11. Mi Revalueshanary Fren: Selected Poems
Linton Kwesi Johnson (2002)
As a chronicler of black British working-class life, Jamaican-born Linton Kwesi Johnson is unsurpassed. His “dub poetry”, recited live to the backing of a reggae band, has detailed struggles against racism and police brutality for several decades. But Johnson also has literary clout, being only the second living poet published in Penguin’s Modern Classics series. His verse, written in patois and taking influences from across black diasporan culture, creatively subverts the dominance of one, “standard” form of expression over others. In Johnson’s hands, language itself becomes a political tool.
12. The Jungle
Upton Sinclair (1906)
“When people ask me what has happened in my long lifetime,” said George Bernard Shaw, “I do not refer them to the newspaper files and to the authorities, but to [Sinclair’s] novels.” Written after several weeks undercover in Chicago’s meatpacking plants, The Jungle is a fictional exposé of the industry that provoked outrage as much for its revelations about what went into the sausages as for its depiction of the workers’ struggle. Sinclair lamented, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach”, but he needn’t have worried. His bitter portrayal of wage slavery still packs a punch.
13. The Making of the English Working Class
E P Thompson (1963)
The book that, in the author’s words, rescued “the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded followers of Joanna Southcott [a self-styled religious prophet], from the enormous condescension of posterity”. Thompson, a Marxist historian, presented workers of the early industrial period (1780-1832) as active shapers of their own destiny. He rejected what he called “the Fabian orthodoxy” that saw working people as passive victims, as well as “the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ orthodoxy” that celebrated mostly middle-class pioneers of state welfare. A gripping book, awesome in its scholarship, eloquent and moving in its prose.
Émile Zola (1885)
A class-war epic set in coal-mining areas of 19th-century northern France. Zola was a supporter of revolutionary ideals, but uncompromising in his pursuit of truth. Based on painstaking research, Germinal vividly portrays strikes, starvation, riots, disaster, flood and assassination. Zola’s compassion embraces not only the miners, but also the soldiers required to suppress them. As harsh on the workers’ undisciplined violence and their leaders’ naivety as he is on the savagery of their oppressors, Zola challenges socialists as well as conservatives.
15. God’s Bits of Wood
Sembène Ousmane (1960)
A fine fictionalised version of real events (1947-48) by a pioneering man of letters and film-maker who was a dockworker in France and Free French marksman during the Second World War. Workers on the Dakar-Niger railways strike for equal pay and conditions to les toubabs, their French overseers. The strike sparks a chain reaction, and as the railwaymen gain confidence, so do their womenfolk. A breakthrough: it brought politics into popular African fiction and ruptured the fixation with Negritude as pure aesthetics.
R H Tawney (1931)
Along with the same author’s The Acquisitive Society (1921), no other single work had as great an influence on the mid-20th-century Labour Party. An economic historian and Christian socialist, Tawney taught the left the difference between meritocracy and social mobility, and preached genuine, “practical” equality. He derided meritocracy as a “Tadpole Philosophy”, in which intelligent tadpoles reconcile themselves to their fate by recognising that a fortunate few of their species will one day “croak addresses to their former friends on the virtues by means of which tadpoles of character and capacity can rise to be frogs”.
17. The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck (1939)
Steinbeck’s devastating, Pulitzer-winning account of a family’s attempts to survive drought and the Depression had an enormous impact on the American public. An immediate bestseller, it was adapted for the screen within months of publication, even as it was being banned in various parts of the US. The author’s anger at injustices of the era – the exploitation of desperate migrant labourers, the corporations and institutions fanning the flames of economic chaos – permeates the text. As recession and environmental crisis hit America again, 70 years on, the novel’s force is still huge.
18.Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Alan Sillitoe (1958)
Often grouped with the “angry young men” movement of the 1950s, Sillitoe’s debut novel is a defiant work that makes its political point by unapologetically placing everyday working-class life centre stage. In prose influenced by Nottingham dialect, the novel unflinchingly portrays the monotony of the hero Arthur Seaton’s factory job, and the anarchic release of the weekends. The book achieved mainstream success only after a
film version starring Albert Finney was made in 1960 and screened on television – ironic, perhaps, given the book’s message that TV manipulates the workers into passivity.
19. To the Finland Station
Edmund Wilson (1940)
The American critic and historian Edmund Wilson was finishing To the Finland Station, his monumental intellectual history of socialism from Gracchus Babeuf to the Bolsheviks, just as the Soviet Union annexed Finland – not a propitious time to make the case that the Russian Revolution marked a “fundamental breakthrough” in human history. And yet, as an account of “what the revolutionists thought they were doing in the interests of a better world”, this book is peerless – especially the chapter on Marx’s Capital, which Wilson reads as a kind of Gothic prose poem about the magic of commodification.
20. What Is To Be Done?
V I Lenin (1902)
Lenin’s answer to the titular question of this incendiary pamphlet was that Russian “Social-Democracy” needed to be dragged kicking and screaming out of adolescence. Just as a youth’s voice breaks as he reaches puberty, Lenin wrote, so Russian social democrats, stuck in their “Third Period”, had begun to “strike a false note”. Lenin anathematised those he called “economists” for reducing Marxism to a kind of pallid reformism. Instead of participation in the liberal opposition to tsarism, what was required was the establishment of a “genuine vanguard of the most revolutionary class”.
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.