Saturday, 18 July 2009

a few good reads

I'm heading off on a trip to France tomorrow, returning on Friday night. When I started packing this morning, my thoughts turned to what I might read on the long coach journey from north east England to Paris. Assuming I'm awake (we set off at the indecently early time of 6am) and I'm not distracted by the 45 year 9s I'm accompanying (many of them will be absorbed in their own private iPod worlds), it should be a rare chance to indulge my bibliophilia.

I'm not sure what I'll take yet, but it's prompted the idea of recommending some of my good reads from recent months - as a guide to possible summer holiday reading for others. The next few weeks or so can, for many people, be the best time of the year for getting stuck into a few books.

I read Richard Seymour's 'The Liberal Defence of Murder' over Christmas - unusual choice for the festive season, I know - and found its excavation of the long history of liberals' and ex-lefties' support for war and imperialism fascinating. The author is responsible for the Lenin's Tomb site, which since 2003 has offered (amongst other things) critiques of the liberal justifications for the 'war on terror'. The book illustrates that recent rhetoric of 'humanitarian intervention' is part of a long tradition, and that modern apostates like Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen are not as unusual as might be supposed.

I've read some of the key figures in the Marxist tradition in the last few months, including extracts from many of Lenin's writings in the book 'Revolution, democracy, socialism: selected writings'. It's edited by Paul Le Blanc, with a very snazzy design, and covers Lenin's entire political life. Lenin was mostly a clearer writer than many assume (if they've never gone to the original sources) and the long introductory piece by the editor is superb in providing context and explaining why Lenin is so relevant.

Shortly after getting the book I read George Lukacs' short book about Lenin - I read it online at the Marxists Internet Archive, but at the Marxism festival a couple of weeks ago a new edition was on sale. John Rees' meeting about it was very popular - hopefully many of the people there went and bought the Lukacs' book, as it really is a superb (and accessible) summary of the main issues around building revolutionary organisation.

I also read the chapter on Lukacs in the John Rees book about the dialectic - The Algebra of Revolution. I bought this when it came out a decade ago, but found the Lukacs material forbidding - I'm glad I went back to it, though, as there's incredible insight into why people have the ideas and consciousness they do, and into how capitalism manages to perpetuate itself. But also, on a more hopeful note, how the system creates the conditions for its own destruction by working class revolution.

Another book I've returned to is Tony Cliff's political memoir, A World to Win, written shortly before his death in 2000. Cliff traces the building of revolutionary socialist organisation in Britain from just after World War Two onwards. It is a manual for revolutionaries, with countless lessons on strategy and tactics and how to build an organisation - just like Cliff's own biography of Lenin in the years up to 1914, 'Building the Party'. In fact these two books complement each other very neatly.

I've enjoyed Michael Rosen's political poems ('Fighters for Life'), which can be dipped into every now and then. He's a versatile author who can write for adults or kids, whether poetry or prose, and with a more or less explicitly politcal focus. I'll conclude this piece with a snippet of prose from Rosen, which - considering the current death and destruction in Afghanistan and Pakistan - seem especially pertinent:

'It didn't work out the way it's supposed to. The four of us on a platform. We were supposed to have given up. We should have learnt that being unconvinced is what counts for wise. But we're here. Shocked again. Coming out of our kitchens to say, if nothing else, everyone here is sick of the age-old cruelties. We should have noticed history had ended but we got distracted by some massacres.'


  1. I've just read the Lukacs on Lenin book as well. I've been through History and Class Conciousness and not enjoyed it. As I got toward the end of the Lenin book I found myself skimming.

    You can sort of see what he's driving at (although his frequent referral to "labour aristocracy" is a big scar on the work), but ye gods he's windy. Istvan Mezaros has that style too.

  2. dude are you obsessed with the russian revolution or something? did we have to study animal farm for at least three months because of your weird obsession? and it's just picking a book for goodness sake, we don't need to know about your unbelieveably hard struggle... FOR A BOOK!
    i mean i love reading but i don't tell people when i don't know what to take on a journey. hmm... maybe check out a library, browse for a bit... oh no sorry, you won't have time for that, because you're writing stupid messages. but hey, you're an english teacher so maybe it's different, i don't know. i'm more of a science and maths person myself.
    have fun smiling strangely at students and freaking people out with your creepy laugh!

    third from the left horror writer