Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

My favourite books
Phoebe Watkins
Phoebe Watkins is a union activist who led the fight against the poll tax in Camden and was threatened with imprisonment for refusing to pay

Phoebe Watkins is a union activist who led the fight against the poll tax in Camden and was threatened with imprisonment for refusing to pay

The first book I remember having a profound effect on me was Soledad Brother--The Prison Letters of George Jackson. This book opened up the utter brutality of a system prepared to do anything to rid itself of a conscious revolutionary, and it was the first book to make me angry. I read it 20 years ago but the LA riots in 1992 brought back the reality of a system that guarantees nothing for young black men but prison and early death.

The book charts the political development of George Jackson who, with many, found his politics made him a target for the US state machine. For being caught with two others robbing $70 he was imprisoned for life at 18. He served ten years--seven in solitary. He was then charged with murdering a guard and the sentence changed to a mandatory death penalty. He was finally shot during a riot in 1971. His letters are full of the idea that revolution was possible in a very positive sense.

Germinal by Emile Zola had a big effect on me. Written in 1885, Zola spent six months in the northern mining areas of France and Belgium to get a feel of what life was like in the mining industry. Its vivid account of a bitter strike and its effects on the whole community is as brilliant as it is horrific, and again shows the lengths to which this system will go to defend its interests.

As with many socialists, I read John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath which inspired me to read In Dubious Battle, which was written three years earlier in 1936. It is about the same vicious exploitation of migrant labour but from the view point of union organisers. Both books are a powerful antidote to the glossed over 'Waltons' view of the 1930s in the US.

I used to avoid reading political writings, assuming they would be difficult. Reading Lenin's State and Revolution changed that. It confirms why reforming the system cannot win and why you need revolution.

Two other books I always avoided reading were John Reed's Ten Days That Shook The World and George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. I regret the time I wasted avoiding them. John Reed's account of October 1917 and Orwell's account of Spain 1936 are brilliant as first hand experiences of history turning corners.

Luckily I did not hesitate to read the recently republished The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge. Although written as a novel, it could not be read as anything less than an accurate account of how individuals dealt with Stalin's purges and show trials.

I was very confused when the former Yugoslavia became the scene for some of the bloodiest nationalist fighting since the Second World War. Although the war has moved on since 1992, when I read Misha Glenny's The Fall of Yugoslavia, the book gave me an invaluable background to why it was happening. The book concludes that UN intervention is necessary although it seems to run contrary to the rest of the book and should quite easily be ignored!

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondagtje is a beautifully written novel, described on its cover as 'a poem to workers and lovers', which I couldn't put better. It has many threads and layers set against the background of the mass immigration that built modern Canada.

Another novel I cannot leave out is Toni Morrison's Beloved. While you marvel at the written word, the unfolding of the book is a horrifying account of the legacy of slavery. You want to stop reading but you can't.

Finally a book with less than 100 pages but one of the most powerful is The Ghetto Fights by Marek Edelmanan--an account of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Fightback by the Jewish resistance. It is all the more powerful today where the spectre of Nazism still lingers and we still have to fight against those who say we should ignore their rise.


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