Anti-capitalist and feminist writer Ursula K. Le Guin passed away on 22 January, aged 88.
Le Guin primarily wrote science fiction and fantasy but, not wishing to be discussed in narrowly restrictive (and often implicitly depreciative) genre terms, wished simply to be known as an “American novelist.”
In books such as The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Word For World is Forest, Le Guin explored huge political themes: revolution, anarchism, life in a communist society, gender, sexuality, religion, colonialism, environmentalism and more.
One of Le Guin’s most valuable contributions was to use her imagined worlds to relativise and thereby destabilise our common sense understanding of our own society, its social relations, and its manifold oppressions.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, for instance, Le Guin consciously constructed a “thought-experiment” in which characters are born without a fixed sex, in order to explore the role of sex and gender in human social relations.
The Dispossessed takes as its theme the existence of two inhabited worlds. One, Urras, is divided into multiple rival states (including an ultra-capitalist, resource-rich and hugely unequal state, and a Stalinist-type state).
The other, the largely barren planet, Annares, is the result of a failed anarcho-syndicalist revolution on Urras. The revolutionaries were then exiled but permitted to construct their ideal society in relative isolation, in the face of overwhelming physical and social barriers.
Though sympathetic to Kropotkin’s ideas of mutual aid, Le Guin’s portrayal of Anarres as “ambiguously good” could serve as a caution to the utopian project of constructing a socialist society off to the side of capitalism, rather than building on its material resources.
As the above suggests, one implication of Le Guin’s work, fundamental to any operative communist politics, is that existing social relations are neither eternal nor permanent. Societies can be organised and re-organised in many ways. Le Guin’s work offers the possibility, therefore, that we can transcend the current state of things, by means of fundamental social change.
Or, as Le Guin put it herself, in her 2014 speech at the National Book Awards:
“Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”