REVIEW: The Iron Heel (1908)

A book by Jack London

When most think of the numerous works of Jack London, most will undoubtedly think of the wide assortment novels and short stories he wrote about adventures in the icy reaches of the far north of the United States and Canada – books about The Gold Rush and Klondike sled dogs. White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and To Build a Fire are probably his most well-known works, but few realize that he dabbled a bit in speculative fiction and political writings with one book in particular – The Iron Heel. I’m a bit surprised that this doesn’t get lumped into the often misquoted triad of dystopian novels that most people pretend to read (Nineteen-Eighty Four, Brave New World Fahrenheit 451), but upon reading a bit into this I can definitely see why – about half of this book is basically a Marxist political tract that is presented as dialogue between a handful of characters, much like a classical philosophical text from antiquity. In the “Red Scare” period, I can only assume a book like this would be frowned upon by many within any Western Government. Published in 1908, some see the book as eerily predicting the rise of Nazi Germany (although it takes place in America), World War I, or even Parts of World War II, although it’s one of those books that one can use as a template for just about every attempt at a ultra-right wing coup. Hell, there were plenty of weird similarities between the events of this book and what many Ultra-nationalists were attempting during the United States Insurrection of January 6th, that I had to pause and take note.

“Part science fiction, part dystopian fantasy, part radical socialist tract, Jack London’s The Iron Heel offers a grim depiction of warfare between the classes in America and around the globe. Originally published nearly a hundred years ago, it anticipated many features of the past century, including the rise of fascism, the emergence of domestic terrorism, and the growth of centralized government surveillance and authority. What begins as a war of words ends in scenes of harrowing violence as the state oligarchy, known as “the Iron Heel,” moves to crush all opposition to its power.”

This book is interesting largely due to its structure. What you are reading is presented as a book published some 700 or so years in the future, well after the world threw off the shackles of an oppressive regime dubbed “The Iron Heel”, during a Socialist utopia period called “The Brotherhood of Man”. A historian named Anthony Meredith has collected an intact copy of an old text by a Socialist political leader named Avis Everhard detailing the life of her husband Ernest Everhard, and his attempt to become a leader in a wide-sweeping Socialist political movement. Oligarchs and other hard-line Capitalists are furious that the poor and uneducated would start this sort of thing, and go to great lengths to make sure a full takeover never happens – resulting in a brutal dictatorship lasting hundreds of years. The Everhards try to push back against this early on by staging a counter-revolution, but sadly, we know from the beginning that this never happens, with this manuscript being hidden away by Avis prior to her own death. Anthony Meredith goes through the text and gives footnotes on items that need updating or to clean up misconceptions the Everhards may have had. I thought this was VERY interesting and loved the idea behind a book within a book that London came up with.

With that said, the first half of this book is a bit hard to get through due to it being a political discussion that spans multiple chapters. It’s as if you are reading Jack London summarize portions of Das Kapital by Karl Marx disguised as a science fiction book. Despite this, I did like some of the segments including a fairly well thought out discussion on Surplus Theory, in which Everhard educates a room of middle-class businessmen on the perils of Late Stage Capitalism wherein a state can create and trade surplus only until nobody has the ability to afford or need a commodity, so the state has to create false scarcity or make war to keep the money flowing. Somebody has to be exploited to get the gears turning, which is a pretty apt appraisal of what still happens today. Considering this was written in the era of State-Monopolies, Robber Barons, and wealthy tycoons, it’s scary that the rich have clawed this whole system back after 100 years.

This is an exceptionally interesting book that has some notable issues, but overall I enjoyed it for what it was, and enjoyed looking for how accurately London predicted some of the things that later happened. I’ve seen many arguments that one of the reasons World War I happened, with such ferocity as it did, was that wealthy multinationals and members of the nobility used it as a way to stamp out the various blossoming workers movements – they just didn’t know it would ultimately also lead to most of their downfalls, especially the numerous empires it ended. It’s a shame that this book is largely overlooked due to political madness from 70 years ago, here’s to hoping that more will find this and check out a rather unheard of gem. I know London wrote some more of his political leanings, a subject that I really ought to look into more often. Like George Orwell, he’s one of those guys that most assume held the exact opposite beliefs of what he actually did.


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