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Personal and Political in The Dispossessed

Posted: Mon, November 05, 2012 | By: Ursula K. Le Guin

by Victor Urbanowicz

To say that The Dispossessed is about an anarchist society is rather like saying that Paradise Lost is about the Christian notion of the Fall: such a statement ignores the strong partisanship of the author of the piece. As Milton made no secret of his Christianity, Ursula K. Le Guin has said that anarchism “is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.”1 In the same place she also says that her conscious purpose in writing The Dispossessed was “to embody it [anarchism] in a novel, which had not been done before” (here, incidentally, is the epic writer’s claim to do the yet unattempted). The Dispossessed is an anarchist novel, then. Further, it reveals the author’s broad and sympathetic understanding of anarchist theory, with emphasis on the idea that the personal and political growth of the individual must be not only compatible with but also complementary to each other.2

The setting of the novel is one indication of Le Guin’s familiarity with anarchism. The action seems to be divided between two planets to make plausible the existence of a thriving anarchist society in a civilization like ours, despite the fate of anarchist communities in the twentieth century. Urras is divided much like today’s earth. On it the nation of A-Io corresponds to the USA or perhaps some Western European power. As the Ambassador from Terra observes, “The government here is not despotic. The rich are very rich indeed, but the poor are not so very poor. They are neither enslaved nor starving” (§11). 

There is some social mobility under a state-regulated private capitalist economy; consumer goods are elaborately packaged and displayed; some women use their sex appeal for power games. Thu, A-Io’s rival, corresponds to the USSR: its government, though the product of a popularly-based socialist revolution, is highly centralized and totally controls the economy. There is also a Third World of unaligned poor nations. One of these, Benbili, is the novel’s Vietnam: when insurrection breaks out there, A-lo and Thu intervene to support opposed sides.

Urras is not a scrupulous copy of our Earth. A-Io on the one hand is more Victorian than the contemporary West, with servants abounding and the universities closed to women, and on the other hand more advanced, for the government has succeeded in saving the natural environment from the predations of free enterprise. 

The greatest sociopolitical difference from our world is on Anarres, the habitable if somewhat arid “moon” of Urras, which has been settled by an autonomous colony of Odonians — communist anarchists of Urrasti origin. This colony, over 150 years old when the story begins, has from its start severely limited contact with Urras. Such an arrangement enhances the plausibility of an anarchist experiment so old and successful. In the twentieth century both authoritarian (Marxist-Leninist) communists and the bourgeois-democratic nations have proven quite willing to tolerate if not actually bring about the obliteration of actual libertarian communist societies. No Western power intervened to protect the Ukrainian peasant communes, which were consciously anarchist and anti-Bolshevik, from domination by Moscow in 1920,3 though White Russian reactionaries received US aid. In 1936 the USSR supported the pro-republican forces in Spain at the expense of the Spanish anarchists, who had broad popular support and who had speedily collectivized industry and agriculture over wide areas of the country. Anarchist militia and labor unions had to contend against not only the Falangists, but the Republicans and Stalinists among their allies as well.4 The Anarresti, occupying their own planet and trading mineral ore for a few necessities and toleration from Urras, are in a much better position for survival than were these hapless Terran anarchists.

Anarresti society reflects the ideas of many major anarchist thinkers and theoretical tendencies. One important feature is the communist anarchism of Peter Kropotkin. Unlike the collectivist anarchism of Michael Bakunin, communist anarchism does not demand that the individual work in exchange for necessities. These are available free, and one chooses among available work assignments (“postings”) offered by a computerized hiring hall (“Divlab”) in response to personal preference, social needs, or, lacking these, the desire for approval from peers and neighbors. Factories and the like are democratically controlled by the workers. Of special importance to the novel’s plot is the possibility of “free enterprise”: one may form one’s own syndicate to undertake an original project, with the right to requisition needed materials and equipment.

Formal education and day-to-day personal conduct on Anarres follow the ideas of two writers later than the “classical” anarchists,5 namely Herbert Read (1893-1968) and Paul Goodman (1911-1972). The following passage from The Dispossessed is a fine precis of Read’s treatise on libertarian schooling, Education Through Art:6

Learning centers taught all the skills that prepare for the practice of art: 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. [§6]

The general administration of education would also please the ghost of Goodman.7 For young children, schooling is combined with the work of the local community, and advanced studies follow the decentralized organization of the medieval university as Goodman saw it: founded upon a personal relation of teacher and student, unencumbered by grades, credits, and standard required courses. Students obtain courses they desire by requesting a teacher to offer them.

In accordance with norms Goodman established on the basis of his work in Gestalt theory, physical attraction and physical hostility on Anarres are left to the self-regulation of the organism.8 Sexually, anything goes between consenting adults or adolescents, and coyness is replaced with an open invitation to “copulate.” As for less gentle impulses, the Anarresti, though innocent of weapons, accept nonlethal physical hostility so casually that a hand-to-hand fight has to be “interesting” to draw spectators. The loser of a fair fight is neither expected nor inclined to harbor a grudge, any more than one partner in a sexual encounter makes a claim on the other of the “Does this mean we’re engaged?” sort: the fight, like the sex, is a “gift.”

But it is not a utopia Le Guin portrays. At the age of one hundred and seventy the Odonian colony on Anarres has in some respects lapsed from its earlier ideals. Its prolonged isolation has made it xenophobic towards Urras, quite against anarchist ideals of human cooperation and solidarity across political boundaries; the administrative syndicates have developed informal hierarchies, hardening into bureaucracies and clinging to powers acquired during long-past emergencies; custom has made most persons ashamed to refuse postings even when acceptance means being separated for years from a mate or from one’s chosen work. This state of affairs, however, is not to be read as an implied criticism of anarchist theory. That institutions promoting freedom can decline into hierarchical and authoritarian ones is freely acknowledged by anarchists generally, notably by Kropotkin in his discussion of the medieval guilds in Mutual Aid. Anarchists regard social (but not state) control of the means of production and decentralized, federal organization of society as highly desirable but not infallible means to a libertarian end; social life is regarded as a continual striving against both tyranny and decadence of freedom alike.

The principal action of The Dispossessed does not criticize anarchist theory at all, but clarifies it and portrays its strengths: Shevek, the protagonist, aided by his libertarian upbringing as much as hindered by it, becomes aware of his society’s defects and moves effectively to repair them. It is particularly significant that this process grows out of his insistence on pursuing his chosen work (theoretical physics), publishing his findings and communicating with colleagues on Urras as well as Anarres over the objections of his compatriots. Braving a hostile mob and supported only by his own group, the Syndicate of Initiative, he even takes the unprecedented step of boarding an ore freighter to Urras to facilitate communication with the Urrasti. His development as a constructive rebel against conservative forces in his society is organically linked with his development as a physicist and as a human being. The effects of his visit to Urras are revolutionary in more than physics, and the structure of The Dispossessed emphasizes that these effects are organically linked with the prior period on Anarres.

In this way LeGuin makes her novel a vehicle for a central moral principle of anarchism, commonly called that of the unity of means and ends: a better society should not and cannot be achieved by using methods today which would be intolerable once it was a reality. Thus Bakunin insisted against Marx that authoritarian means could not achieve a free society and that a revolutionary dictatorship would be indistinguishable from a state.9 Since the time of Bakunin — and rather against his temperament and character — a non-violent and even pacifist tendency has grown up in the movement. On the personal level this principle excludes drastic renunciations (though not all heroism) for the sake of hastening the revolution. 

Emma Goldman “did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy” — and she refused to give up dancing.10 

In a similar vein, Paul Goodman found that “professionals, at least, become radicalized when they try to pursue their professions with integrity and courage — their professions are what they know and care about — and they find that many things must be changed.”11 Goodman, of course, states Shevek’s case exactly. In The Dispossessed symbolism, structure, and plot stress the unity of personal, professional, and political in Shevek as an individual acting in and upon his society.

During his childhood and later, Shevek recurrently dreams of a wall, the symbol of his major personal barriers and difficulties. His solitary, abstractly meditative character is a wall between himself and others, and he feels himself always alone, even when surrounded by comrades. Another is the impenetrability of the problem in temporal theory that is his chosen field in physics. A third is the self-isolation of Anarres from Urras, somewhat justified in prudence but maintained to a degree that thwarts international solidarity and frustrates Shevek professionally. The different walls are overcome one by one; the conquest of one seems to be related to that of another, and increasingly all walls appear to be one, and the least personal of Shevek’s difficulties, his work in physics, is closely identified with the most, his attempts to form and feel a bond with others. This outcome is prefigured early in the novel by a unique version of the dream. At the foot of the wall is a stone, on or inside which:

there was a number; a 5 he thought at first, then took it for 1, then understood what it was — the primal number, that was both unity and plurality. “That is the cornerstone,” said a voice of dear familiarity, and Shevek was pierced through with joy. There was no wall in the shadows, and he knew that he had come back, that he was home. [§2]

The structure of the novel also stresses the unity of personal and political. The action is divided into two distinct phases. The chronologically earlier phase comprises Shevek’s childhood, youth, and early manhood on Anarres, when he discovers and pursues temporal physics and in doing so comes up against problems stemming from his own solitary nature and the increasingly rigid, bureaucratic tendencies in Odonian mores and institutions. Attracted to the Simultaneity school of temporal physics, he finds that physicists of the opposed Sequency school are well entrenched: they style themselves the true Odonian physicists, and tend to block the publication of Shevek’s papers. During these difficulties he forms a life partnership with a woman named Takver, who encourages him to form his own syndicate to publish his papers and to talk by radio with Ioti physicists. An earnest Odonian, Shevek has by now become convinced of the social utility of such a course, and even decided to travel to Urras, where he has gained a reputation among Ioti physicists and where he might benefit from resources and colleagues that Anarres cannot match. His physics, his politics, and his personal relationships are all one. 

A train driver remarks to him that where promiscuity becomes monotonous, monogamy guarantees variety: “It isn’t changing around from place to place that keeps you level. It’s getting time on your side. Working with it, not against it” (§9). The temporal physicist agrees. This exchange takes place as Shevek is en route to rejoin Takver and their child after four years’ separation. Their lovemaking upon reunion is compared to “planets circling blindly, quietly…. about the common center of gravity, swinging, circling endlessly” (§9). In this Shelleyan image Le Guin links the most private part of Shevek’s life with the most public: Urras and Anarres are precisely such planets, for they revolve about each other, each the other’s moon, and the human societies on them have long been separated.

On Anarres, then, Shevek grows from weakness and isolation to strength and a bond with others (Takver and his syndics), and renews his society by rebelling against established order. Paradoxically, all these things grow out of the work he must pursue in isolation. The action on Urras is closely parallel, and chapters narrating it alternate with the Anarres chapters. Such organization solves the structural problem of two successive and complete actions, and is appropriate for other reasons. One is that Shevek’s brand of physics stresses the simultaneity of events that usually are seen as successive, a fact which in turn points to the theses of this essay. On Urras his development is chiefly public and political, as befits a man of forty. He completes his General Temporal Theory but withholds it from the Ioti, whom at this point he understands well enough to distrust. Illegally and secretly leaving the university where he has been working, he addresses a mass political demonstration which is then brutally suppressed. Virtually wading through blood, he gains asylum in the embassy of Terra, whence he manages to return to Anarres. While the alternation of Anarres with Urras chapters stresses the organic relationship of his actions on the two planets, the Urras phase contains the climax of the action as a whole and demonstrates the unity of all phases of the anarchist’s life.

Shevek’s political purpose in visiting Urras is to open communications between the two planets, but at first he is thwarted in this, as in the perfection of his theory. As the anarchist from the Moon he is besieged with social invitations, but in accepting these he does not succeed in gaining understanding for his society and its values. One reason he fails is that the Ioti government maintains a wall between Shevek and the lower classes. Unaccustomed to alcohol, he gets drunk at a party attended by upper-class Ioti and his tongue is loosened into scathing eloquence concerning the relative advantages of Anarres and A-Io. The response to his speech epitomizes the way the Ioti have been responding to and using him: the attractive hostess takes him to a bedroom and “rewards” him by leading him on sexually until he spurts semen on her dress, whereupon she dismisses him angrily. Back among the guests he vomits, passes out, and is taken home. 

After this he confines himself to science and, paradoxically, all walls come down. He completes the essential outlines of the General Temporal Theory by using a tactic which also has sociopolitical significance: instead of continuing to try to prove simultaneity, he instead postulates it to see how things work out — just as, he has learned, the Terran “Ainsetain” postulated the velocity of light as a limiting factor and achieved two relativity theories which are “as beautiful, as valid, and as useful as ever after these centuries…” (§9). The error in his earlier approach is akin to that being made by all of Anarresti society in its choice of total isolation from the rest of the human community: “He had been groping and grabbing after certainty, as if it were something he could possess. He had been demanding a security, a guarantee, which is not granted, and which, if granted, would become a prison” (§9). Because he hypothesizes, taking a risk as he has taken a risk in leaving Anarres, the prophecy of his childhood dream is fulfilled:

The wall was down. The vision was both clear and whole. What he saw was simple, simpler than anything else. It was simplicity: and contained in it all complexity, all promise. It was revelation.” [§9]

Even the wall of interplanetary human community is down, for technological use of his theory will make possible instantaneous communication over interstellar distances. At the moment of discovery he even feels at home on Urras:

—for at this instant the difference between this planet and that one, between Urras and Anarres, was no more significant to him than the difference between two grains of sand on the shore of the sea. There were no more abysses, no more walls. There was no more exile. He had seen the foundations of the universe, and they were solid. [§9]

The events following immediately upon this, the turning point in the novel, are the triumphant consequences (attended by disaster) of Shevek’s single-minded and socially responsible insistence on his right to pursue his calling. Somewhat run down from the exhausting mental effort he has just put forth, Shevek becomes panicky and apprehensive that Ioti spies might learn he has completed his theory. He does not want A-Io to use the theory in the service of its imperialistic designs on the Nine Known Worlds. Confiding his fears to Efor, the manservant assigned to him in his university rooms, he immediately gains the other’s confidence in return, as he could not in all his months of being lionized as the eminent physicist from the Moon. Efor nurses Shevek through his illness skillfully and instructs him how to slip away from the university and get in touch with the political leaders of the lower classes.

Efor’s behavior confirms and exemplifies an insight about brotherhood — today’s Terran anarchists would say solidarity — which Shevek received as a youth, while sitting with an accident victim for whom no relief was available and who was dying of severe bums: “I saw that you can’t do anything for anybody. We can’t save each other. Or ourselves.” For him this means not isolation and despair, but rather that brotherhood “begins in shared pain” (§2). As I interpret this, the basis of human solidarity is not only the necessity and desirability of mutual aid, but something more existential: the sympathy and solace we can offer each other in the common fate, that each must face death alone. Efor, seeing Shevek’s genuine fear and need, feels a bond with him for the first time and confides in him what life is like for the lower classes in A-Io.

The same insight justifies Shevek’s isolation by showing how an individual’s solitude need not work against solidarity. It seems quite consistent with anarchism, nicely stating the basis for both the individuality and the sociality of human nature in a way that harmonizes rather than opposes the two.13 Le Guin indeed defines freedom in this novel as “that recognition of each person’s solitude which alone transcends it” (§9). Shevek’s speech to the demonstrators in the city of Nio grows out of this insight and for this reason is eloquent — despite his foreign accent — and effective: “He spoke their mind, their being, in their language, though he said no more than he had said out of his own isolation, out of the center of his own being, a long time ago” (§9). A late bloomer socially, he reknits a bond between revolutionary movements separated for over a century and a half. He does not do this by spouting what has become on Anarres the Odonian party line; it is anarchism, but it is no less his unique and stubborn self.

In a libertarian communist society, Le Guin says in The Dispossessed, freedom is more fragile than communism, and the spirit of freedom can easily lapse into one of conformity. When this happens, the first to suffer are likely to be those creative individuals whose work must be solitary — precisely those, in other words, who are the best justification of freedom. Such is the case on Anarres with Shevek and a number of creative artists. But it is to his society’s credit that rebels still grow up in it and that rebellion is not very difficult. Shevek and his syndics are advised not to speak by radio with Urrasti, but they cannot be forbidden to do so. On Anarres there is no barrier analogous to passports and State Department clearance to keep Shevek from boarding the freighter to Urras, though he must brave an angry crowd to do so, and though one of the Defense guards dies while protecting him. 

At the end of the novel an angry crowd is again waiting for him as his ship returns to Anarres Port; but in his busy absence he has renewed the revolutionary ferment that should be the essence of a libertarian society, so that the number of his partisans in the crowd is also large. A Maoist proverb is strangely appropriate to his situation: “There is great disorder under heaven, and all is well.”

The idea of human nature in The Dispossessed, then, is in large part the anarchist idea of the relation between personal and political, i.e., between individual and social nature implied in Proudhon’s aphorism “Freedom is the mother, not the daughter, of order”: we are essentially social, so that the free exercise of personal initiative is not only compatible with but positively conducive to the benefit of society. To ensure this compatibility, the order of society must be equitable: useful work and the necessities of life must be available to all; reward and responsibility must be shared out equitably; the concentration of power must be minimal and always shifting, so that, ideally, there is no power but function. Under such conditions human nature blossoms. Shevek repeatedly startles and moves the Ioti with a magnetic charm and a directness and purity of character that he owes to being nurtured in a society without private property, social classes, unemployment, and useless work; where all are brothers and sisters; and where he was taught, more perfectly by precept than by example, that he need recognize no initiative but his own.

It is possible to dig deeper and wider into the anarchist sources of The Dispossessed. The affinity of anarchism and Taoism is not, of course, lost on Le Guin. The fact that all political violence in the story is initiated by reactionaries reflects the progression of anarchism from the terrorism of the 1890’s to the position of Kropotkin and others that violence as a direct method is counterrevolutionary in effect, though sometimes genuinely revolutionary methods provoke violence. It is beyond the limits of this essay to explore these sources; but Le Guin’s exaltation of poverty, a trait of the Christian anarchism of Tolstoy and the Catholic Worker movement, is central to the novel, as indicated by the title (which is also a sideswipe at Dostoevsky). 

Freedom is legitimately exercised to create and to achieve, but not to accumulate material wealth. It is justified as necessary to the full development of the individual, but the negative freedom from petty privations and the need to work must yield to the general good. In Paul Goodman’s words, “we must understand freedom in a very positive sense: it is the condition of initiating activity. Apart from this pregnant meaning, mere freedom from interference is both trivial and in fact cannot be substantially protected…. The justification for freedom is that initiation is essential for any high-grade human behavior. Only free action has grace and force.”12 Shevek’s Ioti students have only the negative freedoms of leisure and privilege, and their behavior as future physicists is not “high-grade”: they are careerists. 

Shevek, by contrast, has had a hard-scrabble life among a really (if imperfectly) free people: “He had not been free from anything; only free to do anything” (§5). Thus, “the less he had, the more absolute became his need to be” (§10). George Woodcock, a literary critic and a long-time anarchist, accordingly sees in The Dispossessed a “moral” that is basic to Buddhism and anarchism alike: “those who have shed desire are liberated.”13 When human beings are free from being dominated by others and from their own desire to dominate and possess, they become free — and able — to respond to physical necessity in the most efficient way, banding together in pacts of mutual aid and creating on that basis a social structure in which each individual can strive, alone or with others, for full self-realization.

Such a social order is not likely to be perfectly realized, or expected to be. If it were, there would be no need for continuing revolution as an integral part of society. This necessity exists in part because the demands of the individual can never be perfectly reconciled with those of society, but only balanced in a dynamic, conflictful equilibrium. There is always a danger of either excessively subduing the individual on the one hand or of fragmenting society on the other. An artist who is committed to this social vision will portray a libertarian communist society critically as well as lovingly, and has no excuse for failing to develop characters fully or to integrate them into the action and setting. The author of The Dispossessed needs no excuses. Proceeding on a utopian’s impulse with the conscience of a realist, she has considerably enriched speculative fiction.


1. Headnote to “The Day Before the Revolution,” in Ursula K. Le Guin The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 232. This story, written after The Dispossessed, is about the last day in the life of Odo, and is dedicated to the memory of Paul Goodman.

2. See, for instance, Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936 (New York: Free Life Editions, 1977), pp. 195-198. Bookchin’s discussion of Spanish anarchist affinity groups provides a concrete and significant historical application of this principle.

3. See Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement (Detroit: Black and Red/Chicago: Solidarity, 1974), passim.

4. An easily available account is in George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (New York: Harcourt, n.d.); see also “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship,” in Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: Vintage, 1969).

5. Daniel Guerin, Anarchism from Theory to Practice (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970) gives a thorough account of anarcho-syndicalism and bibliography of anarcho-syndicalist writings. Guerin’s bias is sympathetic, as is the case with other sources cited here.

6. (London: Faber & Faber, 1943). 1 have no direct evidence that Le Guin ever read a word of Herbert Read, but the resemblance between Read’s ideas and this passage — a virtual identity — is not to be dismissed.

7. See, for instance, The Community of Scholars (New York: Random House, 1962).

8. See Frederick Perls, Ralph Hefferline, and Paul Goodman, Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (New York: Dell, 1951).

9. Marshall Shatz, ed., Essential Works of Anarchism (New York: Bantam, 1971), pp. 159-161.

10. Ibid., p. 321.

11. New Reformation (New York: Vintage, 1971), p. 152.

12. Leonard I. Krimerman and Lewis Perry, eds., Patterns of Anarchy: A Collection of Writings on the Anarchist Tradition (New York: Anchor, 1966), p. 55. The italics are Goodman’s.

13. “The Equilibrations of Freedom: Part 2,” Georgia Straight, 10, 468 (Oct. 28-Nov. 4, 1976), p. 7. I am grateful to Jim Bittner at the University of Wisconsin for sending me a photocopy of this article. Georgia Straight is published in Vancouver, B.C.


Ursula K. LeGuin has said that anarchism “is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.” The Dispossessed reveals its author’s broad and sympathetic understanding of anarchist theory, particularly the writings of Herbert Read (1893-1968) and Paul Goodman (1911-1972), both of whom emphasized that the personal and political growth of the individual are intertwined. In 170 years of existence, the moon-based anarchist colony Anarres in the novel has lapsed in some ways from its founder Odo’s ideals. Prolonged isolation has made Anarres xenophobic toward the home-planet Urras, contradicting anarchism’s vision of solidarity across political boundaries. LeGuin, however, is not to be read as criticizing anarchist theory but rather as portraying its strengths. Her protagonist Shevek, aided as well as hindered by his libertarian upbringing, becomes aware of his society’s defects and moves effectively to repair them. His political development as a constructive rebel against conservative forces in Anarresti society is (as in anarchist theory) organically linked to his development as a physicist and as a human being. In a libertarian communist society, Le Guin suggests, the spirit of freedom can easily lapse into one of conformity. When this happens, the first to suffer are likely to be those creative individuals (such as the physicist Shevek) whose work must be solitary. But it is to his society’s credit that rebels still grow up in it and that rebellion is not very difficult. LeGuin has blended the utopian with the realistic in her portrayal of Anarres’ libertarian communist society.

This essay was first published HERE


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