If the humble reader is anything like me than that means you love dystopias. You love seeing how something can be taken so far from its original purpose and ruin everything for everyone. (*cough*capitalism*cough*) I would also wager that many of my readers come from the west of the world and that means you’ve grown up reading or hearing about dystopias set under “socialistic” governments: the classic “1984”, the insufferable “Atlas Shrugged”, “The Giver”, etc. The point is that socialism, just like capitalism or democracy or absolutism can fall victim to sin and be ruined in every single way. I plan on reviewing 1984 in the future as a guide for how not to run a socialist government and what to keep watch for, but that’s a ways away.
How about the story that directly influenced George Orwell? “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin was first published in 1921 in direct response to the author’s experience during both of Russia’s revolutions in the early twentieth century. The story follows the mathematician D-503 and his life in the One State, an oppressive state that arose from the ashes of warfare. The One State is a perfectly ordered society where no one has a name, only a letter and number, everyone has a job that they naturally drift to, food is plentiful (if only in a fuel type paste) privacy is a long dead relic and everyone submits to a man called The Benefactor. These are all tropes that have become synonymous with dystopias. You got an all powerful state that tramples on the rights of everyone and a plucky lead. It’s a decent book and worth a read alone for its place in history as one of the first modern dystopias.
Ruining the story is not why we’re here however. How can this book help socialists achieve their ends?
As the title suggests, individuality is completely repressed in The One State. Every man has a consonant and an odd number while every woman has a vowel and an even number. Something as basic as a name has been crushed. This is best exemplified in how sex is treated in the novel: Chiefly that everyone belongs to everyone else, if you want to have sex with someone just order the ticket up and meet up at the same time. For example: D-503 has feelings for 0-90, a pleasant if stupid girl, but so does his comrade R-13. They share her, “O glanced at R, and then turned her round, clear haze on me…’But today…today I have…a ticket for him,’ she said, nodding toward R” (Zamyatin, 41).
Our protagonist shows signs of jealously, but those are quickly quashed by his devotion to sharing and submission to the state. In fact, D-503 spends a few pages early in the text explaining how asinine early cultures were for allowing freedom in picking and choosing our sexual partners as well as allowing freedom at all. He refers to it as “disorganized wildness”.
This repression of the individual in every single way plays the whole way through the text. There is no privacy: everyone lives next to one another in clear rooms so everyone can see one another with the exception during Sex Days where blinds are pulled down. Everyone follows the same hourly schedule so everyone goes to sleep at the same time, starts work at the same time, eats, etc.
It goes without saying then that possessions also do not belong to any one person.
This sameness in everyone is something communists fight against of course. Che Guevara spent a good bulk of Socialism and Man in Cuba talking about the importance of the individual to the whole as well as the whole to the one. Why would we spend our time fighting repression of liberty and character only to do it ourselves to those who aided us and those we fought for?
Capitalism, usually the advocate of individuality, forces people to work, forces them to turn into a commodity and produce goods to survive. This destruction of individuality is usually trumpeted by the free-market lackeys as one of the best things about their flawed system, but they fail to see or acknowledge the repression of character that occurs when a man cannot find work and goes homeless through no fault his own or in the students forced into more expensive schooling merely to stay competitive.
“We” is important for us socialists as it shows how horrible a society, no matter how comfortable everyone lives, can be when everyone lacks personality or is in constant torment because they repress themselves. We must not accept a comfortable existence if that means man cannot express himself.
Another important facet of The One State is submission to The Benefactor. Think of him like Big Brother in 1984 or the cult of personality built around dictators throughout history. What’s important to us socialists is that we do not have heroes in the traditional sense. We read and, potentially, agree with Trotsky or Castro or Ho Chi Minh or who-have-you, but we do not worship them as heroes. When you see statues of Lenin do not feel humbled or inspired—feel disgusted at it. Stuff like that puts distance between the communists and the workers. We are one and the same.
Lenin himself despised hero worship. It’s why, even though he was the “leader” of the Politburo there were still other members who openly disagreed with him on important issues. Trotsky himself argued with Lenin very openly about the ill-fated invasion of Poland. Socialists have men we respect, not heroes we put on pedestals. You can argue with men, not with heroes.
Never fall into dogmatic worship of anyone or anything they say.
I could go on further, but that would risk spoiling the story. The two big themes to take away from “We” include: Individuality is important for socialists (hell, anyone for matter) and that dogmatic worship of anybody is simply foolish and contrary to our aims.