In 1902, Jack London went down-and-out in working-class East End of London; he was so revolted by his experiences that he penned The People of the Abyss (1903), a glimpse of the horrific conditions he experienced. It’s an expose of working-class horrors in the same vein as Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), and London’s social exploration influenced George Orwell to do the same, which became Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). It’s obvious that London’s experiences in London affected him years later, as evident by The Iron Heel: a dystopic social science fiction in the style of H.G. Wells’ socialist utopias, depicting a world dominated by the fascist Oligarchy.
The frame story is that of a 25th-century socialist utopia that discovers the lost Everhard Manuscript, depicting the division between labor and capital in the early 20th century. (The 25th-century scholar, Anthony Meredith, leaves us helpful and often lengthy footnotes throughout the tale, which both criticize 20th-century society and expose Meredith’s incomplete understanding of history.) The Everhard Manuscript is, in reality, a diary kept by one Avis Everhard, telling of how she met her husband Ernest Everhard and how he helped to expose the woes of the working-class.
After a parlor-room debate, Ernest challenges a naive but well-intentioned bishop to see the struggling poor in his own community, and challenges Avis to uncover the truth behind a street peddler, who was remorselessly cast forth from the mines after his arm was shredded by machinery. Her investigations shed light upon the miserable condition of the downtrodden workers, and unearths the biggest secret of them all: the Oligarchy, a fascist state slowly merging the forces of politics and industry to dominate the globe, the Iron Heel crushing the lower classes beneath it. As Avis falls in love with Ernest and begins the long fight against the Oligarchs, she takes a path that takes her from relative comfort in upper-class Oakland to the bombed-out ruins of Chicago splitting itself apart in attempted revolt.
The explosive climax—Chicago in flames, with Stalingrad-esque street-fighting between the fascist Oligarchs and the rebels—is a powerful, impressive section that covers the last four or five chapters. It takes a long while to get there, though. To get into The Iron Heel, there are three main obstacles a reader must overcome:
- The book isn’t so much a novel as an essay on London’s political views. The book is extremely didactic, and long sections are debates and arguments London is putting forth using Ernest and Avis as mouthpieces. In fact, most of the first 100 pages or so exists as something of a thesis, establishing the problems London wishes to deal with. It’s pretty heavy food for thought, and pretty dry discourse. The shift in narration style was pretty notable, but even then Ernest still had debates yet to come.
- Second, the book is rich with footnotes and annotations from our future historians. Many things—such as the failure of the revolts, and the deaths of Ernest and Avis Everhard—are revealed in the opening prologue or in the reams of footnotes, so don’t expect too many surprises. Some of them are witty or canny. A lot of the footnotes are interesting or have some pithy wit. Others are more pedantic, citing works and authors that would have been awkward to further shoehorn into the text. It gets to be a tad annoying to be taken out of the narrative every other paragraph for some future historian to explain “outmoded” 20th-Century contrivances and theories. These footnotes can last from a word to several pages in length.
- Lastly, the arguments London is putting forth are vibrant pro-Marxist ideals, which I’d wager is the cause for some of the one-star reviews the book receives. London, like so many other late-19th/early-20th century authors, witnessed the machine-like brutality of the industrial revolution firsthand, and saw socialism as the answer. For its time, a lot of the novel’s arguments are spot-on; however, the Cold War led to a cultural dislike of the word “socialism.”
Regardless of whether you agree with London’s views or not, The Iron Heel starts off too heavily as a lecture or manifesto rather than a novel. For me, it failed for the same reason Starship Troopers did with its polemic discourse on civic duty, the exact opposite reason I found 1984 and Brave New World so effective: the characters and plot exist simply to further the central argument, much as characters appearing in a parable or philosophical allegory. They are simple fictions to further a point: cardboard cutouts to work as authorial mouthpiece, not people to sympathize with or hope for, lacking any agency or illusion of free will. London forgot that token mantra of writing—“show, don’t tell”—and instead of giving readers this information through the lens of a character to posit or slant his opinion, he instead has it beaten into the reader’s head through the pontificating Ernest.
And for all of London’s passionate support for socialism, I found it ironic that labor needed Ernest Everhard—intellectual genius and “nietzschean superman” whose unfailing, unerring accuracy makes him damn annoying—the super-special snowflake needed to save the world from its dystopic future. Granted, London inverts this trope; Avis writes with surety that the Oligarchy will be overthrown, yet all attempts fail for centuries. And the footnotes’ authors roll their eyes at Avis’ tawdry hero-worship of the infallible Ernest. But there’s something lacking in a socialist treatise where the working class is an invisible other lacking any agency, incapable of planning, too blind even to see the very Iron Heel that’s crushing it. No, the working class needs Ernest as its savior, making a few token appearances so Ernest can display their misery and woe like a social-class freakshow to his converted upper-class revolutionaries. London wrote with his heart, not his head.
Yet The Iron Heel is still a potent historical artifact—a look back at society and socialism in the early 1900s. London was writing in the era of the fourteen-hour workday, the age of child laborers, dangerous work conditions, robber barons, bloodied strikebreakers and the great Trusts. There was a reason capitalism was seen as the problem, and socialism the humanist solution. Within a few decades of London’s premature death in 1916, many of the issues he writes about were targeted by the government—not fixed, but mitigated. While London predicts things like a war with Germany, the rise of fascism, and a foreign attack on Hawaii, he cannot foresee the New Deal, or the various bills supporting the right to unionize passed during the Great Depression.
It’s also widely cited as the first work of soft science fiction, focusing on future social developments across the first half of the twentieth century and not technological innovation. The future history that London creates is fairly well-developed, going from 1912 to 1932—and beyond, thanks to the information gleaned from those pesky footnotes. Those footnotes and the frame story—pitching The Iron Heel as a recovered document, a future-reflection from a future-history—remind me of Bellamy’s Looking Backward, playing with chronology as well as social science and political philosophy. The influence it had on later dystopias is palpable, and you can view 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale as The Iron Heel’s legacy.
And London makes a number of predictions which still have contemporary parallels—the loss of the middle class, big business and its influence on politics, the ongoing prosperity of the wealthy at the expense of the destitute… I look back and find it amusing that I read the novel over the long weekend designed to celebrate the American labor movement, in a time when income inequality is the worst since the Gilded Age. There are reasons why The Iron Heel still resonates today. It’s something of a warning, foretelling a bleak and oppressed future which we (thankfully) have never seen, yet could have easily slipped into. And it deals with concepts—wealth and poverty, capital and labor—that continue to be relevant today.
The Iron Heel is a pretty mixed bag. As a novel, I felt London’s naturalist adventures were more successful, as were his other science-fictional stories (Before Adam, and I hear The Scarlet Plague is pretty good). As a manifesto or philosophical work, I felt London wrote with passion but that Marx (and others) made better arguments for the same points. I felt it worked best as a look at London’s conflicted political views, a look at early-1900s class struggles, or as a kind of predecessor and counterpoint to Ayn Rand. It certainly gives the reader a lot to consider, and offers up a wealth of concepts to ponder. But while I can say I’m glad I read it, I can’t say that I enjoyed it enough to want to read it again.