Doren Robbins

A Commentary on the “Iron Heel Sequence”

The Iron Heel Sequence #1. Photomontage, ink, and cut-outs.


The “Iron Heel Sequence” (mixed media photomontage 2016-2019) began with a sighting of the Lawrence Hill & Co. Publishers book cover of Jack London’s 1908 revolutionary novel The Iron Heel (the artist is anonymous). From a Marxist view of surplus value, exploitation, and alienated labor, it is a lucid and sometimes awkwardly written narrative depicting an earlier violent situation of our class society under the militarist and mercenary powers of the oligarchy maintaining the United States caste system of wage slavery. In a critical discussion over the inevitable violence between the unemployed and the working-class against the oligarchy and the government, Mr. Wickson, a representative force of the oligarchy, forcefully responds to the directly articulate and threatening socialist revolutionary, Ernest Everhard:
          “But not by buzzing will we crush the bear,” Mr. Wickson went on coldly and dispassionately. “We hunt the bear. We will not reply to the bear with words. Our reply shall be couched in words of lead. We are the power. Nobody will deny it. By virtue of that power we will remain in power.”
          He suddenly turned 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 a roar of shell and shrapnel and in the whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched. We will grind you revolutionists down under our iron heel, and we shall walk upon your faces (63).

As a man with immediate experience of the very poor1 and as common-sense observer with a Marxist background in perceiving class tensions, Jack London represented class war as the inevitable causation of the deprivations and sufferings of workers’ enslaved to state, banking, and corporate economic power. The book was published within ten-twelve years of The Espionage Act and The Palmer Raids. These state and ruling class directed laws and events display the methods of oligarchic power when its economic will to control territories, labor unions and resources, demands for waging war, and violently repressing war resisters and unionists, while financially benefitting the oligarchy’s institutions and corporations, transparently reveals the class contradictions inherent in the extremely limited economic representation of Liberal Democracy.

“Liberation,” what Yevgeny Zamyatin ironically refers to as a “criminal instinct” hasn’t yet reached the level of overall neutralization from “the beneficent yoke of the state” that he imagines in his futurist 1920 satire We. Though there are revolutionary and oligarchic spies in The Iron Heel, there is nothing like Zamyatin’s totalitarian understanding of how surveillance in his dystopic “One State” would be implemented through our future (now present) Internet Police, Biometric identification, Surveillance cameras in public places, Geolocation tracking on cellphones/GPS, etc. Zamyatin’s prescience is demonstrated in the passage where the engineer-narrator recounts having “recently had to work out the curvature of a new type of street membrane (these membranes, elegantly decorated are now on all the avenues and record street conversations for the Bureau of Guardians)” (53). In Zamyatin’s novel, the people of One State all live in glass structures and are literally known to eachother through numbered identification. The “glass” image is now a metonym for the near total and panoptic transparency of identity and behavior of individuals desired by the current state in the various territories of oligarchic or totalitarian economic power. The Bureau of Guardians is One State’s version of the FBI-CIA, KGB, Mossad, The General Directorate for External Security, Security Service M15, Ministry of State Security, et. al.

The current agencies of The Iron Heel have become pervasive and incidental, cooperative when necessary, using violence, repression of civil liberties, and torture exercised internationally to maintain the Iron Heel’s Totalitarian and Oligarchic global powers. Economic systems have become arbitrary to the corporate synthesis of international high finance. George Orwell represented the situation in the “War is Peace” passage of 1984: “All of the disputed territories contain valuable minerals…above all they contain a bottomless reserve of labor…reduced more or less openly to the status of slaves” (187). What Orwell understands through observation as the economic maintenance of The Iron heel Oligarchy, reflects Randolph Bourne’s statement, “But in general, the nation in war-time attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values, culminated at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war’s” (Bourne). Orwell concluded:
          The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces, of pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. (191)

Along with accomplishing nationalism and the internalization of false consciousness regarding common citizens and workers from the opposing nation now perceived as enemies (defined by the state as competitors for natural resources and cheap labor), the state also accomplishes the suspension or eradication of First Amendment rights and educational organizing methods that would reveal the schematic of the oligarchy or totalitarian regime and inspire imminent criticism and possible revolt. Zamyatin’s passage on eradicating “Imagination” perceives the anti-state enemy as “the last barrier on the path to happiness. […] The latest discovery of State Science: The imagination is centered in a wretched little brain node in the region of the pons Varolii2. Expose this node to three doses of X-rays—and you are cured of imagination” (173). In the U.S. the opioid and psychotropic pharmaceutical industry in part alleviates and facilitates the need for the One State or Spaceballs’ X-ray or lazar procedure. Still, by eliminating massive numbers of the unemployed and the working class, which includes socially-conscious men and women, war is also a method of minimizing the need for the threat stated by Wickson “We will grind you revolutionists down under our iron heel…”

During the later part of selecting, composing, arranging and constructing “The Iron Heel Sequence,” I communicated with a student struggling with the introspective component of an essay he was revising. To approach the introspective component he needed to declare why he personally was drawn to works of social consciousness that contain ethical criticism of the economic system. The poems he was analyzing, William Blake’s “London” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution will not be Televised” are both poems critical of capitalism.

I mentioned, if the exploitative and sinister part of the economic system is unacceptable to you personally, it should, for socially moral reasons be stated somewhere within an introspective statement and recollection. For an example, I recounted the fact that my family was driven from Ukraine in the early 20th century by czarist-conceived and rapist and murder-directed Cossack (Death Squad) pogroms (massacres and incineration). When they arrived in the U.S. they were free from State and Mercenary violence, but ended up in poverty working in sweatshops. Their stories of exploitation and economic struggle affected my worldview at an early age; so Tillie Olsen’s poem, “I Want You Women Up North To Know,” which focuses on the exploited garment workers living in impoverished conditions in Texas and elsewhere is a poem I personally feel close to because it introspectively reminds me that racism, sexism, and economic injustice is part of my family’s experience, and the historical experience of underprivileged people internationally. The poem also encourages me, in the sense that there were outspoken poets in the United States in the 20th century like Tillie Olsen and Gil Scott-Heron, and William Blake in 18th-19th century England who, because of their necessarily daring still continue to inform people of social and economic injustice and the struggle for human rights.

In the last chapters of The Iron Heel, there is vicious retaliation in the conflict London presents in “The Chicago Commune” battle where “The people of the abyss [from which] “the vampire society had sucked the juice of life” had nothing to lose but the misery and pain of living. And to gain?—nothing, save one final, awful glut of vengeance” (207). So far, a collective reaction of a violence of this dimension has been avoided. Like the people that came out for the “Occupy Movement” the people of the United States that came out to protest “Black Lives Matter” were also protesting the impossible to live on wages, inadequate healthcare, college tuitions, threats to an already minimal social security system, dangerous work-place conditions, and police state brutality to all minorities and the vulnerable immigrants at our southern border. More than the Iron Heel metaphor, the facts display a thorough system of equivalent procedures for destructive results against specific targets.

Jack London’s The Iron Heel is a historically indispensable novel of the early and ongoing international economic situation and the organization and rebellion of citizens oppressed by oligarchy in the early 20th century. The oligarchy is what we now understand as the 1% totalitarian two-party leadership and corporate, militarily vested domination of the world economy that exists today. The 99% are struggling, perishing, organizing under and against the Iron Heel, the faces are indiscriminate, the current force, on either side, still intrepid, and driven.


1 Jack London worked, lived with, and wrote about the poor and the working class in his earlier book, People of the Abyss.

2 The pons is also called the pons Varolii (“bridge of Varolius”), after the Italian anatomist and surgeon Costanzo Varolio (1543–75).[1] This region of the brainstem includes neural pathways and tracts that conduct signals from the brain down to the cerebellum and medulla, and tracts that carry the sensory signals up into the thalamus.

The Iron Heel Sequence #2. Photomontage, ink, and cut-outs.

The Iron Heel Sequence #3. Photomontage, water color, and cut-outs.

The Iron Heel Sequence #4. Photomontage, ink, graffiti spray paint, and cut-outs.

The Iron Heel Sequence #5, left detail. Photomontage, ink, and cut outs.


Works Cited

Bourne, Randolph. “War is the Health of the State.” https://www.panarchy.org/bourne/state.1918.html.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Harcourt, 1977.
London, Jack. The Iron Heel. Westport: Lawrence and Hill, 1980.

Doren Robbins is a poet, mixed media artist, and literary critic.

Two new books, (1) Apocalypse Contemporary, on Sharon Doubiago’s book Naked to the Earth.
Can be ordered from the author or from the publisher.

and (2) Not Fade Away: Poetic Prose Monologues, Three Sequences, which can be ordered from the publisher and also through the author at the email address above.

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