The future of totalitarian dictatorship and mass working-class revolt imagined in London’s novel caused such a stir among his generation of radicals that the term “Iron Heel” came into common usage as a name for strikebreaking, police brutality, government conspiracies, and other violent forms of labor discipline and political repression. But like most dystopian novels set in the “not-too-distant future,” through the years The Iron Heel has proven to be equally prophetic and problematic.
Working class by background and a committed socialist since boyhood, Jack London was inspired to write The Iron Heel by the plebeian terrorism and czarist brutality of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the violent series of strikes that spread class conflict across the mining and mill towns of Colorado.
In Colorado, a cabal of mine and mill owners—working in consort with the local government—used Pinkertons, the state militia, vigilante mobs, bombing conspiracies, and agents provocateurs, as well as the courts, police, and capitalist press, to crush the militant Western Federation of Miners and end their drive for the eight-hour day.
London extrapolated the real events from Cripple Creek, Telluride, and Russia to produce a speculative novel in which a ruthless capitalist “Oligarchy” gives birth to the repressive “Iron Heel,” a violent counterrevolutionary army of militia, spies, and mobs who crush all political resistance to a capitalist dictatorship.
The novel presents itself as the recently discovered “Everhard Manuscript.” From its imaginary vantage point in a socialist utopia some 700 years in the future, the book’s fictional editor explains that the Everhard Manuscript has been lost for centuries and represents the best firsthand account of the origins of the Iron Heel and the start of the great class war that would last nearly 300 years.
The narrative was written by Avis Everhard, the bourgeois daughter of a Berkeley university professor and the lover of the novel’s true hero, Ernest Everhard.
Ernest is a proletarian philosopher and political agitator who emerges from his electoral role in the Socialist Party to become the underground leader of the “First Great Uprising.”
The first half of the novel is blatantly didactic, dominated by detailed discussions of socialist politics and economics. Originally skeptical of this aggressive working-class hero, the strong-willed Avis becomes converted to socialism through her own investigation of a “tacit conspiracy” by capitalist society against an injured worker who has been tossed on the scrap heap.
Upon recognizing the susila superiority of socialism, Avis becomes the lover, student, and political partner of Ernest as their world gradually collapses into civil war.
During a direct confrontation between Ernest and the Oligarchy (the last moment of civil “debate” before the coming war), a man of wealth and few words stands up to the intellectually and physically superior proletarian to explain bluntly: “Our reply [to the worker’s revolution] shall be couched in terms of lead. We are in power. Nobody will deny it.
By virtue of that power we shall remain in power .... 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.” These words mark the birth of the Iron Heel.
The battle between socialism and the Iron Heel is formally joined, and the novel, which began as a slow political romance, rapidly accelerates into a chaotic adventure story. The first signs of counterrevolution appear in the form of “patriotic” mobs known as the “Black Hundreds” who rise up and destroy union halls and radical newspapers.
With time, the Oligarchy grows ever bolder: engineering an economic crisis to eliminate the middle class, plotting world wars with Germany to build up the army, and provoking a “Peasants’ Revolt” of starving farmers, which the Iron Heel destroys with characteristic gore. Yet, through this maelstrom of violence, Ernest prepares to run for Congress on the socialist ticket in the 1912 election.
However, he alone is pragmatic enough to know that, given what the Oligarch said to him, voting alone is not going to overthrow the Iron Heel. So he begins to shift his organizational work away from the democratic sphere of reform and into the underground world of revolutionary conspiracy.
Taking up a new identity as revolutionary leader, Ernest begins the necessary work of rooting out infiltrators, establishing a network of guerrilla “Fighting Organizations,” and planning to infiltrate the Iron Heel itself.
“It was bitter bloody work,” writes Avis, “but we were fighting for life and for the Revolution, and we had to fight the enemy with his own weapons.... It was warfare dark and devious, replete with intrigue and conspiracy, plot and counterplot.”
When a desperate electorate sweeps Ernest and the socialists into office, the Iron Heel plots to undermine democratic rule altogether. During a fiery speech in the congressional chamber, an agent of the Iron Heel throws a bomb at Ernest’s feet, which injures the hero, but more importantly it legitimates the arrest of all socialists as terrorists.
After this blow, the Iron Heel formally abolishes democracy and asserts its dictatorial rule through “labor castes, the Mercenaries, and the great hordes of secret agents and police of various sorts.”
When the First Great Uprising fails with the cataclysmic destruction of the “Chicago Commune” (in a terrifying scene reminiscent of the end of Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column), many former socialists form terrorist groups both noble and insane, taking up a desperate and undisciplined war of revenge on the Oligarchy.
The manuscript cuts off in breathless anticipation of the Second Great Uprising, thoroughly planned by our heroes and set to begin when Ernest and Avis are captured and “disappeared” by the Iron Heel.
As both a novel and idea, The Iron Heel played an important role in the culture of U.S. radicalism in the first half of the twentieth century. The novel was very popular with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other revolutionary socialist circles.
To these groups, The Iron Heel was used as an entertaining educational tool as well as a theoretical critique of “right-wing” or party socialists who believed that electoral politics could defeat capitalism.
The “Iron Heel”—much like Orwell’s “Big Brother” for the post–World War II generation—served as a potent metaphor for the conspiracies and control mechanisms of the ruling class.
For example, in 1914 the radical journalist John Kenneth Turner evoked London’s novel to explain the meaning of the Ludlow Massacre: “If the picture of blood and terror so graphically painted in Jack London’s novel, ‘The Iron Heel,’ does not become a reality in the near future it will not be the fault either of the persons in control of the industries of this country or of those in possession of the reins of government.... The evidence is unmistakable of a nation-wide conspiracy to break up organizations of labor, to discipline the workers, to suppress agitators, to outlaw strikes, to nullify the tendencies that have been working toward the establishment of a better society, and to steer the ship of capitalism in the safe harbor of an industrial feudalism” (Turner).
The Iron Heel seemed to predict exactly the coming of World War I and the violent hysteria that marked the red scare of 1919–1920. For the generation that followed London, The Iron Heel contains a precise prophecy of the rise of fascism in Europe.
Of course, neither fascism nor a revolutionary underground of any size appeared in the United States, leading to the novel’s unceremonious obscurity in the second half of the twentieth century.
However, as the hope for social revolution passed from the industrialized First World to the decolonizing Third World, The Iron Heel found a new audience in Latin America and wherever international military conspiracies, secret police, and the rich collaborated to rule with an Iron Heel.