iron heel

The Iron Heel

The Iron Heel is a dystopian novel by American writer Jack London, first published in 1908.

Generally considered to be "the earliest of the modern Dystopian, it chronicles the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States. It is arguably the novel in which Jack London's socialist views are most explicitly on display. A forerunner of soft science fiction novels and stories of the 1960s and 1970s, the book stresses future changes in society and politics while paying much less attention to technological changes.

Plot summary

The novel is based on the (fictional) "Everhard Manuscript" written by Avis Everhard which she hid and which was subsequently found centuries later. In addition, this novel has an introduction and series of (often lengthy) footnotes written from the perspective of scholar Anthony Meredith. Meredith writes from around 2600 AD or 419 B.O.M. (the Brotherhood of Man). Jack London thus writes at two levels, often having Meredith condescendingly correcting the errors of Everhard yet, at the same time, exposing the often incomplete understanding of this distant future perspective.

The Manuscript itself covers the years 1912 through 1932 in which the Oligarchy (or "Iron Heel") arose in the United States. In Asia, Japan conquered East Asia and created its own empire, India gained independence, and Europe became socialist. Canada, Mexico, and Cuba formed their own Oligarchies and were aligned with the U.S. (London remains silent as to the fates of South America, Africa, and the Middle East.)

In North America, the Oligarchy maintains power for three centuries until the Revolution succeeds and ushers in the Brotherhood of Man. During the years of the novel, the First Revolt is described and preparations for the Second Revolt are discussed. From the perspective of Everhard, the imminent Second Revolt is sure to succeed but, from the distant future perspective of Meredith, we readers realize that Everhard's hopes were to be crushed for centuries to come.

The Oligarchy are the largest monopoly trusts (or robber barons) who manage to squeeze out the middle class by bankrupting most small to mid-sized business as well as reducing all farmers to effective serfdom. This Oligarchy maintains power through a "labor caste" and the Mercenaries. Labor in essential industries like steel and rail are elevated and given decent wages, housing, and education. Indeed, the tragic turn in the novel (and Jack London's core warning to his contemporaries) is the treachery of these favored unions which break with the other unions and side with the Oligarchy. Further, a second, military caste is formed: the Mercenaries. The Mercenaries are officially the army of the US but are in fact in the employ of the Oligarchs.

Asgard is the name of a fictional wonder-city, a city constructed by the Oligarchy to be admired and appreciated as well as lived in. Thousands of Proletariat live in poverty there, and are used whenever a public work needs to be completed, such as the building of levie or a canal.

The Manuscript is, really, Everhard's autobiography as she tells of: her privileged childhood as the daughter of an accomplished scientist; her marriage to the socialist revolutionary Ernest Everhard; the fall of the US republic; and her years in the underground resistance from the First Revolt through the years leading to the Second Revolt. By telling the story of Avis Everhard, the novel is essentially an adventurous tale heavily strewn with social commentary of an alternate future (from a 1908 perspective). However, the future perspective of the scholar Meredith deepens the tragic plight of Everhard and her revolutionary comrades.

Given that The Iron Heel is now a century old, this novel has a somewhat alternate history feel because, as with Orwell's 1984, the dating of these novels are now in our past. Jack London ambitiously predicted a breakdown of the US republic starting a few years past 1908 but various events have caused his predicted future to diverge from actual history. Most crucially, London predicted that labor solidarity would prevent a war that would include the US, Germany, and other nations in 1913; actual history records that nationalism overwhelmed the international solidarity of labor and socialists. Further, London predicted that the middle class would shrink as monopolistic trusts crushed labor and small to mid-sized businesses. Instead the US Progressive Era led to a breakup of the trusts, notably the application of the Sherman Antitrust Act to Standard Oil in 1911; at the same time, reforms such as labor unions rights passed during the Progressive Era with further reforms during the New Deal of the 1930s. Further, economic prosperity led to dramatic growth of the middle class in the 1920s and after World War II.

Through the writing of Everhard and, particularly, the distant future perspective of Meredith, London demonstrated his belief in the historical materialism of Marxism which predicts an inevitable succession from feudalism through capitalism and, finally, ending with socialism.

Influences and effects

The Iron Heel is reminiscent of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and is cited by Orwell's biographer Michael Shelden as having influenced that work.

Harry Bridges, influential labor leader in the mid-1900s, was "set afire" by Jack London's The Sea-Wolf and The Iron Heel.

Granville Hicks, reviewing Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, was reminded of The Iron Heel: "we are taken into the future and shown an America ruled by a tiny oligarchy, and here too there is a revolt that fails."

Chapter 7 of The Iron Heel is an almost verbatim copy of an ironic essay by Frank Harris (see Jack London: Accusations of plagiarism).

London's novella The Scarlet Plague, and some of his short stories, are placed in a dystopian future setting that closely resembles that of The Iron Heel, although there is no actual continuity of situations or characters.

Frederic Tuten's debut novel The Adventures of Mao on the Long March uses extensive quotes from The Iron Heel, placing them alongside details of Chinese history from 1912 to Mao's rise to power.

Chronology of events mentioned 1900-1908

These events take place before the time of writing and most of them actually happened in our history, though the interpretation and significance given to them by London is not always the same as seen from a present-time perspective.

  • 1900 - Last U.S. census figures made public, the number of child labourers at 1,752,187, Lucien Sanial puts the U.S. class break down as: Plutocratic class, 250,251; Middle class, 8,429,845; and Proletariat class, 20,393,137.
  • 1902 - Socialist voting strength at 12,713
  • June 30 1902 - The Militia Act or Dick Act introduced into Congress making it possible for the government to call up able bodied men to fight
  • 1902 - "Evening Post" publishes article on the Rockefellers
  • 1902 - "Our Benevolent Feudalism," published by W.J Ghent was later used by the Oligarchy for many of their ideas, despite being satirical
  • 1902 - James Farley's strike breakers kill Sarah Jenkins husband
  • 1902 - President of the Coal Trust George F. Baer proclaims the 'Divine right of Capitalists',
  • 1902 - The Board of Trade report declares that the railroad trusts control the legislature completely
  • 1903 – The Militia Act passes through Congress
  • July 1903 - E. Untermann, a revolutionist, publishes a pamphlet at Girard, Kansas, on the "Militia Bill"
  • 1904 - Socialist voting strength at 435,040
  • 1905 - Theodore Roosevelt in the address at the Harvard commencement recounts how lawyers can help the rich evade the law
  • 1905 - "Essays in Application" written by Henry van Dyke (would centuries later be cited by Meredith as an example of bourgeois thinking
  • May 21 1905 - Socialists in Italy, Austria and Hungary prevent war by threatening a general strike
  • later in 1905 - Socialists in Germany and France prevent war by threatening a general strike over the Morocco Affair
  • 1905 - Law on Child Labour in Pennsylvania overruled by the courts, as being "unconstitutional" - i.e., "discriminating on the grounds of age". New York Law on limited opening hours for bakeries overruled by courts on the grounds of "interfering with liberty of business"
  • April 18 1906 – Great San Francisco Earthquake
  • August 18 1906 - Outlook publishes an article of a case similar to that of Jackson
  • 1906 - Robert Hunter publishes "Poverty", pointing out that ten million people were living in poverty in the United states
  • 1906 - James Farley leads an Army of strike breakers from New York to San Francisco, to break a strike by street car men
  • 1906 - Lord Avebury gives a speech warning that if conditions of the working class are not rectified, a Socialist revolution will break out
  • Fall 1906 - Austin Lewis runs for Governor of California on a Socialist ticket
  • 1908 - Socialist voting strength at 1,108,427

Chronology of events mentioned 1908-1913

The following years are after the time of writing, and the events attributed to them are fictional and depart drastically from our history.

  • 1910 - Socialist voting strength at 1,688,211
  • 1910 - Census figures for this year not made public
  • February 1912 - Ernest Everhard first meets Avis Cunningham, her father, John Cunningham, and Bishop Morehouse at dinner,
  • 1912 - Avis investigates the case of Jackson and becomes a committed socialist,
  • 1912 - Ernest and Avis decide to be married
  • Tuesday ? 1912 - Ernest addresses the Philomath Club where he estimates the strength of the International Socialist Movement at about 25 million, and mentions 15 million Americans living in poverty, and three million children in work. The future Oligarch Wickson claims that they will use any means necessary to stop the Socialists taking power,
  • 1912 - Mary McKenna is declared insane and put in Napa Asylum, for claiming protection from eviction by being under the American Flag,
  • 1912 - Bishop Morehouse delivers his sermon at the IPH and is considered 'over excited',
  • Spring 1912 - dinner of the 'Machine Breakers' at which Ernest Everhard first uses the term "Iron Heel",
  • 1912 - John Cunningham publishes "Economics and Education" at the same time as he is dismissed from his university post
  • 1912 - Socialist publishing houses acted against with a mob of 'Black Hundreds' burning down 'Appeal to Reason',
  • 1912 - In San Francisco, harsh action taken against many unions increases support for the Socialists
  • summer 1912 - Crash on Wall Street, trusts use this as an opportunity to squeeze out the middle classes and make enormous profits at the same time
  • 1912 - Ernest Everhard, Avis Cunningham and John Cunningham are forced out of their property and jobs by the Oligarchs. They move into slum accommodation on Pell Street
  • Late Summer 1912 - meeting again with Bishop Morehouse and the sewing woman
  • Fall 1912 - William Randolph Hearst is destroyed by the Oligarchs leading to the defection of many Democrats to the Socialists
  • Fall 1912 - Socialist electoral breakthrough, fifty Socialist Congressmen elected and ally with the Grange party which wins around a dozen governorships
  • Winter 1912 Germany and U.S.A prepare for war
  • 4 December 1912 American and German Navies clash
  • 5 December 1912 U.S. and Germany declare war
  • 1912 Socialists in both countries launch a general strike leading to peace and an alliance between Germany and U.S.
  • 1912 German Socialists overthrow the Kaiser and create a Socialist state
  • December 1912 George Milford publishes "Ye Slaves" which is the earliest use of the term "Iron Heel" known before the discovery of the Everhard manuscript
  • 1912 John Carlson is custodian of the Glen Ellen Refuge (assumably established around this time)
  • throughout 1912 - Ernest writes his book "Philosophy and Revolution"
  • January 1913 - Everhard predicts the victory of the Oligarchs and defection of the unions
  • 1913 O'Connor, leader of the Machinists Union, refuses to give Everhard assurances that they will agree to another general strike - beginning of the defection of the 'Big Unions',
  • end of January 1913 - Beginning of the signs of the Oligarchy's favourable attitude to certain unions
  • 1913 - Big Unions break international groups and affiliations, members of these unions are treated as traitors and assaulted, beginning of the Caste system
  • 1913 - Rise of religious Adventists, farmers going to the hills to await the Apocalypse. Most starve to death or are murdered by the Iron Heel
  • Spring 1913 - Many of the Socialists and Grangers who attempt to take their seats are refused by the incumbents
  • 1913 - The Iron Heel begins confiscating farmland
  • 1913 - Iron Heel send their secret agents to attack a Liquor factory in Sacramento. Soldiers are sent in, who kill 11 million
  • 1913 - Militia Law of 1903 put into effect, Mr Kowalt and Mr Asmunsen court-martialled and executed for refusing to serve
  • 22 April 1913 Agents of the Iron Heel murder the officers of the Kansas Militia, resulting in open mutiny, all 6000 are quickly killed
  • 1913 - strike of 3/4 million coal miners is crushed
  • 1913 - Alfred Pocock I first experience of 'Slave Driving'
  • 1913 - Formation of the 'fighting groups' by Ernest Everhard to combat Iron Heel influence
  • 1913 - Destruction of Granger states and their power as a party, Socialists reduced to largest minority (winning 2 more congressmen?)
  • 1913 - Pervaise, in prison for murder - i.e.throwing a bomb in Congress whilst Ernest Everhard's bill on unemployment relief was debated - is granted an acquittal by the Iron Heel for
  • 1913 - Socialists implicated in plot and most of the leaders are sent to or kept in prison,
  • Autumn 1913 - Avis Everhard is released from prison and attempts to disappear, returning to San Francisco and joining the Glen Ellen Refuge

World Events of 1913

  • Germany, Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand form cooperative commonwealths
  • Japan brutally suppresses its Proletarian revolution and forms an Oligarchy
  • Japan dominates all Asia except India
  • Britain crushes its own Proletarian revolution but loses most of its empire
  • Canada becomes independent but crushes its Proletarian revolution with the help of the Iron Heel and establishes an Oligarchy
  • Mexico and Cuba crush their Proletarian revolutions and create Oligarchies with the help of the Iron Heel

Chronology of events mentioned 1914-1932

  • 1914 - Avis Everhard creates her new identity of Mary Holmes
  • 1914 - disappearance of John Cunningham
  • September 1914 - Pervaise struck with Heart Rheumatism and confesses to a priest on his death bed of the bomb plot
  • 1914 - arrival of Lora Peterson and Kate Beirce at the Glen Ellen Refuge
  • Late summer, 1915 - Wholesale jail delivery takes place, in which 51 of the 52 imprisoned Congressmen and 300 other leaders were released by the revolutionaries (Arthur Simpson not released, as he died in hospital)
  • 1915 - Grace Holbrook joins the 'fighting groups'
  • 1916 - Grace Holbrook executed by the Iron Heel
  • 1916? - Phillip Wickson joins the Cause
  • January 1917 - Ernest and Avis Everhard begin to work covertly in the Iron-Heel as agents-provocateurs
  • October 27, 1917 - Actual dat of the outbreak of the premature Chicago Commune, instigated by the Iron Heel in order to crush it early, results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of mercenaries and revolters including Hartman and Bishop Morehouse; Garthwaite is injured and taken to hospital
  • 1917 - Knowlton is executed as a traitor in Milwaukee
  • Early Spring, 1918 - Planned date for the first revolt
  • 1918 - Avis Everhard attends a meeting of the Frisco Reds, meeting Peter Donnelly
  • 1920 - At the Benton Harbor refuge in Michigan, Ernest and Avis Everhard see Joseph Hurd tried and executed,
  • 1920 - Garthwaite returns to the revolutionaries
  • 1922 - Disappearance of Lora Peterson
  • 1923 - Ernest Everhard calculates life expectancy after joining a fighting group to be just five years
  • 1925 - Disappearance of Bertha Stole
  • 1927 - Philip Wickson dies as a result of pneumonia contracted in 'The Great Storm' while attending a meeting of revolutionary leaders
  • 1928 - Execution of Rudolph Medenhall, "The Flame"
  • 1931 - Nashville Massacre, where Timothy Donnelly commanded the mercenaries to kill 800 weavers
  • 1931 - Anna Roylston captures and hands over Timothy Donnelly to the Frisco Reds, gaining her the nickname the Red Virgin
  • 1932 - Beginning of the construction of Asgard
  • Spring 1932 - the secret execution of Ernest Everhard
  • summer 1932 - Avis flees to Wake Robin lodge and writes the Everhard Manuscript
  • 1932? - Avis arrested by the mercenaries
  • 1932 - Second revolt takes place in conjunction with labour leaders in Italy, France, Germany and Australia but ultimately fails. Its failure leads to the renewal of the Red Friscos and the replacement of the Socialist with Oligarchical States
  • 1932 - Sarah Jenkins assassinates James Farley
  • 1942 - Completion of the wonder-city of Ardis

Chronology of events mentioned 1984 A.D.- 419 B.O.M

From here on, the continuous historical narrative ceases, with the end of the Everhard Manuscript and the events immediately following its completion, and only isolated events separated by decades or centuries are provided.

  • 1984 - Completion of the wonder-city of Asgard
  • 2002 - Total destruction of the Frisco Reds after an Iron Heel agent penetrates them
  • 2073 - Death of Pocock V in an explosion of a pump-house during a petty revolt in the Indian Territory (which in this history never became the State of Oklahoma)
  • 2138 - Trial and execution of General Lampton after three warnings to cease his actions; he is executed by Crucifixion, used legitimately for the first time by Madeline Provence who is imprisoned and tortured before dying
  • 2200 - Approx start of Brotherhood of Man
  • 2368 - Great Earthquake
  • November 27 419 B.O.M. - Anthony Meredith of Ardis writes the introduction and notes to the Everhard Manuscript


  • Dutch translation: Jernhælen
  • Finnish translation: Rautakorko
  • French translation: Le talon de fer
  • German translation: Die eiserne Ferse
  • Italian translation: Il tallone di ferro
  • Korean translation: 강철군화
  • Swedish translation: Järnhälen


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