One of Jack London’s Greatest Hits

Is his dystopian novel The Iron Heel, written over 100 years ago. Consider how concisely London lays out the inevitability of class struggle (and by implication the hypocrisy of those who denounce demands of anyone who’s not a capitalist for more):

“Are you discussing the ideal man?” Ernest asked, “–unselfish and godlike, and so few in numbers as to be practically non-existent, or are you discussing the common and ordinary average man?”

“The common and ordinary man,” was the answer.

“Who is weak and fallible, prone to error?”

Bishop Morehouse nodded.

“And petty and selfish?”

Again he nodded.

“Watch out!” Ernest warned. “I said ‘selfish.'”

“The average man IS selfish,” the Bishop affirmed valiantly.

“Wants all he can get?”

“Wants all he can get–true but deplorable.”

“Then I’ve got you.” Ernest’s jaw snapped like a trap. “Let me show you. Here is a man who works on the street railways.”

“He couldn’t work if it weren’t for capital,” the Bishop interrupted.

“True, and you will grant that capital would perish if there were no labor to earn the dividends.”

The Bishop was silent.

“Won’t you?” Ernest insisted.

The Bishop nodded.

“Then our statements cancel each other,” Ernest said in a matter-of-fact tone, “and we are where we were. Now to begin again. The workingmen on the street railway furnish the labor. The stockholders furnish the capital. By the joint effort of the workingmen and the capital, money is earned.* They divide between them this money that is earned. Capital’s share is called ‘dividends.’ Labor’s share is called ‘wages.'”

* In those days, groups of predatory individuals controlled all the means of transportation, and for the use of same levied toll upon the public.

“Very good,” the Bishop interposed. “And there is no reason that the division should not be amicable.”

“You have already forgotten what we had agreed upon,” Ernest replied. “We agreed that the average man is selfish. He is the man that is. You have gone up in the air and are arranging a division between the kind of men that ought to be but are not. But to return to the earth, the workingman, being selfish, wants all he can get in the division. The capitalist, being selfish, wants all he can get in the division. When there is only so much of the same thing, and when two men want all they can get of the same thing, there is a conflict of interest between labor and capital. And it is an irreconcilable conflict. As long as workingmen and capitalists exist, they will continue to quarrel over the division. If you were in San Francisco this afternoon, you’d have to walk. There isn’t a street car running.”

The whole book is, by the way, now in the public domain and thus available for free.

Probably the first political work of London’s I encountered was What Life Means to Me, as a freshman or sophomore in college. It was I believe the first piece of socialist propaganda I had read which really resonated with me. (I had looked at Marx and found his prose mostly inscrutable; I still find his writing very heavy and difficult to parse.)

As an aside, in general, the writers who have the greatest influence on my beliefs have been not political theorists but authors of fiction who have also written political works, for the very reason that they do a better job of explaining things to those, like me, who are not academics in the field of political science.

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