after World War II.
Through the writing of Everhard and, particularly, the distant future perspective of Meredith, London demonstrated his belief in the historical materialism, which Marxists such as Friedrich Engels, Georgi Plekhanov or Vladimir Lenin have interpreted as predicting an inevitable succession from feudalism through capitalism and then socialism, ending in a period without a state (also known as full communism), based on Marx's maxim of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."
Publication history and reception
The Iron Heel was published in 1908 by George Platt Brett Sr., who suggested only the deletion of a footnote which he deemed libelous before publication. It sold 50,000 copies in hardcover but generally did not earn the praise of critics. A reviewer in The Outlook concluded that "as a work of fiction it has little to commend it, and as a socialist tract it is distinctly unconvincing".
Influences and effects
The Iron Heel is cited by George Orwell's biographer Michael Shelden as having influenced Orwell's most famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell himself described London as having made "a very remarkable prophecy of the rise of Fascism", in the book and believed that London's understanding of the primitive had made him a better prophet "than many better-informed and more logical thinkers."
Granville Hicks, reviewing Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, was reminded of The Iron Heel: "we are taken into the future and shown an America ruled by a tiny oligarchy, and here too there is a revolt that fails."
London's novella The Scarlet Plague (1912), and some of his short stories, are placed in a dystopian future setting that closely resembles that of The Iron Heel, although there is no actual continuity of situations or characters.
- Business Plot - an alleged 1933 political conspiracy by businessmen to overthrow the United States government in reaction to economic reforms.
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