The Iron Heel (1908), Jack London
The Iron Heel is a multi-level story of the past, present, and future—all at the same time. Avis Cunningham (Everhard), a middle-class-lady-turned-revolutionist in the United States, writes a manuscript of events that have occurred in her past (1910s), but narrates it in the present tense. She writes about the ongoing revolution to topple the capitalist system, not knowing that it would actually take multiple revolts after her for capitalism to finally fall.
The plot within the manuscript first focuses on Cunningham’s encounter with Ernest Everhard, who eventually becomes her husband. She first meets Everhard, a man from the working class, at her father’s dinner party. Everhard challenges the higher classes to recognize the contemporary flaws and inevitable crumbling of the capitalistic system, debates socialist theories with them, and describes the current reality of the working class. Everhard opens up the door of socialism for Cunningham, Dr. Cunningham, and Bishop Morehouse—gradually allowing each to come to accept a revolutionist’s perspective.
This ultimately leads Everhard to state, “That, gentlemen, is socialism, a greater combination than the trusts, a greater economic and social combination than any that has yet appeared on the planet. We meet combination with greater combination.” (London, Ch. 8).
Cunningham discovers real flaws within the capitalistic system—from company negligence to unjust courts, and from dirty conspiracies to bribes and treason. There are multiple confrontations between Everhard and capitalist defenders. In one instance, he reveals the hypocrisy of middle-class merchants, who support capitalism but rage against “bigger dogs” who have taken their profits. Everhard describes the rise of the socialism, and how a impactful uprising throughout the world is in the works.
The entire second half of the novel deals with the physical revolutionary action against the “Iron Heel”. The revolutionaries plan to seize power and control through a coup d’etat, rather than a social revolution. The proletariats/laborers plan to take power from the ruling class, from the trusts, and gain control of all the machinery. Cunningham goes into secret hiding, changes her identity, and sends and receives messages to/from other revolutionaries—all for the socialist cause. Cunningham and Everhard, even though briefly jailed and separated, continue their plans for the First Revolt with enthusiasm.
The First Revolt was planned for the spring of 1918. The revolutionaries planned to blow up wireless stations; transportation networks (bridges, tunnels); and seize officers of the Mercenaries, police, and Oligarchy. Other simultaneous events were to occur in neighboring cities and countries all around the world. It was doomed from the start, however. While undercover with the Oligarchs, Cunningham discovers that the revolutionary plot in Chicago–the “storm-centre of the conflict between labor and capital”–has been discovered (Ch. 22). Knowing that “Chicago is to be sacrificed,” she still makes her way to the doomed city, where Everhard is presumed to be. Although she is able to reunite with her husband, the destruction is obvious– bodies lay in red pools in the streets, suspicious traitors are questioned and executed on the spot, and bombs and explosions fill the city with noise and destruction.
Although the First Revolt fails, the revolutionaries quickly plan a Second Revolt—even with a recent passing of one of their capable leaders, Everhard (which is never explained). The story ends in mid-sentence, and it is suggested that Cunningham must have been rushed to hide the manuscript. She was never able to return to finish the manuscript, and her fate is also unknown. Unfinished and kept hidden until discovered 700 years into the future, the manuscript gets updated with footnotes and a foreword by Anthony Meredith, who provides useful historical context and explanations. By this time, Meredith is living under socialism.
Jack London’s view of socialism was not concrete. In fact, his political views were a personal cocktail of conflicting theories—emotional demands for social justice, racial superiority of the white race, and social Darwinism (Trott). This idea of social evolution was a part of his socialist thinking—he understood that class conflict and subsequent revolution were inevitable facts of nature (“The Iron Heel: A Jack London Novel…”). He became a member of the Socialist Labor Party in 1896, and joined the Socialist Party of America in the early 1900s.
By 1906, London had already abandoned the idea of a “mass working-class movement to overthrow capitalism and establish a new society” (Trott). Although The Iron Heel starts out with the strong belief that socialism can overwhelm capitalism, London indicates that socialism is not attainable in the likely future (multiple revolt failures)—declaring that the working class is actually powerless in freeing itself from capitalistic rule. Although the Iron Heel eventually topples a few centuries later, the capitalist system fails because of its own vulnerabilities—not through an overtaking.
The Iron Heel was “remarkably prophetic” in describing the actions of government during World War I, after London’s death (“The Iron Heel: A Jack London Novel…”). London discusses the utilization of secret police, reactionary mobs, spies, and terrorism the Iron Heel and revolutionaries participated in. He also describes the heavy censorship of papers and control of media, which proved to be a major disadvantage for the revolutionaries. The Espionage Act passed during WWI brought about paper censorship, jailed outspoken dissenters, and “protection groups” that went around towns dealing with unpatriotic people. His predictions were oddly foretelling.
Circumstances of the times:
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw much economic and social sickness, including: the Depression of 1873, the Pittsburgh railroad strike and the July riots of 1877, the Haymarket Riot of 1886, the Great Panic of 1893, the mass demonstrations of the unemployed, the control of monopoly and large-scale production in just a few people (Vanderbilt, Moore, Rockefeller), and the establishment of trusts (Khouri). People struggled over power and money.
During this time, socialism and other movements against capitalism were quickly defeated. With an accelerated birth and growth of industrialization and a working-class movement, utopian and dystopian texts were published in great numbers. There seemed to be a collective pursuit of the “future and projection of utopian hopes or anguished fears” (Portelli). Also, the intellectual and economic analysis of socialist thinkers (like Karl Marx) in the early 1900s, started to make influences throughout the modern world.
The society is broken down into three main classes: the Plutocracy (wealthy trusts), the middle class (professionals), and the proletariat (wage workers). In respect to governance, the Plutocracy holds the power over the machines, the economy, the law, and the force that supports the law. They rule with an “iron heel” that is as “relentless and terrible as any despotism that has blackened the pages of the history of man” (London, Ch. 9).
The central struggle occurs between the Plutocrats and proletariats. The Plutocrats have formed the Oligarchy and the Iron Heel to dominate every aspect of this society. The middle class is essentially either bought out by the Plutocrats, or joins the proletarian cause. Because of this separation of the middle class, it eventually dies out. There is no longer a medium, a neutral party—only extremes.
The Plutocrats rule with a capitalist stick. They suppress socialism with its secret agents and control of the press; they whip the Catholic Church into obedience and keep the church on a short leash; they rob the workingman’s vote (Ch. 13). The result? A great surplus they must dispose of abroad.
The proletariats, or revolutionaries, take on a socialist view as their ideal form of government. Everhard attempts to mathematically validate why capitalism is designed to fall, using Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value. According to the capitalist system, any unconsumed surplus must be disposed of overseas, because capital in its own country has already consumed as much as it is capable. Surpluses are sold to countries with undeveloped resources and, eventually, these countries become developed and have their own surpluses. With a limited number of countries on the planet, every country will eventually have a surplus, and will “stand confronting every other country with surpluses in their hands” (Ch. 9). In order to avoid this problem, countries should not generate any surplus by “returning to a primitive method of production”. However, Everhard acknowledges that the machines cannot be destroyed and the “tide of evolution” cannot “flow backward” (Ch. 9). Therefore, possessing power over the machines will allow for careful production. The proletariats do not want to destroy the trusts and the machines, but to own and supervise them.
In an effort to dismiss and discredit socialist theories, the Plutocrats manage the press. Respected thinkers presenting socialist views are written off as sick or mentally unstable, or are branded as anarchists. Certain middle class individuals are invited to join the trusts and enjoy increased wages with shorter hours, if they belong in a favored union (Ch. 15). Members of these favored unions are now relabeled as traitors to the lower classes, and a divided caste system arises (aristocracy of labor, the rest of labor, and military castes).
The governing class very loosely respects the idea of human rights. When Cunningham investigates Jackson’s case (concerning fairness in the justice system), she discovers that there was absolutely no justice in the judge’s court. She remembers Everhard’s charge that the gowns she wears, the food she eats, and her rooftops all drip with blood of men and children—and she begins to shudder at the size of these stains (Ch. 3).
Speech and the press were often censored to the Plutocrats’ favor. Reporters twisted words out of context and described controlled comments as “howling anarchistic” speeches; socialist presses were destroyed or barred from being mailed; and the Black Hundreds (reactionary mobs) caused violence and havoc to later redirect responsibility to the revolutionary groups (Ch. 10).
People were thrown into sanitariums without sufficient reason. People were jailed but not charged (e.g. Cunningham was kept in prison for six months). People were drafted to serve in the military—forced to serving the Plutocracy by fighting against their own families and friends in their own home-fronts. People who refused to serve in the militia were executed. People disappeared without warning, never to be seen again. The Iron Heel controlled the peoples’ rights.
Bishop Morehouse is a heartbreaking symbol of the vulnerable church. When Everhard first proclaims that the “Church is not teaching Christ these days…the Church is supported by the capitalist class” (Ch. 2), Morehouse experiences a revelation. Now alert, he goes on a “soul-sick” journey to visit the homes of the wageworkers and the slums of San Francisco and finds a renewed purpose. Morehouse states that the “palaces of the Church should be hospitals and nurseries for those who have fallen by the wayside and are perishing” and begins to preach the message of Jesus more passionately to show the church that they need to take a more serious, holy stand (Ch. 7).
His purified passion lands him inside a sanitarium, with the newspapers reporting of his mental instability (Ch. 12). His mandatory solitary confinement helps make him “sane” again, but only momentarily, out of fear. Everhard shares his bitterness with Cunningham by stating, “The Bishop obeyed Christ’s injunction and got locked up in a madhouse…Society has spoken.” This statement strengthens the disappointing realization that the church has strayed so far from the Word (gospel), heavily choked by capitalism’s deadly chains.
Morehouse eventually gets out again and disappears from the public light, continuously working for the Lord in quiet. In the end, his body is discovered in the streets of Chicago “torn and mangled” among other bodies (Ch. 24). Seeing a devoted Bishop die while fighting for the church, and with not much advancement, sadly reduces the level of supernatural hope that people want to have while enduring hardships.
The Iron Heel narrates a determined, revolutionary effort against the Oligarchy. While the manuscript details a motivated effort to bring down capitalism and to replace it with socialism, the reader, through Anthony Meredith’s footnotes, is aware of its doomed ending. This dramatic irony channels the sarcastic humor of Jack London, who wanted to inform society that the working class is powerless at overwhelming capitalism, and socialism is not achievable in its near future.
A PowerPoint PDF with a brief overview is also available, here.
London, Jack. “The Iron Heel.” Project Gutenberg E-Book. Dec. 2012. Web.<http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1164/1164-h/1164-h.htm#link2H_FORE>.
Khouri, Nadia. “Utopia and Epic: Ideological Confrontation in Jack London’s The Iron Heel.” Depauw. Science Fiction Studies. July 1976. Web. <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/9/khouri9art.htm>.
“The Iron Heel: A Jack London Novel You Didn’t Read in School!” Daily Kos. 2011. Web.<http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/03/04/952595/-The-Iron-Heel-A-Jack-London-Novel-You-Didn-t-Read-in-School>.
Portelli, Alessandro. “Jack London’s Missing Revolution.” Depauw. Science Fiction Studies. July 1982. Web. <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/27/portelli.html>.
Trott, Steve. Jack London’s The Iron Heel.” The Socialist Party of Great Britian. Jan. 2008. Web. <http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2000s/2008/no-1241-january-2008/jack-londons-iron-heel>.