The Cult of Work: Where Human Labor is Not Free, the Soul Perishes

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of an outstanding Russian writer, Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin. On March 10, 1937, this giant of twentieth-century Russian literature passed away in Paris. His name is hardly familiar to the ordinary Soviet reader, for Zamyatin’s writings had been banned in his homeland for over half a century. Since the early 1930s and up to last December, his name had only cropped up in brief derogatory entries in the Library Encyclopedia and the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. The works of other hitherto banned writers, including Alexei Remizov, Boris Pilnyak, and of course Ivan Bunin, have been published in the Soviet Union over the last 10-15 years.

In June 1987 Zamyatin’s name was resurrected when the poet Andrei Voznesensky, speaking at the Writer’s Union Conference, demanded that his literary legacy be made available to the Soviet reading public. Even Dmitri Merezhkovsky, an implacable enemy of the Soviet regime, had a few poems included in several anthologies of early twentieth-century poetry as far back as two decades ago. Yet it was not until a year ago that the first publication bearing Zamyatin’s name, a book of selected short stories, was brought out by Otchy Dom Publishers of Voronezh. And it was only a year ago, too, that the first article about Zamyatin appeared in the newspaper Literaturnaya Rossiya. All this despite the fact that Zamyatin had been a Bolshevik before the revolution. He returned home from Britain in 1917, played a prominent role on the Soviet literary scene of the 1920s, and did not leave for France until 1932 when he wrote a dramatic letter to Stalin and was granted permission to emigrate.

Readers familiar with the major works of the writer who was officially a non-person for more than half a century find nothing mysterious in the ban. Yevgeny Zamyatin is the most revolutionary of all Russian writers; whether his writings are banned or published is the most reliable pointer of the degree of freedom vouchsafed in Soviet society — or for that matter, any Russian society, for the revolutionary spirit burning in his works would be deemed inimical and unacceptable by any regime save a true democracy. There can be no doubt that Zamyatin is anathema to the ideology of traditional Russian Orthodox statehood as well as to Soviet Marxism. That is the reason why his masterpiece, the novel We, though savagely attacked in the Soviet Union in the late ’20s and widely published in many languages, was not printed in Russian in the West until 1952 when the Chekhov Publishing House came out with a maiden edition in the U.S.

For its edition of Zamyatin, the Voronezh publishing house selected the most innocuous stuff it could find: early, pre-revolutionary short stories. Judging by Oleg Mikhailov’s article, “The Literary Grandmaster,” in Literaturnaya Rossiya, there is little prospect that Soviet readers will be able to read Zamyatin’s most important, post-revolutionary works any time soon. “Restructuring,” “glasnost,” and “new thinking” notwithstanding, one has to think that the Literary Encyclopedia’s dictum of 1930 is destined to remain the official opinion for a long time to come: “Zamyatin has come full circle in his evolution — from biting satire of the Czarist regime to vitriolic attacks on the Soviet state.”

Introducing Zamyatin to Soviet readers, the critic Oleg Mikhailov painstakingly emphasizes the “Russianness” of the writer, his boundless love for his motherland, and his total rejection of the pre-revolutionary regime. By the same token, Mikhailov describes Zamyatin’s piece de resistance, the anti-utopian We, as a satire of bourgeois Britain where “he saw the emerging outline of the hated ‘machine paradise.’” Since 1984, Soviet critics have practiced a similar sleight-of-hand with George Orwell’s antitotalitarian, anti-utopian 1984, pretending that his satirical thrust is aimed in a different direction. Previously, both 1984 and We had invariably been characterized as “venom-dripping anti-communist lampoons.” Yet in spite of such a “change of address,” neither novel has been published, even in part, in the Soviet Union.

On the scale of Zamyatin’s values, neither Russia nor the people rate the top spot. Above all else he treasured freedom, which he saw as synonymous with life itself; freedom of the individual threatened not so much by the “scientifically mechanized” and completely ordered as by “we,” the organized collective: hence the title of the novel, written (1920) at the very dawn of Soviet rule. Only a heretic, that is to say a revolutionary, can fight the enslavement by the organized “we.” The, process of revolution or heresy is endless, for as soon as any revolution triumphs ossification sets in, in the form of a social “we” and a universally accepted dogma. Implementation of revolutionary goals marks the end of the revolution and the onset of slow death: entropy. Thus there can be no “final” revolution any more than there can be the ultimate number, the largest of all.

The one-party monopoly on power was the spiritual seed from which grew the idea for We, for the dramatic work St. Dominic’s Fires (about the ideological inquisition associated with any dogmatic theory), and for a series of articles and essays which would suffice to secure Zamyatin’s solid place among the foremost Russian thinkers if he had written nothing else. These three achievements constitute, in my view, the gem of his legacy. It is a rare occasion indeed when a writer succeeds in laying bare, through essays, the entire mechanism and the spiritual sources of his artistry. Zamyatin did just that. That is why any attempt to blunt the anti-totalitarian thrust of his work is doomed to failure.

It now appears that only Zamyatin’s early satirical writings will be permitted to appear in his native land, viz., the novel The Islanders, the novelette The Catcher of Men about Britain, and the play The Flea. The publication even of these will nevertheless be a major step toward spiritual emancipation of the Soviet Union. Sooner or later, I am sure, the Soviet authorities will have to think of publishing We, which serves to capsulize the entire Soviet reality: from the “unified state science,” medicine at the service of suppression, and one-party elections to the “Denunciation Bureau” and the secret police, poetic adulation of the “Benefactor” (head of state), and the cult of senseless mechanical toil.

I wish to stress the point that without the works of Yevgeny Zamyatin no spiritual renaissance is possible in the Soviet Union. If it does occur, the “tomorrow” of our world already has been described by Zamyatin in an essay under precisely this title, “Tomorrow.” Here is what he wrote:

He who has found his ideal today like Lot’s wife has already turned into a pillar of salt, has already sunk his feet into the ground and ceased moving ahead. The world lives by heretics alone: Christ the heretic, Copernicus the heretic, Tolstoy the heretic. Our symbol of faith is heresy: tomorrow is always a heresy for today turned into a pillar of salt; for yesterday that had crumbled to dust . . . Yesterday, there was a Czar and there were slaves; today, there is no Czar but the slaves remain; tomorrow, there will be only Czars. We are marching onward in the name of tomorrow’s free man, the Czar. We lived through the epoch of suppression of the masses; we are living through the epoch of suppression of the individual in the name of the masses; tomorrow will bring the emancipation of the individual, in the name of man.

One must hope that the epoch of suppression of the individual in the name of the masses is drawing to a close. And if tomorrow does bring the emancipation of the individual in the One State occupying one-sixth of our planet’s landmass, some of the credit will surely have to go to Yevgeny Zamyatin.

Written at the very dawn of Soviet rule, We uncannily foretold the most fundamental traits of the totalitarian system of the future that the Soviet leaders have tried for decades to build — so far, fortunately, without complete success. We appeared long in advance of the two other famous anti-utopias, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984; it had a powerful impact on both Western writers. Zamyatin’s novel is more abstract than those by Huxley and Orwell; it describes a world that would emerge if the idea of building a totally regimented society organized on a scientific basis were implemented in unadulterated purity, untouched by historical and national realities. Zamyatin’s vision is all the more striking when we consider that at the time he wrote We, Soviet reality was a far cry from a meticulously organized world of the future. Yet the writer’s genius perceived that the coercive organization of society inherent in the communist idea could have but a single logical outcome.

Many years later, Vassily Grossman described in his book Everything Flows how the Soviet system under Stalin evolved precisely through consolidation and growth of unfreedom in a totally centralized state. But Grossman had the benefit of several decades’ worth of actual experience, whereas Zamyatin, as far back as the chaotic year 1920, perceived that the very idea of building an ideal society denying individual freedom was a straight path toward extirpation of all life: first in man and then in nature. Rather than criticize the erroneous practices and morbid reality brought about by the Bolsheviks, We attacked precisely the idea of restructuring the world, with individual human beings treated as inanimate objects to be used as construction materials. In this sense, Zamyatin continued and developed the traditions of classical Russian literature, above all Dostoevsky.

Outwardly, there is little if any similarity between Soviet reality and the world created by Zamyatin’s imagination. Indeed, one will be hard put to discern any parallels between the ultimately organized, well-fed, teetotal, disciplined society of the One State of the twenty -sixth century A.D. described in We and current Soviet reality with its chronic shortages of food and consumer goods, mismanagement and goldbricking, rampant alcoholism, and corruption. And yet both worlds, the present-day Soviet society and Zamyatin’s fictional utopia, are rooted in the same spiritual soil. In both cases the collective, the state, is a higher value than the individual and his freedom of choice; the only difference is that We proclaims this principle with utter frankness while Soviet reality tries to disguise its true colors. Thus We:

And so, we have the scales: on one side, a gram, on the other a ton; on one side “I,” on the other “We,” the One State. Is it not clear, then, that to assume that the “I” can have some “rights” in relation to the State is exactly like assuming that a gram can balance the scale against the ton? Hence, the division: rights to the ton, duties to the gram. And the natural path from nonentity to greatness is to forget that you are a gram and feel yourself instead a millionth of a ton.

The fundamental spiritual and ideological premise that the state, the collective, is the highest value logically entails all the rest: the secret police safeguarding the unshakable order; “treatment” of the doubtful by surgery; poetry at the service of the state; the infallible leader (the “Benefactor”); the fake elections; and mandatory labor for all citizens. However, Zamyatin loudly declares what the powers-that-be in all totalitarian systems leave unsaid. Here is his observation on the subject of elections in a one-party state:

Tomorrow is the day of the annual elections of the Benefactor. Tomorrow we shall again place in the Benefactor’s hands the keys to the imperishable fortress of our happiness. Naturally, this is entirely unlike the disorderly, disorganized elections of the ancients, when, absurd to say, the very results of the elections were unknown beforehand. Building a state on entirely unpredictable eventualities, blindly —what can be more senseless? And yet apparently it needed centuries before man understood this. Needless to say, among us, in this respect as in all others, there is no room for eventualities; nothing unexpected can occur. And the elections themselves are mainly symbolic, meant to remind us that we are a single, mighty, million-celled organism . . .

Even in Stalin’s USSR no one dared defend so brazenly the idea of elections with a planned outcome, although surprises could not be expected in the Soviet elections any more than in Zamyatin’s novel. That the current Soviet leaders are openly discussing the need for genuine, not fictitious elections gives much hope. If they ever come to pass, then sooner or later the One State will be transformed into a normal, wholesome, democratic state, where personal freedom is the highest value while the state is only valued to the extent that it protects and ensures that freedom. Then, I think, Zamyatin’s novel will be published in his homeland.

The satirical thrust of We is not aimed against the errors and abuses perpetrated in the course of constructing a society of universal equality and justice, but rather against the very idea of reforming man on a scientific and allegedly rational basis. That idea was born when man and society began to be viewed as external objects in no significant way different from the rest of nature. Under so-called “scientific socialism” the idea of purposeful transformation of the world along what claimed to be scientific and rational lines has solidified into a rigid and closed ideological system, the source of legitimacy for the Communist Party’s monopoly rule. Thus, freedom of the individual is in effect the most implacable enemy of both the system of “scientific socialism” and the Party’s monopoly power. The notion of “we” comprises the collective, the state, the people, the nation, the church, the race, the party, the whole of mankind: all the idols that the powers-that-be counterpoise to the individual. Zamyatin’s novel describes totalitarianism triumphant, the One State of the distant future where individual freedom is almost completely suppressed.

It is particularly interesting to compare the attitude toward compulsory labor in Soviet society and in Zamyatin’s novel. The attitude of man toward work evolved in the course of history, and it is only lately that the cult of labor has emerged both in the West and in the East. According to Judeo-Christian tradition, man was punished for his original sin by banishment from Paradise and the injunction to “earn his daily bread in the sweat of his brow.” As a matter of fact, the need to earn a living “in the sweat of one’s brow” has been viewed as a punishment and torment by all major world religions, even by medieval monastic orders whose motto was ora et labora, that is, that toil and prayer alone can bring salvation. Paradise has always been perceived as a place where man has no need to work for a living.

In a sense, even Karl Marx had a similar idea of Paradise on earth: the ultimate world-wide communist society where all material wealth would be produced at fully automated and robotized factories. In the Marxian “Kingdom of Freedom” mankind; liberated from the need to work, would devote all its energies to free creative endeavor. In formulating this vision, Marx simply drew on his personal and historical experience which taught that only those strata of society that had no need to work for a living brought forth and developed free creative activities, such as science and philosophy, literature and arts.

Not only as a path to salvation and a means of subsistence but also as the bulwark of order and public morality, the cult of work was developed by Protestantism and provided a major impetus to the economic development of capitalist countries. Nevertheless, even the Protestants always regarded compulsory labor as a severe form of punishment.

The cult of labor has acquired its ugliest forms in the one-party dictatorships of the world communist movement. The reason for this should be sought in Marxist teaching which is rooted in the premise that all material wealth is created by manual labor, not free creative endeavor, and in the notion that capital is formed by the extortion of “surplus value” from the working class. Thus Marx perceived his “Kingdom of Freedom” sometimes as emancipation of labor, and at other times as emancipation from labor. The first formulation, emancipation of labor, got the upper hand in the Russian communist movement.

As early as the turn of the century, Party pens, taking their clue from Maxim Gorky, sang hosannas not just to free human creativity, but to any kind of work, to work per se. In their view, the process of work in and of itself is the highest value. Since the idea of remaking the world in theory and in practice involves coercion, emancipation of labor, entirely predictably, has materialized as compulsory labor duty. The laws of most modern countries, while providing protection for the disadvantaged, encourage most citizens to provide for themselves, to have or to earn a source of income. But only the Soviet Union and some other socialist countries take this to an absurd extreme, enforcing “parasitism” laws whereby people who for a few months refrain from “socially useful labor” are prosecuted as common criminals whether or not they have demonstrable means of subsistence. This despite the fact that the Soviet Union is a signatory to all manner of international treaties banning compulsory (i.e., slave) labor.

It has been observed that Karl Marx, who almost all his life was supported by his capitalist friend Engels was, in Soviet terms, an outright parasite. This awkward fact is ignored by Soviet Marxists who spare no effort to prove that compulsory labor for the so-called common good will cease to be a burden in the communist future because socialist education will prompt man to develop a natural need to work. That man has an inborn yearning for free creative self-expression and that compulsory labor habits have to be inculcated goes unmentioned by Soviet ideologists as glaringly at variance with Marxist-Leninist theory.

In We Zamyatin describes a society where the inspired idea of Soviet Marxists has been implemented in its ultimate form: the re-education of a human being who dodges compulsory labor into a human being who exhibits an “ingrained need to work.” In Zamyatin’s society of the future, every instant in the life of each human being (or “number”) is regimented down to the smallest detail. A person’s whole life is scheduled by the comprehensive plan, the Table of Hours: hours of work and of organized leisure; hours of public lectures and hours of sex, and so on. But pride of place, naturally, belongs to work, that “socially useful labor” which Soviet ideologists see in their dreams.

“The need to work” has thus been successfully drummed into each individual. The schoolchildren of the One State are taught the story of the “Three Excused Ones,” which graphically depicts a completely re-educated man burning with the need to work.

It is the story of how three numbers were, by way of experiment, excused from work for a month: do what you like, go where you wish. The wretches loitered near their usual places of work, peering inside with hungry eyes; they stood in the street hour after hour, repeating the motions which had already become necessary to their organisms at the given times of the day: they sawed and planed the air, swung invisible hammers, struck invisible blocks. And, finally, on the tenth day, unable to endure it any longer, they linked hands, walked into the water, and to the sounds of the march, went deeper and deeper, until the water put an end to their misery.

Yearning for freedom and free will form the ineradicable nucleus of the human personality; even in Zamyatin’s completed communist society a revolutionary protest flares up. In spite of century-old coercive re-education and attempts to inculcate work habits, man (as long as he remains true to his nature) is instinctively attracted to freedom and intuitively realizes that free creativity and compulsory work are related as life is to death, as love is to prostitution. No one has shown more succinctly that the cult of work is in fact a cult of slavery than Yevgeny Zamyatin.


  • Mihajlo Mihajlov

    Mihajlo Mihajlov (1934 — 2010) was a Yugoslav scholar of modern Russian literature. He spent seven years in prison under the regime of Marshall Tito for disseminating "hostile propaganda."

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