Jack London, Daniel DeLeon and The Iron Heel

Submitted by dalcassian on 17 February, 2017 - 2:00 Author: Sean Matgamna

London's novel The iron heel
is one of the greatest and most
powerful pieces of socialist literature
ever written. It is also astonishing.

It is in the form of an uncompleted
manuscript purportedly seven cen-
turies old when it is published, in "the
year of socialism 419% with a short
preface for readers in the 27th centu-
ry. Its author, Avis Everhard, is the
comrade and wife of Ernest Everhard,
a working class leader in early 20th
century America. The story it tells Is
of the eruption of bitter class warfare,
of civil wars, the division of the work-
ing class along sectional lines, and the
development and victory of an oli-
garchic dictatorship, the 'Iron Heel'.
The iron Heel' was London's name
for what history would know as fas-

Ernest Everhard, the novel's rather
too-Nietzschean hero, is captured and
killed. A "first proletarian revolt",
"the Chicago Commune", is drowned
in blood. The manuscript breaks off
shortly before a planned 'second
revolt’ is due to break out.

The author of the 'preface’ tells us
that Avis Evcrhard too was almost
certainly captured and killed. (The
'mercenaries' of the Iron Heel did not
keep records of their victims...) The
second revolt too is doomed to defeat.
So are many others which break out
again and again before the final victo-
ry of the working class, 300 years

It is a whole historic epoch of oli-
garchic slavery that succeeds capital-
ism, not socialism. The writer of the
preface lets the mask slip and the
thinking behind the book is clear in
the following passage:

"(The 300-year reign of the oli-
garchy was) ...a step backward, to the
social tyrannies that made the early
world a hell, but that were as neces-
sary as the Iron Heel was unneces-
sary. ...What else than feudalism
could have followed upon the break-
down of that great centralised govern-
ment machine known as the Roman
Empire? Not so, however, with the
Iron Heel. In the orderly procedure of
social evolution there was no place for
it. It was not necessary and it was not
inevitable. It must always remain the
great curiosity of history — a whim, a
fantasy, an apparition, a thing unex-
pected and undreamed; and it should
serve as a warning to those rash politi-
cal theorists of today who speak with
certitude of social processes” .

"Today”, of course, was I907, not a
day in the socialist world of the 27th

London's harsh, Darwinian
views, emphasising struggle and con-
flict and acknowledging the possibility
of defeat for human or animal individ-
uals or classes, combined with certain
ideas — those of Daniel De Leon —
he found then in the American social-
ist movement and generated in him the
imaginative energy for a pre-vision of
fascism and of the totalitarian state.
Ironically, the same social-Darwinian-
ism made this strange mixture of a
man see a natural racial superiority in
"Aryan" man — 'the blood beast'.
Thus, this socialist subscribed to the
racist mythology which would be the
ideology of the real Iron Heel in Ger-

But London's pre-vision is not fatal-
istic. It is a warning, a cry of alarm
within an as-yet-undecided struggle. It
has nothing in common with the whin-
ing pessimism with which many writ-
ers have since responded to fascism
and Stalinism.

The "Iron Heel" differs too from
other anti-utopias in that it is rooted
firmly in reality. In Orwell's 1984, by
contrast, though much of the life the
book describes is taken raw from con-
temporary — 1940s — capitalist soci-
ety — in the end the explanation for it
all is a mystical gibberish about a nat-
ural drive for power for its own sake,
leading to a stable totalitarian system
in which the future can be nothing but
"a jackboot stamping on a human face
— forever".

In London's view the struggle goes
on, and on, as it must, for three cen-
turies, until the workers triumph.
Contemporary class struggles find
their direct reflection in London's
book. It is the clarity with which the
roles and possible logical conse-
quences are worked out that is
remarkable. Here London was indebt-
ed to Daniel De Leon of the Socialist
Labour Party, and to the pre-World
War 1 left-wing socialist upsurge in
the USA then. Led by Debs, De Leon
and Haywood, the Industrial Workers
of the World had been founded in
Chicago two years before The Iron
heel was written.

Just as Orwell dramatised theideas
of James Burnham (against whose
books, The Managerial Revolution, The
Machiavellians, etc., he had written
some very powerful critical essays),
London dramatised De Leon's ideas.
It is not to diminish the imaginative
creativity of London to point to the
intellectual structure on which it rests.
Within the Marxist current, De
Leon had, by the beginning of the 20th
century, the clearest and most brutally
accurate picture of the weakness of
the world labour movement and of its
leaders. He addressed himself to the
radically unfavourable position of the
working class — the slave class of
capitalism, without big property or
independent culture — as an aspirant
revolutionary class, and to the impli-
cations this had for the practice of

He saw things in advance that Lenin
would not see fully until 1914. He was
concerned with working-class craft
divisions, with the growth of a labour
aristocracy, with the traitorous role of
the labour trade union bureaucracy —
the 'labour lieutenants of capitalism'
— with the inherent weakness of
socialist parliamentarism.

At a time when fatalistic bland opti-
mism made most revolutionaries for-
get the Communist Manifesto's
warning that class struggles end in
class or the mutual ruination of the
contending classes, De Leon saw the
proletarian movement in the great
sweeping perspectives of history, and
seeing also its weaknesses and flaws,
contemplated defeat as a real possibil-

He cast his mind back to the class
struggle in Rome 200 years BC, and,
in a pamphlet, “Two Pages From
Roman History”, drew a comparison
with the defeat of the ancient Roman
plebeian masses, led by the Gracchi,
linking this defeat to their miserable
subsequent fate as a parasitic
proletariat within the plundering Roman
Republic and Empire.

The point is not the accuracy or oth-
erwise of his comparisons — which are
debatable, to say the least — but their
power to conjure up a black but realis-
tic vision of, and pose questions about,
what might be in store for the working
class. His purpose was to warn and
arm the socialist movement against
the horrors he foresaw and feared.
Mostly De Leon came to schematic,
sectarian-utopian 'solutions’ — but
then he was dead three years before
the Russian Revolution answered in
creative life the questions he had seen
and tried to answer through reasoning.
London's free-ranging imagination
transmuted De Leon's ideas into The
Iron heel. Today, it is difficult to
imagine what a leap was required to
fuse the elements of the terrible vision

The labour movement had known
repressions; intense, sustained, sterilis-
ing totalitarianism had not yet
appeared in history.

In 1907 socialism seemed an
immense power, progressing ever
onwards. But London's was the vision
of the future. The tragedy is that it
was not a wild phantasmagoria that
the labour movement had the right to
ignore, but had solid analytical under-
pinnings in De Leon's work, which the
labour movement did largely ignore.

From " International Communist"
Jan 1976

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