We is a Soviet Science Fiction novel written in the early 1920s, so it was written well before Lenin’s death or Stalin’s ascendance. Ursula K. Le Guin claimed in an essay that it was “perhaps the finest science fiction novel ever written.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that – the novel has its faults – but it is certainly worthy of our attention as a story that weighs humanity against ideology, through its portrayal of a Dystopian future world in which rationalism has been taken to its extreme and a state cult, the One State, has replaced religion and human individualism. Added to this, the novel will be of interest to readers concerned with the development of twentieth-century dystopian fiction. George Orwell wrote a review of the novel in 1946 in which he identified Huxley’s debt to Zamyatin: “that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partly derived from it. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world . . .” Zamyatin’s book had failed to gain government approval for publication in 1923 – effectively banning it in Soviet Russia – and wasn’t published there until 1988, the era of Gorbachev and Glasnost. Orwell notes in his review the difficulties he had in obtaining a copy of the book, “several years after hearing of its existence”. But it was still obtainable. A manuscript had been smuggled out of Russia after it was banned and an English translation appeared in the United States as early as 1924. The original Russian manuscript was published in America in 1952. But in 1946, Orwell could only obtain a French translation.
The protagonist and narrator of We is D-503. In the One State no one has a name. Instead, everyone is assigned a letter/number code that designates their place of habitation. D-503 is at first inspired to write his account of life in One State as an offering for the INTEGRAL, a rocket he is in charge of building, which will carry the ideology of the One State, it is hoped, to distant stars and alien races.
D-503, like everyone in One State, lives in a glass apartment. Everyone is always on display to other members of society. In essence it is a more limited totalitarian surveillance that predates the invention of the television, or Orwell’s own Telescreens in Nineteen-Eighty Four. And as in that later novel, love has been suppressed by undermining monogamy: “Every number has the right to make use of any other number as a sexual commodity.” It’s an ideological position expressed in Huxley’s World State, too, where “every one belongs to every one else.” Old fashioned relationships of the ‘Ancients’ (people living in the twentieth century) have been replaced by state sanctioned registrations of sexual partners, and sex is regulated through the Table of Hours, a timetable that co-opts every moment of a citizen’s day into productive work, recreation and sleep. Pink slips authorise sexual encounters when the lowering of blinds in the transparent apartments is allowed.
The sexual arrangement of Zamyatin’s society is not as extreme as Huxley’s would later be, but the ideological underpinnings of each society would be similar. Before Huxley’s use of Henry Ford as the ideological basis for his society, Zamyatin made Taylorism the ideological basis of One State. Fred W. Taylor was an engineer who instituted efficient work practices in industrial settings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His ideas gained prominence with the publication of his book The Principles of Scientific Management (1911). D-503, himself an engineer and in charge of the construction of the INTEGRAL, a rocket designed to carry One State members into the universe to proselytise as-yet undiscovered alien civilisations with the ideologies of One State, finds comfort and happiness in the assurances of a Taylorised society:
I saw: just as Taylor prescribed, quickly and measuredly, to the same rhythm, like the levers of a single, gigantic machine, numbers bent, stood up, twisted and turned down below. Their hands held glittering pipes: they cut using fire and soldered with fire, joining glass walls, joints, ribs and gussets.
This is the extreme of Taylorism, which advocates specialisation, precision and efficiency: the subjugation of humanity to the dictates of industrialism, where the machine can be said to be “just like the numbers [meaning workers]” because each worker is servile to the machine. It’s an idea that is given a visual metaphor in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), in which workers suffer a kind of crucifixion as they struggle to keep pace with the demands of industrialism.
Huxley’s debt to Zamyatin continues to be evident. The citizens of his own World State suppress feelings through the drug, Soma, and the underlying ideology of the State can be said to be Fordism. Henry Ford introduced principles of mass production with the assembly of his motor cars, based upon the tenets of Taylor’s industrial theories. In the World State, humanity has been reduced through the Bokanovsky Process, designed to grow humans in jars according to the needs of the State in what can be likened to a production line. It is telling that women who are considered attractive in Huxley’s novel are not described as ‘nubile’ but ‘pneumatic’.
As in Huxley’s vision, the subjugation of the individual to the collective in One State is not meant to cause misery but instil happiness. Freedom, paradoxically, is the source of unhappiness. D-503 sees unhappiness in the unregulated sex lives of the Ancients. The liberation that unfreedom brings and the miseries caused by freedom are expressed variously throughout the book. D-503 recalls a story “every schoolchild knows” about the ‘Three Freedmen’ who are released from work for a month to do whatever they want:
These unlucky numbers loitered by their workplaces, looking inside with hungry eyes. They spent hours in the city squares, performing the motions their bodies actually required at that time of day: sawing and planning the air, banging invisible hammers, clanging on invisible metal rods. And final, on the tenth day, they couldn’t take it anymore: they joined hands and walked into the ater to the beat of the March, going in deeper and deeper until the water put them out of their misery.
Examples of the miseries of freedom are manifold in One State. The banishment of Adam and Eve is an archetypal representation of this misery, while the strictures of Eden represent happiness. And while Orwell may have dismissed the idea that Zamyatin is not parodying the Soviet State – “conditions in Russia in 1923 were not such that anyone would revolt against them” – his assertion that, “What Zamyatin seems to be aiming at is not any particular country but the implied aims of industrial civilisation”, seems disingenuous, especially since Orwell understood how the social tenets of One State were reflected by Huxley in his World State. Zamyatin’s futuristic civilisation may still, paradoxically, be stuck in an industrial economy, but the impetus of the novel and its Marxist underpinnings relate to the state of ideological stasis evident in One State rather than a meditation upon the conditions of industrialism.
This stasis finds expression in the opposing world beyond the ‘Green Wall’ which separates the citizens of One State from the exterior world of nature, with its electric field which keeps even the birds at bay. In the following decade, Huxley would have his citizens of World State eschew the natural state of people like John Savage who remain on reservations and are born to mothers. Before Huxley came up with that, Zamyatin had imagined a similar state of humanity living beyond the Green Wall in a small society of people who call themselves the MEPHI, and have developed distinct physiological differences from those on the other side of the wall. Despite Orwell, Zamyatin is not only drawing upon the idea of a prelapsarian world with the MEPHI, but upon the tenets of Soviet communism under Lenin, which set out to suppress religious belief in a deeply religious country and replace it with an ‘atheistic spirituality’: that the state, itself, would provide a rational spirituality through its ideologies. D-503, for instance, writes of twentieth century Christians:
Their God gave them nothing but endless tortuous searching. He didn’t come up with anything better than sacrificing Himself for some unknown reason. We sacrifice to our God, the One State, offering a calm, thoughtful, rational sacrifice. Yes, this was the solemn liturgy to the One State, in remembrance of the Two Hundred Years’ War,; our baptism by fire, the great celebration of the momentous victory of all over one, of the sum over the unit. . .
I-330, D-503’s lover, tells him that, “The world is ruled by two forces, entropy and energy. One gravitates towards divine peace and joyful equilibrium; the other, towards disrupting the equilibrium, and endless, torturous motion. Our, or rather, your ancestors, Christians, worshipped entropy like a god. . .” This dichotomy, between change and stasis, is part of the polemical nature of this novel: between the notion of revolution which is ongoing and therefore self-perpetuating, or establishment, represented by the One State, which emerged initially as a revolutionary body from the strife of the Two-Hundred Years’ War. The notion that unfreedom brings happiness – a sense of purpose and security – is antithetical to the principles of painful revolution. D-503 struggles with this idea as his senses are awoken by the sexually alluring I-330: “our revolution was the final one. There can be no more revolutions,” he tells her. I-330, drawing upon the rational basis of D-503’s thinking – mathematics – responds, “Revolutions are infinite. Finality is for children. . .” In essence, Zamyatin’s One State does resemble Soviet Russia, only six years after the revolution. And given that any ruling power, no matter how revolutionary its inception, does not cede power willingly to ongoing revolution, speaks to the political impetus of Zamyatin’s We. After all, the first goal of a successful revolution is to consolidate power.
This is where Orwell’s response to We is interesting not only in what he has to say, but what he fails to say. Orwell’s efforts to procure a copy of the book in 1946 suggest its significance to his own novel, Nineteen-Eighty Four, which he began writing that same year. That Orwell, about to undertake the writing of a book that takes aim at Stalinist Russia, should diminish the importance of Soviet Russia as subject matter to Zamyatin – that he does not highlight the obvious similarities between Zamyatin’s novel and the one he was about to write – is interesting. First, is that famous line, where the “clocks are striking thirteen”. The twenty four hour clock had been introduced in the previous century, but it was still a jarring note which recalls the use of the twenty-four hour clock in We. There are also comparisons to be made in the broad outlines of the plots. Winston Smith, like D-503, has his beliefs challenged when he becomes sexually involved with a woman outside the sanctions of State control; that he is drawn towards ideologically dangerous ideas which will see his own and Julia’s destruction, which is their re-inscription within the permissible boundaries of thought allowed by the state. Similarly, D-503 and I-330 find themselves brought before the Benefactor, a kind of precursor, from our point of view, to Big Brother, to learn their fate.
We is not an excellent novel, nor is it bad. As a narrator, D-503 can be somewhat frustrating. He forgets to explain things longer than we may wish, and important insights often remain half expressed as they peter into portentous ellipses. Sometimes he isn’t clear about who he is talking about. Sometimes important scenes, like D-503’s attempt to follow I-330 in the House of Antiquity, are somewhat ambiguous. There is naturally a lot of exposition, but the world-building isn’t as complete as in Orwell or Huxley’s novels. Nevertheless, We remains an interesting read for the story, or for those interested in Soviet Russia, or for those interested in Zamyatin’s influence on two of the twentieth centuries most influential writers.