Ursula Le Guin and utopia (and Kropotkin on Edward Bellamy)

Sad news – Ursula Le Guin has died, aged 88. First Iain Banks, now Le Guin. So somewhat sad. She was a great writer, one of the best ever. Needless to say, she was my favourite SF writer. Her alien worlds were, well, alien. Her characters, actual people and not cyphers. Her message, humane, egalitarian, feminist, libertarian. She will be missed – but her writings will endure. And I hope she saw this year’s women’s marches across the world:

“When women speak truly they speak subversively — they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want – to hear you erupting. You young Mount St Helenses who don’t know the power in you – I want to hear you.” (source)

Her parents were anthropologists, and you can tell. Far too much of SF (and Fantasy, for that matter) is just middle-class, middle-aged, white, American male (who read or watched too many Westerns) projected into space. The lack of thought about culture is made up for by some fancy hard-ware and battles against a thinly-veiled stand-in for “communism” (i.e., Stalinism). The “harder” the SF, the more banal it appears to be. Not Le Guin. Her cultures reflect thought, an awareness that the norms of the current patriarchal, racist, class society are not the only ones. Humanity has provided a diverse range of cultures across time and space, if having an imagination is too much hard work. Much of SF – particularly in its so-called “golden era” – is not particularly imaginative. Again, not Le Guin – her works are imaginative in terms of “alien” cultures.

So, do yourself a favour and read her books – particularly The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. You will not be disappointed.

Obviously, there was a lot positive articles on her and her legacy. I will mention one thing, namely a comment on The Dispossessed. It is almost like those who you think should be close to anarchism – Marxists, left-ish people – are the most disingenuous about it. I covered Ken MacLeod recently in this blog and here is something from the Guardian written to mark her death:

“But the physicist Shevek, who is working on a method of interstellar communication called the Principle of Simultaneity, is becoming disillusioned with the anarchist philosophy of Anarres and travels to Urras to find more freedom.”

Do people even bother to read the books they summarise? This is a travesty of the book’s plot and point. Shevek was not “disillusioned with the anarchist philosophy,” he was seeking to make Anarres live up to its anarchist philosophy! He spends a lot of his time on Urras advocating anarchism – if I remember correctly, it is even noted that he was surprised that they allowed him to do so at the Urras equivalent of the United Nations (because his speech is not reported in depth in the popular newspapers). He even compares his academic life to his live in Anarres, considering the academic environment the closest to what he is used to back home – discussion between equals.

And he travels to Urras as part of his struggle to help break the crystallised structures on Anarres – which saw the decision to decline communication with anarchists on Urrras! He did not travel to Urras to “fine more freedom” – he was well aware of the hierarchical nature of the system and experienced it first-hand. He even escapes his “freedom” at the university to join a mass anti-war protest… and he goes back to Anarres to continue to apply his anarchism to the crystallised libertarian society he seeks to bring back to its ideal.

Bloody idiot – and what an insult to her memory.

Since I mention Iain Banks, I should say a few words about their respective “utopias.” The difference is stark – the culture is, to coin a phrase, a Post-Scarcity Anarchism (another classic you should read – pdf) while Anarres is very much a “scarcity” anarchism (although the standard of living is high, it is limited by its ecology). Which makes The Dispossessed a far more realistic work. Banks postulates a level of technology which is, basically, magic and so he magics away all the issues any real anarchist society would face.

Sure, Le Guin did magic – in her Earthsea books! Anarres presents a society which you could see working today, not hundreds of years in the future. Yes, the Culture is fun and Banks presents the liberatory promise of the communism well in State of the Art:

“But back to me; I am as rich and as poor as anybody in the Culture (I use these words because it's to Earth I want to compare our present position).  Rich; trapped as I am on board this uncaptained, leaderless tub, my wealth may not be very obvious, but it would seem immense to the average Earther.  At home I have the run of a charming and beautiful Orbital which would seem very clean and uncrowded to somebody from Earth; I have unlimited access to the free, fast, safe and totally dependable underplate transport system; I live in a wing of a family home of mansion proportions surrounded by hectares of gorgeous gardens.  I have an aircraft, a launch, the choice of mount from a large stable of aphores even the use of what would be called a spaceship by these people, plus a wide choice of deep space cruisers.  As I say, I'm constrained at the moment by being in Contact, but of course I could leave at any moment, and within months be home, with another two hundred years or more of carefree life to look forward to; and all for nothing; I don't have to do anything for all this.

“But, at the same time, I am poor.  I own nothing.  Just as every atom in my body was once part of something else, in fact part of many different things, and just as the elementary particles were themselves part of other patterns before they came together to form the atoms that make up the magnificent physical and mental specimen you see standing so impressively before you… yes, thank you… and just as one day every atom of my being will one day be part of something else - a star, initially, because that is the way we choose to bury our dead - again, so everything around me, from the food that I eat and the drink that I drink and the figur­ine that I carve and the house I inhabit and the clothes I wear so elegantly… to the module I ride to the Plate that I stand on and the star that warms me is there when I am there rather than because I am.  These things may be arranged for me, but in that sense I only happen to be me, and they would be there for anybody else - should they desire them - too.  I do not, emphat­ically not own them.”

This sums it up well: you have access to the resources you need to develop yourself and you work with others as equals, not as masters and servants. Equality increases liberty, in other words. This is Kropotkin’s point, as discussed in his Communism and Anarchy – and to even better effect in the revised and expanded version which was included as section II of the 1913 edition of Modern Science and Anarchy (out later this year from AK Press!). To be an egalitarian is to be a libertarian, and to be a serious advocate of liberty you cannot ignore the hierarchies – restrictions of freedom – produced by wealth concentrations, or by patriarchy, racism and so on (it is no surprise that propertarians are generally middle-class white males… or those, like Ayn Rand, who internalise patriarchal positions as “natural”).

But, of course, the Culture manages this with super-intelligent computers and hyper-advanced technology – as I suggested in my last blog, if your system is dependent upon advanced technology (or impossible assumptions) then it best avoided. Anarres, however, manages it with the technologies of the 20th century – or slightly advanced versions – which makes it more relevant and appealing, in spite of its desert moon setting and the impact that has on the libertarian communist society depicted.

So it is hardly a utopia in this sense, unlike the Culture. In terms of its social organisation, again it is based on federations of syndicates and communities. Again, hardly utopian. Also, the people are people who seem aware of the need to treat others as they would like to be treated themselves. It hardly staggers belief that people brought up with enough to eat, taught to think rather than repeat, treated as people and not resources, would generalise what is now considered the best of us. Its flaws are equally believable – an informal bureaucracy has started to develop.

Shevek and his comrades see the problem and work on a solution which, as I indicated before, is straight out of anarchist theory. This is because anarchists are aware that people are imperfect and any society we create will be imperfect. We are well aware that even the best society will have flaws and need work. The struggle for freedom does not end with a successful revolution – things crystallise and it needs active minorities to shatter them in a progressive manner. Anyway, read Kropotkin as he discusses it often.

So for this reason The Dispossessed does not contradict communist-anarchism nor undermine it. Those who claim otherwise should read more communist-anarchist thinkers…

Unlike other utopias, I should note – I came across this amusing webpage which goes over Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in fine detail, noting its stupidities and crazy bits. It notes how her ideal utopia – Galt’s Gulch – is marked, as they note, by the “strange fact” that “there’s virtually no actual competition” and this is  “downright strange in a laissez-faire fantasy premised on ruthless competition.” More, the owner of the place displays “an inexplicable benevolence that runs counter to everything else [Rand] tells us about the way an economy is rightly supposed to function.” But then, propertarians do have this habit of contradicting themselves in different chapters of the same book

(I should note that attempts by individualist anarchists to seek contradictions in communist-anarchism are only convincing if you haven’t read Proudhon…)

Is anarchism utopian? No – for its does not postulate anything unbelievable or impossible about humans or social life. It does not seek perfection, just better (which would not be hard!). The people who are utopian are those who criticise anarchism – incorrectly, as it happens – for believing in the natural goodness of people rather than recognising that people are bad and who then turn around and say that a few of these bad people should be given power over the rest. So people will abuse freedom but not power… such is the position of “realistic” people, as Kropotkin noted many a time.

Talking of Kropotkin, I’ve pitched the idea of a collection of Kropotkin’s pamphlets to PM Press (AK Press declined) and I’m waiting for to see if they go for it. I was very aware working on Direct Struggle Against Capital that while I was including many rare texts, I was also not including many classics. So I thought a supplement to that book would be wise – one which collected as many of his pamphlets as possible.

As part of that work, I discovered how much the pamphlets collected in Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings (formerly, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets) were edited and without any indication of where the edits where. Most of the pamphlets are missing a fifth or a quarter or more of the original. Here is an approximate estimate of what percentage of the texts are left:

The Spirit of Revolt


An Appeal to the Young


Law and Authority


Anarchist Morality


Anarchist-Communism: Its Basis and Principles


Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Its Ideal


Modern Science and Anarchism


Revolutionary Government


I was shocked at the amount missing – particularly Anarchist Morality which I assumed would have been reproduced intact due to its message. So I’ve tracked down the originals – plus all the many pamphlets which were not included in the book, regardless of its editors claims otherwise. Some of the edits are strange. Still, Baldwin should be thanked for making these pamphlets available and inspired generations of anarchists with it.

Anyway, I’ve translated Anarchist Morality (because I could not track down the original pamphlet) and The Spirit of Revolt (because it has only been translated in full by George Woodcock in 1992 for the Black Rose edition of Words of a Rebel, I also have to question some of decisions made!). In terms of the former, the French original has ten parts and the one in Anarchism has nine (plus one very, very short one!) – it was, I believe, originally serialised in Freedom across ten issues. For the later, the final section on the French Revolution is completely missing – more than half the pamphlet!

Also, I’ve also added a few pamphlets which have been available only in French, plus rare ones like The Coming Rival of Socialism and Revolutionary Studies. For as I have noted elsewhere, Baldwin’s book misses out quite a few English-language pamphlets and so is not as comprehensive as it suggests it is. Likewise, Black Rose’s Collected Works project is hardly that, being a collection of some but by no means all of his vast output. It would be nice to do Kropotkin justice, but it would take a lot of work…

Hopefully hear whether this pamphlets project will become an actuality soon…

Finally, talking of “utopian” fiction, below is an obituary by Kropotkin for Edward Bellamy, the author of Looking Backward and other works. This book presented a State-socialist system (called “nationalism”!) in the future year… 2000 (I do love it when SF is based in a year which has passed – talking of which, they are leaving it pretty late to create replicants, off-world colonies, c-beams and the Tannhäuser Gate…).

I’ve not read anything by Bellamy, but his most famous book still has its influence, as can be seen by Michael Albert entitling his first book on his particular utopian (in the sense of unworkable) Parecon project, Looking Forward (which I have read and not been impressed by). I should note that reading Looking Forward apparently made William Morris angry enough write News from Nowhere, so we should be thankful for that – Kropotkin considered the book by his friend as “perhaps the most thoroughly and deeply Anarchistic conception of future society that has ever been written.” (“In Memory of William Morris,” Freedom, November 1896) Personally, I think The Dispossessed is far better – not least because Morris, as Kropotkin noted and deplored, was somewhat anti-machine – if Bellamy went too far in one direction, Morris went too far in the other (Kropotkin keeping a sensible position). Also, things happen in The Dispossessed beyond going for a walk and chatting with people...

So not a new translation this blog, but a rare article. I discovered the pdf of it on Lee Alan Dugatkin’s Kropotkin webpage and added it to my steadily growing collection of rare and newly translated articles by Kropotkin. It is also where Kropotkin notes that he thinks Proudhon’s point of view was “the only one which, in my opinion, was really scientific.” This, I assume, is a reference to Proudhon’s seeking the tendencies within capitalism which point beyond it (as done in, for example, System of Economic Contradictions) for he notes in Revolutionary Studies:

“We shall not construct a new society by looking backwards. We shall only do so by studying, as Proudhon, has already advised, the tendencies of society today and so forecasting the society of tomorrow.”

I think an interesting paper could be written on Proudhon’s influence on Kropotkin – it appears to be larger than many suspect. Perhaps because Proudhon was the first socialist thinker he read? Anyway, enjoy – but, please, also do yourself a favour read Ursula Le Guin. She was special and the world was lucky to have her in it.

Until I blog again, be seeing you!

Edward Bellamy

(Freedom, July 1898)

It is with great sorrow that many will learn of the death of Edward Bellamy, the author of Looking Backward and Equality. He has died quite young, worn out by overwork. When I wits in New York last autumn I was told that he was used up by-three years’ hard work on his last. hook, Equality, and that he had gone West in the hope of regaining his health.

We have spoken at length of his first work in the Révolte, and we have there analysed Bellamy’s Utopia. In America alone nearly 500,000 copies of the book have been sold, and it has made a deep impression. Hundreds of thousands of people who had once thought that the Socialist ideal could not he ceased have been shown by Bellamy that it is not impossible, and that the obstacles are neither technical difficulties nor the individualistic tendencies of men, but simply inertia, stupidity, indolence and the slavishness of thought. A number of Americans have been inspired by some of Bellamy’s ideas and are seriously thinking of establishing a Commune one day in one of the Eastern States on more or less Communistic principles, without adhering literally to his idea.

A finely prosperous colony already exists on these principles, and their journal is one of the best for general propaganda of Communist and Socialist ideas. There is nothing of the pretentious sect about it. Bellamy himself had none of this pretention, and his adherents do not possess the arrogance of the so-called “scientific.”

The principal feature-of Bellamy’s Utopia was that each inhabitant of the Socialist nation should be credited with a certain sum (about £800). He may spend it as he pleases, by taking in the public shops whatever he chooses— lodging, food, clothing, objects of luxury, according to his taste. If he does not spend all the £800, whatever is left is each year deducted from his credit. There is no way of treasuring up his money.

On the other hand, everyone, from the age of twenty to forty or fifty years, works in any capacity he may choose a certain-number of hours agreed upon. Committees estimate the value of the products and their selling price. It is a system of partial Communism. Unfortunately, Bellamy paid a tribute (absolutely useless in his own system) to authority in dreaming, like the Socialists of 1848, of au authoritarian organisation of production.

His last production, Equality, is much superior to his Utopia. It is in the form of a novel and conversation, a decidedly admirable criticism of the capitalist system. Bellamy in this book, which I recommend everyone to read, does not criticise capitalism from the moral, but from the economic point of view. He shows that this is the most absurdly uneconomic system of production. Bellamy does not go into metaphysics as does Marx ; neither does he appeal to sentiment. In order to show the evils of capitalism, he takes the point of view of Proudhon, the only one which, in my opinion, was really scientific. That is, he demonstrates that a million of workers who have produced, let us say, all that is necessary for our consumption, from raw materials to manufactured articles, and who have only their salary, cannot buy those same products; for in their selling price they comprise, besides the salary paid. the profit of the master and the capitalist in general. Consequently, each nation produces more than it can purchase with the total sum of its salaries.

From this he deduces all the vices of the capitalistic system, and analyses them so admirably that I know of no other Socialist work on this subject that equals Bellamy’s Equality

At the same time the hook is interesting, and while I travelled last autumn through Canada and the States, I saw it in every car, The vendors of papers and books in the trains never had enough, so great was the demand for the book. It is certainly not so interesting as Looking Backward, but it were well to have a French edition of it at a low price.

What a pity that Bellamy has not lived longer! He would have produced other excellent books. I am positive that were Bellamy to have met an Anarchist, who could have explained to him our ideal, he would have accepted it. The authoritarianism which he introduced into his Utopia was useless there and contradictory to the very system. It was simply a survival, a concession, a tribute to the past. Those who have known Bellamy speak of him with great sympathy. Of a very retiring and timid disposition, he did not seek to impose his personality, much less to become the head of a school. He was the first to be astonished by the success of his first book. – P. K. in Temps Nouveaux


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