Christmas reading. Photo: Ylanite Koppens Christmas reading. Photo: Ylanite Koppens

Counterfire writers offer a range of the best books they have read this year

Chris Nineham

white-malice-lg.jpgMany have long believed that the CIA murdered Patrice Lumumba, independent Congo’s first prime minister, and Dag Hammarskjöld, the General Secretary of the UN, sympathetic to independence movements on the African continent. Susan William’s new research in this sensational book, White Malice: the CIA and the Covert Recolonisation of Africa (Hurst & Company) supports these beliefs but goes much further. She exposes a massive, covert Western intervention in Ghana, Congo and beyond which helped shape postcolonial Africa.

This involved enormous funding for pro-Western forces, infiltration in governments, surveillance on a grand scale, the funding of a spectacular range of apparently pro- independence magazines, organisations and conferences, and a programme of sabotage and assassination. All this helped remove Lumumba from power in Congo weeks after independence, and oust Kwame Nkrumah from the government in Ghana by 1966. 

To give some idea of the scale and violence of CIA operations, Williams believes that Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon, Richard Wright and George Padmore were also probably killed by the CIA, and that African American superstar Paul Robeson was destroyed by a toxic CIA cocktail. At 500 pages this is not a stocking filler, but it’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how low the West can go, and how imperialism has shaped African history.

the-verge-lg.jpgPatrick Wyman in The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance and Forty Years that Shook the World, 1490-1530 (Twelve Books) offers a tremendous panorama of the European scene at a breakthrough moment. Patrick Wyman uses a brilliant, almost cinematic technique to illuminate complex processes taking place in the forty years from 1490 to 1530 when the old feudal order began to break down. 

Wyman focuses on the life of nine individuals from different backgrounds to show the connections between the rise of absolute monarchies, the European conquest of the Americas, the rise of the slave trade, the spread of the printing press, the Reformation and more. It sounds ambitious and it is, but it works. Without ever mentioning Marx, it vividly illustrates his comment that capitalism came into the world ‘dripping from head to foot, from every pore with blood and dirt’. 

The Verge is easy to read but gives a sense of the economic forces that both powered and benefitted from the different developments described. There are some blind spots, including an odd lack of discussion about changes in class structure for a book dedicated to explaining the origins of capitalism. However, its broad sweep, its accessibility, its attempt to explain very different events by looking at underlying economic and social trends, all make this book a breath of fresh air.

Lindsey German

trico-lg.jpgStrikes are back in the news and it’s worth learning from past victories. The Trico equal-pay strike was one of the biggest in the mid-1970s, where the mainly female workforce making windscreen wipers in Brentford, west London, were out for 21 weeks. Trico: A Victory to Remember (Lawrence and Wishart) by one of the strikers, Sally Groves, and Vernon Merritt, reminds us that indefinite strikes can win the support of fellow workers. The support from the Southall district of the engineering union kept the strike in play, despite all the problems it faced. It also shows how crucial industrial action was to winning even the limited equal pay on offer in the 1970s.

ironopolis-lg.jpgI loved Ironopolis (Parthian Books) by Glen James Brown, a novel set in deindustrialising Middlesborough, which may not sound promising, but is a fantastic story. Its theme is the destruction of an old council estate which is being ‘regenerated’, and the many intertwined stories of its residents. It tells of strong women, hope and despair, and is an authentic voice of working-class northeast England, which is rare enough in literature.

what-is-history-lg.jpgThe classic by EH Carr, What is History? (Penguin Modern Classics) was one I returned to this year. Based on a series of Cambridge lectures, Carr deals with science, morality and subjectivity in historical writing, and looks at how it is a product of its time. An antidote to much of what passes for historical analysis today.

Chris Bambery

pereira-maintains-lg.jpgA novelist I discovered this year is Antonio Tabucchi, an Italian academic who taught Portuguese at Siena University. Pereira Maintains (Canongate) is set in Lisbon, under the heel of the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, during a sweltering summer in 1938.

The main character is Pereira, the editor of a down-at-heel Lisbon newspaper. Widowed, he keeps himself to himself, talking in the evenings to a picture of his wife. He studiously avoids politics because, across the border, the Spanish Civil War rages and in Europe the clouds of war are gathering.

Things change dramatically when he meets Francesco Monteiro Rossi, a charismatic young man from whom he commissions and pays for an article, which, once written, cannot be used because it will never get past the censor. It turns out Rossi has used the money Pereira gives him to fund his job of finding recruits for the International Brigades. brigadistes-lg.jpgThis is a novel about Pereira developing a political consciousness and committing an act of rebellion against the dictatorship. It’s a great story and it brings Lisbon alive.

I reviewed Jordi Martí-Rueda, Brigadistes: Lives for Liberty (Pluto) for Counterfire. It’s a series of short pieces about foreign volunteers who came to Spain in the Civil War to fight, to report, to nurse and much else. a-people-s-history-of-catalonia-lg.jpgPublished first in Catalan, this was a delight from start to end.

I will cheat here as I have already recommended Michael Eaude’s A People’s History of Catalonia (Pluto) for your Christmas list, but this is a book I not only enjoyed but learnt from. You will too.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

the-golden-enclaves-lg.jpgChristmas to me is always a time for novel-reading, so my first pick is fiction: Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy, the last of which, The Golden Enclaves (Del Rey) came out this autumn. It’s another school for wizards, but it’s a million miles from Hogwarts. The magic in this world comes with class and imperialism, and the magical bourgeoisie are every bit as exploitative as their mundane counterparts. As Suzanne Collins did before her in The Hunger Games trilogy, Novik is able to sneak some really quite revolutionary fiction in under the young-adult fantasy wrapper.

not-so-black-and-white-lg.jpgA more serious read for the new year is Kenan Malik, Not So Black and White: A History of Race from White Supremacy to Identity Politics (Hurst & Company). This is both a history of modern racism from the invention of race in the eighteenth century to the present day, and a powerful argument for universalism and solidarity, rather than the divisions of identity politics. We have, Malik argues, lost confidence in the idea that ‘it is possible to overcome the constraints placed upon us, reach across the fissures of race and identity, and create a movement to transcend those divisions. Or even that one should pursue such a project’, but this can be recaptured. I will be reviewing this one in full shortly, but for now, look out for it when it is published in January 2023.

John Rees

act-of-oblivion-lg.jpgThe story of New Model Army Colonels Edward Whalley and William Goffe is so exciting that even the driest of factual histories has never been able to make it dull. These two regicides, those who signed the death warrant of King Charles I in 1649, were hunted men when Charles II retook the throne in 1660. Their fellow republicans were being hunted down and hanged, drawn, and quartered at Charing Cross and Tyburn. To avoid that fate, Whalley and Goffe fled to New England where they were sheltered by the tiny Puritan communities and avoided repeated attempts by Charles II’s regime to bring them home to face the death penalty. Novelist Robert Harris, with a string of best-selling historical fictions to his name, is just the man to burnish this already uncut thriller into a gem. His Act of Oblivion (Hutchinson Heinemann) is an excellent story, historically accurate and breathtakingly thrilling at the same time.

regicide-lg.jpgBut if there’s one thing better than thrilling fact retold as thrilling fiction, it is the unputdownable history of Whalley and Goffe’s fellow regicide, the republican MP and ally of the Levellers, Henry Marten. John Worthen’s Regicide, the Trials of Henry Marten (Haus Publishing) tells the tale of just that part of Marten’s extraordinary life after he was imprisoned by Charles II for his part in the execution of his father. It is told through the use of the amazing letters which Marten wrote to his commoner wife Mary Ward, for whom he abandoned his aristocratic second wife. Marten, like the two colonels, survived, but only at the price of life imprisonment, a fate he endured with astounding sense and good humour, never deserting the Good Old Cause.

Dominic Alexander

climate-change-as-class-war-1-lg.jpgIt’s been a grim year for many reasons, with the cost-of-living crisis being one, and mounting evidence of climate breakdown being another. Books on the climate crisis can make for terrifying reading, but one from this year offers a way to break the deadlock in finding a way to avert catastrophe. Matthew T Huber, Climate Change as Class War (Verso) offers one of the very few considerations of the subject that avoid either collapsing into advocating market-based solutions, or Malthusian injunctions that we must drastically cut consumption. Rather than conceiving responses to climate change in opposition to working-class living standards, Huber outlines a robust and convincing strategy where the two crises can be answered together. A sustainable socialism is both possible and necessary.

the-london-revolution-lg.jpgSince this solution involves a fundamental change to the existing order, it is worth being reminded that such revolutions have happened before, and so can happen again. This is why establishment history spends so much energy attempting to deny even the existence of revolutionary moments in the past. A splendid antidote to this suppression is Michael Sturza’s The London Revolution 1640-1643: Class Struggles in 17th Century England (The Mad Duck Coalition). This book demolishes the revisionist arguments of the last forty or fifty years that tried to dismantle the Marxist case that a social revolution, driven by class struggle, was what took place in England in the 1640s. Witty in places, and concise, it is a great introduction to the subject, and a reminder that the struggles of ordinary people really can drive history.

the-vortex-lg.jpgA grimmer read, but a revealing one nonetheless, is Scott Carney and Jason Miklian, The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, An Unspeakable War, and Liberation (Foxtopus Ink). This book takes a kind of documentary, eye-witness approach to the cataclysmic cyclone which struck East Pakistan, as it was then, on 12 November 1970, the subsequent atrocities committed by the Pakistani army, the civil war, and the emergence of an independent Bangladesh. Despite avoiding any analytical framework, the story makes a number of things clear. The horrific death toll from the storm was political and avoidable, while the calculations of Pakistan’s leaders were embedded in the geo-politics of imperialist powers. US leaders Nixon and Kissinger, fixated on such considerations, were therefore deeply complicit in the violence inflicted on Bangladesh. With unconscionable numbers dying in climate disasters and wars this year as well, it is a reminder that these events will keep happening until we rid the world of imperialism and capitalism, and its profit-driven destruction of the world’s ecology.

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