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American Prophet
The Iron Heel by Jack London


I have always liked old science-fiction: anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, the Mormons… Also as a boy I particularly enjoyed the adventure tales of Jack London, like White Fang and The Call of the Wild. As a boxing historian I have also studied Mister London’s newspaper work, particularly his coverage of Jack Johnson.

Today we would call London a racist. But he was way ahead of his time; a writer that valued a man for what he did above and beyond whatever random social position he was born into. I had a vague notion that London was on the socialist side politically. I had been told that he was an advocate for labor unions. As someone who was a manager for 4 years, a union laborer for 15 years and a non-union laborer for 30 years [Yes, try adding that up and see how much sense it makes.] I am fascinated about the origins of labor unions.

Then a friend lent me a book with the Wordsworth American Classics imprint. It was by Jack London and was touted as an important part of American Socialist literature. Imagine my thrill when I was told that it was actually a science-fiction tale…

The Iron Heel

Jack London, 1908

1996, Wordsworth Editions Limited, Hertfordshire, GB, 195 pages

The cover of this book reminds one of Hitler in a beer hall screeching his message to the assembled drunks. The painting is titled ‘Strike’ by Mihaly Munkacsy and was well-chosen to depict the early 20th Century politicking of soapbox preachers among the working class. Early 20th Century workers were endlessly exploited, brutalized and warred upon by their employers. It immediately brought to mind, for me, the unionizing of West Virginia and Pennsylvanian coal miners in the face of armed gangs of ‘company police’ employed to beat and kill the men who had raised my father-in-law’s generation of Appalachian union men.

This was an age when the company you worked for housed, fed and policed you, thereby recycling everything you supposedly earned back into the company. This was an age when Ford Motors had their own social workers who would come to an employee’s house, search the cupboards and pantry for approved brands, and otherwise ascertain that a worker’s Ford wages were being spent in an authorized manner; a time when Northern industries hired out-of-work Southern cops to terrorize their labor force…

Whatever was Mister London so concerned about?

I was expecting a rant, an Anglo-American manifesto. I knew the book had not done well commercially, and had been banned in some portions of the U.S. I found myself surprised on two fronts. First, London abandoned his best-selling flare for adventure, and spent the first 50 pages, in a very classic sci-fi era series of political debates between the protagonist, Ernest Everhard [a name that would have a modern reader expecting pornography] and assorted establishment intellectuals.

These conversations and debates are narrated by Avis Everhard, in a manuscript she supposedly wrote as a memoir as she was being hunted by the forces of The Iron Heel, who had executed her husband in secrecy. Avis describes how she came to learn of the need for a labor movement and the evils that permitted those of her own wealthy class to flourish as she was introduced to Ernest—who she falls in love with—at her father’s dinner table. Her father was a philanthropist who sponsored philosophical, scientific and political debates for his own enjoyment and enlightenment.

The first portion of the book moves slowly until the narrative comes to Chapter 3, Jackson’s Arm, in which Avis investigates the maiming and subsequent firing of an employee of a company she holds stock in. Other chapters include: Slaves of the Machine, The People of the Abyss, Nightmare, and Terrorists. The story picks up a headlong pace as it plunges through a dark social nightmare, until finally, Avis is mysteriously unable to complete the manuscript that she hid as she was being hunted. I have given away a near perfect ending here, because I do not see a modern person reading this for entertainment. As a story it is clumsy. Let me explain why.

If London were writing this today his editor would implore him to make it a 6-volume series of adventure novels. There were so many socially predictive science-fiction elements in The Iron Heel that the author had to abandon his normal style and write like he was Plato describing a hideous anti-Atlantis. There were two very nice touches he adopted that worked well, and permit this book to be used as a reference, on various levels.

The gradually illuminated history around Avis Everhard’s memoir is that the events described took place between 1912 and 1940 [remember those dates], that a worldwide corporate police state named The Iron Heel ruled earth for 300 years thereafter, and that the following 400 years saw a world order called The Brotherhood of Man. In all some 700 years had passed before the manuscript was brought to light. The most interesting portions of the book are hence found in the footnotes provided by the unnamed 28th Century editor, who must describe the barbarism and savagery of Avis’s time to actual humane scientific thinkers.

London’s unnamed editor offers speculative notes that help fill in the blanks of this alternative reality for the reader of London’s time. London also, as if he were sinking a note into a time capsule, made many factual references to newspaper and magazine articles published in the period when the book was written [1906-08] as well as citing legal opinions and legislative actions in the U.S. on the subject of slavery and labor politics for the period from 1835 to 1908. Keeping in mind that London was also a journalist, this is a goldmine of references for the modern student of the early 20th Century labor movement.

The haunting aspect of this book, that has sent chill upon chill up my spine for the last two days as I have read it, is the predictive genius of London. From the 1950s until the 1970s science-fiction writers were hailed as our prophets, the men that would predict the future shape of our society. It entertains many of us modern sci-fi writers today when we consider that the classic authors of the recent past have almost totally failed to predict anything, focused as they were on gadgets and technology, and ignorant of the way people actually behave. London was also a big science buff. But, unlike the classic sci-fi authors of the late 20th Century, he was a physical man: adventurer, laborer, etc., and had seen life at eye-level, not from a chair. Below is a list of the predictions that London made in The Iron Heel that came true, given in the rough chronological order that they occurred:

1. There would be a world war in the second decade of the 20th Century

2. There would be a Russian revolution

3. The U.S. government would use army reserve and national guard troops to suppress the labor movement in the U.S. [West Virginia circa 1930]

4. There would be a second world war in the fourth decade of the 20th Century, which would essential be a re-fighting of the first war, instigated by a charismatic leader who began speaking to working class men in the streets and bars.

5. The U.S. and Germany would be on opposite sides of this military struggle.

6. The U.S. Navy would suffer a major military reversal at Hawaii, and would bounce back to prevail in the war.

7. That these struggles would result in a unified world economy managed by an international American-European banking cartel and enforced by an overwhelming U.S. military presence. [When London was writing the U.S. barely had a military by European standards.]

8. The existence of an overwhelming U.S. corporate economy and U.S. military would foster the growth of virulent terrorist cells around the world.

9. That labor unions would never prevail over, or achieve parity with corporate business interests in the U.S. [Organized labor is currently a tiny slice of the non-government U.S. workforce.]

10. That the banking/business/U.S. military world order would bully journalists into compliance and imprison, assassinate and/or execute ‘whistle-blowers’.

11. That massive numbers of U.S. mercenaries would enforce the world order. [There are currently 100,000 U.S. mercenaries in Afghanistan to 68,000 U.S. troops.]

12. That U.S citizens would need documents modeled on the Czarist Russian personal identification documents to be permitted to freely travel within the U.S. [I can attest to the actuality of this prediction, as Baltimore County and Baltimore City cops demand identification from me on a roughly annual basis in order to permit my continued use of the sidewalk to get to my place of employment.]

13. Gun control laws in the U.S., which men of London’s time would have found shocking.

14. The U.S. would have a dedicated ‘homeland security’ force organized along military lines with police powers to counter internal and external terrorist threats.

15. That the U.S. would become home to designated urban ghettos policed by selectively assigned police units [Hello, Baltimore Housing Authority Police].

16. That suspected terrorists would be executed where they are found rather than brought to trial. [We need only replace London’s mercenary firing squads with our own contractor-operated drones.]

17. That ‘collateral damage’ [the death of innocent bystanders] would be regarded by the U.S. Government as an acceptable side effect of killing suspected terrorists. [Yemen, 2013]

There were two predictions made by Jack London in The Iron Heel that have not come true: 300 years of global corporate tyranny, and an eventual enlightened age of global brotherhood. I’ll never know if all 19 of his predictions have come true. But maybe, 700 years from now, centuries after the emerging Iron Heel that I am certain my Chicago slave-master wants to reign supreme, puts it’s heavy boot on my scrawny neck for writing the wrong thing, maybe then some brotherly geek will find the acid-free hard copy of this book review in the remains of this already crumbling house, and he will be able to judge for himself if Jack London was truly The American Prophet.

Below, in the comments section one of our more astute readers points out that London had a lot of recent historical precedent for his predictions. Perhaps, in his thirties, he was better read on social matters and history, and more aware of the Law of Unintended Consequences that seems to have eluded Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Bradbury, and others writing two generations after his death.

Below is a comment from Jeremy Bentham, the oldest I recall, which helps place Jack London in better context.

A Well of Heroes

https://www.amazon.com/Well-Heroes-Literary-Impressions-Robert/dp/1534808256/ref=sr_1_6/180-6301626-9959864?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1467037854&sr=1-6&keywords=james+lafond

http://jameslafond.blogspot.com/

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PRApril 20, 2017 11:01 PM UTC

I don't think London was a Marxist - I think he was a sort of humanist in the classic meaning of the term. In "People of the Abyss," he lives amongst the poor in the East End of London to learn how the rich exploit them and grind them into the grave. I had trouble sleeping for a few nights after reading the book.

I'll have to read his sci-fi.
IshmaelApril 20, 2017 6:31 PM UTC

White fang, and Call of the Wild, would be included in my library, if I had to choose in departing with my collection of literature, have never read the Iron Heel, but I will now!
Dom MatteroJune 30, 2013 5:13 AM UTC

Jack London..one of the few Marxists one can be proud of!

I thought I would hate this book as part of my dystopia reading project..it surprised the hell out of me with its prescience and almost modern description of brutality (later in the book). It really is uncanny how he predicted so much..

I enjoyed Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy as well although it is more a Utopia than a dystopia..and very influential on the "progressive" and Social gospel movements. Christian non Marxist Nationalistic Communism inspired by the aftermath of the Civil War.
Jeremy BenthamJune 29, 2013 6:46 AM UTC

Fascinating! Yes, they are disturbingly accurate predictions and they beg the question about what esoteric and mysterious knowledge led Jack London to these insights. Maybe not so mysterious. One should keep in mind that London wrote this book during the “Progressive” era of American politics. So London may have merely written about what he imagined would transpire if the Progressives, Marxists and other utopian movements of his time achieved their goals. His predications were likely guided by what Progressive pundits and writers said they wanted to accomplish both in the short and long terms. He seems to also have been aided by a good understanding of human nature, as well as an in-depth knowledge of history. The Progressives of one hundred years ago wanted to use the power of government to cure social problems, whether the social problem in question was graft, poverty, alcoholism, illiteracy, pollution, illegitimate births or crime. The Progressives believed in great scientific plans to eliminate social ills and in creating new government agencies to carry out those scientific plans. The early 20th Century Progressives were outwardly racist and nationalist, unlike 21st Century American Liberals, but otherwise the goals and values of Progressivism regarding the kind of society the Progressives wanted to create have remained very consistent over time. The U.S. Constitution stood in the way of the Progressives from the beginning. The Constitution mandated a small and non-intrusive national government, one not suited for re-engineering a society. Therefore, as far as the Progressives were concerned, the Constitution needed to be amended, reinterpreted or just outright ignored if the Progressives were to be allowed to execute their plans and programs. Consequently this expansion of the power of government we are seeing today is something that has been sought for well over a century. Also item number 3 would have been easy for London to predict since it had already happened numerous times before by the time London wrote The Iron Heel. Perhaps the biggest case in point was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, an insurrection by railroad workers that broke out in numerous cities, including Baltimore, and lasted some 45 days. National Guard soldiers and federal troops from the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines were deployed to suppress the 1877 strike. Progressives always saw themselves as enlightened and therefore “kinder and gentler” than past political movements, but apparently London did not imagine that once the Progressives took power they would be any less reluctant to use force against troublemakers who stood in their way than anybody else. There was ample reason for him to believe they would be even more prone to use coercion and force since they sought control over so many aspects of people’s lives (the Progressives were control freaks in modern parlance). As for the fear that corporations would come to dominate the world, well nearly everyone, both Progressive Republicans, like Teddy Roosevelt, and Progressive Democrats, like Woodrow Wilson, mistrusted corporations in those days (although they disagreed on most other things). Of course it’s easy to mistrust large, rich and independent entities like corporations, just like it’s easy to mistrust your teenage daughter’s boyfriend. In fact there are good reasons for not trusting either of those entities implicitly and for wanting to keep them under “control”. But you can never control them as much as you’d like and you can’t make them go away for good and all (even people you and others might disapprove of have a right to life, liberty, property and freedom of association under our system, thus far at least). See also Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887 by Edward Bellamy for another interesting and instructive utopian science-fiction novel of the Progressive area. Looking Backward is even credited with inspiring the Progressive movement.
responds:June 29, 2013 12:54 PM UTC

Any time you want to write an article send it to me at jameslafond.com@gmail.com and I will gladly post it.

Thanks Jeremy