The Iron Heel

April 29, 2007 at 3:32 pm Leave a comment

Iron Heel
Current politics in the United States bring out the realism of “fantastic” texts. Jack London‘s Iron Heel fits into a genre one might label socialist science-fiction. Its tale of the Chicago Commune and the struggle of the socialists to attain “The Brotherhood of Man” comes in the form of a found manuscript written by Avis Everhard, spy, revolutionary, and wife of Nietzschean blond-beast super-socialist Ernest Everhard. Yeah, Ernest Everhard. The latter is explicitly likened to Christ, and we learn at the outset that he will be killed by the Iron Heel (a consortium of plutocratic oligarchs) from the socialist editors who provide footnotes from their vantage on events, seven centuries in the future. H.G. Wells is mentioned in one of these footnotes, and indeed, the terrific destruction that takes place in Chicago and elsewhere is indebted to Wells, whom Mike Davis once called in an article on 9/11, a socialist Nostradamus.

In the course of the novel at least two major revolts are crushed by the Iron Heel and yet we know from the footnotes that this is simply part of the evolution of society. London in effect argues that the plutocrats are on the wrong side of evolutionary history. Here’s a footnote from the future:

Out of the ethical incoherency and inconsistency of capitalism, the oligarchs emerged with a new ethics, coherent and definite, sharp and severe as steel, the most absurd and unscientific and at the same time the most potent ever possessed by any tyrant class. The oligarchs believed their ethics, in spite of the fact that biology and evolution gave them the lie; and, because of their faith, for three centuries they were able to hold back the mighty tide of human progress–a spectacle, profound, tremendous, puzzling to the metaphysical moralist, and one that to the materialist is the cause of many doubts and reconsiderations. (519)

And another footnote:

We must accept the capitalistic stage in social evolution as about on a par with the earlier monkey stage. The human had to pass through those stages in its rise from the mire and slime of low organic life. It was inevitable that much of the mire and slime should cling and be not easily shaken off. (486)

Ernest Everhard, London’s Christian-socialist prophet explains how biology and evolution give the lie to the oligarchs plutocracy, and thus to capitalism:

This is the fiat of evolution. It is the word of God. Combination is stronger than competition. Primitive man was a puny creature hiding in the crevices of the rocks. He combined and made war upon his carnivorous enemies. They were competitive beasts. Primitive man was a combinative beast, and because of it he rose to primacy over all the animals. And man has been achieving greater and greater combinations ever since. It is combination versus competition, a thousand centuries long struggle, in which competition has always been worsted. Whoso enlists on the side of competition perishes. (407)

London here brings socialism in line with a Christian God because evolution, on his account, is the word of God, and evolution is ever greater combination. For London the strength of the strong is always in numbers. It is by way of this natural theology that London can predict the supercession of capitalism and its Iron Heel variant. In survival of the fittest, the fittest is she who cooperates.

If you teach The Iron Heel students will sometimes suggest that this cooperation is all fine and good, but human nature prevents its ever taking place. Not so, according to the socialists of the future. Biology and evolution provide for London “material”, rather than what he calls “metaphysical”, proof of the nature of human nature. Part of London’s project, then, is to marry historical materialism with evolutionary biology in order to argue that the category of the economic is subject to nature, and that the laws of nature are the imprint of a God whose word is cooperation. “Love one another” now has a combinative scientific property. And a bit of swashbuckling never hurts, either.

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Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, books, Iron Heel, Jack London, naturalism.

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