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Red Reads: 1-10

50 books that will change your life with recommendations from Tony Benn, Susie Orbach, Christopher H

1. The Black Jacobins
C L R James (1938)

The Caribbean working classes were on the move throughout the 1930s. Agitators invoked anti-colonial sentiment, which spread throughout these tiny islands. Amid this turmoil, in 1932, C L R James left Trinidad with a manuscript, The Case for West Indian Self-Government, in his suitcase. Published as a pamphlet in 1933, this challenged the colonial dictum that the Caribbean peoples were socially and culturally backward - savages, simpletons and rather childish fellows. His polemic was sharp and unyielding. He quoted Lord Oliver, a former governor of Jamaica: "The African, whether at home or even in exile after the great hiatus of slavery, shows practical shrewdness and aptitude for the affairs of local government. His legal acumen is higher than that of the European." The foundations for The Black Jacobins were laid.

C L R chose, as the focus for his ideas, the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, when the slaves rose up against, defeated and declared independence from France. His tome is not an example of the leisurely historical writing of an academic. It is a revolutionary intervention, matched only by the creative guerrilla war launched by Haitian slaves under the leadership of Toussaint l'Ouverture and, finally, the mass insurrection that broke the back of slavery in the Caribbean. From the publication of The Black Jacobins to this day, Caribbean peoples and activists, including myself, have drawn strength and clarity from the work as we hastened our way to independence, and as we continue to challenge European governments on issues of race and post-colonial domination.

I must declare a personal interest here: C L R's grandfather was my great-grandfather.
Darcus Howe

2. The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir (1949)

When my 20-year-old daughter told me she wanted to read The Second Sex, I was delighted but also curious to see whether the book held up for her. It did and it has - and for many of the same reasons it spoke so powerfully to me and a generation of women struggling to understand how we came to feel, to be and to act in the ways that we did. The Second Sex illuminates the powerful idea that woman is made, not born, and that it is the social and economic conditions into which she enters that make her who she is and can be. Her thoughts, her feelings, her actions, her options, are framed within a particular political moment, which gets its force from the enactment of practices that shape and confirm femininity. We are made to fit the times we live in.
Susie Orbach

3. The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)

My wife Caroline put the Communist Manifesto in my Christmas stocking one year. I had never read it before and I found it offered the best possible explanation of what the world was about that I had ever read. It pointed out that the real conflicts in the world were not between black and white, men and women, Muslims, Christians and Jews, Americans, Russians and Chinese; it was about the conflict of economic interest between 95 per cent of the population of the world, who create the world's wealth, and the 5 per cent who own it. I think of Marx as a prophet: the last of the Old Testament prophets. And we should think of him as a teacher. Many political leaders, such as Stalin, have tried to steal him, but he is immune to that, because ideas survive without requiring the endorsement of kings, emperors, dictators or presidents. Karl Marx discovered it all long before I did, and I am very grateful to him.
Tony Benn

4. The New Testament

If a man were to appear today who preached pacifism, who urged setting no store by status, told the wealthy to sell everything they have and give the proceeds to the poor, and freely associated with those whom respectable society regarded as outcasts, we would consider him a radical. The New Testament may have been (mis)used by churches to entrench privileged interests for centuries, but that should not conceal the revolutionary nature of Christ's teachings - nor that it was precisely because he so upset a moneyed, conservative elite that he was crucified. Keir Hardie is just one of many left-wing politicians who have happily confessed that their convictions owed more to the New Testament than to any theoretical tract.

5. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Robert Tressell (1914)

Tressell's novel, sales of which have grown over the past year, is said to have won the 1945 election for Labour. First published three years after the author's death from tuberculosis at 40, it portrays the wretched conditions of a group of house painters in Mugsborough (based on Hastings). Owen, the hero, tries to convert his fellow workers to socialism, but they are philanthropists, donating their labour to the rich. They see their poverty and subjection as part of the natural order; better things are "not for the likes of us". A novel that has humour, compassion and pathos but remains utterly unsentimental, merciless in its dissection of working-class deference.

6. Rights of Man
Thomas Paine (1791)

Rights of Man belongs to the left in several important ways. It was the first time in history that "rights" had been claimed by anyone but kings and noblemen: we owe the concept of "human rights" to Paine's Promethean project of stealing the concept from the heavens and sharing it on earth. It is also an imperishable statement of the rights of the living over the claims of the dead, and in particular the claims of traditional, landed, aristocratic interests over the rising class of self-educated artisans. Read in conjunction with Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, to which it was originally written as a rebuttal, Paine's essay is an indispensable political classic.

Like any worthwhile work, it contains some ironic and cautionary elements when read today. Paine was too optimistic about the French Revolution, to the "left wing" of which he eventually fell victim. He may have set out the first ever plan for a welfare state, but he was in general opposed to "big government". Yet whenever and wherever people demand constitutional government and written guarantees of their liberties, they are seconding the motion that Paine first proposed.
Christopher Hitchens

7. The Wretched of the Earth
Frantz Fanon (1961)

This canonical collection of essays, dictated during Fanon's last illness in Tunis, has been revered by thinkers and activists from Malcolm X and Che Guevara to Steve Biko, Sartre and Homi Bhabha. The author turns from the role of armed struggle in shaking off colonial rule to the tasks facing decolonised societies, and identifies the enemy within: the middle-class elite, ill-equipped to take over leadership and liable to fall back on conservative allegiances. How to resolve the tension between cherished tradition and modernity? Still the question posed everywhere from Karachi to Caracas.

8. The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius George Orwell (1941)

England, Orwell wrote in this wartime pamphlet, resembles a "family with the wrong members in control". The remedy? Wholesale nationalisation, limitation of incomes and the abolition of public schools. But Orwell was as hard on the left-wing intelligentsia as he was on the "irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts" running the country. Querulous, effete and "flabbily pacifist", English intellectuals, Orwell thought, were fatally cut off from the common culture to which this essay is a paean.

9. Hard Times
Charles Dickens (1854)

A novel that exposed not only the unspeakable conditions in the factories of northern England, but also the arid inhumanity of Victorian political economy. Dickens's particular target was the utilitarians, with their belief in a totally rationalised society. The "eminently practical" Gradgrind, who runs schools in the fictitious Coketown (loosely based on Preston) and demands children be taught nothing but facts, illustrates how rationalism can be an instrument of oppression, driving out freedom and imagination. In its explicit political message, Hard Times is quite unlike Dickens's other novels: J B Priestley thought it his worst, F R Leavis the only one of value. But it tells a gripping story, as all Dickens's novels do.

10. Prison Notebooks
Antonio Gramsci (1929-35)

In 1926 Gramsci, then leader of the Italian Communist Party, was arrested and imprisoned on the orders of Mussolini. During nine years of incarceration, he filled more than 30 notebooks with reflections on history, politics and philosophy that have had a lasting effect on Marxist theory, especially in western Europe. The most influential fruit of Gramsci's labours behind bars was the concept of "hegemony", which administered much-needed shock therapy to the Leninist account of political power under capitalism.

 

We could compile a whole new top 50 made up entirely of books by New Statesman writers, from George Bernard Shaw to Martin Amis and John Pilger-and perhaps, one day, we will. For now, you can find a selection of our favourites here.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times