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Kafka v Zamyatin on Oppression and Tyranny
by Bryan Register

Date: 1 Apr 97
Forum: University of Texas at Austin
Copyright: Bryan Register

Note: The author may or may not still agree with the views expressed in this paper.

Yevgeny Zamyatin's We and Franz Kafka's The Trial each present violently oppressive systems, operating on what at least appear to be radically different basic principles. While Kafka's Court is unintelligible and arbitrary, Zamyatin's One State operates on a rationalistic principle divorced from human nature. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the two systems independently, and to argue that ultimately they melt into one another, with the pseudo-rationality of the One State merely Court irrationalism in a mask.

Kafka's Court does not enforce anything which we would ordinarily recognize as law. 'K. lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force...' (Kafka, 4) In the ordinary western tradition, laws are made by elected bodies and cannot be enforced unless they are on public file. If a group of bandits were to organize and call themselves a Court and enforce their whims under the name of Law, we would not recognize this as legitimate (at least since the Enlightenment idea that government derives its powers from the consent of the governed).

Further, the Court seems to work on a principle of proof opposite the basic common law principles. K. plans to write a history of his life to prove his innocence:

He had often considered whether it would not be better to draw up a written defense and hand it in to the Court. In this defense he would give a short account of his life, and when he came to an event of any importance explain for what reason he had acted as he did...' (Kafka, 113)

Kafka never gives us any evidence to suggest that this plan does not accord with the methods of the Court, but the plan is triply irrational. First, it is impossible to prove innocence, only guilt. To prove innocence is to prove the non-commission of a crime, which is a negative. But it is impossible to prove a negative (except by proving a positive which contradicts it). This is why most western law traditions assume the accused innocent until proven guilty. But the autobiography was intended to prove innocence; an impossible task. Second, K. could hardly prove anything about a crime the nature of which he was unaware. He may have been accused of exercising his freedom from religion; something which the Court may not recognize, but which, since we recognize, we assume could not be his alleged crime. Third, it is impossible to prove anything by unknown standards. The Court's standards of evidence may, for all K. or we know, that anything said while holding a glass of lemonade is acceptable into evidence, but anything said on alternate Sundays is assumed to be a lie.

The argument to draw here is that, since Kafka often corrects K.'s misapprehensions about the Court, and does not correct the notion that this autobiography may have utility for the acquisition of an acquittal, there is at least a good possibility that the autobiography would have had this utility. Yet, in a rational legal tradition, it would have no such utility.

Further, the proceedings themselves are incoherently bizarre. K.'s lawyer tells K. that the first plea is the crucial thing: '...for the first impression made by the Defense often determined the whole course of subsequent proceedings...' (Kafka, 114) and that the first plea is like as not inconsequential: '[The Court] simply filed them among other papers and pointed out that for the time being the observation and interrogation of the accused were more important...' (Kafka, 115) In a comprehensible legal system, the weights of the procedures are knowable in advance; institutionalized ignorance on such matters amounting to ex post facto 'law'.

In a decent legal system, proceedings are open to the public for observation; this has the function of ensuring that the legal system does not use illegitimate means to secure a conviction. However, in the Court, we 'must remember that the proceedings [are] not public; they could certainly, if the Court considered it necessary, become public...' (Kafka, 115) Further, the accused is never informed of the nature of her crime: '... the legal records of the case, and above all the actual charge-sheets, were inaccessible to the accused...' (Kafka, 115)

One's legal arguments, however powerful, are to no avail, and the officials of the court are not to be trusted: 'for definitely as [the higher officials] might declare themselves for a new standpoint favorable to the Defense, they might well go straight to their offices and issue a statement in the directly contrary sense...' (Kafka, 118)

Finally, the Court does not acquit. There are three ways to avoid conviction. One of them, no longer practiced, is definite acquittal. But 'we have only legendary accounts of ancient cases [which] provide instances of acquittal' (Kafka, 154) The realistic options are 'Ostensible acquittal and postponement.' (Kafka, 155) The first can make the accused only 'provisionally free' (Kafka, 158) because 'as soon as an order comes from on high, [the charge] can be laid on [one] again.' (Kafka, 158) That is, the accused can be found innocent subject to the whim of a hidden judge. Alternately, one can seek postponement. This 'consists in preventing the case from ever getting further than its first stages.' (Kafka, 160) The accused who seeks postponement uses the very bureaucratic process which victimizes him as a weapon in his defence. She waives, in effect, her right to a speedy trial in order to secure the blessings of a kind of pseudo-liberty in which she has the freedom to continue to delay the trial.

The Court demands that an individual defend herself, by the Law's method (which is incomprehensible), against the charges (which are secret), to the Judges (who are hidden), after being arrested (by ignorant mercenaries), to achieve an acquittal (which is legendary fiction). A more irrational system is hard to imagine.

Ostensibly, the One State of Zamyatin's We suffers from the opposite extreme; rather than irrationalism disconnected from the demands of human reason, constructivist rationalism divorced from the empirical facts of human nature.

The One State rests on the principle that 'Love and Hunger rule the world' (Zamyatin, 20-21, in Ginsburg translation from Avon Science Fiction) To conquer the world, it is necessary to conquer its rulers; hence the One State sought to conquer Love and Hunger. Hunger is dealt with by petroleum food. Love is dealt with by collective sexuality: 'Every number has a right to any other number, as a sexual commodity.' (Zamyatin, 21)

The liberal notion of 'rights' has been inverted: 'we have the scales: 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?' (Zamyatin, 115) However, this argument is transparently thin, as it rests on the premise that 'the source of right is might, that right is a function of power.' (Zamyatin, 115) But this is false. Rights are a moral concept and moral claims do not rest on the actual circumstances of the moment. A current 'is' does not imply that the status quo 'ought' to be.

The defender of One State ideology would make appeal to the new, mathematical morality which tinges the reactions of the numbers of the State. When the One State scientists and mathematicians make a ground test of the rocket engines of the Integral,

a dozen or so numbers from the dock neglected to get out of the way.... Ten numbers are less than a hundred-millionth part of the population of the One State; practically considered, it is an infinitesimal of the third order. Only the ancients were prone to arithmetically illiterate pity; to us it is ridiculous.' (Zamyatin, 107-108)

Ostensibly, the One State is rational for regarding human beings in this manner. To arithmetize everything, to change morality into a quantitative subject, has the appearance of rigorous rationality.

But is this so? The process of reasoning which an empirical scientist employs is inductive, sometimes even qualitative. To make deduction the exclusive standard for what is rational is to render irrational much of science; including the science which makes petroleum food and rocket ships. If rationality can include the non-deductive reasoning which achieves these technological advances, why can it not include a non-deductive reasoning about morality?

The One State is ruled by a unanimously elected Benefactor. But on the Unanimity Day on which the Mephi revolution begins, thousands of individuals vote against the Benefactor. The One State Gazatte reports the next day that the Benefactor

was elected by a unanimous vote. The celebration was marred by a slight disturbance... It is clear to everyone that taking account of [the dissenting votes] would be as absurd as considering the sounds of some sick persons in the audience as a part of a magnificent heroic symphony.(Zamyatin, 149)

Now, every number of the One State saw the 'slight disturbance': it was a mass dissension and riot. Is it rational - not effective, but rational - to lie to people who perfectly well saw what happened? But it is entirely unclear why, when the procedures of the One State are clear that the Benefactor must be elected unanimously, and there is not a unanimous vote in his favour, he is not removed from office. It seems irrational to state a procedure and not abide by it; the purpose of a procedure is to regulate actions.

The One State seeks to achieve perfect equality among all the numbers; a state of perfect entropy in which energy is equally distributed amongst them: 'There's nothing next! Period. Throughout the universe - spread uniformly - everywhere...' (Zamyatin, 175) But here, the fallacious reasoning of the One State apology is made clear to its defender: 'Is it not clear to you, a mathematician, that only differences... make for life?' (Zamyatin, 175, emphasis added) It is indeed strange that the rational One State would commit such a fallacy, and that it would have to be pointed out to a mathematician.

The argument which I am here constructing is that the One State is utterly irrational. Its conception of rights, morality, legality, and the preferred end state of the human species are all poorly argued for. A state which was truly rational would pay more attention to these obvious fallacies.

It is on these grounds that I argue that the One State and the Court are of a piece in fact, if not in appearance. The One State ignores its legal procedures; so does the Court. The Judges of the Court are hidden from view; the Guardians and Benefactor of the One State, though visible to all, are just as inscrutable.

At the concluding moment of The Trial, K. is led off into the night by two agents of the Court.

Just outside the street door they fastened on him in a fashion he had never before experienced.... K. walked rigidly between them, the three of them were interlocked in a unity which would have brought all three down had one of them been knocked over. It was a unity such as can hardly be formed except by lifeless matter. (Kafka, 224)

And at the last moment of We, D-503 subjects himself to the Operation which excises from one his imagination. As advertised by the One State Gazette : 'You are perfect. You are machinelike. The road to one hundred percent happiness is free.' (Zamyatin, 180) But machines are not living organisms, and One State entropy negates the possibility of life. Further, to whatever degree the One State had in past approached its ideal of unimaginative machine-like ex-people, it became impossible. Imagination is that faculty wherein we project possible future states or unkown possibilites, such as rocket ships or electric fences. At the height of revolution, the One State has 'succeeded in erecting a temporary barrier of high-voltage waves...' (Zamyatin, 232) Who came up with this idea? What visionary realized that, though there was no defense against the revolutionaries at the moment, there could be? And why didn't this individual join the revolution - rather than turn her unique imagination over the the powers of the One State which planned to spread them evenly throughout the populace or else excise them with X-rays?

The Court and the One State are equally lethal. K. walks as though following the Table of Hours to his butchery, and D-503's animated carcass continues to exist to proclaim that 'Reason must prevail.' But they are equally dead, and incapable of reasoning, and irrational procedures killed each of them.

Each of these two ways of killing people is a threat to the safety of individuals in the 20th century. They are the same tendency, working itself out in different ways. One is achieved by a slow evolution from a decent system into something wicked, the other is achived by a sudden revolution and the planning of a new social order.

The Court model is what happens when a system of laws becomes twisted into a bureaucracy by the constant addition of new bureaus, statutes, legal requirements, and sheer red tape. This is a system which has grown according to no guiding principle, achieving arbitrariness and often glaring irrationalism.

The One State model is what happens when a violent upheavel destroys the existing social order and a new system is immediately created by a single central authority working according to a single plan. This is a system which has been created according to a single guiding principle, but which principle is in error.

The Court is a threat to those who live in democracies. Given the power of governments, motivated by special interests and sheer bribery, to create tiny legal impediments and restrictions on free action, Courts can grow up in every government and damage the lives of any individual. The confusion and demoralization of dealing with a bureaucracy can deaden the interest which people may have in taking actions which are regulated by government.

The One State is a threat to those who live in unsteady political situations. The One State situation can come about when people are driven by desperation to seek a drastic change in their situation, as when the Depression and hyper-inflation pushed Germany toward the Nazis. These desperate situations make people desperate and less able to view rationally the options at their disposal. The party advocating a new plan to organize society sounds fresh and exciting. The nature of the plan is not scrutinized, because the plan is preferred for its sheer novelty.

Each of the tyrannies satirized by Kafka and Zamyatin is a threat. But they are really two variants of the same irrationalism: one the irrationalism of random evolution without a selection mechanism, the other the irrationalism of big, visionary, contradictory schemes.

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