A hot Summer beckons but perhaps not on the political front? Mark Perryman finds some books that could help inspire the inner pessimist
UKiP riding high in the opinion polls, what could be a more dismal sign of the state of opposition outside the Westminster bubble. Whether or not Farage’s party of English poujadists manage to top the Euro Election poll in May and make a further dent in the 3-party domination of the local government elections on the same day too the dragging of political debate rightwards remains Ukip’s biggest achievement. There remains few signs of any similar success from the outside Left.
John Harris has recently argued that the Left is trapped in the past. Perhaps, but part of the reason for that is that the Left’s past is a tad more interesting than its present. Backward-looking? Yes, sometimes. But a modernisation founded on an ahistorical politics fails to account for the pluses and minuses of history and has proved itself incapable of grappling with today’s fast-changing world. As an alternative take a look at the approach adopted by the hugely impressive Oxford Handbook of The History of Communism which is as comprehensive as it is challenging. Rich in scope and sharply analytical in its understanding of one of the twentieth century's grand narratives. So grand in fact that it sparked a counter all of its own making ‘anti-communism’ which is carefully dissected by the latest, now twice-yearly, volume of one of the most startlingly original political history initiatives of recent years, the journal Twentieth Century Communism.
The French revolutionary of ‘68 vintage, Daniel Bensaid’s excellent memoir An Impatient Life provides more than enough passion for even the most hardened cynic . Of course history never stands still, to treat it as such absolutely locks the Left into past, not present. Paul Kelemen’s The British Left and Zionism carefully chronicles a changing position on Israel and Palestine that he describes as a ‘history of a divorce’. The altered circumstances, loyalties and issues given the kind of weight of understanding they deserve yet are all too rarely afforded. On the other hand history needs endless and unchanging principle sometimes too, a point well-made by the welcome appearance of contemporary writings against the First World War, Not Our War.
In a new and updated edition of his unrivalled account of the 1984-85 Miners Strike, The Enemy Within author Seumas Milne provides an example of how the past continues to haunt the present. Three decades on the legacy of the defeat of the miners continues to shape contemporary trade union militancy. Richard Seymour is a writer unafraid to confront the contours of such a defeat while at the same time providing the kind of deep-rooted analysis to map out an alternative. His latest book Against Austerity is no counsel of despair, rather a hard-headed call to action of a new type.
Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust is a handy, and exceptionally well-written, survey of Left wing analysis of the financial crisis including David Harvey, Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek. Kunkel though doesn’t provide a commentary just to inform though, but to enlighten too, a brilliant read.
A similar dose of well-reasoned yet strikingly original thinking is provided by the regular instalments of theAfter Neoliberalism Manifesto available free online. The latest contribution States of Imagination takes rethinking public sector provision in a radically modernising direction entirely different to the Blair/Brown and Cameron/Clegg models of conservative modernity. Read it to appreciate the art of the possible and the sheer misery of the 1997-2010 moment of lost opportunity.
An unashamedly theoretical account of neoliberal culture is provided by a special edition of the journal New Formations much of which is available free to download.
Currently the political terrain in England at least remains dominated not by new thinking from a resurgent Left but by the challenge from the Right, namely Ukip. The best single effort to understand this ghastly yet incredibly important phenomenon has been provided by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin in their sublime book Revolt on the Right. Mixing empirical analysis of long-term voting trends with the case for the need to both understand and confront the roots of right-wing populism this is an absolutely essential read for summer 2014.
At the core of Ukip’s message, and the same is broadly true of right-wing populism across Europe, is a discourse of race and nation. The former is a subject the Left likes to think it has a decent set of ideas to construct an analysis rooted in anti-racist values. However just how far the British Left needs to travel in order to reshape its politics via the Black British experience is revealed by the superb Darcus Howe : A Political Biography which via personal testimony revisits a history of migration, self-self-organisaton and resistance which exists largely outside of traditional Left politics. Arun Kundnani’s The Muslims are Coming! links together the experience of Islamophobia, the framing of extremism/fundamentalism and the ongoing Global impact of the West’s so-called ‘War on Terror’.
John Hutnyk’s Pantomime Terror imaginatively records how popular culture has been affected by a post 9/11 world and on occasion has offered signs of resisting the reactionary, racist, consequences of that transformation.
The urgent necessity for this kind of engagement is established brilliantly by Andrew Hussey’s new book The French Intifada. Ukip are not of the same complexion as France’s Front National, populists not fascists, yet they feed off the same fear and loathing that French politics is immersed in and this book explains why with superb writing on the complexities of race, religion and immigration that situates this absolutely in the legacies of Empire and colonialism.
In all likelihood any kind of Ukip breakthrough to top the May Euro poll will be restricted to England. Their support in Wales is negligible, and in Scotland close to non-existent. They are fundamentally an English party, defining their independence, or more accurately their nationalism as against Europe and against immigration. To develop both an understanding of Ukip’s success and any kind of meaningful opposition requires an engagement with the meaning of Englishness. For some on the Left this remains unacceptable, yet this is to ignore our own history. As Wade Matthews records in his magnificent The New Left, National Identity and the Break-up of Britain. This is the kind of historiography the modern Left needs, connecting us to past yet hugely relevant debates dominated by such figures as E.P.Thompson, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, the kind of towering influences we so lack, and miss today.
This 1956 New Left generation was formed politically in large measure by the anti-fascist Popular Front experience of World War Two. A period depicted in Peter Conradi’s A Very English Hero locating the heroism and idealism of the war hero Frank Thompson in and amongst the commitment, anti-fascism, that took him to the front line. This is a very different version of the Anglo-martial tradition to the one we are more used to. The potential for such a rupture with this and other components of a more traditional Englishness is explored in a wide-ranging book The Politics of English Nationhood by Michael Kenny.
Of course any break-up of Britain won’t be decided by the English, forced for once on this island of ours to adopt the role of also-rans, but by the Scots. It isn’t to decry the central importance of September’s independence referendum to claim that in some senses the result hardly matters. Instead we need to recognise that the process towards separation, involving Wales too and more problematically the north of Ireland too, has already begin and to all intents and purposes is irreversible, independence for Scotland or not.
What the referendum campaign has stirred up north of the border is a flowering of political debate that the English Left cannot even begin to imagine how to match. Gerry Hassan has established himself as without doubt the most imaginative and incisive commentator on all things Scottish, nationalist and progressive. Yet south of the border he, and others like him are fortunate to get even a cursory hearing. Gerry’s latest book Caledonian Dreaming combines both a rare realism about the mythology of Scottish social-democracy in both its Labourist and sometimes Nationalist forms, with a vision for how the best of those traditions can be shaped by the identities, social movements and cultures that post-date them in the new Scotland.
James Foley and Pete Ramand provide a more polemical broadside in their book simply titled Yes . With passionate argument they capture the energy of the coalitions around the independence cause which stretch way beyond simply the SNP. This is radical politics at its best, a powerful testament to the potential for ideas and actions rooted in movements for change.
Fulfilling such potential depends in large part on a remaking the political so that ideas and practice are fused with cultural expressions and forms. A good example of this in the Independence debate is the work of the artists under the banner of The National Collective. Three recent books in their different ways bear witness to the scope of such an ambition more widely . JP Bean’s Singing from the Floor captures one of those rare moments when the Left is at the core of something shaking up mainstream popular culture, in this case the beginnings, and explosion in popularity, of British Folk music.
Going further back in history,Bohemians by Paul Buhle and David Berger is presented in a bright and accessible format, a graphic history, absolutely right for the subject-matter. Jazz and dance, salons and clubs, utopianism and multiculturalism, all were central to this cultural rebellion.
A very modern interpretation of the political-cultural fusion is provided in Stitched Up by Tansy Hoskins. The book’s sub-title ‘The Anti-Capitalist Book Of Fashion’ does its job to intrigue and tempt. ‘Of’ , not ‘against’, this is a book that embraces the joy, for men and women, of dressing up while deconstructing the industry, working conditions and rip-off merchants behind such pleasures. An incredibly original read about a subject the Left should have plenty to say but to date has scarcely seemed bothered once it had made its mind up to be on the side of the simplicities of the ‘against’ and not so much of the contradictions located in the ‘of’.
But remaking the political requires not just a redefinition of politics but a new imaginary too, one that can inspire hope in what the future might look like as much as reveal what is wrong with the present. Such an imaginary must surely draw on the resources provided by fiction, the novel. Not a place the Left is used to looking to for ideas. Jonathan Lethem’s best-selling Dissident Gardens is about fighting for what is right, losing yet keeping on keeping on, the emotions and experiences that shape such commitment in the harshest of conditions, McCarthyite-era America. A tale of the romantic ideal that making a difference is not only essential but possible.
Hitler’s Girls by Emma Tennant and Hilary Bailey is perhaps a more extreme example of how the novel can extend, our political imagination. A complex plot moulds Nazi Germany, the legacy of WW2, far right conspiracies and modern-day hate criminals into a tale that few would fail to enjoy, complete with intrigue in abundance.
In the search for the potential to remake the political there is no better starting point than the modern women’s liberation movement, sometimes now referred to as fifth wave feminism.
International in complexion, internationalist by purpose, there are few rivals to the iconic Pussy Riot for their striking ability to shake up the humdrum with wit, imagination and intent. Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement retells their story, mostly in their own words in a manner clearly intended to reproduce by any media necessary. Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates may seem compared to Pussy Riot a tad less spectacular yet is in its own way testament to the sheer diversity of both feminism’s content and action. Based on the trail-blazing Everyday Sexism blog she also initiated Laura’s book reveals in the most painful detail the bloody-minded endurance of a sexism that is one tiny step away from misogyny, harassment, physical intimidation, sexual violence and worse. A book, and a blog, that isn’t read to weep but to rally towards change. The response already has proven quite definitively, it works.
The book of the quarter? A book that reinforces the enduring vitality of feminism, from whatever ‘wave’, while connecting to the vital need for hope on a political terrain dominated by popular despair and widespread disaffection.
Beatrix Campbell’s pocket manifesto End of Equality is a well-aimed polemic against a neoliberal order that is founded on patriarchy, where sexual discrimination continues to flourish and cannot be understood, resisted or changed without a central commitment to gender equality. A book to shake up established thinking right, left or in-between. Nothing short of a new revolution, what a way to welcome the start of summer.
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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.