Learning Truth from Fiction: Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” (Ch. 5 – The Philomaths)


Jack London’s little-known dystopian novel, published in 1908, has an explicitly socialist message. I highly recommend it. It’s a great introduction to socialism. In the following excerpt, the protagonist, Ernest, who is a socialist activist, debates capitalist elites and issues a challenge. – PC

Excerpt from Ch. 5 – The Philomaths

“This is intolerable!” Colonel Van Gilbert cried out. “This is insult!”

“That you should not answer is intolerable,” Ernest replied gravely. “No man can be intellectually insulted. Insult, in its very nature, is emotional. Recover yourself. Give me an intellectual answer to my intellectual charge that the capitalist class has mismanaged society.”

Colonel Van Gilbert remained silent, a sullen, superior expression on his face, such as will appear on the face of a man who will not bandy words with a ruffian.

“Do not be downcast,” Ernest said. “Take consolation in the fact that no member of your class has ever yet answered that charge.” He turned to the other men who were anxious to speak. “And now it”s your chance. Fire away, and do not forget that I here challenge you to give the answer that Colonel Van Gilbert has failed to give.”

It would be impossible for me to write all that was said in the discussion. I never realized before how many words could be spoken in three short hours. At any rate, it was glorious. The more his opponents grew excited, the more Ernest deliberately excited them. He had an encyclopaedic command of the field of knowledge, and by a word or a phrase, by delicate rapier thrusts, he punctured them, He named the points of their illogic. This was a false syllogism, that conclusion had no connection with the premise, while that next premise was an impostor because it had cunningly hidden in it the conclusion that was being attempted to be proved. This was an error, that was an assumption, and the next was an assertion contrary to ascertained truth as printed in all the text-books.

And so it went. Sometimes he exchanged the rapier for the club and went smashing amongst their thoughts right and left. And always he demanded facts and refused to discuss theories. And his facts made for them a Waterloo. When they attacked the working class, he always retorted, “The pot calling the kettle black; that is no answer to the charge that your own face is dirty.” And to one and all he said: “Why have you not answered the charge that your class has mismanaged? You have talked about other things and things concerning other things, but you have not answered. Is it because you have no answer?”

It was at the end of the discussion that Mr. Wickson spoke. He was the only one that was cool, and Ernest treated him with a respect he had not accorded the others.

“No answer is necessary,” Mr. Wickson said with slow deliberation. “I have followed the whole discussion with amazement and disgust. I am disgusted with you gentlemen, members of my class. You have behaved like foolish little schoolboys, what with intruding ethics and the thunder of the common politician into such a discussion. You have been outgeneralled and outclassed. You have been very wordy, and all you have done is buzz. You have buzzed like gnats about a bear. Gentlemen, there stands the bear” (he pointed at Ernest), “and your buzzing has only tickled his ears.

“Believe me, the situation is serious. That bear reached out his paws tonight to crush us. He has said there are a million and a half of revolutionists in the United States. That is a fact. He has said that it is their intention to take away from us our governments, our palaces, and all our purpled ease. That, also, is a fact. A change, a great change, is coming in society; but, haply, it may not be the change the bear anticipates. The bear has said that he will crush us. What if we crush the bear?”

The throat-rumble arose in the great room, and man nodded to man with indorsement and certitude. Their faces were set hard. They were fighters, that was certain.

“But not by buzzing will we crush the bear,” Mr. Wickson went on coldly and dispassionately. “We will hunt the bear. We will not reply to the bear in words. Our reply shall be couched in terms of lead. We are in power. Nobody will deny it. By virtue of that power we shall remain in power.”

He turned suddenly upon Ernest. The moment was dramatic.

“This, then, is our answer. We have no words to waste on you. When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purpled ease, we will show you what strength is. In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched.[10] We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain. As for the host of labor, it has been in the dirt since history began, and I read history aright. And in the dirt it shall remain so long as I and mine and those that come after us have the power. There is the word. It is the king of words—Power. Not God, not Mammon, but Power. Pour it over your tongue till it tingles with it. Power.”

“I am answered,” Ernest said quietly. “It is the only answer that could be given. Power. It is what we of the working class preach. We know, and well we know by bitter experience, that no appeal for the right, for justice, for humanity, can ever touch you. Your hearts are hard as your heels with which you tread upon the faces of the poor. So we have preached power. By the power of our ballots on election day will we take your government away from you—”

“What if you do get a majority, a sweeping majority, on election day?” Mr. Wickson broke in to demand. “Suppose we refuse to turn the government over to you after you have captured it at the ballot-box?”

“That, also, have we considered,” Ernest replied. “And we shall give you an answer in terms of lead. Power you have proclaimed the king of words. Very good. Power it shall be. And in the day that we sweep to victory at the ballot-box, and you refuse to turn over to us the government we have constitutionally and peacefully captured, and you demand what we are going to do about it—in that day, I say, we shall answer you; and in roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns shall our answer be couched.

“You cannot escape us. It is true that you have read history aright. It is true that labor has from the beginning of history been in the dirt. And it is equally true that so long as you and yours and those that come after you have power, that labor shall remain in the dirt. I agree with you. I agree with all that you have said. Power will be the arbiter, as it always has been the arbiter. It is a struggle of classes. Just as your class dragged down the old feudal nobility, so shall it be dragged down by my class, the working class. If you will read your biology and your sociology as clearly as you do your history, you will see that this end I have described is inevitable. It does not matter whether it is in one year, ten, or a thousand—your class shall be dragged down. And it shall be done by power. We of the labor hosts have conned that word over till our minds are all a-tingle with it. Power. It is a kingly word.”

And so ended the night with the Philomaths.

Source: Marxists Internet Archive

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3 Responses to Learning Truth from Fiction: Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” (Ch. 5 – The Philomaths)

  1. Pingback: Red News | Protestation

  2. beetleypete says:

    If you enjoyed this Jack London book, you may well like this English novel. It is cited as turning many readers into Leftists.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  3. Prole Center says:

    Awesome! Never heard of this before. I’ll seek it out right now. Thanks, Pete!

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