They Thought It Was All over

As England prepare for a World Cup Qualifier double-header Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman reviews the decline and fall of a Football Nation

Philosophy Football shirtNever mind the debate over the dodgy third goal in ’66, was it or wasn’t it over the line. The most famous piece of commentary in English footballing history, “some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over, it is now,” proves definitively England’s fourth goal against Germany should have been disallowed. A goal scored with a pitch invasion underway, absolutely against the rules of the game.

And thus England’s 47 years of hurt began. Up to 1966 we’d been World Cup quarter-finalists at best, and no European Cup had been lifted by an English club side either. Spurs had been the first English team to win a European Trophy, the Cup-Winners Cup in 1963, followed by Bobby Moore captaining West Ham to winning the same trophy in 1965.

Immediately after ’66 English club sides did begin to dominate European competitions. In quick succession Leeds, Newcastle and Arsenal won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, while Manchester United lifted the European Cup in 1968, following north of the border Celtic’s success the previous year. Into the 1970s, apart from the European Cup English club sides continued to do well in the other two European competitions. Chelsea, Manchester CIty, Liverpool, Spurs all won these tournaments, while any Leeds fan of a certain age will tell you that their club, not Bayern Munich, were the ‘true’ winners of the 1975 European Cup with disallowed goals robbing them of victory.

It was the late 1970s to mid 1980s however when English domination of Europe really established itself. Liverpool winning the European Cup in 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984. Nottingham Forest’s back-to-back wins in 1979 and 1980. Aston Villa in 1982. This was a remarkable run of success. But after the 1985-1990 ban of English club sides from European club competitions following the Heysel final involving Liverpool and Juventus which led to 39 deaths from a combination of rioting and poor stadium facilities, nothing like this kind of domination.

Since the English clubs were re-admitted, they have won just four Champions Leagues in 21 years. Spanish clubs can boast 6 wins, Italian 5. As for the UEFA Cup and the Europa League, just one win since 1992, Liverpool’s in 2001.

This season’s failure of a single English club side to make it through to the Champions League quarter-finals has been widely commented on as the worst English performance since 1996. But actually the decline and fall of English club sides’ dominance of Europe goes considerably deeper than this. In ’66 the fans and the clubs might well have thought it was ‘all over’, a golden period of club football about to begin. But despite all the Premier League-driven hype it has never recovered anything like the heights of 30 years ago. The sweet irony of the centrepiece of the FA’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations being a Champions League Final in the season of English clubs’ worst performance in the competition not to be missed.

If the situation for English club sides in Europe doesn’t look too good, this is nothing compared to the England team. After Euro ’96 and reaching the semi-final, the bare minimum surely for a major football nation in a home tournament, there’s been no progress beyond the quarter-finals at a Euro or World Cup since. Never mind the nearly five decades of hurt, these past 17 years have been bad enough. In European terms Croatia and Russia can claim to have done better, with a semi-final each since ’96 and not at home either. Turkey has managed two semi-final appearances. The Czech Republic reached the final in ’96 and the semi again in 2004. Apart from that little lot England can’t claim to come anywhere close to matching the records of Holland, Portugal, Italy, Germany, France and Spain in European Championship and World Cups since ’96. And then there’s Greece, who we squeezed past in 2001 to make sure of qualifying for the following year’s World Cup, and then they had the cheek to go and win Euro 2004, a feat that still remains beyond the reach of England.

What might be the reasons for this spectacular failure? In their excellent book Why England Lose, authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski offer a number of reasons, the principle one being that given the size of England’s population and number of professional footballers, being regular quarter-finalists but not much better is the kind of position we should expect in world football. This sits uneasily with our martial and imperial history and the fact we like to think we invented the game; but in reality it’s a theory not too far wide of the mark. It is the expectation that somehow 1966 wasn’t the blip it has proved to be and being a world power in football is our natural position in sporting life that distorts the magnitude of our failure . To that extent the 4-1 defeat to Germany at World Cup 2010 may prove a more important benchmark for the next 47 years than 1966 has proved to be for the past 47 years. It is unlikely ever again, certainly not in 2014 for anybody in their right mind, that England will go to a major tournament expecting to win it. And so when we make it to the quarters and not much further, we can be pleased with ourselves rather than agonising over the latest in the game of what-might-have-beens but weren’t.

I would add some other factors too. Firstly the psychological. In an England tournament squad the players know the expectations are unreasonably high. At club level they are mostly idolised — many have win a cabinet full of winners’ medals already — and they play their international football every season in the Champions League. Yet with England, unless they defy history and get past the quarters they are losers at best, vilified at worst. They can’t win. Secondly, our style of play. And as fans we’re culpable in this too. The English love a fast-moving physical game, ‘get stuck in’ with loads of commitment. Good enough to get England to the quarter-finals, but not many tournaments are won playing like this. Thirdly the narrow base of team recruitment. Despite all the changes in our society, professional footballers still come overwhelmingly from a narrow, and numerically declining, social base. And entire communities are entirely under-represented: Asian, Chinese, East European and other sizeable immigrant communities hardly feature in the professional game. No this isn’t the much touted “political correctness gone mad,” it’s ensuring we draw on all the talents that might be available. England doesn’t.

Fourthly we fail to learn from others. Yes there are foreign players, managers and coaches in English football. But the changes they bring with them still hardly impact on club football, and on the national team scarcely at all. It’s all a bit foreign, and what do we have to learn from the Germans, the Spanish and the Italians anyway? This inward-looking cocksureness largely insulates football from other far more successful sports too. How many of those who’ve excelled in establishing regimes that produce winners in other sports are headhunted to contribute something to football? Finally, our lack of experience of tournament football. Age-group competitions at a European and World Cup level are consistently undervalued, with the best players often not even sent there to represent England. And apart from the 2012 exception no England team competes in the Olympic football tournament, for many young players an essential experience towards a future World Cup. One simple solution: introduce what would be a hugely popular and highly competitive football tournament in the Commonwealth Games.

Five ideas; there will be plenty more. Just the kind of thing the FA should be debating as part of its 150th anniversary. Instead, England appear to be quaking in their boots at the prospect of the must-win game against Montenegro next Tuesday. This is a country with a population roughly comparable to the numbers living in the London Borough of Hammersmith. OK we seem to be as safe as houses facing San Marino in the first of the World Cup double headers, but plucky Montenegro have us worried. Looking back at our accumulated decline and fall, club and country, since 1966 with good reason.

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

Turning Points, or the Closing of Windows of Opportunities?

Mark Perryman argues that after the SWP car crash we need to review why the Outside Left’s turning points have invariably turned instead into the closing down of windows of opportunity

Evan Smith raises the question on his Hatful of History blog whether the SWP fallout will prove to be a turning point for the British Far Left. Before any kind of assessment of that possibility it might be useful to track back via some other previous potential turning points, or what from the outset I would more modestly term ‘windows of opportunity.’

One might be the decision in 1991 of the CPGB to dissolve itself. Even at the end this remained the biggest organisation of the Outside Left; this surely opened up the space for something to replace it. Yet despite the best efforts of the CPB to perpetuate the British Communist tradition, it remains today considerably smaller than the CPGB at its dissolution, around 2500 members compared to the CPB’s not much more than 1,000,, and far far smaller than the CPGB a decade prior to the end, when it could still boast well over 10,000 members and a well-staffed and resourced party infrastructure.

In an entirely different way the SWP sought to replace the CPGB as the dominant organisation to the left of Labour. It has grown intermittently yet the evidence of the recent fallout suggests a membership also smaller than the CPGB at the end. Perhaps the biggest testament though to the SWP mini-me CP aspirations was the Stop the War Coalition of 2001-2003, a hugely successful campaign in terms of mass mobilisation, initiated and staffed by the SWP, and while they would never describe it as such, a truly Popular Front. Yet StWC’s success is also testament to the SWP’s failure: despite the role it played in the campaign no sustainable growth of the SWP itself and since StWC no other initiatives it has taken have come anywhere close in terms of size or influence.

Another was the 1994 break with Labour by Arthur Scargill to form the Socialist Labour Party. Ten years after the miners strike Arthur wasn’t yet damaged goods. He was able to locate the SLP in amongst a generation shaped by the strike and disaffected by Labour’s forward march to the right. It is difficult now, 17 years on, to assess what kind of social weight Arthur would have had in the mining communities of his native Yorkshire but surely a campaign focussed on winning council seats by standing ex-miner experienced campaigners could have resulted in sweeping regional gains and created the basis for something bigger. But the long haul of local politics didn’t appeal and the quick-fix of building a national party from scratch around one individual was pursued instead, to eventual ignominy.

The SSP breakthrough to win an extraordinary six MSPs in 2003 was a window of opportunity not just for the Scottish Left but the entire British Left too, made possible not only by the careful building of a politics beyond their figurehead Tommy Sheridan but also the PR system used to for elections to the Scottish Parliament. Yet this was short-lived, the implosion, whatever the various rights and wrongs, destroying almost all the gains made. A similar story of Respect, with the two incredible election victories of George Galloway – first Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and then again, against all the odds in Bradford West 2011. Neither however turned into anything like the generalised breakthrough, or anything resembling it, that many believed at the time could follow. In 2005 surely the reason for this was that after Labour expelled George from the party not a single one of Labour’s anti-war MPs followed him out of the party, nor many councillors or members either. And in 2011 all the joy and hope of the ‘Bradford Spring’ was sacrificed via a series of fallouts arising from George’s choice of words to describe the bedroom etiquette of Julian Assange. The rights and wrongs of George, Tommy Sheridan & Arthur Scargill’s behaviour is less of a concern here; they have been covered extensively elsewhere. Nor am I necessarily suggesting a pattern. But it is surely uncontroversial to state that neither the SLP, SSP or Respect have fulfilled anything like their expectations. And it is legitimate to point out that all three were in many ways moulded round the personality of their ‘star’ leader at the expense of much else that resembled a party identity.

And so the SWP. What kind of turning point does the fallout represent?

Firstly, this is an organisation that lost in a catastrophically short period of time those who had been central to its formation and evolution. Whatever their strengths and weaknesses, to lose Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Paul Foot and Chris Harman meant the regeneration of the entire party leadership and ideological guides in short order.

Secondly, this is an organisation used to being fairly homogeneous which has suffered a whole series of increasingly bigger splits in the past four or five years. The Respect fallout of 2007 meant they cast off their major project of the previous 4 years along with a decent chunk of activists and leading members. A short while later those responsible for leading the SWP in this period into Respect , then out of it, setting up a new electoral vehicle, found themselves forced into a minority in their own party and eventually out of it. ‘Twists and turns’ doesn’t do this exercise justice! The consequence: a second damaging split, this time taking out two of the SWP’s most prominent members, Lindsey German and John Rees along with a further layer of activists, an entirely different bunch to those who left the SWP to stick with Respect.

Philosophy football plateThe outcome of both has been that the SWP no longer has influence inside Respect and next to no relationship with Respect’s still very prominent MP, George Galloway. In fact since the Assange broadcast they have taken an overtly hostile attitude towards him. In terms of Counterfire, the SWP now has to cope with a group offering a not entirely dissimilar political mix. This it can probably endure, but what is more damaging is the loss of almost any SWP influence in the Stop the War Coalition, and even more seriously Counterfire’s ability to launch new campaigns with considerable trade union and broader support that the SWP either are marginal to or actively choose not to involve themselves in, because of Counterfire, Namely Coalition of Resistance and The People’s Assembly Against Austerity. Counterfire has also imaginatively and successfully launched the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign. Once again the SWP seems to have chosen to absent itself, tho’ it is entirely possible Counterfire wouldn’t have welcomed their involvement with open arms either. Whatever the background an activism-based SWP finds itself inactive on an increasing number of initiatives for reasons of its own choosing, never mind the worth of the campaign. And in Scotland, Chris Bambery’s Counterfire-alingned International Socialist Group were behind the successful launch of the Radical Independence Conference with the SWP left looking on from the sidelines. Apart from those originating from Counterfire there are other initiatves too that, knowing it cannot control, the SWP treats with hostility, such as Owen Jones’s call for a co-operative left and a similar call from former member Mark Steel, or just ignores hoping presumably they might go away, such as the increasingly impressive efforts of the Left Unity group. Maybe neither the People’s Assembly nor Left Unity will come to anything, but if they do the SWP will be left dangerously exposed as too busy looking after its own interest yo be bothered.

Finally, the launch of the International Socialist Network therefore represents the third split from the SWP in the space of a little over 5 years. Each one taking members out in different directions for differing reasons. This must be at the very least disorientating if not demoralising for those who remain. The problem the new network faces is the same as for Counterfire: hamstrung by the perhaps natural inclination to defend the tradition from whence they came, this acts as a barrier to connect to anything new. There is a strictly limited audience for an SWP-in-exile and given the financial and organisational resources the original version retains, the real thing will always win this battle.

What is all the more potent about the latest split is that it is characterised by a generational break. The students have so far been central and if they jump with with those leaving this will give it numbers and organisation on campus. The two most prominent figures, Richard Seymour and China Miéville, are not tainted by any time at all in SWP leadership positions. The dissent of the opposition is founded on a critique of how the SWP, and a wider Leninist left, operates. And lastly because of the particular nature of this fallout, the issue of political practice, they might not use the word, the prefigurative, is paramount. All of this adds up to a considerable potential to appeal beyond their immediate milieu and context. It is this more than anything else which will determine whether a turning point becomes a window of opportunity, or as usually happened on the Left we end up slamming that same window shut in our own faces..

England Should Play a Game of Low Expectations

Tonight England vs Brazil at Wembley marks the start of the FA’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations. Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman argues that it is the perfect time to lower our expectations of England’s chances.

Philosophy Football t shirtEngland vs Brazil, friendly or no friendly, is a tasty international fixture to mark the start of the Football Association’s 150th birthday celebrations. It will be a feast of free-flowing football, and England. Never mind, with the other home opponents lined up so far the Republic of Ireland (last qualified for a World Cup in 2002, at Euro 2012 failed to win a single game) and Scotland (last qualified for any tournament, 1998) England fans should be able to look forward to some home victories to savour. Although what exactly the players, manager and coaches will learn by playing such relatively lowly opposition is anyone’s guess. These opponents have been chosen to put bottoms on seats, and stir up memories of old, and more recent rivalries, but never mind the quality of the football.

Meantime Brazil are not only the 5-times winners of the World Cup, and hosts of the 2014 tournament; they also single-handedly invented what Pele famously dubbed ‘the beautiful game’. Or as Brazil international, doctor, philosopher and left-wing political activist Socrates poetically put it, “Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy.” Words which, naturally have been turned into a Philosophy Football T-shirt available here.

Brazil have had their own problems – a disappointing semi-final defeat at World Cup 2010 following their Quarter Final exit at World Cup 2006. This is a team however whose high expectations are based on recent success: winning the tournament in 2002, that semi-final in 2010, finalists in 1988 is all a lot more recent than anything England has achieved – I’m sorry, I don’t count England getting to a semi-final in ‘96 when we are the tournament hosts.

Philosophy Football t shirt backThe period since Euro 96 has been a successful one for the England team, relatively speaking. Every tournament, except Euro 2008, was qualified for. This compares well with the 1990s when England failed to qualify for World Cup 94, the 1980s when the team failed to qualify for Euro 84 and the dismal 1970s with failures to qualify for the World Cup in both 1974 and 1978. The much maligned Sven Goran Eriksson took England to three consecutive quarter final stages, in 2002, 2004 and 2006. The latter two lost on penalties, while at World Cup 2002 England lost to the eventual winners of the tournament, tonight’s opponents Brazil. Very few England managers have come close to match Sven’s achievement. Roy Hodgson has started well too, surprising many by taking England to the top of their group at Euro 2012 and going out on penalties to Italy in the quarter-finals. Not bad, but not good enough many England fans would argue, with the 47-year old memories of 1966 still fresh in the nation’s memory. Yet as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue in their provocatively titled book Why England Lose comparatively speaking, in terms of England’s size of population and number of professional players, getting into the top eight of the World’s teams is a considerable achievement. It’s just that England’s national psyche, which is largely impossible to separate from the legacy of empire, the martial history and having invented most of the world’s sports, expects to win trophies and nothing much else will do.

Up to World Cup 2010 the popular support for the England team was huge. Every other summer the country would be decked out in St. George Cross flags. Beckham helped football reach a wider audience in the way Gazzamania did before him at Italia 90. And the team resembled serious enough contenders not to lose all hope that when they got knocked out that they might at least do better the next time. The linkage, often unfairly made, of following England with hooliganism also pretty much ended after Euro 2000 with every tournament since then England fans coming home feted for their friendliness.

World Cup 2010 pretty much dented all of this. The team was arguably the strongest since 1996. With Wayne Rooney we had a world-class player in our starting eleven. The spine of the team was looking good too from Ashley Cole at the back, Lampard and Gerrard in midfield. Plus the promise Theo Walcott had shown with his hat-trick against Croatia in the qualifying campaign. The sorry exit at the hands of Germany, losing 4-1, at the last sixteen stage following a series of dismal group games put paid to all of that pent-up optimism. The turmoil over John Terry, his manager, Fabio Capello’s, resignation over the way the FA was treating the matter, his awkward reinstatement, widely perceived as at the expense of Rio Ferdinand, and the apppintment of Roy Hodgson as manager had left pre-Euro 2012 interest at an all-time low. Yes England can still fill Wembley, as it will do tonight, and count on a size of support that dwarfs most other European countries, home and away. But in terms of the much bigger broader audience, with a St. George Cross flying out of every other car window, worn as a T-shirt and daubed on kids’ faces, there was precious little of this during last year’s Euro 2012. The TV viewing figures were impressive enough but this was more a case of going through the motions from the comfort of the sofa; there was little of the magnitude of the spectacle of London 2012. In last year’s summer of sport, from Chelsea winning the Champions League, via Wiggo winning Le Tour, to Europe’s victory in the Ryder Cup and Andy Murray ending the British Tennis version of the years of hurt in New York, well England at the Euros hardly merits even a footnote.

And the immediate future doesn’t look much brighter either. A qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup which had looked easy turned awkward almost from the start. The away qualifier against Montenegro (total population around the size of the London Borough of Hammersmith) has all of a sudden turned into a must-win game; the last time England were there in 2011 we scrambled a draw. And even if England do get to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup the expectations which were low enough for Euro 2012 are likely to be lower still. Meanwhile England will around the same time be hosting the first three days of the Tour de France. A decent performance this year by Wiggo, Cavendish and Froome could leave the previously unrivalled ascendancy of England’s tournament campaign shaping the sporting summer severely dented, if not irreparably damaged,for the second time in three years.

So enjoy the game, but give a thought to the sport’s future as the goals rain in, hopefully in the back of Brazil net, not ours. Optimism cannot be entirely extinguished, otherwise what’s the point of being a fan? However getting used to being around the 8th best team in the world probably isn’t quite how those organising the FA’s centenary in 1963 envisaged the following fifty years through to 2013. A decent performance at the 1962 World Cup, yes once again losing a quarter-final, and spookily it was to Brazil once more, the eventual tournament winners that year too, was the cause of some hope. And they would have been looking forward as well to hosting the World Cup three years later in 1966 with the emerging talent of a youthful Bobby Moore suggesting this team had some considerable promise. Today there is precious little optimism, the crop of young players coming through look decent enough but well-short of being world beaters so far at any rate. The public excitement around the England team will take something really special in the difficult conditions of Brazil to restore it to anything like its previous scale. Still, if we finish the year having beaten Scotland at Wembley, plenty will be happy enough. Maybe actually the FA’s 150th anniversary fixture list is inspired after all, by the management of low expectations?

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

Why Stalingrad Matters Today

On the 70th Anniversary of the Victory at Stalingrad, Mark Perryman explains why this battle and its outcome still matters today.

Stalingrad PlateSeventy years ago, 2 February 1943 is the date of the Red Army victory at Stalingrad. From the moment of near-certain defeat the previous year, the siege of the city – Hitler’s gateway to success on the Eastern Front – had been turned into an encirclement of the German forces and their eventual, and humiliating, surrender. Up to this point in early 1943, despite the reverses in North Africa and the failure to launch an invasion of Britain the Nazi blitzkrieg had appeared virtually invincible. Hyped up by the Goebbels propaganda machine, German morale was at its height and the Allies could see no obvious end to the War. Stalingrad changed all of that, decisively.

This was a victory all committed to the anti-fascist war could celebrate. Stalingrad inspired those working underground in the resistance throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. King George VI commissioned a sword that Churchill himself presented to Stalin. On its blade the inscription read “To the steelhearted citizens of Stalingrad a homage of the British people.” The Communist Party was meanwhile engaged in what without doubt was the biggest and broadest campaign in its history, for a second front to relieve the awful pressure that the Nazi onslaught continued to impose on the Russian people.

Almost all of this history was to be hidden, first by the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s. And then again during the second Cold War of the 1980s era of Thatcher and Reagan. At the time Scottish folksinger Dick Gaughan put the need to reclaim this past from the rewriting of the history books rather neatly in his song Think Again: “Do you think that the Russians want war? These are the parents of children who died in the last one.” But the sentiments that Gaughan turned into such a moving song were not only submerged under the weight of the second Cold War, they also had to contest with a bitter division in the Communist Party that revolved sharply around attitudes to the Soviet Union while the Trotskyist Left defined itself by how it would classify its critique of the USSR. Stalingrad and all it represented became almost lost.

1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated at the time by right-wing commentators as the ‘end of history’. Their neo-liberalism of course in large part produced the economic crisis of some twenty years later and the austerity we are still being forced to endure and resist as a consequence. But 1989 had another, perhaps less obvious, after-effect. Unburdened by the Cold War rhetoric that had adopted the so-called Iron Curtain as a means to divide the world into the free and the unfree, the true legacy of World War Two could be revisited by historians who previously might have been wary of according the Eastern Front the vital place it of course occupied in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Likewise the Communist, and to a lesser extent Trotskyist, Left were no longer defined by their reading of the development of the USSR into whatever they called it. Anthony Beevor’s epic book, ‘Stalingrad’, first published in 1998, was a surprise and runaway best-seller. Beyond the Left this helped to begin to establish a popular, and mainstream, understanding of the epic heroism the Red Army victory at Stalingrad represented and, more broadly, the Eastern Front’s key role in the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.

But the kind of breakthrough in understanding that Beevor’s book began was soon to be reversed by the aftermath of 9/11, the so-called ‘War on Terror’, the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan. The popularisation of the ‘Help for Heroes’ message has facilitated the militarisation of national culture, the FA Cup is carried on to the Wembley Final pitch nowadays by uniformed members of the armed forces, while Remembrance Sunday has effortlessly connected Afghanistan to World Wars Two and One with no distinction made between the causes served by these vastly different conflicts. World War Two has become an epic of nostalgia entirely disconnected from the cause of anti-fascism, the sacrifices made by the Red Army on the Eastern Front once again hidden from history. Stalingrad, forgotten, scarcely meriting a mention in the mainstream media despite its fixation with all things WW2.

Stalingrad’s 70th Anniversary of course is not something to celebrate; on the Eastern Front an estimated 25 million Soviet citizens lost their lives. But it is an opportunity to engage with the processes that for long periods effectively hid the crucial role of Stalingrad and the other epic battles in the East that would lead to the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. And at the same time connect that history to the cause, of anti-fascism, then, now and for ever.

Philosophy Football have produced a 70th Anniversary Victory at Stalingrad commemorative plate. A limited edition of 70, individually numbered, available from here

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

I’ll Cry if I Want to

perryman-jan2013

Following up ‘Crawling from the Wreckage’, Mark Perryman provides his own back-history to suggest the need for accounts of life inside and outside the Left if we are to remake what our politics have become.

In an earlier post, Crawling From The Wreckage, I suggested that in the process of mapping out a space for the Outside Left it is vital to find the means to have an honest and open account of the journey which has take so many of us outside the organised Left, or the experiences which explained why we never attracted to being a part a closed membership organisation to define our politics at all. This may appear too tentative for those who desire the thrill of the rush headlong towards another chapter of reorganising the chairs on the deck of the good ship Socialist Titanic, but I prefer this mood of doubt and uncertainty that is required in the cause of meaningful renewal.

This isn’t a case of establishing a left culture of the confessional for the sake of it, although the maxim ‘the personal is political’ should retain its vitality and relevance today as much as when it was first coined over 30 years ago by socialist feminists dissatisfied by and alienated from Left organisation and practice. One contributor to the Crawling from the Wreckage discussion, Alan Gibbons, illustrated extremely well how in providing an autobiographical account, we can begin to map a different future. Andy Newman has also quoted Alan’s contribution in his own recent post Explaining the SWP Paradox, yet Alan’s contribution is so poignant to the issues, it is worth quoting again in full;

I joined the SWP in 1974. I left in the mid ninety nineties. I worked on Socialist Worker for a time. I was a member of the National Committee for many years. Most of the experience was positive. I was around at the start of the Right to Work Campaign, the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. I can still look back with pride on those years. I was a shop steward in a factory in the north west when we broke the 10% pay freeze, winning our members a 16% pay rise. I was President of Knowsley NUT. The SWP taught me working class history and fired me with a conviction that women’s liberation, internationalism and anti racism were at the heart of the fight for socialism.
Over time I started to become disenchanted with some elements of the organisation’s practice. On a number of occasions I excused things I thought were inexcusable, but never anything like the alleged events that have emerged recently.

After being harried for some years as a ‘syndicalist’ and becoming the victim of some very underhand, unpleasant and dishonest behaviour I hung on because I subscribed to most of what the SWP was saying. It wasn’t exactly ‘my party right or wrong’, but it wasn’t far off. Eventually that became untenable and I quit. My resignation letter featured two issues: party democracy and unrealistic perspectives.

Like a lot of other exes, I did not stop being a socialist just because I left an organisation. I have a great affection for much of the party’s tradition and am close friends with many SWP members. I find myself looking on aghast at recent developments however. I am now an independent socialist and a prominent library and anti cuts campaigner. I am in a party of one and there are disagreements! I work with SWP members, Socialist Party members, Respect, Counterfire and Labour Party members and others, but mainly with people in no party, trade union and community activists and ordinary members of the public who want to save what is left of the public services.
What strikes me is that much of the Left is demoralised and inactive. I organised the 200-delegate Campaign for the Book conference. How many organised socialists attended? None, but it was successful. I helped organise the Speak up for Libraries lobby of parliament. How many organised socialists attended? None, but it was successful. I helped organise the SUFL conference. How many organised socialists attended? Two, and yes, it was a success.

So why am I posting this comment even though I find the tone of much of the debate gloating and distasteful? It is because many of the best people in the Left are in the SWP, the SP, Respect and other grouplets and often keep a watching brief on this forum. It is also because I now feel that the baleful legacy of a a distorted concept of party and democratic centralism is making them ever more passive, hog-tied or irrelevant or both.

Tony Mulhearn’s candidacy in Liverpool was very creditable. He got a decent vote, beat the Tory and I spoke at a 450 strong rally. Events like this, Galloway’s victory in Bradford and others can be part of the recovery of the Left but no one grouping can insist on its papal superiority. That idea is redundant. If a Left outside the Labour Party is to be rebuilt it has to be democratic, principled and open. It has to tolerate difference without being paralysed by division. It has to conduct itself in a way that is consistent with a desire to achieve women’s liberation and socialism. A creative regroupment of the Left is essential and overdue. I haven’t given up hope that it can happen. Like thousands of others I would not touch any kind of party membership card with a bargepole at the moment but, given the right circumstances, I would energetically throw myself into a new formation that is capable of learning from the past.

I would only add that the account Alan provides, while it is framed by his experience inside and outside of one organisation, IS/SWP, retells a story that connects to life in and out of so many other organisations, and none. This is what provides the poignancy.

The confessional in my view also needs to ecumenical to be effective. ‘The ecumenical Left’ is something deeper than simply being non-sectarian which is usually organisation and framed by convenience in one sort of front or not. The ‘ecumenical’ is about being wilfully open to a variety of ideologies and traditions of the Left, and sometimes beyond too. Combine this with a confessional practice and the words and the values seem almost foreign to being on the left, what does this tell us? But however difficult this process is worth having, not to indulge in point-scoring, revisiting often arcane, at best, historical differences, exploring our political navels disconnected from any kind of wider picture. Rather we must remember that while the numbers who exit the organised left to find a place like Alan that is anything-but-a-wilderness are reasonably significant in the smallish world we occupy, most Left Outsiders have never been ‘insiders’ at all, ever, so we tell and learn from those tales in order perhaps to understand why.

Last year I wrote a chapter in a collection After The Party subtitled ‘Reflections on Life Since the CPGB.” My piece was like Alan Gibbon’s an attempt to understand what those years of membership of an organisation meant, what good remained from them, what was bad too, the activism I found after leaving, how these experiences helped shape what I still hope will become a Better Left, on the Outside but making a difference.

The chapter The Revolution is Just a T-shirt Away is now available, with thanks to the publisher Lawrence & Wishart, free as a download here.

The piece isn’t definitive, none of these kinds of contributions could claim to be, nor is there a single template, but I do hope as the Crawling From The Wreckage began to suggest might become possible it can offer as an encouragement to others to contribute their experiences and in a similar spirit of helpful and honest intent. Open-ended but with some kind of purpose in sight.

Crawling from the Wreckage

This is a guest post by Mark Perryman

On the eve of the carcrash of last weekend’s SWP conference, which has consumed all the anger and energy of a small fragment of the British Left for the past week , Alex Snowdon of Counterfire posted an assessment of the state of the ‘Revolutionary Left’ on his blog here. I hold no brief for Counterfire, they do some things with a degree of flair and imagination, other things not so well and I’m personally unfamiliar with the backhistory of the key figures involved. Nevertheless I would cite Alex’s piece as an interesting and thought-provoking piece, reflective too of a recent online debate at the Socialist Unity Website. Unfortunately by and large though this isn’t being reflected in any kind of wider, more organic discussion, the reasons for that I’ll return to at the end of this contribution below.

Since the Socialist Unity and Alex Snowdon piece’s appeared the SWP fallout has erupted of course. Within a small circle this is of some considerable import, but beyond? Laurie Penny’s excellent New Statesman piece points to some potential broader ramifications for Left practice, reminiscent of the Beyond The Fragments debate of over thirty years ago. Spookily the book is being reissued in an updated edition in March of this year by Merlin Press perhaps now to be read by a new generation of Left activists with fresh interest.

Richard Seymour’s equally excellent post on his blog is of interest to non-SWP members for different reasons. It is internally focussed yet reveals the basic problem with enforcing Democratic Centralism short of a party holding state power. Without the full force of the state to wield this Leninist-inclined structure depends on a high degree of collective self-discipline, which has immense strengths when it holds but once that ‘spell’ is broken is shattered entirely. Richard is boldly asserting the right to dissent from a majority decision because he believes that this particular majority decision was corrupted. Either he will be part of forming a new majority, agree to abide by the former majority’s decision, be expelled or leave. There is no other end game, he and the SWP must know that.

Both Laurie and Richard’s contributions hint at the broader debate that perhaps should be taking place and this is where Alex Snowdon”s piece is most useful as a beginning

Some brief points then in response to Alex.

Firstly on issues on terminology. I assume by ‘revolutionary left’ Alex means mainly a Trotskyist influenced left , I would also include the Communist Party and its off-shoots, Respect and other outside Left formations. Where does the Labour Left fit in? And the Red-Greens in the Green Party?

Secondly, the European dimension. In Greece the Left are doing very well, with good results in France and Holland too. In all three countries though the Far Right are also doing very well. In Germany and Italy the Left is facing significant setbacks. In the Irish Republic, Spain and Portugal the position is stagnation at best. In Scotland there are new signs of hope with the two SNP MSPs now standing as independents but the legacy of the SSP implosion remains.

It is vital to learn from these experiences across Europe but it is wrong to generalise and even more wrong to only listen to those there who share your own tendency’s viewpoint at home. Any Left grouping here that engaged seriously with the European Left would be a significant step forward.

Beyond Europe advances in Latin America remains key, the Arab Spring in the balance. Internationalism will be shaped by both, the practical lessons for the home Left however are less clear.

Now to Alex’s notes on the ‘Revolutionary Left’

I take it he would include the SWP, SP, Counterfire, AWL, Socialist Resistance. We might add the CPB and Respect.

These can count membership numbers in hundreds, the SWP in thousands. There are other groups but these are mainly in the tens of members.

None of this list are enjoying anything resembling dynamic growth. Most do at least one or two things of some importance , eg The Marxism Festival, Coalition of Resistance, The Morning Star, winning in Bradford West. None have anything resembling a significant footprint in society nor a local base of any great measure either (that might develop in Bradford for Respect but not much sign of it yet).

Beyond the parameters of this list the Green Party isn’t making much of a breakthrough and with Labour shamefully announcing it is to prioritise targeting Caroline Lucas’s seat has a real fight on to hold on to its MP. The Greens though can claim some kind of local base, Brighton, Norwich and elsewhere. However despite the efforts of ‘Green Left’ ,the Red-Green element is scarcely visible, and mostly The Green Party appeals to voters as a left-wing Liberal-Democrat Party (I don’t mean that as an insult, more a shorthand electoral characterisation).

Inside Labour Compass has a strong media profile and does some interesting things. But its version of pluralism looks mainly rightwards, to left-wing Lib Dems, most recently here and it hasn’t the activist base that the impressively large size, numbering tens of thousands, of the Compass email subscription list might indicate it would be able to boast. The more orthodox Labour Left depends on a declining and ageing group of MPs which is most unlikely to either grow or be renewed. Neither Compass nor the Labour Hard Left have any kind of meaningful strategy to shift Labour Leftwards.

For those who don’t join up to any such group, the web is full of sites and blogs to gravitate towards, or indeed set one up yourself if the fancy takes you. But, including Red Pepper, few have any kind of life outside online contributions and none have any sort of social footprint.

The latter is made the more severe, and is partially caused by, the lack of any mass movement, certainly on the scale and with the roots of Stop the War, The Miners Strike, The Poll Tax, CND or Anti Nazi League. We cannot simply wish that lack out of existence, we have to address the reasons.

UK Uncut remains incrediby dynamic and creative but has been fatally wounded by the March 2011 criminalisation of protest at the Fortnum & Masons action and elsewhere. Student protest has to date proved transitory, the marketisation of HE threatens to consumerise educaton and it is unclear if any resistance wll take shape rather than doleful resignation, from staff and students. Occupy has come and gone, it also remains unclear whether what is left reaches far beyond a pre-existing milieu of diract actionists, brave yet socially marginal.

Where does this leave us? With a left-wing audience, bigger and less tied to Labour than ever before. But neither the ideas and forms of either Alex’s ‘revolutionary left’ nor my broader definition, appeal to many of this constituency.

It is remarkably difficult to develop a dialogue between contesting experiences, some of which are fiercely competitive and shaped by fallouts, splits and expulsions but this is a vital process which must also engage with those on the Outside Left yet entirely disconnected from the organised, parties of the Left’s. A broader, outsider, dissident leftism is much bigger and broader than the combined membership of all these small groups added together. Yet our aspirations are shaped for a Left we’d like to be part of are inevitably affected by these experiences of an organised left we’re not part of. Its called a dialectic. It is unlikely, in fact impossible, that a single group could construct such a process but without one it is hard to see a better Left emerging.

Which returns me to the SWP fallout. In the past week I have had two lengthy conversations, one with a current (and in terms of the party conference, a dissident) SWP member and one ex. The conversations were open-ended, enriched by their experience and opinions, and will remain confidential. I’ve never made any bones of my respect for some of what the SWP does at its best and my deep-seated criticism of much else. I’ve never been a member, and as a ‘Euro’ in my long past CP days might have been regarded almost as a hostile element, a wobbly reformist perhaps would have been the nicest way of putting it. None of this infected our conversations. We need a practice that gets past the petty-squabbles, the name-calling, the arcane historic point-scoring. We need a space where instead of trying in the first instance to build a party we simply have a conversation about how we arrived in this place, the twists and turns on the way, the lessons learned, the better Left most of us want to be part of.

If we can begin to detect the recognition that such a conversation, however difficult, is key then that would at least be a start towards establishing how.

Xmas Books Roundup

A Christmas Books Gift List for Hopeful Materialists

Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman reviews the best left-wing books of 2012 for a hopeful materialist’s seasonal gift list.

9781844679638_revenge_of_historyChristmas time, not much peace in large parts of the world, precious little goodwill for the 99% either. A time for turbo-driven commercialism to drive up retail’s footfall. Bah Humbug? Or if you prefer just put the Historical Materialism on one side for the season and embrace the Hopeful Materialism of looking forward to what might be wrapped up and waiting under the tree for 25 December.

A year that continues to be dominated by the fallout from recession and the consequences of austerity means there’s plenty of decent reading matter on the neo-liberal onslaught. Not cheery enough for a seasonal surprise? Then try Meme Wars, by Kalle Lasn of Adbusters. Subtitled ‘The Creative Destruction of Neo-Classical Economics’ this is a coffee table book for revolutionaries, brilliantly illustrated to both entertain and inform. And for a compelling read on the impact domestically of the Coalition’s mishandling of the economy, the powerfully written Dogma and Disarray is perfect for anybody who enjoys Polly Toynbee’s searing assault on all things Cameroon in her Guardian column. With co-author David Walker, Polly expands her arguments and analysis in a handy pocket-book format, a perfect stocking-filler for wannabe social-democrats. Fellow Guardian columnist Seumas Milne has collected the best of his pieces for the paper and also turned them into a very fine book, The Revenge of History. Purposefully internationalist in range, the writing is intimately connected to a politics shaped by the desire to uproot injustice and propel movements to transform society, an inspirational commentary on a past decade framed by both potential, and betrayal. Those who read the <Guardian from the Left will love this one. An attempt to put on paper the various ideas and ideals that might turn the next decade into something more hopeful and less treacherous is the ambitious What We Are Fighting For. Edited by Federico Campagna and Emanuele Campaglio this is a manifesto-style book covering a diverse range of themes written by a variety of politically-committed authors. Upated for the paperback edition, When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques is beautifully written and incredibly challenging for most readers whose politics remain unaffected by the irresistible rise of China as a global power. If half of what Jacques claims for the significance of China to the 21st Century is proved to be correct then a fundamental rethink will be needed. This book provides the basis for such a process, an absolutely essential read.

At the close of 2011 Time magazine chose the ‘protester’ as their composite person of the year cover star. 2012 saw a number of books which sought to capture the meaning and significance of the Occupy! movement that was so central to those twelve months of protest. Amongst the best was Andrew Boyd’s compendium-like Beautiful Trouble which brought together some of the most imaginative elements of a movement influenced by a mix of non-violent direct action and the public drama of situationism. Unashamedly a handbook of do-it-yourself protest. Autonomist ideas have been a key part of many such actions originating outside of the mainstream of leftist, trade union and NGO politics. Occupy Everything edited by Alessio Lunghi and Seth Wheeler very much comes from this autonomist tradition, it is a very effective challenge to left attempts to incorporate the Occupy movement into their own ways of working politically, one for those who embrace creeative tension as a plus, not a minus.

2012 marked two important World War Two 70th Anniversaries, the battles of Stalingrad and El Alamein. In recent months David Cameron has announced plans in 2014 to mark the centenary of the commencement of World War One. Too often this ‘anniversaryism’ is entirely divorced from the politics and causes of the conflict. In the case of the Second World War, anti-fascism, as marked by Philosophy football’s range of Stalingrad T-shirts. A masterful account of the Eastern Front campaign waged against the Nazis is provided by the definitive biography of the most important of all the Red Army’s Generals, Marshal Zhukov. Stalin’s General by Geoffrey Roberts combines the finest in military history writing with a hugely readable account of the political intrigues that would affect Stalin’s control over the resistance and reversal of Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. A deconstruction of much of the mythology of WW2, ranging from Indonesia and Vietnam to Yugoslavia and Greece, is provided by Donny Gluckstein’s splendidly dissenting A People’s History of the Second World War. Almost every theatre of this most global of conflicts is covered with examples chosen to illustrate how anti-fascism was too often used as a mask to enforce empire and prevent resistance movements becoming a focus for turning liberation from occupation into movements for independence and revolution.

For a progressive politics to mean anything and extend well beyond the tiny audience it currently involves in any meaningful way requires an agenda unrestricted by the narrow parliamentary definition. Yet many who profess a preference for the extra-parliamentary can likewise fail to see much beyond this boundary too. In contrast to such narrowness two of the most interesting books of this year are Martin Kelner’s Sit Down and Cheer and Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat. Neither are written in an obviously political fashion yet they engage with subjects vital to any project to change society for the better. The summer of 2012 was absolutely dominated by sport, consumed by most of us via the TV. Kelner’s book is a fascinating history of sport on TV. The Christmas best-sellers? Cookery books, Poole’s book is a superbly written critique of our modern obsession with what he rather neatly dubs ‘gastroculture’.

Fiction is something else some might find surprising cropping up in such an avowedly political reading round up. Yet as a form it is vital to both understanding society and framing a vision to change it. With his novel Heartland author Anthony Cartwright established himself as a hugely gifted author. Cartwright’s latest, How I Killed Margaret Thatcher has a title to guarantee his addition to the kind of people the Daily Mail make it its business to warn us against. The plot imaginatively weaves the make-believe with the very real consequences of the deindustrialisation and mass unemployment that was Thatcher’s doing. For a writer of best-selling crime fiction Christopher Brookmyre has a strangely low profile in the mainstream press. Here is a writer who effortlessly combines his Scottishness, politics, and an ever-rising death count, usually in the most bloodied of circumstances, to create a thrilling read. His latest, When The Devil Drives has rather disappointingly junked some of the darkly bleak humour of his previous titles, a lack however more than compensated for by the strong plot and even stronger characters that populate the book.

A proudly quirky choice for ‘journal of the year’, but my favourite is the annual edition of Twentieth Century Communism, which for 2012 took as its theme ‘communism and youth’. Splendidly mixing the historical and the international this is in every sense of the words a labour of love, yet each edition never disappoints with its faultless rediscovery of one variant on a radical past. Publishing-wise Communism seems to be making a bit of a twenty-first century comeback too. The icon-shattering publishing house, Zero books, added Colin Cremin’s iCommunism to its increasingly impressive list of titles. This is a book that updates Frankfurt School style radicalism for the web 2.0 generation. Breathlessly modernist and radical at the same time, the perfect combination. Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon is part of the publisher Verso’s interesting project to reinvent the entire idea of Communism. The academic references are considerable and may put off some readers, yet the purpose is faultless, a wonderful polemic full of both anger and imagination. But the best of this bunch is Kate Hudson’s The New European Left . An academic publisher will narrow and reduce this book’s readership yet it deserves to be widely read. In a year when Syriza in Greece offered a vision of what an Outside Left party boasting both broad appeal and electoral success might look like this book provides a well-written analysis of the successes and failures of similar projects across Europe. The Left in Britain remains largely parochial in its interests, Kate Hudson outlines the urgent need to connect our politics to these developments on the other side of the Channel. Of course in Greece the neo-fascist Golden Dawn are on the rise and across Europe a populist right is growing too. The point is that this has been challenged by a resurgent Outside Left too, posing a popular alternative while in Britain the growth of UKiP isn’t matched by such a formation to Labour’s Left of any substance at all. Kate Hudson’s book lifts the spirits by shifting the focus to Europe to understand what a successful development of this sort looks like

It seems unnecessary to single out a ‘Book of the Year’ amongst the riches already listed. But the passing away of Eric Hobsbawm in this year coincided with the publication in paperback of perhaps his most important selection of essays, How To Change the World. A truly public intellectual, scholarly yet absolutely committed to maximising the political impact of his writings, a broad appeal few other historians could boast, and an unapologetic Marxist, anti-capitalist and communist to the end. Philosophy Football celebrated his work in 2012 with the reintroduction of our Hobsbawm T-shirt with the brlliant quote “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven maned people.” This book is a handbook for those in future years might seek to equip themselves with the ideas and ideals of Marxism and Communism Hobsbawm not only cherished but helped develop. A stunning collection.

With this lot the temptation to abandon all thoughts of boycotting Christmas as a bourgeois deviation will have to be put on hold until Boxing Day, after all isn’t that bloke heading for the chimneys dressed in red?

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

A Mountain of Bike Books to Climb This Christmas

Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman declares Cycling ‘Sport of the Year’ and chooses his favourite books from 2012 inspired by life on two wheels

Merckx: half man half bikeNever mind the BBC hyped-up hoopla of ‘Sports Personality of the Year’, for most successful British sport of 2012 surely nothing comes close to cycling. An extraordinary first, and second, places for British riders in the Tour de France, a hatful of medals in the Olympic velodrome, more on the road too, and by the autumn a new generation of winners breaking through on the track in the World Cup series too. The achievements, matched by an explosion of popular participation is truly breathtaking.

For those new to the sport, this is one with a rich and varied literature, cycling takes its history seriously, the efforts to excel are tales of human endurance hardly matched by any other sport. Matt Seaton’s The Escape Artist may have been published ten years ago yet it remains the single best depiction in print of how a commute to work by bike can become the force to transform the individual into a cyclist driven to pile on the miles in the cause of speed, and endurance on the road. A route no doubt many tens of thousands are taking inspired by Wiggo, Cav, Hoy, Pendleton and the rest. Dutch author Tim Krabbe does a similar job to Seaton with The Rider but this time as compelling fiction. More than any other book The Rider gets across the the extremities of human spirit and physical effort to ride the distances, and at the speed, which top road cyclists endure, in a tour event, day, after day for weeks on end. Of course as we now know many were only able to achieve this via performance-enhancing drugs. Lance Armstrong’s world-wide best-selling autobiography It’s Not About the Bike now inviting the obvious response, no, it was about the needle! Long derided by the cycling establishment as a lone and maverick campaigner,author Paul Kimmage has been one of the most dogged exposers of the cycling drug cheats who nearly ruined their sport. Kimmage’s Rough Ride remains a devastatingly frank description of life on the professional road cycling circuit, hurtful in its telling of unwelcome truths yet powerful in its capture of what it takes, legally and illegally, to compete.

Philosophy Football shirtOf course it would be quite wrong to allow either the cheats, or cycling’s enemies, to create the myth that this is an entirely dirty sport. Cycling can boastst plenty of heroes as well as more than its fair share of villains. Of the former few come close to the Belgian legend Eddy Merckx. William Fortheringham, has this year written the definitive Merckx biography, Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike. In the 1969 Tour de France Merckx won the overall winner’s Yellow Jersey, the sprinter’s Green jersey and the King of the Mountains Polka Dot jersey too. This would be like Usain Bolt winning the 100m, 200m and 400m Golds, beating Mo Farah in the 5000 and 10,000 metres then grab first in the Marathon too. The madness of such an idea provides the measure of Eddy’s magnificence as cycling’s unrivalled greatest. Writer Richard Moore has produced a series of exciting incisive books chronicling the innovation and commitment that has turned Team GB cyclists on track and road into a world-beating outfit no other British team can come close to matching in terms of world domination. Compared to the cyclists’ achievements the likes of Rooney and Gerrard are stripped bare as mere journeymen on the international stage. Moore’s Heroes, Villains and Velodromes chronicles British cycling’s transformation of its medal-wining prospects on the track, while his Sky’s The Limit tells the sort of Team Sky’s success on the road. Both have been fully updated in new editions this year to include the success story that 2012 became for British cyclists. If cycling literature lacks anything it is a decent social history. There are exclusions that remain which need accounting for. Why is the sport, recreational and competitive variants, almost exclusively white? What are the forces of discrimination that have entirely marginalised women’s road cycling while their achievements on the track, in terms of Team GB at least, are treated virtually on a par with the men. There’s plenty of scope for writing a critical account of the sport while at the same time applauding its successes. A model for such writing is provided by John Foot’s Pedalare! Pedalare!, a brilliant history of cycling in one of its continental heartlands, Italy. Foot’s writing is a testament to how in providing a social, cultural and political context sportswriting is informed and elevated into something truly special.

Moore book coverRoad cycling is a team sport won by individuals. Understanding how this apparent sporting contradiction works is central to Nicolas Roche’s insider’s account Inside the Peleton. Its a riveting read and full of the heartbreak and happiness of life as a professional cyclist reaching out for he glory of a Stage win, or even better. David Millar is one of the British riders to have achieved that kind of status in recent years. His painfully honest Racing Through the Dark tells the story not only of his triumphs but the drug regime that became a vital part of his successes, how he was caught, came back after his ban and has now become not only a better cyclist but one of the most vocal campaigners for cleaning up his sport.Highly articulate, Millar has written a courageously combative book that both exposes the conditions that create drug cheating and explains how his sport has to confront those conditions if it is to break from this most murky of pasts.

The era that Millar describes in such painful detail, horribly amplified by the full exposure of Armstrong’s drug enriched achievements, was the sport’s low-point. For British cycling 2012 represents the kind of blazing trail of victory following victory that could yet establish cycling as a major sport in this country. More than anything else of course this has been shaped by Bradley Wiggins’ first ever victory in the Tour de France by a British rider. A win dubbed by Philosophy Football, and then designed into a best-selling T-shirt, as Le Maillot Britannique. The Tour means so much because of its rich and varied history, one that is rooted in its Frenchness . An ‘away’ victory of this sort by a British cyclist surely ranks Wiggins’ win as one of the greatest of any by a British athlete, whatever the sport. The history of Le Tour is entertainingly and informatively told in a collection of race reports from the pages of the Guardian over the years compiled in the new book The Tour de France … To the Bitter End. An unashamedly contemporary account of life following Le Tour, with a spiky disrespect of officialdom, and sometimes tradition too is provided by Ned Boulting’s How I Won The Yellow Jumper. Cycling at its best is fiercely cosmopolitan and internationalist, Boulting provides the kind of commentary the sport deserves, and will need if it is to fulfil its undoubted potential to reach out and grow.

For the past eight years, since the 2004 Olympic medals on the track,British cycling’s success has surpassed all realistic expectations. Already the signs post London 2012 are that a new generation will now continue the winning ways. Amongst the champions of this era who have now retired one will certainly tower over others’ achievements for some time to come. In her autobiography Between the Lines Victoria Pendleton reveals both the frailties and the strengths that have helped make her such a stunningly successful cyclist. Aided by her co-writer, Donald McRae, Pendleton’s complex character is revealed. In part this is about her ambition not to conform to what others expect of sportswomen. Of course she would fiercely, and correctly, resist any suggestion that female athletes are in any way inferior to their male counterparts, but neither are they necessarily the same. Resisting the pressures to conform has been the watchword of Pendleton’s career, and her many successes too.

Of course, with all due respect to the rest, 2012 belongs to one cyclist more than any other, Bradley Wiggins. His autobiography, My Time like Pendleton’s much helped by the choice of co-writer, in Wiggins’ case the superlative William Fotheringham. Wiggins’ story is unsurprisingly dominated by the account his book provides of what it took to become the first British rider to win the Tour de France. But in the course of telling the tale his image as an everyday hero is absolutely confirmed with all the necessary detail and insight both cynics and fans would require. He is truly not only a great athlete but a great guy too. No BBC hoopla or appointment at the Palace is required to confirm this well-deserved status.

There is no sign that British cycling’s success story will end on 31 December 2012, nor much denting of cycling’s growing popularity as a participation sport exercise. These books will not only liven up your seasonal reading but act as a testament to what it has taken for British cycling to become such an incredible success story.

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