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The Iron Heel: Synopsis and Commentary



by David H. Kessel

The entire book is online. You will find it HERE


The Iron Heel is a story with stories within stories...itís about a past, a present, and a future...all told from the perspective of a man (Jack London) in 1906...read by current readers almost 100 years later. Itís about a future time with its own history...a substantially fictional history about the very time spanning its writing and our current reading. Within the novel the fictional writer is living a present and recalling her past...all the while presenting that past as if it were happening in the present. This fictional writer is the narrator within the story, but thereís another narrator (presenting the whole story) far in the future...looking back and remembering. In short, London has written a multi-level novel, which is, itself, a speculative prophecy of things to come in our own time. Itís a simple and complicated story all at once:

1. London writes the book
2. Avis Everhard writes the "manuscript"
3. The Brotherhood of Man (BOM) presents the manuscript with footnoted commentary along the way...beginning with a Foreword
4. Avis writes her own words and thoughts
5. Avis writes the words and thoughts of Ernest Everhard (and others)
6. Ernest speaks his ideas for himself
7. Current reader reads the novel

Jack London wrote a book, which almost 100 years later is still relevant and pertinent. Itís about a possible future, a very sorrowful one. Yet, itís also about another possible future, a very positive one. Itís a story of both gloom/tragedy and about change/hope. Like the other major distopias, itís a warning.

But, before WE...and before 1984...and before BRAVE NEW WORLD...there was The Iron Heel. It shares with these more well known novels a repressive "doom and gloom." However, with the exception of Brave New World...to some extent, it differs from the others in that itís told from a historical future of successful revolution and "brotherhood."

The Iron Heel is a sociological novel...one which includes micro-level agency, meso-level institutional patterns, and macro-level structures (both national and global)...reciprocally linking them together with an historical materialist thread...Marxist to the core and humanistic in intent. Individuals...their agency... are clear and distinct...namely Ernest and Avis (Cunningham) Everhard. Institutions are clear and distinct...political economy is spelled out in detail. Society is clear and distinct...America is real, as is the rest of the world. Itís about remaining static and about how change takes place...change for the "bad" and for the "good."

Some have said that London foresaw the rise of fascism...Nazi and otherwise. This is true, but it would be a mistake to see it solely in those terms...as if the rise of European fascism was beat down and totally eliminated. Truth is...it may very well be a prophecy of what is YET to come in our lives today. The flexing of fascist muscles in the 20th century...in Germany, Spain, and Italy...may only be the "first act" of the future we may live in America. Fascism wasnít so much defeated in World War II, as a given manifestation of it was temporarily halted.

More to the point, The Iron Heelís main thrust is about capitalism, its internal contradictions, and the rise of oligarchy, which flowed inevitably from it as it over did itself. London spoke of the same reality that Zymiatin, Huxley, and Orwell did...that is, the transcendence of capitalism for the sake of power itself. All these novels saw capitalists as transitory...ultimately as mismanagers of society and in need of replacement.

This is the story of both Ernest and Avis, through her eyes and recollections. He was a powerful sociological thinker and dynamic speaker...from the working class. She was the very intelligent daughter of a college professor who lived an elite and sheltered life. She fell in love and it wasnít too long before she was a revolutionary too. She and her father learned of the realities of the working class (an "other America" long before Harrington wrote his powerful book) and soon, because of their affiliation with Ernest, lost all their status, wealth, and upper class privileges. London gave Ernest the intelligence and courage to face the oligarchs and to tell them the truth about themselves. He threatened them with revolution and in return was told the truth by them...that the Iron Heel would crush them as they progressively took direct control of society and the world. For 300 years the Heel ruled...with countless revolts crushed along the way. Yet, the revolutionists persisted and eventually prevailed...spawning the Brotherhood of Man. London gives us a twenty-year "peek" of these early days and the conditions, which gave rise to the Oligarchy and their terrible and absolute control for three centuries.

The story ends in mid-sentence...Avis had to hide her manuscript in the hollow of an oak tree...where it remained for centuries until discovered by the B.O.M. This was on the eve of the Second Revolt...with Ernest already captured (again) and executed. The First Revolt had ended in tragedy (in Chicago) and so would the Second...and many others until the Heel was finally defeated. London provides idea after idea as to how to be a socialist revolutionary and eventually win. He also warns us that if we, today, allow the capitalists and eventually the Oligarchs to do certain things unchallenged, we will suffer the same fate as the fictional people in the story did.

There are many interesting insights throughout the story. Some were probably fictional "guesses" by London. Others, however, were conclusions he made based on the premises of given conditions. One mentioned by commentators is the Iron Heelís alignment with the preferred Labor Unions...shutting out the substantial number of smaller unions and the bulk of the working class. H. Bruce Franklin, in an Introduction to The Iron Heel mentions many of Londonís insights. Leon Trotsky, in a letter to Londonís daughter in 1937, mentions some of these insights. Iíll leave to the reader to discern these from these writings as well as from your own reading of the novel.

I highly suggest one read this book. Personally, I donít think itís the greatest piece of writing, but its purpose and clarity is plain. The lives of the protagonists are portrayed in detail...as is the everyday life of many people, both rich and poor alike. Londonís socialist and Marxist critique of capitalism (and the eventual Oligarchy) is uncompromising. Some of the best parts are where London has Ernest "explaining" political economy and confronting the oligarchs.

Finally, as I write this review/essay in August, 2003, I canít help but entertain speculative thoughts about what America (and the world) is going through right now...with Bush the front man for the oligarchy...as they take the initial steps in calling forth our own Iron Heel. The ďneoconservativesĒ who are power-grabbing daily are bankrupting the United States...creating polarization and unrest...covertly and overtly eliminating "rights" which many of us have taken for granted for much too long. I believe that any current reader of this novel would be hard pressed not to have similar thoughts. Lord knows what London would be saying or doing today.