Looking out across the grey expanse of middle ground politics Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football finds some books to provide dreams of a better tomorrow
As the almost instantly forgettable party conference season disappears over the horizon the Westminster bubble political landscape would be hard pushed to inspire anybody much at all. For hope of a better,different, tomorrow we must increasingly draw on other traditions from beyond the mainstream, contemporary and out of history, challenging too a narrow definition of politics the parliamentary parties depend upon for their sorry version of legitimacy.
The Village against the World by Dan Hancox is virtually a primer for any vision of hope. Utopian? Not at all, rather it is rooted in the lived experience of communists with a genuine social base in their community, the small Spanish village of Marinaleda, and a strategy to build that base into a platform which can effect meaningful, if highly localised, social change.
Maxim Leo's Red Love could be read as a cautionary tale of the ‘be careful what you wish for variety’ set as it is in the apparently grim reality of the former East Germany. Yet by recounting his own childhood and adolescence in the GDR Maxim brilliantly depicts the multilayered complexities of this 20th century experiment in state socialism and why despite the faith placed in it, the fall was in the end inevitable though not as universally welcome as some would now assume.
Deep in the history of the Twentieth Century Left can be found those figures, personalities, writers and activists who sought a different trajectory towards the means to confound and confront the mainstream. Usefully collected into a single slim volume Modern Politics by CLR James provides one such insight into the makings of one of the great dissident thinkers. Revolutionary History, Chaplin and Picasso, Camus and Rousseau Lenin and Trotsky, the range is expansive, the writing incisive.
Katherine Connelly has written a richly revealing biography of another political outsider Sylvia Pankhurst. A suffragette who struggled to contain her desire for change within one single-issue movement, Katherine carefully describes the contradictions in Pankhurst’s life and politics but also her achievements as one of those who sought a dramatic change in how an entire society was organised.
Were such ambitions and dreams exhausted by the final decades of the last century? There are plenty who would argue they were. Yet Sylvia Pankhurst and CLR James in many ways represented dissident positions within the movement of ideas they are supposed to represent. And there are countless other examples of the untried and unfulfilled that offer sparks of inspiration long after 1989 and the apparent End of History. Michael Rustin has written a new, contemporary introduction to one such effort, the 1968 Mayday Manifesto available as a free download. Ranging over every conceivable aspect of any strategy for change, with Michael Rustin’s helpful commentary from today, this remains as fresh, relevant and challenging now as ever. Within five years of that most hopeful of years, 1968, perhaps the most brutal crushing of all those dreams had taken place, in Chile. Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s Story of a Death Foretold provides a detailed account of the full horror of the US-backed military coup alongside the wonderful potential that Salvador Allende’s government of popular unity had begun to represent.
Chile in 1973 represented the crushing of hope on a grand, global, scale, an epic moment. But such efforts to effect change should not be disconnected from those movements which in, and against, the mainstream sought change on a scale that might at first glance appear localised or sectionalised, yet shared these grand ambitions too. One such example were Britain’s Asian Youth Movements of this same era, the 1970s and 1980s, their history now uncovered by Anandi Ramamurthy in his pioneering book Black Star. This is a story of a new version of militancy, the conflicts it sparked both within their own, Asian, community and with the wider community too, the alliances and actions that emerged and the legacy they left for another wave of political action within and around the Muslim community shaped by the later era of post 9/11 and the anti-war movement in particular.
Since 1997 successive Blairite/Brownite Labour governments with an unhealthy dose of irony more or less confirmed the Thatcherite mantra of the 1980s, 'There is no Alternative.' Of course Labour did some good things, nothing less was to be expected but by and large they failed to do very much that was different. What a waste. Today it is hard to imagine much hope and idealism being based around what another Labour government might achieve. Chronicling the 1980s has become almost a fixation therefore amongst writers of a certain age in order to rediscover the hopes and dreams lost before the dawning realisation that bright shiny new Labour wasn’t very different at all.
The Eighties One Day, One Decade by Dylan Jones takes Live Aid and all things 1985 as its starting point for a racy volume of pop-culture as analysis. A great read. Alwyn Turner has written a tremendous modern social history across three decades, 1970-2000, in a trio of volumes, A Classless Society bringing his account up to the 1990s. A period of defeat for the Thatcher-Major era Tories and the irresistible rise of Blairist new Labour. No assessment of Miliband Labour is complete without an account of Blair’s Premiership and the bruising disappointment it proved to be. Things can only get better? If only!
The social theorist Raymond Williams once wrote of the Left’s necessity for ‘resources of hope’. No single source is perhaps any longer obvious, but an inward-looking English Left is missing something by scarcely ever tapping into the achievements and lessons of sections of the European Left, and in particular right now Syriza in Greece. Crucible of Resistance details not only the dreadful reality of the Greek austerity programme but the creative resistance and leadership provided by Syriza as an opposition party, of a scale and breadth unimaginable currently on this side of the Channel. That isn’t to say resistance here doesn’t exist, but Badger Resistance isn’t probably quite what most Leftists had in mind as they imagined what a mass fightback against the Con-Dem Coalition might look like. Patrick Barkham’s wonderfully written Badgerlands helps to capture the meaning and appeal of Badgers and why the cull has sparked such resistance, broad, popular, respectable, non-violent and lawbreaking, by any means necessary.
Perhaps part of the problem with the Left’s imagination is the narrowness of those ‘resources of hope’ from which it draws on for inspiration and vision. Adding to the vocabulary of ideas a hefty supply of box-sets might just do the trick. From The Wire to Breaking Bad via The Sopranos and Mad Men this is gritty social realism given a Hollywood make-over, all adding up to unmissable TV drama. Brett Martin’s Difficult Men is the essential read to accompany this cultural phenomenon, uncovering the writing and ideas that has helped make such great TV.
The political, or indeed any other kind of, imagination is of course in large measure formed long before we reach voting-age. Any serious accounting of hopes for a better future must begin with taking childhood seriously as a social subject.
Children’s writing is therefore of some considerable significance as a literary genre. Colour Me In! by Okido is aimed specifically at catering for the under 5’s artistic inclinations and is an absolute joy to share by parent and child as they explore each creative puzzle in turn.
For the teenage reader the fantastic children;s writer Lydia Syson has written That Burning Summer which provides a very different World War Two story to the usual ‘adventures for boys’ variety. The hidden history of the role of Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain is uncovered via a tale of loyalty, love and malicious gossip.
The revival of the European Far Right, especially Golden Dawn in Greece, is one of the most frightening outcomes of the era of austerity and the absence of popular and progressive alternatives. The historical novel is a fine, and richly enjoyable, means towards understanding the hideous appeal of fascism at points of crisis and the potential to resist and defeat this most evil of ideologies. CJ Sansom’s Winter in Madrid is set in wartime Spain and engages with the bloody and hateful aftermath of the country’s Civil War. Intensely political, imaginatively plotted, a thrillingly exciting read.
The same author’s Dominion is one of the cleverest novelisations of the curse of fascism published. The ground might be familiar, what if Britain had lost WW2, but the context entirely different than others have used, providing a powerfully written insight into the nature of appeasement and the horrific consequences it might quite easily have led to.
Laurent Binet’s HhhH appears to deal with a very specific episode of WW2, the assassination of Himmler’s number two in the Nazi SS, Reinhard Heydrich, but the book, like Dominion in so many ways unpicks the meaning and consequences of appeasement helping to make it another essential novelisation of the evils of Fascism.
Two writers from the so-called ‘Celtic Fringe’ have conjured up a style of resistance writing that is in many ways the makings of the essential antidote to to the crisis. Roddy Doyle has returned to his first writing love to revisit whatever happened to The Commitments in his long-awaited sequel The Guts. It is,unsurprisingly, every bit as good as the original, Doyle is one of those rare writers who never disappoints. Scarcely recognised as a ‘political’ writer his short book Two Pints is a richly amusing tale of what austerity has done to his native Ireland while The Dead Republic brings to a close, at least for now, his three volume history of the making of a modern Ireland, and the central role of 1916, the Easter Rising, Republicanism and the aftermath in that story. This is political writing at its very best, just not the sort, most Leftists are used to, or perhaps even comfortable with as a source of ideas, and inspiration.
Scotland’s Christopher Brookmyre despite writing one best-seller after another has never reached the kind of status afforded fellow Scots crime-writer Ian Rankin. He would fully deserve the recognition though I suspect any welcoming embrace by the literary and political establishment wouldn’t be much to his liking. Brookmyre always mixes the socially conscious with an acute understanding of Scottishness and a plotline drenched in the gravest, and most imaginative, instances of violence. His latest, Flesh Wounds provides all three elements in equal and very readable measure.
And the pick of the autumn quarter? A book that combines hope and vision with a brilliant historical account intimately connected to the realities of the present. Gary Younge’s absolutely superb The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King’s Dream. Never mind ‘ resources of hope’ this is a ‘curriculum of vision’, Or as Gary puts it, far better than I ever could:
'While it is true we cannot live on dreams alone, the absence of utopian ideas leaves us without a clear ideological and moral centre and therefore facing a void in which politics is deprived of any liberatory potential and reduced to only what is feasible in any given moment.'
A short, pocket sized book to be read in one sitting and then light the fuse of social change.
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Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.