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Takver's Anarres
Comments on Ursula Le Guin,
The Dispossessed and Anarchism

Planet Anarres

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin has had a profound influence on me over the last 22 years. I'd like to share a few quotes from this important text. The animated planet gif(ani_pl3.gif) I constructed myself and is loosely based on the map in the front of the The Dispossessed of the planet anarres.

If you want an interesting introduction to anarchism, borrow or buy this book and read it.

Quotes from the Dispossessed

Odo wrote:

'A child free from the guilt of ownership and the burden of economic competition will grow up with the will to do what needs doing and the capacity for joy in doing it. It is useless work that darkens the heart. The delight of the nursing mother, of the scholar, of the successful hunter, of the good cook, of the skilful maker, of anyone doing needed work and doing it well, - this durable joy is perhaps the deepest source of human affection and of sociality as a whole.

From Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Page 207.

Unbuilding Walls

"Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I'm going to go fulfil my proper function in the social organism. I'm going to go and unbuild walls."
Shevek from Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed

breaking down fences and walls

With the myth of the State out of the way, the real mutuality and reciprocity of society and individual became clear. Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise: for, though only the society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person, had the power of moral choice - the power of change, the essential function of life. The Odonian society was conceived as a permanent revolution, and revolution begins in the thinking mind.

From Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Page 276.

Winter Storm in the Ne Theras

Winter Storm in the Ne Theras.
An original 16 color painting by Takver.

Speech by Shevek to the PDC meeting:

You see, what we're after is to remind ourselves that we didn't come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we're no better than a machine. If an individual can't work in solidarity with his fellows, it's his duty to work alone. His duty and his right. We have been denying people that right. We've been saying, more and more often, you must work with the others, you must accept the rule of the majority. But any rule is tyranny. The duty of the individual is to accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible. Only if he does so will the society live, and change, and adapt, and survive. We are not subjects of a State founded upon law, but members of a society formed upon revolution. Revolution is our obligation : our hope of evolution. The Revolution is in the individual spirit, or it is nowhere. It is for all, or it is nothing. If it is seen as having any end, it will never truly begin. We can't stop here. We must go on. We must take the risks.

From Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Page 296.

Soruba Sea Beach

Soruba Sea Beach.
An original 16 color painting by Takver.

Anarchism as a theme in the novels of Ursula Le Guin

by Takver - 1978

Anarchism acts as an underlying theme throughout all of Ursula Le Guin's novels and short stories. It is portrayed in the different life forms and cultures encountered, and in the varied political systems and methods of social organization. Perhaps the best method of studying anarchism as a theme is to analyse a number of Ursula Le Guin's novels and short stories.


This story was written during the height of the Vietnam War, as a parable of colonial exploitation. The native people, the Athsheans, of this planet have evolved into a Close relationship with the ecology of their world. Here they have dwelled in harmony, dwelling peacefully among the forests of their world, until human colonists arrive and start plundering the planet for its valuable timber. We are shown the conflicts which arise and the disruption and destruction of the Athsheans way of life.

In the introduction, Ursula Le Guin, speaking about Vietnam in 1968, gives an insight into the writing of this story:- The lies and hypocrisies redoubled, so did the killing. Moreover, it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of non-combatants in the name of 'peace' was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of man.

We are shown that the Athsheans' culture places great emphasis on the importance of dreaming; the experiences while dreaming and awake are considered equally real and valid. The society which they have evolved is gentle, and peaceful; murder and war are unknown.

Again, in the introduction it is pointed out there is, or at least was in 1935, a real world corollary in the Senoi Tribe from Malaysia, who it appears have not had a war or a murder, for several hundred years.

The organisation of the Athshean society is that for the most part women run the cities and towns and men are the dreamers, with their roles portrayed as equal and compensatory.

The author goes on to state that this tale began as a pure pursuit of freedom and the dream.


City of Illusions is another, deeper parable on power, control and class/racial conflict.

It is set in a future time when the 'enemy' of man, a race called the Shing, are in control of the Earth and League of Worlds. Their method of control is described by the major character, Falk-Ramarren: They controlled men by habit, ruse, fear, and weaponry, by being quick to prevent the rise of any strong tribe or the pooling of knowledge that might threaten them. They prevented men from doing anything. But they did nothing themselves. They did not rule, they only blighted.

As in our Western Democracy where state violence is perpetrated in the name of rehabilitation, education, law and justice, so the Shing's one rule of 'Reverence for life' instead was simply the 'biggest lie of all their lies'. Falk-Ramarren explains further that in order to control populations they evidently pitted tribe against tribe, starting the war but letting humans do the killings, and the histories told that in the early days of their rule, they had used eugenics and resettlement to consolidate their empire, rather than genocide.

In our present situation on earth, the working class is kept submissive - surrounded by a city of illusions - the illusions of freedom, equality, and the promise of power and riches. We are kept in a state of competition - our class is kept divided and when we do realize this strategy, we are dispersed and 'resettled' as in state capitalist countries.


The Left Hand of Darkness was Ursula Le Guin's first attempt at portraying a socio-political structure in a society, similar to our own. An ingenious twist in this story, is that the human inhabitants of the planet Winter (Gethen), can assume either male or female gender according to the dominant sexual emotion at the time they enter 'heat', or kemmer, as the Gethenians call it, Everybody has his holiday once a month, no-one, whatever his position, is obliged or forced to work when in kemmer.

It is this peculiarity which so decisively illuminates sexual power politics and its physical and psychological effects in our own society. On Gethen - There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency of dualism that pervades hurnan thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

As a backdrop to this sexual equality are the political structures on Gethen. We are shown around the feudal politics of rural Karhide, and the state socialist bureaucracy of Mishnory. Thru the political intrigue between both governments, we glimpse the lives of ordinary people thru the experiences of the main characterharacter, Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen.

The Ekumen is a mystical brotherhood of worlds implying very much a social anarchistic federation which appears in many of Ursula Le Guin's novels and short stories. It operates as an exchange of information and ideas and co-ordinates trade between planets.


Regarding The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin had this to say in the introduction to The Day Before the Revolution, a short story written in memoriam to the anarchist, Paul Goodman:

My novel 'The Dispossessed' is about a small world full of people who call themselves Odonians. The name is taken from the founder of their society, Odo, who lived several generations before the time of the novel, and who therefore doesn't get into the action - except implicitly, in that all the action started with her.

Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with, not the social Darwinist economic 'libertarianism' of the far right, but anarchism as pre- figured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism's principal target is the authoritarian state (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.

The Day Before the Revolution is a story about the reflections of an old revolutionary, and how she copes with her ideas on freedom and responsibility now being realized. It describes lost expectations and hopes, the despair of old age and the bond between herself and the people from the streets she is one with. The story itself acts as a definition of social-anarchism and it gives a definition of an anarchist as One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.

The Dispossessed is able to more fully incorporate an analysis of people living under different political systems. This novel is able to describe, in detail, life in an anarchist society and the problems which may be expected to arise. A series of quotes will best describe the philosophy, life, and organization of society on Anarres:

Decentralization had been an essential element in Odo's plans for the society she did not live to see founded. She had no intention of trying to de-urbanize civilization. Though she suggested that the natural limit to the size of a community lay in its dependence on its own immediate region for essential food and power, she intended that all communities be connected by communication and transport networks, so that goods and ideas could get where they were wanted, and the administration of things might work with speed and ease and no community should be cut off from change and interchange. But the network was not to be run from the top down. There was to be no controlling centre, no capital, no establishment for the self-perpetuating machinery of bureaucracy and the dominance-drive of individuals seeking to become captains, bosses, chief's of state.

So this ideal view of an anarchist society was not to be in practice.

There had to be a centre. The computers that coordinated the administration of things, the division of labour and the distribution of goods, and the central federatives of most of the work syndicates, were in Abbenay, right from the start. And from the start the settlers were aware that the unavoidable centralization was a lasting threat, to be countered by lasting vigilance.

It is the lapsing of vigilance causing the steady growth of a bureaucratic elite which sets the background to this story on Anarres.

Near the end of the novel, Shevek, the main character, sums up his experiences of capitalism on Urras:

... there is nothing here but States and their weapons, the rich and their lies, and the poor and their misery. There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter in, and fear of loss, and the wish for power. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is 'superior' to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them. You cannot touch another person - yet they will not leave you alone. There is no freedom. It is a box - Urras is a box, a package, with all the beautiful wrappings of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and, what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a. dead man. A man whose hand was shot off because he held it out to others. I have been in Hell at last.

When Shevek returns to Anarres he brings with him a Hainishman (from the planet Hain) and again alludes to the responsibilities of an anarchist We are responsible to you and you to us, you become an Anarresti - with the same options as all the others. But they are not safe options. Freedom is never very safe.


Quote from More Women of Wonder who quoted S.F. Studies 7 Vol 2 Part 3 pp 208-209.

Male elitism has run rampant in S. F. But is it only male elitism? Isn't the 'subjection of women' in S.F. merely a symptom of a whole which is authoritarian, power-worshipping and intensely parochial?. . .

Well, how about the social Alien in S.F.? Howabout, in Marxist terms, 'the proletariat?' . . . Are they ever persons, in S.F.? No. They appear as vast anonymous masses . . . The only social change presented by most S.F. has been towards authoritarianism, the domination of ignorant masses by a powerful elite - sometimes presented as a warning but often quite complacently. Socialism is never considered as an alternative, - and democracy is quite forgotten. Military virtues are taken as ethical ones. Wealth is assumed to be a righteous goal and a personal virtue. Competitive free enterprise capitalism is the economic destiny of the entire Galaxy. In general, American S.F. has assumed a permanent hierarchy of superiors and inferiors, with rich, ambitious, aggressive males at the top, then a great gap, and then, at the bottom the poor, the uneducated, the faceless masses, and all the women . . . , It is a perfect baboon patriarchy, with the Alpha Male on top, being respectfully qroomed, from time to time, by his inferiors ...

I would like to see the Baboon Ideal replaced by a little human idealism, and some serious consideration of such deeply radical, futuristic concepts as Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. And remember that about 53% of the Brotherhood of Man is the Sisterhood of Women.

Ursula Le Guin and Anarchism

Email to Research on Anarchism List, 2000

Ursula Le Guin is very ambiguous about labelling herself. I think it is important to not only look at the labels people place on themselves, but also their actions. Any person can call themselves an anarchist, but it is what they do and how they do it that should earn them the label. Le Guin is careful not to label herself so she can speak and be heard to a very wide audience.

Here is why I think Le Guin is an anarchist:

  1. Social Activism: Le Guin has freely commented on her activism in organising and participating in nonviolent demonstrations against atomic bomb testing and then the Vietnam war during the sixties in the preface to 'The Word for World is Forest'.

  2. Knowledge of Anarchism and willing to champion the essential tenets of anarchism:
    Refer to the preface to the short story 'The Day before the Revolution' published in the anthology 'The Winds Twelve Quarters Vol2' It is written by Le Guin 'In Memorial to Paul Goodman 1911-1972'. An excerpt....
    "Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with, not the social-Darwinist economic 'libertarianism' of the far right; but anarchism, as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism's principal target is the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principle moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories."

    This is as close a statement Le Guin has come to identifying with anarchism that I have found in her writings. But together with her activism as a person and as a writer, it is clear she understands the philosophy of anarchism and shares a close affinity.

    I think her outstanding achievement has been The Dispossessed which provides a view of an anarchist society complete with an array of social problems. It is an ambiguous utopia. The ambiguity can only be resolved by looking at the actions of people like Shevek who dare to question the social roles that have developed. It is in their constant search for freedom and social responsibility, in challenging informal heirarchies and domination that we find the heart of anarchism. The portrait of a possible anarchist society is meticulous and realistic.

  3. LeGuin is not afraid of using her artform - writing - to raise questions or to criticise or postulate alternatives in a non threatening manner. She has been very effective in this in her speeches and essays. Her two collections of essays provide much insight into her character and motivations. They are:

    Much of her writing and wisdom derives from her long standing interest in Taoism. She has even published a new translation of this masterful chinese mystic work through careful selection from the many previous translation versions.

    Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu - new English version by Ursula Le Guin, Shambhala Publications, 1997.

    In the footnotes to the Tao Te Ching Le Guin uses 'anarchists' twice to identify the correlation between Taoism and Anarchism.

    Footnote to Chap 13 (pages 16-17):

    Lao Tzu, a mystic, demystifies political power. Autocracy and oligarchy foster the beliefs that power is gained magically and retained by sacrifice, and that powerful people are genuinely superior to the powerless. Lao Tzu does not see political power as magic. He sees rightful power as earned and wrongful power as usurped. He does not see power as virtue, but as the result of virtue. The democracies are founded on that view. He sees sacrifice of self or others as a corruption of power, and power as available to anybody who follows the Way. This is a radically subversive attitude. No wonder anarchists and Taoists make good friends.

    Footnote to Chap 57 (pages 74-75):

    About Lao Tzu ...I don't think he is exactly anti-intellectual, but he considers most uses of the intellect to be pernicious, and all plans for improving things to be disastrous. Yet he's not a pessimist. No pessimist would say that people are able to look after themselves, be just, and prosper on their own. No anarchist can be a pessimist.....

    In this passage Le Guin is clearly identifying Lao Tzu as an anarchist forbear. In both passages there are strong similarities between how taoists and anarchists view power and act in the world. There are many more insightful comments by Ursula Le Guin throughout, and then there are the verses of the Tao Te Ching which Le Guin has presented poetically and very powerfully. Full notes and sources for each chapter are also included at the back of the book.

    In 1996 Le Guin teamed up with Argentinian poet Diana Bellessi and published translations (English/Spanish) of the others poems - The Twins, The Dream. Las Gemelas, El Sueno. It is an interesting attempt to break down some of the cultural and language barriers that divide people.

    Her other recent title (1998): Steering the Craft Subtitled: 'Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew' is a manual on the craft of writing narrative. In this book she shares some of her skills and art as a writer - passing them on, hopefully, to younger generations.

Delving deeper into her background, Ursula Le Guin grew up in an academic and humanistic family. Her father was Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960), a noted American anthropologist, and an accomplished linguist. Her mother was Theodora Kroeber, who was an accomplished writer. Theodora Kroeber wrote a biography : 'Ishi in Two Worlds' - the story of a Californian Indian - the last of his tribe - walking into Western civilization in 1911. It is the story of Ishi and his friendship with Alfred Kroeber, then a Professor and curator at the Museum of Anthropology of the University of California. It is a very powerful story about colonisation from a victim's point of view. In the late 1970s a Hollywood film was made of this book - 'Ishi Last of his Tribe', based on a script by Dalton & Christopher Trumbo and starring Dennis Weaver. It is not the usual sort of western - and it conveys the powerful and sad emotions of the book in peronalising the destruction of an indigenous culture.

Ishi - the story of a Californian Indian - the last of his tribe

From an email to the Ekumen list, December 2002

I have also been interested in the story of Ishi as a background to Ursula Le Guin and her familly.

Ishi never divulged the true name of himself, or any other members of his people.

"Ishi" was not his tribal name, but a word meaning "man" in Yahi. Because of tribal prohibition against using one's own name, Ishi stopped using this word after he realized that others were treating it as his name. (see Theodora Kroeber by Janice Albert)

The biography of Ishi (Ishi in Two Worlds, 1960) was written by Theodora Kroeber, Le Guin's mother, many years after Ishi's death from tuberculosis. Ishi was popularly considered 'the last wild indian in North America' when he stumbled into western civilisation at the limits of fear and exhaustion in 1911. He was to spend the last five years of his life with anthroplogists, Waterman and Alfred Kroeber (Le Guin's father), at the Museum of anthropology in San Fransisco.

Afred Kroeber's interaction and friendship with Ishi occurred 1911-1916, many years before Ursula was born. But Ishi's friendship had a profound impact on Kroeber. In an attempt to stop an autopsy on his friend he wrote: "Science can go to hell. We propose to stand by our friends." Unfortunately this letter was too late and an autopsy was performed and Ishi's brain was removed. Ishi's body was cremated, according to the custom of Ishi's people along with some items treasured by Ishi and to 'sustain' him in his final journey.

After Ishi's death, Kroeber went into psychoanalysis for two years before returning to his work. I believe he was doing some serious soul-searching about the ethics of his work. Even though he went on to become the first great California anthropologist, he never in his lifetime published another word about Ishi, and when he spoke of him it was "with feelings of deep loss". (see MEDIA PORTRAYAL AND ANTHROPOLOGISTS' TREATMENT OF ISHI,THE LAST YAHI by Chris Watson)

Theodora took on the task of researching and writing Ishi's biography in the 1950's, and was able to discuss and correct her work with Alfred Kroeber, although to him much of it was "the stuff of human agony from whose immediacy he could not sufficiently distance himself." Ishi's biography is a very powerful and poignant story about colonisation from a victim's point of view.

I have no idea how much Ursula Le Guin absorbed from the story of Ishi, but certainly her father's work as an anthropologist has given her an ability to question and examine human nature and society, often from several different points of view.

Some References by Theodora Kroeber:

In 1978 a Hollywood television movie was made of Ishi's story - Ishi Last of his Tribe, based on a script by Dalton & Christopher Trumbo (Dalton Trumbo died during the production of the movie) and starring Dennis Weaver. It is not the usual sort of western - and it conveys the powerful and sad emotions of the book in personalising the destruction of an indigenous culture. It is of course a Hollywood dramatisation but scripted with some sensitivity by veteran screen writer Dalton Trumbo: famed for being part of the Hollywood Ten - blacklisted and jailed By the House of Unamerican activities under Senator Joseph McCarthy. The movie is definitley worthwhile seeing. (see a bio of Dalton Trumbo)



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