A Lengthy Rejoinder to Zamyatin’s Counterrevolutionary Science Fiction

In the name of the Benefactor, therefore, we proclaim to all the numbers of the One State:

Everyone who feels capable of doing so must compose tracts, odes, manifestoes, poems, or other works extolling the beauty and the grandeur of the One State.

This will be the first cargo to be carried by the Integral.

Long live the One State, long live the numbers, long live the Benefactor!

Thus begins Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the novel that has been variously presented as a significant science fiction work. The novel is said to be the inspiration behind the dystopian fiction of George Orwell (like 1984 and Animal Farm), among many others.

Following in the vein of the Russian masters Gogol and Dostoevsky, We adeptly wields the art of black comedy to envision a bleak future ruled by pure rationality and absolute collectivity at the expense of human emotions and individuality.

Zamyatin eschews the values of organized action, central leadership, conscious planning, and discipline. He reproaches any expression of these categories as forms of domination or subjugation.

This opposition can be gleaned in the way he mocks the way supposed socialist subjects as exemplified by his protagonist perceive things:

Why is this beautiful? Why is dance beautiful? Answer: because it is unfree motion, because the whole profound meaning of dance lies precisely in absolute, esthetic subordination, in ideal unfreedom.

This can be seen in how the drive in the erstwhile socialist regimes against vices is taken negatively as mere attempts to suppress the people’s freedoms instead as a concern for their health and general welfare. Punishment is depicted as severe, excessive, and unreasonable:

Everyone who poisons himself with nicotine, and especially alcohol, is ruthlessly destroyed by the One State…. Quick destruction of a few is more sensible than giving many the opportunity to ruin themselves…

We can only imagine Zamyatin’s reaction to Lenin’s mild directive: “Pornography and religious books shall not be released for free sale, and shall be turned over to the Paper Industry Board as wastepaper.”

But how will he take Chairman Mao’s counsel that “To criticize the people’s shortcomings is necessary, . . . but in doing so we must truly take the stand of the people and speak out of whole-hearted eagerness to protect and educate them”?

Zamyatin’s modus operandi is thus clear: to focus on some of the perceived errors of the young soviet regime under Lenin and Stalin and stretch these excesses to the extreme in order to show what he believes to be the absurdity of life under socialism.

Ultimately, he falls back to some of the most vulgar counter-revolutionary clichés.

Sexual Commodity

One of the reactionary distortions rehashed by Zamyatin is the criticism, already thrown against Karl Marx when he wrote the Communist Manifesto about how a socialist regime would introduce a “community of women” that is common to all men.

And finally this elemental force was also subjugated, i..e., organized and reduced to mathematical order. About three hundred years ago, our historic Lex Sexualis was proclaimed: “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity.”

But let us remember Marx has already subdued this argument almost a century even before this reappeared in We.

The Bourgeois sees his wife as a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the woman.

He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.

Zamyatin has forgotten that, as Marx pointed out, this commodification of sexuality “has existed almost from time immemorial”: “Our bourgeois, not content with having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives.”

This is presented as an attack against “Love” as construed by Zamyatin and his class. This extends to an absurd comparison between state-sponsored family planning programs to mere “child-breeding.” Zamyatin’s supposed brainwashed socialist subject whines:

And wasn’t it absurd that the state… could leave sexual life without any semblance of control? As often and as much as anyone might wish… Totally unscientific, like animals. And blindly, like animals, they bore their young. Isn’t it ridiculous: to know agriculture, poultry-breeding, fish-breeding… yet fail to go on to the ultimate step of this logical ladder – child-breeding.

What socialism envisions is not the regulation of sexual relations as an expression of state control, but as a measure that will ensure the protection of the right to love of each and every citizen and as a safeguard against the exploitation of women. As Marx declared:

It is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.

“Stalinist” Dictatorship

Of course, any genuine piece of counter-revolutionary black propaganda would not be complete without any mention or allusion to the so-called Stalinist “Cult of Personality.”

In We, this cult is centred on the figure of the Benefactor who a la Stalin is described “the instrument, the resultant of a hundred thousand wills.”

But what Zamyatin and other indiscriminate critics of Stalin forget is his role in fighting against the Czar and leading the victorious October Revolution alongside Lenin. He led the Soviet people in consolidating the world’s first socialist state against both internal and external enemies.

Stalin was instrumental in pushing for the collectivization of agriculture and advancing industrialization in the process of socialist construction at a time when the rest of the world was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression.

He led the Soviet people to victory in the Great Patriotic War against Hitler and fascism and assisted the struggles of revolutionary peoples all over the world.

This does not mean, however, that Stalin was the “Benefactor” on which everything depends. This does not mean that Stalin was free from errors.

In the main, Stalin failed to sharply differentiate the contradictions between the socialist regime and the enemies and contradictions among the people. This led to grave excesses in the suppression of counter-revolutionaries by wrongly convicting innocent people.

But to throw all the problems and errors of the socialist regime to the “Cult of Personality” would be to fall to grave one-sidedness. The taboo against the name Stalin must be put to a rest. The bogeyman of against the so-called “personality cult” must be exorcised.

“Democracy” and Democracy

Zamyatin counterposes elections under socialism with the supposedly “disorderly, disorganized elections of the ancients, when – absurd to say – the very results of the elections were unknown beforehand…” in order to underscore the supposed lack of freedom to choose leaders in socialism:

“…the elections themselves were mainly symbolic, meant to remind us that we are a single, mighty, million-celled organism, that-in the words of the ancients-we are the Church, one and indivisible.”

Once again, Zamyatin forgets that the main criticism against bourgeois elections is trained not in its chaotic or disorganized form. This is superficial. The real target is in its essence as a tool of the dictatorship of the ruling classes wherein only the rich minority can participate:

To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament — such is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in the most democratic republics.

Thus spoke Lenin, who succinctly adds:

If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we shall see everywhere, in the “petty” — supposedly petty — details of the suffrage (residential qualification, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for “beggars”!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc. — we shall see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor, seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine-tenths, if not ninety-nine hundredths, of the bourgeois publicists and politicians are of this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy.

The essence of genuine democracy under socialist rule is the dictatorship of the proletariat wherein the previously exploited and oppressed workers that composes the majority of society are organized as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the former oppressors.

It is not true that only a “Benefactor” as in Zamyatin’s We or Stalin or Mao has the final say under a socialist regime. All programs and actions are collectively decided upon by the different organs of power of the socialist state and correspond to the will of the majority.

The resistance of the former oppressors – who still crave the days when they were in power at expense of the toiling masses – is crushed by force. This cannot be compared to the “ancient Inquisition” which serves precisely to preserve the power of the ruling elites, as done by Zamyatin.

The struggle against counterrevolutionary forces is a reality in any real collective and massive endeavor for social transformation in favor of the exploited and oppressed majority.

Historically, after the overthrow of the Czar, the former ruling classes-the landed aristocracy, the bourgeois, and their foreign partners put up a brutal and vicious struggle to regain their lost power, wealth, privilege, and private property from the victorious proletarians.

The young Soviet regime faced encirclement by hostile imperialist countries and even suffered from actual invasions by powers during the Civil War. The western powers imposed one of the enduring economic blockades against Soviet Russia.

There will be lively discourses and debate on the direction of the new regime as long as this does not lead the people astray from the revolutionary path.

Mao’s slogan “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend” and not Zamyatin’s warning of how “the history of the One State knows of no occasion when even a single voice dared to violate the majestic unison” will take centre stage.

Revolutionary Art

In We, Zamyatin also attacks the socialist regime’s push for a revolutionary art, that in the words of Mao, would

…fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that… operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that… help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.

Zamyatin’s protagonist muses about “the utter absurdity” of non-socialist art in an attempt to shore up the notion of “art for art’s sake” and denigrate the revolutionary view of art:

The enormous, magnificent power of the literary word was completely wasted. It’s simply ridiculous-everyone wrote anything he pleased… we have extracted electricity from the amorous whisper of the waves; we have transformed the savage, foam-spitting beast into a domestic animal; and in the same way we have tamed and harnessed the once wild element of poetry.

In a way We represents one more rehash of the Romanticist privileging of passion and emotion over reason or rationality. This is paralleled by the correspondence of the realm of absolute aesthetics and the former and pure politics and the latter.

But let us never forget that “There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics.” So art is not just about taming the “once wild element of poetry” into conformity but of using it to forward the interests of the masses.

His either-or of poetry as a beautiful object or poetry as dull political tract is wrong. Contrary to Zamyatin, poetry can both be the “civic-service” or “useful” thing which he abhors so much while at the same time retaining the elements of the “impudent whistling of a nightingale.” As Mao said:

What we demand is the unity of politics and art, the unity of content and form, the unity of revolutionary political content and the highest possible perfection of artistic form. Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, however progressive they are politically. Therefore, we oppose both the tendency to produce works of art with a wrong political viewpoint and the tendency towards the “poster and slogan style” which is correct in political viewpoint but lacking in artistic power.

The Grand Inquisitor

Inspired by Dostoevsky’s treatise on the “Grand Inquisitor” in the Brothers Karamazov, Zamyatin equates working class rule to the Catholic inquisition.

We likewise poses the problem as one between a choice of the satisfaction of material needs without freedom or of unlimited individual freedom in a regime of unfulfilled want.

Those two, in paradise, were given a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. There was no third alternative. Those idiots chose freedom, and what came of it? Of course, for ages afterward they longed for chains.

This false dichotomy gives full play to the individualist side of the more privileged classes while at the same time trying to ride on legitimate sentiments against theocratic abuse that characterized the earlier struggle by the emergent bourgeois classes against feudal absolutism.

And only we have found the way of restoring happiness…. The ancient God and we-side by side, at the same table. Yes! We have helped God ultimately to conquer the devil – for it was he who had tempted men to break the ban and get a taste of ruinous freedom, he, the evil serpent.

This is extended further to a misrepresentation of the relation between collectivity and the individual: “In the ancient world this was understood by the Christians, our only predecessors (however imperfect): humility is a virtue, and pride a vice; ‘We’ is from God, and ‘I’ from the devil.”

We moreover presages the pseudo-Marxist Frankfurt School’s criticism of so-called “instrumental reason” and the “Enlightenment” as the purveyor of supposed totalitarian domination as opposed to freedom.

In this narrative, reason has become violent and dominating, wherein to think rationally is already in-itself complicit with the powers that be.

But is reason a mere reflex of the dominant powers? Can we not look at how bourgeoisie rationality contradicts itself, of how for example the bourgeoisie slogans of liberty, justice and equality are not translated into material reality? Reason can thus be used against domination itself.

The Frankfurt School and Zamyatin’s presaging of this attack against rationality directly lends itself to the cynical conclusion that there is no alternative to the present order.

Revolutions are Infinite

As earlier mentioned, there are certainly valid criticisms of the excesses of the young Soviet regime. This is epitomized in Stalin’s premature declaration of the abolition of classes in the former Soviet Union after completing the collectivization of agriculture.

In doing so, Stalin overlooked the persistence of contradictions within socialist society and therefore regarded the danger of capitalist restoration simply as a result of foreign imperialism. He did not mobilize the toiling masses to fight the capitalist roaders nestled in the party and the state.

The rise of big bourgeoisie bigwigs from within the Soviet party like Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev and the eventual restoration of capitalism directly refute this wishful thinking.

But instead of taking as a starting the positive social changes initiated under the new dispensation and the need to improve what was during Zamyatin’s time a young and struggling socialist order led by the Bolshevik Party, the novel instead directs itself towards totally blackening this era.

It becomes all too clear that Zamyatin’s dystopian certainty is fuelled by his disdain for organization and discipline. His recoiling from collective action is a clear expression of an individualist privileging of personal interests over that of the oppressed and exploited majority.

Since reason and revolution only leads to a collective authoritarianism, all struggle for meaningful change and a more rational dispensation is necessarily bound to fail. It is therefore better to continue suffering under the present order since any attempt to transform it will only make things worse.

But history has proven this to be wrong. The experiences of all the peoples of the world in standing up against oppression and exploitation and waging revolutionary struggles easily demonstrates this to be false.

As Zamyatin himself declares in We, “revolutions are infinite.”

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4 Comments

  1. Dear Karlo,

    I have a great deal of respect for you, but must challenge your characterization of We.
    It should be remembered that Zamyatin was initially a supported of the October Revolution, and wrote for communists journals during its early phase. He only became diallusioned with the communists after the Bolshevicks became increasingly dictatorial and suppressive of the freedom of thought. WE turns out to be quite prescient in how this dictatorship would evolve.

    Whereas his ideas as to how sexual equality would develop were widely off the mark, his ideas regarding the cult of personality found in Soviet Marxism were much more accurate. How else does one understand the transformation of the dead Lennin into an ageless mummy, or something like the colassal statue of Lennin planned for the city that bore his name?

    Stalin, indeed, deserves credit for the defeat of Hitler, but he was also a monster who preseided over the willfull starvation of millions in the name of collectivization, not to mention the terrors of his police state. Should we blind ourselves to these crimes?

    The real Marx would likely have found the Soviet Union a distortion of his ideas rather than as their not yet complete culmination. We should not sully the legacy of communism by associating it with such cruel dictatorshps that would crush the individual who Marx sought to free . Zamyatin remained truer to its roots when he dared to publish his dystopia.

    1. Hi, Rick. Thank you very much for this comment. As a matter of principle, I stand by my characterization of We as counterrevolutionary in essence. I also stand by my description of the Bolshevik regime as genuine revolutionary movement that advanced the liberation of millions of workers and peasants in the former Soviet Union.

      I understand that this is against the current of the dominant liberal common sense, but I have to point out that if a great leader serves as a shining example and unites the widest number of masses for revolutionary ends, then there is no reason for her not to be revered. Many bourgeois thinkers and leaders from the West call it a “Cult of Personality.” But I have to clarify that reverence for outstanding leaders should not be mistaken for blind, ritualistic, unquestioning worship. It is only natural for the best individuals to serve as shining examples that everyone can emulate. It does not mean that their errors cannot be criticized. And it must be remembered that their individual feats became possible because of their engagement in a collective. Such leaders are forged only through their firm connection with the masses in struggling for social transformation. As Mao said in his “Talks With Responsible Comrades At Various Places During Provincial Tour”: “There never has been any supreme savior, nor can we rely on gods or emperors. We rely entirely on ourselves for our salvation. Who has created the world of human beings? We the laboring masses.”

      In the end, Zamyatin’s sly attacks against the so-called lack of freedoms under the Bolshevik regime is not new and is reflective of petty-bourgeois disdain for collective life and discipline. Such uproar against “authoritarianism” stems from an individualist sentiment against the subjection of personal interest over that of the masses or the subordination of the minority to the majority or the individual to the collective. Back in the days when Marx was still alive and busy organizing the First International, the scheming anarchist conspirator (and my namesake) Bakunin, used precisely the same pejoratives against Marx. In order to infiltrate the First International, he wrote praises to Marx, saying “I am your disciple and I am proud of it.” But when he failed to grab the leadership of the movement, he accused Marx of being a “dicator” and said, “As a German and a Jew, he is authoritarian from head to heels.” Fast forward to the time when the Second International has turned its back on its revolutionary beginnings and turned revisionist, Kautsky also resorted to the same rhetoric against Lenin who he described as having turned Marxism “to the status not only of a state religion but of a medieval or oriental faith.” There’s no need to reiterate all the black propaganda thrown against Stalin from Trotsky to the Western Media.

      There is indeed no need to blind ourselves to the excesses of Stalin either. But it would be equally excessive to simply brand Stalin a monster. The collectivization of agriculture was in the main correct, although Stalin mechanically overemphasized the importance of technology over the mobilization of the masses. Red terror against the former oppressors is necessary for any genuinely revolutionary state if it is to preserve its gains. Both errors led to excesses in the suppression of counterrevolutionaries. So consistent with the rudimentary comments I outlined in the blog post, I stand by my evaluation of Zamyatin’s novel. I also believe that Marx if he were alive would have nothing to do with the regressive views expressed in it.

  2. On another note, one may it incredibly absurd that the ‘dystopia’ genre still maintains its standing as influential works of art. It is not a rare occurrence that these kinds of novels are cited as warning for any attempt to propose an alternative type of society. Thank you for the gallantly optimistic article. Hehe.

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