A selection of books to read over the holidays
Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs, Jonathan Neale (Resistance Books 2021)
Against the background of now more than a decade of austerity and the resulting growth of poverty, an expectation that working people should embrace further cuts for the sake of the climate is tin-eared, to say the least. The idea of sacrifice is particularly serious though when we realise that we are not just talking about foreign holidays and iPhones, but jobs.
What is needed here is a just transition, but that has to be meaningful. A ‘just transition’ amounting to warm words and a voucher for a training scheme is not going to cut it. The answer, as Neale argues, is the need for huge numbers of people to transform our infrastructure to cut carbon emissions.
If we are to have any hope of implementing the measures Neale sets out here, we need to bring together the movement against post-Covid austerity with the movement for action on the climate crisis. This is going to need green politics which arise from the working class, rather than seeing working-class people as those on the wrong side of the culture war. It needs a green movement fighting for jobs, not sacrifices, and which embraces green infrastructure.
Migration Beyond Capitalism, Hannah Cross (Polity 2021)
In Migration Beyond Capitalism, Hannah Cross expounds a Marxist analysis that takes seriously the importance of migration in capitalism today. Her analysis of how migration functions implies that, just as there is a material basis for the division between workers under capitalism, so must there also be a material basis for unity. It is, again, the capitalist system itself that provides this material basis. Capitalism gives workers common problems to confront and struggles to undertake.
Crucially, Cross argues that this struggle must come from uniting working people against their common enemy in workplace and community struggles. Here, she uses a range of examples of migrant and anti-racist organising, such as the Latin American Workers’ Association organising of low-paid, predominantly female migrant workers, Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition and the Communist Party’s (CP) struggle against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s. The CP, she argues, managed to push back against fascism by developing class consciousness in working-class communities, particularly through community organising initiatives like the Stepney Tenants Defence League.
Movements like this, Cross argues, put in practice Marx’s prescription that socialists must make workers realise that the emancipation of migrant and ethnic minority workers ‘is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation’.
The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution, Tony McKenna (Bloomsbury 2021)
This book is refreshing and long overdue. It has two main qualities. First, it dares to call out some of the fashionable idols of academic Marxism and critical theory – including Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek – for being obscurantist on the one hand, and often deeply misleading on the other. Second, it explains and defends the philosophical basis of revolutionary Marxism in a very clear and combative way.
The stakes are high. The issues McKenna addresses are mainly theoretical, but far from abstract. They concern how people experience capitalism, the significance of class and the potential for anti-capitalist resistance. They even raise the question of our ability to understand society at all.
McKenna’s formulations will be too polemical for some tastes. But his central thesis stands and matters. Without class and class struggle at its heart, ‘Marxism’ becomes lifeless and hopeless, and turns into its opposite: an account of why society probably can’t be changed. McKenna is right to say it is time to take on the emperors of academia, and to point out their lack of clothes.
Nothing to Lose but Our Chains: Work and Resistance in Twenty-First-Century Britain, Jane Hardy (Pluto 2021)
There are far too few books written about the working class, the conditions under which it organises, its successes and failures, and the hopes and fears of those who try to challenge the priorities of capital. Jane Hardy’s is, however, one of those books. It is written from a point of view of sympathy with working-class people, and its subtitle, Work and Resistance in Twenty-First-Century Britain, sums up both the content and the approach of this study. Where there is work, there is also resistance, sometimes in unexpected corners. And sometimes in places where we may not be looking.
The book’s narrative is strengthened by the numerous interviews the author has undertaken with those involved in these struggles. There is a lot of attention paid to women and migrant workers , which reflects some of Jane Hardy’s past work and political interests, but is also absolutely essential to any understanding of work and resistance in Britain today.
Jane argues that activity and action build union strength. As we enter a period of increasing class struggle – in a more favourable labour market than many workers have seen for a long time – this is an invaluable book to arm us for the many challenges and opportunities ahead.
The Darker Angels of our Nature: Refuting the Pinker Theory of History and Violence, eds. Philip Dwyer and Mark Micale (Bloomsbury 2021)
There is a long pedigree for claims that capitalism brings about the end of wars, as trade inevitably means interconnection and mutual advantage. In 2011, Steven Pinker became the latest purveyor of a version of the theory, with The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes, and two further books, which have continued some of the themes of the original.
This book was received with enthusiasm in certain quarters, and indeed it was a huge bestseller, despite its length, but to others there were many obvious problems with the whole project, from its basic conceptions to Pinker’s approach to evidence. There have been some good, trenchant critiques of the book, but The Darker Angels of our Nature, a comprehensive analysis by a range of historians, is a very welcome addition.
Darker Angels is not just an efficient and revealing demolition of Pinker’s scholarship and argument, but a valuable contribution in itself to a debate about violence in history, and what we can know about it. It reveals that a more nuanced understanding is possible of how and why violence arises in societies, and why its rate might rise and fall.
32 Counties: The Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland, Kieran Allen (Pluto Press 2021)
If there is one book you need to read to grasp what’s going on in Ireland, and Northern Ireland specifically, it must be Kieran Allen’s 32 Counties: The Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland. The recent loyalist riots against the post-Brexit border, which has come into existence between Northern Ireland and Britain, and the centenary of the creation of the six-county state and the partition of Ireland, have turned attention towards the possibility of a united Ireland.
Unity will encounter real obstacles. Kieran reminds us that British imperialism is still a reality; the UK is in the second tier of world powers but it’s still a power. He points out that for simple reasons of prestige it will not want to lose Northern Ireland, or Scotland, where it does have economic and strategic interests.
What Kieran does in this book is argue for a return to the politics of the great Irish socialist, James Connolly, who linked the national question to the fight for social and economic justice. That meant not staying silent on sectarianism and calling out British imperialism for its role in maintaining division.
Irish unity is back on the agenda. This book explains why and how it can be achieved.
The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold, Tariq Ali (Verso 2021)
Tariq Ali’s latest book, The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan, is subtitled A Chronicle Foretold, and that is exactly what it is. Informative and at times amusing, the book charts the tragic history of Western intervention in the beleaguered country through a collection of Tariq’s writings drawn from 1983 to the present day. Article by article, the book provides a critical analysis of events and an uncannily accurate prediction of the outcome.
At first it may seem strange to produce a book of old essays and comment pieces to mark the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, but Tariq’s judgement and opinions were remarkably prescient, so the book reads more like a history, with all the benefits of hindsight, than a contemporary account. Beginning with a brief outline of the British imperial role in nineteenth-century Afghanistan, and the imposition of the Durand Line, Tariq goes on to explore the disasters of the Soviet and American invasions and occupations. The preface, written on the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, brings this history bang up to date.
If you know nothing about Afghanistan’s tragic history, this book will provide considerable insight; if you know a lot, it will provide a level of depth and detail, enriched by personal recollections few can rival.
The Caduca, Elaine Graham-Leigh (The Conrad Press 2021)
Here is an author who has explicitly committed herself to the dispossessed, in whatever universe she may happen to find herself. She paints a convincing portrait of those who resist, warts and all, and she does it with compassion for all her characters (and compassion is not the same as exculpation).
She presents the tension between love for an individual and love for an ideal; where loyalty to one becomes betrayal of the other; the caustic corrosion of ambition; and the callous manipulation of others by those who have no concern but maintaining their own privilege. In other words, all human life is here – even if not necessarily as we know it (to misquote a Star Trek line that was never actually uttered).
It is a remarkable achievement to have written a novel in which the significant actor is present throughout, but the reader only becomes aware of their significance slowly, and late in the day.
The Spark That Lit the Revolution: Lenin in London and the Politics that Changed the World, Robert Henderson (I.B. Tauris 2020)
Lenin lived most of his adult life, prior to the Russian Revolution, in political exile. In this experience of exile he was hardly unusual. The founders of the Marxist tradition, Marx and Engels, spent the rest of their lives in London after the end of the revolutionary ferment of 1848-9. For Russian revolutionaries of Lenin’s era, exile and prison were normal conditions under Tsarist authoritarianism. Many of those who spent time living in London, Lenin included, followed in Marx’s footsteps by gaining admission to the British Museum’s Reading Room, where Marx had researched Capital, after it opened in 1857.
Robert Henderson’s book is a story of revolutionary exile. One of its virtues is the way that it conveys elements of Lenin’s experience of exile specifically, but also through that concrete experience, what it has meant for many other revolutionaries to live in exile: the pseudonyms and secrecy, the regular state surveillance, the combination of isolation and new friendships, the animosities and alliances, the challenges of long-distance communications, the precarity and uncertainty.
Overall, Henderson’s book is a very welcome contribution to understanding the role that time spent in London – editing Iskra, holding RSDLP Congresses, doing research, discussing and debating with each other – played in the intellectual and practical development of the Russian revolutionary left, especially that of Lenin and his closest comrades. It provides a vivid sense of place and a lot of the human context to a crucially important period in Lenin’s political life.
Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, Mike Davis and John Wiener (Verso 2020)
Just over thirty years ago, Mike Davis, co-author of this volume, published a trailblazing radical history of Los Angeles, titled City of Quartz. The 1990 book is a dazzling study of America’s most important city on the West Coast, audaciously combining culture, history, politics and urban theory to generate a richly multidimensional view of the City of Angels.
Set the Night on Fire in many ways serves as a welcome sequel to City of Quartz and similarly fuses multiple perspectives on a city that continues to dominate the American psyche thanks to the films, television and music created there. Davis is one of America’s best-known Marxists and this volume upholds his reputation as a committed scholar who always emphasises the power of socialism from below.
Set the Night on Fire is a truly monumental achievement by Davis and Wiener and it is unlikely it will ever be surpassed as a multifaceted account of LA at this time. It represents a fitting tribute to the countless Angelinos of all colours who stood up to the armour-plated forces of the US state when it was seemingly at its most powerful.
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