The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Give much information as possible on Marxism from the book "The Dispossessed."

Analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the economic basis of Urras and Anarres and the superstructures they produce.


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An Overview of Marxism in "The Dispossessed"

Marxism receives a mostly favorable treatment in "The Dispossessed," by author Ursula Le Guin. The author is quoted as saying that the anarchism espoused by Marx is "the most idealistic" among all political theories. This sentiment is echoed throughout "The Dispossessed," which uses Anarres as an example of a society that was founded upon many Marxist principles. Elements of Marxism are also illustrated by contrast in the decadent, vaguely capitalist society of Urras, which loosely corresponds to the United States.

Marxism as a Prospective Future

One of the primary roles of Marxism in "The Dispossessed" is its presentation as a viable mode of living. Despite the fact that Marxism failed to take hold in the 20th century, Le Guin posits through Shevek's observations that Marxism could thrive under the right conditions. While the people of Anarres inhabit a mostly barren desert moon, their Marxist ideals of communal living and shared labor allow them to thrive under harsh conditions. On the other hand, the capitalist ideals of A-Io and the nation of Urras are shown to result in conflict and corruption.

Shared Prosperity

A central doctrine of Marxism is that all who are able should contribute and all should benefit from the spoils of labor. This concept is illustrated in the social system on Anarres, which is indeed "An Ambiguous Utopia." Despite the many flaws presented in the Anarresti way of life, the ultimate message of the story is that individual progress must complement the success of the group. This Marxist ideal is heavily contrasted with the runaway success the wealthy on A-Io have achieved by crushing the poor.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Urrasti Economy and Superstructures

The nation of Urras has a thriving economy full of innovation, luxury goods, and variety. Because of the freedom of innovation the wealthier members of Urrasti society enjoy due to their privilege and lifestyle, the arts and sciences have flourished. As Marxism predicts, the superstructure created from the Urrasti economy plays a determining role in all aspects of life in the nation. The competition within the nation has led to competition without as well. Urrasti, which serves as a proxy for the United States, is engaged in hostile tensions with Thu, a rival nation that serves as a proxy for the USSR. In this sense, the benefits Urrasti gains from its superstructure are also weaknesses. No matter how much wealth is accumulated, they will always be engaged in competition and there will always be the risk of having it taken away. This fulfills Marx's prediction that a society built on competition will never be at peace and will never work for the good of the group.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Anarresti Economy and Superstructures

The Anarresti superstructure presents its own challenges and strengths. This superstructure fosters a sense of cooperative ownership and the relinquishment of possession. An example of this superstructure, based significantly on Marxist principles of shared ownership, can be found in the Anarresti language itself. Children learn to refer to their mothers as "the mother," relinquishing ownership even of their closest social contacts. Self-sacrifice is the basis of the Anarresti economy and it is what allows the superstructure to survive.

A Summary of Marxism in "The Dispossessed"

In one particularly emotional scene of the book, Shevek learns that his partner, Takver, has been sent away to work on a solution to the hunger crisis. He uncharacteristically uses singular pronouns to reason that she has gone off "to work against hunger-hers, his and Sadik's hunger." While deeply personal and emotional in nature, this scene is a powerful example of the Anarresti superstructure at play. Shevek comforts himself by reasoning that his partner, with whom he naturally feels a sense of mutual ownership, has gone to work not only on behalf of all of Anarres but for their family as well.

This scene is a powerful summary of the way Marxism is perceived and illustrated throughout "The Dispossessed." It is at this point in the novel that Shevek's break from Anarresti social programming becomes apparent. An Anarrestian who is conforming to the superstructure and the demands of communal living would be comforted by the fact that his partner is helping the collective. There would be no need to personalize the event in such a manner. By showing Shevek's internal struggle with the self-sacrifice necessitated by Marxist ideals as well as contrasting the sacrifices he must make with the gross injustice on Urras, Le Guin proves that she has taken a nuanced approach to the topic. While the author clearly prefers Marxism as the basis for a civilized society under the right conditions, the ideals of Marxism are presented in a practical context which shows their strengths as well as many of their weaknesses.

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