Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written in 1921, is the ur-dystopia of all modern dystopias. True, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, both of which this book influenced, get more attention today. In fact, it is nearly a cliché, at least on the Right, that we are heading to some combination of the two, the only question being which our future society will resemble more, if we do not first overthrow the lords of the present age. That is as it may be, but Zamyatin’s novel offers a third future, certainly a future more to the liking of today’s ruling class than either of those other futures. And, crucially, its story ends with a lesson lacking in those other books, even though that lesson is, it appears, universally ignored by those who discuss this book.
I warn you now, this entire review is one big spoiler. We is written as a journal of sorts, the stream of consciousness of a man named D-503. He is a mathematician and the Chief Engineer of a spaceship, named INTEGRAL, being prepared for imminent launch to explore Venus, Mars, and beyond. D-503 is a citizen of OneState, under the absolute rule of, apparently, one man, the Benefactor. D-503, along with other members of the citizenry, has been ordered by the Benefactor to create intellectual cargo for INTEGRAL, to be delivered to inhabitants of other planets in order to propagate the ideology of OneState. He decides to simply record what he sees around him, because what he sees is the “mathematically perfect life of OneState.” To speak of it is to herald its perfection. But D-503’s journal turns out to be, without his intent, a journal of his awakening.
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Why does D-503 consider OneState perfect? It is the twenty-sixth century; OneState is two hundred years old, and followed two hundred years of war that killed the vast majority of Earth’s population. OneState is a single city, surrounded by an impenetrable glass wall, the Green Wall. All construction within is also of glass, both a technological achievement and a means of ensuring every citizen may be observed. Nobody ever goes beyond the Green Wall—not because the wilderness is a blasted wasteland, but rather because it is the opposite, an area of uncontrolled growth, a riot of plants and animals.
It is not random that D-503’s rocket is named INTEGRAL. The theme of calculus is shot through this book, and the purpose of the rocket is to “integrate the indefinite equation of the universe”—that is, to subject the rest of the universe to the perfection that is OneState, to turn the natural curves of the universe into the straight line and finite quantity of OneState. It will be, for those unknown peoples in space, “the fiery Tamerlane of happiness.”
OneState aims to order the life of man rationally, in contrast to the disordered irrationality of past ages, that led to war, disease, and suchlike unclean and inefficient happenings. The ideology of OneState is not Communism, or any other modern ideology that actually gained traction in real life. We should remember that Zamyatin wrote in the early days of Bolshevism, and before any example existed of the modern cult of personality. Thus, not only is this book not an attack on Communism, the Benefactor is not an analog of Stalin or other Communist big men. He is not even an absolute ruler, but simply the manifestation of the ruling class that has created and maintained this supposed utopia. Who the others at the top are, how they live, and how power is handed onward, is unclear. It doesn’t matter; what matters is the ideology of OneState, and what that does to the minds and lives of the mass of citizens.
The ideology of OneState is Taylorism, or rather the perfectibility of man through Taylorism, the achievement of his total happiness through a total loss of freedom. Frederick Winslow Taylor, who died in 1915, was, of course, the apostle of efficiency engineering—the breakdown of industrial tasks into smaller tasks and an obsessive focus on completing each such task as efficiently as possible, that is in minimum time with minimum labor. (Very strangely, a translator’s footnote says that the Taylor constantly mentioned in the book was “long thought to be” an obscure early eighteenth-century British mathematician, Brook Taylor, who worked with calculus. How that mistake could be made is beyond me, even with the frequent references to mathematics in the book.) Taylor’s “motions per second” are the underpinning of the Table of Hours, which for each citizen, each Number, is a breakdown of what he is to be doing at any given moment throughout the day, down to “fifty statutory chews of each mouthful.” The story sold by OneState to the citizens, as the narrator tries to remind himself as the truth dawns on him, is that because of the reduction of all action to pure rationality, “the gods have become like us—ergo, we’ve become like gods.” This fake theosis is what the ruling class of OneState offers the regimented citizenry.
Conformity to the Table of Hours is enforced by the secret police, the Guardians. They are needed because not all is as perfect as it seems. In fact, public executions for crimes against the state are common, for such crimes as writing a poem that criticizes the Benefactor. Such executions are a public religious ritual, a type of Girardian scapegoating. Zamyatin describes one, conducted as always through dematerialization by the Benefactor’s Machine. He explicitly analogizes it to the ancients’ “divine service” and the Benefactor to a high priest, who “slowly passed through the stands—in His wake were gentle white female hands raised aloft like branches and a million hosannas in unison,” with the invisible (to the populace) Guardians standing in as angels.
The government’s control over the minutes of citizens’ lives is subject to only one limit: two hours in the day when citizens have Personal Hours, and can occupy their time with what they please, within strict limits, naturally. This highlights the interesting separation between the ideology of OneState and that of Communism, or more broadly the ideology of the Left, of which Communism is merely one branch. Left ideologies desire to control the thought of the people; this is what Orwell got right. To that end they use many tools, among the most important of which are the mutilation of language and the perversion of justice. But even as their thoughts are constrained, citizens can spend their time largely as they please, the opposite of OneState. As Orwell pointed out, in a review before he published 1984, in which both thoughts and actions are regimented, Zamyatin offers a much more realistic dystopia than Brave New World, which would in practice immediately collapse of ennui and enervation. Here, the citizenry has a feeling, even if wholly artificially inculcated, of meaning, unity, and accomplishment, which can continue indefinitely—until the spell is broken.
We should remember that in 1921, all elite opinion, or at least that found in decent circles, West or East, assumed the scientific perfectibility of man, and that is still a core belief of the Left. (This was one reason the Bolsheviks were treated as serious thinkers; there was some small excuse for reasonable people thinking that at the time.) Still, the idea of regimentation under total government control has always seemed undesirable to most of us in the West; that’s why We has always been thought of as a dystopia. Liberty, or now libertinism, sells better. Or at least it did until 2020, when our own governments reacted to the very modest problem of the Wuhan Plague with a grab for total control, aided and abetted by large swathes of the population, ants who were suddenly revealed as eager for safety and the comfort of being regimented.
As I have noted before, there is something in human nature, and in particular in those who climb the greasy pole of political power, that loves an unfettered ability to minutely control others—but they need an excuse to get the people to swallow it, and usually the excuse fails to convince the populace (as was the case with global warming alarmism). Rarely does the populace cooperate, but when they do, climbing back out is not allowed, as we see all over the West today. The desire for control is not purely a Left impulse, to be sure, although because extreme control is needed to allow rule while denying reality, as the Left inherently does, it is necessarily a very prominent trait among all Left regimes. But maybe, if there were any Right regimes, it might be evident there as well. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, generally center-right and reality-based, has implemented an extremely strict plague regime, which surprises me, and is something I cannot understand, but perhaps this is the answer. After all, virtuous regimes that enforce limited government reach are not thick on the ground of modern history.
Despite the best efforts of the ruling class, peeking through the Taylorized life of OneState are human emotions such as jealousy, and the desire of the woman sexually “assigned” (non-exclusively) to D-503 to have a child, forbidden to her because she is short, and eugenics demands she meet the Maternal Norm for height to be allowed to reproduce. D-503 largely lacks the vocabulary or thought patterns to identify emotions, however, making such things, and any non-rational human behavior generally, an irritation to him, because they are something unquantifiable and therefore disturbing. But, as happens, he falls in love, another emotion that has been supposedly Taylorized out of existence. The object of his love is I-330, a mysterious woman he meets, whose public behavior skirts the boundaries of acceptability, and whose private behavior, smoking and drinking and talking treason, goes far beyond it. The meeting is not coincidental; she has targeted him, because she is a leader of a group desiring the overthrow of OneState, the Mephi, and he is the operational leader of INTEGRAL, which they wish to hijack.
No surprise, falling in love troubles D-503, who cannot understand what is happening to him. When I-330 fails to follow the Table, he knows he should report her to the Guardians, but finds excuses to not do so. He logically concludes that he is sick. This sickness is not just his newly discovered romantic feelings, but all his newly discovered emotions and unbidden thoughts, slowly morphing into the realization that he has been lied to his entire life—a realization against which he struggles mightily. He intermittently tries to retreat into the linear realities of mathematics, which he has always believed are the same realities as those offered by OneState—but even there, reality pursues him.
As he descends into what feels like madness, but is really coming awake, D-503 realizes that the conspiracy of the Mephi is broad, and extends through tunnels to outside the Green Wall, where live wild, fur-covered humans. It even extends to within the Guardians, perhaps. He also realizes that I-330 is, if not wholly using him, at least partially using him. But he doesn’t care. Tension rises in the city as the Mephi begin to move—a mini-riot ensues when a marching citizen (they all march in unison as a matter of course) breaks ranks to try to free a prisoner of the Guardians he sees on the street. The newspapers start to make strange statements: “Reliable sources report the discovery once again of signs pointing to an elusive organization whose goal is liberation from the beneficent yoke of the State.” Then comes the annual Day of Unanimity, where the Benefactor is reelected by the assembled populace, the “We” of the title, who vote publicly to show their devotion. He descends from the sky, explicitly a divine figure—and when the pro forma question is asked who votes “No” to his reelection, thousands of hands are raised, instantly casting the city into chaos, as the Guardians pursue those who have dared defy the power of OneState.
The city is, to a small degree, as the organs of OneState retreat, left free. Yet for every action, a reaction, and only a fool ignores this truth in his battles. The powers of OneState announce “Rejoice! For henceforth you are perfect!” In what way? In that every person is to complete the transition to a machine of flesh, through an operation to burn out the “imagination”—meaning independence of thought, including emotion. (This being allegory, we can ignore that turning a person into a calculating machine might very well result in him calculating that the overthrow of the Benefactor made mathematical sense, even for a purely rational actor.)
Perhaps surprising the ruling class, the Operation is greeted with widespread opposition from the populace at large. Wildfire, disorganized resistance arises. Meanwhile, the Mephi implement their plan to seize INTEGRAL—which is thwarted by the Guardians, who had caught wind of the plan. No matter—fighting spreads in the City, and the Mephi smash through the Wall, something thought impossible, letting in the wild outside, heralded by the appearance of birds of prey in the air. Free men skirmish with Guardians and “postoperatives,” bringing up light arms and then heavy weapons; D-503 perceives his civilization collapsing.
Or does he? The last pages are written deadpan again, without the strained emotion characterizing those immediately before; D-503 has been seized and subjected to the Operation. He then gladly, or rather without emotion, betrays what he knows of the Mephi. I-303 and her compatriots have been tortured and are to be executed the next day. But why tomorrow? Because OneState actually is collapsing. The executions “can’t be put off, because in the western quarters there is still chaos, roaring, corpses, animals, and, unfortunately, quite a lot of Numbers who have betrayed reason. But on Fortieth Avenue, which runs crosstown, they’ve managed to build a temporary wall of high-voltage wires. And I hope we’ll win. More—I’m certain we’ll win. Because reason has to win.”
But of course, reason, with its ever-fluid meaning in the modern world, doesn’t have to win. Reality has to win, and that final sentence reveals the truth—OneState is doomed. D-503’s journal is a narration, though he never realizes it, of the inevitable reimposition of reality. Reality cannot be made to conform to calculation; this is the flaw in all ideologies that purport to perfect mankind, because reality always returns, whatever its opposition. The revolt of the citizens of OneState could, for example, be an allegory of the January 2021 Electoral Justice Protest (which, I just noticed, took place nearly one hundred years to the day after this book was written). The parallels between this book and that event are not coincidental; they are the nature of resistance to the loathsome tyrannies of the modern age, which resistance will always rise in a recognizable shape.
As I say, Zamyatin’s book has of late started receiving more mention on the Right, as intellectuals on the Right try to understand the present moment. Yet they ignore the crucial lesson of the book—that OneState is tottering and about to fall, not because of an inspiring book or pithy article, but because the Green Wall has been breached with explosives, corpses litter the street, and the Guardians have been reduced to cobbling together makeshift barriers to the advance of militia forces. Our Right intellectuals ignore that the road back to reality when oppressed by a pernicious ideology, forward to renewal, is always steeped in blood, because ideologues never give up their power voluntarily. He who denies this lies to himself. Once all men knew this; they will be reminded of it, to their sorrow and pain.
Those on the Right who wail about the coming dystopia, whatever brand they forecast, are entirely right that we have already long passed the foothills of dystopia, though its shape remains to be revealed precisely. But most refuse to countenance that the Mephi are right, and they are wrong, with their Benedict Options and grey-man passivism. In a passage that some say was the cause of Zamyatin being exiled by the Bolsheviks, even though his book was not published in Russia until 1988, I-330 says just as infinity dictates there can be no final number, then “how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one. The number of revolutions is infinite. The last one—that’s for children.” So it is.
What does that imply for us? Does it imply that we should join whatever the equivalent of today’s Mephi is? Not necessarily—though not because things aren’t that bad. On the contrary, they are that bad. Our current state is fully as evil as OneState (with our internet standing in for their ubiquitous glass). It offers less Taylorism, and more of an even fouler tyranny of false emancipation and forced egalitarianism, combined with sedation through catering to each citizen’s emotions and base desires, as long as those emotions and desires are approved ones. These are distinctions without a difference; the control sought by our rulers is the same as the rulers of OneState, as is their behavior. Just ask Derek Chauvin, this week sacrificed in a Left religious ritual, a parody of justice, on our equivalent of the Benefactor’s Machine.
To be clear—our current American state is entirely illegitimate and a criminal organization; it has no moral claim on our loyalty, and actively working for its complete destruction is wholly morally justified, that our children may live decently. Paradoxically, however, the reason it now makes little sense to form or join our own Mephi is because our Brawndo Tyranny is far more fragile than the state Zamyatin portrays. Unlike the Benefactor and his myrmidons, our overlords are incompetent idiots, disunited, fragile, stupid, and cowardly. Perhaps that means they could be pushed over the easier, but cornered rats fight, and why pay the cost if not needed? We can be sure they will begin to fracture of their own accord, or under the pressure of external events, at which point the equivalent of the Mephi will be much more effective, though no doubt the types of costs borne by our Mephi, even then, will be the same as those borne by Zamyatin’s. It is in denying that the Mephi are ever necessary that the error lies, not in refusing to build the Mephi now.
To be sure, this is the easier and safer course, and lays the proponent open to the charge of dissimulating, trying to avoid risk while talking big. Perhaps this is a fair charge. Time will tell, and not much time, either.
Amazing! It’s wonderful to see that you’re reviewing literary fiction as well, Charles. I’ve read a good number of Russian novels, but somehow never gotten around to this one, though of course I’ve heard a great deal about the author and the work in question.
How do you see the current COVID-19 situation fitting into the creeping totalitarian system in the US and elsewhere? A year ago, I thought it was just another historical bump; I assumed people would eventually come to their senses and “normal life” would resume. Increasingly, this doesn’t look to be the case. “The science” has taken on the contours of a religion, and health protocols look ever more like religious rituals. The hubristic attempt to control nature by trying to eradicate a respiratory virus that has no intention of being eradicated, and the accompanying digitalization of people (admittedly, it predates the pandemic, but there’s no doubt the pandemic will intensify the process), is also similar to what you describe in the review. The vaccine might well become the “new mask”. I don’t see how the unvaccinated will be able to fly internationally, and it is possible that, in some jurisdictions, other restrictions will apply. If you can’t enter a restaurant or a concert hall without a vaccination passport, we cannot seriously talk of normal life as we know it. The response to the pandemic seems to be less than a bump than a seminal event that will shape a new reality.
I’d be interested in your thoughts.
I haven’t read the review yet (sorry), but I’m curious about the claim that this is the “original” and “oldest” dystopia (both from the notes on the podcast version). Would you not count something like “The Machine Stops” (1909) because it is a short story without all of the social details? How about “The Iron Heel” by London (which has some triumphalist socialism added in)?
A fair point; I meant in the broader context of what I say in the review, which ties it to the range of modern ideological utopias.
Wasn’t really meant as a criticism; just a question. I have often recommended “The Machine Stops.” It is short and i think prescient, especially considering how early it is. Also, for a Jack London story that he intended as a utopia, but reads to me as a dystopia try “Goliah.”
It is similar to painting actually. We study principles such as composition and balance that explain how to efficiently arrive at a good painting, but the final decisions should always be left to the eye. Mistakes happen when we prioritize formulas over the common sense of what looks/feels right. Even if the general principles are mostly correct, they are a tool, and not the end in themselves. What tends to happen, especially when we lack experience, is that we only do what we can explain, so we revert to ready-made formulas that fail to take enough things into account. The failure gets blamed on reality instead of our poor understanding of reality, so we double down and attack reality instead of fixing our theory to conform to the facts. The consumerist lifestyle is because economics defines efficiency in a certain way. All the externalities that should get factored in are hard to define so they get ignored, even though they make perfect sense when we look at the bigger picture. If dystopian ideologies were honest, they would see that they are using rationalism to justify their biases like desire for control which stem from not living correctly. They pump out low-level arguments which are coherent enough to convince themselves and others into going along with increasingly unnatural forms of society. I like to show people photos from the 1800s and old test questions from a hundred years ago to shock them out of tunnel vision.
I wondered if we could push back on one of the comments you made in the “lessons” part of the review:
Our Right intellectuals ignore that the road back to reality when oppressed by a pernicious ideology, forward to renewal, is always steeped in blood, because ideologues never give up their power voluntarily. He who denies this lies to himself. Once all men knew this; they will be reminded of it, to their sorrow and pain.
Couldn’t we use the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Napoleon as two examples of the left peacefully disintegrating and being replaced with a regime farther to the right? I would also argue that the various right-wing coups in third-world countries of the mid to late 20th century (Pinochet, Batista) were relatively bloodless. In those cases they were not completely without violence, but there was no widespread civil war.
We could also go further back in history and point out the white restoration in England,
In fact, it appears to me that the most common “right-wing” changes of power have the sense of coup or bloodless transfer of power when the ruling regime starts to fall apart or become so incompetent that any change is seen as a good thing.
In terms of civil wars, I think there are basically two kinds:
1. Ones where the regime was already largely right-wing and the ruling authorities win and suppress the attempted left takeover. (Finland and Spain)
2. Ones where the ruling regime was right-wing and the revolutionaries win and establish a left-wing government. (Any number of them)
I am hard-pressed to think of any new regime that came out of a war that wasn’t farther to the left than the regime it replaces.
I will admit, Spain is sort of an oddball case because it seems like the war happened kind of as the left was taking over the government. But my impression is that Franco was not an outsider and the side he represented was not entirely out of power by the time the war began.
Therefore, I would say that the thing that all successful right-wing coups and takeovers have in common is that they involved some sort of parallel power-structure that had an internal sense of legitimacy that wholesale replaced the government. That’s probably why military coups are the most common version of this.
I don’t think a military coup is possible in the United States, nor do I think the “insurrection” had any hope of victory even if Trump had come out and marched along with them into the capital building. (Even assuming that was what was intended, which i don’t think is really true.)
What is lacking in America is any alternative structures with any legitimacy. Modernity has caused a heck of a lot of isolation, and whether it was intentional or not, the fragmenting of all authority structures aside from the state has proceeded quite a ways.
My thought is that what is required is some sort of organization apart from the state that will gain some kind of legitimacy. It doesn’t have to be political or religious, but it does need to be competent. That way, when the opportunity arises and the organization takes over, people are happy to let it do so because it is seen as a “real” organization that can actually get things done.
Frankly, though Bezos makes me ill with much of what he says and does, Amazon is an organization that has both legitimacy and competence. I suspect that if Amazon decided to just run the government for us, I think a lot of us would be quite happy to have them do so. It wouldn’t be my preference for a government, but I’d take it in a moment over the clown show we have right now. Maybe Elon Musk might be able to pull something like that off too, but while he’s a more interesting figurehead, he doesn’t have nearly the organizational competence of Amazon.
But if a regime is going to be born from some hitherto unknown group, that group has got to have some serious organizational chops and had better start now. I’ve got some thoughts on a platform for organizing it, (since I’m a software enginer), but it will take more than the software. We need the people. I have some thoughts on that too, but this is probably too long a comment already.
“I suspect that if Amazon decided to just run the government for us, I think a lot of us would be quite happy to have them do so. It wouldn’t be my preference for a government, but I’d take it in a moment over the clown show we have right now.”
I suspect that the tremendous power of Amazon is one of the reasons why there is a clown show in the first place. Huge corporations such as Amazon have an interest in the continuation of the clown show. Naturally, governments and the people who lead them should be effective managers. A government must always be competent. If it isn’t, it doesn’t justify its existence. I am not entirely sure that these IT behemoths, given their aspirations and business models, are the cure. My $0.02
An alternative idea would be to see an existing government (city, state, county) become autonomous. It likely couldn’t happen right now, but after some more disintegration on the national level, we might see a “free city” phenomenon occur.
While I definitely agree that the left would try very hard to destroy any such thing if it were a right-aligned outfit, honestly I don’t think they have the competence or commitment to stamp it out via military force.
Let me use an example from Covid-stan. Florida has resolutely ignored a lot of the federal mandates regarding masks and business closure. The media has gone psychotic about it, but nothing has happened. They’ve slandered and lied and exaggerated, but it just gets ignored. If a state government were just to flatly refuse to acknowledge the national government’s authority on a subject, I’d be surprised if they really went so far as to send in the military.
That same rule does NOT apply to a protest movement or some kind of populist uprising. Those are easy to break and are only tolerated if they are left-wing. We’re more likely to see Tienanmen Square or Kent State if a group of right-aligned individuals actually started marching for rebellion.
Actually Georgia probably shows the best example of what is likely to happen if a government of a locality decided to buck the system. Corporations will use essentially economic sanctions to try and put pressure on the government to change. Money will be withheld.
But a competent enough government with a healthy economy not based on multi-national corporations could probably weather that storm. Add to that that there is a likelihood that if the region really offered any substantive difference, its likely many right-aligned people from around the country would start flooding there. Conservative press, such as it is, would likely start talking it up.
@Eugene, oh they are definitely not the cure. I didn’t mean to imply that they would do it, or have any interest in doing it. I just meant that if some organization that had proven their ability to make promises and deliver on them came up and said “Hey we’ve got a plan to fix this insanity”, people would jump at the chance.
Reading Theodore Dalrymple’s work, it’s pretty hard to overstate just how awful society is for so many people. That’s not entirely the government’s fault, but its also not entirely not the government’s fault. Just getting a handle on crime in such a way that we could go to roughly 1900-level crime and imprisonment would be a win so incredible as to defy imagination.
“Reading Theodore Dalrymple’s work”
Much of Dalrymple’s work is how the daily self-defeating knee-jerk decisions of the underclass is considered mainstream popular culture and accepted as the norm of the average Western citizen.
The main thrust of his books and articles is how no one holds themselves to a high standard of behavior, or that no one longs for a refined way of living, and that nobody takes quiet pride in their comportment. Instead it’s throwing trash at your feet while you’re waiting for the bus, or yelling slurs and using loud coarse language on a crowded train carriage. Doing everything in life because of how you feel in the moment is now the televised and broadcast norm. There is no reflection, critical thinking, or rational basis for how the average person conducts themself in public. And — this — in spite of everyone carrying video recording devices we mistakenly call ‘mobile phones’.
However, it take courage to separate yourself from the crowd and lead by example in lieu of getting those less aware or those with extremely limited perceptions to raise their own standards.
But there remains the cliche of you-know-what being its own reward.
I see what you mean, and I don’t disagree with your assessment. But of course, any such organization would have to be able to transcend the present divisions and appeal to both Americas. My point turns on my wariness of the conflation of business entities and government.
Also, in your original comment, you suggested that the breakup of the Soviet Union could be used as an example of “the left peacefully disintegrating and being replaced with a regime farther to the right”. I don’t mean to be pedantic, but perhaps I could share my own, somewhat different, perspective with you. In what is a twofold argument, I would say that USSR did not disintegrate peacefully, and that it was not replaced with a regime farther to the right.
The demise of the USSR was peaceful in the sense that there was no apparent widespread violence. However, the breakup of the country left both Russia and the newfangled post-Soviet countries in an unstable and precarious situation. Outside of Russia, millions of ethnic Russians woke up to find themselves foreigners in countries they had previously thought to be their home. These ethnic Russians were effectively abandoned by Moscow to fend for themselves – in fledgling states that were now ready to assert their own national identities and were not necessarily friendly to those who they now considered to be foreigners (I am thinking especially of the Baltic states and Central Asia). Inside Russia, one found a country on the brink of lawlessness and anarchy. The ensuing Yeltsin years – the regime that replaced the Soviet Union, which was actually not much of a regime if one uses the textbook definition of the term – are best remembered for their corruption and kleptocracy (things were so bad that the average life expectancy for men even dipped below sixty for a while). One might either speak of this post-Soviet Russia as a place of myriad ideologies competing in a country that, ideologically, was cast adrift; or as a country with no ideology at all. I am not sure which of the two is more appropriate; perhaps they both are.
The dissolution of the USSR left a lot of festering wounds, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 – a complex conflict, as such conflicts invariably tend to be – is a result of these festering wounds. The breakup of the Soviet Union was certainly not like the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (or its subsequent “Velvet Divorce”).
One could argue that Putin, when he came to power, eventually steered the country to the right, but even here caution is warranted. It did not happen immediately, and Putin’s ideology was rather fluid in the early years of his presidency. I would also be more prudent in using the traditional left-right political spectrum in this case. The Soviet Union can be considered a leftist state in the sense that the government owned the means of production, but in terms of social mores, it was in many ways fairly traditional. For instance, homosexuality was a criminal offense in the Soviet Union, but it was decriminalized once the USSR was gone. Promiscuity was generally frowned upon in the Soviet days; today premarital sex is probably as common as in Western countries. The vast majority of people who were formed in the USSR are bewildered by the woke movement and its excesses, if they at all reflect on it. On the other hand, attitudes towards social mores seem far more relaxed in today’s Russia than they were during Soviet times, especially among the (somewhat rudderless, it seems to me) young. While Putin does seem to be trying to build his Russia along traditional lines, we have yet to see how successful these attempts will be in the long run.
Some responsive thoughts to this chain:
1) My use of the term “ideologue” is the James Burnham one, which I have cited in a few places, but basically is “a set of beliefs such that no conceivable presented fact can change those beliefs.” Instead, new facts are simply woven into the belief system, or ignored. To be sure, this can include beliefs other than political beliefs—any religion is an ideology, more or less, under this definition. But as far as politics go, Right ideologies are nearly non-existent in history, and they are non-existent today.
2) Thus, that right-wing authoritarians of various stripes have given up power, from Franco to Pinochet, says nothing about ideologues, because those people weren’t ideologues.
3) It seems to me, without thinking about it in detail (maybe some other day!), that there are other reasons those in power on the Left never gives up power without existential fighting. Along these lines, one would have to detail whether, and to what degree, some pre-twentieth-century regimes (Cromwell, e.g.) were ideological in the same manner as the modern Left, and what the distinctions arethere.
4) But none of this changes the basic claim, which is that modern ideological Left regimes never give up power without being forced to by violence. The Soviet Union is not to the contrary—by 1989, it had decayed to a regime without a real ideology, propped up by economic aid from the West. It is a fair question, of course, whether that means that Left ideologies tend to erode over time of their own contradictions, and that therefore violence is not strictly necessary. Maybe. But seventy years is a long time to wait for a contingency. (And what Eugene says is also relevant and true here, I think.)
4) As to Napoleon, I am currently reading (one of the very few English-language books) about the Directory, so will have a more complete answer to this question, but in general, I would not say that the Left “peacefully disintegrated” after the Terror. The prime architects of the Terror were executed, and the Directory then suppressed the Left nationwide through violence—not to mention that the Directory, and Napoleon, endorsed many of the principles of the Revolution. So there was certainly plenty of violence necessary to break the natural trend of the Revolution, which, as with all Left revolutions, has no logical stopping point.
5) On to practical questions! In general, it is true that right-wing insurrections and takeovers have had very limited success in the past century (and that left-wing ones had much more success). As they say, though, past performance is no guarantee of future results. One key reason for this was that the United States, long captured by the Left, has always used its vast power to attack any right-wing insurrection (or government), and rarely directed its ire against left-wing insurrections, outside of Cold War hotspots (and even there usually just supported one set of Communists over another). Another is that that was then, and this is now. When the Left seemed ascendant and seemed to offer a decent future, masked as liberal democracy, right-wing insurrections always had an uphill battle, because, as Ortega says, force follows public opinion. When and if the Left, and liberal democracy more generally, are discredited (a tall order, but we’re making progress, or rather it’s becoming more and more evident to all where Left ideas lead), then necessarily right-wing insurrection has a greater chance of success. Third, the United States really is different, both in attitude and in the availability of weaponry and potential leaders, from any other place in the West.
6) You are certainly correct that a parallel power structure would help. It is probably the case that no open rebellion could succeed without that, unless and until the chaos level (say, from an economic collapse or a defeat by China) increases greatly. But that’s very likely. And you are certainly correct that an alternative source of authority would be necessary. Maybe the Mormons can take on the role! But yes, any future parallel power structure would do well to start organizing now—not for open rebellion, probably, but to provide the resources to implement or support regime change when that occurs.
7) I think you overstate Amazon’s competence, and in any case, to the (very limited) extent they are not already a wholly ideological organization, if given power the Left ideologues would immediately capture all power, and implement a reign of terror, unrestrained by the few remaining elements of our own political structures that act as a drag on Left desires.
8) The “autonomous” scenario is indeed the most likely one. I’d think that gun confiscation is a likely flash point, although recently it has occurred to me that contrary to what I’ve always thought, they’re not going to try gun confiscation, most likely, for two reasons. First, they really believe that (apparent) control of the military makes small-arms ownership irrelevant in a real contest, despite the silliness of this belief. Second, there is a short-term political cost, as long as elections are being held, and it’s high—so in many ways, gun control for today’s Left/Democrats is the same as abortion for the Republicans, an issue they use to manipulate voters without actually doing anything dramatic. That said, the nature of the Left is to press more and more, so as elements even further left in the Democratic power take charge, this may change.
9) On Dalrymple, I reviewed one of his books, and agree that a massive problem in the West, completely aside from the Left’s evil and dominance, is the decline of any virtue among the masses. This shows up pretty regularly in stuff I’ve written. In short, rebellion or no rebellion, remaking of the state or not, it’s not going to work out without a top-to-bottom societal renewal. I focus on the ruling classes, but that’s not going to be enough. Unfortunately, short of a religious revival, this probably is only possible after extremely major trauma of some sort. And I’m just not sure a rich society can be virtuous for long at all, something to which I keep returning.
@Eugene excellent points, to provide much needed nuance to what I was saying.
This may mean that I have been less articulate that I intended in my original posts, which is probably also the case with regard to @Marcus ‘s response.
I think with regard to “lack of violence” I meant “not a civil war”. I did not mean to claim that the event was entirely peaceful with nothing but hugs and unicorns.
@Eugene’s comments about the Soviet Union being more to the right than modern democracy is not unique to his experience. I have read similar concepts in a few books by Ryszard Legutko. It seems that the mental control of modern democracy can be more corrosive of traditionalism than the guns of the Soviets. Or maybe its just cause we’re farther along the path now so we don’t need guns.
Regardless, it’s not just Russia. Most of the substantively right-wing regimes in the world today are in the post-Soviet states. (Your point about right-left being well taken however, it depends on how you define it). By this I simply mean that the “threats” to “democracy” seem to be Hungary, Russia, Poland and Belarus. You could also point out that several of the post-Soviet countries established a flat-tax in a nod to at least the right of economic thought.
But traditionalism generally has decayed for certain. Whether Putin or other eastern european leaders will substantively push back against leftist efforts remains to be seen. And yet, there’s something heartening about the anti-abortion movement in Poland. At least one country is speaking against a practice that kills a million children every 8 days worldwide.
As for @Marcus’ statement, I think we’re talking past each other. My understanding of Dalrymple is as follows: the responsibility is ultimately with the people who are morally decrepit, but the regime holds some blame for perpetuating the worldview that validates their moral ineptitude.
Anyway, glad to see some healthy discussion on these topics, we can all use a bit of iron sharpening iron if we are to go against the mainstream on how society should be ordered.
Good luck to you all.
@jbray1982 You mentioned that all of the right-wing regimes are in former Soviet states in Easter Europe. Why do you think these people have lost the will to replace themselves? Just look at these total fertility rates – Hungary – 1.6, Poland – 1.5, Belarus – 1.4. These are even lower than white people in secular France and lower than all groups in the US (though above Spain and Italy). This is despite Poland being extremely religious and Hungary being highly religious. What is broken in these places, where is the dynamism?
Interesting question. I’m not familiar enough with the details of these nations to give anything like a real answer to that question.
Generally I view falling rates of childbirth as a result of a lot of factors:
1. We don’t view kids as useful any more. They are a cost-sink and a lifestyle accessory instead of a productive member of a unified household.
2. We are pessimistic about the future. Most people think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, whether they’re climate change doomsayers complaining about cow farts, post-modern millennials that can’t move out of mom’s basement, racial nationalists that are angry about interracial marriage or evangelicals that think the Great Tribulation is coming around the corner.
Not much on offer in the realm of “the world is going good places”, outside of the post-millennial Christians, one reason I find them fun to read.
I wrote on the underpopulation bomb in my review of Empty Planet, I note Hungary’s rate has actually risen a little; I’m skeptical of government interventions, since I ascribe underpopulation to excessive autonomic individualism, but there is some slight suggestion that the right attitudes can increase birth rates–though it’s highly unlikely to be enough. More on this in Empty Planet, where I also point out that people under occupation and threat actually have higher birth rates, at least in some important recent historical examples.
@Charles and @jbray182
The heart of my question isn’t why populations are below replacement. A lot of ink has been spilled on that questions, and I think the reasons jbray gave below are part of the story. Though I would lean even more heavily on a geographic/economic determinism angle. People respond to incentives, and the incentives have all turned away from large families. As an aside, this isn’t a modern problem – the fertility rate for white American women dropped by about half in the 19th century and by about half again in the 20th century. We are right on trend. http://web.utk.edu/~mwanamak/JEHarticle.pdf
The more interesting question for me is why is the birth rate in 90% Catholic Poland lower than in France, Britain, or the US?
I expect birthrates in the west may start to rise again, as the environment has become nearly maximally suppressive to childbearing and there is a genetic component to fertility. Once the only people who have kids (especially large numbers of kids) are those who are inherently inclined toward fertility, rather than those who are following the majority social script, I think we will see more kids. And the future belongs to those who show up!
One more on fertility. Our World in Data has some characteristically excellent charts on fertility around the world and over time: https://ourworldindata.org/fertility-rate
They also have a decent discussion of the reasons for the decline, which I think is mostly correct; though they see it as all positive and I see some of it as wholly negative and some as ambiguous.
One thing that is striking in the data, and that most people are surprised by, is how old the average first-time bride was in northern Europe prior to modernity. This is the so-called Northwestern, or just Western, European Marriage Pattern. From the late 16th century forward the average age at first marriage for a woman was around 25 and it was even older for men (though marriage ages generally fell when the economy was booming). Also, there was a universal requirement for women to consent to marriage. Both of these are unique features of Christendom, as far as I can tell.
Haywood’s final take, throwing shade on rebellion as “unnecessary” because it’s all going to collapse anyway is problematical. Is this a smokescreen to hide involvement w insurrectionist conspiracies? Or a loss of nerve? Out of a chaotic collapse come WORSE regimes, further left tyrannies or warlordism, not some bright, preordained “Functionalist” reality-based state Haywood leaves undefined. Haywood has built a small kingdom of rightwing intellect, but I wouldn’t give him my vote in any actual rebellion. Not till I read his long promised manifesto and see for myself if he’s more than an interesting gadfly.
A fair set of questions! I hate to disappoint, but I am not involved with insurrectionist conspiracies. (Or am I? Would I say?) I have noted before that worse things can come out of chaotic collapse. But probably not here—or rather, not in parts of the United States. When there is a massive disaster in Iowa, like floods a few years back, in several weeks everything is back to normal. When there is a massive disaster in New Orleans, it never gets back to normal. The Foundationalist state can be built out of chaos, given the right organization and leadership, but its borders won’t be those of the old United States.
The manifesto is coming, but you’ll be disappointed if you hope it’ll reveal some set of brand new principles that Will Make Everything Perfect. It is meant to encapsulate the thought revealed throughout the writings here, not offer Something Completely New. (I’ve been dragging my feet because I want to keep it manageable in length, yet complete.)
It occurs to me that the distinction between the current Leftist political offensive and those of the 30s and 60s is that conservatives cannot assimilate this one. I do not believe the Left’s racialism and transgenderism can be persuasively squared with the conservative perspective even by the most doom eager of conservative leaders. The Right more or less reconciled itself to the Left’s enormous 20th century revolutions: the New Deal and the Civil Rights laws, mass third world immigration and the regulatory state. Friction remains to some degree, but few leaders talk of a wholesale reversal of their victories. Abortion is a bit of an anomaly in this context, a de facto surrender with a rhetorical smokescreen as cover. If racialism and transgenderism do not cross the threshold into no compromise territory, then the Right has truly been submitted, deprived of agency.
In attempting to predict the fall of the American regime, one question has troubled me since I heard Curtis Yarvin speak of it on some podcast a few months ago. How much faith does the Left currently have in their own ideology? His impression is that they are now “full of passionate intensity,” partly as an aftereffect of the psychological trauma inflicted upon them by their media during the Trump years. The series of collapses from 1989-92 occurred in nations bereft of political faith, most of all among the elite. Not only was communism obviously a failure, but no opposition party could be scapegoated for the failure since opposition parties did not exist. America today, though clearly in bad decline from the vantage of civilizationalists, is not so obviously a failure to the general population or its ruling class. This is partly because America’s influence has been so detrimental to its own allies that they cannot generally outshine their patron. In China, a late start at capitalism and continued statism/authoritarianism have handicapped their success–though it may place America in a bad light in 20 years if it continues to resist the Western Left. Even if America looked worse in international comparison, the Left maintains an opposition party upon which they will place as much of the blame for their failures–and almost all of America’s failures these last 80 years are theirs–as possible.
OneState also had no opposition party, only the less useful scapegoat of the menace beyond the Wall. I haven’t read it since 96′, but I seem to recall interpreting the incipient collapse of OneState as brought on by the Benefactor pressing his tyranny too far, inadvertently finding a tipping point that caused a critical mass of people to realize that there was widespread support for resisting his aggression. Given the severity of the regime, their correspondingly intense degree of preference falsification must have made them ripe for revolution. And they now had this horrific policy as a Schelling point around which to unite. I had hoped Trump might be such a Schelling point for the Right and a grand unveiler of our problem of preference falsification, but neither he nor the Right were adequate to the task.
I remember “We” as a beautiful literary experience first and as a political lesson second. Aesthetically, it outclasses Brave New World and 1984. Unlike those two, I’m actually tempted to reread We.
An excellent analysis. On the OneState question, you have the plot only partially correct; the Mephi formed, and revolted, without any change in governmental tack or action. The response from the government was the Operation, and that did indeed trigger more widespread revolt, thereby helping the Mephi’s program. On the broader point, I don’t think the American Left is weak or discredited, at all, in the same way as the Soviet Union’s ideology was. But it could very easily become so, because it is far more fragile and stupid. It merely needs a trigger, which will probably be economic collapse, although it could be a real pandemic, defeat by China, and so on. (It’s also true that not all our elite are true Left believers, and some might try to triangulate their way out of it.)
“The more interesting question for me is why is the birth rate in 90% Catholic Poland lower than in France, Britain, or the US?”
This may have something to do with autochthonous Europeans and white Americans having few(er) children in general. Poland does not have a very large community of immigrants from more fertile cultures and has a fairly homogeneous population. On the other hand, I would surmise that France’s more robust birth rate is driven by immigrants from the Maghreb, America’s by its large Hispanic population, and Britain’s by immigrants from its former colonies.
This is strictly conjectural, though.
When I first saw the data that was my thought as well. But the white population in America, France, and Britian have higher birthrates than the Polish population. Both American and French whites have a TFR of about 1.75, still below replacement, but about 20% higher than the polish rate. And the Polish are self reported as MUCH more religious (and Catholic at that). American whites were still replacing themselves until 2008, but the birth rate slumped during the recession and hasn’t recovered.
“And the Polish are self reported as MUCH more religious (and Catholic at that).”
That’s just it – “self reported”. Reported attitudes may diverge from actual practice. Perhaps the most religious Poles are those who are over fifty and are not of a reproductive age. Do we really know what the religious fervor is like among the young?
Utopian Thought in the Western World. By Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel
Anthropologists tell us that blessed isles and paradises are part of the dream-world of savages everywhere. The dogged wanderings of the Guarani tribe in search of a “Land-without-Evil” have been tracked over the length and breadth of Brazil, and the contemporary cargo-cults of Asia and Africa have been investigated for their marvelous syncretism of Christian and native paradises. Neither pictorial nor discursive philosophico-religious utopias are exclusive to the Western world. Taoism, Theravada Buddhism, and medieval Muslim philosophy are impregnated with utopian elements. There are treatises on ideal states and stories about imaginary havens of delight among the Chinese, the Japanese, the Hindus, and the Arabs, but the profusion of Western utopias has not been equaled in any other culture. Perhaps the Chinese have been too worldly and practical, the Hindus too transcendental to recognize a tension between the Two Kingdoms and to resolve it in that myth of a heaven on earth which lies at the heart of utopian fantasy.
1) My use of the term “ideologue” any religion is an ideology, more or less, under this definition.
Scholars have failed to agree on a definition of religion.
Harold J. Berman:
If we see law in dictionary terms merely as a structure or “body” of rules laid down by political authorities, and similarly see religion merely as a system of beliefs and practices relating to the supernatural, the two seem connected with each other only very distantly or in only a few rather narrow and specific respects. But in reality both are much more than that.
Law is not only a body of rules; it is people legislating, adjudicating, administering, negotiating – it is a living process of allocating rights and duties and thereby resolving conflicts and creating channels of cooperation.
Religion is not only a set of doctrines and exercises; it is people manifesting a collective concern for the ultimate meaning and purpose of life – it is a shared intuition of and commitment to transcendent values. Law helps to give society the structure, the gestalt, it needs to maintain inner cohesion; law fights against anarchy. Religion helps to give society the faith it needs to face the future; religion fights against decadence.
4) … Left ideologies tend to erode over time of their own contradictions, and that therefore violence is not strictly necessary. Maybe. But seventy years is a long time to wait for a contingency.
Theodosius Makes Christianity the Official Faith of the Roman Empire, 380 A.D.
any religion is an ideology, more or less, under this definition.
little bit more on Law, religion and Intellectuals:
Harold J. Berman:
I start from the fact that every legal order requires for its vitality the support of a belief system that links law not only with morality but also with fundamental convictions about human nature and human destiny. This is an anthropological truism, not a theological proposition,
In all societies religion and law, in the broad sense of those words, are interdependent and interact with each other. In all societies there are shared beliefs in transcendent values, shared commitments to an ultimate purpose, a shared sense of the holy: certain things are sacred. And in all societies, there are structures and processes of social ordering, established methods of allocating rights and duties, a shared sense of the just: Certain things are lawful.
Religion of the Intellectuals by Harold J. Berman
It is supposed by some – especially intellectuals – that fundamental legal principles, whether of democracy or of socialism, can survive without any religious or quasi-religious foundations on the basis of the proper political and economic controls and a philosophy of humanism. History, however, including current history, testifies otherwise: people will not give their allegiance to a political and economic system, and even less to a philosophy, unless it represents for them a higher, sacred truth. People will desert institutions that do not seem to them to correspond to some transcendent reality in which they believe – believe in with their whole beings, and not just believe about, with their minds. That is why countries of democracy and socialism that have abandoned traditional religions turn ultimately to religions of race, of country, or of class (or of all three). The intellectuals feel betrayed by this; they continually anticipate that people will develop a new style of consciousness, secular and rational like their own, but they do not realize that their own belief in political and economic systems and in a humanist philosophy is equally transrational and equally self-interested – it is the religion of the intellectual.
I have a couple of Berman’s books; I keep meaning to read them!
I’ll put We on my To Read list, but do think about adding a paragraph somewhere about whether it’s entertaining to read as well as instructive. A book that’s both is more likely to be put higher on To Read lists; it’s nice ot know what can serve a double purpose.
Sometimes comments on how entertaining a book is do appear in my reviews. But not always; I strive to avoid a “checklist” feel.
For whatever it’s worth. I’ll say that if a book describes reality and is entertaining rather than disturbing, it will immediately go to the bottom of my list of books I need to read. As Maximum Leader notes (my paraphrase), time is short.
Just stumbled across this great blog – so excited to find it and I immediately subscribed.
In a Russian Lit class I read & enjoyed We as a college student in 1986 – I wish I could recall what Dr. Baer (likely a leftie) taught us to think about it (his verbal cadence would lull me to sleep).
As a long time member of team reality (I embraced Democrat platform only for a brief time coming out of college) I now can look back and recognize a few times my university professors exposed us to left-leaning content (The Economist as weekly required reading, having us act out scenes from Clifford Odets, etc.)
I guess the good news is that as a typical youngster I was un-interested in the left of center content (boring!) and consumed with having fun with my friends (beer!).
My short time spent as an enthusiastic Democrat was, in retrospect, out of boredom post-graduation (BFS from UNCG). My hope (and as a parent of 2 great teens I must keep hope) is that most young Westerners will be too immersed in work & play to become political activists and will mostly ignore the current clown show that the American Left is.
The Supreme Court decision re: Voting Rights Act will be something I celebrate this upcoming July 4.
Feels so good to know we are many 🙂
Glad to have you here, and welcome!
Typo above – I have a BFA in Design
Thanks for that. Without you I’d remain oblivious of this book. And a hat-tip for your correct diagnosis of our own Oceania/One State. While it’s still less brutal than those or the Bolshevik utopia, there is at least one aspect in which we are more vile than even the latter; see here: https://gab.com/MaxDenken/posts/107588324322350062
You are welcome. The link does not seem to work, though.
I praised your choice of “We” and expanded on it a little here: https://gab.com/MaxDenken/posts/107690579341000336