Chris Nineham's picks of books to read this summer
First, a book to help reflect on this summer’s good news story; the return of mass strike action. Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain 1972 celebrates the post-war highpoint of workers’ struggle in Britain 50 years ago and has much to teach us today. Authors Ralph Darlington and Dave Lyddon make the wave of workers’ struggle that began with a massive, victorious miners’ strike come alive. In particular, they explain how rank-and-file initiative and creativity threatened to turn a strike wave into a challenge to capitalist authority.
The miners’ victory was followed by a whirlwind of action including occupations in engineering, a revolt on the building sites and a famous dockers’ strike. One of the many great moments of the summer was the freeing of five dock workers from Pentonville prison by mass action. The politically charged carnival atmosphere described here makes a refreshing change from the standard account of the strikes of the 1970’s as bitter and sectional.
It is surely also a moment to read or reread Rosa Luxemburg’s classic pamphlet The Mass Strike. A rich reflection on the experience of the 1905 revolution in Russia, it is the definitive statement of how strike action can transform people and challenge regimes. For Luxemburg, mass strikes were the key to overcoming the separation of politics and economics that was plaguing the socialist movement. We are some way short of events on this kind of scale but big battles loom. Anyway Luxemburg’s points apply even now as the political impact of the current rail strikes are plain for all to see.
As the signs of system failure multiply, American financial journalist David Gelles’ The Man Who Broke Capitalism provides a punchy account of why. It tells the tale of legendary US CEO Jack Welch’s takeover and transformation of corporate giant General Electric from 1980. Welch shocked a lot of people with his ruthless and foul-mouthed commitment to outsourcing, downsizing and asset stripping but his approach soon became the new normal. Gelles no doubt overplays Welch’s individual influence and underplays the extent to which the new economic model was a result of the failure of the old. But the book has the great virtue of locating today’s multiple crises not in the rise of Trump, the spread or populism or even the 2008 banking crisis, but in the very project of capitalist globalisation so beloved of the liberal centre.
Sticking with the US, Kim Moody’s new book Breaking the Impasse is a powerful intervention into current debates about socialist strategy. Moody explains how the Democratic party in the US is hopelessly rigged against progressives and completely in hock to big business. He goes on to argue that there are openings for the left in the US because of a big revival of socialist ideas and a more modest one in class confidence. Its conclusions are a little limited, but the book contains a brilliantly argued and important case that mass movements and class struggle have been key to making change happen in the US particularly in the New Deal years of the 1930s and the post-war Civil Rights period.
Nigerian playwright, poet and political activist Wole Soyinka published his first novel for 48 years at the end of last year. Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is a slightly surreal indictment of the state of an African nation noticeably like modern Nigeria. It is a bizarre and bloody political thriller with an unsettlingly jovial tone. If you can get used to the style you are in for an unforgettable tour through a nation in moral freefall. Soyinka conjures up the nightmare predicament of a whistleblower facing the situation in which there is no element of the regime that he can trust.
A story that has stuck with me over the last few years is told in Caroline Moorehead’s 2019 A House in the Mountains. Moorehead recounts the role of women partisans in the defeat of fascism in the North of Italy at the end of World War 2. It is an extraordinary story involving the total commitment of hundreds of women over two or three years as they hide out in the mountains and regularly risk death as messengers, gun runners and organisers. When the allied commanders finally made it into Turin in 1945, they found a city already liberated by the people. As Moorhead’s riveting book shows their main priority was to disarm the partisans and try and restore ‘normality’.
I was surprised more wasn’t made of Raquel Varela’s A Peoples History of Europe when it came out last year. It is a fresh and thought provoking survey of European history since World War 1 and a polemic about the role of class struggles in shaping it. It’s an unusual experience to read a modern, sweeping history that enthuses about the Russian revolution, insists on the central role of the left in overthrowing fascism at the end of World War 2 and stresses the role of the working class in the great upheavals of 1968. Varela’s rather poetic style isn’t served well by a clunky translation, but the book remains a fantastic and thought provoking overview.
Alex Snowdon’s A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid published earlier this year is a brilliant introduction to the subject. At a time when the very idea of supporting the Palestinian’s struggle is under attack from all quarters, Snowdon’s directness is refreshing. He doubles down on the Israeli state’s record of systematic violence and repression. He doesn’t just make the case for Palestinian liberation, he argues that it is possible and how it can be achieved.
Finally, I have recently had the pleasure of rereading a compilation of some of Leon Trotsky’s cultural writings published as Leon Trotsky on Literature and Art.
Trotsky’s appreciations of writers as different as Gorky, Tolstoy, Mayakovsky and Celine are an absolute joy, placing each in their moment without reducing them to mere expressions of their times. Taken together, the longer pieces on art, class and socialism written on the years after the Russian Revolution provide one of the best accounts of how the left should approach culture. Even amongst socialists these writings are largely ignored. Given the interest in matters of culture today they really shouldn’t be.
Chris Nineham will be discussing Trotsky's ideas on art and culture on Thursday 18 August at 6:30pm. Register on Zoom here.
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Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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