Counterfire writers share their recommendations from a year of their reading

Lessons in Organising: What Trade Unionists Can Learn from the War on Teachers

Gawain Little, Ellie Sharp, Howard Stevenson and David Wilson
Pluto Press 2023, 179pp. Available to buy here.

Lessons in Organising was denounced by the Telegraph and Spectator – a badge of honour for its four left-wing authors, who all have a strong background in education trade unionism. Besides the hostility it rouses in right-wing commentators, there are three main reasons to recommend this invaluable book.

Firstly, it provides a thorough, well-informed and highly political account of what’s been done to education over the last 35 years. It examines the legacy of the milestone Education Reform Act of 1988 and everything that’s followed, placing it in the context of neoliberalism and a sustained assault on trade unions.

Secondly, the book provides a wealth of practical evidence of how the National Education Union (and its forerunner the National Union Teachers) has adapted to very challenging conditions, and charted a course of sustained union renewal and growth. This includes the union’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the growing emphasis on workplace organising and the role of reps.

Finally, it provides general lessons to trade-union activists. This is crucial in the wake of the recent strike wave, which put unions back on the political agenda and demonstrated their continued relevance.

Alex Snowdon

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

Hallie Rubenhold
Black Swan 2020, 415pp. Available to buy here.

My pick for this year is a re-read: Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five. An antidote to the stream of often prurient books about the Ripper murders in Whitechapel in 1888, this takes the focus away from the mythologised figure of Jack the Ripper and puts it back on to the five women usually thought to have been his victims.

Despite the title, it is not actually about the murders at all. You won’t find theories here about who Jack the Ripper was, and little about the circumstances of the murders, although Rubenhold does note that only one out of the five women worked as a prostitute and that at least three of them were probably killed in their sleep, as they were sleeping rough.

What Rubenhold has done is to use the surviving records generated by the investigation of the murders and the media furore to reconstruct the lives of these five working-class Victorian women in a detail that wouldn’t usually be possible. By reconstructing them as ‘daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers’ (p.348) she manages to restore to them their dignity, but this is also an important work of social history.

The circumstances which led to these women to a precarious life on the streets of Whitechapel were different in each case, but together show the effects of poverty and exploitation, and how difficult it was for working-class families, even when temporarily prosperous, to find long-lasting security. As we face politicians determined to strip away ever more of the welfare safety net, this is an important reminder of what working-class life before the welfare state could be.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life

John le Carre
Viking Books 2016, 320pp. Available to buy here.

A book I have thoroughly enjoyed is John le Carre’s The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life. It’s taken me a while to catch up with it, it came out in 2016. Le Carre was a great storyteller: he gave us one of the great characters in English literature, the master spy, George Smiley.

It’s a series of essays about people and places le Carre encountered, often while doing research for his novels. His meeting with Yasser Arafat in Beirut, just before his and the Palestine Liberation Organisations’ expulsion from Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion, is worth the price of the book alone.

Lurking in the background is David Cornwell’s (to give le Carre’s real name) father and his childhood. Ronnie was a ‘conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird’. If you have read A Perfect Spy, you will have met him, using his two sons for his own benefit. His mother, Olive, left all three, and le Carre writes about finally catching up with her years later.

His encounters with Margaret Thatcher are recounted here, bizarre as they were. Le Carre also recounts a dinner with Nicholas Elliot and his wife, Elizabeth. Elliott was Kim Philby’s best friend, having joined MI6 together, and had defended Philby, when he was first accused of being a Russian spy. Within the British elite, friends stood by each other in those days. When Philby was finally cornered, it was Elliot who was sent to Beirut to get a confession. He got a partial one, but left him to sleep on it in his own apartment. Philby instead slipped aboard a Russian freighter on route for Moscow.

Joining the dinner party was an Iranian friend of le Carre’s who had a slight stammer. After he left, Elizabeth Elliott turned to her husband and said, ‘just like Kim’. That speaks volumes about the British upper class. If you like le Carre’s spy novels, as I do, you’ll enjoy The Pigeon Tunnel.

Chris Bambery

Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Following Writers and Rebels in the Spanish Civil War

Sarah Watling
Jonathan Cape 2023, 384pp. Available to buy here.

A friend pings me the arresting book-jacket image of an International Brigade miliciana on Sarah Watling’s Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Writers, Outsiders, and the Spanish Civil War. ‘Have you got a copy? I’m a chapter in – outstanding! Keeping me sane’ – perfectly describing the experience of reading Watling’s engaging study, inspired by Nancy Cunard’s challenge to writers to recognise ‘that now, as certainly as never before, we are determined or compelled to take sides.’ Focussing primarily on women who volunteered for the republican cause, who wrote about, and photographed it, Watling brings bracingly fresh perspectives and psychological depth to familiar names – Gellhorn, Townsend Warner, Ackland, Cunard, Herbst, Nan Green and the great pioneer war photographer Gerda Taro – who now rub shoulders, as they did at the time, with previously understudied figures like African American nurse Salaria Kea. Notably, Watling breaks new historical ground with her incisive investigation of the sexual harassment and quotidian misogyny experienced by these political women.

Rachel Holmes

Against the Loveless World

Susan Abulhawa
Atria 2020, 366pp. Available to buy here.

Nahr, a young Palestinian refugee migrates through the Middle East, returning finally to the apartheid of her occupied homeland.  Branded a terrorist and/or prostitute, others recognise her as freedom fighter. From hyper-surveilled solitary confinement in a high-tech Israeli prison, Nahr writes the story she has refused so far to tell. Against the Loveless World is the fourth novel by Susan Abulhawa, described by Alice Walker as possessing ‘the heart of a warrior; she looks into the darkest crevices of lives, conflicts, horrendous injustices and dares to shine light that can illuminate hidden worlds for us.’ If you haven’t yet had opportunity to read Abulhawa’s work, now is the time to begin.

Rachel Holmes

Radical Chains: Why Class Matters

Chris Nineham
Zero Books 2023, 197pp. Available to buy here.

In Radical Chains, Chris Nineham brilliantly re-asserts the centrality of class in capitalist society. It is, as Marx argued, the ‘radical chains’ of the working class which mean that the liberation of this class from exploitation necessarily means the liberation of all humanity.  This revolutionary potential of a working-class challenge to capitalism makes it all the more imperative for the ruling class to deny, obfuscate or marginalise awareness of the importance of class. Nineham shows that this is no recent phenomenon, but traces it, as a ruling-class strategy, right back to when working-class organisation and politics began to make their mark in the nineteenth century.

The run through the history of class in the last century and a half is a tour de force, managing not to oversimplify, while delivering an incisive and lucid analysis that few could equal. The argument of the book is a really necessary one for socialists to absorb, as ‘despite the protestations of journalists, experts, academics, politicians of all parties and a surprising number of left-wing commentators, class has always been and remains the defining division in capitalism’ (p.139). Against the weight of so much received opinion, it is important for socialists to be armed with the best arguments. This book is ideal both for refreshing the tired minds of those of us who’ve been at this for a while, and introducing these ideas to those new to socialist activism.

Dominic Alexander

Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century: Through the Prism of Value

Guglielmo Carchedi and Michael Roberts
Pluto Press 2023, ix, 270pp. Available to buy here.

Given that, as Chris Nineham points out, parts of the left have been disturbingly willing to abandon the Marxist concept of class in the face of bourgeois opposition over the years, it may not surprise that class is not the only crucial element of Marxist theory that has suffered in this way. In Marx’s economic analysis, value was a foundational category. However, for long periods of the twentieth century, it was all but abandoned by radical economists, and, as a result, much of Marx’s distinctive critique of capital disappeared from left-wing analysis, replaced by varieties of liberal economics, going under the label ‘Keynesianism’.

Value was the concept that the classical bourgeois economists worked with, but it led to the economist David Ricardo’s labour theory of value, which Marx corrected and reworked to become the foundation for his revolutionary critique of capitalism. Bourgeois economics recoiled from this, of course, and abandoned value as a concept, putting in its place the hopelessly circular analysis of ‘marginal utility’.

The authors of Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century lead the way for Marxists to reassert the centrality of Marx’s concept of value, and how its ramifications explain the nature of the economy today, in ways that mainstream economics just can’t do. From the reasons for the long crisis we have been enduring since 2008, and the Marxist theory of economic crisis in general, to providing an original Marxist analysis of inflation, the authors show how a rigorous Marxist value analysis illuminates and clarifies our world like no other approach. Along the way, they discuss the nature of money today, including a critique of crypto and digital currencies, the role of automation, and the limits of AI, and finally the economics of imperialism. It is highly recommended.

Dominic Alexander

Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14

Ralph Darlington
Pluto 2023, ix, 336pp. Available to buy here.

One important book I read this year was Ralph Darlington’s story of the Great Unrest, the outbreak of industrial militancy before the First World War. Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14 is a fascinating account of how trade-union battles turned into society-wide revolt. It has many lessons for us today as the working class is emerging from decades of defeat, not least the failings of trade-union leaders to develop the struggle to its full potential. Also shining through is the power and determination of female workers.

I also discovered an American writer called Dorothy B Hughes, whose powerful and scenic thrillers formed the basis of several films. She was a contemporary with hardboiled writers like Raymond Chandler. In A Lonely Place tells the story of serial killings in the California fog; The Fallen Sparrow (written in 1942 and dedicated to English thriller writer Eric Ambler) is about Nazi spies chasing a Spanish civil-war veteran in New York. But the most memorable is Ride the Pink Horse, set at fiesta time in New Mexico, with its theme of race and history and sympathetic portrayals of Mexicans and Native Americans.

John Milton wrote Paradise Lost from a period of defeat of the English revolution, he was blind, and in danger of political persecution, which makes the achievement even greater. I read the poem in full for the first time. I have always been deterred by its length, but believe me it is worth it.

Lindsey German

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