September 09, 2009

Jack London: The Iron Heel

The rhetoric of the new President and those he has surrounded himself with such as the recently publicized Van Jones really hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. It could have been ripped from the pages of The Iron Heel written by Jack London in 1907.

The beginning of the 20th century was a turbulent time in the United States. Industrialization and immigration combined to create social and economic tensions causing some to question the foundation of the nation’s democratic system. Writers like Upton Sinclair likened the capitalistic system to a jungle and socialism was just one response that gained prominence during this era. London, an ardent socialist, who is generally remembered for his series of North Country adventure stories such as Call of the Wild and White Fang, also authored this dystopian novel that preceded similar classics such as Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave new World.

London frames this story as a diary found in an oak tree some 600 years after the first socialist revolution between 1912 and 1932. The story is written from the perspective of the wife of socialist radical Earnest Everhard. Everhard is depicted as a tough, strong, man who raised himself up from poverty to become a self educated writer, “social philosopher", and revolutionist.

His wife sees him as “a superman, a blond beast as Nietzsche described.” Everhard is essentially a characterization of Jack London himself and through this character London is able to express his socialist views, while his character works to overthrow the system.

Everhard was asked to speak to a gathering of local capitalists and here we gain insight into what he saw as the problem with the system. Everhard described how he had risen through the various social classes, meeting the socialists along the way, and what he encountered when he reached the upper class was hypocrisy and selfishness.

In a long diatribe he went on to list the inequalities between the capitalists and the workers and how the politicians and the courts were merely pawns of the “oligarchy”. In a scene reminiscent of Socrates’ speech to the Senate in “The Apology” Everhard attacked the basis of the capitalist system when he writes, “I found nothing but stupidity, except for business. I found none clean, noble, and alive though I found many who were alive-with rottenness.”

The speech of course did not sit well with his audience, but his attacks did not stop at merely describing the ills of the capitalists. He went one step further when he writes; “We will be content with nothing less than all you possess…We are going to take your government, your palaces, and all your purpled ease away from you.”

The crowd became incensed with this threat until one man stood up, silenced the crowd and responded, “When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purple ease… We will grind you revolutionists under our heel…” Like Socrates’ experience, it is one thing to be a gadfly on the ass of the great beast but when threatened the beast may decide to strike back.

For a time there was a low intensity fight between the two groups until Everhard and 49 other socialists were elected to the US Congress in 1912. It was at this point that the “oligarchy” struck back. We learn in the footnotes of this book, written by the future historians, that there was a the rise of a fascist state by 1932 and that it took another hundred years before the revolution was ultimately successful and a socialist utopia realized.

London made a number of accurate predictions in this work but by and large the revolution has not turned out as he predicted. Despite 100 years and ample examples of the failures of the socialist system however there are still those that are echoing the sentiments of Earnest Everhard.


MrTex said...

Wouldn't it be interesting to bring the rugged individualist back from the dead to gauge his reaction to modern socialism with its failures and the successes of capitalism?

Scott said...

I dont know that they would be surprised, for most of us I think there is a gene that says "you cant tell what to do your not the boss of me."