Was Ursula Le Guin a Socialist?

A review of No Time to Spare

Ursula Le Guin in 2008. She has short, grey hair, a white top, black tunic and trousers. Her left hand on a table, her right holds several A4 pages and she is speaking against a background of books. Ursula Le Guin was sympathetic to socialism.
Ursula Le Guin was influenced by anarchism, described herself as a feminist and had an interest in socialism

From 2010 to her death in 2018, Ursula Le Guin composed blog posts for her website and a selection of these have been collected into a wonderful book, No Time to Spare. Many of the essays are beautiful accounts of moments in her life, with, for example, a most intense appreciation of the art of eating a soft-boiled egg for breakfast that serves as a lesson in mindfulness. Here, though, I want to focus on the political ideas of Le Guin that are explicit and implicit in many of the features.

In one essay where she addresses the question of socialism directly, Le Guin does so in the context of a comment about the alternatives to capitalism:

Some of the alternatives that existed in the past had promise; I think socialism did, and still does, but it was run off the rails by ambitious men using it as a means to power, and by the infection of capitalism — the obsession with growing bigger at all cost in order to defeat rivals and dominate the world.

Ursula Le Guin on socialism, from No Time to Spare

In this one, short paragraph are four hugely important ideas. Firstly, that socialism still has the potential to provide an alternative to capitalism. Second and third, that the reasons previous efforts to create socialism have failed are a) the desire for power and b) the infection of global capitalism. Fourthly, the gender of those who ran socialism off the rails was male.

Of these ideas the first is essential. Almost certainly the majority of people living on the planet right now would agree that the current economic system is deeply flawed. Hardly anyone, however, can agree on what the alternative should be. And this is largely due to the fact that socialism has been discredited. Yet unless the idea of socialism is revived our species is in great trouble, because anything other than a fundamental, radical, reorganisation of the world by workers will succumb to the pressures of trying to co-exist with capitalism.

The second, that it was the seduction of power that wrecked previous socialist projects, is entirely consistent with Le Guin’s core political beliefs, which were those of anarchism. Ursula Le Guin was always wary of defining herself politically, not through fear of alienating people by sounding too radical, but because she felt she lacked the expertise and devotion to activism to be a political authority. Her main passion and her decades of experience were in writing, both in composing beautiful works but also teaching and analysing literature.

The first edition cover of The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. Her name is at the top in large yellow letters, then, smaller, the title in white. The entire background is orange with a figure of ambiguous gender silhouetted against a large orange planet, facing away from the reader, standing in a crater. In this novel, Le Guin began with the premise of an anarchist utopia.
Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed explores a utopian world

The setting for one of Le Guin’s early novels, The Dispossessed, is that of a utopian world. In order to research that world, Le Guin read widely into anarchism: especially Kropotkin and a modern anarchist thinker, Murray Bookchin.

And it was the pacifist, rather than destructive, element within anarchism that appealed to Le Guin the most, as she explained in an interview.

I felt totally at home with (pacifist, not violent) anarchism, just as I always had with Taoism (they are related, at least by affinity.) It is the only mode of political thinking that I do feel at home with. It also links up more and more interestingly, these days, with behavioral biology and animal psychology (as Kropotkin knew it would.)

In Jacobin’s obituary of Le Guin, the novelist is described as being a historical materialist but this is too much of a stretch. An anarchist emphasis on the importance of power in politics is very clear in Le Guin’s thought. Even here, in this discussion about whether Le Guin was a socialist, it’s no accident that she puts the issue of power before the question of structure in signalling what went wrong for socialism in the past.

As an aside, many on the left interested in Science Fiction and Fantasy juxtapose the work of Le Guin, radical, feminist, anarchist and Tolkien, who they see as conservative and anti-working class. China Mieville, whose critique of Tolkien derives from the essay of another anarchist fantasy writer, Michael Moorcock, has been the standard bearer for this approach.

In my view, it is utterly mistaken. Le Guin herself was a huge champion of Tolkien and often spoke up for the literary merits of The Lord of the Rings, a book that despite enormous public enthusiasm, is usually under-appreciated by critics. And in The Lord of the Rings is a metaphor for the corrupting influence of power that is as pure as any in literature. The One Ring is the ultimate test of character and only those wise enough to reject it have any integrity, those who try to use it are doomed to become hollowed-out husks of their former selves.

Having placed an emphasis on the question of the destructive effects of the possession of power, which remains an important issue for the left, Le Guin also sees global capitalism as a key contributor to the failure of previous attempts to create socialism. This is a vital observation for the future too. Any attempt to introduce socialism in one jurisdiction is doomed: either pressure to compete in the world market or direct overthrow will end the effort. Fortunately, today, our world is so integrated globally that a socialist movement that really went down to alter the fundamentals of society would have an immediate and massive international impact, making it much more likely to transform the entire planet.

In unpacking Le Guin’s observation on the previous failure of socialism, one more point remains to be made, which is that she highlighted the fact that it was men who led the movement away from utopia. This is an historical observation as well as a reflection on Le Guin’s ‘steady, resolute, morally committed’ role in the feminist movement. She explicitly defined herself as a part of second wave feminism — the struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s — and her writings throughout her entire life, both fictional and non-fictional, constantly returned to the subject of gender inequality.

It seems to me to be clear that Ursula Le Guin was very sympathetic to all alternatives to capitalism and while more inclined to describe herself as anarchist was definitely open to being persuaded about socialism. The revolutions and socialist movements she saw in her lifetime did not, however, provide a lot of evidence for the potential of socialism to deliver utopia. Personally, I think that potential is evident in all the great working class uprisings of the twentieth century, but you have to really drill down to the detail of the particular variants of socialism active in them to understand why, ultimately, none of them led to the disappearance of capitalism in favour of a sharing society.

Ursula Le Guin on dialectics and Taosim

The turquoise cover of No Time to Spare, a collection of blog essays written by Ursula Le Guin, which include her thoughts on socialism. Five leaves made of paper with illegible writing on them are drifting towards the bottom of the cover.
In No Time to Spare, Ursula Le Guin has essays that address her political thought, including socialism, anarchism and feminism

In No Time to Spare there is another subject that connects Le Guin’s intellectual makeup to socialism and it is the question of dialectics. For socialists, to be able to analyse political systems that are in motion and which can dramatically hit transformative tipping points is essential and the tool for doing this, dialectics, comes to us from a western tradition, originating with the early Greek philosophers and being developed especially by Hegel and Marx. But there is an even older tradition of dialectical thought rooted in ancient eastern societies.

When Le Guin wanted to explain some underlying connections between utopian and dystopian societies in literature, she first needed her readers to understand dialectics and she helped them do so by drawing on her deep engagement with Taoism. A translator of Lao Tzu’s sixth century BC Tao Te Ching, Le Guin used the yang-yin symbol to illustrate her point that every utopia contains a dystopia, every dystopia a utopia.

In the yang-yin symbol each half contains within it a portion of the other, signifying their complete interdependence and continual intermutability. The figure is static, but each half contains the seed of transformation. The symbol presents not a stasis but a process.

The yang-yin symbol, which for Ursula Le Guin is helpful in explaining dialectical interactions

In the many appreciations of Ursula Le Guin that have been written since her death (22 January 2018) this aspect to her thinking has usually been neglected, yet in my view it is fundamental to her thought.

The presence of a powerful and playful mind is evident throughout No Time to Spare and always Le Guin’s writing is informed by a sense of development and change, even in her own sentences as she formulates them. That’s why they are rich, truthful, convincing. When reading Le Guin, you feel the presence of someone who is not satisfied until she has expressed herself exactly as she intends. Someone who weighs the meaning of every word, every punctuation mark even.

Le Guin’s dialectical way of approaching any subject, even that of the behaviour of cats (she was a great cat lover and if you are the same, you’ll read some of these essays with enormous pleasure) means we never get a dry, linear, didactic essay. Always, they are rich, fecund and humorous.

Was Ursula Le Guin a socialist? She was. And she wasn’t.

In 2014, Ursula Le Guin attended the National Book Awards in the US where she was the recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. During her speech she made a powerful point to those who feel there is no alternative to capitalism:

The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. 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 and very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula Le Guin on resistance and change

The Quiet Collapse of the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter

By Councillor John Lyons, Independent Left

Painted illustration of the north side of Parnell Square, Hugh Lane at the centre with imagined colourful stalls along a pedestrianised street.
The plan for beautiful new cultural quarter for Parnell Square is faltering due to the failure of the private-wealth approach

A beautiful new library, part of an ambitious new cultural quarter encompassing places for learning, literature, music, innovation and enterprise, inter-culturalism and design, to be located at Parnell Square Dublin 1, was in store for Dublin and Dubliners. The Central Library in the Ilac Shopping Centre has its charm but this new library was to be something else, a civic space fitting for a twenty-first century capital city, especially one designated UNESCO City of Literature.

The Parnell Square Cultural Quarter, a 11,000 m2 development comprising a new city library and a range of social and cultural facilities –  a music centre, a design space, an innovation hub, a business library, a 200 seat conference space, an education centre, a café and an exhibition area – was to be Dublin City Council’s major flagship development, regenerating the north inner city as well as providing a new focus and destination at the northern end of O’Connell Street.

The  proposed  development was to include  work  to  the  existing  Georgian  houses  at  23  to  28 Parnell  Square  North  as  well  as  a  dramatic  new  building  to  the  rear  of  these  houses.  It included  20 and 21 Parnell Square  North and would have seen the creation of a new public plaza along Parnell Square North. It was intended that Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane would form part of the overall  Parnell Square Cultural Quarter offering and its role and impact would be expanded by the development of the new facilities. Magnificent!

I have supported this wonderful civic vision for Parnell Square over the last five years but with one recurring reservation: the funding model deployed to transform the vision into a reality was predicated upon 55% of the entire cost of the project coming through philanthropic channels. Yes, the rich Irish elite were going to be approached to cough up some of the money they save through our rather elite-friendly taxation system.

Alas, it was not to be. Unlike the Scottish-American millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who provided £170,000 between 1897 and 1913 to fund an entire network of libraries in Ireland (some 80 in total, 63 of which are still standing today), the millionaires and billionaires in twenty-first century Ireland appear disinterested in the kind of philanthropic activity Carnegie was involved in over one hundred years ago.

Parnell Square Cultural Quarter too Dependent on Private Capital

“Destined to fail,” some said; “bizarre”, said others; “doomed”, declared many. “Why the hell can’t we just fund it ourselves?” asked many more.

The cost of the project was estimated (in August 2019) to be in the region of €131 million. According to Dublin City Council’s executive Owen Keegan, a “unique feature of this project  is that Kennedy Wilson Europe Limited agreed,  on a pro bono basis, to assist the delivery of the project by providing seed capital to get the project through design, costing and final planning, leading the effort  to  raise the required  level  of private donations to  fully  fund  the  project and providing expertise to assist in the management of the project.”

This strange funding structure would have seen 55% of that funding raised via philanthropic donation(s) secured through the efforts of one of the largest private property landlords in the city. The rich folk of the city, and perhaps the country, were going to don the blue jersey and stump up the millions, with Dublin City Council agreeing to finance the other 45%.

Agreeing to allow US property speculator Kennedy Wilson take responsibility for fundraising over 50% of the cost of the new Dublin City Library at Parnell Square appeared like a particularly unusual way for Dublin City Council to go about raising the capital funds required for one of the capital city’s cultural flagship developments.

During my five years to date as an elected representative on Dublin City Council, however, I have become used to proposals which involve a heavy dose of the private sector: from housing construction, waste collection, water and sanitation to grass-cutting, housing maintenance, the involvement of private contractors is ubiquitous. The city council’s capacity to deliver these services has shrivelled through years of austerity and privatisation.

When asked by myself and other elected representatives why we couldn’t fund the project fully ourselves, whilst pointing to the obvious dangers of relying on private donations to raise over half the cost of the development, we were assured by city council officials that this was the best way to go about it.

So the Parnell Square Foundation, comprised of City Council officials and Kennedy Wilson representatives was established in 2013 to oversee the project. And according to city council report from July 2019, “considerable  progress has been made  over the past seven years… In particular,  all  the required buildings  have  been  brought  into  City  Council  ownership,  substantial  support  for  the  City Council’s vision  for Parnell Square  North  has been generated,  a world class design  has  been procured and full planning permission for the proposed development has been obtained from An Bord Pleanála.”

But here comes the “however”: Dublin City Council manager Keegan goes on to state in the same report that, “I have now been  advised, following work undertaken by a consultant engaged  by  Kennedy Wilson on behalf of the Foundation, that the required private fundraising could take over 3 years and that there is no guarantee it will be successful.” (My italics). The consultant’s interim report identified a number of potential obstacles to a successful fundraising campaign for the project including the following:

– the scale of funding required for the project relative to the sums raised previously for cultural projects in Ireland from national and international donors,

–  the fact that the Foundation has no previous donor base to act as project champions,

–  the intense competition for  philanthropic funding from high profile national cultural projects based in Dublin, which have already secured significant State funding and

– the fact that libraries have a lower affinity score with private donors than the arts generally. 

The rich ain’t interested, national government is nowhere to be seen or heard, and so the city council is left to pick up the pieces. Predictable but nonetheless devastating for the city of Dublin.

What Happens Now for the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter?

So where to now? Keegan proposes to proceed with the new library but to delay the redevelopment of the five Georgian buildings which were to house the new Cultural Quarter Education Centre, the Music Centre, the Design Space, the InterCultural Hub and the public realm works, thus effectively abandoning the wonderful civic vision for Parnell Square in favour of a piecemeal development.

Just. Not. Good. Enough.

So I have tabled the following motion to Dublin City Council in the hope that the entire Parnell Square Cultural Quarter vision can be saved and developed as one project, as initially conceived:

The elected members of this city council call on national government to include in this year’s Dublin City Council Capital Programme the necessary central exchequer funding to ensure that the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter, Dublin City Council’s major flagship civic development, proceeds in its entirety as envisioned in the planning permission granted by An Bord Pleanala in May of this year, namely the entire 11,000m2 development comprising a new city library, a range of cultural, education, musical and exhibition spaces and the enhancement of the public realm.

For More Information on the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter, see here.