Mark Perryman reviews an exceptionally strong list of autumn political reading
This autumn has been dominated already by two lots of morbid symptoms. The unseemly sight of Labour Unionism cosying up to the Tories, Lib-Dems, the financial and media establishment in defence of the ancien regime. Accompanied by Ukip’s spectacular and seemingly irresistible rise, now fracturing the Tory Right’s vote more effectively than ever, the protest vote that just won’t go away.
What possible cause for any optimism then? Because outside of the parliamentary parties’ mainstream there is a revived freshness of ideas. Two writers in particular serve to symbolise such brightness of purpose. Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things is the latest collection of her writing. The spiky subversiveness of Laurie’s journalism best summed up by her book’s sub-title ‘ sex, lies and revolution’. This is feminism with no apologies given, no compromises surrendered and a sharp-edged radicalism all the better for both.
The Establishment by Owen Jones is every bit as much a reason for igniting readers’ optimism but also the cause of a quandary. Owen is an unrepentant Bennite, a body of ideas and activists with next to no influence in Miliband Labour. The organised Left outside of Labour in England at any rate, borders on the non-existent. Owen is described on the book’s cover by Russell Brand no less as ‘ Our generation’s Orwell’ a bold yet fitting accolade. Yet Owen’s writing aims, like Laurie’s, at something beyond being simply a critical media voice. Quite how, is the quandary for both.
Owen and Laurie represent a new generation radicalism shaped decisively by the disappointment they, and their readers, share in Blairist-Brownite new Labour. But it is reckless to divorce these past two decades from preceding eras that remain decisive in influencing any alternative. Luciana Castellina’s elegantly written memoir Discovery of the World recounts the experience of the post war anti-fascist Italian Left, dominated at first by the Italian Communist Party, which evolved into a Eurocommunist party. Luciana records the tensions within reform communism which would foreground deeper divisions and explosions a generation later in 1968.
This is a tale nevertheless full of hope, Paul Preston’s The Last Stalinist is more of a case of crushing disappointment, though no less of a good read for that. At the core of the Spanish Republic’s resistance to Franco in the Civil War was the Spanish Communist Party. As it emerged from an underground, clandestine existence in the mid 1970s it was well-placed to be a key social force to shape the new Spanish democracy post-Franco. But the failings of Stalinism were to haunt the party long after being unbanned, an experience it is still only beginning to entirely recover from.
Paul Preston’s superbly researched account of the life, times and misdeeds of former party General Secretary Santiago Carrillo uniquely helps us to understand Stalinism in a west European context.
Neil Davidson’s Holding Fast to an Image of the Past is a wide-ranging chronicle of alternatives to Stalinism that remain in, and of, the Left. Subjects covered in short and highly readable essays include Scottish Nationalism, the shock doctrine analysis of Naomi Klein, the 1970s Anti-Nazi League, Eric Hobsbawm’s historiography and plenty more.
Unfinished Leninism by Paul Le Blanc is perhaps less eclectic in its coverage, the focus more specific, to recover Lenin from Leninism. The assumption seems to be that a new generation of activists requires such an exercise. Though what is increasingly apparent is that most simply bypass the history of the Russian Revolution in order to make their own revolutions, in their own image and idiom. To make connections of relevance over the span of almost. a century between past and present will be no mean feat for Le Blanc and his co-thinkers.
Such books help us to learn from history without being trapped by it. Scotland this year has been in the process of making its own history, the Union will never be the same again. The implications for the Scottish Left and a Left that until recently scarcely never added the prefix ‘English’ remain profound. Chris Bambery’s A People’s History of Scotland deserves to become the primer of a post 18.09.2014 Scots Left. Keenly aware of its national story, with the emerging capacity to write a new one too. The English Left has no such capacity because it barely recognises a national narrative worth bothering with.
A Collection of Ranter Writing edited by Nigel Smith is part of the process of uncovering radical English past. The richness of writing in recent years on all matters English exist largely outside the comfort zone of the Left. One of the best is the book edited by Robert Collis and Philip Dodd Englishness, Politics and Culture which with timely precision has recently been republished in a new edition.
Dan Hind’s short book The Magic Kingdom is perhaps the best read post-referendum. He not only dissects the contradictions of a non-existent British constitution but provides a practical vision for a modern, republican, future. Or for a masterclass of insights into the contradictions of the Union a most welcome collection of Tom Nairn’s essays Old Nations, Auld Enemies, New Times. Tom’s always argumentative writing represents the definitive rebuttal of the tired old diktat of some on the Left which denies breaking up Britain is anything but a progressive project.
British nationalism is framed by a martial and imperial tradition. Post-referendum the contest remains whether Englishness will be framed in the same manner. Dave Sherry’s Empire and Revolution is a pocket-sized introduction to an alternative reading of World War One. 1914-18 as a period of resistance and revolution existing alongside the more traditional understanding of the period.
The Darkest Days by Douglas Newton recovers the causes behind Britain’s entry into this most devastating of wars in 1914, providing the reader with a rich counter-narrative to the one we usually have to endure, of the ‘Your Country Needs You’ variety. The significance of the First World War is not only about this battle or that, it has a cultural legacy too which needs accounting for.
1914 Goodbye to All That edited by Lavinia Greenlaw addresses this most vital of subjects from an impressively wide range of sources including Turkey , China, India and Belgium. A collection admirably, and creatively, internationalist in both content and purpose.
Localised spaces of resistance, linked together globally, this is what has characterised the various forms in which direct action has been revived in recent years. David Graeber’s The Democracy Project is without much doubt the definitive record of the significance of this multi-faceted movement to date. They Can’t Represent Us by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzezellini links its account of the irresistible spread of direct action to a clear-sighted analysis of the mounting crisis of representative democracy.
Voter disengagement, but also activist suspicion of top-down leadership models. The furthest expression of such rejectionism is examined in Who’s Afraid of the Black Blocs? by Francois Dupuis-Deri. The contemporary appeal of anarchism to a segment of activists today is undeniable, this book helps to explain why in the often confrontational context of direct action vs traditional forms of protest.
We Make Our Own History by Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen makes a spirited case for the enduring relevance of Marxism to understand protest movements, however ‘new’ they may aspire to be. The strength of the writing however lies in the necessity the authors recognise for Marxism, and Marxists, to change if it is to retain its unique combination of analysis and action.
Occupy Media! by Christian Fuchs is in part a recognition of how deep the change that is needed in the theories and practice of traditional oppositional politics. Christian explains the role of social media, as a model of organisation as well as a tool of communication, in terms of the transformation of protest movements world-wide.
Such a role though isn’t by any means automatic, Michael L. Sifry’s The Big Disconnect is a brilliant critique of such wilful enthusiasm in blissful ignorance of how big business retains the capacity to dominate much, if not all, of social media, along with a powerful argument on how to challenge such concentrations of online power. And to drill all this down to the personal, have a read of Graham Allcott’s highly original How To Be a Productivity Ninja to turn the everyday activist into the truly hyper-active, painlessly!
Before the age of the internet pamphleteering was a cheap and effective way to package and distribute ideas. Today the free download has more or less replaced this tradition though the hassle sometimes involved, my personal bugbear is finding a stapler trough enough to keep 60 plus pages bound together I’ve just gone to the bother of printing out, just goes to show new isn’t necessarily better.
The ABC of Socialism by John Rees is part of a revival of the pamphleteer. In exactly 100 tightly-argued pages John sets out the basic case for socialism, something we could once rely on Labour MPs to do but not much chance of that now. Rich in history, made relevant to the present, polemical politics at its best. The section most likely to be bitterly contested is the one on organising as socialists, John preferring a form that while appropriate to a tightly committed group that shares a set of core beliefs faces huge problems when it seeks to grow beyond such a core and expect the commitment to persist. Open Tribe by Sue Goss addresses in considerable depth such issues.
The intent it is difficult to fault, an honest response on the Left is that none of our forms of organising are exactly thriving. But the scope for such an ambition is remarkably narrow. The huge Stop the War movement, the revival of internationalism sparked by Gaza, new wave feminism, UK Uncut direct action, precariat workers organising, the student revolt of 2010-11. None of these scarcely get a mention while Westminster politicians and party activists dominate.
Women against Fundamentalism edited by Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Nira Yuval-Davis is limited in a different way, by the time frame of the mood of activism it mainly describes. These were epic struggles against guardians of one faith and another but little account is then given of post 2001 hijab-wearing Muslim women’s militancy. A factor it is impossible to ignore when recounting both anti-war and pro-Palestine activism. Despite these misgivings this is a pair of books that bristle with hope. Compare this to the horror-story that Lewis Minkin carefully catalogues in The Blair Supremacy. Lewis is a social historian who specialises in Labour Party organisation and in this seminal text he dissects in the most incredible detail how the Blairites first secured control of the party and then Labour’s ambitions, such as they were, in government too. A sorry tale of ruthless ambition and lost opportunity.
We largely look in vain to the political mainstream to provide ideas to inspire with their passion or intrigue with their imagination. A generation of privatisation, first by the Thatcherities, then by Blairist-Brownite new Labour should surely be enough to generate ample enough of both. With both passion and insight, James Meek has written the most devastating critique of the selling off of public utilities in his new book Private Island. Beautifully composed, informed anger delivered with a telling turn of phrase.
The latest, and free, instalment of the impressive After Neoliberalism manifesto is available now to download. Written by Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin, Rethinking the Neoliberal World Order injects a welcome, and much-needed, global perspective on challenging the private good, public not-much-good consensus that more or less reigns in British politics.
Harry Leslie Smith”s Harry’s Last Stand is fast becoming a well-deserved publishing phenomenon. Harry is one of the ‘45 generation, who fought fascism, saw Labour start to build a new society, and now see all this on the verge of destruction matched by a rise in hatred and intolerance. It is a breathtaking argument, brilliantly delivered, who said only the new generation have the capacity to make a difference?
In the twenty-first century we haven’t had to endure the World Wars which decisively shaped the twentieth century, yet. But the relentless drive to armed intervention on a massive scale, particularly in the Middle East , without learning that a military solution is no guarantee of a peaceful solution, spreads enough death and misery to be getting on with no thankyou very much. Patrick Cockburn’s The Jihadis Return provides both an unrivalled investigation into what Isis represents and an idea why a USA/GB armed intervention isn’t only bound to fail, again, but will almost certainly make matters even worse, too.
A warmongering state in 2001-2003 had to face huge anti-war opposition. Along with the Anti-Nazi League of the late 1970s and the anti-Poll Tax movement of the late 1980s these are instances when a non Labour Left, an outside Left, had a decisive influence in shaping a broad oppositional movement well beyond its immediate, and limited, orbit. The consequences though in all three cases was next to no growth, a retreat into the bunker, splits, fallout and enduring decline.
Against the Grain edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley is a superb collection cataloguing the whys and wherefores for this decline, along with those moments of breakthrough. Comprehensive and compelling, just a shame the publishers have opted for a very expensive hardback edition for the Library market, this is one for the activists, the old hands for the nostalgia trip of reading of old battles, the new wave to read of past mistakes and dream of not repeating them.
Despite the best, and sometimes worst, efforts of the Outside Left that Evan and Matthew describe as ‘against the grain’ the most radical and challenging ideas often exist in a domain not so easily described as the ‘political’. In the 1970s, to take one example, few offered a more fundamental challenge to traditional masculinity than David Bowie, a musical career described in these and other broader social and cultural terms in Simon Critchley’s wonderful short book Bowie. Or towards the end of that same decade the challenge by some in Punk to femininity too, most notably from the all-girl band The Slits, their tale superbly retold by Viv Albertine in her autobiographical Clothes, Music, Boys.
A politics committed to serious, and radical, social change must recognise this myriad of influences, many of them inherently progressive yet not fitting any kind of traditional leftist lexicon. And at the same time we must break open the often closed and narrow agendas of leftism. Take food, diet, obesity and the British obsession with home-baking. How often do any of these feature as a concern of the Left yet each in their different ways touch and mobilise the emotions of millions.
The Shape We’re In by Sarah Boseley is a convincing case-study in the central importance of food to all our lives and how the junk food diet is a grave threat to public health nobody can afford to ignore.
Two of the biggest stories of the past couple of years have surely been the revelations of wholesale phone hacking by Murdoch-owned papers and Jimmy Savile’s unmasking as a serial sex criminal. Each is recounted in a pair of superlative books. Hack Attack by Nick Davies is written like a thriller by the journalist more responsible than any other for bringing Murdoch’s corrupt empire to its knees. For a moment at any rate the chances of The Sun occupying a space remotely close to the moral high ground was undermined but whether this will be enough to clean up the worst excesses of tabloid journalism only time will tell.
The ugly story of Jimmy Savile was probably beyond the vilest imagination of our best crime writers, His posthumous unmasking as quite possibly the biggest sex criminal Britain has ever known is chronicled by Dan Davies in his book In Plain Sight. The book was written over a decade long period, for much of the time the biographer as unaware of Savile’s crimes as the rest of us, which only adds to the book’s appeal. These were both huge issues, enormous campaigns, existing largely outside of the political mainstream. Does that make them any less important? No, of course not, Instead they should lead us to question what the ‘mainstream’ amounts to and how it is constructed.
From two fiction writers at least some of the tools towards unpicking the mainstream. Roddy Doyle’s Two More Pints uses the ingenious device of pub conversational dialogue to record and explore popular disengagement with the mainstream and how in everyday life we construct our own responses, unrepresented by politicians the world over.
Joseph O’Connor’s The Thrill of It All has an eye, and ear, for music culture that few of even the best rock journalists can match and brings to life why music is for so many not just a source of entertainment but inspiration, motivation and ideas too. A great read, especially if the 1908s were your coming-of-age decade!
The recent National Theatre stage production of the children’s book Emil and the Detectives made abundantly clear the anti-fascist context, and commitment, of the book and its author, Erich Kastner. Pushkin Press have reissued two of Erich’s lesser known books, a treasure-trove of childhood reading, perfect for progressive parents everywhere. Or for a more modern treat Roddy Doyle’s Brilliant goes to show that this most gifted of authors can write just as well for children as their parents. Which brings me neatly to my favourite book on parenthood.
Michael Rosen’s latest, Good Ideas. A politics that neither takes childhood and parenting seriously nor can have a laugh in the process deserves to inspire nothing much more than apathy and antipathy. Michael Rosen is the polar opposite to such twin barbs, he cares about children, deeply and is richly amusing. Michael's book is so extraordinarily good precisely because it defies what we think if the ‘political, in order to reinvent it.
And amongst the doom and gloom the Westminster Bubble, aided and abetted by the Ukip outriders, where do I find a book of the quarter to convince that change, for the better, remains possible? One pointer towards that possibility was the extraordinary campaign in the course of the 2010 General Election which both put paid to Nick Griffin’s hopes of becoming an MP but also defeated every one of the BNP councillors on the local Barking Council too.
Four years later the once rampant BNP are almost extinct. A huge chunk of credit for this achievement goes to the Hope not Hate Campaign, their story told by the campaign’s Nick Lowles in his new book Hope. Not only a detailed account of an epic campaign but a handbook on how to start repeating that success too. By breaking with the narrowness of too much of leftist campaigning, a community-led initiative emerged in one town and city after another which brought the era of the BNP’s not inconsiderable success to a stunning end. Political reportage, superb photography, practical advice framed by experience, this is a book to inspire and equip activism. Anger? Plenty of us have that in abundance. Rather we need to look back, and forwards, in Hope, to see that another politics, as was proved in Barking 2010, is not only possible but can secure vital victories too.
Seeing off the BNP was one small beginning towards a better future. But just imagine if they’d won, that gives us the measure of this excellent book’s importance.
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 The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.