“Yesterday, there was a Tzar and there were slaves. Today, there is no Tzar, but the slaves are still here. Tomorrow there will be only Tzars. We walk forward in the name of the free man of tomorrow, the Tzar of tomorrow. We have gone through the epoch when the masses were oppressed. We are now going through the epoch when the individual is oppressed in the name of the masses”
Utopia means ‘no place’.
Dystopia means ‘bad place.’
The major difference is this, or so says the Wit: a utopia is the kind of place you’d want to live in.
Dystopia is simply that place lived by someone else.
A dystopia is therefore a vision of someone else’s ideal society imposed upon you, usually extended out to a nightmarish pitch for the specific purpose of satire. Many of you would find my ideal state and my ideals, applied to the real world, to be your own private little hell: dystopia, though really, it is good for you, I swear. The traditional interpretation of dystopia, and its literary use as satire, tends to assume that the flexibility, understanding and sympathy that temper our opinions, morals and ethics has been thrown aside; in many ways Dystopia is a ‘bad place’ where all sense of what is decent and normal has been tossed about; this is the moral attitude of Ayn Rand’s Anthem or Huxley’s Brave New World. Of course, and we so often forget this when uttering panegyrics to Orwell’s prophetic powers that he was not telling the future but reading the present. Orwell, as well, grasped that the morality, ethics and laws that a moralist like Huxley believed allowed society to work were supplemented, supplanted or dominated by humanity’s tendency to hierarchy, fear, sloth and the bewildering size and complexity of late capitalist economies and bureaucratic governments.
As I speak of Orwell, it’s worth pointing out, though a bit fruitlessly, like all utopias, dystopias have a tendency to be interpreted both by contemporaries, or consistently misused by later generations for their own purposes and for their own goals. George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most famous examples of a piece of literature, a dystopian novel indeed, but also a grim, hyperbolic satire, frequently misinterpreted. Lefties overuse the novel as if it were some sort of fetish, brandish Orwellian about and yell at everyone that we are being watched and controlled…and then confide in everyone that Orwell was a genius and a prophet. He was neither, and wasn’t even a particularly well written novel, and not even all that interesting. But it was a satire, something the right doesn’t get either. Whether we have the idiotic editorials in my local right-wing newspaper, The Source,
What does this have to do with Zamyatin’s We? Well, two things: one, Zamyatin’s novel has also been lauded as an anti-Soviet, anti-totalitarian masterpiece, and two, Orwell was heavily influenced, and almost certainly cribbed several story ideas from Zamyatin, including the idylls in the countryside that play so important a part in both books. Both men viewed unspoilt nature as being a place free and untainted by politics and oppression.
Zamyatin’s novel is also noted as being a science fiction novel, one of the first science fiction dystopias. Both utopia and dystopia have been a particularly well studied as literary phenomena, and indeed Utopian Studies is a particular field outside but related to both Literature, with a bent on the science fiction, and Politics, as such. One of the more famous students of utopia is Marxist and hater of post modernism Frederic Jamieson, whose work Archaeologies of the Future is both something I want to finish reading and a very nice descriptions of what science fiction is and what utopia can be. Jamieson’s main contention, though highly obfuscated, and I fail to do it justice in any way (it is a tome, and a tomb, for any one not versed in houti-touti intellectual Marxism) is that all political programmes, especially of the left, are utopian in some way, and that because they are utopian, they are not in fact flawed, but much more powerful, because they have the imagine to construct a new systems based on something other then weary exploitation or realpolitik. Science fiction is the primary literary mode for expressing these utopian desires, because amongst all genres it has the fluidity and lack of critical ‘observation’ to get away with the wildest fantasies of a better world.
Which leaves us with Zamyatin’s We. It has been heavily studied as a book, especially as a precursor to both 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. It has been almost expressly interpreted as being a grim prophecy of the world to come, and an indictment of totalitarianism and Stalinism. Which is certainly an aspect of the novel, the hegemonic discourse surrounding the book, in this post-Soviet world, has almost entirely limited discussion down to this one direction. That is, We can only be seen as an anti-totalitarian novel. And from that, it is anti-Communist, and therefore against the Revolution. It is an attack on revolution, which is how the new introduction in the Penguin edition I just finished reading, the third edition of the book I have read (after the 1923 English translation and the better Mirra Ginsburg one from the 60’s). The new Penguin edition also rather jokingly dismisses the work as a bit of pulp science fiction…which I’ll return to in a moment. Still, viewing the novel as expressly against revolution or communism simplifies far too much and risks missing what the novel does offer, both in tone, structure and presentation, that is not expressly negative.
Zamyatin was a Bolshevik. He moved back to Russia to partake in the revolution as it unfolded, but remained aloof from the major artistic movements of the time, especially LEF, and viewed with some dislike the tendency of poets and artists, as he assumed, to shift their loyalties depending on the political winds; he was a critic, and his opinions were withering. He believed that only “madmen, heretics, hermits, madmen, dreamers, rebels and skeptics, not by diligent functionaries” and attacked both the early vestiges of socialist realism (Prolekult) and what he saw as the growing conformity and forced equality of the time; most of the scholarship and his writings concentrates on the role of artists in the new society, and there is comparatively little about his feelings about practical problems of society (We answers this, in a way). He was denounced as a “bourgeois individualist” and eventually allowed to emigrate, penniless, to France in 1930. So, undoubtably, he had a severe hatred of Stalinism. Which doesn’t bear on the majority of his artistic work, as We was written long before that, in 1920, when the Revolution was still being fought against the Whites, when the economy was in a dive, when destruction, deindustrialisation, famine and privation had crippled the Russians and drained political support, once at an all time high, from the Bolsheviks. The book is undoubtably against rigid authoritarianism, against secret police, against god-kings (but all this could have emerged beneath the Czar as well). So, what is We, then?
Zamyatin’s We is narrated by a rocket engineer, D-503. He lives in the One State, the benevolent society of the 26th century where “the only way to rid man of a crime is to rid him of freedom”, and is building a space ship to carry perfection to the stars and all the free societies, still suffering in their freedom, into line. He is also keeping a journal, with which we, as readers, learn about the world of the One State, and what it values. Ancient man is imperfect, our narrator tells us, because he has failed to grasp the sublime beauty of the mathematics table. As D-503 states, without the humour we should find it it, “The multiplication table is wiser and more absolute than the ancient God. It never – repeat, never – makes a mistake. And there’s nothing happier than figures that live according to the elegant and eternal laws of the multiplication table.” Nothing is private any longer, because that do, like freedom, leads to evil; all citizens live in glass houses, glass skyscrapers, glass factories, everything is shining and glorious. They do not live as part of nature, they do not live with nature; the One State was established after two hundred years of war against the natural world, to produce petro-chemical foods. Everyone wears identifical uniforms, and there is serious, ironic talk about equalising noses, in order to increased harmony and efficiency. Sex is, like everything else, sleep, eating, private time, work, movement, carefully regulated; you fill out a pink slip, and get an hour with whoever you desire, so long as they sign off on the forms. D-503 is ‘involved’ with a woman named 0-90, who is also pink slipping the state poet D-13, while our rocket engineer is slowly seduced by the revolutionary and irrational hedonist I-553, who herself is involved with the security officer S.
Everything in the one state is based on the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American mathematician, manager and cybernatician, who laid the theoretical groundwork for modern scientific assembly lines based upon giving every worker one minute task to complete in a fixed amount of a time on, say, a conveyor belt, to maximise efficiency and productive capabilities. In Taylor’s own words, from Principles of Scientific Management, “It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adaption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adaption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.” He wasn’t a big fan of socialism or worker’s unions, at any rate, though in Russia he had tremendous influence on the Bolsheviks.
According to Owen Hatherley’s essay “Art is a branch of Mathematics: Zamyatin and Soviet Socio-Fantasy”, available on his blog The Measures Taken, Lenin in 1914 actually advocated an adaption of Taylor’s mechanical schemes: “Lenin’s article, titled ‘The Taylor System: Man’s Enslavement by the Machine’ was on one level a simple critique of this mechanisation of man for profit. But within it is a more radical suggestion. Lenin claims that the scientific nature of this system was actually, in its rational use of labour time and resources, preparing the grounds for a system that will supersede capitalism. He writes: ‘the Taylor system- without its inititators knowing or wishing it- is preparing the time when the proletariat will take over all social production and appoint its own workers’ committees for the purpose of properly distributing and rationalising all social labour.’ Hence it’s no surprise that in 1918, a year after seizing state power, Lenin gave a speech that asserted- ‘we must introduce into Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and its systematic trial and adoption.’”
Thus, to make an easy conclusion, if We and Zamyatin are satirizing anything, it is Taylorism, not Communism per se, though the combination of the two he found very distasteful; his vision of the revolution would liberate man from all those dogmas of machine and capital, and set his soul free, but the revolution would never end, either. It would turn forever, like gears and cogs; in the precise management of everyday life, the schedules set for us, or set by us, is the villain of the piece. It is the equalization of the machine, the reduction of all human actions to those of machines, that is the problem, first and foremost; we are all to familiar with this trope from more modern, and earlier, dystopia. This enormous mechanization was certainly happening on a vast scale in Russia, as it was or had by 1920 in England, France, Germany and the United States. Indeed, the One State could easily pass for ANY culture or society; there is nothing at all about it that is expressly Russian in its qualities or descriptions; Zamyatin was renowned for his mastery of dialectics, and there is none of that in the text. Second, his earlier novel The Islanders, set in Great War-England, has similar themes, and paints the villainous clergy man as being obsessed with the precise and scientific management of his life, down to his sex life.
In We, Mathematics dominates the text: each character is described in terms of their geometric shape, so that O is composed and reminds of circumferences, whereas S is always described as being a double bent shape, and the revolutionary I-330, who smokes, drinks and swears, the perfect revolutionary, is described like so: “when she spoke, her face was like a rapid, sparkling wheel you could not see he individual spokes. But now the wheel was motionless. And I saw a strange combination: dark eyebrows raised high at the templesa mocking, sharp triangle. And yet another, pointing upward the two deep lines from the corners of her mouth to the nose. And these two triangles somehow contradicted one another, stamped the entire face with an unpleasant, irritating X, like a slanting cross. A face marked with a cross.”
We, as compared to other dystopian novels, is also intensely funny: we are meant to laugh at poetry about numbers rutting, and at how the narrator goes wild with lust after a single sip of the forbidden alcohol, his obsession over his bestial hands, his obsession with “the dark cave” between I-330’s breasts, and enjoy the ridiculousness of paeons to mathematics and Taylor, or even, darkly, that ‘fantasy’ will be removed with an operation. There is also the sense that Zamyatin is having good fun mocking the ludicrousness of love, ambition and egotism even while admitting that he would miss them in a Taylorised world. The prose too, unlike so many other famous dystopian novels, is brilliant, sparkling, experimental, using all the literary techniques that Zamyatin perfected, of super-expressionism, where metaphors dissolve because buildings aren’t like something, they are that thing. The novek feels different then so much else dystopian work: it is alive, and the grimness is so slight, so unnoticed, so un-intrusive, that it is difficult to compare this novel to 1984. That is, Zamyatin makes the dystopia seem both plausible (the ultimate danger: mimesis!) and actually, not horrifically terrible.
The glass towers and soaring buildings make the 26th century seem bright, and so much of the books appeal comes from its evocation of intellectual currents in early 1920’s Russia. The buildings are Constructivist, and could have been imagined by El Lizitsky or Melkinov, the science fiction aesthetic influenced, or part of the milieu of the time, of books like Alexei Tolstoy’s Aelita, with its valkeryie helmeted spacemen and future, or the films of the Sternberg brothers; looking at a poster for the Anton Lavinsky film, The Death Ray, based on another Tolstoy novel, and remembering the montage techniques of Einsenstein, or the strange deconstructions and scientific metaphors, (zeppelins and ambulatory Eiffel Towers) of Mayakovsky and Klebdinov, one cannot help but realise that We is another part of this enormous outburst and outpouring of creativity and imagination that occurred during the darkest days of the Revolution and Civil War, and during the NEP. Despite it’s dystopia, I marvel at the incredible imagery, bright, colourful and intense, of Rodchenko’s posters, and realise that Zamyatin, despite his aloofness from the Revolution, shared, in his imagination, and in the look and feel of We, in the aesthetic and Utopian dreams of the time, that despite the dangers and the despotism to come, that strange fiction in science of Russian art fought on, bravely, sarcastically, always innovative (until purged), always daring (until cowed).
Zamyatin, in a 1922 essay on H. G. Wells, wrote that the young Soviet Union, ‘having become the most fantastic country in all present-day Europe, will undoubtedly reflect this period of her history in a literature of fantasy.” That is the tremendous energy at the heart of We; in its despair, there is the hope and energy of a revolution and the freedom, if only for a moment, it offered.