Books for New Year Revolutions

Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman previews books to look out for in the first quarter of 2013

William Morris PoeamsI have an old lefty badge somewhere: ‘Books are Weapons’. Of course reading alone is never enough- did someone mention the point however is to change it? But we live in an era of unprecedented austerity, the urgent challenge that the threat of Climate Change should be posing almost all conventional definitions of growth, and the enduring disarray of oppositional politics. So finding the time for a good read to provoke both thought and action is as good a New Year resolution as I can think of. And despite the mind-numbing dullness of the political mainstream, in the margins there’s thankfully still plenty to savour.

By way of a kind of New Year revolutions primer there’s none better than the 2013 edition of the annual Socialist Register. Each year the Socialist Register editors take a broad theme, this year’s is ‘A Question of Strategy’, commission a broad and international range of contributors and compile the results into a highly readable collection. The 2013 version is particularly strong and timely, with post-Occupy, the rise of Syriza, the contrasting experiences of the European Left and post-Leninist models of political organisation all to the fore. For an entirely different kind of compendium treat yourself to Poems of Protest, a slim volume of the too often neglected poetry of William Morris, beautifully designed by Roger Huddle with a superb introduction by Michael Rosen. It’s a great combination, the kind of book to keep you inspired throughout 2013.

unhitchedThe web has helped a new wave of leftist polemic to become sharper than ever before. Richard Seymour at Lenins Tomb is a fine craftsman of a decent and often witty left-wing argument. Some would say he might remind them of a young Christopher Hitchens. To put any such notion where Seymour certainly feels it should belong he has written an angry denunciation of everything Hitchens became and allowed himself, wilfully, to represent. Unhitched is both a fine read of how a dissenter went mainstream but also a window on what dissent today might look like free of the conventions of the liberal establishment.

Three books of historical record likewise distinguish a politics unconstrained by convention. David Gilbert’s Love and Struggle was one book in 2012 I missed and I won’t be making the same mistake in 2013. An autobiographical account of how one activist went from late 1960s student activist to 1970s Weather Underground operative, this is more than just a tale of ‘68 but a powerfully written exploration of the enduring appeal and motivation of idealism. Dealing with entirely different subject matter, Physical Resistance by Dave Hann however provides an equally compelling account of the heroism that anti-fascism will often demand. Forthcoming, Lindsey German’s new book, How A Century Of War Changed The Lives of Women” takes a similarly long historical sweep to Hann, this time with a focus in particular on the political experience of, and resistance by, women to militarism and imperialism. This is a much neglected aspect of women’s lives and politics, by redressing the balance this book provides a pleasingly different, and necessary, read.

Also forthcoming, and from a distinctively socialist-feminist trajectory is the welcome and timely republication in updated form of the late 1970s book Beyond the Fragments by Merlin Press. The argument raised by the authors that feminism has to be central to the remaking of socialism, neatly summed up in their maxim ‘the personal is political’ has ebbed and flowed in terms of influence and consequence in the past three decades. It will be interesting to see what kind of impact the updated edition has on a new generation still confronting many of the issues this book raised before many of them would have been born.

Philosophy Football t shirtPart of the appeal of Beyond the Fragments for me in the late 1970s when it was first published, that I’ve stuck with ever since, is that it wasn’t just about the remaking of socialism, but also demanded the reinvention of the political. Most of my own writing in recent years has been about sport, football in particular. I’ve been informed crucially by the belief that there is no such process as keeping politics out of sport because sport is itself political, social, economic and cultural. Or as Albert Camus once put it, and Philosophy Football neatly turned into a best-selling T-shirt, “All That I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” Phil Cohen, author of a splendid new book on London 2012, On The Wrong Side of The Track? detects next to no morality in the deliberations and actions of the modern Olympic movement. Instead he carefully details the actuality of what the Games will come to mean for East London in years to come. Once all the hoopla is over this is precisely the sort of subject-matter that needs addressing. This isn’t to indulge in what Cohen calls ‘Olympophobia’. Rather it is simply the essential task of any effective oppositional politics to separate establishment rhetoric from practical reality. Artist and photographer Neville Gabie provides an entirely different insight into the popular mood of the celebratory that the Olympic project at its best would become in his book-length version of his Olympic artistic residence. Great Lengths is a visual account of the potential of the Olympics to inspire without concealing the nature of the obstacles to that emotional and physical result.

A Left politics that takes popular culture seriously as a core site where ideologies are made, contested and unmade must be as much about the point of consumption as the more familiar terrain of the point of production. UK Uncut’s protests outside Starbucks, Top Shop and High Street Banks revealed the progressive potential of such a focus for politics, helped along with some flair, creativity and imagination. For all three in political abundance look no further than Reverend Billy’s debut book The End of the World. Reverend Billy is the star of US anti-consumerism agitprop of the sort that that readers of Adbusters will be familiar with. An absolute must read, and a great laugh too.

The experience of parenthood is often an experience that challenges almost every value mother and father once had. For a richly amusing read of the contradictions and compromises of bringing up boys in the modern family enjoy MOB Rule by Hannah Evans, mother to three boys. Not the usual subject-matter for a ‘politics’ reading list yet if we can’t take how our children develop seriously what does this say about any definition of the political?

Cancel The ApocalypseA mix of locality, race and identity with sharply incisive writing helps make Rupa Huq’s On The Edge one of the most interesting titles published at the start of this year. Rupa’s subject matter is hugely original, the politics of suburbia. What do these places mean outside of our imagination and preconceptions, and crucially how have the suburbs shaped contrasting versions of English identity? A truly great book that it is hard to finish reading and not feel you’ve learned something.

It’s a great list of new, recent and forthcoming books for 2013’s first quarter which makes it almost unnecessary to chose a single title for the accolade of best of the lot. Yet Andrew Simms, author in my view of the best political book in recent years, Tescopoly deserves precisely that for his new book Cancel The Apocalypse. For those who wonder what a ‘next Left politics’ might look like, this is it. With wit and boldness Andrew deconstructs our appetite for growth,consumption and all the misery this creates, often without us realising the reason why. Linking with considerable original insight economic crisis to environmental disaster he refuses to accept the cosy pigeonholing of subjects that politics, in and out of the mainstream, too cosily accepts and reinforces. But this is a book of hopefulness too, a template for remaking the political, a brilliant refusal to accept the way things are.

That’s it for now, just remember each and every one of these books is a weapon in the right hands. I’ll be back in March to provide a reload of Spring books. Enjoy your reading.

Note: No links for books in this books preview, my previous and future reviews and previews too, are to Amazon. If you can avoid purchasing from the tax dodgers, my recommendation is to do so, as much as you possibly can.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’
aka Philosophy Football

23 comments on “Books for New Year Revolutions

  1. Uncle Albert on said:

    Thanks for those previews, Mark. It’s great to come on here and be notified of valuable stuff that might otherwise have been missed. Huq and Simms are now on my reading list.

  2. Charles Dexter Ward on said:

    How brave of Seymour to take on Hitchens now he is dead, and how typical of his politics to hold a “trial” for a writer. Do people REALLY think the SWP will be any different with him in charge?

  3. Charles Dexter Ward: Do people REALLY think the SWP will be any different with him in charge?

    SEymour doesn’t want to be in charge of the SWP, he wants to be valiantly expelled so that he has a good back story for his future literary career

  4. Speaking of revolutionary literature, socialists who are fans of Paul Robeson and CLR James might also be interested in the first ever publication of James’s remarkable 1934 play about the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history (out now with Duke University Press) – which was performed in London in 1936 with Robeson in the title role.

    There is also a review of ‘Physical Resistance’ by Dave Renton on the London Socialist Historians Group blog – see here.

  5. #5 I didn’t know that. Given that CLR James was a trotskyist (he wrote a history of the comintern from a very anti-stalinist point of view) and that Paul Robeson was a CP member or sympathiser it’s particularly interesting.

    On the subject of books, I downloaded John Wight’s Edinburgh triolgy- review to follow- and the chapter from Mark P’s book that was advertised on his last post. Again, review to follow.

  6. #6 – Yes, the collaboration in the production in March 1936 given Robeson’s pro-Soviet/CP sympathies and James’s Trotskyism is remarkable, and testament to their shared commitment to anti-imperialism and the struggle for black liberation. By late 1936 and the first Moscow Show Trials beginning, such collaboration would have impossible – and this is the key reason why the play was not re-staged in Britain and did not enjoy a longer run at the time. For example, Unity Theatre was formed in 1937 (I think) and didn’t stage it (presumably because of James’s Trotskyism) despite Robeson’s support for Unity Theatre. There is some discussion of this in Colin Chambers’s recent ‘Black and Asian Theatre in Britain: A History’.

  7. How brave of Seymour to take on Hitchens now he is dead, and how typical of his politics to hold a “trial” for a writer.

    That’s actually really unfair. Whatever my differences with Seymour over his childish actions which helped the SWP wreck Respect in 2007, he consistently took on Hitchens on while he was alive. He didn’t wait for him to die. I don’t know if it’s still easily accessible, but… ah, yeah, here is a link to several articles Seymour wrote about Hitchens, long before he died. So you can’t really get away with that criticism. But in addition, what Hitchens represented, and his popularity among large swathes of the liberal left, means the man as a subject, and as a lens for viewing resistance to imperialism, is fit for analysis and discussion even after he’s dead.

  8. Jellytot on said:

    @4Seymour……wants to be valiantly expelled so that he has a good back story for his future literary career

    Maybe then they won’t expel him just to spite him.

  9. Not a policy, just a bit of guidance really. If people can afford to pay extra to buy from an independent bookshop or publisher, that’s great. I don’t take a moral position on this, cos that’s just shit.

  10. saothar on said:

    One book that I have just got round to reading and finishing is Voices From The Grave, which was published in 2011, and which is based on oral history testimonies from former leading IRA member, Brendan Hughes, and leading UVF man David Ervine.

    The section on Hughes’ interviews, which makes up the majority of the book is by far the most interesting and gripping.

    Undoubtedly the best book to emerge from the conflict in many a year but one that does not make for easy reading.

  11. Mark P on said:

    Thanks for the various comments.

    On Richard Seymour, I’m following my ecumenical credo. I don’t always agree with Richard’s conclusions on this, that and the other. But particularly his shorter CiF pieces are really excellent polemics, punchy with a degeee of wit. He’s excellent on the pro-war Left too.

    Readers well-versed in sectariana will spot that my selection is quite a mix in terms of authors’ afilliations. So what. To enjoy what they write you don’t have to subscribe to every dot and comma of their analysis.

    Its the ecumenical in practice, and richly enjoyable. Thanks to Socialist Unity for publishing it.

    Mark P

  12. saothar: One book that I have just got round to reading and finishing is Voices From The Grave, which was published in 2011, and which is based on oral history testimonies from former leading IRA member, Brendan Hughes, and leading UVF man David Ervine.

    I read this too, but came away disappointed with Hughes’s analysis, which seemed to me that of a man stuck in the past with a view of armed struggle as an end in itself.

    I thought Ervine’s section more interesting.

  13. Mark P on said:

    Michael

    Its both a pleasure, and well-deserved. A lovely little collection which deserves to be widely read.

    I find adding up all the good stuff being published by apparently rival, daggers drawn authors and outfits is a good way to get beyond all this silliness. If that makes me an unsophisticate, happy to plead guilty.

    Mark P

  14. Is there any truth to the suggestion I’ve read elsewhere (on Seymour’s blog, I think) that Seymour was formerly under Hitchens’ spell? You can see the similarities in style, and his attacks on Hitchens often seem to have that feel of someone who’s attacking a former idol.

    I say this, btw, as someone who’ll probably buy Seymour’s book and is quite keen on seeing Hitchens exposed as the crank he increasingly became. But as E H Carr once noted, study the historian before you study the history they write – or words to that effect anyway.

  15. saothar on said:

    John: I read this too, but came away disappointed with Hughes’s analysis, which seemed to me that of a man stuck in the past with a view of armed struggle as an end in itself.

    I think his main criticism was the political direction of the movement and what he claimed was the rank dishonesty of the leadership that accompanied it. I didn’t get the impression that he had that view of armed struggle.

  16. saothar,

    He certainly had strong criticisms of the political direction taken by Adams and McGuinness. I think he and others who’d done so much during the struggle had a right to. Comparing the gains won to the friends, family members, neighbours, and comrades who’d been killed, maimed, spent years in prison, it could only have been so. If you visit Milltown Cemetery and see how many lost their lives, most of them in their twenties, I don’t think the end result short of a socialist republic could ever compensate.

    ‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’

    But what was the alternative? Hughes didn’t seem to have one,

    It’s also the case that while some who didn’t get their hands dirty, as it were, during the Troubles have benefited from Sinn Fein’s entry into mainstream politics on a personal level, while many who did have not.

    But overall I don’t see much in the way a different course available to the republican movement other than the one currently being pursued by Sinn Fein.