Rights of Man
Tom Paine (J S Jordan, 1791)
A pioneering treatise against tyranny, and for democracy, liberty and equality. Paine called for the overthrow of the inherited wealth and power of the aristocracy and monarchy. His assertion of the right of oppressed people to resist unjust authority remains one of the great political and ethical arguments for popular struggles everywhere. Paine was way ahead of his time in arguing for a written constitution to restrict the power of the state over the citizen. He also advocated progressive taxation and the eventual abolition of war and military spending. Paine's revolutionary sentiments retain a sparkling modernity.
Small is Beautiful
E F Schumacher (Hartley and Marks Publishers, 1973)
Offering a people-focused, decentralised, environmentally sustainable economics, this book challenges the inhuman productivist, growth-maximising orthodoxies of traditional capitalism and socialism. It articulates a radical critique of corporate gigantism, materialism, consumerism and traditional methods of calculating standard of living. Schumacher was one of the first to dispute the imposition of western models of industrialisation on developing countries. A green pioneer, he trailblazed the self- reliant concept of low-cost, small-scale, eco-friendly, locally-made intermediate technology as the fastest, surest way to uplift impoverished peoples.
The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (First published in London, 1848)
Few books have had a greater impact on the course of modern world history. Much of its analysis still rings true today. The vision of a classless, egalitarian, cooperative society remains a noble ideal, despite its frequent perversion to justify mass tyranny. Strong on equality but weak on liberty, the manifesto fails to demonstrate how communism can go hand-in-hand with democracy and human rights. Other weaknesses are underestimating the ability of capitalism to evolve and survive and the ecological devastation of industrialisation.
The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir (First published in France, 1949)
This feminist tour de force draws on insights from history, biology, psychology and anthropology to show that there is no innate female nature: 'One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.' Traditional femininity and female roles are cultural impositions by men to maintain their gender supremacy. The inferior social status of women is not the result of the limited abilities of the female sex; women's under-achievement results from their second-class status. Still relevant today, when the female half of humanity remains degraded, exploited and excluded from wealth and power.
Our Common Future
Gro Harlem Brundtland (Oxford University Press, 1987)
The long-term survival of humanity is threatened by the ravages of global
poverty, resource depletion, species extinction and biospheric pollution. This UN report sets out a radical agenda for
environmental protection, sustainable development and economic justice. Urging global action and solidarity for the common good, it says we must put universal welfare before the interests of privileged elites and internationalism before national self-interest.
Crimes Against Humanity
Geoffrey Robertson (New Press, 2000)
International humanitarian law is the new frontier in the universalisation of human rights. Since Nuremberg, the United Nations has enacted a series of groundbreaking conventions against war crimes, genocide and torture. Robertson demonstrates how realpolitik and diplomatic protocols have often allowed dictators, war criminals and torturers to escape justice. But with the creation of the International Criminal Court, we have moved a step closer to the era of human rights enforcement.
The Soul of Man Under Socialism
Oscar Wilde (1891)
This is the antidote to the statism, collectivism and authoritarianism of Leninism and other 'ends justify the means' variants of socialism/communism. Wilde argues that the great virtue of socialism is that far from enslaving the individual to the will of the collective, its ultimate goal and achievement will be to liberate the human spirit and allow the flourishing of the individual. Though he was a bit of a cultural snob, Wilde was right. Most people are salary and mortgage slaves, with their talents stifled by the materialism, greed and inequalities of capitalism. Under socialism, individuality and culture won't be attributes that only the rich can cultivate; they will be extended to everyone and enrich us all.
Peter Singer (1975)
This book expands our moral horizons beyond our own species and is thus a significant evolution in the development of ethics. The right to be spared physical and psychological suffering should, says Singer, be extended to non-human animals. Their abuse in farming, sport, entertainment and Singer calls this abuse 'speciesism' - the doctrine of human superiority that is used to justify the exploitation of non-human animals. He argues that speciesism is a form of oppression comparable to racism, imperialism, misogyny and homophobia.
His selections can be purchased here.
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