Reflections on Jack London’s “The Iron Heel”

05Jun00

Economic History of the U.S. To 1900

When reading Jack London’s The Iron Heel, my high school days of music are brought to mind. I remember one of the more musically talented high school punk bands of the time: Picnic with a Gun. The singer/lyricist was a young man destined to be a politician. For reasons of stubbornness, over-certainty, and a strong belief in his propaganda, not too many people managed to win an argument against him (if they even bothered trying). One of his famous lyrics stated, “You say I’ve got a big mouth because I’m not afraid to use it.” He was a member of the upper middle class. He lived on the outskirts of Montecito. His parents were both lawyers. He was half-black and quick to bring up race distinctions. He believed that “socialism is the answer, and we’ve got to fight.” He was a fun person to listen to, and he came to mind when reading of Avis Everhard’s accounts of Jack London’s Socialist hero, Ernest Everhard. Their life histories are different, however, with Everhard having come from a poor beginning. But their target audience, a relatively homogenized, educated middle class, and their economic story of class struggles and socialist uprisings, were very similar.

It seems that it is an important distinction that the target audience is an educated middle class one, since it is a distinction that it serves the argument of an inevitable uprising very well. Involving the middle class makes them more aware of class distinctions and often ultimately leads to questioning whether inequality is worsening or whether the gaps are closing. If the conclusion is that the general direction things are going benefits only one class, that for example, the wealthy owners are the only ones who benefit at the suffering of the working class, one can expect heightened tension between the classes.

In Jack London’s novel, we have Ernest Everhard, a member of the working class, become involved with middle class society by being invited to events such as dinner parties. At these parties, through time, he socializes with university professors, Bishops, and storeowners. Ernest proves to be a very strong contender in the discussions he has with these individuals and earns a certain degree of respect from a few of them, even though they do not agree with his predictions and messages.

Ernest begins with the subject of metaphysics to involve this middle class into the class struggle. He feels that their metaphysical concerns do not allow them to see reality clearly. Ernest points out that this middle class has no knowledge of life for the working class, and that the metaphysics they preach are such that they do not pose a threat to the capitalist class. This allows them to “herd with the capitalist class in another locality…. The capitalist class that pays you, that feeds you…” This middle class survives because it does not challenge the established order. More significantly, however, the middle class does not challenge the established order because it is entirely unaware of the established order.

To raise awareness in this middle class, Ernest presents some of the members with challenges. One such individual is Bishop Morehouse. The Bishop and Ernest engage in a discussion where issues such as class hatred, class struggles, selfishness, social science, censorship, and capitalist economics are all addressed. Ernest promises to the Bishop, “I will take you on a journey through hell,” to make him aware of the working class condition. In this journey, he promises to expose the Bishop to child labor, excessively long working hours, and the unjust ways of the capitalist class. Ernest points out that should the Bishop accept the challenge of facing the truth and the facts, that he runs the high risk of being suppressed by other members of his class. The Bishop accepts the challenge, and Ernest’s predictions about what he will see and what will happen turn out to be true.

In the same scene where Ernest poses the challenge to the Bishop, he also shocks his wife to be, Avis, by telling her that her clothes are stained with blood. In fact, all that she comes in contact with on a daily basis—her house, her food, and such—are all stained with the blood of the working class. As an example of what he means, he tells of a worker who lost his arm at the end of a long workday when he unthinkingly tried to prevent a machine from being damaged. He took the company to court, arguing that the accident would not have happened had he not had to work such long hours. He not only lost his arm and his job, but also he lost the case, the argument being that he was careless. Ernest uses this event to describe the power held by the capitalist class to control the law—to decide what justice means. When Avis asks why she had never read of the case in the newspapers, Ernest points, once again, to the power of censorship held by the capitalist class.


I do not feel that Ernest’s actions were meant in any way as shock treatment. He considered himself a social scientist. He was concerned with the facts. Ernest comes off as a person who not only feels the need to raise awareness, but to be the kind of person who wants to “force” action upon people. Following the well rounded information about socialism presented by The Young Pioneers, I did not actually think much more about socialism for quite some time, until I enrolled in a university Chicano Studies course called Globalization and Transnational Social Movements. Marx was on our reading list, and the course focused largely on the exploitation of the underdeveloped world by the United States capitalists. Action was needed to correct these wrongs.

The coursework involved a lot of research into sweatshop labor, where conditions in underdeveloped world very much resembled the conditions which London was writing about in The Iron Heel. The class was divided into several groups, and each was assigned a multinational corporation to study. Almost 100 years after The Iron Heel, we were asking the same sorts of questions that were included in Ernest’s arguments. Who is in control? Was it the governments and laws, which were supposed to represent the people? Or was it the money and the people, or rather, the creatures formed by “selfish capitalist notions” who were in control?

There were other issues with which parallels could be drawn between The Iron Heel and the world today. One of the groups of people who Ernest gets to best begin to see the conditions for the working class were the shopkeepers in the middle class. There is a scene where a discussion of fairness was taking place. The once successful, profitable shopkeepers were complaining that their profits were being eaten up by the trusts. Ernest asks them about their previous profitability. Their success had come from efficient organization, so efficient that they had managed to cut prices below what their competitors could charge. For a time, then, they were behaving much like the trusts—absorbing all the profits of the competition until there was no room for competition… until a “more efficient” mode of organization came along and drove them out of business. Today, there are many who feel like their jobs are being taken away by workers in developing countries. They complain about their wages being depressed because of the international supply and mobility of labor (and for that matter, of capital also).

There are certainly many disturbances that accompany large-scale change. The problems that were read about in my Chicano Studies course were real problems. I am not, however, confident with evolutionary theories of markets and class struggles as predicted by Marx, and in this case, London. Even if the end of capitalism, or should we look at the situation more accurately, the end of an open market economy was inevitable, what is to guarantee the outcome be a socialistic one? When we look at the turbulent history of economic growth, we are bound to find individuals and groups who are hurt by the changes. Overall, however, the historical evidence tends to mostly show that the growth benefits all groups—not just the rich.

There is another problem with socialism that does not get treated much in The Iron Heel. Early on, Ernest describes the evolutionary view the following way: “The cycle of class struggles which began with the dissolution of rude, tribal communism and the rise of private property will end with the passing of private property in the means of social existence.” In the absence of private property, what are the incentives for innovation. Even Ernest and the Bishop admit to people being selfishly motivated. People would tend to put premiums on certain jobs, services, or duties. We see this even in countries that claim to be communist. Even within these countries there are class distinctions. Different individuals have access to different goods, jobs, and even “public” services such as education.

Bluntly put, we do not live in a perfect world with perfectly ideal, moral, human beings. We hope for things to become better. We hope that our children will be living in a better world—making better decisions than we do. We hope for inequality and exploitation to just be something we read in the history books. We actively try to raise awareness of what is going on—on both a personal level as well as informing others. Revolting against a system that to a great extent works would do nothing but make those hopes more intangible. Finding a way to work with the existing system and make it more effective would be a more beneficial proposition.

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