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.
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.
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.
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.
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.