The Road to Wigan Pier
First published 1937
It’s mostly remembered as a classic account of the northern working class in the 1930s, but it had a major impact on me for two other reasons. Orwell ferociously scrutinises the prejudices of his own class, reminding us how the absurdities of the class system are, so often, sustained by fear and hate. ‘A middle-class child is taught almost simultaneously to wash his neck, to be ready to die for his country, and to despise the “lower classes”,’ as he wonderfully puts it. And he looks at how socialists fail to win over working-class people because of a failure to communicate clearly, revelling in their own eccentricities and avoiding bread-and-butter issues. Something for us to think about, no?
Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World
British commentators rightly assail other countries for failing to come to terms with the barbarism of their past, like Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide. But Britain has yet to even begin acknowledging the crimes it committed in the dark days of empire. Davis reveals how a fatal combination of the El Niño weather phenomenon, imperialism and laissez-faire dogma led to the deaths of tens of millions of people across what we now know as the ‘third world’. It is still a national myth that British imperialism was somehow more humane than elsewhere, but this book reveals otherwise.
Brother in the Land
Robert E Swindells
Oxford University Press (1984)
If you want to guarantee your child is committed to nuclear disarmament for life, this book is your best shot. I was nine when I read this story of a boy growing up in post‑apocalyptic northern England, and frankly it had a devastating impact on me. It might be a children’s book, but it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the bomb: it is totally uncompromising and lacking in sentimentality as it looks at a civilization in meltdown.
The Working-Class Majority
Levison punctured the then-hegemonic idea of ‘affluence’, and the widespread myth that the American working class had vanished. But this was also an assault on the new type of liberalism that had emerged in the 1960s, and he particularly directs his fire on liberals’ dismissal of workers as reactionary ‘hard-hats’. Levison argued that the Democrats no longer appealed to working-class America, leaving many of them to defect to the welcoming arms of a new populist right. It was a lesson that needed to be learned then but it’s even more relevant today.
King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism
Africa still suffers dearly from the legacy of imperialism. I’d bet that few today have even heard of King Leopold of Belgium, but Hochschild unmasks him as one of the great tyrants of human history. After conquering the Congo in the late 19th century, Leopold’s forces raped the country of its rubber, copper and other natural resources. In the process, up to 10 million people – half the population – perished. Imperialism has never been held to account for the crimes it committed in this period. Thankfully we have the likes of Hochschild to keep reminding us.
The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
First published 1848
It has become almost a cliché for right-wing commentators in the past few years to ask: ‘Maybe Marx was right?’ To the surprise of first-time readers, Marx and Engels almost eulogise the revolutionary role capitalism once played, arguing it ‘has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals’. But above all, there is something strikingly prophetic about their manifesto: it very accurately describes the forces of capitalist globalisation we see today. Capitalism has changed a lot since 1848, but the foundations of any understanding of the system we still – tragically – live under begins here.
The Making of the English
E P Thompson
First published 1963
Thompson was determined to stop the working class being seen as a static, homogenous, inhuman bloc, including by the left. Instead, he saw class as a process, looking at how working-class identity emerged as bonds of solidarity, forged in opposition to ‘other men whose interests are different (and usually opposed to) theirs’. The sheer humanity of this book shows how creative Marxism can be, in contrast to the turgid, stale way it has often been applied.
Homage to Catalonia
First published 1938
I don’t think I get more emotional reading about any historical episode than the Spanish civil war. Orwell brings it alive with his unique honesty: the boredom, the heroism, the dirt, the occasional amateurishness, and of course the betrayal. A chilling reminder of the shadow cast by Stalinism over the left in the 20th century.
Owen Jones is the author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, which will be published in June by Verso. www.owenjones.org