Sunday, May 27, 2012

Ten Books Which Shaped My Politics

I'm stealing this idea from the Working Class Self Organisation and Chilli Sauce blogs. Yeah, it's self-indulgent in a way because I'm talking about myself, but you are interested in what I think, otherwise you wouldn't be here. I'm going to talk about them in the order I came across them, so you might be intrigued enough to check out a book you've never read, or you might just be fascinated to see my evolution chronicled before your very eyes.

1. Robert Tressell - The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
"The gloomy shadows enshrouding the streets, concealing for the time their grey and mournful air of poverty and hidden suffering, and the black masses of cloud gathering so menacingly in the tempestuous sky, seemed typical of the Nemesis which was overtaking the Capitalist System. That atrocious system which, having attained to the fullestmeasure of detestable injustice and cruelty, was now fast crumbling into ruin, inevitably doomed to be overwhelmed because it was all so wicked and abominable, inevitably doomed to sink under the blight and curse of senseless and unprofitable selfishness out of existence for ever, its memory universally execrated and abhorred."

I've written about this one before:

"In 1999, an elderly man gave his battered/well-loved copy to his sullen, somewhat detached grandson, who read it in his Wallasey bedroom. Suddenly everything fell into place, and there was no time to waste being sullen and detached when there was class war all around."

Here I am. No more needs to be said.

2. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels - Manifesto of the Communist Party
"The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image."

Number 2 immediately followed Number 1. I was eighteen and desperately hungry to understand the world. The Manifesto introduced me to the materialist conception of history, and once again, it was immediately obvious that this was some kind of uncommon 'common sense'. I was particularly struck by the apparently amazing prediction of the course that economic globalisation would take (written one hundred and fifty years in the past), which therefore explained why the then newish Labour government was disillusioning me in the fullest sense. If the 'race to the bottom' was inevitable, I had to dedicate my life to making the damn revolution come quicker.

3. George Orwell - Nineteen Eighty-Four
"It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same — everywhere, all over the world, hundreds of thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another's existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same — people who had never learned to think but who were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world. If there was hope, it lay in the proles!"

Then I was on to all the Orwell. Animal Farm sure, Homage To Catalonia certainly, but this one just shook me to the core. I remember sitting on a bus reading this, and literally being scared stiff by the ideas within it. They seemed really appropriate for our era, with all the technological innovations just helping the powers that be to keep a eye on us more efficiently. But what hit me most was Orwellian language - a whole new lexicon with which to describe Bush and Blair as they pushed for war in Iraq.

4. John Steinbeck - The Grapes Of Wrath
"And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need."

My favourite novel of all time. An absolutely stunning piece of work. It took the Marx I'd read and made it poetry, all the while creating and developing amazing characters, and propelling them through a heartbreaking yet beautifully inspiring story. If you don't empathise with the Joads, you're either quite posh or are alienated from your people beyond all recognition.

5. Guy Debord - The Society Of The Spectacle
"Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behavior. The spectacle, as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense which the sense of touch was for other epochs; the most abstract, the most mystifiable sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction of present-day society. But the spectacle is not identifiable with mere gazing, even combined with hearing. It is that which escapes the activity of men, that which escapes reconsideration and correction by their work. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever there is independent representation, the spectacle reconstitutes itself."

The first time, I found this impenetrable. The second time, I was like 'Oh yeah, I knew that was how capitalism reclaims acts of rebellion and turns them into acts of consumption'. Ironically, this kinda happened to Debord himself.

6. Peter Kropotkin - Mutual Aid: A Factor Of Evolution
"In the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support not mutual struggle-- has had the leading part. In its wide extension, even at the present time, we also see the best guarantee of a still loftier evolution of our race."

You see, it's not 'survival of the fittest', but 'survival of the best adapted to the environment', and in a very large number of cases that means 'survival of the best co-operators'. Heading off the 'intellectual challenge' of eugenicists before they really reared their ugly heads, Kropotkin makes the case that evolution favours working class revolution. And he does it extremely well.

7. Richard Dawkins - The Selfish Gene
"Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do."

I was fascinated by the link between selfishness and solidarity after reading Kropotkin, so I read this. And shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit, it was another of those world-stopping moments. From then on my politics has been all about the overlapping of 'selfish' individual interests. In it's way, it is possibly the most radical book in the list, even though I'm sure the liberal Dawkins didn't mean it that way.

8. Emma Goldman - Living My Life
"America had declared war with Spain.... It did not require much political wisdom to see that America's concern was a matter of sugar and had nothing to do with humanitarian feelings. Of course there were plenty of credulous people, not only in the country at large, but even in liberal ranks, who believed in America's claim. I could not join them. I was sure that no one, be it individual or government, engaged in enslaving and exploiting at home, could have the integrity or the desire to free people in other lands."

If you only read one autobiography in your time, make it this one. 'Red Emma' charts her own political and social evolution in thousands of fascinating pages, taking in some of the key events of the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds. That's a brief summary, but it should be all that's needed.

9. Karl Marx - The Civil War In France
"It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour."

Though ostensibly it's about a series of events which took place in Paris over a couple of months in 1871, it is actually the nearest Marx got to explaining how he thought the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' would look. Clue: it's not Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin. As I began to think more about precisely how we could reach FULL COMMUNISM, this was a great way of clarifying certain things.

10. Paulo Freire - Pedagogy Of The Oppressed
"Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people--they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress."

Not sure what practical lessons I learned from this one, because I never fully accepted that knowledge or revolutionary ideology could be transmitted hierarchically. Also, I don't think I have quite processed it all yet. Still, you need to read it. There will be a test afterwards!
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