”They, as a class, believed that they alone maintained civilization. It was their belief that if they weakened, the great beast would engulf them, and everything of beauty and wonder and joy and good in its cavernous and slime-dripping maw. Without them, anarchy would reign, and humanity would drop backward into the primitive night out of which it had so painfully emerged…….This was the beast to be stamped on, and the highest duty of the aristocrat was to stamp upon it. In short, they alone, by unremitting toil and sacrifice, stood between weak humanity and the all-devouring beast; and they believed it, firmly believed it.”
When it comes to accolades for the most lauded prophetic dystopian satirical novels of the early twentieth century, there’s no doubting which are the big two. The hyper-Stalinist all-surveillance paranoid nightmare of Orwell’s 1984, and the distorted DNA-as-play-doh playground of Huxley’s Brave New World. Occasionally Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We gets a look-in as a curio, a minor precursor to both, appearing as it did in 1920, long before that of Huxley (1932) and Orwell (1949). There is one however which always gets passed over, despite being written before both the others, way back in 1908, and overlooked, despite being written by one of the most widely revered American authors of all time. That novel is Jack London’s The Iron Heel. In and out of print for decades, The Iron Heel has finally been republished in the last couple of months by Penguin UK.
Orwell’s warning about the grotesque parody of socialism offered by Stalin and his acolytes which plagued the twentieth century, and the grim auger from Huxley on the eugenic, anaesthetic aesthetic threatened by scientific consumerism which stalked both this century and the last have been analysed, critiqued and celebrated to death. There is, however, a third more straightforward great evil of the modern age. The rich crushing the poor, the propensity of the forces of capital – when vicious push comes to deadly shove – to react with the most monstrous and tyrannical violence against the organised labour which seeks to grab more of its fair share from them. The evil that led to the bloody regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and their tin-pot descendants. This was prophesised just as uncannily in Jack London’s long-neglected novel.
The action of the book begins in the years immediately following when it was written. Labour relations in the USA are plunging as rapidly as the economy, while the thuggery of big-business against the unions increases in turn. Goons break limbs at picket-lines as families go hungry. No fiction there. Poverty spreads apace, and slower but just as surely does the Socialist movement of America (strange fantasy it may seem now, but as London wrote, the US Socialist Party, led by Eugene Debs, was growing rapidly, at one point gathering over a million votes even as its leaders were being jailed.) – Spikemagazine