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Books in red wrapping paper

Philosophy Football's Mark Perryman introduces his best left-wing books of 2012 for a hopeful materialist's seasonal gift list

December 15, 2012
11 min read

Christmas time, not much peace in large parts of the world, precious little goodwill for the 99 per cent 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 three 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 and from Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg The Art of Punk . None 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’. Bestley and Ogg have complied a vividly visual collection of a never-to-be-forgotten era when music was angry and anti-establishment, musical or otherwise.

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. Ken Keable’s London Recruits is a true life left adventure story rooted in an era when perhaps foes, and friends, were easier to identify and oppose. The book tells the story of white Comunists and socialists recruited to go to South Africa to work undercover for the ANC against the Apartheid regime. Heroic stuff and a tale well worth re-telling.

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 named 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?

Find more recent book reviews for Christmas present ideas in our books section

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