Do you find Nineteen Eighty-Four a bit light on economics? Do you see the super-abundance of Brave New World irrelevant in this new age of austerity? Well unlike those two, you won’t see Jack London's 1908 dystopia on any school syllabus. Yes, that is partly because it doesn’t serve the ideological needs of the ruling class. Quite frankly though, it’s just not that well written. But Orwell read it, and it influenced him as he prepared to write his classic portrait of a totalitarian regime. And there are plenty of other reasons why this disjointed effort is still of interest.
I was first turned on to reading Jack London a few years back, when a friend recommended his Martin Eden – the story of a poverty-stricken labourer’s disillusioning struggle to elevate himself into the upper class by sheer hard work and determination. I had heard of his famous children’s adventures – The Call Of The Wild and White Fang, but I’d never been particularly interested in them. Since then I have been thoroughly impressed by both, plus John Barleycorn, London’s ‘alcoholic memoir’, and The People Of The Abyss, his account of life amongst the poorest of the poor.
This novel purports to be a summary of a would-be revolutionist’s memoir, written during an epic guerrilla struggle against “the oligarch” class informally known as “the Iron Heel”. The insurrectionist in question is one Avis Everhard, the widow of executed Socialist leader Ernest. In this at the very least the work is extraordinary, as it was extremely unusual for a man to write in a woman’s ‘voice’ at the time.
The first few chapters are grindingly didactic – London has the character of Ernest Everhard making long, densely philosophical speeches to assembled groups of elite capitalists, bishops and small business owners. He reveals to the capitalists the brutality of their system, and the bankruptcy of their philosophy. He upbraids the bishops for building metaphysical castles in the sky and floating away from a sober consideration of real conditions. He chastises the small businessmen for condemning profit-making when they are losers, and praising it when they are winners. In all of this, I would argue that Everhard/London are ‘correct’. Yet it is the stifling and occasionally arrogant ‘correctness’ of these passages which makes it entirely unsuitable for fiction, so London presents us with a strangled polemic. Cause of death: too much telling and not enough showing.
Importantly though, even this ‘correctness’ has definite limits. In the small business speech, London “the great intellectual hero of socialism” Karl Marx, and specifically his theory of surplus value. But whereas surplus value was Marx’s term for the value added by a labourer during a working day over and above their wage compensation, it becomes something quite different in this version. For London, apparently, ‘surplus value’ was some kind of unsolvable problem rooted in international trade, and one that would surely bring the capitalist system to its knees.
At this point, London apparently abandons materialism altogether, and the most of the rest is a chaotic and confusing mass of guerrilla warfare anecdotes, which are compellingly described in of themselves, but far too late in the book to start seriously caring about the characters, or the fate of the revolution. As the story culminates in the description of a failed Chicago coup, and in colossal slaughter, London’s materialist becomes a kind of ultra-left, idealist figure. The Everhards show absolute disdain for the great mass of society, whose supposedly unfocused rage betrays a certain fear of the mob in the author. The “savage beasts” of the lower working class were to be pitied for sure, but they were not capable of organising themselves, and were merely cattle to be herded by far-sighted leaders. In short, London was writing the vanguard theory of revolution, long before the Bolsheviks brought it to bitter fruition in Russia.
Indeed, perhaps The Iron Heel is most successful in its dismal ‘predictions’. What we know as World War One comes a year ‘early’, but Germany is correctly identified as a principal belligerent. The major theme of the novel – the rise and rule of “the oligarchy” – can be seen as a perceptive appraisal of how – under threat from a mutinous working class – the rich would dispense with the pretence of democracy and their “reply shall be couched in terms of lead”. At such a time, seeking power through elections would be pointless, even if it were desirable. London described fascism, before Mussolini and co. developed the idea and put it into practice.
So what’s the point in giving The Iron Heel a go now, more than a hundred years after it was written? After all, it’s really not a great read, and I’ve already revealed the ways in which in predicted the horrors of the twentieth century. Perhaps because the trajectory of the early twenty-first century seems to have such striking similarities to that of London’s time. A now global class of “savage beasts” is confronted with the question that was not resolved last time around. A group of oligarchs – today a financial aristocracy – is savagely attacking living standards, and gorging itself on the ever-growing profits squeezed from the rest of humanity. With a certain historical inevitability, state repression is drastically on the increase, and tensions between rival powers are coming to the surface. The iron heel of the jack boot will soon be stamping once more, and it is our generation’s task to put a stop to it, by overturning the conditions that give it motion.