Mark Perryman recommends some radical summer reading, to help us grapple with interesting times.
The audacity of hope versus the mendacity of the weak ’n wobbly. 20 years ago it took until the early hours before that ‘were you still up for Portillo?’ moment established the sheer scale of the Tories’ meltdown. Two decades on this was different. Firstly, the indicator, the exit poll, came a whole lot earlier, leaving viewers with hour after hour of ‘surprise’ results to look forward to. Secondly, Labour’s triumph, despite missing the overall majority, was both unexpected by the mainstream media and clearly based on a radical appeal.
Of course nothing stands still in politics. Yesterday’s radicalism becomes tomorrow’s consensus while new issues arise to challenge us to change pre-ordained positions. Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists and Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth were both published prior to 8th June – now they are both required summer reading for Labour politicians and activists who might mistakenly believe that ‘one more heave’ will be sufficient to dislodge the Tories and effect progressive change.
Naomi Klein’s latest, No Is Not Enough sets the necessity for an evolving, always more radical, project in the context of how being against things is never, ever, sufficient – we need to be for something, too. This is one of our brightest thinkers, writing at her very best.
Rules for Revolutionaries has a similar US bias to Naomi’s book, but is no less necessary to read. Co-authors Becky Bond and Zack Exley draw lessons – what they call ‘big organising’ – from their hands-on experience in the Bernie Sanders campaign. No serious Labour activist can afford to ignore these lessons if a decent second place in the key 66 marginals is to be turned into a runaway victory next time.
The Thatcherite Offensive by Alexander Gallas is an important new contribution from an older perspective – the work of Nicos Poulantzas – towards an analysis of an era most of us would prefer to forget. Taking an admirably internationalist look at the potential to challenge neoliberalism, the edited collection The Left, the people, populism ranges over a wide range of subjects and European countries, a vital antidote to the parochialism of the English Left.
Of course such inwardness does get punctured from time to time, recently the #blacklivesmatter movement in the USA has been one such source of inspiration. Wesley Lowery’s They Can’t Kill Us All is the riveting tale of how this movement exploded on the US political terrain and helped begin to shift the boundaries worldwide of debates on race, class and policing to good effect.
Jess Phillips is best known perhaps for her explosive interventions to burst the Westminster Bubble. Too easily pigeon-holed simply as an arch anti-Corbynite, her book Everywoman reveals instead a grassroots activist-feminist turned MP who more than anything else wants to upset the status quo, whoever or whatever is defending it.
Jamie Bartlett would certainly recognise the necessity of such an opening-up. In Radicals he provides a hugely original account of how outsiders across the globe, not easily placed on the traditional left to right spectrum, are forcing changes on the mainstream.
Leon Rosselson’s short memoir That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority provides a sense of one such source of this radicalism, an important rejoinder to the current febrile debate over what is, and is not, anti-semitic. But of course outsiders, radicals, can originate from all variety of sources. The English Defence League for a period posed a real challenge to what it was assumed were settled notions of a multicultural and diverse society, fomenting an unapologetic racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigration into a street-fighting weekend army. Loud and Proud by Hilary Pilkington, is a vital study of the EDL in preparation for any revival of a similar type of movement.
In contrast what might frame an enduring revival on our side? Most would argue that this will depend on the continuing popularisation of the anti-austerity message. Few books will do this better than Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s Dismembered, a fact-filled polemical description of the scale and depth of our public services’ starvation of resources.
Housing was a hugely important issue to many of the millennials who cast their vote in such numbers for Corbyn. Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj combines an analysis of the growth of the private rental market and alternatives which would put the needs of tenants first and the profit margins of greedy landlords second.
There is nothing worse than failing to look back to the past for lessons for today’s and tomorrow’s Left. Unfortunately, looking to the past often becomes a recipe of being trapped by yesteryear’s models. Don Watson’s Squatting in Britain 1945-1955 is a textbook avoidance of that trait, and it also deserves a wide reading post-Grenfell. Another book useful for those reflecting on Grenfell is Justice Denied, a powerful reminder that righting wrongs is never anything less than a battle – Orgreave and Hillsborough are more than enough testament to that.
Gregor Gall’s Bob Crow, Socialist, Leader, Fighter is described as a ‘political biography’ which neatly sums up its appeal. The story of not just a forceful personality who fought his way to the top of his trade union, but the values he sought to protect and promote via the campaigns he helped lead. A very different story is Jonathan Lerner’s autobiographical Swords in the Hands of Children . This is the era of ’68, all that hope, liberation and revolt and when all of that came to nothing, the self-destruction that came next.
Twentieth Century Communism is an uncanny read for those interested in rediscovering the range, content and meaning of perhaps the most important radical tradition of the past century. The latest edition is a special issue dedicated to the literature of communism.
But of course it is 1917 which is attracting the most attention in the Russian Revolution’s centenary year. The Dilemmas of Lenin by Tariq Ali is not a hagiography, yet the message of the enduring case for revolution shines through, whatever the changes in circumstances.
For a short and very readable account of the movements that produced the Russian Revolution, read Dave Sherry’s Russia 1917: Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed. Written with a style few other authors would even attempt to match, October by China Miéville is novel, yet politically compelling, a book to appeal to those who remain drawn to the romance of the revolutionary ideal.
For an insight into the culture the Revolution helped produce and then propel on to a world stage 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dalyuk, is the perfect accompaniment.
Over the decades a culture of resistance has taken many forms, the latest #grime4corbyn being too recent to have very much written about it yet. Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps trace the English tradition of folk music in their book Performing Englishness. Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers is a magnificent account of skiffle which along the way Billy claims helped change the world.
Two books that cover more recent collisions of music and politics are Fightback: Punk, Politics and Resistance edited by The Subcultures Network, and the collection edited by Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher called Post Punk: Then and Now. Dave Randall’s Sound System: The Political Power of Music is an unforgiving call to guitars, drums, keyboards, sax, by any instruments necessary to change the world.
Of course no summer would be complete without the joys of salads, picnics, barbecues with ice-cold chilled drinks on the side. Be overwhelmed with ideas to sparkle the appetite – and without a sniff of meat in sight – in Sam Murphy’s superb Beautifully Real Food.
And the other treat no summer would be complete without is of course a decent thriller. Chris Brookmyre’s latest Want You Gone certainly won’t disappoint with his customary mix of dramatic plot turns, rich humour and tartan noir. Nor should the grown-ups be allowed to have all the reading fun either. Michael Rosen’s latest creation, Uncle Gobb, reappears in Uncle Gobb and the Green Heads, hours of fun for young readers. Adults can ponder if this Gobb character is really the living embodiment of the marketisation of our chidren’s education.
Making sense of 2017’s political surprises requires both an understanding of the present and the ability to connect this to a theoretical framework. The reissue of Perry Anderson’ s The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci with a very substantial new preface is a superb sign post towards such an intellectual journey. Unarguably the most significant populariser of Gramsci, and one of the founders of the modern academic discipline of Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall, has been treated to a recent spate of well-deserved books of late. His partial autobiography Familiar Stranger has been published posthumously with the help of his long-time collaborator Bill Schwarz.
David Scott’s Stuart Hall’s Voice consists of a wonderfully original format, a series of letters written to Hall after his death exploring the significance of his legacy to so many contemporary intellectuals who remain enthralled by his influence. And Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, edited by Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg, is also relevant and more than welcome.
And it is Stuart Hall who post-election provides us with our book of the summer too. Wherever we spend the summer relaxing and recovering, the collection Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and other Political Essays is both a timely and enjoyable read.
Both as a speaker and on the page, Stuart Hall brought the analysis of politics alive in a way which is sorely missed in 2017. These essays show a sharpness of intellect and a warm embrace of marxist analysis that are a positive joy to read.