The Socialist Dune?

Since its publication in 1965, Dune has been claimed by both Right and Left — but its political and ecological critiques make its return to the big screen apt for an era of capitalist crisis.

Frank Herbert’s Dune has been pushed to the forefront of popular discourse thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation. (Chia Bella James / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Frank Herbert’s Dune has been pushed to the forefront of popular discourse thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s blockbuster adaptation (and the associated marketing push). Despite its status as a classic of American science fiction, Dune and the series it began have received less scholarly attention than contemporaries like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or the works of Kurt Vonnegut, meaning there is less expert consensus to guide commentators, pundits, and regular folks trying to sort out the novel’s meaning and politics, in its time and in ours.

The one thing that most scholars and commentators seem to agree is that “Dune is more relevant than ever.” Few agree, however, on just what aspects of the text are relevant today, to whom, or why. Some have decried Dune as an exemplar of the most toxic tropes lurking in science fiction, calling the novel an orientalist fever dream, a paean to eugenics, and a seductive monument to fascist aesthetics; others look at the same text and see an excoriation of hero worship, a cautionary tale of revolutionary dreams betrayed, and a warning about indigenous sovereignty subverted by a charismatic charlatan.

Both of these interpretations are grounded in clear textual evidence, and part of the novel’s enduring appeal is its ability to inspire such seemingly contradictory takes. Indeed, it’s not despite but because of these contradictions that the novel has exerted such a pull on the left-wing imagination over the years — and retains its uses for left-wing politics today.

It’s a Trap

Herbert said many times that Dune’s central theme is the “dangers of the superhero.” In a piece of that name, republished in Tim O’Reilly’s The Maker of Dune, Herbert claims that “the original spark” of the novel was his conviction that “superheroes are disastrous for mankind,” and a desire to dramatize how the mythmaking impulse that crowns a hero inevitably conjures a toxic, totalitarian social system of “demagogues, fanatics, con-game artists . . . [and] innocent and not so innocent bystanders.”

Dune, then, explores what makes the hero seductive enough that people willingly, even rapturously, “turn over their judgement and decision-making faculties.” This framing locates Dune alongside projects like Theodor Adorno’s “F-Scale,” in the grand tradition of postwar theorizing about fascist subjectivity. Rather than theorize the seductiveness of the fascist imagination, Herbert’s novel is intended to function as a trap, a mechanism intended both to perform the siren song of hero worship and simultaneously estrange readers from that experience, exposing their own complicit desires for it.

The result is a text in which the surface narrative of imperial power fantasy is conveyed through multiple viewpoints, each of which undercuts and complicates the others. The novel provides plenty of clues for how readers are intended to approach this hedge of perspectives. An example is Leto’s advice to a young Paul:

Knowing where the trap is — that’s the first step in evading it. This is like single combat, Son, only on a larger scale — a feint within a feint within a feint . . . seemingly without end. The task is to unravel it.

Leto speaks of the politics in the novel, but his advice applies to the politics of the novel, too. Little should be taken at face value. Each element of the narrative is meant to provoke reactions in the reader, misdirect their attention, and set them up for the next confounding or estranging jolt.

The critical elements of the novel are found in the framing and subtext, in the interplay of perspective, and especially in the sardonic tone that suffuses the text. Here again, the text offers the careful reader clear instruction. In one of the epigraphs framing the narrative, Paul says of his own performance as a “hero”:

The person experiencing greatness . . . must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself.

Dune’s dour, self-lacerating tone is what allows the novel to “move within” itself and its own heroic pretensions. Stilted dialogue, caustic asides, and other sour notes dampen ostensibly epic and exciting plot elements, recasting Paul’s “hero’s journey” as a descent into cynical self-destruction, as when Paul turns to his companion Stilgar, in a moment of triumph, to find his friend has “become a worshipper,” a mere “creature” ruined by Paul’s own ambition. By poisoning its feast of fascist aesthetics, the novel strives to put us off the taste for good.

The first and in some ways most important reader to fall into this trap was John W. Campbell, editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine, where the first version of Dune was serially published. A notorious aficionado of psychic übermenschen, Campbell was thrilled by this “grand yarn,” and his correspondence with Herbert about the manuscript shows little initial awareness of its critical treatment of his favorite themes.

Campbell’s embrace allowed the ambitious narrative to see the light of day: Without the Analog publication, Herbert would have had an even harder time selling the text as a novel. But his reaction also showed the weakness in the book’s approach. While the seductive fascist aesthetic is right up on the surface, inescapable, the critical and estranging elements have proved all too easy to miss, by Campbell and generations of readers that have followed him. Worse, this narrative mechanism is most likely to fail those already targeted for fascist recruiting: Young people and those underserved by our devastated educational systems.

For all readers, making sense of a narrative comprised of feints within feints, “seemingly without end,” means your ultimate interpretation is mostly a function of the level at which you choose to stop digging. Scholars like David Higgins and Jordan Scott Carroll have recently shown that both naïve and more motivated readings centering the fascist spectacle in Dune have made the novel a touchstone of the modern right; indeed, as Daniel Immerwahr and Chris Dite have argued, some of these “bad” readings might be closer to Herbert’s own views than many fans like to admit.

So What’s Useful?

The key for the Left, then, is to pay more attention to the questions the text raises, rather than the tainted answers it offers. For instance, as mentioned, Dune gives us an extended critique of the hero mystique. It asks how we reevaluate the role of iconic political figures in light of Paul’s “bad heroism,” and how we build on their vision and charisma while avoiding Stilgar’s fate; how, ultimately, we remain comrades in struggle, rather than idols and worshippers. (The second novel in the series, Dune Messiah, is helpful here, as the autocratic tendencies in Paul’s “heroism” and their grim consequences rise to the surface.)

Meanwhile, as Immerwahr has shown, Herbert’s representation of indigeneity is vexed at best. The novel’s portrait of the Fremen’s “desert power” and the ecological literacy underlying it is steeped in the distinctively libertarian countercultural mode of Northern California in the mid-1960s, best expressed in the eclectic DIY ethos of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog — which presented materials ranging from homesteading supplies to books on non-Western philosophy as “tools” with which the settler-colonial hipster can pioneer their own intentional community.

The celebration of ecological wisdom in the novel is always, at the same time, the expansion of the imperial subject’s power over themselves and their environment — what Higgins has called fantasies of “psychic decolonization” — even if the novel undercuts such fantasies by holding that such attempts at control inevitably fail.

As we seek paths to avoid environmental catastrophe, acting in solidarity with indigenous communities and honoring and learning from their traditional knowledges will be key to our survival. How, then, can we avoid the approaches the novel dramatizes, which appropriate and instrumentalize such wisdom, weaponizing it as means of power-over?

Similar questions apply to the novel’s portrayal of women, which, as Kara Kennedy has argued, is complex and sometimes contradictory. Lady Jessica is, for most practical purposes, the coprotagonist of the first half of the novel, but she and the rest of the mysterious and potent Bene Gesserit order are ultimately cast as Paul’s antagonists, and his co-option of their feminine-coded abilities for his own masculine purposes is central to his ascent to superheroism.

Making these women the perpetrators of the breeding program that produced Paul’s superhuman powers (and those of the rest of the novels’ extraordinarily skilled characters) means that they ultimately take the fall for Herbert’s own eugenicist predilections.

The Bene Gesserit and their powers are pathologized in the narrative in a manner that makes shaming and repudiating them central to Paul’s own “heroic journey” — but his appropriation of the “Bene Gesserit Way” also helps us think about the ways neoliberal capitalism and the gig economy exploit and commodify the kin-keeping and caring labor most often performed by women.

My own work has focused on how Dune’s fetishization of training and human potential anticipates neoliberalism’s transformation of human beings into human capital, to be managed and developed to maximize returns on investment. Paul is one of the first superheroes whose powers turn on speculation and preemption: Rather than being fantastically strong and powerful like Superman, he uses his prescience and minutely trained senses to invest the minimum force to the precise points where it will have maximum effect. He is the hero as arbitrageur, a warrior in the mode of Donald Rumsfeld’s “Revolution in Military Affairs.”

Paul’s transformation into a speculative superhero is both triumph and self-destruction, spurring consideration of the way neoliberal language infests our experiences and our activism: We “invest our time” and scrutinize the “impact of those investments.” How, in Dune’s light, can we reimagine our agency and our goals outside the language of human capital development Paul dramatizes?

Read with an ear for these issues, Dune can offer powerful images and cautionary tales for leftist organizing and struggle. It helps us better understand those who have succumbed to the tainted delights Dune offers and parallels — especially important in light of the ways Villeneuve’s adaptation smooths away the novel’s sardonic edges. At best, Dune might even give us some of the tools to free others from the narrative’s trap.