Archive for January, 2017

Some Books I Read in 2016

Bit late to this exercise in self-indulgence but I thought I’d give this end of year book list thing a go if only to prove to myself that I got quite a bit of reading done over the past 12 months or so. Given that I’ve had what feels like a constantly increasing workload in my day-job I’m quite pleased at how much I’ve completed. I’ve managed to keep up routine of 1-2 hrs on workday evenings and at least one day a weekend. The list includes research-related reading and reading for pleasure and doesn’t include teaching related stuff (oh so many research methods and sociology text books).

Victor Figueroa Clark (2013) Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat 

One of Pluto’s ‘Revolutionary Lives’ series. An enjoyable, short political biography of an admirable figure. Allende’s steadfast decency and courage comes through very strongly. Though it’s not uncritical of Allende’s excessive faith in the commitment of his enemies to the Chilean constitution, Clark is sympathetic to the Popular Unity strategy and indeed the insurrectionary outlook of MIR is shown convincingly to have lacked any serious popular base.

Regis Debray (1971) Conversations with Allende

Transcripts of two interviews conducted with Allende shortly after his 1970 presidential election victory. Quite interesting on the specifics of the Chilean class structure and economy at the time. Allende and Debray often seem to be talking at cross-purposes and Debray is, by turns, incisively critical but also rather star-struck and often fails to push home his points.

Philip K Dick (1962) The Man in the High Castle

Read it because of all the hype surrounding the Amazon Prime dramatisation. I found the ending (I won’t spoil it) really unsatisfying.

Daniel W. Drezner (2015) Theories of International Politics and Zombies

Witty and pretty entertaining. Not quite long enough to outstay its welcome, but some of it is a little forced (as you might expect). The most interesting part for me was the introduction which includes a good survey of the recent explosion in zombie films/books etc and also I think correctly argues that the zombie genre derives much of its force from the fact that, alone among the panoply of horror monsters, zombies ‘possess a patina of plausibility that vampires, ghosts, witches, demons or wizards lack’. There’s something about the brute physicality of the zombie that’s uncannily familiar to us.

Alan Freeman (1982) The Benn Heresy

A sympathetic but critical account of the rise of ‘Bennism’ in the late 70s and very early 80s, written from an FI perspective.

Danny Gluckstein (1994) The Tragedy of Bukharin

Read this for the account of the Bukharin-Preobrazhensky debate on the economics of transition in particular. Didn’t think I was going to enjoy it, but I did.

Robin Hahnel and Erik Olin Wright (2014) Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy

An extended debate between Robin Hahnel, one of the key theorists of ‘Parecon’, and one of (in my view) the most lucid thinkers in relation to socialist strategy today Erik Olin Wright. Many of the ideas developed in more depth in Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias (see below) are set out here, although Wright has much more to say here about his very interesting metaphor of institutional ‘ecosystems’ and structural ‘hybrids’. For me Wright also wipes the floor with Hahnel’s Parecon proposals especially in terms of the latter’s insistence on the absolute abolition of markets (which is a form of economic coordination, as Wright points out, that long pre-dated capitalism and that is not necessarily bound up – as of course Karl Polanyi pointed out – with the social domination of market forces).

Owen Hatherley (2009) Militant Modernism

Read this to see if I could develop a vague interest in architecture, but it turns out that I couldn’t.

Jim Jepps (2016) Saving Blighty

As the recommendation on the cover from Francesca Martinez reads this is certainly ‘the best EU referendum time travel novel you will ever read’. Really enjoyed this and liked in particular the non-chronological and fractured narrative structure that cleverly accompanies the time-hopping subject matter.

Roger Luckhurst (2015) Zombies: a Cultural History

Probably the best book on zombies I’ve read – and I’ve read a few. It’s a bit too cultural studies for my liking in places, but it just about manages to stay on the right side of the Americanised academese threshold. Very interesting on the colonial roots of the zombie genre with particular relation to the US occupation of Haiti. The author also draws a compelling and what I think may be an original (I’ve not seen it before) connection between modern fascination with zombies and the cultural-psychological legacies of the Holocaust.

Ernest Mandel (1978) From Stalinism to Eurocommunism

The major thesis of Mandel’s survey of the the historical emergence and specific development of Eurocommunism in its major centres – Italy, Spain and to some extent France – is that it represents what Mandel terms (and which is the title of one of the initial chapters) ‘the bitter fruits of socialism in one country’.  The argument boils down to the claim that while Eurocommunism provided a sort of discourse that allowed western CPs to distance themselves ideologically and organisationally from Moscow, it also represented at a more fundamental level, the political culmination of the Stalinist promulgation of various ‘national roads to socialism’ and concomitant capitulation to parliamentary reformism. While there’s clearly a compelling line of continuity to be traced from Stalin’s foreign policy to the ideas of Carrillo et al it just seems to me that Mandel underplays the extent to which the turn to Eurocommunism was determined by a much more complex series of political impetuses – not least among these the emerging necessity for rooted, mass parties to adapt their strategy to the political realities of late 20th century liberal capitalism in western Europe. Might it not have been the case that at least some of the figures and forces behind the Eurocommunist turn really did believe that parliamentary liberal democracy provided institutions and social norms worth preserving? Further, might it not have been the case that they really did not believe that Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy – much less Bolshevik insurrectionism – retained any serious political currency in the West? But Mandel cannot admit that there might have been good reasons for the turn, or even that the turn might have been made in good faith by anyone.

Marianna Mazzucato (2014) The Entrepreneurial State

(Cheating slightly here – because I didn’t read this until early January 2017. Still, close enough). Clearly very painstakingly researched and provides more than enough evidence to illustrate its central argument – that contrary to the common sense of neoliberalism it is the state that has driven all major technological and pharmaceutical innovations over recent decades since it alone has the capacity to finance high risk investments for which the rewards, if they materialise at all, will only pay off over the long term. However, I can tell you that it’s one of those books where you really only need to read the blurb. There are a couple of interesting case studies on how Apple and the ‘clean energy’ sector are totally reliant on state subsidy and state development of technology but most of the book is spent endlessly filling out the same few key points again and again. The book, as a whole, is highly repetitive.

Kevin Ovenden (2015) Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth

I have to confess that I find the self-appointed sage of the British left extraordinarily annoying – nevertheless he has a book writing style much less irritating than that of his social media persona. It’s very readable, but it’s very much a journalistic account of Syriza’s first few months in office. There’s little theory in here (though, to be fair, Ovenden is quite clear about this and doesn’t claim otherwise). The lessons Ovenden draws at the end of the book are less doctrinaire and more open than I had expected, but there’s still a tendency here I think to claim a series of strategic leftist truisms for the specific insights of a vaguely defined ‘revolutionary left’. Exactly the same observations might have been drawn, for example, by a left reformist or Eurocommunist.

Michel Raptis (1980) Socialism, Democracy and Self-Management: Political Essays by Michel Raptis

The infamous ‘Pablo’ on… well pretty much what it says on the tin. Raptis really liked self-management and autogestion. He wrote several essays about how much he really liked it.

Derek Robinson (1971) Goshawk Squadron

Read this on recommendation after finding out a little bit about the extraordinary and tragic lives and deaths of two British WW1 fighter pilots, James McCudden and Edward Mannock. The (anti)hero of the book – Woolley – is a sort of amalgamation of the two. He’s a pretty (though amusingly) unpleasant man – or at least seems to be so until you begin to understand that his  abrasiveness is a way of dealing with the terrible weight of responsibility on his shoulders: trying to keep as many of the young men in his squadron alive under conditions where the average life expectancy of a new pilot was little more than a few days. Robinson says that he wrote the book to dispel the various myths of romantic, chivalrous combat among WW1 ‘cavalry of the clouds’. The reality of course was much more brutal and sordid than that and the book pulls no punches in its depiction of the terror and ugliness of World War One aerial dog fighting. The most effective pilots – like Woolley – took few unnecessary risks and concentrated simply on surviving from one engagement to another. They found that the best tactic was to sneak up behind their opponents and machine gun the pilot in his back before he realised he’d been intercepted. It really is a very good book.

Donald Sassoon (2010) One Hundred Years of Socialism

Again, a bit of a cheat as I read much of this in 2015. At 800 pages it’s a real beast and it took me a long time – and several long breaks – to get through it. It’s incredibly detailed, but even at 800 pages of course it is necessarily, overall, a whistle-stop tour of a century of history across the whole of Western Europe and there’s much that’s rather hurried. Additionally, there’s very little theory and it tends to be rather dry. Nevertheless one of the central critical points Sassoon makes (and brings out with historical illustrations over the course of the book) is that the socialist left has always been caught in a kind of double bind – an unbridgeable gap between, on the one hand, the immediate demands of the present and, on the other, the goal or ‘end state’ of socialism. The reformist and revolutionary poles of socialist thought (and Sassoon gives rather short shrift to the latter)  represent, effectively, mirrored forms of political bad faith – the reformist pole constantly deferring the end-goal to which it (for much of the 20th century at least) paid lip service, while the revolutionary pole remains faithful to a utopian future that, while perpetually imminent, like Godot, never arrives. I think he puts his finger on something here.

Carmen Sirianni (1982) Workers Control and Socialist Democracy

A detailed historical and theoretical analysis of institutional forms of popular power that emerged during the revolutionary period in Russia. It studiously avoids romanticism and the breezy sort of revolutionary mythos characteristic of most sympathetic accounts of soviet type institutions. Sirianni brings out, in particular, the indifference, if not explicit hostility, toward workers’ control of production among leading Bolsheviks – Lenin included. The institutional separation between soviets and factory committees was something new to me – I had always assumed they were the same thing. I recommend the book highly.

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2013) Inventing the Future

I didn’t think I was going to like this left accelerationist text at all, but found it really engaging and useful. The key argument pivots on ‘full automation’, but for me the most powerful part of the book is an unabashed defence of the necessity of a sort of muscular normative universalism among the radical left. I wrote a full review of the book here.

Erik Olin Wright (2010) Envisioning Real Utopias

Wright’s not necessarily the most stylish of writers, but what is striking is how lucid he is and also how honest and careful. No false certainties. When he’s not sure about something he says it. Dare I say it, you can see the influence of analytic philosophy here – both in the dryness of style but also in the impatience with sweeping generalisations and the eye for glossed over gaps and silences in the material he refuses to take for granted. I found Wright’s careful analysis of what he calls the ‘symbiotic’ strategy associated with post-war social democracy and his associated concept of ‘positive class compromise’ very useful.

John Wyndham (1955) The Kraken Wakes

Very much enjoyed re-reading Wyndham’s ‘The Kraken Wakes’ after 25 years. Something about the post-war world it depicts of very middle class decent chaps who say things like ‘Now look here…’ and ‘I dare say…’ makes me oddly nostalgic for a semi-mythical past I didn’t know.

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