Sunday 8 October 2017

100 Political Classics

The Observer newspaper has today given us just what we need in such politically troubled times with its sixteen-page supplement of ‘100 Political Classics that Shaped the Modern World’.  These seminal texts, from Plato’s Republic all the way to Richard Seymour’s recent book about Jeremy Corbyn, are reduced to handy digests of 100-120 words each, which are usually lively enough to prompt us to further reading and investigation.

I had hoped that Morris’s News from Nowhere might feature, but didn’t really expect that it would.  But I was definitely surprised that Thomas More’s Utopia didn’t, since that is the foundational text of one of the most politically important literary genres of all.  There are sections on drama and fiction in this supplement, so the question of the literary is given some recognition; but while dystopia features readily enough - The Handmaid’s Tale, say, on the back of its recent Channel 4 version - utopia is a blank for the Observer, apparently.  The supplement doesn’t have a distinct section on Green politics (though it mentions Rachel Carson), so Ernest Callenbach’s marvellous Ecotopia doesn’t get a look in either.

One other political domain that fares badly here is communism.  There are decent synopses of The Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s What is to be Done?, but Will Hutton’s paragraph on Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, is a farrago of Cold War rhetoric: “the inspiration for the savageries of the cultural revolution … amoral savagery”.   Important attempts by Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and Jodi Dean are in fact under way to rehabilitate the name and notion of communism; I give a brief account of them in my article in the current issue of the Journal of William Morris Studies.  So we must be grateful to the Observer for what it’s given us, but to Morrisians the absence of utopia – communist utopia, in News from Nowhere itself – is a weighty one.