Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Marxist reading

Tim asks, in respect of the SWP discussion (below), "I've also long felt that I've missed out terribly by not having been through the sort of skills training and political education that you mention. (If you want to do your bit to help remedy this, Jim, you could help by naming the ten books which have been most important in forming your political outlook. How about a post on that?)"

Well, I'll give it a try with the caveat that it's not the books you read that provide the main part of your political education. For instance I'd been in the SWP for about two weeks when I was asked to do a talk on Lenin. I remember saying to the dear departed Pete Leech "But I don't know anything about Lenin." His response was "You've got a week, read some books." And because I didn't know that was ridiculous that's exactly what I did - to good effect.

That process of having to explain ideas constantly was far more effective at ingraining living political ideas into me than the more passive process of reading - particularly because you get to disagree and search for the right path collectively. Then you get arrested together to cement those ideological bonds.

Anyway, in roughly the order I read them here is my list of my ten most influential socialist books, may God have mercy on my soul;

  1. Tony Cliff's Lenin Vol I "Building the Party"
    Really useful in understanding how a political party needs to be ready to change its shape to fit new situations. It's also good at describing how a party is necessarily made up of different sections which all have different interests and behaviours, and structural shifts are often about shifts in emphasis between these parts.

  2. Callinicos "The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx"
    Whatever other faults Alex Callinicos may have there is no question that this is the finest explanation of the Marxist method there is. And I've read alot.

  3. Marx and Engels "The Communist Manifesto"
    One of those books I delayed reading for a long time and then swept through in one go once I'd started. The poetry and fire of the Communist Manifesto is rarely matched in political works.

  4. Trotsky "Problems of Everyday life"
    Actually a collection of Trotsky's post-revolution writings, this book demonstrates how politics isn't just grand schemes for changing the world, but about how we all live our everyday lives. It also has a great article on why politeness is political.

  5. Engels "Socialism Utopian and Scientific"
    This short book outsold the Communist Manifesto for decades in the nineteenth century and once you read it you can see why. Once Engels is freed from Marx's rather drier style you have a deep, angry and very readable exposition on the need for a fundamental transformation of society.

  6. Badayev "Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma"
    Badayev is not a household name, not even in households populated only by Marxists, but this work by one of the Bolsheviks in pre-revolutionary Russia who was elected to their version of Parliament is an inspirational read on how they organised under semi-legal conditions and used respectable structures as one arm of their revolutionary activity.

  7. Rees "Algebra of Revolution" which is a great companion to Bukharin's "ABC of Communism"
    John Rees is a dude and this is surely his magnum opus. Nobody does the dialectic for a modern audience better than this. Engaging, if complex at times, this was a very useful work for getting to grips with the philosophical underpinnings of Marxism.

  8. Marx "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844"
    This was a difficult book to read. But in terms of "filling out" an understanding of revolutionary thought it's completely invaluable.

  9. Lukacs "History and Class Consciousness"
    But there are few useful books harder to read than this one. I think I read it three times before I began to understand what on Earth it was all about. Parts of it are easier than others, but once you come to grips with it and start understanding what he's saying you can start disagreeing with some of the most important concepts in Marxism.

  10. ISJ until a couple of years.
    This one's a cheat really but the International Socialism Journal - which was, and still is, the SWP's theoretical journal was very handy indeed. Unfortunately once John Rees stopped editing it it became a lot more superficial and I generally wouldn't bother with it these days.
Jesus that looks like a dry list doesn't it? I can assure you most of it isn't, apart from Lucaks who is a very tough read and I wouldn't recommend him until you've familiarised yourself with other works first.

It's also an odd list because although I can still feel these books' influence on me this doesn't explain my politics at all. Although I would and do describe myself as a socialist I find the term Marxist completely meaningless, and certainly the idea of a Leninist Party seems so completely unhelpful in the modern context that I discount it altogether.

Mind you, I wouldn't have a clue where to start if I was to try to develop a similar list for Green ideas, I usually read the news and rather dry policy documents for that sort of thing. Perhaps people can suggest some?

Matt Selwood has posted on this theme, as has Scott Redding, Adrian Windisch, Peter Sanderson, Weggis and Flesh is grass any other takers?


weggis said...

Don't read - THINK!

Then check!

Matt Sellwood said...

Thanks Jim, very interesting.

I might do one of these myself, although it is interesting that (despite agreeing on a lot of stuff, it seems to me) I would only share one book on my list with yours...since I came up through the anarchist left!


James said...

"John Rees is a dude". Come on Jim, surely he's the dark heart of the SWP? And I might suggest that Cliff's idea that Lenin operated by 'bending the stick' was a tad self-serving. Cliff liked to claim he modelled himself on Lenin, but as Jim Higgins suggests in More Years for the Locust, Cliff's Lenin was in turn modelled a little on Cliff himself.

I'm interested that your list is basically an SWP reading list after 5 years out of the party. I don't think mine would be.

Jim Jay said...

Weggis: I think you need to do both - which is why I decided to start the list with a caveat. But I also believe that there is such a thing as learning to think... definately in my case.

Matt: come on - which one!

James: I actually cut out a sentance (for length) basicvally saying that "Building the party" whilst being a brilliant book isn't the place to go if you want to know about the actual Lenin, you're right it is Cliff's useful version of Lenin. But it's still a great book.

As to it being an SWP reading list... that's what I was asked for. If a "general activist" asked me for a primer I'd go for something like Steinbeck's "In Dubious Battle" before any text books.

James said...

Fair enough. And yes, In Dubious Battle is excellent.

Matt Sellwood said...

The Communist Manifesto, of course. I'd wager that a majority of people from most left traditions would have that on their list somewhere....

I'll try to bung my own list up today or tomorrow.

scott redding said...

I'll let my subconscious percolate overnight, and I'll do a list on Thursday.

Roobin said...

"I'm interested that your list is basically an SWP reading list after 5 years out of the party."

And I was going to say Jim was showing his vintage (90s man) with that list. I've seen a lot of commie bookshelves and that is definitely late 80s/early 90s peaking around the anti-nazi movement of 93/4.

Jim Jay said...

Well two of them weren't written in 93/4 but... I have read other books you know, despite my age, these are the ones that I found most influential when I joined. Can I help it that the books written later were so much weaker? Here's my supplement;

Ten books I've read that I was *never* going to put in the most influential list;

Anti-capitalism: a guide (various) mostly bland

Rebels guide to Lenin (Burchill) - I was trying to find the exact title on the net but couldn't find it - either I imagined it or it's been rightly erased from history!

State and Revolution (Lenin) Rees was always better!

All recent ISJs

Scotland, the socialist answer (Bambery)

That awful one on the importance of the paper (Harman?)

The stop the war book on how brilliant the stwc is (German and Murray?)

Awkward Squad (Martin Smith)

That's actually only eight, I can't think of any others off hand that I really hated... it'll come to me :)

Roobin said...

"The stop the war book on how brilliant the stwc is..."

Well, Stop the War is/was brilliant. That said it still needs a weightier history than the offical book.

"Rebels guide to Lenin (Burchill) - I was trying to find the exact title on the net but couldn't find it - either I imagined it or it's been rightly erased from history!"

Just the slightest of smiles... slighest ;-)

Jim Jay said...

I certainly think the anti-war movement was brilliant... but not that book.

I've found the other - I didn't know how to spell the author's name which never helps.

Ian Birchall - A rebel's guide to Lenin

Matt Sellwood said...

And, of course, the anti-war movement was much much more than the official STWC.


Adrian Windisch said...

Mine is of course completely different, see

Red Green Nick said...

My List of bits that have inspired me would include:

Robert Tressel's Ragged Trousered Philanthropist

Joel Kovel's Enemy of Nature

Libertarian Communist Manifesto by Joseph Lane.

The Ecology of freedom and Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism an Unbridgeable Chasm by Murray Bookchin

and Kropotkin's
Conquest of Bread and Multual Aid.

phelimmacc said...

I'm tempted to follow suit on my blog but teeny bit concerned that everything on your list has been written by a CC member of the SWP. I'm not sure I can compete! Although to be honest I'm no sure any of my top ten has a single CC member. Advice??

ModernityBlog said...

ahh Jim, you're funny

it is basically an SWP book list for a Party, which is a shambles, a group of political failures (judge by their own standards: recruitment and party building, which they failed completely in)

following such a bunch of failures, politically, has nothing to recommend it

it is like getting tips on sincerity from Tony Blair, or advice on honesty from Neil Hamilton, the ex-Tory MP

you can do much better than that

Jim Jay said...

I've got Kovel's book in one of my to read piles... I will get there in the end.

P&M I'm worried that people have misunderstood what this list is. It'as a list of books that influenced me when I first became an activist - it's not necessarily the list of books I'd recommend to people just starting out now - although they are all good books.

Only two of the ten are written by CC members but yes - they are are all of a piece in that they are from the revolutionary socialist tradition of the IST rather than a more ecletic mix that Matt gives at his blog for instance - which is far far healthier.

So if I were you I'd go that route - certainly when I left the SWP I made a conscious effort to read books outside of that tradition and it was very good for me.

But honesty is my policy and I don't want to rewrite history. What I might do however is give some thoguht to the books I'd recommend to someone starting out today as a political activist.

ModernityBlog said...

fair enough, Jim, I misread it, my mind's none too good at time, my apologises :)

but you have to acknowledge that they write these books and can't actually do what they set out to do: build a Party

Jim Jay said...

Certainly there is a big gap between the theory and the practice.

I'm particularly fascinated by organisations (not just the SWP) who have made a fetish out of winning the support of the working class and have actually been the least successful in doing so - worse than the Tories even.

EG Lindsey German has been a political activist for thirty years or more, devoted to supposedly winning the best part of the working class - and is self styled leader of the anti-war movement - the largest progressive movement in this country's hostory - and yet her support in London was miniscule... that's quite a poor record when you think about it in that way - and in many ways this is a real shame.

Tim said...

Crikey: many thanks for that!

"That process of having to explain ideas constantly was far more effective at ingraining living political ideas into me than the more passive process of reading"
--- You mean I actually need to /talk/ to people? I was afraid of that....

Roobin said...

Jim: either she's stupid or the working class is stupid. At least you're not stupid.

Jim Jay said...

There's a big difference between stupid and wrong - and I've never said Lindsey's stupid because she isn't.