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The Iron Heel (1907)

by Jack London

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,2353212,073 (3.39)54
Written in 1908, this visionary novel about class struggle anticipates the political upheavals of the 1930s and beyond.
  1. 20
    Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia by Alexander Bogdanov (leigonj)
    leigonj: Both are science fiction written in 1908, inspired by the events of the 1905 Russian Revolution. Both are born of the writings of Marx and Engels.
  2. 10
    Walkaway: A Novel by Cory Doctorow (melmore)
    melmore: Both works are (among other things) showcases for the elaboration of political and economic arguments. Both strive to represent the full horror of economic oppression, and what happens when the oppressed resist.
  3. 10
    News from Nowhere by William Morris (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Morris's novel could almost read like the future utopia from which London's fictional annotations are written.
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» See also 54 mentions

English (31)  French (1)  All languages (32)
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
«Ovunque esista una classe dominante, gran parte della morale pubblica ha origine dai suoi interessi e dal suo senso classista di superiorità».


In uno dei racconti di Tu, sanguinosa infanzia di Michele Mari, Conrad dice a Jack London: "lo stile, benedetto ragazzo, lo stile.

Leggendo i libri di London in italiano ovviamente è impossibile giudicare "lo stile", influenzato com'è dal traduttore, ma se c'è una cosa che mi affascina sempre è la grande versatilità di quest'uomo. Riesce a raccontare storie di ogni tipo facendotele vivere come fossero reali. Più volte infatti ho dovuto ricordare che questo è un romanzo e non un saggio. Anche se, come sanno gli estimatori di London, in tutti i suoi romanzi ci sono elementi autobiografici.

Difficile anche commentarlo senza parlare di politica e ideali.
Il libro è un flusso di monologhi per la maggior parte della prima metà. Monologhi che ricordano quelli di altri personaggi di London sugli ideali socialisti. Belli, magari non sempre condivisibili in pieno ma efficaci.

Lui dice che questo è un omaggio a Marx.
Nel bel saggio introduttivo di Mario Picchi si spiega come London credesse in un socialismo romantico e ci credesse soprattutto nei periodi bui, quando era depresso salvo poi comportarsi e pensare in tutt'altro modo quando era lucido.
Viene dipinto come razzista (cosa abbastanza comune a quell'epoca) e seguace dell'evoluzionismo, convinto che il più forte avrebbe prevalso sul più debole.
Insomma, sembrava di facile preda degli entusiasmi del momento.

"È il modo sapiente che fa grande e definitiva l’opera di Jack London, uno scrittore che ben conosce il duplice binario della riflessione critica e dell’invenzione, ed è in grado positivamente di reperire il punto d’incontro, il referente, fra i due momenti che lo coinvolgono."

Questo giusto per capire come leggere questo libro, almeno per me.
Più che una distopia sembra un saggio storico, giusto proseguo di quel "Popolo degli abissi" che in seguito ispirò sullo stesso tema un altro scrittore importante: George Orwell, con il suo Senza un soldo a Parigi e Londra.
Considerando che Il tallone di ferro è stato scritto nel 1908 vengono i brividi per alcune "predizioni" piuttosto realistiche su come sono andate le cose in molti paesi.
Nella seconda parte si fa più movimentato e vengono raccontate le azioni e le lotte rendendo il libro più avvincente, con una parte, "La comune di Chicago", letteralmente densa e inquietante.

La struttura del romanzo, scritto come se si fosse trovato un diario della moglie del protagonista dopo sette secoli, viene corredata di un apparato di note degne di David Foster Wallace dove, a partire dalla "falsa introduzione", il narratore ci spiega quello che nel diario è sottointeso come le informazioni sul periodo storico e i comportamenti civili, la fine che hanno fatto alcuni personaggi, informazioni e spiegazioni varie.
Ecco perché, per le cose raccontate e per questo espediente narrativo, il tutto, a volte, sembra reale.

«Io non credo alle fiamme e allo zolfo dell’inferno; ma in momenti come questo rimpiango la mia miscredenza. No, in momenti come questo io quasi ci credo. Deve esistere per forza un inferno, perché in nessun altro posto voi potrete ricevere una punizione adeguata ai vostri crimini. Fino a quando esisterà gente come voi, l’inferno sarà un’esigenza essenziale del cosmo».



( )
  Atticus06 | Jun 9, 2020 |
I think the book would have benefited from some editing and rearranging of the text to make it more readable. ( )
  francesanngray | Oct 18, 2019 |
Fascinating, and incredibly relevant today. London had seen poverty, the excesses of extreme capitalism, and a widening ‘wealth gap’ in the America of his day, and like many, advocated socialism as a more humane and fair system. Here he writes a cautionary tale about what he believed the conflict inherent to capitalism between owners and workers would inevitably lead to – civil war, or revolution – and comes across even as advocating it. He does this by presenting a journal from one of the wife of one of the (fictional) early Socialist leaders, uncovered by historians in the future, after man had endured hundreds of years under the “Iron Heel” of an Oligarchy, and then were hundreds of years into a more enlightened “Brotherhood of Man”.

I don’t buy all of London’s views, and he obviously didn’t have the benefit of seeing just how disastrously communism would play out in the 20th century, but found his descriptions of the power dynamic between owners and workers, the rich and poor – and all of the implications of that – to be highly compelling. There are so many things to chew on here, as the book includes:

- Criticism of organized religion’s role in attempting to preserve the status quo, vs. preaching the real message of Christ … among other things, quoting several 19th century Southern church leaders justifying slavery.

- Political corruption in the form of lobbyists in Congress eating away at democracy and turning it into a plutocracy, despite voting and what people thought was rule of the people. He also points out decisions like Lochner v. New York (1905), which held that the New York law prohibiting work days longer than 10 hours and work weeks with more than 60 hours was unconstitutional – a sign that wealthy, conservative interests were at play, and which would continue on into the progressive era (something we may see repeating itself in the future).

- Echoes of Tolstoy’s idealistic suggestion to ending war – by the common man simply refusing to participate.

- The wealthy saying criticisms against them amounted to “class hatred” just as we see today on Fox News, and ironically without the self-reflection of what a system that accelerates the wealth gap amounts to. They also believe they are the saviors of society, when the protagonist finds them not only selfish, but surprised by their “absence of intellectual life.”

- London quotes statistics from 1900 as giving this breakdown of Americans: the Plutocratic (in this context, wealthy) class (1%), Middle Class (29%), and Proletarian Class (70%). It’s just fascinating to me to compare this to today, where we have increasing light shed on “the 1%”, which as of 2017 owned 40% of the nation’s wealth, and the bottom 90% owned a shockingly low 20%. In London’s vision, he sees the middle class being squeezed out of existence – and it’s this erosion that we see today.

- Criticism of the small businessmen who were angry about being run out of business by big businessmen, who could use economies of scale to better compete – saying that they had had no problem in successively driving others out of business, were motivated by the same principles, and were swimming upstream to think a system that produced lower costs could be undone. I thought this was fantastic. While I cringe over the big businesses today (e.g. Amazon), London’s comments through his character are insightful. His solution is not to limit the big business (“the machine”, as he calls it), but to have workers own it (or the government), spreading the wealth. He also believed in “excessive income taxes, graduated with ferocity, to destroy large accumulations.”

- The lengths to which the rich will go to preserve their wealth - buying off labor leaders, breaking unions and undermining them at every turn, sending agents out to incite violence so that armed force can be brought in, and most ominously, simply charging illegality of election results and then using violence. If that doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of your head, I don’t know what will.

The crisis that threatened American democracy in London’s time was alleviated with social programs following the Depression, leading to rise of the middle class – but we face the problem again in 2019 after decades of the middle class being eroded, starting with the Reagan-era economic policies and tax changes. The novel shows us how full circle we’ve come, and while I don’t think London’s solution of revolution or socialism/communism is the answer, I couldn’t help but feel while reading his book that we’re standing on the same precipice over an abyss, that selfish behavior leads to history inevitably repeating itself, and that grave outcomes are certainly possible – either in the form of violence and a civil war, or a plutocracy that continues to shed all pretenses of being a democracy. It’s chilling, chilling stuff, and fascinating to me how both systems can lead to autocratic power – via the Oligarchy as London describes it here (and which we see examples of), or via communist dictators who brutally enslave their people.

As a novel, it doesn’t hold up as well as it should, particularly in the chapters after the revolution breaks out, because it’s predominantly London essentially narrating events of violence. It’s also got a socialist leader who is too perfect – strong in mind and body, courageous, and uncannily prescient, and in that way, it reminded me of Chernyshevsky’s idealistic man in ‘What Is to be Done?’ Artistically the book works well in its first half, but starts faltering in its second half. I did like the journal format, footnoted centuries later by a fictional historian, an effective technique which allowed London to make comments on events from the late 19th century as well as the future, all seen from a distance.

One might consider reading this book in tandem with Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ because Rand presents a clearly different (and positive) view of industrialists – as leaders, thinkers, and creators, and instead criticized those that dragged them down via bureaucracy, or via 'levelizing' humanity (ala communism). Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, that absolute communism as in 20th century Russia/China is awful, and absolute capitalism as in the 19th century industrial revolution in Europe/America (and what we’ve trended towards over the last few decades) is also awful. A happy medium is what’s needed.

Quotes:
On business, he provides this footnote for ‘Wall Street’:
“Wall Street – so named from a street in ancient New York, where was situated the stock exchange, and where the irrational organization of society permitted underhanded manipulation of all the industries of the country.”

On lawyers and the rich, from Theodore Roosevelt in a commencement speech to Harvard in 1905:
“We all know that, as things actually are, many of the most influential and most highly renumerated members of the Bar in every center of wealth, make it their special task to work out bold and ingenious schemes by which their wealthy clients, individual or corporate, can evade the laws which were made to regulate, in the interests of the public, the uses of great wealth.”

On plutocracy, from John C. Calhoun:
“A power has risen up in the government greater than the people themselves, consisting of many and various and powerful interests, combined into one mass, and held together by the cohesive power of the vast surplus in the banks.”

And this one, which is stunning, which London says is Abraham Lincoln just before his assassination, but was actually written by John Nicolay, Lincoln’s private secretary a couple of decades after his death (still, wow!):
“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudice of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

On the rich, from John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’:
“Whenever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality emanates from its class interests and its class feelings of superiority.”

On the wealth gap, this from Lord Avebury, and Englishman in the House of Lords, in 1906:
“The unrest in Europe, the spread of socialism, and the ominous rise of Anarchism, are warmings to the governments and the ruling classes that the conditions of the working classes in Europe is becoming intolerable, and that if a revolution is to be avoided some steps must be taken to increase wages, reduce the hours of labor, and lower the prices of the necessities of life.” ( )
2 vote gbill | Jul 19, 2019 |
This was a surprise to me. I thought Jack London was all about woods and wild dogs and making fires in the snow and stuff. Not this book. It was a description of labor unrest under the iron heel of the oligarchy (or plutocracy). Basically, just as today, the super rich own the congress critters and the courts and run rough shod over the rest of us. The oligarchy is also immensely talented in pitting the middle class, working class and children of the abyss against each other. Nothing much has changed, huh? Just today, Michigan struck another blow against unions. Yeah, occasionally unions get a bit greedy, but never so much as the plutocrats. If you read the psalms and the prophets, you see that this shit has been going down for millenia. A bit depressing. ( )
  lgpiper | Jun 21, 2019 |
Written in 1908, it is considered to be one of the first dystopian novels. It also is written as a first person narrative from a woman’s POV in manuscripts found later, much later, so it is looking back in history. The novel has many flaws and it is also full of socialist view points but it is also quite amazing how forward looking Jack London was in some aspect. While this is considered ‘soft’ science fiction, it is a political statement. You know from there very beginning sentences that things are not going to go well for the revoluntionaries. Jack London believed that society was evolving in much the way as nature was said to evolve. The book probably does have historical importance for it’s influence on other science fiction and dystopian novels that would follow. ( )
  Kristelh | Oct 26, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (34 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jack Londonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Auerbach, JonathanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lerner, MaxIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ricketts, MikeCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Saville, GeorgeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schugar, JordanNotessecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Soar, MattNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Trotsky, LeonIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zinn, HowardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"At first, this Earth, a stage so gloomed with woe / You almost sicken at the shifting of the scenes. / And yet be patient. Our Playwright may show / In some fifth act what this Wild Drama means."
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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. Nay, she was merged in the events she has described.
The soft summer wind stirs the redwoods, and Wild-Water ripples sweet cadences over its mossy stones.
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