Tribune, 12 July 1940
The reprinting of Jack London’s The Iron Heel brings within general reach a book which has been much sought after during the years of Fascist aggression. Like others of Jack London’s books it has been widely read in Germany, and it has had the reputation of being an accurate forecast of the coming of Hitler. In reality it is not that. It is merely a tale of capitalist oppression, and it was written at a time when various things that have made Fascism possible — for instance, the tremendous revival of nationalism — were not easy to foresee.
Where London did show special insight, however, was in realizing that the transition to Socialism was not going to be automatic or even easy. The capitalist class was not going to “perish of its own contradictions” like a flower dying at the end of the season. The capitalist class was quite clever enough to see what was happening, to sink its own differences and counterattack against the workers; and the resulting struggle would be the most bloody and unscrupulous the world had ever seen.
It is worth comparing The Iron Heel with another imaginative novel of the future which was written somewhat earlier and to which it owes something, H. G. Wells’s The Sleeper Wakes. By doing so one can see both London’s limitations and also the advantage to be enjoyed in not being, like Wells, a fully civilized man. As a book, The Iron Heel is hugely inferior. It is clumsily written, it shows no grasp of scientific possibilities, and the hero is the kind of human gramophone who is now disappearing even from Socialist tracts. But because of his own streak of savagery London could grasp something that Wells apparently could not, and that is that hedonistic societies do not endure.
Everyone who has ever read The Sleeper Wakes remembers it. It is a vision of a glittering, sinister world in which society has hardened into a caste system and the workers are permanently enslaved. It is also a world without purpose in which the upper castes for whom the workers toil are completely soft, cynical and faithless. There is no consciousness of any object in life, nothing corresponding to the fervour of the revolutionary or the religious martyr.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a sort of post-war parody of the Wellsian Utopia, these tendencies are immensely exaggerated. Here the hedonistic principle is pushed to its utmost, the whole world has turned into a Riviera hotel. But though Brave New World was a brilliant caricature of the present (the present of 1930), it probably casts no light on the future. No society of that kind would last more than a couple of generations, because a ruling class which thought principally in terms of a “good time” would soon lose its vitality. A ruling class has got to have a strict morality, a quasi-religious belief in itself, a mystique. London was aware of this, and though he describes the caste of plutocrats who rule the world for seven centuries as inhuman monsters, he does not describe them as idlers or sensualists. They can only maintain their position while they honestly believe that civilization depends on themselves alone, and therefore in a different way they are just as brave, able and devoted as the revolutionaries who oppose them.
In an intellectual way London accepted the conclusions of Marxism, and he imagined that the “contradictions” of capitalism, the unconsumable surplus and so forth, would persist even after the capitalist class had organized themselves into a single corporate body. But temperamentally he was very different from the majority of Marxists. With his love of violence and physical strength, his belief in “natural aristocracy”, his animal-worship and exaltation of the primitive, he had in him what one might fairly call a Fascist strain. This probably helped him to understand just how the possessing class would behave when once they were seriously menaced.
It is just here that Marxian Socialists have usually fallen short. Their interpretation of history has been so mechanistic that they have failed to foresee dangers that were obvious to people who had never heard the name of Marx. It is sometimes urged against Marx that he failed to predict the rise of Fascism. I do not know whether he predicted it or not — at that date he could only have done so in very general terms — but it is at any rate certain that his followers failed to see any danger in Fascism until they themselves were at the gate of the concentration camp. A year or more after Hitler had risen to power official Marxism was still proclaiming that Hitler was of no importance and “Social Fascism” (i.e. democracy) was the real enemy. London would probably not have made this mistake. His instincts would have warned him that Hitler was dangerous. He knew that economic laws do not operate in the same way as the law of gravity, that they can be held up for long periods by people who, like Hitler, believe in their own destiny.
The Iron Heel and The Sleeper Wakes are both written from the popular standpoint. Brave New World, though primarily an attack on hedonism, is also by implication an attack on totalitarianism and caste rule. It is interesting to compare them with a less well-known Utopia which treats the class struggle from the upper or rather the middle-class point of view, Ernest Bramah’s The Secret of the League.
The Secret of the League was written in 1907, when the growth of the labour movement was beginning to terrify the middle class, who wrongly imagined that they were menaced from below and not from above. As a political forecast it is trivial, but it is of great interest for the light it casts on the mentality of the struggling middle class.
The author imagines a Labour government coming into office with so huge a majority that it is impossible to dislodge them. They do not, however, introduce a full Socialist economy. They merely continue to operate capitalism for their own benefit by constantly raising wages, creating a huge army of bureaucrats and taxing the upper classes out of existence. The country is therefore “going to the dogs” in the familiar manner; moreover in their foreign politics the Labour Government behave rather like the National Government between 1931 and 1939. Against this there arises a secret conspiracy of the middle and upper classes, the manner of their revolt is very ingenious, provided that one looks upon capitalism as something internal: it is the method of the consumers’ strike. Over a period of two years the upper-class conspirators secretly hoard fuel-oil and convert coal-burning plant to oil-burning; then they suddenly boycott the principal British industry, the coal industry. The miners are faced with a situation in which they will be able to sell no coal for two years. There is vast unemployment and distress, ending in civil war, in which (thirty years before General Franco!) the upper classes receive foreign aid. After their victory they abolish the trade unions and institute a “strong” non-parliamentary régime — in other words a régime that we should now describe as Fascist. The tone of the book is good-natured, as it could afford to be at that date, but the trend of thought is unmistakable.
Why should a decent and kindly writer like Ernest Bramah find the crushing of the proletariat a pleasant vision? It is simply the reaction of a struggling class which felt itself menaced not so much in its economic position as in its code of conduct and way of life. One can see the same purely social antagonism to the working class in an earlier writer of much greater calibre, George Gissing. Time, and Hitler, have taught the middle classes a great deal, and perhaps they will not again side with their oppressors against their natural allies. But whether they do so or not depends partly on how they are handled, and the stupidity of Socialist propaganda, with its constant baiting of the “petty bourgeois”, has a lot to answer for.
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