The Plot Against America

Socialist journal the Monthly Review has a lengthy appreciation of Jack London’s 1908 novel, The Iron Heel, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. No, I hadn’t heard of it either. But if you’re a socialist journal, a dystopian novel about creeping American imperialism is something to celebrate:

One hundred years after its initial publication, London’s political ideas and cultural insights seem remarkably contemporary. Indeed, in The Iron Heel, he describes a sinister conspiracy, by an oligarchy, to quash freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, imprison its outspoken opponents and critics, control news and information, install a professional army of paid mercenaries, create a secret police force, and wage global warfare for economic hegemony. There’s also guerrilla warfare, furious acts of wanton terrorism, and cold-blooded terrorists—a world roiling in violence that might be taken for the world of the twenty-first century.

If the essay’s author, Jonah Raskin, works a little too hard to find connections between the novel and the present day, the piece does successfully suggest that every generation gets the American authoritarian-rule fantasy it deserves, and 1905 was an interesting time to tinker with writing one:

To write The Iron Heel he drew on his own direct observations of the chaos in San Francisco that followed in the wake of the earthquake and conflagration, and also on the information that he absorbed from far-off Russia from friends and from newspapers about the repression of the 1905 revolution. He drew, too, on his close study of contemporary U.S. society: the spying on, and the intimidation of, labor leaders by the Pinkerton Detective Agency employed by mine owners and governors alike; the arrest and persecution of labor leaders, like William (Big Bill) Haywood, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (the radical trade union activists better known as the “Wobblies”) who went on trial in 1906, in what was regarded, at the time, as the pivotal political courtroom battle of the era.

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