I have an old lefty badge somewhere 'Books are Weapons'. Of course reading alone is never enough, did someone mention the point however is to change it? But we live in an era of unprecedented austerity, the urgent challenge that the threat of Climate Change should be posing almost all conventional definitions of growth, and the enduring disarray of oppositional politics. So finding the time for a good read to provoke both thought and action is as good a New Year resolution as I can think of. And despite the mind-numbing dullness of the political mainstream in the margins there's thankfully still plenty to savour.
By way of a kind of New Year revolutions primer there's none better than the 2013 edition of the annual Socialist Register. Each year the Socialist Register editors take a broad theme, this year's is 'A Question of Strategy', commission a broad, and international, range of contributors and compile the results into a highly readable collection. The 2013 version is particularly strong and timely, with post-Occupy, the rise of Syriza, the contrasting experiences of the European Left and post-Leninist models pf political organisation all to the fore. For an entirely different kind of compendium treat yourself to Poems of Protest, a slim volume of the too often neglected poetry of William Morris, beautifully designed by Roger Huddle with a superb introduction by Michael Rosen. Its a great combination, the kind of book to keep you inspired throughout 2013.
The web has helped a new wave of leftist polemic to become sharper than ever before. Richard Seymour at Lenins Tomb is a fine craftsman of a decent and often witty left-wing argument. Some would say he might remind them of a young Christopher Hitchens. To put any such notion where Seymour certainly feels it should belong he has written an angry denunciation of everything Hitchens became and allowed himself, wilfully, to represent. Unhitched is both a fine read of how a dissenter went mainstream but also a window on what dissent today might look like free of the conventions of the liberal establishment.
Three books of historical record likewise distinguish a politics unconstrained by convention. David Gilbert's Love and Struggle was one book in 2012 I missed and I won't be making the same mistake in 2013. An autobiographical account of how one activist went from late 1960s student activist to 1970s Weather Underground operative this is more than just a tale of '68 but a powerfully written exploration of the enduring appeal and motivation of idealism. Dealing with entirely different subject matter, Physical Resistance by Dave Hann however provides an equally compelling account of the heroism that anti-fascism will often demand. Forthcoming, Lindsey German's new book, How A Century Of War Changed The Lives of Women" takes a similarly long historical sweep to Hann, this time with a focus in particular on the political experience of, and resistance by, women to militarism and imperialism. This is a much neglected aspect of women's lives and politics , by redressing the balance this book provides a pleasingly different, and necessary, read.
Also forthcoming, and from a distinctively socialist-feminist background, is the welcome and timely republication in updated form of the late 1970s book Beyond the Fragments by Merlin Press. The argument raised by the authors that feminism has to be central to the remaking of socialism, neatly summed up in their maxim 'the personal is political' has ebbed and flowed in terms of influence and consequence in the past three decades. It will be interesting to see what kind of impact the updated edition has on a new generation still confronting many of the issues this book raised before many of them would have been born.
Part of the appeal of Beyond the Fragments for me in the late 1970s when it was first published that I've stuck with ever since is that it wasn't just about the remaking of socialism, but also demanded the reinvention of the political. Most of my own writing in recent years has been about sport, football in particular. I've been informed crucially by the belief that there is no such process as keeping politics out of sport because sport is itself political, social, economic and cultural. Or as Albert Camus once put it, and Philosophy Football neatly turned into a best-selling T-shirt, "All That I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football." Phil Cohen, author of a splendid new book on London 2012, On The Wrong Side of The Track? detects next to no morality in the deliberations and actions of the modern Olympic movement.Instead he carefully details the actuality of what the Games will come to mean for East London in years to come. Once all the hoopla is over this is precisely the sort of subject-matter that needs addressing. This isn't to indulge in what Cohen calls 'Olympophobia'. Rather it is simply the essential task of any effective oppositional politics to separate establishment rhetoric from practical reality. Artist and photographer Neville Gabie provides an entirely different insight into the popular celebratory mood that the Olympic project at its best became in his book length version of his Olympic artistic residence. Great Lengths is a visual account of the potential of the Olympics to inspire without concealing the nature of the obstacles to that emotional and physical result.
A Left politics that takes popular culture seriously as a core site where ideologies are made, contested and unmade must be as much about the point of consumption as the more familiar terrain of the point of production. UK Uncut's protests outside Starbucks, Top Shop and High Street Banks revealed the progressive potential of such a focus for politics, helped along with some flair, creativity and imagination. For all three in political abundance look no further than Reverend Billy's debut book The End of the World. Reverend Billy is the star of US anti-consumerism agitprop of the sort that that readers of Adbusters will be familiar with. An absolute must read, and a great laugh too.
The experience of parenthood is often an experience that challenges almost every value mother and father once had. For a richly amusing read of the contradictions and compromises of bringing up boys in the modern family enjoy MOB Rule by Hannah Evans, mother to three boys. Not the usual subject-matter for a 'politics' reading list yet if we can't take how our children develop seriously what does this say about any definition of the political?
A mix of locality, race and identity with sharply incisive writing helps make Rupa Huq's On The Edge one of the most interesting titles published at the start of this year. Rupa's subject matter is hugely original, the politics of suburbia. What do these places mean outside of our imagination and preconceptions, and crucially how have the suburbs shaped contrasting versions of English identity? A truly great book that it is hard to finish reading and not feel you've learned something.
Its a great list of new, recent and forthcoming books for 2013's first quarter which makes it almost unnecessary to chose a single title for the accolade of best of the lot. Yet Andrew Simms, author in my view of the best political book in recent years, Tescopoly deserves precisely that for his new book Cancel The Apocalypse. For those who wonder what a 'next Left politics' might look like, this is it. With wit and boldness Andrew deconstructs our appetite for growth,consumption and all the misery this creates, often without us realising the reason why. Linking with considerable original insight economic crisis to environmental disaster he refuses to accept the cosy pigeonholing of subjects politics, in and out of the mainstream, too cosily accepts and reinforces. But this is a book of hopefulness too, a template for remaking the political, a brilliant refusal to accept the way things are.
That's it for now, just remember each and every one of these books is a weapon in the right hands. I'll be back in March to provide a reload of Spring books. Enjoy your reading.
Note: No links for books in this books preview, my previous and future reviews and previews too, are to Amazon. If you can avoid purchasing from the tax dodgers, my recommendation is to do so, as much as you possibly can.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled 'sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction' aka Philosophy Football