Sunday, September 27, 2020

Robert Shea on 'The Dispossessed'


[Ursula K. LeGuin's novel, The Dispossessed, won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1993, but only after a long debate over its merits by members of the Libertarian Futurist Society. Robert Shea was one of the members who argued in favor of giving LeGuin the award. 

Thanks the efforts of LFS members such as Chris Hibbert and Anders Monsen, much material originally published in the LFS newsletter is now available online, including Shea's two letters about The Dispossessed. I have Shea's two letters below, but anyone who wants to follow the discussion also can read letters from Jim Stumm and Samuel E. Konkin III, There is also a letter from Joseph Martino, and also an editorial from Victoria Varga. 

I had an earlier post about this which only had one Shea letter. -- The Management.]

Volume 7, Number 2: Spring 1989

Dear Editor,

Jim Stumm's letter about Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed. In the Winter, 1989, Prometheus newsletter is a typical example of a libertarian going on at great length sermonizing other libertarians on their errors and expounding the One True Path to Freedom.

Jim calls The Dispossessed "socialist propaganda." I insist that the society descried by LeGuin is an anarchist, not a socialist, society. The difference between anarchism and socialism is quite simple. Socialist societies maintain their economic systems through coercion. Anarchist societies, whatever their economic arrangements, arrive at them through voluntary agreement.

I don't want to debate Jim on the role of private property in an anarchist society. I'm even inclined to agree with him that pockets of free market activity would probably appear rather quickly in a non-coercive anarchist society initially organized along purely collectivist lines. Where I do want to take issue with him is on his insistence that all awards given by the Libertarian Futurist Society pass his particular ideological purity test.

Jim writes that if The Dispossessed were to win the Hall of Fame award it would indicate to him that the LFS is dominated by people who are not propertarians. He's gotta be kidding. Look at the list of books that have won the Prometheus Award and the Hall of Fame Award already. Look at the persuasively propertarian defense of The Dispossessed put forward by Sam Konkin in the same issue of Prometheus.

Might not a Hall of Fame award to The Dispossessed indicate that a majority of LFS advisory members, unlike Jim, opts for a broad, rather than a narrow, definition of libertarianism?

I don't believe in concealing differences of opinion for the sake of outreach. My own philosophy is not identical with those of Ayn Rand, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Cyril Kornbluth. But I respect all the authors who have received awards from the LFS. I've learned much from their works. I don't expect to agree with them point for point. For that matter my views differ in many respects from those of L. Neil Smith, yet I still feel honored lo have made the speech presenting the Prometheus Award to him for The Probability Broach in 1982.

Let the LFS Hall of Fame consist of a variety of novels. Let newcomers see that the freedom movement is large and generous, providing a home to many differing opinions. Surely the recognition and acceptance of variety of points of view must be one of the first principles of a free society.

I pledge that if The Dispossessed is not selected for the Hall of Fame this year I will not pick up my marbles and go home. I will stick with the LFS and continue to try to persuade it to give The Dispossessed the recognition it deserves. Surely an excellent novel describing the workings of an anarchist society deserves to be considered for the Libertarian Futurist Society's Hall of Fame award.

ls the society described in The Dispossessed an anarchist society? Yes.

Is The Dispossessed an excellent novel? Yes.

I rest my case.

—Robert Shea

Volume 5, Number 4, Fall 1987

Again, The Dispossessed

By Robert Shea

After reading the two commentaries on Ursula Le Gui's The Dispossessed in the Summer 1987 Prometheus, I had to offer my opinion. I was happy to vote for The Dispossessed for the Hall of Fame award this year. I think Le Guin does a remarkably good job of portraying a real live anarchist society.

The objections I've seen to this novel as libertarian science fiction seem to come from people I would call right-wing anarchists—I can think of no more efficient way to describe them—who believe that freedom is impossible without private property. If Le Guin had portrayed everything as hunky-dory in her anarcho-collectivist society their criticisms would be easier to understand, although The Dispossessed would in that case be a flat, banal, propagandist book. But Le Guin's novel is primarily about the things that have gone wrong in this society.

The Odonians, banished to a world where everything is scarce, have managed to create a society that is, in many ways, quite attractive. It is non-violent, nonhierarchical, ascetic, sexually free. But in the generations since it was established, it has ossified. Shevek begins a rebellion against this ossification.

Annares has oppressive institutions, but not because Le Guin fails to understand the nature of freedom. She understands freedom quite well. The Annaresti, in their struggle to survive on an inhospitable planet, came up with solutions that later led to more problems. Le Guin knows that the business of any revolution—perhaps especially and anarchist revolution—is never finished.

Other sf novels advocating anarchism often show the society's problems as stemming from internal subversives. Everything would be just peachy were it not for the small grop of evil people who want to bring back the state. Odonian problems stem from their society itself which makes a far more subtle and profound thought-experiment.

Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which deservedly won LFS's Hall of Fame award, describes a anarchist society on the Moon which many libertarians find attractive. But his more recent The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, returns a few generations later to find it, like Le Guin's Odonian society, plagued by creeping archism. This does not mean that Heinlein's view of freedom is flawed. Like Le Guin he knows that freedom is never won once and for all and there is no perfect blueprint for a free society.

George Orwell pointed out in an essay on Gandhi that in an anarcho-pacifist society people would be subjected the the most pervasive tyranny of he unlimited power all, the unlimited power of collective opinion. Orwell, who created the archetype of tyrannies that rule by force and fraud, might have given us a novel about tyranny by guilt and shame had he developed his insight. What Orwell did not do, Le Guin has done.

The Dispossessed is a cautionary tale for anarchists. The people who hate it remind me of those who want Huckleberry Finn taken off bookshelves because they see it as a sympathetic portrait of a slaveholding society. Because Le Guin shows that life on Annares has its positive side, people who want their fiction to have a simple good vs. evil message are offended.

Le Guin is too fine a writer to appeal to people who insist of taking their propaganda straight. But that's why The Dispossessed deserves a place in LFS's Hall of Fame.

1 comment:

Eric Wagner said...

Thank you for sharing this.