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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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood