Jack London, the socialist Ayn Rand
Last night I was researching early dystopian fiction for some reason when I came across a reference to Jack London’s 1907 novel The Iron Heel, which concerns a worldwide struggle between oligarchs – the modern term “fascist” had not yet been derived from the old Roman symbol – and a distributed socialist union of labor. The idea of such a narrative extrapolated from that particular year of history by an American socialist struck me as something that would inevitably provide a great deal of insight not only into the particulars of the early 20th century, but also the haphazard practice of geopolitical prediction. This may indeed turn out to be the case, but two chapters in, I have instead learned that Ayn Rand was not that century’s worst writer of socio-political dialog.
I’ll begin by giving London his due credit for having established several conventions that others would come to mimic as the medium of the future history became more commonplace over the next century. For instance, the book is introduced by a historian looking backwards from some future point in which the global socialist paradise has been firmly established. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what happens in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, which itself was written two decades prior to Iron Heel. So, yeah, nevermind.
Though the text is marked by notations from the future historian, the prose itself consists of a document written by the revolutionary protagonist’s wife some years after the events described therein. We meet this narrator upon the occasion of the protagonist’s first visit to the home where she lives with her father, who has also invited for dinner a gaggle of Christian strawmen. The only real man present, of course, is Jack Londo – er, Ernest Everhard, a fellow whose biography, politics, and allegedly hypnotic effect on women happens to mirror those of the author:
But this boldness that I took to be presumption was a vital clew to the nature of Ernest Everhard. He was simple, direct, afraid of nothing, and he refused to waste time on conventional mannerisms. `You pleased me,’ he explained long afterward; `and why should I not fill my eyes with that which pleases me?’ I have said that he was afraid of nothing. He was a natural aristocrat–and this in spite of the fact that he was in the camp of the non-aristocrats. He was a superman, a blond beast such as Nietzsche has described, and in addition he was aflame with democracy.
Having made what may very well be the most ironic and historically unfortunate characterization in the entire history of literature, London’s doppleganger’s female admirer continues to irrigate her underpants over this paragon of masculinity. This sort of thing was somewhat more seemly when it was being composed by an actual woman such as Rand, rather than a man who is essentially putting down on paper how women ought to see him.
I need scarcely say that I was deeply interested in Ernest Everhard. It was not alone what he had said and how he had said it, but it was the man himself. I had never met a man like him. I suppose that was why, in spite of my twenty-four years, I had not married. I liked him; I had to confess it to myself. And my like for him was founded on things beyond intellect and argument. Regardless of his bulging muscles and prize-fighter’s throat, he impressed me as an ingenuous boy. I felt that under the guise of an intellectual swashbuckler was a delicate and sensitive spirit. I sensed this, in ways I knew not, save that they were my woman’s intuitions.
I would slit my throat at this point except that I suspect that there will soon come a more appropriate occasion on which to do so, as London/Everhard is about to address the assembled bourgeois.
`I am not versed in the courtesies of ecclesiastical controversy,’ he began, and then hesitated with modesty and indecision.
`Go on,’ they urged, and Dr. Hammerfield said: `We do not mind the truth that is in any man. If it is sincere,’ he amended.
`Then you separate sincerity from truth?’ Ernest laughed quickly.
Dr. Hammerfield gasped, and managed to answer, `The best of us may be mistaken, young man, the best of us.’
Here begins pages and pages of Randian characterization in which the chiseled hero reduces his soft-faced antagonists into sniveling, screaming women by means of his adamantium stance.
“But I disagree with you,” the Bishop interposed, his pale, ascetic face betraying by a faint glow the intensity of his feelings. “Your premise is wrong. There is no such thing as a conflict of interest between labor and capital–or, rather, there ought not to be.”
“Thank you,” Ernest said gravely. “By that last statement you have given me back my premise.”
“But why should there be a conflict?” the Bishop demanded warmly.
Ernest shrugged his shoulders. “Because we are so made, I guess.”
“But we are not so made!” cried the other.
“Are you discussing the ideal man?” Ernest asked, “–unselfish and godlike, and so few in numbers as to be practically non-existent, or are you discussing the common and ordinary average man?”
“The common and ordinary man,” was the answer.
“Who is weak and fallible, prone to error?”
Bishop Morehouse nodded.
“And petty and selfish?”
Again he nodded.
“Watch out!” Ernest warned. “I said ‘selfish.'”
“The average man IS selfish,” the Bishop affirmed valiantly.
“Wants all he can get?”
“Wants all he can get–true but deplorable.”
“Then I’ve got you.” Ernest’s jaw snapped like a trap. “Let me show you. Here is a man who works on the street railways.”
“He couldn’t work if it weren’t for capital,” the Bishop interrupted.
“True, and you will grant that capital would perish if there were no labor to earn the dividends.”
The Bishop was silent.
I am only on chapter 2 and already a good half a dozen people have gone silent in the face of this blond superman’s logic and pheromones. The rest tend to respond in gasps, as previewed earlier. When they do manage to talk, they “trumpet,” “splutter,” “retort tartly,” “mutter lamely,” “murmer complacently,” and even “announce pompously” – to select a few examples taken from as many paragraphs. On one occasion a certain foolish bishop somehow manages to “interrupt” our hero even though the latter had finished his thought a paragraph back and the intervening text is made up of description and backstory. Meanwhile a certain vagina continues to leak out of growing revolutionary fervor/romantic compulsion even as the mind resists his strange new premise.
“Remember,” I said, “you see but one side of the shield. There is much good in us, though you give us credit for no good at all. Bishop Morehouse is right. The industrial wrong, terrible as you say it is, is due to ignorance. The divisions of society have become too widely separated.”
“The wild Indian is not so brutal and savage as the capitalist class,” he answered; and in that moment I hated him.
“You do not know us,” I answered. “We are not brutal and savage.”
“Prove it,” he challenged.
“How can I prove it . . . to you?” I was growing angry.
He shook his head. “I do not ask you to prove it to me. I ask you to prove it to yourself.”
“I know,” I said.
“You know nothing,” was his rude reply.
“There, there, children,” father said soothingly.
Thank God father intervened before London ran out of snappy banter. And just to anticipate any objections on the part of those who might defend London on the grounds that his medium was still in development, I will note that I’ve read The Octopus and The Jungle and neither were this terrible. In fact, London’s inexplicably positive prominence might even justify a comparison to Dostoevsky, if only to better show how absolutely misguided are those arbiters of literary merit who have decided that the former’s name is worthy of any sort of reverence whatsoever. And of course, Dostoevsky was writing decades earlier, and consequently had less precedent of ingenuity on which to draw.
At some point, London decides that it is time to advance the plot:
“I understand you have money, or your father has, which is the same thing–money invested in the Sierra Mills.”
“What has that to do with it?” I cried.
“Nothing much,” he began slowly, “except that the gown you wear is stained with blood. The food you eat is a bloody stew. The blood of little children and of strong men is dripping from your very roof-beams. I can close my eyes, now, and hear it drip, drop, drip, drop, all about me.”
And suiting the action to the words, he closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. I burst into tears of mortification and hurt vanity.
Poor thing. At any rate, London has the balls to suddenly deploy outside the window of the house in which the scene is set a character who not only worked at the Sierra Mills, but who in fact had his arm chewed off by a machine in an effort to save the company a few dollars and was afterwards fired, his damage claims defeated in court by company lawyers. Ernest explains all of this in perfect detail to his reluctant sexual admirer, having total knowledge of a literary universe in which London is God and he London’s prophet and mouthpiece. Determined to prove him wrong about capitalism in general and the man’s plight in particular, the girl and the bishop agree to go investigate this and other alleged atrocities of the establishment.
We are now two chapters in to the Iron Heel. I will continue reading and reporting on this particular narrative until it runs its course or at least ends.