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From Bah Humbug to Oh Jeremy Corbyn – the best political books of 2017

Never mind miserabilism - this Christmas Mark Perryman discovers plenty of books full of reasons to be cheerful.

lead Image: The Corbyn Comic Book

Trump, North Korea, sexual harassment, Grenfell, a weak and wobbly government shored up by a coalition of hell with the DUP. Much about 2017 seemed pretty bleak. 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.

Labour…and beyond

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 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 movement rather than party. The question is whether - without the leverage of a well-organised left within the Labour party, yet open to the movements Chris describes – the change can be effected. John Medhurst’s That Option No Other Exists since it was published in 2014 has become the definitive account of both these necessities – and of their limitations.

Perhaps the best way of combining both party and movement options, in other words in, but not restricted by, Labour, is the popularising of radical ideas. And there’s 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 its 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, 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.

Bigger ambitions

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, a view of the economic terrain on which Labour would seek to govern for the many, and all that. 

To come anywhere close to fulfilling that ambition will require reinventing what we mean by the collective, aka ‘the many’. It’s a process made a tad easier by 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. And the collection Beautiful Rising showcases this process on a global scale with one inspiring example after another.

One domestic example 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.  

Trump & Brexit…

None of this pales into insignificance, of course, compared to the sheer horror show of Trump’s Presidential reign - but the sheer awfulness of him 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. 

Back in Britain the next General Election, barring a major miracle, will 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 and openDemocracy founder Anthony Barnett gets away from the liberals’ blame game to explain the reasons 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 ‘uck up is Boris Johnson. 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 as London Mayor Nincompoopolis

Memoir and culture

More ways out of this mess are offered by Harry Leslie Smith’s powerfully written Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future, which continues this ninetysomething author’s call to arms (of the metaphorical variety) with a passion and poignancy still all too rare in our body politic. Stuart Maconie revisits that past which framed Harry’s lifetime of views with his Long Road from Jarrow, an imaginative tracing of the 1936 Jarrow March, then and now.

Or for a very different take on how the legacy of yesteryear’s politics shapes the politics of today and tomorrow try the innovative, and very challenging approach of Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left where author Ian Parker offers a redefinition of the vocabulary of change, A-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 combine the two was David Widgery, a selection of whose writings have been re-issued with the great title 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 the indivisible connection of politics and culture remains Stuart Hall, so it’s hugely welcome that following other recent collections of Stuart’s work a new selection of his lectures on race, ethnicity and nation has been published as 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.’

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 a London East End, Jewish Communist household the book combines sublimely rich humour and a sharp politics.

Corbynism hasn’t quite yet successfully fused radical politics with popular culture. An example of just how huge a part of the necessary struggle this is, is retold by Rich 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.

Beyond 1917…

The Left has a bit of a thing about its own history, in particular communist history. Too often trapped by the past, instead the inclination should be to be liberated by it, via an exploration of what became possible and what proved to be impossible. The ideal journal to accompany such an endeavour is Twentieth Century Communism whose latest edition uses the 1917 Centenary to revisit the differing politics of previous commemorations, testament to the journal’s unpredictable breadth and insightful depth.

A very different approach is taken by a long-time supporter of Philosophy Football Pete Ayrton with Revolution! – a revealing collection of original writing from those Ten Days that shook the proverbial one hundred years ago, and available as an exclusive signed first edition from here.

Easily the most challenging account of 1917 is provided by John Medhurst’s No Less Than Mystic. His deconstruction of the history is both scathing of the errors yet incontrovertibly hopeful about the unfulfilled potential. 

Any account of the Communist tradition has to be about more than just 1917. Another special edition from Twentieth Century Communism Weimar Communism details the extraordinary rise of the most powerful Communist Party outside of Revolutionary Russia, 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-ear years, 1919-1939. Of course the period since 1945, and again since ’89, have convulsed whatever remained of 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 what remains alive, if not always kicking.

The second volume edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley on the British Far Left 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 but for all that kept on, keeping on, a persistence which isn’t all bad, or all good either, and this collection helps us to understand why.

Poetry

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.

And there are plenty more from where Michael is coming from. The Bread and Roses 2017 Poetry Anthology On Fighting On! Brings together a selection of some of the many wordsmiths working on the poetry front.

Children

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.

And lastly the two must-have stocking fillers…

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 the political book of the seasonal quarter? After the year we’ve had combined with a passion for mixing politics, popular culture and humour there was only ever one contender. The incredibly original, with a vast range of wonderful artists contributing, The Corbyn Comic Book funny, touching, meaningful. 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.

About the author

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. He has edited numerous books on the politics of the Left, including The Corbyn Effect, and his new book Corbynism from Below will be published by Lawrence and Wishart in September 2019.

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