Issue 172 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
My favourite books
|Jim Allen is a socialist author and playwright. He wrote the screenplay for the film Raining Stones|
I was raised a Catholic in a Manchester slum where the priests stole my mind. Like everyone else in our parish, my parents voted Labour because it was the poor man's movement but socialism had no part in my growing up period. When I started labouring work in a factory at 13 years of age, all I had to believe in was the Church. Fortunately, because I was semi-illiterate, there were no intellectual roots to my Catholicism; it was a belief based upon fear, superstition and ignorance, and was ready to be uprooted by any man or woman who could show me an alternative.
I was 21 before I read my first book, much of which I couldn't understand. It was Jack London's The Iron Heel, given to me in a Scottish prison by a man serving life for murder. With the help of a dictionary, I sat in my cell stumbling through passages which he would later explain and discuss with me. Years after I was to read Trotsky's evaluation of this remarkable book:
'In reading it, one does not believe his own eyes: it is precisely the picture of fascism, of its economy, of its governmental technique, its political psychology! The fact is incontestable: in 1907 Jack London already foresaw and described the fascist regime as the inevitable result of the defeat of the proletarian revolution... We cannot help inclining before the powerful intuition of the revolutionary artist.'
So put this down as my first favourite book. I did not at the time understand all its implications, but The Iron Heel provided me with a map and compass that eventually led me into the labour movement and the battle for socialism. If we can compare books with rungs in a ladder, then The Iron Heel was the first rung in a ladder that took me out of the abyss, and I'm still climbing.
Add Mother Jones to my list. The autobiography of a remarkable woman who spent her life fighting tyranny, oppression and murder in the ranks of the American working class, and who, at 91, joined the Farmer-Labour Party. An inspiring book.
B Traven's 'jungle' books. I go back to them often. Traven, who also wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, deals with the brutal treatment of the peons in rural Mexico, and the political corruption of government. They make for timely reading today, when the peasant Zapatista Army of National Liberation has again risen with the cry of Land and Liberty. Read Traven and understand why.
Before and after internment in Ireland I visited Derry and Belfast to research a script on the tan war, partition and the civil war that followed. It was my belief then, and still is today, that to understand what is happening in Northern Ireland you have to go back to the origins of the conflict. The film was never made, but the books I turned over are essential reading.
The Writings ofJames Connolly are of course compulsory, but include also the memoirs of Ernie O'Malley: On Another Man's Wound and The Singing Flame. They cover the period from the Easter Rising in 1916, when he was a medical student in Dublin, to the civil war in 1922, when O'Malley became the IRA Assistant Chief of Staff in its struggle against the Free Staters. Wrote Sean O'Casey: 'Many things have been written round the war between the English forces and the Irish Republican Army, the best of them being, I think, On Another Man's Wound, by Ernie O'Malley.'
Another book which made my task easier was Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution by Desmond Greaves. This paints a fuller, more historical picture, and offers a blow by blow account of negotiations between the Irish delegation and the British cabinet led by Lloyd George and Churchill--talks that led to the signing of the Treaty. Greaves describes how, when the 'rebels'--including O'Malley--occupied the Four courts in Dublin, Churchill loaned Michael Collins weapons to drive them out. Far superior to the overrated Green Flag by Robert Kee, Greaves writes from a socialist viewpoint.
With the re-emergence of fascism, another book I turn to is Trotsky's The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany. Isaac Deutscher in The Prophet Outcast claimed that Trotsky's attempt to warn the working class of the danger of fascism was 'his greatest political deed in exile'. Here all his writings on the subject are collected in one volume. In my opinion, it is as vital to read it today as it was then. I urge you to buy it.
Among my old favourites are Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert TresselL Covering more or less the same ground, In Dubious Battle is I think, better than The Grapes of Wrath. It's about two Communist organisers who organise a strike among the fruit pickers. Although the weaknesses are there which led him to abandon his early radicalism and finish up supporting the war in Vietnam, I have an affection for this book which I first read when I too was a labour organiser.
I can add little to what Winston Silcott said about Tressell's classic. It's 27 years since I wrote The Lump, a play about non-union sub-contracting gangs in the building industry, and the conditions the men were forced to work under. When I worked in the building trade in the 1950s and 1960s, although most union officials were 'bent', rank and file organisation on the job existed through the unions, and we were strong enough to fight back. Today the Lump is everywhere, the unions behave like employers' protective associations, and the bosses are free to impose their will.
I would also include Shelley, Gorky, Byron, Whitman, Rosa Luxemburg and many more writers who have influenced my life, but I have not the space to elaborate further.