The Handmaid’s Tale was inspired by socialism

Since it premiered in 2017, HBO’s The Handmaid’s Tale has become a cultural and political sensation. According to a CBS profile of Margaret Atwood, who wrote the 1985 novel on which the series is based,

Beginning in 2017, women all over the world began taking to the streets dressed as Handmaids, in the belief that fiction was indeed becoming fact, especially the restrictions of women’s rights. Today, when you see the costume, you know what it means. It’s leaped out of Atwood’s book into our politics.

So, the obvious question,

“What made you want to write it?” asked [Correspondent Martha] Teichner.

“So, there I am in West Berlin surrounded by the wall, and I’m visiting various totalitarian regimes in East Germany and Czechoslovakia and Poland. So, for instance, Ceaușescu in Romania made a law that women had to have four babies, and they had to have a pregnancy test every month. And if they weren’t pregnant, why not?”

The regimes of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania, were certainly totalitarian. They were also socialist.

But isn’t the message of The Handmaid’s Tale universal? Perhaps, but it is striking that Atwood, a Canadian who has lived in the United States since 1961, wasn’t inspired to write the novel until she came into close contact with the socialist regimes she names as inspiration.

The same argument is often made regarding George Owell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Now, whenever a government does something objectionable, someone will say “Nineteen Eighty-Four is supposed to be a warning, not a manual”. Quite so, but it was specifically a warning about the evils of totalitarian socialism: Ingsoc, the name of the one party which rules Oceania in Orwell’s novel, is short for the English Socialist Party.

I would guess that there is a fair amount of overlap between people who think that the United States is currently turning into the Republic of Gilead and those who look favorably on ‘Democratic Socialism’. Would they remain so favorable if they knew what had inspired Atwood’s vision?

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

Photo Credit: Adam Fagen