The Iron Heel of Capital

Image: Paulinho Fluxuz_ (Entrance of the National University of La Paz on the day of the delivery of the title of Doctor Honoris Causa to Hugo Chaves. 24/01/2006)


The provocative and visionary look of the novel by the American writer Jack London on the ills of capital

“The Iron Heel will trample on our heads; nothing remains but a bloody working-class revolution” (Jack London. The Iron Heel).
“Should the poor organize?” (Eric Hobsbawm. worlds of work).
“Either the working class is revolutionary, or it is nothing” (Karl Marx to Johann Baptist Von Schweitzer, February 13, 1865).

Social inequalities are, sadly, part of human history since its beginnings, with transmutations and variations resulting from space and time, sometimes appearing in the form of a brutal subjugation of some over others, through slavery or servitude, sometimes in the form of euphemism of free labor, which was once called “wage slavery”. It is not a naturalistic determinism, but an iniquitous historical construct, for the benefit of a tiny portion of humanity.

Marx and Engels, in their justly famous “The Communist Manifesto”, first published in 1848, put the matter in these terms: “The history of all societies hitherto has been the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, baron and serf, guild member and apprentice, in short, oppressor and oppressed, stood in opposition to each other and were involved in an uninterrupted struggle, now hidden, now open, which always ended with the revolutionary transformation of society as a whole or with the joint decline of the conflicting classes”. [1]

I will make use of Literature to establish contact with the social problem of exclusion and exploitation, which oppose oppressors to oppressed and which took on new clothes with the emergence of capitalism. For this purpose, I choose the instigating, provocative and visionary novel by the American writer Jack London (1876-1916), published in 1908, called “The Iron Heel”.

London exposes, in this narrative, in a didactic-literary way, the opposition between capital and work, revealing naked and crudely, the excruciating spoliation to which the working class was subjected in those times and continues to be, nowadays. This lacerating accusatory libel emerged in the heart of what would soon be the epicenter of world capitalism, the United States. The protagonist Ernest Everhard, an alter ego of London himself, whose revolutionary saga is narrated by his wife and co-participant in the struggle, Avis Everhard, advocates the need for a libertarian revolution without armistice, a class struggle, a “bloody revolution”, in the face of the oligarch bourgeoisie of the time, a plutocracy called “Iron Heel”.

Iron Heel is a dystopian novel, premonitory of a revolution that would change the face of the world. It announces, approximately ten years in advance, the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917. Likewise, there is, in the novel, a glimpse of the genesis of Nazi-fascism, as inferred by the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, in a letter from 1937, written in response to a copy of the book sent to him by Joan London, daughter of Jack London. The transcription of Trotsky's critical appraisal of the novel is worth mentioning:

“The chapter “The roar of the beast from the abyss” is undoubtedly the heart of the book. At the time the novel appeared, this apocalyptic chapter seemed to reach the limits of hyperbole. However, events to come almost overcame him. And there is still a long way to go for the last word on the class struggle to be said! The “beast of the abyss” is the people: oppressed, humiliated and degenerated to the extreme. Who would now dare to speak of the artist's pessimism? No, London was actually an optimist, gifted with a penetrating vision that anticipated the facts. “See what kind of abyss the bourgeoisie will throw you into if you don’t finish them off!” That's his thinking. Today, this seems much more real and serious than it did thirty years ago. But even more startling is the truly prophetic vision of the methods by which the Iron Heel will sustain its domination over crushed humanity. London appears remarkably free from the illusions of pacifist reformism. In this picture of the future, there is not even a trace of democracy and peaceful progress. Over the mass of the dispossessed rise the aristocratic labor castes, the praetorian guard, an omnipresent police, with the financial oligarchy at the top. When we read this, we do not believe our eyes: this is precisely the picture of fascism, its politics, its techniques of government, its political psychology! The fact cannot be disputed: in 1907, Jack London already predicted and described the fascist regime as the inevitable result of the defeat of the workers' revolution”. [2]

The novel is thus summarized by Jack London's biographer, Alex Kershaw:

“An apocalyptic vision of the future. The Iron Heel is the story of an oligarchy of American capitalists seizing power just as a socialist victory seems inevitable by opinion polls. The book describes, in strong detail in the footnotes, the oppression of the working class by this oligarchy between 1912 and 1932”. [3]

London, through his text, makes a vehement and virulent denunciation of the capitalist system of production, identified with exploitation, selfishness, oppression, mockery, violence and crime. Such malevolent attributes are metaphorically synthesized in the words of the protagonist, Ernest, addressed to his future wife and fellow fighter Avis, who belonged to the bourgeois class:

“The dress you wear is stained with blood. The food you eat is soaked in blood. The blood of little children and strong men is running from the rafters of your roof. I can hear the sound of the drops, plop, plop, plop, all over me.” [3]

In this perspective, all the abundant wealth produced by capitalism, which makes possible the cult of the beautiful and the superfluous, benefits a tiny and privileged part of the population, to the detriment of a huge portion, for which, as a share in the sharing, misery, famine and death. There is, therefore, a direct relationship between abundance, limited to the few, and lack, reserved for the many, as the two faces of the same capitalism.

In a public act, the protagonist, Ernest, is face to face with the city's bourgeoisie, when he exposes, in a provocative and denouncing tone:

“In the United States today, there are fifteen million people living in poverty; and by poverty is meant those conditions of life in which, for lack of adequate food and shelter, the simple standard of efficiency in work cannot be maintained. In the United States today, despite all the so-called labor legislation, there are three million working children. In twelve years, that number has doubled.” [4]

How current this passage from the novel sounds, more than a hundred years later. Almost all the wealth produced by work remains in the hands of the capitalists and the crumbs are destined for the working classes, allowing them only a precarious and dismal subsistence. While the economy generated by work would be enough, if more equitably distributed, to allow a dignified standard of living, with access to adequate food, health, education, leisure and more free time.

As David Harvey points out:

“The world's top 240 billionaires (from China, Russia, India, Mexico and Indonesia as well as from the traditional centers of wealth in North America and Europe) added an additional $2012 billion to their coffers in XNUMX alone. (enough, calculates Oxfam, to end world poverty overnight). On the other hand, the well-being of the masses stagnates at best, or, more likely, undergoes increasing, if not catastrophic, degradation (as in Greece and Spain)”. [5]

Zygmunt Bauman, in line with Harvey's analysis, tells us that:

“A recent study by the World Institute for Development Economists Research at the University of the United Nations reports that the richest 1% of adults owned 40% of global assets in 2000, and that the richest 10% accounted for 85% of total world wealth. world. The bottom half of the world's adult population owned 1% of global wealth. However, this is just a snapshot of the ongoing process. Every day, even worse information for human equality and also for the quality of life of all of us grows non-stop”. [6]

In the preface he wrote to the French edition of 1923, republished in the Brazilian edition, the renowned French writer Anatole France defines the meaning of the expression that gives the novel its title:

“Iron Heel” is the energetic expression used by Jack London to designate the oligarchy. {…] It exposes the struggle that will someday take place between the oligarchy and the people, fate permitting. […] He foresaw the set of events that developed in our time. The astonishing drama which he makes us witness in spirit in The Iron Heel has not yet become reality, and we do not know where and when the prophecy of the American disciple of Marx will be fulfilled”. [7]

As the narrator, Avis Everhard, will say in the opening pages of the novel, mentioning her husband Ernest Everhard, by then already dead by the forces of the plutocracy that he will fight and denounce:

“We cannot fail, because everything was constituted by him in a very decisive and safe way. Cursed Iron Heel! Sooner than you expect it will be snatched from weary humanity! When the signal is given, the legions of workers all over the world will rise up. There has never been anything like it in the history of the world. The solidarity of the working masses will, for the first time, break out an international revolution, which will be as vast as the world”. [8]

In the excerpt from the novel, reproduced above, one can clearly see the echoes of the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which ends with the famous call: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”

The vehement critique of capitalism that emerges from London's novel is still sadly relevant today. The current scenario is getting worse with Brazil and the world under a Covid-19 pandemic, which has been dragging on for months, causing as a result, but in a process that is already part of the logic of Capital, the explosion of unemployment, the exacerbation and wide open of social inequalities, with the increase of poverty and misery. And the panel that is being outlined for the post-pandemic period is of an acute social crisis at the heart of neoliberal capitalism.

However, even in this desolate scenario, capital continues to increase its profits, extracted from chaos, unemployment, loss of income and degradation in which the working class is plunged, in these times of pandemic. This is what is extracted from an article published on the UOL website:

“Different reports from international organizations indicate that millionaires have become even richer during the coronavirus pandemic. Those linked to the digital sector and new technologies were the most benefited in the period. At the same time, the covid-19 outbreak accentuates social inequalities and increases poverty in the world, whether in developed or emerging countries”.[9]

Capitalism, historically, was constituted under a field of devastation, dispossession and death. “O Livro Negro do Capitalismo”, published in 1999, makes a historical inventory of its ills:

“The devastation, in the space of a century and a half, by colonialism and neocolonialism, is incalculable, as it is impossible to calculate the millions of deaths that are attributable to it. All major European countries and the United States are to blame. Slavery, ruthless repression, torture, expropriation, theft of land and natural resources by large Western American or transnational companies or by local potentates on their pay, creation or artificial dismemberment of countries, in the position of dictatorships, monoculture replacing traditional cultures, destruction ways of life and ancestral cultures, deforestation and desertification, ecological disasters, hunger, exodus of populations towards megalopolises, where unemployment and misery await them”. [10]

The Black Book of Capitalism, published twenty-one years ago, is still very current, unfortunately for all of us. It is necessary that we return to it, that we instruct ourselves with the data it presents and update them, with the documentation that justifies it and the accusatory sense that guides it. This book has its importance renewed and its relevance reestablished in these times of pandemic, pandemonium and neoliberalism, which decimate lives and dreams. The book updates and confirms the theses set out in London's novel, published over a century ago:

What are the means of expansion and accumulation of capitalism? War (or protection, following the example of the mafia) repression, plunder, exploitation, usury, corruption, propaganda. [11]

Jack London was an avid reader and an exemplary self-taught. He compulsively read the work of the most important authors who were in vogue at his time, such as Marx, Nietzsche and Darwin, making contact with the most innovative ideas that circulated in the world, between the end of the XNUMXth century and the beginning of the XNUMXth century.

As his biographer Alex Kershaw put it:

Jack was a social Darwinist first and a socialist second – the bad ones. However, he sincerely believed that only through open revolt, following the example of his fellow Russians who shed blood in St. Petersburg on Bloody Sunday, would American socialists gain the promised land. [12]

In another thought-provoking and forceful passage, in which he analyzes the man Jack London, we find his echoes in the protagonist Ernest, says Kershaw:

“At lectures, the man who ended his letters with “Yours, for the revolution” reserved his deepest contempt for those who had harmed his childhood, the capitalist bosses and their bourgeois lackeys. He spewed bitter recriminations at his audience. “You are bees that swarm around capitalist honeypots,” he snarled at a group of industrialists. “They are ignorant. Your fatuous self-sufficiency blinds you to the revolution that is surely, surely coming, and that will just as surely wipe you and your stilted, silk-lined idleness off the face of the map. You are parasites behind the work.” [13]

As London denounces:

“The great driving force of oligarchs is the belief that they do what is right. Never mind the exceptions, never mind the oppression and injustice amidst which the Iron Heel was conceived. We already know all this. What matters is that the strength of the oligarchy today lies in the fact that they are satisfied with their own conception of justice”. [14]

In another passage of the novel London, he exposes the appalling conditions to which workers and their families were subjected:

“The condition of the people of the abyss was pitiful. Education in common schools, when that was possible, ceased to exist. They lived like animals in large, squalid working-class ghettos, exasperated amidst misery and degradation. All her former freedoms were gone. They were slaves at work. There was, for them, no choice of service. […] They were not servants of the land like farmers, they were servants of machines and servants of work. […] In fact, it is in the workers' ghettos that the beasts of the abyss live, beasts that the oligarchs themselves have created, but whose roar they fear so much. And they will not allow the monkey and tiger that live within them to die out.” [15]

In the novel there is a chapter entitled “Chicago Commune”, which dialogues directly with the “Paris Commune” of 1871, the first workers' revolution in history and which ended up becoming the most important political event of the 18th century. The “Commune”, which had been founded on March 72, succumbed after heroic 21 days of resistance, in what became known as the “Bloody Week”, between May 28 and 1871, XNUMX, under the heel of iron of the French oligarchies.

The “Paris Commune” arises in the context of the Franco-Prussian war, triggered by Louis Napoleon, on July 19, 1870. In just six weeks, Prussia imposes a crushing defeat on the so-called Napoleon III, who capitulates on September 04 of this year. . Immediately after, the Republic was proclaimed. It so happens that, in the eagerness to face the war power of the adversary, the French army had armed its workers, transforming them into a “National Guard”. With the French surrender comes the armistice and the resulting impositions imposed by the victor. Paris, under the auspices of the National Guard, commanded by the workers, is now called upon to return the arms to the army. It is the trigger that causes the conflict to erupt and will give rise to the birth of the “Paris Commune”. Patriotic war metamorphoses into revolutionary proletarian war.

In the words of Claude Willard:

“For the way it was born, for its brief existence (72 days), and above all for its fruitful work, the Commune, the first world workers' revolution, commits a crime of lese-majesty, of lese-capitalism and of lese-moral order: a government of the people, by the people and for the people, with elected members with mandatory and revocable mandates, true citizen mobilization, the premises of self-management (set in motion by associated workers in the workshops abandoned by their bosses), the first steps towards emancipation female, the role of foreigners (a Hungarian Jewish émigré, Léo Frankel, Minister of Labor)…” [16]

The Paris Commune was violently repressed by the army, which was based in Versailles. He pounced on his own people with a fury and murderous fury rarely seen in history. The tenacity he lacked in the face of the German enemy, he surpassed in the face of his compatriots, in an unspeakable and furious violence, until then unknown in France, in those proportions and in those aspects.

Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, leaves us this appalling record of the violent massacre, which, fueled by hatred and fear of the “dangerous class”, turned Paris into a slaughterhouse:

“This relentless repression … ended in terrible strangulation scenes that made Paris a hunting ground. He killed himself for the sake of killing... A real war of extermination with all the horrors, it must be said, because this is the truth; and those who ordained it boast of it and praise themselves: they think they are fulfilling a sacred duty; all those who belonged to the Commune or sympathized with it were to be shot. [17]

Summary executions, whose numbers vary between 20.000 and 30.000, arrests, which took place in the thousands and deportations, produced unimaginable numbers of victims of the ferocity of the guardians of “order”, “property” and the “values ​​of the French bourgeoisie”. . How dare the proletarian rabble claim rights and self-organization? The answer to such insubordination was given in a resounding, violent and bloody sound of death. Capital is always ready and willing to eliminate any challenge from its victims.

In London's novel, the Chicago Commune was slaughtered with equal cruelty and violence:

“The crowd was only ten meters away when the machine guns opened fire; but before this incandescent curtain of death, nothing could survive. The crowd kept coming, but they couldn't move forward. It piled up in a huge pile of dead and wounded that grew bigger and bigger. Those behind pushed the others forward, and the columns, from outside to outside, were fitting into each other. Wounded creatures, men and women, were spewed over the crest of that dreadful wave and were twisted until they ended up under the wheels of chariots or at the legs of soldiers, who applied bayonet blows to the struggling wretches.” [18]

London himself was a victim, as a child, of the capitalist gear that devastates bodies and minds, afflicting them with indelible marks. Working in conversation factories, whose mustiness impregnated their young nostrils forever, leaving a nauseating memory of those days in jute mills, amidst a deafening noise, among lint, on ten-hour days for ten cents the time, via his subtracted childhood, as he will record later.

There is no way to despise his experience as a poor boy, subjected to exhausting hours of work, in unhealthy places, in exchange for pennies. Even at the dawn of existence he was confronted by abusive and unjust social inequality. Perhaps it was in this period of his life that his class consciousness was awakened and the seeds of revolt germinated, portrayed in this pamphleteer novel.

It is sad to see that decades later, in Brazil, many workers were still subject to the terrible working conditions to which London was subjected in its childhood, at the end of the XNUMXth century. In a Doctoral thesis, with a strong content of social and legal denouncement, Denison Silvan records that:

“As initially inferred, the question that presided over this study resulted in the recognition that the predatory overexploitation of rural work in the Amazon was present in the economic activity of jute at the cost of blood, sweat and suffering of workers, many of whom even today live with diseases and consequences caused by the painful, unhealthy and dangerous conditions of this type of work. Far beyond reliable measurement, we found that some juteers fell during the handling of the juts due to the lethality of the working conditions and many others had their lives shortened for the same reason”. [19]

As his biographer Alex Kershaw informs us:

“What moved Jack London's life was, above all, the hope that one day poverty and social injustice would diminish; that the environment would no longer be considered a resource to be endlessly exploited; that humanism would one day triumph. Jack London embodied the promise of socialism. He highlighted the evils of capitalism and the decimation of the workforce due to cruel profit-seeking. In some of his most vehement speeches, he showed how disposable people are in the process of accumulating wealth for a governing elite. His last breath was in defense of the underdog. He worked to intensify class consciousness more than any other writer of his time.” [20]

Unfortunately, the egalitarian utopia of a fairer society still seems far away. And everything is terribly aggravated with the rise of a boçal extreme right to power, which bets on the exacerbation of the ills of capital. As David Harvey observes: “As these speculative forms have sustained an immense growth in social inequality and in the distribution of wealth and power, so that an emerging oligarchy – the infamous 1% (which, in fact, is even more infamous) 0,1%) – now effectively controls the levers of all the wealth and power in the world, so it also defines clear lines of class struggles crucial to the future well-being of the mass of humanity” [21],

*Carlos Eduardo Araujo Master in Theory of Law from PUC-Minas.



[1] Daniel Aarão Reis Filho (org.). The Communist Manifesto 150 years later. Counterpoint, 1998.

[2] Jack London. The Iron Heel. Boitime, 2003.

[3] Alex Kershaw. Jack London. Saraiva, 2013.

[4] Jack London. The Iron Heel. Boitime, 2003.

[5] David Harvey. 17 contradictions and the end of capitalism. Boitempo Editorial, 2016.

[6] Zygmunt Bauman. Does the Wealth of the Few Benefit Us All? Zahar, 2015.

[7] Jack London. The Iron Heel. Boitime, 2003.

[8] Jack London. The Iron Heel. Boitime, 2003.

[9] Why the rich got richer and poverty exploded in the pandemic. Wow. Economy. 30/09/2020.

[10] Gilles Perrault (Org.). The Black Book of Capitalism. Records, 1999.

[11] Gilles Perrault (Org.). The Black Book of Capitalism. Records, 1999.

[12] Alex Kershaw. Jack London. Saraiva, 2013.

[13] Alex Kershaw. Jack London. Saraiva, 2013.

[14] Jack London. The Iron Heel. Boitime, 2003.

[15] Jack London. The Iron Heel. Boitime, 2003.

[16] Gilles Perrault (Org.). The Black Book of Capitalism. Records, 1999.

[17] Gilles Perrault (Org.). The Black Book of Capitalism. Records, 1999.

[18] Jack London. The Iron Heel. Boitime, 2003.

[19] DenisonSilvan. Jute workers in the Amazon: trajectories of struggle, sweat and suffering. Thesis (Doctorate in Society and Culture in the Amazon) – Institute of Philosophy, Human and Social Sciences, Federal University of Amazonas. 2018.

[20] Alex Kershaw. Jack London. Saraiva, 2013.

[21] David Harvey. 17 contradictions and the end of capitalism. Boitempo Editorial, 2016.


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