The Dispossessed is a science fiction novel written by Ursula Le Guin. The book has been of interest to anarchists because it explores many themes, including anarchism and revolutionary societies, capitalism and individualism and collectivism.
As we are based in Brisbane I spoke to local anarchist Barbara Hart about the book and the influence it has had in the East Coast of Australia.
Linda: Ursula Le Guin passed away earlier in the year.
Barbara: That’s right, January 22nd I think.
Linda: She was a science fiction writer but also an anarchist.
Barbara: Yeah, well she never actually said openly that she was an anarchist because one of the things I read she said she didn’t know whether she was good enough to come up to that title of being an anarchist you know?
And also she didn’t want to have something pinned on her but all her books like especially are really about anarchist societies, so yeah she was an anarchist but she just didn’t pin that label on herself so she could appeal to lots of different groups I think.
Linda: Yeah, okay. A lot of people have said was a very formative novel for them, and I’m actually reading it at the moment, I’ve been wanting to read it for a few years so I’ve finally gotten around to it. Can you just tell us the story-line?
Barbara: Well I haven’t read it since the 80s but I remember the story-line was about a revolution on Earth, well it doesn’t say Earth they’ve got different names for the planets, and the group almost won but not quite or something, so they were allowed to go to the moon of this planet which is a very barren place, and set up their anarchist society.
The main character that they concentrated on was Shevek, and what they had wanted was to have complete decentralisation but because they were making a lot of the decisions and getting information with computers it just so happened that it was easier to have a central place for that and they realised that this could become a problem because you could get centralisation, and when the book opens the society’s been going for about 170 years or something like that and some of the characters are a bit worried that it’s starting to crystallise, like the old spirit’s not there anymore.
So that’s sort of like the main thesis, like how you keep a revolution fresh, and one of the things that Le Guin believed is that you don’t make a revolution like in the old Marxist sense of “you make a revolution and you know you’ve sort of made it”, it’s an ongoing continuing thing all the time and people have to really believe in the ideals to keep growing, because there’s no end, it’s not an end, revolution isn’t an end it’s a continuing process and this is another thing brought out in the book.
Linda: And the one planet Urras, that’s the planet that’s sort of more capitalistic.
Barbara: Yeah that’s right, it’s just like Earth because the main character does go, and he’s in a group that’s trying to think “How can we refresh the whole thing?” and he goes off to Earth to see if there’s any answers there cause he wants to have an open mind and he just finds it’s exactly like they’d been taught that by the founder, the philosopher who’s sort of like a combination of Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, everything’s based on money and social relationships are sort of hierarchical and eventually he decides he’s gonna go back and he does actually talk at the United Nations and stuff he actually does, he has to escape eventually because he’s talking to people there and he goes back to the moon where the society is and he decides he’s going to try and refresh the whole thing. That’s the basic story outline.
Linda: Yeah what I’ve come up to so far in the book is that he’s on Urras and he’s starting to wonder like where the other part of society is, he’s only seen the sort of rich and-
Linda: Profiteering yeah.
[Music: Autonomy by The Buzzcocks]
You’re on 4ZZZ’s Subversion1312 and you’re listening to an interview I did with Barbara Hart about Ursula Le Guin’s book ‘The Dispossessed’.
[Music: ‘I I want you autonomy‘ fades out]
Linda: You were saying that in Brisbane it informed some books [shops] and anarchist’s movement in Brisbane.
Barbara: Well in Brisbane it was tremendously popular, and especially in the 80s a group of people who were around an anarchist punk group called The Tape Loops and their friends formed a social centre called Anarres which was in the shop front on Baines Street and anyone who knows West End/Highgate Hill knows that shop front in Baines Street. It’s been made into flats now but it was a whole shop front they had a garden there and they used to have music there and it lasted probably a little over a year and the other initiative was a person who had been involved with the beginning of Jura Books and Black Rose Books in Sydney moved to Melbourne in the early 90s and he set up a postal book service you know you could actually ask him for a book look at the list of books he had and you’d pay him and he’d sent them to you… so like of anarchist books and he called that book service Anarres as well
And he’s got a web page which is named after one of the characters in Anarres and it’s a minor character Takver and he said he picked that character rather than Shevek the main character because he wanted to show and give honour to the ordinary people in that book who were really idealistic and really fighting for what they believed in so that’s why he named the book .. sorry his webpage after Takver and on this webpage he has lots of anarchist history from the 70s in Sydney and Melbourne. And so that lasted for about 15 years until about 2009 and then he… his first name is John, he would have been close to 60 then … he passed the service on to a group of younger people who wanted to take it over and put some energy into it so it’s still going er.. Er…
Linda: And he’s still writing as well …
Barbara: That’s right he’s still writing he’s very much into environmental issues yeah and he really said it was one of the major inspirations of his political life that book so …
I think think a lot of people found it like that….. cause it’s actually a story a story about with the ideals of anarchism in like the sorts of people like Kropotkin but how many people have read those books from the 19th century but you put it in a story it’s much more accessible and also it shows shows it’s not like pie in the sky you know everything is going to be rosy it actually shows the problems you would have with an anarchist society and it shows that people aren’t perfect…… but it shows ways that anarchists would try to solve any problems that arose… so it’s actually interesting it looks at an anarchist society with warts and all.
Transcript by Max Murphy.