Illustration by Isabel Ríos.

Words’ Worlds: The Iron Heel vs. True Allegiance

In this week’s installment of Words’ Worlds, the columnist explores two types of propaganda through two novels: Jack London’s The Iron Heel (socialist propaganda) versus Ben Shapiro’s True Allegiance (conservative propaganda).

Jan 31, 2021

First, a disclaimer: it is impossible for me to be purely unbiased while exploring these books. I am a left-leaning literature student, not a historian or a political scientist. Despite this, I have done my best to explore a variety of sources from different disciplines and political leanings in order to understand and explain not only how these opposing novels function as propaganda, but also how they complicate common understandings of what propaganda is and the effects it can have.
I cannot recommend either of these books to most readers. If you want an extremely basic introduction to socialist ideology, Jack London’s The Iron Heel explains the ideals that socialists fight for and the oppressions they fight against with articulateness and detail. However, it does become dry. Since it was published in 1908, the references to contemporary events are obscure and require extra research to fully grasp. In addition, the main character has no personality to speak of, and most of the book tells rather than shows to the extent that it reads like a blueprint of a better novel. It also doesn’t help that the book’s final scene, which is the best moment in the book, confuses its message by portraying the long-oppressed workers as animals who will tear anybody they come across limb from limb. Funnily enough, I think it could have worked better with a similar format to what True Allegiance tried and failed to replicate: a sprawling political thriller following multiple characters playing different roles in a corrupt system.
Speaking of which, True Allegiance is only worthwhile for those who enjoy media that is “so bad it’s good.” There are numerous videos laughing at it, and it is exactly what you might expect from a novel by Ben Shapiro. The writing is so sloppy that I’m certain that it was a first draft, and just to give a sense of the book’s moral bankruptcy, there is a subplot in which a white cop shoots an eight year old Black child and is portrayed as the sympathetic victim of a Black “race hustler” using the incident to take over Detroit.
Historical investigations into propaganda tend to focus on visual means of “[manipulating] the rational will to close off debate,” as philosopher Jason Stanley puts it. For example, many of the techniques used in Nazi posters to incite loyalty to the Third Reich and hatred of various minorities emerge in London’s and Shapiro’s novels. Propaganda posters often use imagery relating to soldiers and warfare to encourage people to fight and die for a given cause and frequently obscure soldiers’ faces or use abstract art styles to remove their identity and leave a space for the onlooker to project themselves onto.
The protagonists in these two novels function similarly. In The Iron Heel, Avis Everhard is a blank slate — an uneducated member of the bourgeoisie — until the socialist leader Ernest Everhard — who she later marries — enlightens her. In effect, she is receiving the same treatment as the reader: being handheld through the evils of capitalism and the tenets of socialism. Additionally, much of the book consists of depictions of street battles between numerous one-dimensional minor characters, who are less important than the overall conflict. The protagonist of True Allegiance, Brett Hawthorne, is the youngest general in the United States army — a stereotypical hero within an escapist fantasy. This is shown in the constant, vivid evocations of his physical strength and dominance — which, nonetheless, quickly become ridiculous. If I had had to read another description of him, or any of the other male protagonists, as a “bulky” or “burly” “bear of a man,” I would have seriously considered finding an actual bear to feed myself to. Both novels thus go beyond trying to make the readers sympathize with their characters and encourage them to inhabit the worlds they create.
While this similarity provides insight into the structures of propaganda, the differences between the books can tell us about the ideology adopted by the authors. The enemy in The Iron Heel is systemic — it is literally The Iron Heel, the oligarchic regime whose emergence from unchecked capitalism is portrayed as inevitable. The novel is allegorical; there are arguably no real characters in this book since everyone is a symbol of a larger institution. The peasant Jackson represents every worker whose life was ruined by the doctrine of financial gain at any cost. Mr. Asmunsen is every business owner who let themselves be taken advantage of by the oligarchy, but defend it in the hope of future rewards. Bishop Morehouse is every person who tries and fails to reform the system from within. There are only two genuine characters: socialism, and The Iron Heel.
Meanwhile, Shapiro’s boogeymen tend to be bad actors within neutral power structures. The main antagonist, President Prescott, is portrayed as a misogynistic coward, always hungry for media attention and praise. His personality is linked many times to his supposedly poor decisions, such as pulling troops out of Afghanistan and starting a welfare program which is heavy-handedly called the Work Freedom Programme, a blatant reference to the gates of Auschwitz. Prescott isn’t the only example; from a customs official “hemming and hawing” about racial profiling when Brett Hawthorne is tracking down an Iranian terrorist to Levon Williams (the aforementioned “race hustler”) single-handedly replacing the entire Detroit police force, systemic problems like racism are portrayed as nothing more than emotional ploys to serve the whims of overly sensitive or outright malicious figures. While systemic problems are all there is in The Iron Heel, the systems of power in True Allegiance are corrupted by one-dimensional villains.
From the research I have done while writing this article, I have seen two recurring generalizations made about propaganda: that it is inherently disingenuous and untrue and intended to convert rather than preach to the choir. However, I do not think that either of these blanket statements apply to the books I’ve discussed. The Iron Heel is explicitly designed to introduce socialism to the ignorant reader, painting it in a rosy light, but many of its critiques of capitalism have justifiable foundations in historical and contemporary events. True Allegiance is wildly inaccurate in its portrayal and analysis of real world issues, such as terrorism and police brutality, but I can imagine a fan of Ben Shapiro’s other work reading this book and becoming more entrenched in their conservative beliefs.
Public interest in how propaganda works has steadily increased since the First World War, but this universality of interest has led to very specific characterizations of propaganda that place all of the blame on totalitarian states. We rarely consider what happens when the indoctrinated become indoctrinators because to do so would acknowledge that anybody is capable of creating propaganda as well as believing it. To quote Jason Stanley once more, “any account of propaganda must explain how possession of a flawed ideology can lead to the tendency to engage in propaganda.” This tendency applies to authors like Jack London and Ben Shapiro, and in the wake of disastrously regressive populist uprisings all around the world, led and encouraged by charismatic leaders and social media movements — a more modern conception of propaganda is paramount to curb future demagoguery.
Oscar Bray is a Research Columnist. Email him at
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