From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Some of our writers recommend books they have read in the last year
The rewriting of history hit new depths with the publication of the Thatcher memoirs. As an antidote to the furore in the press I read Hugo Young’s One of Us. Here is a history which gives some honest accounting of the deals and deceptions of the Thatcher years. What struck me most reading the book was just how unpopular and divided the Tories were throughout Thatcher’s reign – even in her heyday in the mid-1980s. Alongside this book I dipped into extracts from Socialist Worker contained in the new publication, In the Heat of the Struggle, which gives a marvellous flavour of the events of these years from our side.
The corruption of a decaying ruling class from a different period was also the theme of another of my favourite reads. Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, written as a series of letters between the main participants, unravels intrigue and deception at the heart of the French court in the years leading up to the 1789 French Revolution.
First two golden oldies – books I reread which had been standing on my shelf for years.
Eleanor Leacock, who died a couple of years ago, was an anthropologist driven out of academic life by McCarthyism. She fought back and worked with a younger generation of radicals like Richard Lee to revolutionise the whole study of pre-class societies and reinstate the notion of ‘primitive communism’. Myths of Male Dominance brings together some of her most important articles and is a brilliant challenge to the view – held by male supremacists and by many feminists alike – that men have dominated women in all societies.
George Dangerfield’s The Damnable Question is an account of the events leading up to the partition of Ireland. It is better at telling of the machinations and confusions of the British ruling class than of the conditions of the mass of Irish workers and peasants. But like Dangerfield’s history of British politics in the same period, The Strange Death of Liberal England, it is a delight to read.
Finally, a novel about the Indian subcontinent which could almost be about former Yugoslavia. Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man is set in Lahore in 1947, and tells of the horror as partition leads former friends to line up behind the communal armies from either side which are slaughtering each other. You can’t read it without feeling there must be an alternative, and it must be worth fighting for.
History books and novels are my favourite reading for relaxation. After an exhausting Marxism 93, I read Christopher Hill’s God’s Englishman, a marvellous study of the social and economic forces which shaped England’s 17th century revolutionary, Oliver Cromwell.
Best value reading was a cheap edition of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. At £1 for 800 pages you get one of the best constructed plots in English literature and great insights into the different classes which made up 18th century English capitalism.
Lenin Vol. 1: Building the Party by Tony Cliff, which I reread this year, was the best political read. The story of how Lenin built the Bolshevik Party in the years before the First World War is still a great guide to action today.
Heinrich Böll, one of Germany’s best known postwar writers, is a man not to be missed. Boll throws a sharp and sympathetic eye on the lives of working class people. In contrast he detests the hypocrisy of bourgeois society, particularly the Catholic Church. Dip into any of his novels. For Christmas go for Irish Diary.
Ousmane Sembene is a fighter, clearly a lovely man and a socialist. Start with God’s Bits of Wood, his enthralling account of a powerful railworkers’ strike in Senegal, and then try The Black Docker.
For those who want some weightier reading and are fascinated by the question of where we come from, Origins Reconsidered by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin is a readable and up to date account. For those who want to delve even further back into our origins and the transition from ape to man, Nancy Tanner’s On Becoming Human is fascinating.
Guaranteed to cure any phobia of economics is Man’s Worldly Goods: the story of the wealth of nations by Leo Huberman. It is as readable as a good novel and the economic theory is filled with passion at the injustice and suffering meted out to humanity by the development of capitalism.
Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: tales from the assembly line shows that 20th century capitalism has its own horror stories. Hamper struggles not to let life in the Flint General Motors plant grind him down and this book is a tribute to his ability to survive. The petty humiliations of his job are detailed as his contempt for the company and its management grows. While they lay off staff and speed up the line they preach ‘team work’ and ‘quality’ (as a BT employee this all has a familiar ring).
A new edition of War and an Irish Town – the classic account of the civil rights marches and the battle of Free Derry by Irish socialist Eamonn McCann – is out soon, a timely reminder of how and why the present ‘troubles’ began.
Rex Warner’s novel The Wild Goose Chase is my book of the year. That may seem odd for a novel that first came out in 1937, but the theme is quite up to date. The book is an allegory about Marxism and the struggle against fascism. That makes it sound like some appalling Stalinist tract, but the extraordinary style and range of images and ideas makes this almost unknown novel one of the really original books to come out of the 1930s.
Warner was ambitious: he wanted to write a Marxist Pilgrim’s Progress: a popular novel which explains how ideas change, how consciousness grows and how an organised workers’ uprising can triumph.
Preserving the memory of oppression and resistance is the theme of David Craig’s book On the Crofters’ Trail. Put simply, it is the description of a search for the descendants of the peasants who were burned out and evicted during the reign of terror called the Clearances. From Orkney and Shetland to Manitoba and Ontario, Craig painstakingly tracked down the people who had kept the memories of what was done to them alive.
The great Marxist historian, Edward Thompson, died this year. Customs in Common, his last collection of essays, contains some terrific old pieces – for example, about the way in which the poor in 18th century England used riots as a way of keeping down food prices – and some splendid new ones.
The Pakistani poet and critic Aijaz Ahmad also takes on half baked fashionable orthodoxies. His book In Theory has a rather forbidding title and price. In fact it’s a relentless, illuminating, and highly enjoyable attack on some of the ideas purveyed by ‘postmodernist’ intellectuals.
Finally 1993 was the year I discovered James Ellroy’s thrillers. Novels like LA Confidential (and White Jazz) cover the same territory – Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s – as Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald did. But while they explored the lives of the corrupt rich, Ellroy takes you on a tour of hell – otherwise known as the Los Angeles Police Department. This is a world where endemic racism and sexism, unspeakable violence and wholesale corruption reign. Ellroy’s heroes – if one can call them that – are themselves part of this world, half demented creatures struggling with their own obsessions.
Red Square is the third book in the Martin Cruz Smith trilogy about the exploits of Moscow’s special investigator Arkady Renko. It is set during the ‘end of Communism’ at the time of Gorbachev’s fall.
Neuromancer is the book which coined the phrases ‘virtual reality’ and ‘cyber space’. The future is portrayed as a nightmare in which huge capitalist corporations fight wars over products, money and people. People are either slaves to the corporations or live on the margins of society, forced to live by petty crime.
This is a massive change from 1960s sci-fi writers such as Isaac Asimov who portrayed the future as capitalism working, and technology solving all the problems. In Neuromancer police routinely murder large numbers of people to prevent riots. A ruling class lives in a satellite and keeps control by cloning itself to ensure wealth is passed on. Asimov must be turning in his grave.
Len Deighton has written some of the best known spy thrillers. However Bomber is not a spy story. It’s about the horrors of mass bombings in the Second World War. What makes this Deighton’s best book is his description of those on the receiving end of the bombing.
It’s been a year when I eventually read books that I meant to read long ago but somehow never got round to.
Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair (Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite) are some of the finest novels I have ever read. They follow their heroine from the crofts at the turn of the century Scotland, through the First World War, the General Strike and the unemployed demonstrations of the 1930s. The sense of place, of character and, most of all, of the shifting contradictions of workers’ consciousness are easily the equal of anything in Serge or Orwell.
At the turn of last year I read Victor Serge’s marvellous The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Set during Stalin’s 1930s show trials it provides a brilliant panorama of Russian society.
To say that The Medieval Machine is a history of technological change under feudalism is true, but misleadingly gives the impression of a dry text book. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Caribbean island of Haiti has often been in the news for the savagery of its leaders and the menace that voodoo has represented for the white colonial world. In his great novel The Kingdom of This World the Cuban Alejo Carpentier speaks through the history of the struggle against slavery.
I came across Adrian Mitchell’s Greatest Hits and remembered how powerful were those unashamedly agitprop poems shouted from platforms or from the microphones over Trafalgar Square during the late 1960s. His writing took the voice of protest and made poetry of it (or was it vice versa)? To read Dumb Insolence or Tell Me Lies About Vietnam was as moving this time around as ever.
At £16.99 Paul Woods and Charles Harrison’s Art in Theory 1900–1909: an anthology of changing ideas is a bargain. It amounts to a complete collection of all the documents, articles and manifestoes about contemporary art that you have spent months looking for.
Now that the confidence of our rulers is evaporating like morning mist, here are three books to give our side confidence.
The first is A Nation of Change and Novelty by Christopher Hill, a collection of brilliant essays on radical politics, religion and literature in 17th century England.
The second book is Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law by E.P. Thompson. Literary critics have always tried to tear the guts out of Blake’s poetry by ignoring his part in the radical ferment of the 1790s (the era of the French Revolution). Thompson wasn’t the first to rescue Blake from being a poet concerned with otherworldly things, but he does it with a passion which reminds us that rescuing the past is always part of battles in the present.
Socialism, Utopian and Scientific by Frederick Engels was published in an English version in 1892, just as British politics began to undergo a sea change after a long period of stability. The clumsy title should not put anyone off. Here we have in condensed form the history and traditions that make socialism not just a dream but something we can bring about.
Confession time: although I’ve been recommending it for years in Bookmarks, nine months ago I’d never read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It’s both an intensely honest portrait of the making of a revolutionary, and a compelling picture of black American life from the 1940s to the 1960s.
I devoured Toni Morrison’s Jazz on a train journey back to London, cursing BR for arriving early before I’d finished it – a real sign of a good novel! Set in Harlem in the early 1920s, it celebrates the liberation felt by American blacks arriving from the Deep South.
Jonathan Unger’s The pro-democracy protests in China is one of the most valuable books to have appeared on the 1989 Democracy Movement because it focuses on the growth of the movement in China’s provinces. The chapters about different areas all bring out a much greater degree of working class involvement, and a larger spread of protests after the Tiananmen Square massacre, than previously known.
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth is a stirring epic novel about the slave trade. The feelings and thoughts of the slaves are explored as they fight to maintain some dignity amidst utter degradation. The cause of all the barbarity is laid bare – huge profits at the birth of industrial capitalism.
1959 by Thulani Davis is a stunning novel about growing up, racism and the fight against it. Willie Tarrant is a 12 year old black girl living in small town Virginia as the civil rights movement is taking off.
Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is not a novel – but is even more gripping! When I first picked it up years ago I realised what being a revolutionary is all about. I dipped into it again this year. It’s a long book but what a writer! What a story! The analysis of the progress of the revolution, the politics involved and the tactics of the participants are engrossing and timeless. Trotsky makes it all come alive.
Book of the year has to be Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia. It stands as a unique counterblast to the orthodoxy that there can be a solution to the Balkan conflict by taking nationalist sides. Although Glenny despairs of a working class solution his book provides all the material that points to one.
Disappearing Acts by Terry McMillan was a great surprise and pleasure. This novel is also about hopes amidst despair. McMillan creates real, three dimensional characters that can be recognised all around.
This absorbing read set me up for heavier going – Capitalism and the Law of Accumulation by Henryk Grossman. This dry sounding book is actually fired by a lively and unremitting polemic about how capitalism really works, and doesn’t work.
The book that took me most by surprise this year was Wild Swans by Jung Chang. It is an extraordinary story of three generations of Chinese women. Chang’s grandmother, her feet crippled by the traditional bindings, was a warlord’s concubine. Chang’s mother joined the Communist Party and through her eyes we see the triumph and pain of life under Mao. Chang herself witnessed the horrific consequences of the shifts in Mao’s policies for both party loyalists and the mass of peasants and workers: she eventually emigrated to the West. The book makes you feel you have lived through China’s gruelling history.
Another compelling popular history is David Widgery’s Some Lives! It is a brilliant account – as witnessed by a local doctor – of how Thatcherism devastated London’s East End in the 1980s.
Some books need little excuse to return to. Reading E.P. Thompson’s obituaries this October inspired me to reopen The Making of the English Working Class. There, in magnificent colour, is our class – not as a static, passive product of economic forces, but as a dynamic and evolving force shaping itself through struggle.
Holidays mean that it’s time to catch up with a couple of novels. Two I’ve particularly enjoyed this year are Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and James Joyce’s Ulysses. The sheer size of Joyce’s account of a single day in Dublin at the start of this century might seem a bit daunting but it brings the Irish capital to life. Persevere – it’s worth it.
Gore Vidal’s novel centres on an American president who is forced to push through a revolution in order to achieve victory. Vidal’s Abraham Lincoln is a cautious and conservative man trapped by the logic of events rather than guiding them.
It’s not often you get a former Tory minister writing about working class history. Ian Gilmour’s Riot, Rising and Revolution details the horrors inflicted on working class people in 18th century England and their response. It is a terrific read made even more enjoyable by the fact it is a sustained attack on Thatcher.
If you liked Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City on television you will love the books on which it was based. His latest book Maybe the Moon is also excellent.
Those who like crime fiction will no doubt snap up Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novel, Deadlock.
I also found Stuart Kamensky’s Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov mysteries thoroughly enjoyable, including A Cold Red Sunrise, A Fine Red Rain and The Man Who Walked Like a Bear. Sort of Maigret in Moscow!
Humphrey Carpenter published a good biography on one of the great composers of the 20th century, Benjamin Britten, although I would have liked more political background.
Finally I was pleasantly surprised by Brian Reading’s Japan, the Coming Collapse just out in paperback. The apocalyptic title is accompanied by some absurd statements, nonetheless it is packed with interesting information and anecdotes.
Two wonderful memoirs of political fighters were published in 1993. A Surplus of Memory by Yitzhak Zuckerman, Deputy Commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and its chief liaison with the Polish Underground, is remarkable for several reasons. He is a ‘catastrophic Zionist’, his words to describe the urgency with which he thought the Jews must leave Europe for Palestine. Yet, unusually, he insists that during the Ghetto Uprising ‘the Polish street was sympathetic’. In 1944 he led the remnant of the ghetto fighters in the wider Polish uprising against the Nazis.
Ronnie Kasrils’ Armed & Dangerous – My Underground Struggle Against Apartheid tells his story as one of the leaders of the ANC’s armed wing. Hugely popular in the black townships, Ronnie, a white South African, is a living testimony to the slogan ‘black and white unite and fight’. In exile in the late 1960s he enrolled at the LSE. Despite the fiercest of efforts by the International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP) his dedication to Stalin remained undimmed. It collapsed only with the Berlin Wall in 1989, leaving him politically rudderless but still insisting on his communism with a small ‘c’.
Easily my number one favourite book this year was Christopher Hill’s Milton and the English Revolution which I found in Chicago the previous summer. The beauty of the book is not just that it illuminates Milton’s great poems with his enthusiasm for the revolution, but that it brings to life the poet’s political commitment before he even became a poet. His Defence of the People of England is as powerful a defence of what went on in the 1640s as anything ever said or written. ‘You offer an additional reason for your opposition;’ he scoffed at an opponent, ‘things would seem turned upside down. This would be a welcome change, for it would be the end of mankind if the worst situations were unalterable.’
Number two was Tom Bower’s Tiny Rowland, a meticulous detailed, tremendously readable account of quite incredible skulduggery in high places and the third, if I’m honest, was Alan Clark’s Diaries, if only because these Tories so rarely tell the truth about what they feel for each other. Clark’s best story tells how he and Jonathan Aitken reacted when Michael Mates (a fellow back bencher) supported Heseltine against Thatcher. They leaked Mates’s defence business interests to Labour MP Tam Dalyell. Mates was exposed and humbled and the two naughty boys sniggered all the way home to Mother. These are the people who boast all the time of their loyalty.
Last updated: 1 March 2017