31. The Soul of Man Under Socialism Oscar Wilde (1891)
The problem with socialism, Wilde is supposed to have said, is that it would take too many evenings. That, at least, was the problem with what he called “authoritarian socialism”, which would require of an active citizenry an almost superhuman level of political participation, attendance at endless meetings being the price of genuine self-government. Wilde’s version of socialism aims at a form of individualism that “expresses itself through joy”. The “true perfection of man”, he wrote, “lies not in what man has, but in what man is”.
John Milton (1644)
This plea “for the liberty of unlicensed printing”, addressed to a predominantly Presbyterian parliament, rings down the centuries. Milton was objecting to the licensing of books – prior censorship – not to the post-publication prosecution of “mischievous and libellous” works. Nor did he extend his tolerance to Catholics. Nevertheless, Areopagitica, arguing that “he who destroys a good book kills reason itself”, serves as an eloquent defence of press freedom. As it proclaims, “a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit”. That message is displayed in many public libraries.
33. In a World I Never Made
Barbara Wootton (1967)
A mixture of autobiography and social analysis from one of the 20th century’s greatest social democrats and, as deputy Speaker, the first woman to sit on the Woolsack in the Lords. An economist and social scientist, Wootton was above all an empiricist who had little time for theory,
and described most sociology as “waffle”. She rejected the idea that politics is the art of the possible: “The limits of the possible constantly shift, and those who ignore them are apt to win in the end.” Now almost forgotten, she represents an important strand of labour and feminist history.For
34. Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway (1940)
This story of Robert Jordan was inspired by Hemingway’s own experiences in the Spanish civil war. Jordan joins an anti-fascist guerrilla group and is tasked with blowing up a bridge. In sparse prose, Hemingway powerfully deglamourises war, exposing the pointless brutality of the conflict.
Joseph Heller (1961)
Only a book as funny as Heller’s classic satire could lay the banality and butchery of war so bare. The neurotic antics and absurd conversations of Yossarian and his comrades spin off madly in all directions. Lurking darkly in the background are the never-quite-forgotten demises of young squadron members, and Catch-22, the military rule meaning the authorities have “a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing”.
A monumental, visceral novel.
36. The Water-Babies
Charles Kingsley (1862-63)
As a social reformer and supporter of Darwin, Kingsley was deeply preoccupied by the plight of the impoverished children who, through grim necessity, were forced to clean the chimneys of the grand houses of the Victorian rich. He reimagined the story of one of these chimney sweeps in his lovely novel, following him through work and on into early death, when he is finally liberated from his earthly life of squalor and toil and reborn as a water-baby, a child at last for ever free, with the potential to become the wise man he never had the chance to be.
37. The World Turned Upside Down
Christopher Hill (1971)
When this study of the radical ideas behind the 17th-century English Revolution first came out, three years after the “events” of May 1968, slogans such as “Soyez réaliste – demandez l’impossible!” and “L’imagination au pouvoir!” were still ringing in our ears (they sounded better in French). Most history I had read before then had been a dull chronicle of kings and queens, statesmen and battles. Here at last was a history of people I could identify with. Hill captures the intellectual drama of the Putney Debates, the mystical utopianism of Diggers, Quakers and Shakers, the peculiar convictions and ferocious sectarianism of countless small groups such as the Ranters and Fifth Monarchists, which quite eclipsed those of our East End commune.
I remember being disappointed that Hill had not sided with this groupuscule against that, or given a “correct” Marxist analysis of their demands. Now I realise that it’s a measure of his greatness both as a scholar and as a writer that he can convey the power and excitement of this moment of change while reminding us of its fragility. Marina Lewycka
38. Prometheus Unbound
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1820)
The poem of a revolutionary, living in a revolutionary age. Prometheus defies the tyrant Jupiter, who has made the earth “multitudinous with thy slaves”. In a preface, Shelley sets out his belief in “beautiful idealisms of moral excellence”; nothing is possible “until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure”. Little published in his own lifetime, Shelley, to whom intellectual scepticism came as naturally as breathing, became an inspiration to generations of socialists including Marx, Gandhi and, in our own times, Paul Foot.
39. An Enemy of the People
Henrik Ibsen (1882)
Bellowing about contaminated bathwater like a 19th-century Erin Brockovich, An Enemy of the People’s protagonist, Dr Thomas Stockmann, embodies the play’s most famous line: “The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.” His peers denounce his home truths as the enemy of their tourist trade – just as Ibsen’s contemporaries refused to “dirty” their hands with the syphilitic overtones of his earlier piece Ghosts. This time, however, the ever-angrier playwright’s message could not be sidestepped.
40. All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
Written by a German veteran of the First World War, this novel and its sequel, The Road Back, were banned and burned under the Nazis. Focusing on a group of very young soldiers, it graphically evokes the torment of war and its aftermath. In 1930, it was made into an Oscar-winning film (see below, left). Variety magazine suggested at the time that the League of Nations should buy the master print and screen the film worldwide “until the word ‘war’ is taken out of the dictionaries”.
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.