The Iron Heel
October 10, 2008 3:17 PM   Subscribe

The Iron Heel, published a century ago this year, is a novel by Jack London about socialist revolution in the United States. It is set mostly between 1912 and 1932, with a foreword and numerous footnotes written from the point of view of a historian who has just discovered the manuscript some 700 years later. Here is an excerpt (which is printed on the back cover of some editions) from chapter five:
"This, then, is our answer. We have no words to waste on you. When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purpled ease, we will show you what strength is. In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched. We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain. As for the host of labor, it has been in the dirt since history began, and I read history aright. And in the dirt it shall remain so long as I and mine and those that come after us have the power. There is the word. It is the king of words--Power. Not God, not Mammon, but Power. Pour it over your tongue till it tingles with it. Power."
posted by finite (30 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I always wondered what even a half-way socialised America would look like. Free reasonable healthcare, vacations that last more than 10 minutes, public transport that worked ... fuck, it'd be the land of milk and honey. And you know if any nation could make it really sing it'd be them.

Except the most likely ones to demand this come about have been persuaded, largely, that the interests of the jolly wealthy are also their interests (since, hey, they could be billionaires too real soon now, right?). They're Wal-Mart-panted Philanthropists all right.
posted by bonaldi at 3:29 PM on October 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

To be fair- i'm all sold on the evils of capitalism, and have little faith in the ballot box saving this country, but one link to the book on Project Gutenberg isn't really the best of the web.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:33 PM on October 10, 2008

Just one link?

Yes, this is a single-link-book-post. I figured 90k words was plenty.
posted by finite at 3:35 PM on October 10, 2008 [7 favorites]

The Call of the Wild is taught in elementary school. This one, not so much. Kind of like how history books always talk about The Jungle's influence on food safety without mentioning its embrace of socialism.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:44 PM on October 10, 2008

If you're Ron Paul, food safety is socialism. It amazes me how long the anti-Communist zealotry of the 50's and 60's still lingers in the American psyche. The same way that people think that Republicans are all for restricted government spending. It's like America's #1 value is belief in your beliefs above any and all empirical evidence.
posted by GuyZero at 3:57 PM on October 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

Just one link?

Less is more. Methinks.
posted by elmono at 4:03 PM on October 10, 2008

Hey! You want more links? The Jack London On-Line Collection includes The Iron Heel with concordance; The Scarlet Plague, another post-apocalyptic novel; a whole bunch of socialist writings including his best-known non-fiction on the subject, People of the Abyss (also with concordance); also, Revolution and Other Essays, and his collected journalism.

Then there's Jack London International and the ever-popular question: "How Would Jack London Vote?"
posted by CCBC at 4:04 PM on October 10, 2008 [6 favorites]

It amazes me how long the anti-Communist zealotry of the 50's and 60's still lingers in the American psyche.

I was struck by this in the "Palin's Mob" video posted yesterday. "Socialist" and "communist" are still insults and dirty words in this day and age?
posted by lekvar at 4:16 PM on October 10, 2008

The Jack London On-Line Collection includes The Iron Heel with concordance

Actually, that version has been replaced with "Note: It has come to our attention that this version is incomplete. Therefore, until we have time to correct it we are pointing to the version at The World of Jack London." since last November when I wrote to the site's administrator (Roy Tennant) to point out that his version was missing most of the footnotes.
posted by finite at 4:16 PM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, good pictures at that site, CCBC - thanks. Here's another sprawling London site, even down to recipes he mentioned in interviews or submitted to fundraising cookbooks.

Honestly, finite, simply linking to a Gutenberg book isn't a very good post. Effort is good.
posted by mediareport at 4:18 PM on October 10, 2008

God damn it, finite, we're trying to sneak this whole communist-revolution-disguised-as-an-election past Joe Sixpack, and you're practically firing signal flares at the McCain camp. How are we supposed to take people's guns, outlaw Christianity, teach homosexuality in school and surrender our sovereignty to the UN with you dropping blatant hints like this? Better watch yourself, comrade, or you might get yourself Trotskied!
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:21 PM on October 10, 2008 [5 favorites]

C'mon, we've barely scratched the surface of London's bizarre late career output! How about The Jacket (The Star-Rover), which was recently cudgeled into an Adrien Brody movie? Or The Assassination Bureau, Ltd, a half-finished The Man Who was Thursday pastiche that somewhat less recently was made into an Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg movie?
posted by Iridic at 4:35 PM on October 10, 2008

London a commie who didn't know how the free market makes for a happy prosperous and healthy society. I would never trust an American writer whose last name is of a foreign city.
posted by Postroad at 4:42 PM on October 10, 2008

Credit to finite for prompting me to go some Googling of my own and read some of the various criticisms of The Iron Heel. I find this one, published on the Daily radical web site, to be one of the more interesting, as it casts some very reasonable doubts on London's commitment to Socialism, and especially his depiction of it in The Iron Heel. The criticism's conclusion ends with this great quote from George Orwell,
Jack London died in 1916 at the age of 40. In 1945, George Orwell said that had he lived 'in our day, instead of dying in 1916, it is hard to be sure where his political allegiance would have lain', and went on: 'One can imagine him in the Communist Party, one can imagine him falling victim to the Nazi racial theory, and one can imagine him the quixotic champion of some Trotskyist or Anarchist sect.' The Iron Heel, still open to all kinds of unsettling interpretations, will undoubtedly continue to be considered a classic of its time, although worryingly perhaps for all the wrong reasons.
Personally, I am deeply conflicted about London the man, especially his racial views, which were pretty damned unenlightened. And yet, I really enjoy much of his writing, especially his short stories, which are still fun to read. Ah, London, you magnificient bastard!
posted by mosk at 5:00 PM on October 10, 2008

All I ever got to read of his in school were two books about dogs in the Klondike. I'd had him pigeonholed. And that being who I thought he was, I considered him vastly inferior to, say Robert Service, author of The Cremation of Sam McGee. I guess I'll have to do some reading and re-evaluating of Mr. London's work.
posted by ilsa at 5:19 PM on October 10, 2008

Just one link?

To each according to his needs.
posted by DU at 5:21 PM on October 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

lekvar, just in case there was a tiny bit of seriousness there, yep. That's why the NED and the CIA can overthrow democracies in the name of democracy. In the US, "democracy" means "unfettered capitalism" and "communism" means "take all your money and throw it in the ocean" and "socialist" means "sneaky commie."

mosk, the poor guy was 40, a tricky age for most people. He might've gone the way of Christopher Hitchens, or he might've kept his soul. Why not give him the benefit of the doubt?
posted by shetterly at 5:50 PM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

As yet, to the average bourgeois mind, socialism is merely a menace, vague and formless. The average member of the capitalist class, when he discusses socialism, is condemned an ignoramus out of his own mouth. He does not know the literature of socialism, its philosophy, nor its politics. He wags his head sagely and rattles the dry bones of dead and buried ideas. His lips mumble mouldy phrases, such as, "Men are not born equal and never can be;" "It is Utopian and impossible;" "Abstinence should be rewarded;" "Man will first have to be born again;" "Cooperative colonies have always failed;" and "What if we do divide up? in ten years there would be rich and poor men such as there are today."

It surely is time that the capitalists knew something about this socialism that they feel menaces them. And it is the hope of the writer that the socialistic studies in this volume may in some slight degree enlighten a few capitalistic minds. The capitalist must learn, first and for always, that socialism is based, not upon the equality, but upon the inequality, of men. Next, he must learn that no new birth into spiritual purity is necessary before socialism becomes possible. He must learn that socialism deals with what is, not with what ought to be; and that the material with which it deals is the "clay of the common road," the warm human, fallible and frail, sordid and petty, absurd and contradictory, even grotesque, and yet, withal, shot through with flashes and glimmerings of something finer and God-like, with here and there sweetnesses of service and unselfishness, desires for goodness, for renunciation and sacrifice, and with conscience, stern and awful, at times blazingly imperious, demanding the right,--the right, nothing more nor less than the right.

-Jack London, War of the Classes.

posted by Brian B. at 6:25 PM on October 10, 2008

How are we supposed to [...] outlaw Christianity

Are you being serious right now Marisa, or is this some sort of troll joke thing? Fact is, I've known some people with these weird fears about being fed to the lions, and they are certifiably insane as far as I can tell.
posted by TreeHugger at 6:28 PM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

finite: Thanks for the correction. It was the concordance that drew me to this link. There's a couple other Iron Heels on-line -- Google books, for instance. I sure haven't compared them all and, between editions and OCR issues, I expect a certain amount of difference.

Iridic: I recall an edition of The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. from the 60s that was "finished" by an SF author -- don't recall who. Anyway, the surreal momentum of the book stopped with London's writing. His notes for the ending (ignored by whoever finished it) were incredible! Somehow I missed Charmian's version but I'm going to look for it now. (Say, did you notice how that Penguin cover duplicates this depiction of Fantomas? Maybe there's some kind of credit somewhere.)
posted by CCBC at 6:54 PM on October 10, 2008

Ah, I see now the credit on the Penguin back cover -- Magritte, a 1941 painting. Stolen by Fantomas fans.
posted by CCBC at 7:25 PM on October 10, 2008

I thought that masked man looked familiar! The cover of my own edition is just repurposed art from the movie poster, and hardly more faithful to the actual novel than the portrait of a masked Parisian scoundrel.

The story was completed by a minor mystery writer named Robert L. Fish. You're right about the switch being a momentum killer; as soon as Fish takes the reins, all the crazy shit about pressure points, wrist-mounted air cannons, killer voice recordings, and feverish debates between idealistic assassins gives way to glurge and a dully logical conclusion.

Something I never knew until I looked up Assassination Bureau's Wikipedia entry just now: the novel was first conceived by Sinclair Lewis, who sold the idea to London, along with thirteen other plot outlines, for seventy bucks. Just to bring things full circle: 23 years after The Iron Heel, Lewis wrote It Can't Happen Here - his own dystopia about America's subjection to fascism.
posted by Iridic at 7:48 PM on October 10, 2008

Possibly of interest: Jack London's unfinished novel The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. is about an agency that kills immoral people. It's a marvellous adventure story, writes Alberto Manguel, but also a telling political allegory. Manguel likes the collaboration, but he first read it when he was young. I hadn't known about London's suicide; the two poisons bit is sad.
posted by shetterly at 7:58 PM on October 10, 2008

posted by CCBC at 6:04 PM on October 10 [5 favorites +] [!]

Well played.
posted by dhartung at 11:35 PM on October 10, 2008

Iridic: I hadn't read the Wikipedia article. Good catch. Yeah, it was Robert Fish.

shetterly: Any essay finding meaning for today in this unfinished work is worth looking at. I don't know what the book means, exactly, but in its multiple possibilities of meaning I detect Art and I wish London had finished it. (Or I think I do. Maybe it's better this way.) And Manguel is quite right to mention Stevenson and the Young Man with the Cream Tarts story. Stevenson is another underestimated writer (except by Vladimir Nabokov).

London's notes for the finale of the novel has his dying hero on a beach surrounded by dying creatures, all the animal kingdom heaving and gasping on the sand around him. The essay that prefaces the Penguin edition of Assassination Bureau calls attention to London's "Lifeforce" themes and the concept that Life is the directive, Death is the law. Whether that was his intent or not, London created a vivid and exceptional image for us to ponder.
posted by CCBC at 11:47 PM on October 10, 2008

dhartung: ty
posted by CCBC at 11:47 PM on October 10, 2008

Are you being serious right now Marisa, or is this some sort of troll joke thing? Fact is, I've known some people with these weird fears about being fed to the lions, and they are certifiably insane as far as I can tell.

I know these people, too, and that's why I was satirizing their fears ... sorry if this sounded sincere to you. Wow.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:40 AM on October 11, 2008

Aghast, lekvar asks: "Socialist" and "communist" are still insults and dirty words in this day and age?"

My father-in-law is 80, a veteran of two weeks of WWII & of the Korean War, which he spent as a military policeman on Okinawa. His daughter & I, who symbolize everything hippie to him, went up for a visit circa 2003. This was the summer after Iraq was invaded, a time of ubiquitous yellow ribbons & of warnings from from the Presidential Press Secretary that, in so many words, people had better "watch what they say."

Out to the back room. "How ya doin', Bill?"

The answer was a twenty minute rant, to & about us, whose only coherent word was "liberal," delivered with a practiced sneer & breathless, spittle-flying venom.

So, lekvar, I can assure you it's way beyond that.
posted by Forrest Greene at 11:02 AM on October 11, 2008

Forrest Greene: For reasons not entirely clear to me, I find myself reading National Review Online a bunch lately. They throw around "liberal", "leftist" and "socialist" as though they actually meant something. They even have arguments about whether Obama is more of a Maoist or a Stalinist. (I'm not making that up. In the words of Andrew Sullivan, "Yes they really are that crazy.")

And this is the intellectual cream of the conservative crop. David Brooks is right: "conservative intellectual" has become more or less an oxymoron.

W.r.t. Iron Heel, I think it's a massively under-rated book. I was leery of it as a conservative teenager, and I'm kind of glad I didn't read it then because I don't think I'd have understood a lot of it. The parts that moved me most were the parts where he explains how the oligarchy co-opts people by making them reliant on it for the welfare of the people they love. The shop foreman, for example, won't testify on behalf of the injured worker because it would jeopardize his job, and he has to look out for his family's welfare. That reminded me of an old .sig line I used to see: "The only thing a free man can be forced to do is die." London's rejoinder might be: Once we care about other people, then, we're no longer free.

Another thing that struck me about Iron Heel was that it could be read as a counterpoint to Atlas Shrugged. They're both girl-worships-boy narratives in a transapocalypitic age, it's just that one is transitioning to capitalist hell, the other to capitalist paradise.

Finally it accomplished what any good alternate history accomplishes (though it was near-future history at the time, of course): It made me think about what made things turn out differently. The key thing that London didn't anticipate was the Progressive movement, which led to just enough change to mollify people.
posted by lodurr at 11:06 AM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Iodurr, clearly, I must read this book. I think I'd quibble with your take on London's rejoinder, though, because there's no fear of caring in anything of London's that I've read, and there's great love of freedom.

What that old sig line makes me think of is Upton Sinclair's "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
posted by shetterly at 12:45 PM on October 12, 2008

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