Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is not only a criticism of present-day capitalism by way of science fiction but also a description of what an alternative system could look like. In the novel’s universe, there are the two worlds Urras and Anarres. Urras is bountiful but this wealth is concentrated in the hands of the ruling elites at the expense of the downtrodden and their power is protected by repressive state apparatuses. Anarres on the other hand is a bleak planet where an egalitarian and stateless society has existed for seven generations.
Anarres is of course the better world. But this conclusion is not directly given. The subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia” suggests that not all is perfect in Anarres. Urras on the other hand is not offered as the epitome of pure evil. The argument in favor of Anarresti society gains more power by also showing its flaws and excesses, shortcomings that nonetheless reaffirm its superiority for it still lacks the exploitation and oppression of Urras and makes up for its deficient resources with human solidarity and collective action.
The novel centers on the life of Shevek, an Anarresti scientist. We are taken back into Shevek’s childhood in the communal society of Anarres. As he comes of age, Shevek gradually became aware of a feeling of being stifled because his field of work is not deemed integral to the progress of the whole people and therefore not deserving support from a society that upholds the collective spirit above all.
Shevek is hence compelled to go to Urras to find support for his scientific work. But discovering that the capitalist states of Urras were only aiming to profit from his ideas, Shevek escapes from the university where he is housed by his hosts, hidden from the realities of Urrasti society. He links up with local revolutionaries and become embroiled in a general insurrection in the capital city of A-Io, the leading capitalist superpower in Urras.
But the description of Anarres as “An Ambiguous Utopia” can also be traced to the author’s own perspective that there is no one correct line for genuine liberation or any vanguard party that can lead the masses towards this goal. Given Le Guin’s anarchist sympathies, this absence of certainty about any one formula for social transformation is understandable.
As a political thought, anarchism rejects all systems of governments and entails opposition to all authority and hierarchies. Basing their resistance of injustice and inequality from a purely moral criticism of power, anarchists eschew real social investigation and class analysis and hence do not see the need for the correct leadership of a definite class and its advanced detachment for a successful social revolution.
While both declaring to be part of the Socialist tradition, the line separating Anarchism and the Marxism has already been drawn in the 19th Century debates between Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on one side and the likes of Stirner, Proudhon, and Bakunin on the other side. One of the fundamental questions that divide both sides concerns the state.
For anarchists, the immediate abolition of the state is a matter of principle. Failing to comprehend the class character of the state, anarchists diagnose it simply as the primary social evil and consequently oppose all forms of central power or authority in favor of absolute freedom. For Marxists, however, “abolition of the state makes sense only as the necessary result of the abolition of classes, with whose disappearance the need for the organized power of one class for the purpose of holding down the other classes will automatically disappear.”
Because the state is the ultimate evil, anarchists disdain any engagement with it out of the belief that any involvement with authority, centralization, and hierarchical organizations is already in-itself a legitimization of oppression. The authority of the majority over the minority is opposed. Absolute autonomy for all individuals becomes inalienable. Direct action by small groups and individuals is glorified while the need for painstaking organization and political struggle by the working class and other oppressed masses for the purpose of the revolutionary seizure of state power is denied.
But as Engels aptly remarks: “Revolution is the supreme political act; he who desires it must desire also the means, the political action that prepares it.” This truism is anchored on the reality that the ruling classes will always make use of the repressive power of the state from the military, police, paramilitary, judiciary, prison system, etc. to defend their economic interests and to continue their exploitation and oppression of the masses. In the same vein, the dominated classes must make use of revolutionary violence against those in power:
A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon – authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries.
In the present era of imperialism, only the proletariat class – being the most disciplined, most organized, and most advanced productive force that have nothing to lose but their chains – can advance the revolutionary aspirations of all the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world. In the same vein, only a vanguard party of the proletariat class that is composed of its most advanced elements and hence crystallizes its ideological, organizational, and political force can forward the revolutionary cause towards victory. Anarchism’s blindness to the fact that there can be no revolutionary movement without an agency that can lead it forms its greatest limitation.
A Communist Rereading
In the book Political Theory, Science Fiction, and Utopian Literature: Ursula K. Le Guin and The Dispossessed, Tony Burns argue that the novel cannot be considered an anarchist or utopian novel. Basing on Le Guin’s definition of the good novelist as someone who problematizes human existence without taking sides, Burns takes the odd conclusion that a utopian text, being one-sided, could not be a novel. He jumps to the even more convoluted take that since it’s not utopian, then it must be reactionary.
Burns here seems to rely on the notion that those who do not depict alternatives as perfect utopias are inevitably avoiding from taking sides against the status quo. Against this reading, I contend that The Dispossessed remains a utopian novel par excellence. But The Dispossessed can also be read alternately not just as an anarchist manifesto by presenting an anarchist society through the literary form. The novel can also offer a window as to how a communist society as envisioned by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao might look like.
Contrary to a literal reading of the novel as simply an intricate science fictional construction of an imagined anarchist world, Le Guin’s description of Anarresti society can also fit the classical Marxist vision of the future communist society when socialist revolutions would have won world-wide, when social classes would have ceased to exist, when the nation-state would have withered away, and when exploitation of one class by another would have been thrown away to the dustbin of history. The state as an instrument of class rule would cease to exist: “State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production.”
In Anarres, the government and other state apparatuses have been replaced with an administrative network called PDC or the Production and Distribution Coordination that coordinates all bodies and individuals who participate in economic work: “They do not govern persons; they administer production.” Unlike in capitalism wherein the internet is utilized by the state and corporations for advertising, surveillance, and the construction of an individualist ethos, the computer networks run by PDC help make this coordination efficient:
It did not take the clerk five minutes to get the desired information sorted out from the enormous, continual input and outgo of information concerning every job being done, every position wanted, every workman needed, and the priorities of each of the general economy of the worldwide society.
Here, the immense progress of the forces of production, the development of high technology, and the socialization of all economic processes is not be geared towards competition or the individual profit interest of corporations and their bosses but would cater for the needs of all.
This creation of the PDC contradicts the anarchist obsession with decentralization and tallies with the Marxist-Leninist dictum that “Communism demands and presupposes maximum centralization of large-scale industry throughout the country.” In this framework, a center is unconditionally “given the right to place all enterprises of a given branch under its direct control” while regional centers “determine their functions depending on local, everyday and other conditions in accordance with the instructions and decisions of the center.”
A significant undercurrent in the novel is the contradiction between the individual and the collective. The incongruity of the explicitly anarchist loyalties of Le Guin and such principle’s being untenable in practice, even in her imagined world of Anarres, informs this contradiction. In this light, Shevek, in classic individualist fashion, complains that “people who had chosen to work in centrally functional fields such as physics should not be called upon for projects and special levies.” But at the same time, this comes into conflict with the communist injunction for Anarrestis “to be ready to go where he was needed and do the work that needed doing.”
This reality of “labor distribution as a major factor of life, an immediate, permanent social necessity…” to the horror of anarchist sensibility, led to what they vilify as the domination of the individual conscience by the social conscience: “We fear being outcast, being called lazy, dysfunctional, egoizing. We fear our neighbor’s opinion more than we respect our own freedom of choice.” They protest what they perceive to be the existence of a government in Anarresti society: “Here we have government by the majority. But it is government! The social conscience isn’t a living thing anymore, but a machine, a power machine, controlled by bureaucrats!”
But still, Le Guin contrasts the exploitation and alienation inherent in Urrasti society vis-a-vis the liberation of collective production and solidarity in Anarres. In Shevek’s sojourn to Urras, this alienation is all the more pronounced because of his Anarresti roots. Capitalist production necessarily entails the selling of a worker’s skills to the capitalist, hence resulting in her being deprived control over her own products and over her own labor power and creative facilities. It is the capitalist who controls the labor activities of the worker and profits from them. Meanwhile the worker becomes alienated from her own human nature since it is precisely through labor that she transforms nature and that makes her human. This lack of control over her labor and products is described vividly by Shevek in his accounts of Urras:
The strangest thing about the nightmare street was that none of the millions of things for sale were made there. They were only sold there. Where were the workshops, the factories, where were the farmers, the craftsmen, the miners, the weavers, the chemists, the carvers, the dyers, the designers, the machinists, where were the hands, the people who made? Out of sight, somewhere else. Behind walls. All the people in all the shops were either buyers or sellers. They had no relation to the things but that of possession.
The socialized character of profit-oriented production under capitalism subjects individual workers to an isolation that is wrapped up in advertising and public relations images of luxurious consumption.
“Many places, but all the same. I wish I could come to know Nio Esseia better. I have seen only the outside of the city – the wrapping of the package.” He used the phrase because he had been fascinated from the start by the Urrasti habit of wrapping everything up in clean, fancy paper or plastic or cardboard or foil. Laundry, books, vegetables, clothes, medicines, everything came inside layers and layers of wrappings. Even packets of paper were wrapped in several layers of paper. Nothing was to touch anything else.
The situation in Anarres stands in direct contrast to the Urrasti condition:
The squares, the austere streets, the low buildings, the unwalled workyards, were charged with vitality and activity… [there are] people walking, working, talking, faces passing, voices calling, gossiping, singing, people alive, people doing things, people afoot. Workshops and factories fronted on squares or on their open yards, and their doors were open… The activity going on in each places was fascinating, and mostly out in full view. Children were around, some involved in the work with the adults, some underfoot making mudpies, some busy with games in the street, one sitting perched up on the roof of the learning center with her nose deep in a book… No doors were locked, few shut. There were no disguises and no advertisements. It was all there, all the work, all the life of the city, open to the eye and to the hand.
The Production of Space
This dichotomy between capitalist Urras and communist Anarres is visible in the way Le Guin describes the production of space in the two societies. In Urras, particularly in the nation-state of A-Io, working class ghettos are separated from the gated communities housing the elites. The ruling classes set themselves up near the points of high end consumption and their high rise offices meanwhile “larger and larger numbers of workers are spatially concentrated in close proximity to the workplace…this keeps the journey to work to a minimum and thus enables wages to be kept lower.” Spatial allocation here is governed by the accumulation of capital and the profit drive whereas in Anarres this is regulated on the basis of the people’s needs.
Owing to Le Guin’s anarchist allegiances, there is a focus on decentralization as a principle in the organization of space in Anarres. Odo, the anarchist revolutionary leader in Le Guin’s fictional universe, proposes that a community’s size is dependent on the number of resources in its own immediate region. But at the same time, she also suggested that communities remain connected by communication and transportation networks for the purpose of exchange of goods and ideas and more efficient administration of production. Odo professes that this network is not to be hierarchical: “There was to be no controlling center, no capital, no establishment for the self-perpetuating machinery of bureaucracy and the dominance drive of individuals seeking to become captains, bosses, chiefs of state.”
In the end, the anarchist preference for decentralization is reflective of its own class origin as a protest of small producers, merchants, artisans, and other petty bourgeois who are ruined by monopoly capital and who are nostalgic for the early days of capitalist production:
Their views express, not the future of bourgeois society, which is striding with irresistible force towards the socialization of labor, but the present and even the past of that society, the domination of blind chance over the scattered and isolated small producer.
But reality, as Le Guin herself recognizes, is more complex. Thus she herself problematizes the anarchist principles of social organization forwarded by Odo: “You can’t have a nervous system without at least a ganglion, and preferably a brain. There had to be a center. The computers that coordinated the administration of things, the division of labor, and the distribution of goods…” had to be located somewhere. Hence, Anarres still ends up with a capital city, Abbenay. Further contradicting the spirit of anarchism is the seemingly planned character of the allotment of space as opposed to pure spontaneity:
The bigger buildings were most often grouped around open squares, giving the city a basic cellular texture: it was one subcommunity or neighbourhood after another. Heavy industry and food-processing plants tended to cluster on the city’s outskirts, and the cellular pattern was repeated in that related industries often stood side by side on a certain square or street.
Abennay is not only clean and well organized but the way the city is constructed is also an ideal of sustainable development and disaster preparedness:
Most of the city’s buildings were pretty much alike, plain, soundly built of stone or cast foamstone… they were almost all of one storey only, because of the frequency of earthquake. For the same reason windows were small, and of a tough silicon plastic that did not shatter. They were small, but there were a lot of them, for there was no artificial lightning provided from an hour before sunrise to an hour after sunset. No heat was furnished when the outside temperature went above 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Le Guin also depicts “the combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries” and the “gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country” as proposed by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. The distinction between the urban centers and the rural areas have all but been erased in Anarres: “The elements that made up Abbenay were the same as in any other Odonian community, repeated many times: workshops, factories, domiciles, dormitories, learning centers, meeting halls, distributories, depots, refectories.” In this way, “the enjoyment of the treasures of science and art, which for centuries have been concentrated in a few centres, by the whole of the population spread more or less evenly over the entire country.”
In revolutionary China under Mao, this gap was narrowed through the establishment of the commune system, more equal income between the cities and the countryside, accessibility to health and other social services to both the rural and urban population, and the advancement of education and cultural activities in country. This was especially true during the Cultural Revolution when students and barefoot doctors systematically integrated among the peasants. As Marx and Engels emphasizes, the gap between the city and the countryside is a result of the “concentration of the population, of the instruments of production, of capital, of pleasures, of needs” in the cities at the expense of the countryside which is condemned to isolation and separation. This was overcome in Anarres because the “antagonism between town and country can only exist within the framework of private property.”
Everyday Life on Anarres
On the basis of such an economic relation characterized by the socialized ownership of the means of production and communal labor arises a corresponding Anarresti everyday life that is premised on the adage that “Nobody goes hungry while another eats.” Collective action is a day to day reality with the Anarrestis mobilized as volunteers for large-scale public works, one of which was the forestation of the desert by 18,000 Anarresti volunteers in a period of 2 years. Financial compensation, money, or profit, ceases to be the incentive to do work. As Shevek points out, “where there’s no money the real motives are clearer… People like to do things.”
This drive for solidarity, when combined with a very successful prophylaxy has even reached to a point that feeling ill is considered shameful. Thus it came as a big surprise for Shevek when a janitor entered his room in an Urrasti university and cleaned it for him. At first Shevek thought that the orderly was just like a night worker in Anarres who used the bedroom during the days in overcrowded dormitories. But this mistaken notion was corrected when he realized “that he had for the first time in his life been bowed to” by the janitor.
The focus on collective empowerment in Anarres goes not only for food, employment, and access to health, education, and other social services, but also in terms of housing. Individual houses are rare in Anarres. For the most part, all the people of Anarres sleep in dormitories:
Aside from sexual pairing there was no reason for not sleeping in a dormitory. You could choose a small one or a large one, and if you didn’t like your roommates, you could move to another dormitory. Everybody had the workshop, laboratory, studio, barn, or office that he needed for his work; one could be as private or as public as one chose in the baths; sexual privacy was freely available and socially expected; and beyond that privacy was not functional. It was excess, waste. The economy of Anarres would not support the building, maintenance, heating, lighting of individual houses and apartments.
This way of solving the housing problem, which involves taking possession of entire housing sector by the working people, is practically the direct opposite of the Anarchist solution which proposes the individual workers owning their own individual homes. This Communist solution in The Dispossessed actually follows Engels’ thoughts on the matter: “the ‘working people’ remains the collective owner of the houses, factories and instruments of labor.”
The Anarresti educational system has as its foundation the fusion of theory and practice: praxis. It is a collective endeavor that involves both the teachers and the students learning from each other and the world around them.This is opposed to the educational model in Urras which is premised on the “knowledgeable” teacher depositing information to their “blank” students. As Shevek observed of the examination system during his stint in Urras: “he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming information and disgorging it upon demand.”
In contrast, the educational curriculum in Anarres includes “farming, carpentry, sewage reclamation, printing, plumbing, roadmending, playwriting, and all the other occupations of the adult community…” The arts are also taught as everyday skills in their schools, consisting of
training in singing, metrics, dance, the use of brush, chisel, knife, lathe, and so on. It was all pragmatic: the children learned to see, speak, hear, move, handle. No distinction was drawn between the arts and the crafts; art was not considered as having a place in life, but as being a basic technique of life, like speech.
Art is central to the everyday lives of the people of Anarres. It is holistically embedded in their collective being as well as their personal existence as opposed to the profit-driven and commodified nature of art in Urras.
In Anarres women are treated as equals of men in all spheres. And all forms of relationship, including homosexual ones are not discriminated against or repressed. This is unlike in Urras where women are relegated to a subordinate position to men and where heterosexual relations are imposed as the prevailing norm.
Even the language in Anarres, Pravic, has been specifically constructed to correspond to the “non-propertarian” character of their society. In Anarres, there is no word that denotes ownership. Words that correspond to “mine,” “yours,” and so on have no equivalent in Pravic. In Urras, superiority is expressed in terms of height wherein higher is equated with better: the higher the price, the better; the higher your place in the social hierarchy, the better for you. In lieu of this framework, the Anarresti equates the term “more central” with better. This way of saying, is of course, in contravention of the Anarchist dictum of decentralization. Also absent among the people of Anarres are “any proprietary idioms for the sexual act”:
In Pravic it made no sense for a man to say that he had “had” a woman. The word which came closest in meaning to “fuck,” and had a similar secondary usage as a curse, was specific: it meant rape. The usual verb, taking only a plural subject, can be translated only by a neutral word like copulate. It meant something two people did, not something one person did, or had.
* * *
The lines of the song chanted by the insurrectionists of Urras in the concluding chapters of the novel easily resemble familiar communist imagery like “the east is red”:
O eastern light, awaken
Those who have slept!
The darkness will be broken,
The promise kept.
It also offers a poetic rendition of the more militant lines of the refrain of the “Internationale,” the anthem of the world communist movement:
So comrades, come rally
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale unites the human race.
In the fictional world of The Dispossessed, Anarres represented the promise of liberation to all the oppressed and exploited masses of Urras. Thus the optimistic reaction of the insurrectionists of the capital city of A-Io when they met Shevek in person:
Do you know what your society has meant, here, to us, these last hundred and fifty years? Do you know that when people here want to wish each other luck they say, ‘May you get reborn on Anarres!’ To know that it exists, to know that there is a society without government, without police, without economic exploitation…
Marx and Engels once wrote that the struggle between classes will inevitably end “either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”  Rosa Luxembourg later on restated this in terms of a choice between socialism or barbarism. At the end of the novel, Shevek meets an ambassador from Planet Earth. She describes her home planet as a planet ruined and spoiled by humanity: “We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left… We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first.”
The novel’s choice is crystal clear. Despite its shortcomings, limitations that are rooted in Le Guin’s anarchist political convictions, the novel nevertheless kindles hope among its readers for an alternative to the oppressive and exploitative world capitalist system. The Dispossessed certainly points to Anarres as an image of the communist future.
 Frederick Engels, “The Catchword: ‘Abolition of the State’ and the German ‘Friends of Anarchy’”, October 1850.
 Engels, “On Political Action of the Working Class,” September 21, 1871.
 Tony Burns, Political Theory, Science Fiction, and Utopian Literature: Ursula K. Le Guin and The Dispossessed, Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2008, 153-180.
 V.I. Lenin, Remarks on the Draft “Propositions Concerning the Management of the Nationalized Enterprises,” June 2, 1918.
 Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher Ltd, 1984, 84-85.
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets, 1846.