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