One of my favorite essays of all time comes from old-school conservative writer Whitaker Chambers. In the late 1950s he reviewed Ayn Rand’s thousand-page paperweight Atlas Shrugged, in a piece titled “Big Sister is Watching You”.
What is great about “Big Sister” is not that it hits Atlas Shrugged in most of its considerable weak spots, but that it also lays down a great critique of political novels:They frequently become a cliché Chambers describes as “The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness”, in which both sides are “operatic caricatures”.
So, too is Jack London’s The Iron Heel. Unfortunately, though, its heroes are leftists, as opposed to Rand’s flawless industrialists. What does this mean for today? I contend that the absolutism of this political novel is also reflected in America’s own ideological conversation.
Jack London is best known as the naturalist who wrote White Fang and The Call of the Wild, stories about men braving the wilderness, or animals succumbing to domestication. Little known is that he was a devoted leftist, an important member of the American Socialist Party. The Iron Heel, written in 1908 near the height of socialist power in the United States, is infused with this ethos, to the exclusion of all others. Interestingly, George Orwell was very much inspired by the novel, using it as an inspiration for1984.
Like his friend H.G. Wells, London takes a turn for the futuristic. The framing device of the story is a new edition of the Everhard Manuscript, a journal from the twentieth century: In London’s fictional chronology, three hundred years in the future, humanity finally overthrew the fascist Oligarchies and established a world socialist collective. In this utopia, scholars have uncovered the Everhard Manuscript, a journal written by Avis Everhard, a socialist revolutionary who fought the rise of the Oligarchy in the United States, from around 1912 to 1940. She is married to Ernest Everhard, who more or less leads the movement. The future scholars dispute Avis’s claim that Ernest was such a great man, but London still makes Ernest out to be as much of a Child of Light as Rand’s Jon Galt or Howard Roark: A hero with zero flaws.
Neither Avis nor Ernest nor anyone else in the novel emerges as interesting characters. Rather, I found two particularly interesting elements in The Iron Heel. The first is its rather accurate prediction of the rise of fascism.
Eleven years after The Iron Heel was written, Mussolini founded the world’s first fascist party, using the principles of nationalism, corporatism, and centralized authority. These principles are very close to the Oligarchy of London’s novel. As the fictional chronology progresses, the evil capitalists of the United States band together, stifle the nation’s representation, and establish a dystopia in which the majority of Americans live in horrific poverty. These conditions mirror those in real-life fascist Germany, Japan, Italy, and Spain in a very accurate way.
The second clever aspect of The Iron Heel is the way in which moral ambiguity is developed toward the end of the novel. Avis admits that the socialists did not predict the sincerity of the Oligarchs: After the initial cynicism of the corporations, a new generation emerged that believed that the Oligarchy was the only thing preventing a horrible socialist revolution that would devour all joyous things in the world. This was the justification for fascism; it is also the justification for our contemporary far right, who think that any attempt at economic reform is more or less communism.
The ending of the novel describes the Chicago Commune, a revolt in that city based on the real-life Paris Commune uprising in 1871. The socialists revolt, the armies of the Oligarchy put it down, and Avis witnesses the absolute misery of the poor, then called “the people of the abyss”. At this point they are mostly illiterate, barbaric, and animalistic. The message is clear: If you make the people so poor as to become animals, then they will act as such.
Still, these good points don’t disperse the main criticism I have with the novel: It is still a story of the Children of Light fighting the Children of Darkness. London does take time to identify some morally ambiguous characters: The “Frisco Reds” are a splinter group from the socialists who commit violent and useless terrorism; The big unions defect from the cause and become a “labor aristocracy” aligned with the Oligarchs; and a Bishop changes from an oblivious theologian to a sympathetic champion of the poor. This is more in line with how things work in real life: various factions contend for supremacy for their ideas and personnel. We may be disgusted with the fascism portrayed in the book (and its similarities to modern-day American corporatism), but more often than not I believe it is harmful to look at things in a simple good vs. evil narrative.
And that’s what The Iron Heel comes down to, really: The good guys beat the bad guys. These absolutist dichotomies are very much alive in modern American ideology: the greedy poor and the dignified rich; the heroic Americans and the cowardly terrorists; the white oppressors and the black victims; the evil Israelis and the downtrodden Palestinians. So long as we view things in this light, our literature, and our intelligentsia as a whole, will not provide constructive or realistic solutions to our problems.