Summer Readings: "We" by Evgenij Zamyatin
Dystopian novels are typically congenial to libertarians. Some of them are of course very well-known: Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and in some circles Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Others did not enter the canon.
While one of my favorite dystopian novels remains Ira Levin‘s This Perfect Day (a much underrated work of fiction), I was recently enchanted by re-reading Evgenij Zamyatin‘s “We“. I’ve read Zamyatin when I was little more than a teenager, and I did not fully appreciate his “marvelously morose novel of the future,” to quote Tom Wolfe. [UPDATE: the book is also available for free in PDF here]
Zamyatin’s novel – first published in English in 1924, whereas in its native Russian didn’t go to the printing press until 1988–combines a critique of totalitarianism that the author developed after directly taking part in the Bolshevik revolution, and a foreboding caveat on modern technology. The totalitarian state is presided over by the “Benefactor”. All citizens are known as “numbers,” and every hour in one’s life (including social time and sexual intercourse) is directed by “The Tablet.”
The novel is written in the form of a diary – and it was noted that in this sense there are several similarities with Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” (Wikipedia lists them here). On Rand and Zamyatin, and why the latter is an interesting read for people that value liberty, I recommend this article by Jeff Riggenbach.
Personally, I found Zamyatin more profound than Rand’s “Anthem”, on a specific point.
The society he envisions is completely equal –and it was made as such because of a strong impulse to fight and defy envy. The central character, D-503, once dreams of the time when individuals will also look like each other, and would not just have been raised in perfectly equal conditions (is eugenics the ultimate egalitarian policy?).
But the society Zamyatin imagines is also one that uses rationality and planning as the main rationale for having banned any form of individual liberty. Science is highly valued and the narrating protagonist is himself part of the intellectual elite. People think to the old times, before Utopia was established, and are in a sense frightened by how chaotic life was. People could choose their mates–it wasn’t just the system perfectly matching them, and regulating when they could have sex, and the circumstances under which sex could “produce” offspring.
The world of “We” shows a kind of societal orthopedics that obsessively justify itself by presuming a “planned” society is by definition more “rational” than a spontaneously grown one. Zamyatin exacerbates the point by imagining that the political symbols that legitimize the regime are based on mathematics. Women are from Venus, men are from Mars, but constructivists are from Vulcan.
Zamyatin quotes Frederick Taylor, as one of the few historical ancestors the Benefactor recognized. But managerial organization turns into an obsession, as is typical of one particular mindset, “the one represented by the man whose supreme ambition is to turn the world round him into an enormous machine, every part of which, on his pressing a button, moves according to his design.”
This later quote comes from my favorite Hayek’s book: The Counter-Revolution of Science, where you’ll find a golden chapter on “Engineers and Planners.” Zamyatin makes up for a great complementary reading to Hayek’s classic. In short, reading “We”, the link between totalitarianism on the one hand, and constructivism on the other, becomes quite apparent. Behind totalitarian politics lurks a devastating contempt for liberty, deemed to be the source of chaos (“The only means of ridding man of crime is ridding him of freedom”). A world of free individuals is by definition potentially welcoming the unexpected, the unplanned, the new: it is open to surprises, for the better or for the worst. That is intolerable and should be fixed. And from the need for “stability” in society, at least in my reading of the novel egalitarianism is deduced, and not vice versa. This is indeed a powerful attitude, that we may find alive in the contemporary haste to regulate.