A War Without End

The late Ursula Le Guin on oppression, resistance, and why “the exercise of imagination is dangerous.”

Ursula Le Guin at the University of Oregon campus in 2013. Jack Liu

Some thoughts, written down at intervals, about oppression, revolution, and imagination.


My country came together in one revolution and was nearly broken by another.

The first revolution was a protest against galling, stupid, but relatively mild social and economic exploitation. It was almost uniquely successful.

Many of those who made the first revolution practiced the most extreme form of economic exploitation and social oppression: they were slaveowners.

The second American revolution, the Civil War, was an attempt to preserve slavery. It was partially successful. The institution was abolished, but the mind of the master and the mind of the slave still think a good many of the thoughts of America.

Resistance to Oppression

Phillis Wheatley, poet and manumitted slave, wrote in 1774: “In every human Breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”

I would no more deny the truth of that than I would deny that the sun shines. All that is good in the institutions and politics of my country rests on it.

And yet I see that though we love freedom we are mostly patient of oppression, and even refuse deliverance.

I see a danger in insisting that our love of freedom always outweighs whatever force or inertia keeps us from resisting oppression and seeking deliverance.

If I deny that strong, intelligent, capable people will and do accept oppression, I’m identifying the oppressed as weak, stupid, and inept.

If it were true that superior people refuse to be treated as inferiors, it would follow that those low in the social order are truly inferior, since, if they were superior, they’d protest; since they accept an inferior position, they are inferior. This is the comfortably tautological argument of the slaveowner, the social reactionary, the racist, and the misogynist.

It is an argument that still bedevils consideration of the Hitlerian holocaust: Why did the Jews “just get into the trains”? Why didn’t they “fight back”? A question which — as asked — is unanswerable, and so can be used by the antisemite to imply the inferiority of the Jews.

But the argument appeals also to the idealist. Many liberal and humanely conservative Americans cherish the conviction that all oppressed people suffer intolerably from their oppression, must be ready and eager to rebel, and are morally weak, morally wrong, if they do not rebel.

I categorically judge as wrong any person who considers himself or herself racially or socially superior to another or enforces inferior status on another. But it is a different matter to pass categorical judgment against people who accept inferior status. If I say that they are wrong, that morality demands that they rebel, it behoves me to consider what real choice they have, whether they act in ignorance or through conviction, whether they have any opportunity to lessen their ignorance or change their conviction. Having so considered, how can I say they are at fault? Is it they, and not the oppressors, who do wrong?

The ruling class is always small, the lower orders large, even in a caste society. The poor always vastly outnumber the rich. The powerful are fewer than those they hold power over. Adult men hold superior status in almost all societies, though they are always outnumbered by women and children. Governments and religions sanction and uphold inequality, social rank, gender rank, and privilege, wholly or selectively.

Most people, in most places, in most times, are of inferior status.

And most people, even now, even in “the free world,” even in “the home of the free,” consider this state of affairs, or certain elements of it, as natural, necessary, and unchangeable. They hold it to be the way it has always been and therefore the way it must be. This may be conviction or it may be ignorance; often it is both. Over the centuries, most people of inferior status have had no way of knowing that any other way of ordering society has existed or could exist — that change is possible. Only those of superior status have ever known enough to know that; and it is their power and privilege that would be at stake if the order of things were changed.

We cannot trust history as a moral guide in these matters, because history is written by the superior class, the educated, the empowered. But we have only history to go on, and observation of current events. On that evidence, revolt and rebellion are rare things, revolution extremely rare. In most times, in most places, most women, slaves, serfs, low-castes, outcastes, peasants, working-class people, most people defined as inferior — that is, most people — have not rebelled against being despised and exploited. They resist, yes; but their resistance is likely to be passive, or so devious, so much a part of daily behavior, as to be all but invisible.

When voices from the oppressed and the underclasses are recorded, some are cries for justice, but most are expressions of patriotism, cheers for the king, vows to defend the fatherland, all loyally supporting the system that disenfranchises them and the people who profit from it.

Slavery would not have existed all over the world if slaves often rose against their masters. Most slave-masters are not murdered. They are obeyed.

Working men watch their company’s CEOs get paid three hundred times what they are paid, and grumble, but do nothing.

Women in most societies uphold the claims and institutions of male supremacy, deferring to men, obeying them (overtly), and defending the innate superiority of men as natural fact or religious dogma.

Low-status males — young men, poor men — fight and die for the system that keeps them under. Most of the countless soldiers killed in the countless wars waged to uphold the power of a society’s rulers or religion have been men considered inferior by that society.

“You have nothing to lose but your chains,” but we prefer to kiss them.


Are human societies inevitably constructed as a pyramid, with the power concentrating at the top? Is a hierarchy of power a biological imperative that human society is bound to enact? The question is almost certainly wrongly phrased and so impossible to answer, but it keeps getting asked and answered, and those who ask it usually answer it in the affirmative.

If such an inborn, biological imperative exists, is it equally imperative in both sexes? We have no incontrovertible evidence of innate gender difference in social behavior. Essentialists on both sides of the argument maintain that men are innately disposed to establish a power hierarchy while women, though they do not initiate such structures, accept or imitate them. According to the essentialists, the male program is thus certain to prevail, and we should expect to find the chain of command, the “higher” commanding the “lower,” with power concentrated in a few, a nearly universal pattern of human society.

Anthropology provides some exceptions to this supposed universality. Ethnologists have described societies that have no fixed chain of command; in them power, instead of being locked into a rigid system of inequality, is fluid, shared differently in different situations, operating by checks and balances tending always towards consensus. They have described societies that do not rank one gender as superior, though there is always some gendered division of labor, and male pursuits are those most likely to be celebrated.

But these are all societies we describe as “primitive” — tautologically, since we have already established a value hierarchy: primitive = low = weak, civilized = high = powerful.

Many “primitive” and all “civilized” societies are rigidly stratified, with much power assigned to a few and little or no power to most. Is the perpetuation of institutions of social inequality in fact the engine that drives civilization, as Lévi- Strauss suggests?

People in power are better fed, better armed, and better educated, and therefore better able to stay that way, but is that sufficient to explain the ubiquity and permanence of extreme social inequality? Certainly the fact that men are slightly larger and more muscular (though somewhat less durable) than women is not sufficient to explain the ubiquity of gender inequality and its perpetuation in societies where size and muscularity do not make much difference.

If human beings hated injustice and inequality as we say we do and think we do, would any of the Great Empires and High Civilizations have lasted fifteen minutes?

If we Americans hate injustice and inequality as passionately as we say we do, would any person in this country lack enough to eat?

We demand a rebellious spirit of those who have no chance to learn that rebellion is possible, but we the privileged hold still and see no evil.

We have good reason to be cautious, to be quiet, not to rock the boat. A lot of peace and comfort is at stake. The mental and moral shift from denial of injustice to consciousness of injustice is often made at very high cost. My contentment, stability, safety, personal affections, may become a sacrifice to the dream of the common good, to the idea of a freedom that I may not live to share, an ideal of justice that nobody may ever attain.

The last words of the Mahabharata are, “By no means can I attain a goal beyond my reach.” It is likely that justice, a human idea, is a goal beyond human reach. We’re good at inventing things that can’t exist.

Maybe freedom cannot be attained through human institutions but must remain a quality of the mind or spirit not dependent on circumstances, a gift of grace. This (if I understand it) is the religious definition of freedom. My problem with it is that its devaluation of work and circumstance encourages institutional injustices which make the gift of grace inaccessible. A two-year-old child who dies of starvation or a beating or a firebombing has not been granted access to freedom, nor any gift of grace, in any sense in which I can understand the words.

We can attain by our own efforts only an imperfect justice, a limited freedom. Better than none. Let us hold fast to that principle, the love of Freedom, of which the freed slave, the poet, spoke.

The Ground of Hope

The shift from denial of injustice to recognition of injustice can’t be unmade.

What your eyes have seen they have seen. Once you see the injustice, you can never again in good faith deny the oppression and defend the oppressor. What was loyalty is now betrayal. From now on, if you don’t resist, you collude.

But there is a middle ground between defense and attack, a ground of flexible resistance, a space opened for change. It is not an easy place to find or live in. Peacemakers trying to get there have ended up scuttling in panic to Munich.

Even if they reach the middle ground, they may get no thanks for it. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom is a slave who, for his courageous effort to persuade his owner to change his heart and his steadfast refusal to beat other slaves, is beaten to death. We insist on using him as a symbol of cringing capitulation and servility.

Admiring heroically useless defiance, we sneer at patient resistance.

But the negotiating ground, where patience makes change, is where Gandhi stood. Lincoln got there, painfully. Bishop Tutu, having lived there for years in singular honor, saw his country move, however awkwardly and uncertainly, towards that ground of hope.

The Master’s Tools

Audre Lorde said you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. I think about this powerful metaphor, trying to understand it.

By radicals, liberals, conservatives, and reactionaries, education in the masters’ knowledge is seen as leading inevitably to consciousness of oppression and exploitation, and so to the subversive desire for equality and justice. Liberals support and reactionaries oppose universal free education, public schools, uncensored discussion at the universities for exactly the same reason.

Lorde’s metaphor seems to say that education is irrelevant to social change. If nothing the master used can be useful to the slave, then education in the masters’ knowledge must be abandoned. Thus an underclass must entirely reinvent society, achieve a new knowledge, in order to achieve justice. If they don’t, the revolution will fail.

This is plausible. Revolutions generally fail. But I see their failure beginning when the attempt to rebuild the house so everybody can live in it becomes an attempt to grab all the saws and hammers, barricade Ole Massa’s toolroom, and keep the others out. Power not only corrupts, it addicts. Work becomes destruction. Nothing is built.

Societies change with and without violence. Reinvention is possible. Building is possible. What tools have we to build with except hammers, nails, saws — education, learning to think, learning skills?

Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful? Along with the priesthood and phallocracy, must we throw away science and democracy? Will we be left trying to build without any tools but our bare hands? The metaphor is rich and dangerous. I can’t answer the questions it raises.

Only in Utopias

In the sense that it offers a glimpse of some imagined alternative to “the way we live now,” much of my fiction can be called utopian, but I continue to resist the word. Many of my invented societies strike me as an improvement in one way or another on our own, but I find utopia far too grand and too rigid a name for them.

Utopia, and dystopia, are intellectual places. I write from passion and playfulness. My stories are neither dire warnings nor blueprints for what we ought to do. Most of them, I think, are comedies of human manners, reminders of the infinite variety of ways in which we always come back to pretty much the same place, and celebrations of that infinite variety by the invention of still more alternatives and possibilities. Even the novels The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home, in which I worked out more methodically than usual certain variations on the uses of power, which I preferred to those that obtain in our world — even these are as much efforts to subvert as to display the ideal of an attainable social plan which would end injustice and inequality once and for all.

To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.

Fantasy and science fiction in their very conception offer alternatives to the reader’s present, actual world. Young people in general welcome this kind of story because in their vigor and eagerness for experience they welcome alternatives, possibilities, change. Having come to fear even the imagination of true change, many adults refuse all imaginative literature, priding themselves on seeing nothing beyond what they already know, or think they know.

Yet, as if it feared its own troubling powers, much science fiction and fantasy is timid and reactionary in its social invention, fantasy clinging to feudalism, science fiction to military and imperial hierarchy. Both usually reward their hero, whether a man or woman, only for doing outstandingly manly deeds. (I wrote this way for years myself. In The Left Hand of Darkness, my hero is genderless but his heroics are almost exclusively manly.) In science fiction particularly, one also often meets the idea I discussed above, that anyone of inferior status, if not a rebel constantly ready to seize freedom through daring and violent action, is either despicable or simply of no consequence.

In a world so morally simplified, if a slave is not Spartacus, he is nobody. This is merciless and unrealistic. Most slaves, most oppressed people, are part of a social order which, by the very terms of their oppression, they have no opportunity even to perceive as capable of being changed.

The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.

Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truth-teller.

It is sad that so many stories that might offer a true vision settle for patriotic or religious platitude, technological miracle working, or wishful thinking, the writers not trying to imagine truth. The fashionably noir dystopia merely reverses the platitudes and uses acid instead of saccharine, while still evading engagement with human suffering and with genuine possibility.

The imaginative fiction I admire presents alternatives to the status quo which not only question the ubiquity and necessity of extant institutions, but enlarge the field of social possibility and moral understanding. This may be done in as naively hopeful a tone as the first three Star Trek television series, or through such complex, sophisticated, and ambiguous constructions of thought and technique as the novels of Philip K. Dick or Carol Emshwiller; but the movement is recognizably the same — the impulse to make change imaginable.

We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.

I want to close and crown these inconclusive meditations with the words of a writer who never spoke anything but truth, and always spoke it quietly, Primo Levi, who lived a year in Auschwitz, and knew what injustice is.

The ascent of the privileged, not only in the Lager but in all human coexistence, is an anguishing but unfailing phenomenon: only in utopias is it absent. It is the duty of righteous men to make war on all undeserved privilege, but one must not forget that this is a war without end.

Source: jacobinmag.com