Never mind the miserabilism, this Christmas Mark Perryman discovers more than enough books that express reasons to be cheerful.
The human tragedy of Grenfell; Donald Trump; the threat of nuclear war with North Korea; an unfolding sexual harassment scandal; and a weak and wobbly government shored up by a coalition of hell with the DUP.
All good enough reasons to have a pretty bleak view of the world in 2017. But Christmas, whatever our faith or none, is a time of hope, so my selection of the year’s most compelling political books tend to err on the side of hopefulness, with no apologies.
There’s plenty of the customary mix of pessimistic intellect and optimistic will in the sublimely good, and substantially updated post-election second edition of Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics.
For a practical insight into how that radical politics is being organised in and around Labour, The Way of the Activist by Jamie Driscoll and Rachel Broadbent, published by the excellent Talk Socialism political education group, provides a how-to guide which is rare in the scale of its imagination and ambition.
Chris Nineham’s How The Establishment Lost Control builds on his earlier account of the Stop the War movement The People v Tony Blair to make a compelling case for a left politics that is rooted in the movement rather than the party. The issue is whether real and lasting change can be achieved, without the leverage offered by a well-organised left which is within Labour, yet open to the movements Chris describes.
John Medhurst’s That Option No Longer Exists, published in 2014, has become the definitive account of both the necessity and the limitations of such a Labour Left. Perhaps the best way of both staying in but not being restricted by Labour is the popularising of radical ideas.
There are few better starting points for such an ambition than George Monbiot’s latest book Out of the Wreckage which describes its purpose as “a new politics for an age of crisis.” Or perhaps it’s best this Christmas simply to sit back, kick off the slippers and reflect on how the past twenty years has ended up with Jeremy Corbyn (Jeremy Corbyn!) closer to Number Ten than anyone, including himself, could ever have imagined.
John O’Farrell tells the story of those two decades in his own unique and richly amusing style in Things Can Only Get Worse? And as for where it all started, Richard Power Sayeed establishes himself as the definitive critical chronicler of the Blair years with his superb book 1997: The Future That Never Happened.
To make a success of Corbynism demands a wider perspective that both includes Labour but goes beyond it too. Helping us to understand the nature of the politics this now demands is Platform Capitalism by Nick Srnicek which outlines an overview of the economic terrain on which Labour would seek to govern for the many, and not the few.
To come anywhere close to fulfilling that ambition will require reinventing what we mean by the collective, aka ‘the many’. A process made easier following a reading of Lynne Segal’s new book, Radical Happiness, a project she describes as rediscovering processes towards creating ‘moments of collective joy.’
The Mask and The Flag by Paulo Gerbaudo foregrounds the thinking of a new generation of activist-intellectuals as they also seek to map out a similar project towards reinventing collective action.
The collection Beautiful Rising showcases this process on a global scale, with one inspiring example after another to lead the reader breathless with hope and excitement.
One domestic effort was the 2010-11 resistance to the tripling of tuition fees, a story now retold in Student Revolt by Matt Myers. Matt describes the lasting political legacy of these protests as an ‘austerity generation’ many of whom are now supportive of, and involved in, Corbynism.
But the broader impact remains the wholesale and disastrous marketisation of higher education, the consequences of which are powerfully described by Sinéad Murphy in her book Zombie University, a right horror show.
These are disastrous developments, even compared to the sheer horror show of Trump’s Presidential reign, but his sheer awfulness has proved more than enough to dominate much of 2017. Why Bad Governments Happen To Good People is Danny Katch’s handy explanation of how America ended up with Trump in charge.
In Britain meanwhile the next General Election, barring a major miracle, will probably be fought post-Brexit. So understanding the likely impact of this rupture is vital in preparing for Labour not just to do better next time but to win. In The Lure of Greatness author Anthony Barnett gets away from the liberals’ blame game to explain why Brexit happened and carves out a future politics that can reverse those reasons.
But before we get there there’s a very real likelihood of things turning nasty, with food prices, even shortages too, quite possibly at the centre of such tensions. Bittersweet Brexit by Charlie Clutterbuck is the first serious attempt to explore the #ToryBrexit consequences for farming, land and food inflation.
One of the chief architects of this almighty cock-up is Boris. For too long treated as a loveable rogue, he is in fact both hapless and dangerous, a lethal combination brilliantly exposed in Douglas Murphy’s account of his tenure (sic) as London Mayor Nincompoopolis.
Is there any way out of the mess? Harry Leslie Smith’s powerfully written Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future continues this ninetysomething author’s effort towards a call to arms (of the metaphorical variety) with a passion and poignancy still all too rare in our body politic.
Stuart Maconie revisits a similar past to that which framed Harry’s lifetime of views with his Long Road from Jarrow, an imaginative tracing of the 1936 Jarrow March, then and now.
For a very different take on how the legacy of yesteryear’s politics shapes the politics of today and tomorrow, try the innovative and challenging approach of Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left where author Ian Parker offers a redefinition of the vocabulary of change, from A to Z.
Precious few writers manage to effortlessly mix popular culture with radical politics. Yet without that combination, any prospect of change is seriously reduced. One author who did was David Widgery, a selection of whose writings have been re-issued with the great title of Against Miserabilism.
One of the finest exponents today of making these kinds of connections is Laurie Penny. Her latest book of essays is Bitch Doctrine and not one of them fails to impress with the sharpness of wit, tone and politics.
A towering influence over making the case for the indivisible connection of politics and culture remains Stuart Hall, and it is therefore hugely welcome that following other recent collections of Stuart’s work a new selection has been published of his lectures on race, ethnicity and nation, called The Fateful Triangle. In this era of the revival of a populist-racist Right this is an absolutely essential read towards what Stuart Hall once described as an ‘alternative logic.’
The Left has a bit of a thing about its own history, in particular communist history. Too often, it has been trapped in the past instead of liberated by it via an exploration of what became possible and what proved to be impossible. For those who share such an endeavour the ideal journal is Twentieth Century Communism. The latest edition uses the 1917 Centenary to revisit the differing politics of previous commemorations, a testament to the journal’s unpredictable breadth, and insightful depth.
A similar, but even wider approach is taken by the journal’s special edition Echoes of October taking the period of commemorations from 1918 to 1990 with Ukraine in the 1920s, Weimar Germany and Pravda amongst those included.
A very different approach is taken by Pete Ayrton with Revolution! A really revealing collection of original writing from those ten days that shook the world one hundred years ago. It’s available as an exclusive signed first edition here.
Easily the most challenging account of 1917 is provided by John Medhurst’s No Less Than Mystic, a deconstruction of the history which is both scathing of the errors made, yet incontrovertibly hopeful of the unfulfilled potential.
Of course any account of the communist tradition has to be about more than just 1917. Another special edition from Twentieth Century Communism called Weimar Communism details the extraordinary rise of the most powerful Communist Party outside the Soviet Union, the German Communist Party, and its eventual eclipse by the parallel rise of Hitler’s Nazis.
A splendidly different account is provided in Red International and Black Caribbean by Margaret Stevens, where she uncovers the largely hidden history of Communist organisation in Mexico, the West Indies and New York City during the inter-war years, 1919-1939.
Of course the period since 1945, and again since ’89, have convulsed the communist ideal, after those early days shaking the world. Mike Makin-Waite’s Communism and Democracy provides an insightfully original account of the twists, turns and missed opportunities from there to here without ever losing sight of what remains alive, if not always kicking.
The second volume edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley on the British far left, called Waiting for the Revolution, is an account of post-1956 communists and revolutionaries of various varieties who lost their way on more than one occasion. For all that they kept on, keeping on, a persistence which isn’t all bad, or all good either, and this collection helps us to understand why.
But none of this historiography makes much sense if in the process the personal is divorced from the political. Michael Rosen’s So They Call You Pisher? avoids the latter pitfall. As a memoir of growing up in an East End, Jewish and Communist household, the book combines sublimely a rich humour and a sharp politics which is a rarity in most left writing , and that’s a great shame.
The mix of radical politics with popular culture remains a constant, yet necessary struggle. It is something on the whole Corbynism remains rather weak on, considering the huge potential. This is another instance where valuable lessons can be learnt from history, not to slavishly replicate earlier models but to recreate for the times in which we live now, the ideals that fired movements in the past.
One such example is retold by Rick Blackman in his short book Forty Miles of Bad Road which uncovers how musicians came together to help promote unity after the 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots. A perhaps more familiar era is revisited by Matthew Worley’s No Future detailing the collision of punk, politics and youth culture 1976-84. Heady days for those who lived through them!
One fusion of the political and the cultural is poetry. Rosy Carrick’s new edition of the epic Mayakovsky poem Valdimir Ilyich Lenin is 197 pages’ worth proof positive of that. Or for a more current exponent look no further than Michael Rosen (again) and his latest poetry collection Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio.
Not that there aren’t plenty more from where Michael is coming from. The Bread and Roses 2017 Poetry Anthology On Fighting On! Published by Culture Matters and sponsored by Unite, brings together a selection of just some of the many wordsmiths working on the poetry front against reaction - and the evidence here suggests, to very good effect. Culture Matters has become a significant and prolific publisher in the last few months, with booklets which combine images and poems in imaginative and stimulating ways, like their website hero William Blake. Their best examples are perhaps Muses and Bruises by Fran Lock and Steev Burgess, and Bring the Rising Home by Mike Jenkins and Gustavius Payne.
There's also a thriving live scene of spoken word developing fast, which is a resource of hope towards a better future.
And amongst all this reading what about something for the children? Detective Nosegoode and The Museum Robbery, by Polish children’s author Marian Orton,´ is every bit as good as the previous two in this series for junior crimefighters. A newly revised version of a familiar tale of all things Scroogelike, Michael Rosen’s (yes, that man again) Bah! Humbug! is an absolute seasonal treat.
Apart from all these reads for the most stylishly political stocking-filler, this year’s Verso Radical Diary is every much a must-have as the 2017 debut edition.
And political book of the season? After the year we’ve had, an incredibly original book which combines a passion for mixing politics, popular culture and humour is the only possible choice. The incredibly original, with a vast range of wonderful artists contributing, The Corbyn Comic Book is funny, touching, and meaningful, with a vast range of wonderful artists contributing.
Oh 2017….. as the song might go, what could next year possibly bring?
Note: No links in the review are to Amazon, if you can avoid buying from tax dodgers please do. Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction aka Philosophy Football. His own book The Corbyn Effect was published in 2017 and is available from here.