FIVE BOOKS EVERY SOCIALIST SHOULD READ

Liz Davies

Liz Davies was a member of the NEC of the Labour Party, Chair of the Socialist Alliance and is the author of 'Though the looking glass'

 

 

“Ready for Revolution: the Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Ture]” by Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Scribner, 2003

 

Not sure if this is published in the UK, but it is available on the web. An autobiography with a difference. The two old friends and comrades started work after Stokely had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He read and approved only six chapters, but left hours of taped narratives. Thelwell had been by Stokely’s side throughout the civil rights struggle and they tell the story together.

 

Of course, the civil rights movement is the dominant theme. You’re struck by just how young they were. At the age of 21, Stokely is in Greenwood Mississippi in 1962. Over the next few years, he and his comrades are beaten, arrested, tortured, tear-gassed and several are murdered, and they remain non-violent. Stokely and SNCC were the first civil rights group to condemn the Vietnam war. Black Power challenged liberals to listen to black voices, to respect black self-determination and black consciousness. Some respected it; the media and many others demonised it.

 

This book reminds us that movements cannot speak “for” the dispossessed; we must ensure that the voices of the dispossessed are the voices of the movement.

 

“The Poisonwood Bible”, Barbara Kingsolver, HarperPerennial, 1998

 

For a factual and terrifying account of the European colonialist horrors visited on the Congo, read Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost”. But for the story of what modern imperialism did to Congo’s hopes of an independent democracy, this novel can’t be bettered. Told through the eyes of five women in an American missionary family from 1959, the personal and political tragedy is devastating. Central to the story is the CIA-backed murder of Patrice Luumumba and installation of Mobutu. Leaves you heart-broken and furious.

 

“The Making of the English Working Class”, E P Thompson, Penguin, 1963

 

History writing doesn’t get better than this. The detailed account of urban political agitation in the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century is riveting, both in its similarities and its differences to political organisation today. At least we don’t have to cope with the Combination Acts (although New Labour would surely bring them in if it thought that it could get away with it). But it’s not just a narrative or a piece of scholarly historical research. It transformed historical method, by rejecting conservative Whig history and crude materialist-determinist approaches. Teaches us how to look at the world through humanist Marxist eyes. “Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England” (to which EP Thompson contributed) is a masterly account of oppression, law and resistance. All socialists and all lawyers should read it.

 

“The Prophet Armed”, “The Prophet Unarmed” and “The Prophet Outcast”, Trotsky trilogy by Isaac Deutscher, first published 1954 – 1963, OUP, republished Verso 2003

 

There are shorter accounts of the Bolshevik Revolution (not least “Ten Days that Shook the World”) and there are other accounts of Trotksy, most either demonising or hagiographic. Deutscher’s great trilogy, the first volume published before Stalin’s death, is a history of the early-twentieth century (in the Soviet Union and Europe), of the Revolution and of the man himself. More humanist Marxism – he doesn’t pull his punches on the brutality even in the early days of the revolution and Trotsky’s involvement in brutality, war and even imperialism. The denunciation of what we now call Stalinism was unparalled at the time. It’s an account of dictatorship covertly establishing itself, out-manoeuvring and silencing its critics, incorporating them (but never for long) or murdering them.

 

I’m not one for basing political activity today on the texts of long-dead giants But any study of the classic Trotsky texts would be incomplete without also reading Deutscher for the historical context. And, for all Deutscher’s sharp criticisms, you’re left in no doubt that the man was a great thinker, philosopher and revolutionary.

 

“Beyond the Fragments”, Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, Hilary Wainwright, Merlin Press, 1979

 

This might be out of print, but is certainly available on the web. I read this in 1980, just as I was becoming politically active. At the time I thought “well, this is obvious”. Of course, socialist organisations should be respecting women’s self-determination, ensuring that they could participate fully etc. But then, as I got more involved, I realised why everyone should read it.

 

The point about “Beyond the Fragments” is that it’s not jaded, or right-wing, or radical feminist. Rowbotham, Segal, Wainwright hadn’t given up on socialist feminist politics; far from it, they were all immensely active, and remain so to this day. They wrote this book for the movement; they were not trying to dismiss the movement.

 

“Beyond the Fragments” identified a systematic failure within the revolutionary left to ensure that women participated on equal terms. The problem was rarely one of overt sexism (although there was and remains plenty of that about). The problem was that the left couldn’t see that its structures replicated those of “patriarchal” society, encouraged male leadership (usually a certain sort of self-assured arrogant man) and prevented participation by others. Women too often colluded by denying their own abilities and rights to participate. Above all, the revolutionary parties with their rigid structures and emphasis on leadership failed women and other oppressed groups. The book was written about the revolutionary left, but it rang true for the broader labour movement as well.

 

“Beyond the Fragments” and the socialist-feminist politics that it sprung from had a huge influence on the structures and organisation of the left; in my view not so much on the revolutionary left (who still seriously lag behind when it comes to facilitating women’s involvement) but on the broader labour movement. Over the 1980s, the idea that women and indeed other groups should be organised in semi-autonomous sections within the Labour Party and the trade unions became common currency. Language changed. No organisation would contemplate organising a conference without a crèche. And artificial measures such as quotas and reserved seats, for all their manipulation from the top, at least resulted  in more women coming forward to high-profile positions.

 

But we have an awfully long way to go. What good are quotas for women if an unprecedented number of women MPs then vote to cut their sisters’ single parent’s benefit or bomb their sisters in Baghdad? “Beyond the Fragments” wasn’t about a quick-fix: change the structures and women’s liberation will follow. It challenged the left’s understanding of how oppression worked, and that fighting oppression wasn’t something that could be put aside until after the revolution. The left was slow to understand at the time and remains so. We’re still perpetuating political structures that alienate far more than they attract

 

 

 

March 2006

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