The Iron Heel

by Jack London

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Chapter XIV - The Beginning of the End

As early as January, 1913, Ernest saw the true trend of affairs, but he could not get his brother leaders to see the vision of the Iron Heel that had arisen in his brain. They were too confident. Events were rushing too rapidly to culmination. A crisis had come in world affairs. The American Oligarchy was practically in possession of the world-market, and scores of countries were flung out of that market with unconsumable and unsalable surpluses on their hands. For such countries nothing remained but reorganization. They could not continue their method of producing surpluses. The capitalistic system, so far as they were concerned, had hopelessly broken down.

The reorganization of these countries took the form of revolution. It was a time of confusion and violence. Everywhere institutions and governments were crashing. Everywhere, with the exception of two or three countries, the erstwhile capitalist masters fought bitterly for their possessions. But the governments were taken away from them by the militant proletariat. At last was being realized Karl Marx’s classic: “The knell of private capitalist property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” And as fast as capitalistic governments crashed, cooperative commonwealths arose in their place.

“Why does the United States lag behind?”; “Get busy, you American revolutionists!”; “What’s the matter with America?”—were the messages sent to us by our successful comrades in other lands. But we could not keep up. The Oligarchy stood in the way. Its bulk, like that of some huge monster, blocked our path.

“Wait till we take office in the spring,” we answered. “Then you’ll see.”

Behind this lay our secret. We had won over the Grangers, and in the spring a dozen states would pass into their hands by virtue of the elections of the preceding fall. At once would be instituted a dozen cooperative commonwealth states. After that, the rest would be easy.

“But what if the Grangers fail to get possession?” Ernest demanded. And his comrades called him a calamity howler.

But this failure to get possession was not the chief danger that Ernest had in mind. What he foresaw was the defection of the great labor unions and the rise of the castes.

“Ghent has taught the oligarchs how to do it,” Ernest said. “I’ll wager they’ve made a text-book out of his ‘Benevolent Feudalism.’”*

* “Our Benevolent Feudalism,” a book published in 1902 A.D.,

by W. J. Ghent. It has always been insisted that Ghent put

the idea of the Oligarchy into the minds of the great

capitalists. This belief persists throughout the literature

of the three centuries of the Iron Heel, and even in the

literature of the first century of the Brotherhood of Man.

To-day we know better, but our knowledge does not overcome

the fact that Ghent remains the most abused innocent man in

all history.

Never shall I forget the night when, after a hot discussion with half a dozen labor leaders, Ernest turned to me and said quietly: “That settles it. The Iron Heel has won. The end is in sight.”

This little conference in our home was unofficial; but Ernest, like the rest of his comrades, was working for assurances from the labor leaders that they would call out their men in the next general strike. O’Connor, the president of the Association of Machinists, had been foremost of the six leaders present in refusing to give such assurance.

“You have seen that you were beaten soundly at your old tactics of strike and boycott,” Ernest urged.

O’Connor and the others nodded their heads.

“And you saw what a general strike would do,” Ernest went on. “We stopped the war with Germany. Never was there so fine a display of the solidarity and the power of labor. Labor can and will rule the world. If you continue to stand with us, we’ll put an end to the reign of capitalism. It is your only hope. And what is more, you know it. There is no other way out. No matter what you do under your old tactics, you are doomed to defeat, if for no other reason because the masters control the courts.” *

* As a sample of the decisions of the courts adverse to

labor, the following instances are given. In the coal-

mining regions the employment of children was notorious. In

1905 A.D., labor succeeded in getting a law passed in

Pennsylvania providing that proof of the age of the child

and of certain educational qualifications must accompany the

oath of the parent. This was promptly declared

unconstitutional by the Luzerne County Court, on the ground

that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment in that it

discriminated between individuals of the same class—namely,

children above fourteen years of age and children below.

The state court sustained the decision. The New York Court

of Special Sessions, in 1905 A.D., declared unconstitutional

the law prohibiting minors and women from working in

factories after nine o’clock at night, the ground taken

being that such a law was “class legislation.” Again, the

bakers of that time were terribly overworked. The New York

Legislature passed a law restricting work in bakeries to ten

hours a day. In 1906 A.D., the Supreme Court of the United

States declared this law to be unconstitutional. In part

the decision read: “There is no reasonable ground for

interfering with the liberty of persons or the right of free

contract by determining the hours of labor in the occupation

of a baker.”

“You run ahead too fast,” O’Connor answered. “You don’t know all the ways out. There is another way out. We know what we’re about. We’re sick of strikes. They’ve got us beaten that way to a frazzle. But I don’t think we’ll ever need to call our men out again.”

“What is your way out?” Ernest demanded bluntly.

O’Connor laughed and shook his head. “I can tell you this much: We’ve not been asleep. And we’re not dreaming now.”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of, or ashamed of, I hope,” Ernest challenged.

“I guess we know our business best,” was the retort.

“It’s a dark business, from the way you hide it,” Ernest said with growing anger.

“We’ve paid for our experience in sweat and blood, and we’ve earned all that’s coming to us,” was the reply. “Charity begins at home.”

“If you’re afraid to tell me your way out, I’ll tell it to you.” Ernest’s blood was up. “You’re going in for grab-sharing. You’ve made terms with the enemy, that’s what you’ve done. You’ve sold out the cause of labor, of all labor. You are leaving the battle-field like cowards.”

“I’m not saying anything,” O’Connor answered sullenly. “Only I guess we know what’s best for us a little bit better than you do.”

“And you don’t care a cent for what is best for the rest of labor. You kick it into the ditch.”

“I’m not saying anything,” O’Connor replied, “except that I’m president of the Machinists’ Association, and it’s my business to consider the interests of the men I represent, that’s all.”

And then, when the labor leaders had left, Ernest, with the calmness of defeat, outlined to me the course of events to come.

“The socialists used to foretell with joy,” he said, “the coming of the day when organized labor, defeated on the industrial field, would come over on to the political field. Well, the Iron Heel has defeated the labor unions on the industrial field and driven them over to the political field; and instead of this being joyful for us, it will be a source of grief. The Iron Heel learned its lesson. We showed it our power in the general strike. It has taken steps to prevent another general strike.”

“But how?” I asked.

“Simply by subsidizing the great unions. They won’t join in the next general strike. Therefore it won’t be a general strike.”

“But the Iron Heel can’t maintain so costly a programme forever,” I objected.

“Oh, it hasn’t subsidized all of the unions. That’s not necessary. Here is what is going to happen. Wages are going to be advanced and hours shortened in the railroad unions, the iron and steel workers unions, and the engineer and machinist unions. In these unions more favorable conditions will continue to prevail. Membership in these unions will become like seats in Paradise.”

“Still I don’t see,” I objected. “What is to become of the other unions? There are far more unions outside of this combination than in it.”

“The other unions will be ground out of existence—all of them. For, don’t you see, the railway men, machinists and engineers, iron and steel workers, do all of the vitally essential work in our machine civilization. Assured of their faithfulness, the Iron Heel can snap its fingers at all the rest of labor. Iron, steel, coal, machinery, and transportation constitute the backbone of the whole industrial fabric.”

“But coal?” I queried. “There are nearly a million coal miners.”

They are practically unskilled labor. They will not count. Their wages will go down and their hours will increase. They will be slaves like all the rest of us, and they will become about the most bestial of all of us. They will be compelled to work, just as the farmers are compelled to work now for the masters who robbed them of their land. And the same with all the other unions outside the combination. Watch them wobble and go to pieces, and their members become slaves driven to toil by empty stomachs and the law of the land.

“Do you know what will happen to Farley* and his strike-breakers? I’ll tell you. Strike-breaking as an occupation will cease. There won’t be any more strikes. In place of strikes will be slave revolts. Farley and his gang will be promoted to slave-driving. Oh, it won’t be called that; it will be called enforcing the law of the land that compels the laborers to work. It simply prolongs the fight, this treachery of the big unions. Heaven only knows now where and when the Revolution will triumph.”

* James Farley—a notorious strike-breaker of the period. A

man more courageous than ethical, and of undeniable ability.

He rose high under the rule of the Iron Heel and finally was

translated into the oligarch class. He was assassinated in

1932 by Sarah Jenkins, whose husband, thirty years before,

had been killed by Farley’s strike-breakers.

“But with such a powerful combination as the Oligarchy and the big unions, is there any reason to believe that the Revolution will ever triumph?” I queried. “May not the combination endure forever?”

He shook his head. “One of our generalizations is that every system founded upon class and caste contains within itself the germs of its own decay. When a system is founded upon class, how can caste be prevented? The Iron Heel will not be able to prevent it, and in the end caste will destroy the Iron Heel. The oligarchs have already developed caste among themselves; but wait until the favored unions develop caste. The Iron Heel will use all its power to prevent it, but it will fail.

“In the favored unions are the flower of the American workingmen. They are strong, efficient men. They have become members of those unions through competition for place. Every fit workman in the United States will be possessed by the ambition to become a member of the favored unions. The Oligarchy will encourage such ambition and the consequent competition. Thus will the strong men, who might else be revolutionists, be won away and their strength used to bolster the Oligarchy.

“On the other hand, the labor castes, the members of the favored unions, will strive to make their organizations into close corporations. And they will succeed. Membership in the labor castes will become hereditary. Sons will succeed fathers, and there will be no inflow of new strength from that eternal reservoir of strength, the common people. This will mean deterioration of the labor castes, and in the end they will become weaker and weaker. At the same time, as an institution, they will become temporarily all-powerful. They will be like the guards of the palace in old Rome, and there will be palace revolutions whereby the labor castes will seize the reins of power. And there will be counter-palace revolutions of the oligarchs, and sometimes the one, and sometimes the other, will be in power. And through it all the inevitable caste-weakening will go on, so that in the end the common people will come into their own.”

This foreshadowing of a slow social evolution was made when Ernest was first depressed by the defection of the great unions. I never agreed with him in it, and I disagree now, as I write these lines, more heartily than ever; for even now, though Ernest is gone, we are on the verge of the revolt that will sweep all oligarchies away. Yet I have here given Ernest’s prophecy because it was his prophecy. In spite of his belief in it, he worked like a giant against it, and he, more than any man, has made possible the revolt that even now waits the signal to burst forth.*

* Everhard’s social foresight was remarkable. As clearly as

in the light of past events, he saw the defection of the

favored unions, the rise and the slow decay of the labor

castes, and the struggle between the decaying oligarchs and

labor castes for control of the great governmental machine.

“But if the Oligarchy persists,” I asked him that evening, “what will become of the great surpluses that will fall to its share every year?”

“The surpluses will have to be expended somehow,” he answered; “and trust the oligarchs to find a way. Magnificent roads will be built. There will be great achievements in science, and especially in art. When the oligarchs have completely mastered the people, they will have time to spare for other things. They will become worshippers of beauty. They will become art-lovers. And under their direction and generously rewarded, will toil the artists. The result will be great art; for no longer, as up to yesterday, will the artists pander to the bourgeois taste of the middle class. It will be great art, I tell you, and wonder cities will arise that will make tawdry and cheap the cities of old time. And in these cities will the oligarchs dwell and worship beauty.*

* We cannot but marvel at Everhard’s foresight. Before ever

the thought of wonder cities like Ardis and Asgard entered

the minds of the oligarchs, Everhard saw those cities and

the inevitable necessity for their creation.

“Thus will the surplus be constantly expended while labor does the work. The building of these great works and cities will give a starvation ration to millions of common laborers, for the enormous bulk of the surplus will compel an equally enormous expenditure, and the oligarchs will build for a thousand years—ay, for ten thousand years. They will build as the Egyptians and the Babylonians never dreamed of building; and when the oligarchs have passed away, their great roads and their wonder cities will remain for the brotherhood of labor to tread upon and dwell within.*

* And since that day of prophecy, have passed away the three

centuries of the Iron Heel and the four centuries of the

Brotherhood of Man, and to-day we tread the roads and dwell

in the cities that the oligarchs built. It is true, we are

even now building still more wonderful wonder cities, but

the wonder cities of the oligarchs endure, and I write these

lines in Ardis, one of the most wonderful of them all.

“These things the oligarchs will do because they cannot help doing them. These great works will be the form their expenditure of the surplus will take, and in the same way that the ruling classes of Egypt of long ago expended the surplus they robbed from the people by the building of temples and pyramids. Under the oligarchs will flourish, not a priest class, but an artist class. And in place of the merchant class of bourgeoisie will be the labor castes. And beneath will be the abyss, wherein will fester and starve and rot, and ever renew itself, the common people, the great bulk of the population. And in the end, who knows in what day, the common people will rise up out of the abyss; the labor castes and the Oligarchy will crumble away; and then, at last, after the travail of the centuries, will it be the day of the common man. I had thought to see that day; but now I know that I shall never see it.”

He paused and looked at me, and added:

“Social evolution is exasperatingly slow, isn’t it, sweetheart?”

My arms were about him, and his head was on my breast.

“Sing me to sleep,” he murmured whimsically. “I have had a visioning, and I wish to forget.”


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