May 20, 2024
Fan art of a Sandworm from Dune, by Astronimation

[Warning: contains spoilers for Dune]

In the modern zeitgeist, Dune stands on a level all on its own—and not just the Denis Villeneuve films, which have been both critical and commercial successes, but also the original book series by Frank Herbert, which, even today, remains highly influential. But what made Dune so compelling to audiences in the first place? One reason is all the unique elements the story contains as a work of science fiction. So many genre tropes—desert planets, sand worms, space empires, futuristic technology blended with feudal institutions—can all be traced back to Hebert’s work. But the main reason is its central theme, which continues to resonate with people in our exploitative society almost sixty years after its publication: the critique of heroes and messiah figures.

On the surface, Dune appears to be a classic hero’s journey: Paul Atreides, the “hero,” is forced out of his relatively safe life on Caladan and onto the violent world of Arakkis, only to be thrown into even greater danger following the success of a plot by the evil Harkonnens against his family. Learning to survive with the native Fremen, Paul comes into his own as a capable warrior, unlocking an ultimate power that enables him to lead the Fremen to victory against the Harkonnens, completing his journey by crowning himself emperor of the known universe. He even marries a princess. Ironically, this surface-level reading has been the main takeaway for many readers and viewers of Dune and its adaptations. However, a closer reading of Dune reveals that Paul’s victory was not a triumph but a tragedy.

You see, Paul didn’t achieve his power through any particular character trait he possessed. The power was bred into him by a secret, generational breeding program. The Bene Gesserit—a matriarchal group that secretly controlled much of Dune’s imperium—hoped to breed a Kwisatz Haderach—a male with future sight—through which they could more directly control society. Moreover, the Fremen religion, which uplifted Paul to messiah status, wasn’t even indigenous to Arrakis but was invented by the Bene Gesserit thousands of years ago to control the local population. It was a tool of manipulation, and so was Paul. But Paul fell out of their control when his Bene Gesserit mother, Jessica, fell in love with his father and decided to produce a male rather than a female heir. Absent that control, Paul would go on to use his powers, not for the ends of the Bene Gesserit, but as part of his quest for vengeance. The result: Paul is now at the head of a religious fundamentalist movement bent on waging a holy war on the rest of humanity, one which his future sight now compels him to see to its end or else guarantee the destruction of his loved ones. Paul, who by every indicator should be the hero, has essentially become the villain of his own story, a messiah responsible for the deaths of billions and a prisoner to his powers.

The message is clear: individuals, even heroes, cannot be relied upon to deliver political change, for they ultimately reflect the values of the society they seek to change. They cannot end oppression, only reproduce it in new forms. Herbert himself would go on to write five sequels to drive this point home.

In the age of capitalism—of imperialism—there is a value to this lesson. A key pillar of bourgeois ideology is the elevation of the individual above all else. Everyone must selfishly look out for themselves; whoever is the most selfish is rewarded with wealth and power as an elite. This elitism is justified mainly through the claim that those who obtain the most wealth under capitalism must have done so through their superior abilities, and who better to run society than the best people? This idea, sometimes called the “great man theory,” permeates our modern political and cultural landscape. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a monument to it. It is an idea that uplifts the wealthy few while stamping down on the exploited many, convincing everyone they all deserve however much (or however little) they get. Thus, popular media abounds with heroic figures who save the day by being the strongest, the smartest, or the chosen-est. No wonder, then, that a story striking at the heart of this idea would resonate with so many.

To the extent, therefore, that people engaging with the books or the movies begin questioning the values of bourgeois society, Dune offers at least some value to the movement to abolish the present state of things. From a Marxist perspective, there is even some value in the holistic, materialist way that Herbert constructs his world—integrating politics, economics, religion, and ecology as driving forces behind the plot rather than the characters’ goals or ideas.

At the same time, however, there are limitations to the critique presented by Dune. While it does criticize the consequences of “heroic” figures leading society, it ultimately fails to question the role such individuals play in shaping history. Instead, Dune virtually essentializes this role, for it presents no meaningful alternative to the tyranny of Paul Atreides and his successors or even to the fundamentally feudal order that dominates the Dune universe (apart from maybe the exploits of Duncan Idaho in the later books). If anything, the arc of the whole saga suggests that humanity as a whole will never finally escape from systems of oppression, that our only hope is to spread ourselves out far enough that no single empire can ever hope to dominate everyone; that, or else to become something other than human. In other words, “human nature,” eternal and static, is the primary driver of all conflict rather than the developing contradictions of class society.

Lest anyone should think this is just my interpretation, see Herbert spell it out here in the final book of the series, Dune: Chapterhouse:

“All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.”

According to Herbert, “government” itself, rather than governments predicated on exploitation, is the source of conflict, attracting inherently “corruptible” people (never mind what’s corrupting them) to positions of power, where they inevitably use that power to enact violence. By overlooking the class character of the state, Herbert thus presents a fundamentally idealist conception of human society as incapable of change unless humanity itself also changes (an idea which he takes to a rather literal extreme in God Emperor of Dune).

In summary, should Marxists read/watch Dune? I say yes, as despite its shortcomings as a critique of society, it can still help people at least start questioning some of the values they’ve absorbed under capitalism. Plus it’s entertaining, both the books and the films (minus the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson books and the 1984 film), but I’m not a critic, so you’ll have to trust me on that.