Ursula Le Guin Made Me an Anarchist
by Meg Sri, via feministing
Late yesterday night, heartbreaking news broke out: beloved, pathbreaking and unapologetically feminist science fiction writer, Ursula Le Guin, passed away at age 88.
Le Guin was an author who meant many things to many people. She was, primarily, a storyteller: a weaver of rich and intricate worlds replete with dragons and wizardry and oceans and magical gifts and planets and space and conflict. She wrote prolifically, for all audiences: she was an author of short stories, children’s books, young adult books, science fiction, nonfiction, poetry and essays. Readers have described her as folding everything into her writing: poetry, wisdom, sadness, satisfaction, fantasy, realism. She spun worlds that were timeless not only in their breathtaking, intricate details, but worlds that were rich in their complex view of humanity and our relationships with each other, questioning through their portrayal of places other than Earth what it meant to live on it.
Le Guin was also a feminist and reflected this in both her writing and her spunky, fearless rejoinders to the largely male and patriarchal science fiction community. She pushed her way into the boys club of science fiction and then told it off: she asked men here to “consider idly, in some spare moment, whether by any chance they’ve been building any walls to keep the women out, or to keep them in their place, and what they may have lost by doing so.” She wrote powerfully, and inspirationally, to women, encouraging them to find for themselves a power and identity apart from male ideas of power and prestige: her 1986 commencement address to Bryn Mawr students is one of the most electrifying feminist graduation rallying cries ever written.
For me, however, Le Guin represented something quite apart from great, memorable literature. She represented something that was meant even more than her unapologetic and outspoken feminism. During my sophomore year of university, picking up The Dispossessed on the recommendation of a favorite professor, Ursula Le Guin’s work was the genesis of my political awakening.
The Dispossessed isn’t often top of the list of Le Guin’s works – Left Hand of Darkness and The Earthsea Trilogy are better known — but to me, grappling with contrasting theories of liberalism, post-structuralism, Marxism and post-colonialism like any lost liberal arts college nerd, it was the simplest dissection of power I had ever seen on display. Le Guin constructed a feminist, radical utopia where selfishness was literally unthinkable and inarticulable, and where community solidarity helps the people of Anarres build a habitable community on a barren moon. Le Guin brought alive the anarchist traditions of philosophers like Piotr Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin in a way only a masterful storyteller could: in a narrative that illustrated daringly a functioning world without properties, hierarchy or law; that teased out the sweat and sacrifices of syndicalist politics; that portrayed the aching glories of worlds with equality, between the sexes, races, and classes; and that brought home sharply how even the grammar we used to talk to each other could help or hinder our attempts to see ourselves as together or apart. A character on Urras, the capitalist contrast in The Dispossessed, says to the novel’s protagonist words I have often wanted to say to Le Guin: “To know that it exists, to know that there is a society without government, without police, without economic exploitation, that they can never say again that it’s just a mirage, an idealist’s dream!”
But what’s truly revolutionary about The Dispossessed is that it is anarchist not just in content, but in form. Le Guin wouldn’t have been a good anticapitalist if she was trying to sell something to the reader. Instead, The Dispossessed explored what it meant to believe in anarchism without using propaganda. Le Guin was political, but she was also an artist: her job was to render for us “a landscape of the imagination which we can inhabit and return to;” to allow us to dare imagine a world radically different from our own. The book is quite deliberately titled “an ambiguous utopia:” Le Guin wanted to empower us to embrace both utopia and conflict at once; to have a vision of a better political future, but not be afraid to question ourselves in the process; to speak truth to power, but to interrogate ourselves about who we silenced in our own movement; to upturn our current reality, but to be aware of the stakes of it. At a time of intense warring within the left; a time of calls to sacrifice one aspect of our identities for another; at a time when we believe we can’t fight racism, capitalism, and sexism all at once, Le Guin comes back often to remind me that we can have it all, if we are willing to confront ourselves constantly in the process.
Le Guin once told us that “we read books to find out who we are,” and that’s what The Dispossessed did for me: it helped shape my personal and political existence. No other text I’ve read since on anarchism — and I’ve read enough to have written an undergraduate dissertation on it — has taught me anything more about it as a movement, politics, philosophy or vision than The Dispossessed has. Nothing has better illustrated to me anarchism as a form of writing and a form of imagining itself; an ethos that goes beyond a simplistic political vision.
Rest in power, Ursula Le Guin. In the Dispossessed, you reminded us: “You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.” Thank you for showing nineteen year old me — and countless others — how to embody the spirit of that revolution.