Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The First Totalitarian-We

The totalitarian as a person is the embodiment of the totalitarian impulse present in all people and in all times. However, I would argue that the totalitarian wasn't possible until the nineteenth century when three forces combined to make him so. First, technological advances allowed for the development of mass movements: mass education, communication, and transportation; mass industry, labor, production, and consumption; and of course mass thought, mass slavery, mass warfare, and more efficient mass murder. Second, Science replaced God, and Scientism replaced religion. Thereafter, man had no special place in creation or in the mind and heart of his Creator. Because of that, he could hold no special place in the eyes of his fellow human beings. He could be stripped of his soul, his identity, his freedom, and reduced to a cipher, to a mere animal, or to a product of his childhood traumata, his genes, his chemistry, or the firing of his neurons. He could be manipulated, oppressed, imprisoned, and murdered without compunction or guilt on the part of his oppressor or murderer. Third, because people require an animating idea so as to order their lives, and because Science had slain God, a new animating idea had to come into being. That idea has since gone by many names, just as the devil does, but it remains forever the same: the desire that exists among all of us to make the world exactly the way we wish it to be, in other words, the totalitarian desire to control the lives of others.

So if totalitarianism was made possible only by advances in technology and science, it could not have come into its fullest form before the nineteenth century. (1) In The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880) and its parable "The Grand Inquisitor," Fyodor Dostoyevsky anticipated the arrival of the real-life totalitarian. But who was that person? I can't say for sure, but I think that, whether it was Mussolini in Italy or Stalin in Russia, the first was in place by the mid 1920s. A better case might be made that Lenin (1870-1924) was the first, but if I read my history correctly, his communist revolution was not fully in power until the early 1920s, shortly before his death in January 1924. Lenin certainly had a desire for total control. In that he was recognized by his younger countryman, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), author of the novel We.

We, written in 1920-1921 or 1919-1921 and published in English in 1924, is a novel of a dystopian and totalitarian society. There had been dystopian novels before, but We may have been the first in which a single figure--the totalitarian dictator--sits at the pinnacle. He is called the Well-Doer (or Benefactor, depending on the translation). His domain is the United State (or One State). Although the Well-Doer appeared at about the same time that Lenin was consolidating his power, as a totalitarian, the former may have preceded the latter, if only by a little.

Tales of dystopia are familiar to us now. We is echoed in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932), The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis (1943), 1984 by George Orwell (1948), The World Inside by Robert Silverberg (1971), THX-1138 (1971), Logan's Run (1976), Brazil (1985), and even Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978). It may have been the first fully modern dystopia, however, and could easily have been published yesterday rather than ninety years ago.

We is an extremely rich book, too rich for a blog posting. The best thing to do is to read it for yourself. Before offering a few quotes, I should tell you that the protagonist and narrator, D-503, is an engineer working on the construction of an interplanetary spacecraft called the Integral. He is also a follower of the State and not in open or sustained rebellion despite his falling in crazy love with a rebel, I-330. (2)

The book opens with an article in the State newspaper: "Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy."

"We walked again--a million-headed body; and in each one of us resided that humble joyfulness with which in all probability molecules, atoms, and phagocytes live.
     In the ancient days the Christians understood this feeling; they are our only, though very imperfect, direct forerunners. The greatness of the 'Church of the United Flock' was known to them. They knew that resignation is virtue, and pride a vice; that 'We' is from 'God,' 'I' from the devil."

On the eve of the Day of Unanimity, that is, election day: "Tomorrow we shall again hand over to our Well-Doer the keys to the impregnable fortress of our happiness. . . . [The elections] remind us that we are a united, powerful organism of millions of cells, that . . . we are a united church. . . . [On election day, in which there is no secret voting] I see them all vote for the Well-Doer, and everybody sees me vote for the Well-Doer. How could it be otherwise, since 'all' and 'I' are one 'we'?"

On the Day of Unanimity, the Well-Doer makes his entrance by air: "It was He, descending to us from the sky, He--the new Jehovah--in an aero, He, as wise and as lovingly cruel as the Jehovah of the ancients."

I-330, the rebel, speaks: "There are two forces in the world, entropy and energy. One leads into blessed quietude, to happy equilibrium, the other to the destruction of equilibrium, to torturingly perpetual motion. Our, or rather your ancestors, the Christians, worshiped entropy like a God. But we are not Christians. . . . " (3) And an image from a story told by I-330: ". . . endless strings of people driven into the City to be saved by force and to be whipped into happiness."

D-503 speaks to I-330 on a plot by the rebels to seize the Integral: "It is inconceivable! It is absurd! Is it not clear to you that what you are planning is a revolution? Absurd because a revolution is impossible! Because our--I speak for myself and for you--our revolution was the last one. No other revolutions may occur. Everybody knows that." Her response: As there is no last number, there can be no last revolution.

Then, another article appears in the State newspaper (abridged here, with ellipses added) announcing an innovation:

For from now on we are perfect! Until today your own creation, engines, were more perfect than you.
WHY? . . . .
It [your imperfection] is not your fault; you are ill. And the name of your illness is:
It is a worm that gnaws black wrinkles on one's forehead. It is a fever that drives one to run further and further, even though 'further' may begin where happiness ends. It is the last barricade on our road to happiness.
Rejoice! This Barricade Has Been Blasted at Last! The Road Is Open!
The latest discovery of our State science is that there is a center for fancy--a miserable little nervous knot in the lower region of the frontal lobe of the brain. A triple treatment of this knot with x-rays will cure you of fancy,
You are perfect; you are mechanized; the road to one-hundred-percent happiness is open! Hasten then all of you . . . to undergo the Great Operation!"

Later: ". . . a wide column of about fifty people--the word 'people' is not the right one. These were heavy-wheeled automatons seemingly bound in iron and moved by an invisible mechanism. Not people, but a sort of human-like tractor. Over their heads . . . a white banner: 'We are the first! We have already been operated upon! Follow us, all of you!"

And: "Go up to them [who are performing the Operation]. There they will cure you; there they will overfeed you with that leavened happiness. . . . Foolish people! Don't you realize that they want to liberate you from these gnawing, worm-like, torturing question marks? And you remain standing here and listening to me? Quick! Up! To the great operation!"

A rebellious D-503 goes before the Well-Doer (as Christ goes before the Grand Inquisitor), who questions him: "What was it that man from his diaper age dreamed of, tormented himself for, prayed for? He longed for that day when someone would tell him what happiness is, and then would chain him to it. What else are we doing now? The ancient dream about paradise . . . [ellipses in the original] Remember: there in paradise they know no desires any more, no pity, no love; there they are all-blessed. An operation has been performed upon their center of fancy; that is why they are blessed, angels, servants of God . . . [ditto] And now, at the very moment when we have caught up with that dream [. . .] At that moment when all that was left for us was to adorn our prize and distribute it among all in equal pieces, at that very moment you, you . . . " The Well-Doer breaks off.

In the end, D-503 undergoes the great operation himself and recounts that he has appeared before the Well-Doer "and told him everything known to me about the enemies of happiness. Why, before, it had seemed hard for me to go, I cannot understand. The only explanation seems to be my illness--my soul."

No longer in rebellion himself and in conformity with the desires of the State, D-503 closes his narrative, even as rebellion continues elsewhere: "Tomorrow they [some rebellious people] will all ascend the steps to the Machine of the Well-Doer . . . to our regret there are still quantities of Numbers [i.e., people] who have betrayed reason. . . . And I hope we win. More than that; I am certain we shall win. For reason must prevail."

Here, then, are the elements of the totalitarian threat that is as alive today as ever before: a perfection of "happiness" based on mathematics, science, and so-called reason; the use of force to bring about that state of "happiness"; the desire among the masses to surrender themselves to the State, to give up the self in favor of identification with and submersion in the masses, and to demonize if not eradicate the individual (the rebels call themselves the "Mephi" for Mephistopheles); the desire also to worship the State and to deify the leader of the State; a third desire, to make life and human existence entirely orderly, absent of love and emotion, absent of change or counterrevolution; a reduction of what makes us human to a purely material phenomenon--"a center for fancy--a miserable little nervous knot in the lower region of the frontal lobe of the brain"--which can be treated through a scientific process; dehumanization and mechanization of human beings, or turning human beings into machines or undifferentiated cogs in a machine; a need among human beings to surrender freedom for the sake of "happiness"; the equal distribution of the benefits of the State and of mass living among the masses; ultimately, total soulless conformity and uniformity.

The novel is called We (4), and it's about enforced conformity, uniformity, and the surrender of the individual self in favor of an identification with and submersion in the masses. Those forces have been with us since the beginning of time, but only with the developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were they made practicable.

To be continued . . .

(1) I would say we're still not at a point where totalitarianism can come into its fullest form, for, by a combination of genetics, neuroscience, medicine, and psychology, the aspiring totalitarian hopes to remove the human soul from the the human person and thus create a perfect slave for his perfect society.
(2) As in Biblical Eden, it is the woman in dystopian society who tempts the man into a fallen state, i.e., a state of freedom: I-330 in We, LUH-3417 in THX-1138, Jessica 6 in Logan's Run, and Jill Layton in Brazil.
(3) There is an identification throughout We of the people as a mass with the early Christians. Eric Hoffer made the same association in The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements (1951).
(4) As in "We are the ones we have been waiting for" and "We are the government," but certainly not "We, the People." People of today, animated by the totalitarian impulse, cannot claim the U.S. Constitution as their own, for it is a document against them and their brand of tyranny, in favor of man as an individual, and against the idea of men as masses or mobs.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley


  1. A terrifying totalitarian society is the society of the ants in T.H. White' The Sword in the Stone. There are only two laws:
    Whatever is not forbidden is compulsory.
    Whatever is not compulsory is forbidden.

  2. Roger,

    An excellent addition to the discussion. I had forgotten about the ants. Thanks.