The Iron Heel is the first novel I’ve ever read by Jack London, although I’m not sure how I ever got past The Call of the Wild, which I seem to remember being a set text at both primary and high school. Whereas London seems to be a fairly standard part of the American curriculum, he is less available – or perhaps just more outdated – in Australia, with the result that I didn’t have a very clear idea about him at all before reading this book. All I knew was that he was one of those writers who seem to straddle the boundaries between children’s and adult fiction – or who write “quality” children’s fiction – so it was something of a surprise to discover that The Iron Heel was every bit as impressive a dystopian vision as We, Brave New World or 1984. Told from the perspective of a future socialist society, it recounts the events of the early twentieth-century by way of a document described as the “Everhard Manuscript.” Written by one Avis Everhard, the Manuscript describes her husband Ernest’s contribution to the Cause of socialist revolution in the years from 1912 to 1932, as well as his ongoing battle against a capitalist fraternity known as the Oligarchy that takes control of the United States during this time.
While dystopian fiction seems to be very much in vogue in the new millennium, my sense is that The Iron Heel doesn’t tend to be considered part of the classical dystopian canon, or at least the top tier of the canon. Like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, it seems to be framed as the foundation of a genre rather than a masterpiece of the genre, since by all accounts this is one of the first novels to use many of the tropes that we now think of as quintessentially dystopian. From that perspective, there is something enormously formally innovative about London’s vision, especially the way in which the framing device and use of editorial footnotes throughout the manuscript serves to defamiliarise the present to the original intended audience. I’ve often found that the best dystopian fiction is about futurity rather than the future per se – or about those elements of the future that are already present in the present – and that is very much the case here, as London sketches out an alternative future that, from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, nevertheless feels as if it actually happened, or is still happening.
In part, that comes down to the conviction of London’s vision, which pairs Marxism with sociobiology to suggest a single, intractable and inevitable progression of economic history from tribalism to feudalism to capitalism and, finally, to socialism. While this is above all an expository text – more on that in a moment – this progression is by no means crude or devoid of nuance. If anything, what makes London’s vision so powerful is the way in which it seems to anticipate the structures of feeling and interpersonal situations that have marked the development and devolution of capitalism over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, even if history hasn’t always followed the path that he predicted. At the same time, however, parts of his vision are so apposite and so accurate that you end up wondering how much of the rest of it might have been true all along – albeit concealed by received history and received wisdom – in one of those rare dystopian visions whose future still seems open even after one hundred years have passed. In particular, London beautifully anticipates the arrival of the Cold War and the decline of the middle class, as well as the increasing gap between oligarchy and proletariat that characterises the United States today. By the time I arrived at the final chapter, which is titled “The Terrorists” and breaks off, after one page, mid-sentence, as if in the middle of one of the very attacks it describes, it felt as if I was reading a history of the present, or as if London had managed to make my own present as unfamiliar as that of his original audience.
For that reason, The Iron Heel doesn’t merely feel predictive, or prescient, but prophetic in the truest sense, since its resonances with the present are so definite and yet so cryptic that it both demands to be unpacked while also investing the present with an irreducible opacity as well, a sense that things are destined to remain forever veiled from us unless we adopt the ideological lens that London advocates. As that might suggest, then, this is first and foremost a primer on Marxist history and ideology, with the rough narrative broken at intervals for expository chapters that become quite detailed in their theoretical co-ordinates and, at times, are clearly designed to provide something like a working person’s version of Marx’s Capital. While some commentators have claimed that this disrupts the flow and coherence of the novel – or disrupts its status as a novel – this wasn’t really an issue for me, just because it feels as if it is precisely London’s intention to puncture the middle-class complacency and insularity for which the self-sufficiency of the realist nineteenth-century novel stands. Indeed, it is precisely the way in which The Iron Heel overleaps the indirect address of literary fiction to speak directly to the reader that makes it so powerful, as well as what presumably made it such an important book amongst working-class audiences. In that sense, it often reminded me of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, except that where Sinclair’s more refined fusion of realist novel and socialist tract was designed to promote and pressure reform, London’s more fragmented and hobbled-together vision seems designed to translate reading into direct action, or to turn reading into a form of direct action.
Whereas both Sinclair and London hone in on Chicago as the epicentre of capitalism at its very worst, then, it feels as if London is addressing socialists whereas Sinclair is addressing reformers first and socialists second. For that reason, London’s vision of Chicago is less elaborated and extended in its hellishness than Sinclair’s, but that concision and elision just reiterated my sense that the novel was aimed at people who were presumed to know the conditions of Chicago in detail. At the same time, London has a real flair for cursory, prophetic, apocalyptic pronouncements, and many of the most memorable of these are reserved for Chicago, framed here as “the storm-center of the conflict between labor and capital, a city of street-battles and violent death, with a class-conscious capitalist organization and a class-conscious workman organization.” Over the last year, I’ve read three novels set during this era in Chicago – the third being Theodore Dresier’s Sister Carrie – and while it might sound like a bit of a naïve response, all three have really opened my eyes to the sheer hellishness of the industrial era in America. Now that the United States is on the decline, a melancholy grandeur has tended to accumulate around its industrial monuments and technological sublimities, but these three novels leave no doubt as to the utter depravity and despair that went into the construction of that industrial culture. Of course, I knew all that from studying American history at school, but each of these novelists – in his own way – manages to paint late nineteenth and early twentieth century America – and Chicago in particular – as horrific to an extent that defies regular realism, leading alternately to the heightened realism (or proto-cinematic realism) of Dreiser and to the science-fictional fringes of Sinclair and London.
Of course, the majority of The Iron Heel takes place against the backdrop of the San Francisco Bay Area, but that setting only serves to make Chicago more horrific by contrast, as well as – final horror of horrors – collapsing that contrast altogether once the Oligarchy defeats the Cause in the First Revolt. Indeed, a great deal of Avis’ authorial voice is characterised by her sensitivity to the minutiae of place as well as her attachment to the local regional differences that persisted in the United States right up until the homogenising sweep of the Oligarchy reached fruition. While this more lyrical sensibility is a necessary counterpoint to Ernest’s continual didacticism and exposition, it does also form one of the most problematic components of the book: the way it deals with gender. To some extent, it is easy for me, as a relatively privileged early twenty-first century reader, to go through and point out what is “good” and “bad” in London’s vision: tick for class consciousness, cross for gender consciousness, etc, etc. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and it is clear that London was speaking to a level of industrial depravity that I have never experienced. Nevertheless, I can only speak from my experience, which dictates that there is something deeply violent and off-putting about the way in which women are treated throughout the novel, since while there are many instances of women contributing to the Cause and to each successive revolutionary impulse, it is only in the guise of adoring witnesses to male socialist leaders or by consciously sacrificing and renouncing some of their “natural” femininity. In both cases, it is clear that the role of a true female revolutionary is to assist and commemorate male socialists who achieve direct action – much as Avis does in her Manuscript – rather than perform it themselves.
Admittedly, Avis herself does see some of the most brutal moments in the strikeback against the Chicago Commune, while the fact of her being the author of the manuscript in the first place provides her with a certain authority and clout, just as London’s choice of a first-person female narrator was quite unconventional at this time, especially in the science-fiction and fantasy market he was presumably partly targeting. At the same time, however, Avis’ idolatry of Ernest gets a bit rich at times, and while the editor of the manuscript cautious us to remember that Ernest was simply one revolutionary amongst many, that also serves the dual purpose of making Avis’ idolatry seem just idiotic enough to slightly discredit her without ever fully discrediting Ernest himself in the process. In short, for a novel that is so emphatically, passionately about equality, the dismissal of women’s rights – of the rights that were being fought for by women at the time, sometimes in the very name of socialism – struck a sour note with me, not least because it seems to be accepted that Everhard is largely based on London himself. It’s not surprising, then, that the novel often veers on the most preposterously masturbatory narcissism and self-regard, with Everhard exuding the kind of studied seriousness that I tend to associate with a particular kind of self-appointed masculine salvation figure as much as any especial ethos of socialism or class equality. When you add his constant invocations of sociobiology, it’s not hard to see why The Iron Heel has been adopted by white supremacists as a foundational text, since there is an attachment to “primitive” gender roles here that sits very uncomfortably alongside the socialist appeals.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t bring up this contradiction simply to draw ticks and crosses against London’s vision. In many ways, it resonates quite urgently with my own experience of socialists, and especially straight white male socialists, and the ways in which they tend to frame identity politics as being somehow less important than or a mere adjunct to socialism, often in ways that allow them to perpetuate quite conservative and regressive values under the guise of a left-wing sensibility. While London’s life makes it clear that his commitment to socialism was more than a mere pose, that sense that socialism justifies a reversion – even a temporary reversion – to antiquated gender norms is certainly a part of his vision here. As a result, I finally felt as alienated by The Iron Heel as I was impressed by it, as well as alienated from the kind of male demographic that London was aiming to target and embody. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most visionary dystopian novels that I have read: more than Brave New World, 1984 and possibly even We, it seems to have anticipated the twentieth and twentieth-century more completely than even our own futurologists, and for that reason it remains as haunting and intriguing as it is perplexing and alienating.