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The Original Alt-Hist, Steampunk, Dystopian Novel by the Socialist Jack London,
This review is from: The Iron Heel (Kindle Edition)This is an terifically fun novel for (a) science fiction fans or (b) history buffs or (c) Jack London afficianados. The story is a novel written by London in 1908 that describes the failed putsch by socialists during the period running from approximately the 1910s through 1930s as a memoir recovered by a future Socialist utopia hundreds of years in the future. This last conceit allows London to describe the repressive government - the "Iron Heel" or "Oligarchy" - that inevitably follows the Marxist laws of history until the really succesful Socialist revolution occurs in the year 2180, aka Year One of the "Brotherhood of Man." The novel follows Ernest Everhard, and his wife Avery, who is the putative author of the memoir, so this novel also has what may be a unique perspective of London writing in the first person as a woman character, as they try to establish a socialist revolution in a world that is in the death grip of Capitalism.
From a historical perspective, this book is fascinating in that it seems to offer a glimpse into the worldview of the Left prior to World War One. The novel has more than its fair share of polemical moments when London preaches the Socialist gospel through the mouth of Everhard. We learn, for example, that capitalism is doomed to failure as it invests its surplus wealth into the development of foreign markets, which in turn become competitors, leading to a crisis where no further investment is possible. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. The rich, who control the governments, pass legislation eliminating the independent middle class and reducing the poor to a state of serfdom. The rich create a special janissary-class of poor, who serve as the police and the army, to oppress their fellow class members. Ultimately, this develops into the institution known as the Oligarchy or the Iron Heel which rules mankind with a, well, Iron Heel for two hundred years, until people finally get it right and establish the socialist Brotherhood of Man, which is just enlightened and no one is poor or has acne.
All in all, this is darkly paranoid view. Interestingly, after the closing of the 2012 American presidential campaign, we can see a certain amount of this mindset still informing the nightmares of the left, who are still expecting the Iron Heel to fall, albeit delayed by nearly one hundred years.
London's "future history" is fascinating for what he almost got right and what he definitely got wrong. He was right in predicting a major European war in the middle of the 1910s, but that was something that had been widely expected by many writers. He was wrong in thinking that the "working class" on all sides would lay down arms, end the war and show their latent power. Like many Socialists, London miscalculated the power of national identity. London was also wrong on the devolution of democracy and civil liberty over the next twenty years, albeit the Great Depression must have been seen as a vindication of the polemical view of socialism as recounted in this book.
So, as a science fiction fan, I read this book as a kind of "alternate history" with its "point of departure" in the failure of the working class to end World War I, although London was writing a straight up science fiction book - where the "science" was "economics" - that projected the future based on his premise that Marx was right.
What is also fascinating is the picture of Jack London as a Socialist. We generally think of London as a "man's man" who wrote adventure stories. Generally, today, we don't think of socialists as being "rugged individualists," rather we think of socialists as living in cities, working at universities and engaging in long discussions about the dialectics of literature at the local coffee shop.
What we get from The Iron Heel is the suspicion that after World War II, Socialists deliberately sought to distance themselves from a certain kind of socialism that found a lot of value in "manly" philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus, we have London describe Ernest Everhard, through the voice of Avery, as "He was simple, direct, afraid of nothing, and he refused to waste time on conventional manners...He was a superman, a blond beast such as Nietzsche has described, and in addition he was aflame with democracy."
Today, we associate phrases like "a blond beast" and "a superman" with the Nazis, forgetting that the Nazis were socialists. We forget that the Communists also had their cult of the "superman" - the New Soviet Man - who would not waste time on frippery like "manners" and so would be willing to dispense with bourgeoisie morality and put a few thousand rounds of bullets into a few thousand skulls of "class enemies" who needed to be "liquidated."
Throughout the book, London's Nietzschian perspective on socialism was a constant theme. It was obvious how London could write those "man's man" novels and a novel about a future socialism utopia.
Although I am a conservative libertarian, I found "The Iron Heel" to be a fun read. It moved along quickly. Obviously, it is filled with anachronisms and turns of phrases that are jarring to our modern ears. I wouldn't rank it with the great works of literature, but as an early example of science fiction, it is well worth reading. I would pair this book with Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, written about the same time, but from a Catholic perspective, as sharing the same flavor of "alt-hist, steampunk, future dystopian history" for those who enjoy either science fiction, history or great Catholic literature.