Five books every socialist should read

Jim Jepps

Jim Jepps is the editor of the Socialist Unity Network website


* Communist Manifesto * Marx and Engels *

I defy anyone to read this description of capitalism without their blood beginning to race "The constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. "

So full of sharp observation and modern day resonance it's got to top any list of must reads for socialists. One of the problems with books like this is the feeling that reading it will be a chore, that it will be good for you. I think my copy sat on the shelf for a whole year before I finally, grudgingly, picked it up telling myself "let's get this over with" half an afternoon later I'd finished it and had begun reading it for the second, and certainly not last, time.

As exciting as any thriller.


* In dubious battle * John Steinbeck *

Whilst Steinbeck has written many fantastic novels it is this, lesser known, work that really set my heart racing. You can feel the grit and taste the fear of the times. Steinbeck wrote about the problems facing US workers in the thirties many times after his experiences as a free lance journalist, but it is within "In dubious battle" that he examines the role of dedicated revolutionaries among casualised labour.

Steinbeck certainly wasn't a Marxist and part of his motivation was to say to the world, "look, if we do not treat workers with dignity and respect they might give us a revolution - and you wouldn't like that!" It's this sympathetic but critical engagement that allows both the strength and courage of these 'party' organisers to come through without any hint of being dogma or lecturing.

This relationship between the individual and the swirling torrent of events is hypnotic and mixes absolute brutality with both love and friendship. Brilliant.


* Building the party * Tony Cliff *

Oh yes. Whilst I think there are plenty of problems with the Leninist model of organising Tony Cliff's first volume of his series on Lenin is absolutely ferocious. It's not simply the fact that Cliff had researched the material so thoroughly but that he inhabited the subject so completely.

His understanding, for example, of the revolutionary party as an organisation that is differentiated and has separate parts influenced and shaped by their position in the party and society is absolutely fundamental and, I think, ground breaking.

When looking at the events between 1903 and 1906 Cliff shows how Lenin shifted and turned  the party to grasp opportunities and avoid pitfalls. So in 1903 the party was to be tightly centralised and was "the organised distrust of the membership" not because he disliked the members but because the Tsarist police were infiltrating the organisation and sending people to Siberia. In 1905 he made many ranting polemics against the 'party men' (full time organisers as we call them today) and demanded that they throw the gates of the party wide, that it must be run from the bottom up - the Tsarist police had not vanished, but they were in the midst of an enormous and unprecedented movement - a tightly centralised (a control freak) organisation could not hope to advance in circumstances where meetings, demonstrations and radical activity were taking place all the time, everywhere.

The lessons for the radicalisation under New Labour today are absolutely clear. Whilst the anti-war movement was incredible - it was the fact that it bubbled up from below that made it so phenomenal. The left organisations that tried to harness this for their own ends, instruct the movement, and order it up and down the hill have not grown in any significant sense because they never understood that the model they had used to build up an organisation in the first place was now out moded and inadequate for an open and pluralist movement.


* A star called Henry * Roddy Doyle *

For me  "A star called Henry" is probably the most gorgeous book I've ever read. But I'm not nominating it for every socialist to read because it's so well written, but because it blends political statement and story telling so beautifully.

Set in the time of the Easter Rising and then the Civil War we follow the eponymous Henry through his hopeless and poverty wracked beginnings into his awakening as an agent of his own destiny. Without you even noticing it examines the relationship between the causes of his involvement and the leaders of that cause.

It shows that betrayal, heroism and violence are both individual choices and historical circumstances. Henry is one of the most well defined and lovable characters in any novel to my mind - but its the transformation of friends into enemies and just causes into lost causes that really captures the tragedy and inspiration of the times.


* Red Sky at Night * Ed.  Croft, Andy & Mitchell, Adrian *

When you get to your last one you realise just how hard it is to narrow down to just five books. This choice means I've no room for any of the brilliantly moving Arundati Roy books. A total scandal surely? No room for Catch 22? Madness! I loved Lukacs' 'History and Class Consciousness' and even John Rees' 'Algebra of revolution' is, in my opinion, a fantastic read. But alas there is no room.

So in order to cheat slightly my last choice is a compilation co-edited by the fantastic poet Adrian Mitchell. It's packed full of poems that every socialist should read. In general I'm not a fan of agit-prop art because usually it turns out to be a Guardian article that rhymes, or is just potty, but here we have the best of crop - that work both as poems and as polemics against injustice.

For me poetry collections have that advantage that you can dip in and savour. Rolling ideas on your tongue and deliberating over them in a way that we sometimes miss in novels. This compilation brings together in one place the rage, the humour and humanity of the movement concentrated down and occasionally rhyming.





Feb 2006

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