Science Fiction Studies

# 9 = Volume 3, Part 2 = July 1976

Nadia Khouri

Utopia and Epic: Ideological Confrontation in Jack London’s The Iron Heel

A pedagogic Marxist program of revolutionary action set in an internecine Social-Darwinist world: such is the ideological substance of Jack London’s The Iron Heel.

An emotionally charged humanist epic expressing the turn-of-the-century revolutionary socialist consciousness—the main plot—running parallel with annotated marginalia supposedly written seven hundred years later—the utopia—: such is its Janus-headed form of discourse.

1. It is customaryto think of utopias as blueprints, detailed and ready-made. Here, The Iron Heel displays a peculiar genological complexity: it is a socialist utopia which could not afford to be a blueprint, yet could not help being a utopia, that is to say a desirable hypothetical better society in a hypothetical better time or place. Jack London suggested that better state in footnotes, divesting it of its frozen and exhaustive descriptiveness, and activated it by making it constantly comment on the epic from the point of view of a projected advantageous socialist future.

The formal organization of the novel underlines a somewhat strained discrepancy between the world of the epic and that of the utopia. The epic, with its Social-Darwinist struggle for existence and its Marxist revolutionary ideal, points in its every event to the utopian goal, all-pervasive in its very absence. The utopian footnotes, however, constantly abate the impact of the epic by impartially assessing the latter’s emotional exaggerations in a hypothetical historical distancing. The aesthetic accommodation of such an ostensibly dynamic form of discourse as the epic with such a markedly static one as the classical utopia may in itself appear contradictory. However, by yoking ideological and generic tensions together and by conducting them towards a dialectical resolution, The Iron Heel significantly expresses the tensions of its own historical reality, and also ushers in—parallel to H.G. Wells’s utopias—utopias that (both conceptually and narratively) do not in fact have to be static.

Socialist utopias as such stem from an ideological conflict with reality. By virtue of their happy otherness ("the best state of a commonwealth" and "a new island" in Thomas More’s ancestral full title to Utopia), by their very stress on difference from rather than similarity to reality, they have been gestures of disapprobation. Claiming that the ills of society are products of historical material circumstances and that these can be altered, utopias offer an alternative view of being. Their constant generic trait is the symbolic resolution of the tensions engendered by a socio-politically defective order. If socialist utopias are products of an alienated world, they are also its negations and plans for a new, de-alienated one. They are formal qualitative inversions: the prevailing values of the author’s society are transformed into their opposites. In Henri de Saint-Simon’s social organization, for example, the idleness and ineffectiveness of the ruling classes in early 19th century France turn to the producers’ industry; in Charles Fourier’s utopian communities, the Balzacian mercantilism of the country is resolved into passionate attraction and harmony; in Edward Bellamy’s ideal Boston of Looking Backward, the extreme individualism of 19th century America is replaced by collective Christian Socialism in the service of the nation; in William Morris’s humanized landscapes of News from Nowhere, the industrial barbarism and alienated drudgery of Victorian England are superseded by rest, creativity and life values. In London’s The Iron Heel, the sharp and frictive class struggle of the early 20th century is both exasperated and provided with a horizon of a new age’s brotherhood and stability.

The basic traits of qualitative inversion from chaotic opposition to a harmony in which individual and social come to terms, Jack London shares with his literary congeners. But where the utopias of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Bellamy (Morris seems a transitional case) are closed systems, his is emphatically open. Where they are detailed and exhaustive masterplans for a set of deterministic socio-economic interrelations, his is an unconsummated and non-causal assemblage of ideological data, still referable to the socialist utopian ideal, but intentionally inconclusive. The compelling priority here is not to design a commendable ready-made order, but to be able to reach such an auspicious summum bonum: that is why the overwhelming bulk of the text is the political epic-story and utopia is explicit only in the footnotes (though implied throughout). The previous socialist utopians had rationalist points of reference that made it possible for them to spell out the precise elements that would enter into their socio-economic models. Saint-Simon placed his faith in Newtonian cosmology and in the positivistic transformation of the new scientific materialism and industrial progress of his time. Fourier, the eccentric mathematician, calculated the socio-economic equations of his polymorphic utopian phalanxes. Bellamy shared the optimism of his middle-class compatriots in the power of technology and of a growing American nationalism to reform and unify society. Morris, the poet, politician and craftsman-artist, founder of a company working on the same principles as the medieval guilds, devised a eudemonist society in the image of his workshop. By the time Jack London wrote The Iron Heel, however, generations of utopian reformers had undergone a peculiar experience of violence, and the obstacles to the realization of an equitable order had taken an ominous turn. Socialist and all other movements against capitalist chaos had been ruthlessly crushed throughout the century. As historical horizons turned darker, the vision of an active struggle grew. The hope for the alternative society consequently placed the accent on the fight for the utopian goal rather than on the accomplishment of such a utopia. This struggle concretizes in The Iron Heel in the confrontation of such incompatible ideologies as Marxism, Spencerian Social-Darwinism and Nietzscheanism. In this regard The Iron Heel is merely an aesthetic sum of the conflicting social and ideological realities of the time. I shall try to show that London manages to merge and extend these ideologies into a finally socialist utopian combination, in which Marxism is the decisive dialectizing agent.

2. The Iron Heel is thus a dynamic utopia engaged in the process of overcoming historical obstacles. It is a utopia in the making and a future perfect assurance that it has been achieved pragmatically within the context of socialism. A "Foreword," supposedly written by the utopian Anthony Meredith, establishes the framework of the novel in utopian time—the year 419 of the Brotherhood of Man (B.O.M.) era, and in utopian space—the city of Ardis. The novel then proceeds in a looking backward fashion to recapture the events of a manuscript found in an ancient oak, a presumably authentic first-hand story revolving around Ernest Everhard, a socialist leader and militant of the early 20th century, and written 700 years earlier by his wife and collaborator Avis. Here London inflates his story with epic amplitude: as in the traditional epic, it is centered upon a heroic figure on whose actions the fate of society depends, and it is large in scale: as the Odyssey involved the whole Mediterranean or Paradise Lost the cosmic frame of Earth, Heaven and Hell, the socialist adventure in The Iron Heel spreads to the nation and gradually to the whole world in an international strike of workers. Everhard, like Achilles, Hector or Adam, is depicted as a figure of great importance. As the Trojan War in the Iliad, the adventures of Odysseus in his wanderings, the war in Heaven in Paradise Lost, the action of The Iron Heel is built on heroic deeds. Yet in this humanistic epic the destiny of man is man and his history is manmade. The supernatural figures of the traditional epic disappear. There is now only one epic hero: man; only one epic subject: the progress of humanity. Running parallel with this story of Everhard and his comrades, fighting for the socialist Cause in a wolfishly competitive world, are footnotes written by Meredith, intended as editorial clarification for the utopian readers of 419 B.O.M., explaining the obsolete values and terms of the internecine world of the manuscript.

The historical differences between the 20th century and the B.O.M. era are indicated by two contrasting levels of sensibility: the one self-conscious, idealized— the manuscript; the other rational, unromantic—the Foreword and the footnotes. The tone of the Foreword and the footnotes is factual, clinically informative, written in the calm and balanced spirit of the new age. It presents a gain in insight: "It cannot be said that the Everhard Manuscript is an important historical document. To the historian it bristles with errors—not errors of fact, but errors of interpretation. Looking back across the seven centuries that have lapsed since Avis Everhard completed her manuscript, events and the bearings of events, that were confused and veiled to her are clear to us. She lacked perspective. She was too close to the events she writes about."1 Historical perspective means acuity in viewing events and an objective distance.

On the other hand, the tone of the manuscript is sharply subjective. The title of chapter I, "My Eagle," with its sudden symbolism, jolts the reader into an emotional dimension which is in stark contrast with the explicative literalness of the Foreword. "My Eagle" introduces an idealized hero concept which the footnotes deny. These achieve the objective of a distancing from empathy quite suitably: if the supposed utopian readers have not experienced, even remotely, the problematic struggles of the 20th century militants, since their utopia has been in existence for hundreds of years, how can they be expected to empathize? They can only frown or condemn. Moreover, London’s technique of distancing or estrangement forces his contemporary reader out of a compassionate torpor which the tragic story of a unique hero might impose upon him: the reader’s involvement in the story must be rational, objective and historical. And he must not forget that the tragedy of the hero has resolved itself in the victory of a whole world. To Avis Everhard’s passionate "I think of what has been and is no more—my Eagle, beating with tireless wings the void, soaring toward what was ever his sun, the flaming ideal of human freedom. I cannot sit idly by and wait the great event that is his making, though he is not here to see. He devoted all the years of his manhood to it, and for it he gave his life. It is his handiwork. He made it," the footnotes comment, abating the emotional impact: "With all respect to Avis Everhard, it must be pointed out that Everhard was but one of many able leaders who planned the Second Revolt. And we, today, looking back across the centuries, can safely say that even had he lived, the Second Revolt would not have been less calamitous in its outcome than it was" (§1).

London here played with the aesthetic which Bertolt Brecht subsequently developed and called the Verfremdungseffekt, or the technique of estrangement whereby the onlooker is made to see objects and relations not merely by sympathizing with them, but especially by joining this sympathy to a critical detachment in view of their transformation.2 Through this prefiguration of the Brechtian technique London managed to reject in the footnotes the idea of a unique hero and advance that of many heroes. The Iron Heel is a humanistic epic which praises the progress of reason, logic, brotherhood and justice, collectively felt and fought for. The evolution of the individual is intimately interwoven with the evolution of humanity, and the love story of Avis and Ernest with the destiny of the political struggle. However, if The Iron Heel is an epic, it is so only as long as the struggle lasts: it becomes an archaeological object when the struggle is over and won.

If in this humanistic epic there is to be a hero at all, then he has to be a public man and a polemic pedagogue (Ernest is at some point an orator on a soap-box addressing a crowd of working men). London organized his novel to emphasize the importance of theoretical preparation before revolutionary action. The manuscript is divided into two parts: the first half extending roughly from chapter 1 to chapter 10 and dealing with a theoretical education in historical materialism; the second one, going from chapter 10—suitably called "The Vortex"—to the end, dealing with revolutionary action. And the whole novel is indeed meant to be an instruction in both theory and practice.

Haranguing, attacking, exposing, ridiculing, debating, browbeating, demonstrating, persuading, predicting, the epic hero plays with rhetoric to enunciate the socialist philosophy. He has a mission of enlightenment directed against what is presented as the turbid erroneousness and viciousness of the world of capitalism. Proving arguments by discursive reason and logical disputation, he accuses the Church ministers:

You are anarchists in the realm of thought. And you are mad cosmos-makers.... Do you know what I was reminded of as I sat at table and listened to you talk and talk? You reminded me for all the world of the scholastics of the Middle Ages who gravely and learnedly debated the absorbing question of how many angels could dance on the point of a needle. Why, my dear sirs, you are as remote from the intellectual life of the twentieth century as an Indian medicine-man making incantation in the primeval forest ten thousand years ago. [§1]

So much for idealist philosophies. Everhard then turns against the economy and sociology of capitalism. Evoking historical analogies to prove his point, he predicts the breakdown of the capitalist system in accordance with Marx’s theory of surplus-value. He compares small businessmen to the machine-breakers of the 18th century: as these tried in vain to stop the Industrial Revolution that displaced them, so the small businessmen of the 20th century who try to break the great trusts will be forced to submit to their greater power. Persuasion is backed by historical evidence, by the "proof" device. And this leads deictically to the pedagogic statement: "That, gentlemen, is socialism, a greater combination than the trusts, a greater economic and social combination than any that has as yet appeared on the planet" (§8). Meanwhile demonstration, guidance, instruction gradually point the way to the power confrontation.

3. The virulent face to face between Ernest and the wealthy Philomath-club members is the climax of the first part of the novel. Socialist power challenges capitalist power and elicits the threatening response: "Our reply shall he couched in terms of lead. We are in power. Nobody will deny it. By virtue of that power we shall remain in power... We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces" (§5). Inescapably, violence is used to buttress those in power, and violence will be needed to overcome the obstacle. From chapter 10, "The Vortex," the narrative acquires a violent pace; it is swept into the whirlpool of the action. Terms like "Bloody strike," "smashed down," "riot clubs," "blood and revenge," "executed," "herded into bull-pens," "convulsed with industrial dissensions," "tales of violence and blood," "Riot, arson, and wanton destruction," "laborers were shot down like dogs," "Labor was bloody and sullen, but crushed," "maelstrom," "rack and ruin," carry the consciousness to arms. The mood unfolds in a succession of revolutionary terminology and situations: boycotts, sabotage, frame-ups, spying, guerrilla warfare, agent-provocateurs.

To grasp the full significance of this vocabulary one must visualize the colliding socio-economic interests of the time: the depression of 1873, the great railroad strike in Pittsburgh and the July riots of 1877, the great panic of 1893, the repeated instances of mass demonstrations of the unemployed in a time of internecine capitalism characterized by wild speculation which indeed ruled the world, and especially countries that were recently opened up—Australia, South Africa, Canada, South America, etc., wolfish economic ambitions, the establishment of trusts and combinations, the concentration of monopoly and large-scale production in a few hands—Vanderbilt, Moore, Pennsylvania, Morgan-Hill, Rockefeller, Harriman, Kuhn-Loeb, and the "big three" in the insurance field, Mutual, New York Life and Equitable. Power, struggle, revolution could become, either separately or interchangeably, the current catchwords in such a social climate.

The "Oligarchy" described in the novel as an "Iron Heel...descending upon and crushing mankind" (§Forward), is a development from that class of London’s time which was supporting the status quo by misusing the catchwords of "struggle for existence" and "survival of the fittest" to uphold the idea that "the best competitors in a competitive situation would win, and that this process would lead to continuing improvement."3 Herbert Spencer’s Social-Darwinist theories, far more popular in the United States than in his own England, were welcomed by the ruling classes as helpful in persuading the working classes to accept the hardships of their life, and in preventing them from going in for reforms. On this matter one of the footnotes remarks:

The oligarchs believed in 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. [§21]

Jack London himself, as quite a number of his contemporaries such as Theodore Dreiser, Clarence Darrow and Hamlin Garland, recognized the influence of Spencer on their formative years.4 In the Foreword, even the utopian annotator does not conceal a certain admiration for Spencer: "Following upon capitalism, it was held even by such intellectual and antagonistic giants as Herbert Spencer, that Socialism would come." The systematization of knowledge in biology and sociology is repeatedly stressed in the novel. It is specifically in these two sciences that one is to find the assurance that the revolution will triumph:

Power will be the arbiter, as it always has been the arbiter. It is a struggle of classes. Just as your class dragged down the old feudal nobility, so shall it be dragged down by my class, the working class. If you will read your biology and your sociology as clearly as you do your history, you will see that this end I have described is inevitable. [§5]

The biology in The Iron Heel comes largely from Spencer, and the sociology from Marx. Spencer tried to synthesize the latest discoveries in biology (Darwin) and in physics—mainly investigations in thermodynamics of such people as Joule, Mayer, Helmholtz and Kelvin. This marked a departure from the old Newtonian view of a self-contained universe. In Spencer’s system, the constant redistribution of matter and motion was divided between evolution and dissolution, evolution being the progressive integration of matter accompanied by the dissipation of motion, and dissolution being the disorganization of matter accompanied by the absorption of motion. The life process, being essentially evolutionary, meant an incessant change from incoherent homogeneity, exemplified by the lowly protozoa, to coherent heterogeneity.

If the United States was indeed during the last three decades of the 19th century in many respects the Social-Darwinist country, as well as one of Nietzschean individualism and power, it was also one with an already strong radical tradition: Abolitionism, Feminism, Unions, Cooperatives, Workers’ Parties, Farmers’ movements had their history in this country, and energetic attempts had moreover been made by disciples of Marx, such as Joseph Weydemeyer, Friedrich Sorge, Daniel de Leon, Eugene Debs and "Big Bill" Heywood to adapt Marxism to the conditions of American life.5 Furthermore, there was a growing interest in and acquaintance with the socialism of such people as Henry George and certainly Bellamy. The Iron Heel synthesizes these elements and channels them towards a Marxist resolution: the final triumph of the socialist revolution.

4. Seen in this light, one can understand why the structure of the novel cannot be closed or specifically fixed or clear-cut. The two levels of The Iron Heel, manuscript and footnotes, are open-ended. The manuscript stops abruptly in the middle of a sentence, and the last footnote merely implies that there is no rounded resolution in the Aristotelian sense of the word:

This is the end of the Everhard Manuscript. It breaks off abruptly in the middle of a sentence. She must have received warning of the coming of the mercenaries, for she had time safely to hide the Manuscript before she fled or was captured. It is to be regretted that she did not live to complete her narrative, for then, undoubtedly, would have been cleared away the mystery that has shrouded for seven centuries the execution of Ernest Everhard. [§25]

Likewise, the structure of the two levels is linear. Manuscript and footnotes run parallel and never touch: they are separated by seven hundred years of social evolution.

The development from the society that the author is criticizing to the utopian organization is not specifically explained. There is a wide time-gap between epic and utopia. The dissolution of 20th century society and the evolution of the new order are not deterministic. We are faced, in geological terms, with different strata that were shaped by social revolutions analogous to physical earthquakes:

The Great Earthquake of 2368 A.D. broke off the side of one of these knolls and toppled it into the hole where the Everhards made their refuge. Since the finding of the Manuscript excavations have been made, and the house, the two cave rooms, and all the accumulated rubbish of long occupancy have been brought to light. [§18]

The extinctness of capitalist society is thus translated into seismic terms, and the interest in that era becomes archaeological. The desire for socialist change takes in London the shape of radical revolution: capitalism must become a lost civilization.

The Darwinist concept of evolution from the nebular mass that was the Earth, from lower species to higher and complex ones, turns in London to evolution from capitalist chaos to coherent socialist utopia. As in Spencer, the end-result of this evolutionary process is a state of biological equilibration which Spencer thought was inevitable because the evolutionary process cannot move infinitely towards increasing heterogeneity. In his First Principles he affirmed that dissolution followed evolution, disintegration followed integration; that in an organism this was represented by death and decay, but in society by the establishment of a balanced, harmonious, completely adapted state, in which "evolution can end only in the establishment of the greatest perfection and the most complete happiness."

The Marxist use of the term "dissolution," however, signifies the dissolution of private property and the abolition of classes. The very economic evolution of private property bears in itself the seeds of its own dissolution. And the antagonistic class this evolution has created, the proletariat, wins by abolishing both itself and private property. Only then can the principles of harmonious socialism be said to have been achieved. In The Iron Heel, the auspicious social balance of the Brotherhood of Man era is an inevitable outcome of both biological and socioeconomic evolution. However, London’s revolutionary historical consciousness and the Marxist ideological point of reference led him to repudiate the pseudo-Darwinian theory of passive and fatalistic adaptation to the conditions of life, and to draw instead on a dynamic program of action. In the face of those biological and historical forces, London sets the Marxo-Nietzschean titanic strength of Everhard, "a Superman, a blond beast such as Nietzsche has described" (§1). Mighty historical obstacles can only be overcome by superhuman power. Ernest (ever hard) struggling to dominate the cosmic antagonistic forces surrounding him and his class, and striving to affirm the convictions of the Cause, is not much different from Zarathustra straining to reach the top of the mountain. He uses his Will to Power, but it is the power of his own class.

Yet, as soon as the utopia is reached, the struggle for existence disappears. Terms expressing conflict and oppression such as "ramshackle house" (§3), "leg-bar" (§6), "lobby" (§9), "strike-breakers," "bull-pen" (§10), and "bluff" (§22) become unintelligible and have to be explained to the utopians. The Marxist perspective is projected to its logical conclusions. It becomes clear that the Spencerian view, having at its core the impossibility of controlling social evolution, was in fact anti-utopian and could not be used on its own. It was, nevertheless, the formal theory behind the social struggle for existence which London conveyed in every threateningly animal image of his novel. And it seemed that civilization was returning to the law of the jungle (a familiar Londonian theme), that "red of claw and fang" life (§3) in which the working class turned to cattle "herded in factory towns" (§2) or moved as "a raging, screaming, screeching, demoniacal horde" of "apes, tigers...hairy beasts of burden" (§23), a "roaring abysmal beast" (§21) finally "shot down like dogs" (§10) or lying "as the rabbits of California after a drive" (§24): "A slaughter-house was made of the nation by the capitalists" (§2). The struggle for Marxism in London is infused with that Spencerian bestiary. In the capitalist "organized wolf-pack of society" (§12), the Marxist Superman fights for a superhistory; the eagle "beating with tireless wings" (§2), the "roaring lion" (§2), strives to overcome the "wolf -struggle" (§3) with the brute power of his class-consciousness.

In the novel, Spencerian Social-Darwinism reflected Jack London’s empirical background. Nietzscheanism gave the story its romantic motive force. Marxism provided its utopian horizon and sustained its unyielding ideological drive.

Yet, in the final analysis, the creation of a literary utopia depends not only on material preconditions—a conflictual genesis, for example—, but also on the fact that the alternative society is at the author’s historical moment an accessible contingency. Social reactions shift with history, and utopias record them with figurative and rhetorical power. The Iron Heel was written at a strategic historical moment, when the confident persuasions of socialism had for the first time been validated in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Joan London went so far as to affirm that "without 1905, The Iron Heel would never have been written."7 That might be a passionate exaggeration. Nevertheless, the events of that revolution most probably provided the novel with some important elements. The massacre of workers by Cossacks (the Mercenaries in the novel?), worker, student and peasant uprisings, the great general strike which paralyzed Russia in October, the national movements for liberation, and then the crushing of the December insurrection in Moscow, certainly have their echoes in the novel. And it might very well be that 1905 concretized in The Iron Heel the persistent utopian principle of hope beyond the pessimism of defeat.


1. The text followed here is that of the Hill and Wang edition. See entry for The Iron Heel in the Suvin-Douglas bibliography in this issue of SFS.

2. See Ernst Bloch, "Entfremdung, Verfremdung: Alienation, Estrangement" in Erica Munk, ed., Brecht (NY: Bantam, 1972).

3. Richard Hofstadter. Social Darwinism in American Thought (NY: George Braziller, 1944), p 6.

4. Ibid., p 34.

5. See David Herreshoff, American Disciples of Marx (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967) for an informative study on the propagation of Marxism in America.

6. Ibid., p 37.

7. Joan London, Jack London and His Times (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968), p 280.



The formal organization of The Iron Heel, an emotionally charged humanistic epic whose main plot runs parallel with annotated marginalia supposedly written seven hundred years later, suggests a strained discrepancy between the world of the epic and the world of the utopia, as the utopian footnotes constantly abate the impact of the epic. The Iron Heel was written at a strategic historical moment, when the confident persuasions of socialism had for the first time been validated in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Joan London went so far as to say that "without 1905, The Iron Heel would never have been written." The massacre of workers by Cossacks (the Mercenaries in the novel?), the worker, student, and peasant uprisings, the general strike that paralyzed Russia in October, the national movements for liberation, and finally the crushing of the December insurrection in Moscow, all certainly have their echoes in the novel. It might well be that 1905 concretized in The Iron Heel the persistent utopian principle of hope beyond the pessimism of defeat.

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