The moving obituary in today’s Guardian newspaper for the eminent British anarchist theorist Colin Ward (p.35) turns my thoughts to those pesky Anarchists who dominate the Socialist League meeting in the opening pages of News from Nowhere: ‘there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented, four of which had strong but divergent Anarchist opinions’. So fractiously anarchistic are the SL Anarchists here that they don’t seem capable of agreeing even with each other as to what anarchism might represent!
So anarchism has a bafflingly paradoxical position in Morris’s utopia. It deeply shapes the vision of a fully achieved socialist society in the body of the book, with its decentralised, libertarian and ecologically responsible political and cultural habits. Yet, as the opening frame narrative shows, it is the greatest obstacle of all to the practical building of such a society in the first place because it disastrously fractures the unity a revolutionary party would need in order to grow into any meaningful challenge to a powerful capitalist system. News from Nowhere can neither live with anarchism (because with it a strong party cannot be built), nor live without it (because in that case a dangerously centralist State might install itself permanently in the post-revolutionary period).
We will need a new, appropriately paradoxical concept for thinking about the role of anarchism in Morris’s utopia, then; and I suggest that the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s (non-)concept of the pharmakon (which he derives from Plato) might serve our purpose. The pharmakon is both ‘cure’ and ‘poison’ simultaneously, or the illness and its cure. This is a contradiction that cannot be erased upwards in some benign Hegelian sublation or Aufhebung; but just remains in its stubborn and prickly unthinkability. And so it is with News from Nowhere: utopia can’t exist without its pesky anarchists, but it can’t exist with them either.