Five books every socialist should read

John Mullen

John Mullen is a member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France, and editor of Socialisme International , a quarterly review based on the politics of the International Socialist Tendency. He occasionally writes for the SUN website.


Choosing five books was hard. I normally read either crime thrillers or books connected with whatever is the main theme of the next issue of the review I edit (homosexuality at the moment). But I don’t like to disappoint Jim, so I came up with the following.


My Life by Leon Trotsky

It would probably sound pretentious to recommend « Trotsky’s complete works » (though they do make a tremendous read if you have a year to spare). I would choose therefore Trotsky’s autobiography  My Life.

When I recommend this book, radical but unorganized friends suspect me more or less bitterly of wanting to defend the One True Faith Of Trotskyism, by harking back to the Holy Texts Of Yesteryear. I reckon it is exactly the opposite - what comes out of Trotsky’s autobiography is the extent to which he was prepared to think up new approaches to problems which hadn’t been faced before by socialists.

A well-known example is the (badly named) theory of Permanent Revolution. At the beginning of the twentieth century all Marxists « knew » that the revolution had to come first in Germany, Britain or America - the advanced industrial countries with a mass working class. Trotsky was the guy who was prepared to say « On the other hand ... » and look at the very particular situation of Russia - with a very small but highly concentrated industrial working class. Revolutionaries who are prepared to look at new options without abandoning the many things we know for sure about capitalism are valuable people.

The other example which comes to mind is when Trotsky is considering in the 1930s the situation of Black people in America, who have become at this time a majority in some parts of the States. To the horror of his closest comrades, Trotsky is quite prepared to consider the demand for a separate state for Blacks put forward by some Black groups as a positive step. Fresh thinking without losing hold of the tradition - always useful.


The Labour Government 1964-1970 by Harold Wilson

I am prepared to bet that no-one expected a revolutionary to recommend a book by Harold Wilson. Labour Prime minister of Britain in the Sixties, when general prosperity and strong trade unions might have led to massive steps forward for the working class, Wilson pushed for class compromise, sent the troops to smash the seamen’s strike, and gave solid diplomatic support to the USA in  the Vietnam war. It has recently been proved that he knew British soldiers were torturing prisoners in Kenya.

But his book is a wonderful antidote for anyone who claims that revolutionaries are unrealistic folk and that pragmatism and realism and working sensibly within the institutions is the best way to make life better for the oppressed and exploited of this world. Every chapter of his book shows how while in office he had a lot of power to manage capitalism, and extremely little to challenge its logic. It is full of comments along the lines of « Unfortunately the International Monetary Fund didn’t understand the importance of improving public services and they made us cut them instead. »

Parts of it are like a pantomime - you feel like shouting « Behind you Harold, can’t you see the capitalist monster, you idiot! » This book can make a revolutionary of you! Because for all his many faults, Wilson was exceptional in that he was honest enough to put down on paper what happened behind closed doors - the inner workings of polite capitalism, and it’s pretty dire.


Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War by Ronald Fraser

This is a fabulous book, entirely made up of interviews with survivors from all sides of the Spanish civil war, including many who lived through a period of workers’ power in Catalonia. It brings to life these historic events, this time when the chances of victory for socialism were lost for several generations. Victory in Spain might have permitted many other victories.

The danger of political history is that it can sound arid and distant, so these personal accounts are a real inspiration. In addition, questions of political strategy are very precisely and concretely posed. The choices of anarchist forces do not come out well, it has to be said. But mostly it is a tremendous witness to how masses of people can be transformed when they feel the world could be theirs.


State Capitalism in Russia Tony Cliff

I didn’t much like Cliff’s ideas on political strategy in his last few years. But his book on Russia seems to me to be indispensable. If we can’t explain in detail why the Russian workers’ revolution was replaced by a bloody dictatorship, in a sufficiently convincing way to persuade people that there’s a fair chance the story will end better next time, I think we can all just go home and watch the Winter Olympics instead. And for me, the abstract explanations (« Stalin was a bastard » or « the bureaucracy got all bureaucratic ») just don’t hack it. A materialist explanation is required. I’ll read any other one proposed, but this one persuaded me to keep up the fight for a revolution.



Heart on the Left - poems 1953-1984 by Adrian Mitchell

Since I always prefer to give the impression that revolutionary socialists are actually human beings as well, I’ll finish with a collection of fun, accessible, and often socialist poems by Adrian Mitchell. Love songs, social change poems, comic masterpieces, everything you need to be reminded why it is worth working to change the world. His slogan is “Most people ignore most poetry, because most poetry ignores most people.” A book for a lie-in on a Sunday morning. It is important for activists to know how to rest.





March 2006

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