131. The Worker and the Tramp: Jack London

Occassionally, I include an article or story instead of a poem. I know that people come to this site looking for appropriate poetry, but I can’t resist when I find something I’ve never seen before. I was going to just include “Iron Heel” but found a relevant poem to include as well: a double treat of Progressive Social Realism!

We are currently finishing a unit on revolution, utopia and the like. As a class, we read Lois Lowry’s “The Giver”. I used to read Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” with the class, but gave way to Lowry (I think I’ll go back next time around; half of the kids were kind of bored and couldn’t push to the end, even with supports, and I found that Bradbury’s observations about media and youth are more relevant than ever). Searching for other titles beyond the usual high school classics (i.e., “1984”) and the recent glut of YA titles (“Hunger Games”, “The Uglies” and “City of Ember” float to the top), I stumbled on a list that included Jack London’s “Iron Heel”.

From my college years, I knew London was a socialist, even as my only reading of him has been the classic “To Build a Fire.” Now, I like to download free books onto my iTouch via my Stanza app and read them in the dark while I lay with my preschooler at night; he drops off and I get some quality time with him and a good book. So, I took a chance (it’s free!) on this one.

Like Upton Sinclair and Frank Norris, London lays out his screed very logically and methodically. Unlike Sinclair and Norris, though, London can write. Even as the focus of the story, a working class soapbox pundit named Ernest (yes, the name is a bit obvious), lays out his arguments it is interesting to read. When the eponymous Iron Heel comes crashing down, it was riveting. I include the second half of that chapter below.

You can download the entire text in a variety of formats here.

At this political time in our country, with banks too big to fail and the rise of the Tea Party, London’s piece is… interesting. If you move beyond the tags (socialist) there are a lot of similarities in the concerns of the Progressives and Tea Party of today, many realized in London’s work.

Since you’ve read this far, let me add the following:

Frank Norris “A Deal in Wheat” is an interesting look at the commodities market. I did it as a read aloud and stopped and explained economics as we went. We talked about labor and investment and Adam Smith vs. the manipulations possible in markets, and the possibilities markets allow.

U.S. A Novel is a hilarious look at… a lot of things. Not a YA novel, but for adults who read “The Jungle” or any of Sinclair’s works in school. In short, Upton Sinclair gets dug up whenever the Progressives need a hero. He’s just as crusty as when he died, and keeps getting assassinated. The way that Bachelder tells a story in the first half is unique.

A great, older YA dystopia, if you want to know, is


Anyway, here’s London’s poem, followed by a bit of “Iron Heel”.

The Worker And The Tramp
Jack London

Heaven bless you, my friend –
You, the man who won’t sweat;
Here’s a quarter to spend.

If you did but mend,
My job you would get; –
Heaven bless you, my friend. –

On you I depend
For my work, don’t forget; –
Here’s a quarter to spend.

My hand I extend,
For I love you, you bet: –
Here’s a quarter to spend.

Ah! you comprehend
That I owe a debt;
Heaven bless you, my friend,
Here’s a quarter to spend.

The Vortex
Chapter X
Jack London

Ernest had his hand on the pulse of events even more closely than the
rest of the socialists, and within two days the first blow was struck.
The Appeal to Reason was a weekly, and its regular circulation amongst
the proletariat was seven hundred and fifty thousand. Also, it very
frequently got out special editions of from two to five millions. These
great editions were paid for and distributed by the small army of
voluntary workers who had marshalled around the Appeal. The first blow was aimed at these special editions, and it was a crushing one. By an arbitrary ruling of the Post Office, these editions were decided to be not the regular circulation of the paper, and for that reason were
denied admission to the mails.

A week later the Post Office Department ruled that the paper was
seditious, and barred it entirely from the mails. This was a fearful
blow to the socialist propaganda. The Appeal was desperate. It devised
a plan of reaching its subscribers through the express companies, but
they declined to handle it. This was the end of the Appeal. But not
quite. It prepared to go on with its book publishing. Twenty thousand
copies of father’s book were in the bindery, and the presses were
turning off more. And then, without warning, a mob arose one night,
and, under a waving American flag, singing patriotic songs, set fire to
the great plant of the Appeal and totally destroyed it.

Now Girard, Kansas, was a quiet, peaceable town. There had never been any labor troubles there. The Appeal paid union wages; and, in fact, was the backbone of the town, giving employment to hundreds of men and women. It was not the citizens of Girard that composed the mob. This mob had risen up out of the earth apparently, and to all intents and purposes, its work done, it had gone back into the earth. Ernest saw in the affair the most sinister import.

“The Black Hundreds* are being organized in the United States,” he said. “This is the beginning. There will be more of it. The Iron Heel is
getting bold.”

And so perished father’s book. We were to see much of the Black Hundreds as the days went by. Week by week more of the socialist papers were barred from the mails, and in a number of instances the Black Hundreds destroyed the socialist presses. Of course, the newspapers of the land lived up to the reactionary policy of the ruling class, and the destroyed socialist press was misrepresented and vilified, while the Black Hundreds were represented as true patriots and saviours of society. So convincing was all this misrepresentation that even sincere ministers in the pulpit praised the Black Hundreds while regretting the necessity of violence.

History was making fast. The fall elections were soon to occur, and
Ernest was nominated by the socialist party to run for Congress. His
chance for election was most favorable. The street-car strike in San
Francisco had been broken. And following upon it the teamsters’ strike
had been broken. These two defeats had been very disastrous to organized labor. The whole Water Front Federation, along with its allies in the structural trades, had backed up the teamsters, and all had smashed down ingloriously. It had been a bloody strike. The police had broken countless heads with their riot clubs; and the death list had been augmented by the turning loose of a machine-gun on the strikers from the barns of the Marsden Special Delivery Company.

In consequence, the men were sullen and vindictive. They wanted blood, and revenge. Beaten on their chosen field, they were ripe to seek revenge by means of political action. They still maintained their labor organization, and this gave them strength in the political struggle that was on. Ernest’s chance for election grew stronger and stronger. Day by day unions and more unions voted their support to the socialists, until even Ernest laughed when the Undertakers’ Assistants and the Chicken Pickers fell into line. Labor became mulish. While it packed the socialist meetings with mad enthusiasm, it was impervious to the wiles of the old-party politicians. The old-party orators were usually greeted with empty halls, though occasionally they encountered full halls where they were so roughly handled that more than once it was necessary to call out the police reserves.

History was making fast. The air was vibrant with things happening and
impending. The country was on the verge of hard times,* caused by a
series of prosperous years wherein the difficulty of disposing abroad
of the unconsumed surplus had become increasingly difficult. Industries
were working short time; many great factories were standing idle against the time when the surplus should be gone; and wages were being cut right and left.

Also, the great machinist strike had been broken. Two hundred thousand machinists, along with their five hundred thousand allies in the metalworking trades, had been defeated in as bloody a strike as had ever marred the United States. Pitched battles had been fought with the small armies of armed strike-breakers* put in the field by the employers’ associations; the Black Hundreds, appearing in scores of wide-scattered places, had destroyed property; and, in consequence, a hundred thousand regular soldiers of the United States has been called out to put a frightful end to the whole affair. A number of the labor leaders had been executed; many others had been sentenced to prison, while thousands of the rank and file of the strikers had been herded into bull-pens**and abominably treated by the soldiers.

The years of prosperity were now to be paid for. All markets were
glutted; all markets were falling; and amidst the general crumble
of prices the price of labor crumbled fastest of all. The land was
convulsed with industrial dissensions. Labor was striking here, there,
and everywhere; and where it was not striking, it was being turned out
by the capitalists. The papers were filled with tales of violence and
blood. And through it all the Black Hundreds played their part. Riot,
arson, and wanton destruction of property was their function, and well
they performed it. The whole regular army was in the field, called there
by the actions of the Black Hundreds.* All cities and towns were like
armed camps, and laborers were shot down like dogs. Out of the vast
army of the unemployed the strike-breakers were recruited; and when
the strike-breakers were worsted by the labor unions, the troops always appeared and crushed the unions. Then there was the militia. As yet, it was not necessary to have recourse to the secret militia law. Only the regularly organized militia was out, and it was out everywhere. And in this time of terror, the regular army was increased an additional hundred thousand by the government.

Never had labor received such an all-around beating. The great captains of industry, the oligarchs, had for the first time thrown their full weight into the breach the struggling employers’ associations had made. These associations were practically middle-class affairs, and now, compelled by hard times and crashing markets, and aided by the great captains of industry, they gave organized labor an awful and decisive defeat. It was an all-powerful alliance, but it was an alliance of the lion and the lamb, as the middle class was soon to learn.

Labor was bloody and sullen, but crushed. Yet its defeat did not put
an end to the hard times. The banks, themselves constituting one of the most important forces of the Oligarchy, continued to call in credits.
The Wall Street* group turned the stock market into a maelstrom where the values of all the land crumbled away almost to nothingness. And out of all the rack and ruin rose the form of the nascent Oligarchy,
imperturbable, indifferent, and sure. Its serenity and certitude was
terrifying. Not only did it use its own vast power, but it used all the
power of the United States Treasury to carry out its plans.

The captains of industry had turned upon the middle class. The
employers’ associations, that had helped the captains of industry to
tear and rend labor, were now torn and rent by their quondam allies.
Amidst the crashing of the middle men, the small business men and
manufacturers, the trusts stood firm. Nay, the trusts did more than
stand firm. They were active. They sowed wind, and wind, and ever more wind; for they alone knew how to reap the whirlwind and make a profit out of it. And such profits! Colossal profits! Strong enough themselves to weather the storm that was largely their own brewing, they turned loose and plundered the wrecks that floated about them. Values were pitifully and inconceivably shrunken, and the trusts added hugely to their holdings, even extending their enterprises into many new fields–and always at the expense of the middle class.

Thus the summer of 1912 witnessed the virtual death-thrust to the middle class. Even Ernest was astounded at the quickness with which it had been done. He shook his head ominously and looked forward without hope to the fall elections.

“It’s no use,” he said. “We are beaten. The Iron Heel is here. I had
hoped for a peaceable victory at the ballot-box. I was wrong. Wickson
was right. We shall be robbed of our few remaining liberties; the Iron
Heel will walk upon our faces; nothing remains but a bloody revolution
of the working class. Of course we will win, but I shudder to think of

And from then on Ernest pinned his faith in revolution. In this he was
in advance of his party. His fellow-socialists could not agree with him.
They still insisted that victory could be gained through the elections.
It was not that they were stunned. They were too cool-headed and
courageous for that. They were merely incredulous, that was all. Ernest
could not get them seriously to fear the coming of the Oligarchy. They
were stirred by him, but they were too sure of their own strength. There was no room in their theoretical social evolution for an oligarchy,
therefore the Oligarchy could not be.

“We’ll send you to Congress and it will be all right,” they told him at
one of our secret meetings.

“And when they take me out of Congress,” Ernest replied coldly, “and put me against a wall, and blow my brains out–what then?”

“Then we’ll rise in our might,” a dozen voices answered at once.

“Then you’ll welter in your gore,” was his retort. “I’ve heard that song
sung by the middle class, and where is it now in its might?”


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