Saturday 31 December 2016

Reading Tips

As the working-class protagonist Richard commits himself to political militancy in Morris’s narrative poem ‘Pilgrims of Hope’, he remarks: ‘When I joined the Communist folk, I did what in me lay/To learn the grounds of their faith.  I read day after day/Whatever books I could handle … ‘.  Sadly, the poem doesn’t actually specify what volumes our hero turns to at this point.  But what book or books might we want to put into the hands of a contemporary Richard who sought to give him or herself a good grounding in socialist theory in the early twenty-first century?

There are many candidates, naturally.  But a strong favourite, in my view, would be David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital (Verso, 2010).  I read his Condition of Postmodernity when it first came out in 1991, and found it a powerful materialist regrounding of the cultural debates around postmodernism current at the time.  As an extraordinarily productive Marxist geographer, Harvey was part of that crucial ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities of which Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies (1989) might be regarded as the manifesto.

Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital, which is based upon his lecture series on Marx’s magnum opus, is a lucid, thoughtful and eminently approachable guide to the great tome itself; and is given a contemporary edge by being written in the wake and light of the capitalist crash of 2008.  As Harvey puts it early on, Marx’s ‘scientific method is predicated on the interrogation of the primarily British tradition of classical political economy, using the tools of the mainly German tradition of critical philosophy, all applied to illuminate the mainly French utopian impulse in order to answer the following questions: what is communism, and how should communists think?’  Plenty there, then, for new militants to cut their teeth on, and no guide could be more genial and searching than David Harvey.  Anyone who wants to sample the original lectures can find them at:

Sunday 18 December 2016

Love in Utopia

Why, in literary utopias, do women from the good new society so consistently fall in love with men from the bad old non-utopian one?  Thus, in the transfigured future Boston of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Edith Leete falls in love with the visitor from the past, Julian West; thus Ellen and William Guest begin to fall in love on the upper Thames in News from Nowhere; thus the utopian forester Ellador marries Vandyck Jennings from the bad old world in Herland; all the way through to Ernest Callenbach’s Marissa Brightcloud, who has an intense sexual relationship with the investigative US journalist William Weston, which by the end of Ecotopia (1975) has clearly become permanent.  Thomas More could have enlivened his own Utopia no end if he’d had the young mother who instructs her child about the Anemolian ambassadors fall in love with Raphael Hythloday during his sojourn on the island. 

We might be inclined to attribute such recurrent amatory narratives either to the dire generic necessities of utopia and/or to the literary clumsiness of individual practitioners.  Classical utopias, you might argue, are such desperately dull affairs, narratively speaking, all anodyne geographical tour and turgid sociological disquisition, that they desperately need some plot sweeteners to keep the poor reader turning the pages; and it is then a sign of the ungiftedness of the individual writers that they cannot come up with anything better than this tired old romantic story-line: not ‘boy meets tractor’ of the old socialist-realist novels, but ‘utopian girl meets dystopian boy’.

Well, there may be something in this; but I think that Tom Moylan’s postmodern generic concept of a ‘critical utopia’ might give us pause and prompt us to look for more meaning here than first meets the eye.  It may be that even the classical utopias have more in common with contemporary ‘critical’, i.e. self-critical and self-problematising, utopias than we like to think; and the hackneyed old plot device of utopian girl falling in love with the visitor may be a pointer in that direction.

For in turning to the visitor, is not the utopian woman in some sense (and perhaps unconsciously) looking for qualities which are no longer at work in the utopian men of her own time and society?  Is she not thus implicitly criticising her own society, pointing to its absences and limits?  For it may be after all that new Boston or Nowhere or Ecotopia needs something of what West or Guest or Weston represents, that utopia is not so finished, not so complacently self-sufficient, as we first thought, that, in short, all utopias are ‘critical utopias’ in some way, shape or form.