Jack London’s The Iron Heel

This wasn’t due to go up until tomorrow, but with the fucking Tories somehow re-elected this morning…

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

51FHCMEP0MLFirst editions: New York: Macmillan, 1907; London: Everett, 1907
Edition used: Edinburgh: Canongate Books (Rebel Inc. Classic), 1999

The Iron Heel is the incomplete memoir of Avis, written in 1932, on the eve of the Second Revolt. It recounts how, in 1912, she and her wealthy father met the revolutionary socialist, and her future husband, Ernest Everhard, and were won to his cause. Within a year, their lives are in disarray as the capitalist interests who dominate institutions and an increasingly tyrannical government seize complete control of America. This plutocratic oligarchy – dubbed ‘the Iron Heel’ by Ernest – forces the socialists underground. The novel ends with horrific descriptions of the destruction of Chicago in the failed First Revolt, and breaks off abruptly, leaving no account of the subsequent fifteen years. The memoir is introduced and edited by Anthony Meredith, writing in the year 409 B.O.M. (Brotherhood Of Man), the socialist era that follows three centuries of the Iron Heel.

6e75ede3299bc0149a0073dba92eb6d6In the first issue of Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback described the sf story as ‘a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision’. To his list of exemplars – Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe – Gernsback could have added Jack London. The Iron Heel reworks the ‘guided tour’ typical of the utopian novel: Avis, her father and Bishop Morehouse enter a new world – that of the immiserated, impoverished working class – and Ernest, their guide, explains in detail its logic and inner workings. The novel also anticipates the hard-sf which emerged from the pulp tradition (and which can still, arguably, be defined in Gernsback’s terms). The science in question is not, however, physics or astronomy but London’s idiosyncratic version of scientific socialism. The near-future events of the novel are predicated on a (vulgar) Marxist analysis of the process of capital accumulation and the cyclical crises it inevitably produces.

London’s extrapolative premises and technique are most obvious in the chapter ‘The Mathematics of a Dream’. Beginning with the ‘ABCs of commerce’ (108) – the production of value by labour and the extraction of surplus-value (profit) by the capitalist – Ernest takes his audience step-by-step through the logic of capital accumulation which leads to periods of overproduction and mass unemployment. His satiric proposal – that destruction of surpluses would be an effective way to deal with cyclical over-production, as in Frederik Pohl’s ‘The Midas Plague’ (1954) – is dismissed as absurd. But in a world in which, for example, agricultural subsidies are paid for deliberate underproduction to stabilise prices and ‘surplus’ crops are routinely destroyed (while people elsewhere starve), The Iron Heel’s prophetic value is difficult to ignore.

A curious aspect of the novel, and of its socialism, is the treatment of the all-but-absent proletariat. Avis’s conversion commences with an investigation into the fate of Jackson, a man who lost his arm in an industrial accident. The machine that maimed him is revealed to be part of a much larger apparatus, an economic and social system which – through coercion, collusion, corruption and conspiracy – denies him justice and subordinates and perverts other ‘slaves of the machine’. Years later, Avis meets a foreman who dishonestly testified against Jackson in order to protect his own job and provide for his family, and is now a member of a group of fanatical assassins. This is not to avenge his dead wife and daughters, he declares, but

‘’tis revenge for my blasted manhood’. (206)

Thus Avis’s career as a revolutionary is circumscribed by images of castrated workers. And when she describes one worker who has been a socialist for over twenty years, it is as

phlegmatic, stolid to such a degree that one could not but wonder how the Revolution had any meaning to him at all … He could obey orders. (198)

a4fa9708a0f91a712cdf60581558931aThis denial of agency to the working class is indicative of the peculiar type of socialism, blended with aspects of Friedrich Nietzsche and with Herbert Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ misunderstanding of evolution, advocated by London (who puts at least one of his own speeches/essays, ‘Revolution’, into Ernest’s mouth).

As his name suggests, Ernest Everhard possesses a phallic intensity of focus and purpose. He physically overwhelms Avis. When she first mentions him by name, he is linked to images of penetration, engorgement and assimilation (6). Her fantasies and desires are ripe with the language of domination (22). Her feelings pulsate with attraction and repulsion, until she is swept off her feet

by the splendid invincible rush of him. (55)

She conceives of him as a messiah – he is an eagle, a lamb, a lion, ‘the spirit of regnant labour’ (63), Christ – and longs to melt before him, to merge her ‘life completely into his’ (138). When they are on the run, Avis learns to take on a completely different appearance through controlling her body whereas Ernest requires cosmetic surgery to transform him: she is fluid, he is hard.

Avis, then, despite her origins, exemplifies what London’s socialism requires of the working class, ‘the People of the Abyss’.[1] In the Chicago uprising, they are not only depicted as dumb beasts but as an inundation, a surging fluid mass. Without form or identity, they are to be shaped or sacrificed by the revolutionary party.

TheIronHeelCapitalV.Labour565This system of images – rigidly armoured male bodies; women and the feminised masses as a threatening flood – is typical of the literature produced by the German Freikorps in the 1920s, many of whom later played significant roles in the SA and SS.[2] And so at the heart of this ‘small folk Bible of scientific socialism’ we find a form of fascism.

Or perhaps not.

London’s novel depicts failed revolutions. This suggests an anxiety about the revolutionaries’ terroristic vanguardism, and the novel does not claim that the final revolution is of that ilk. Rather, the post-revolutionary editorial framework emphasises Ernest’s relative insignificance, Avis’s ‘errors of interpretation’ (1), the ‘equal futility’ of the First and Second Revolts and the

many Revolts, all drowned in seas of blood, ere the world-movement of labor should come into its own. (4)

North America and Asia are beneath the Iron Heel of the Oligarchs for 300 years, but as early as 1912 a wave of socialist revolutions swept the world, inspired and empowered by the general strike which prevented a war between the US and Germany. Perhaps it is such collective action and international solidarity that leads to the Brotherhood of Man.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[1]
This expression, which London also used as the title of his 1903 book of reportage on the London poor, is borrowed from HG Wells’s Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901).

[2]
See Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (1977; trans. 1987) and Male Fantasies, Volume 2: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror (1978; trans. 1989).

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