With the end of 2018 approaching, the editors of History Workshop Online and History Workshop Journal name their favourite radical reads of the past twelve months – the books (published this year or earlier) that most deeply challenged us, inspired us, expanded our horizons, and made us think.
Anna Burns’s Booker Prize winning novel Milkman is a terrifying account of living inside a community whose rule of law is paramilitary, whose moral compass is cut with rumour and gossip, and whose individuals are driven by fear, terror, love and ‘misperceptions’. Featuring a wonderful heroine whose crime against community is to walk while reading a book, the book offers brilliant insights into how an historical conflict reaching back 800 years or more is lived – unconsciously.
With HWO this summer dedicating a month to remembering 1968 fifty years on, 2018 was a good year to revisit Jeff Nuttall’s 1968 Bomb Culture, a classic text of British counterculture, half a century out of press. While the sixties are often remembered now as time of euphoria, flower power and sexual liberation, Nuttall’s book paints a far darker and more ambivalent picture of a period characterised as much by paranoia, fear and violence as peace and love. The anarchic culture of those growing up in the aftermath of the Second World War, Nuttall argued (he was born in 1933), was best understood as the irrational, orgiastic acting-out of a generation doomed against their will to nuclear annihilation. Seemingly abandoned by their parents and political leaders – who, having lived through the horrors of Auschwitz, now seemed determined to oversee catastrophe on an even greater scale – Nuttall’s contemporaries, he lamented, had also been deserted by an anti-nuclear left which had by the early sixties exchanged radicalism for respectability, and infighting for effective action.
An associate of such countercultural luminaries as Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs and R. D. Laing, and himself a key figure in the British underground – involved in establishing the influential International Times – Nuttall held some ideas (his gender politics in particular) that today make his book uncomfortable reading for the wrong reasons. As a document of the time, however, Bomb Culture – at once polemical and politically open-ended, and simultaneously hyberbolic and nuanced in its explorations of mass psychology – stands as an important corrective to much that has since been written about the sixties. Moreover, in an era in which nuclear threat has become normalised to such an extent that a Question Time audience can lambast the leader of the opposition for refusing to carry out a first strike, Nuttall’s text evokes a collective horror, visceral and immediate, that has too easily been forgotten
Michelle Paver’s Spirit Walker (2007), along with any of her six volumes of ‘Chronicles of Ancient Darkness’, is an evocation of clan society after the last Ice Age. For younger readers but I find them absolutely absorbing. Andrew Whitehead’s Curious Kings Cross (2018) reimagines radical history as brief guidebook essays, with a strong political understanding of local history and brilliant photographs. I also loved Marcus Rediker’s The Fearless Benjamin Lay: the Quaker Dwarf who became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (2017).
Emma Griffin, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution (2013), looks at the impacts of industrialisation told through the autobiographies and diaries of the developing working class. Griffin focuses on the ‘patches of sunlight’, seeing industrialisation as key to the development of working-class education, personal freedom and selfhood.
Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help (2015) is a deeply unsettling exploration of extreme altruists – individuals whose social and ethical commitments lead them to journey well past conventional self-sacrifice into the realm of self-sabotage and masochism. Intertwined with those contemporary portraits is a provocative history of the twists and turns of Western attitudes toward altruistic behaviour, the suspicions and pathologies that have gradually attached themselves to the practice of “doing good”. Lyrical, probing, and compulsively readable, MacFarquhar’s book is nonfictional storytelling at its best.
Alpa Shah’s Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerillas (2018) is a subtle and moving portrait by an anthropologist who lived with Indian guerillas (sometimes described as Maoists) in Jharkhand, including completing a 250 km trek disguised as a soldier. It combines powerful first-hand description – as gripping as any novel – with analysis which understands the rebel’s motivations and backgrounds without ever falling into simplistic political binaries, as much of the discourse around this movement has tended to do.
“They were men, and free. I was a woman, and a slave. And that’s a chasm no amount of sentimental chit-chat about shared imprisonment should be allowed to obscure.” I read Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (2018),a visceral feminist take on the events of the Iliad, as Christine Blasey Ford gave testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a year when the initial energy of the #MeToo movement has threatened to lapse into despair as the Brett Kavanaughs of the world shake off credible allegations while the women who accuse them suffer the social and career consequences, Barker’s novel is a vital cry to be heard. Briseis, Achilles’ trophy and slave, impatiently shrugs off the heroic narrative of the Trojan War and insists: ‘We need a new song’. This novel offers one: where Homer’s heroes are rapists and thugs and where women are chattels. But it is not a song without hope; Briseis outlives her captors. Survival can be a radical act.
Not quite a 2018 favourite because I haven’t got a copy yet, but I am hoping that before the end of the year I will have my hands on Julius S. Scott’s The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (2018), which Verso have just brought out with an introduction by Marcus Rediker. I’m one of the many historians who read this as a PhD dissertation (1986, Duke University) and couldn’t believe it had never been published as a book. It’s full of wonderful archival snippets that together build a story of how revolutionary ideas and people travelled together around the revolutionary Caribbean—history from below in the best sense. It will be a treat to go back to it.
Renni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People about Race (2017) is a passionate, analytically sharp and timely discussion of racism that is essential reading. So much discussion about race is unhelpful because it actually obscures racism, even from those opposed to it. This book provides an exquisitely unapologetic account of why we need to do better.
Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants (2018) is an explosive book, showing how pervasive caste is in the very constitution of modern India. Set in the southern state of Andhra, the book is a history of three generations of Gidla’s family, focusing especially on her uncle K.G. Satyamurthi, a communist leader who broke with the Communist Party of India due to their failure to address caste, both as a social phenomenon and within the party. Moving from Satyamurthi to her mother Manjula, and finally to her own journey to the United States, Gidla unsentimentally chronicles the meanings of being born ‘untouchable’ in India. At a time when right-wing and liberal voices either denying caste or perpetrating caste violence are amplified worldwide, Gidla’s book serves as a sharp rebuttal. It shows how the multi-headed hydra of caste is here to stay and can only be combatted through radical writing and practice.
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (201) is a book that I have returned to repeatedly. Weaving memoir with philosophy, Nelson triangulates queer family making, radical intimacy and gender fluidity, while exploring the possibilities and limitations of language.
In the year of Ursula K. le Guin’s death, I have also thought again about her brilliant science fiction novel The Dispossessed (1975) – an exploration of the relationship between utopia and dystopia, with parts that read like an early modern discourse, unpacking political philosophy through dialogue. Like Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, it poses questions that have only become more pressing.
If you fancy snuggling up over the holiday period with something unexpectedly inviting, you could always give an unknown Russian novel published in 1870 a go, recently published in English for the first time for an age. This is M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The History of a Town. It is magical realism avant le letter, dissecting the dynamics of Russian absolutism – which also provides a direct route into subsequent developments: Stalinism & Putinism. It is very funny (in a dark manner, obvs) and also extraordinarily prescient. It was published in 2018 by Head of Zeus and can be yours for a tenner. Go for it!
My choice is Samuel Bowles, The Moral Economy (2016). An economist by training (Harvard PhD) and by profession (Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Massachusetts and Università degli Studi di Siena), Bowles nonetheless rejects the assumption—fundamental to mainstream economics—that human individuals innately work to maximize their own gain. (In the words of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”) Based on anthropological studies and experiments in behavioural economics, Bowles shows that initiatives meant to “incentivize” desired behaviours often have the opposite effects. He suggests that if we behave as self-serving and greedy, it is in part because experts expect us to do so. If instead they described the world as made up of moral, caring, generous individuals, and then planned for such a world, one would in fact come closer to existing.
Lisa Guenther’s Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives (2013) is a devastating critique of solitary confinement in the US as a form of social death. An excellent book from which I learned much.
This year I finally got round to reading Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-first Century. Its examination of just how hard it has been, historically, to bring income inequality under control makes for a sobering read.
The title didn’t do much for me, but the book itself did – Anam Zakaria’s Between the Great Divide: a journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir (2018) is both wonderfully readable and hugely revealing. Zakaria is a Lahore-based journalist and writer who – with a touch of mock innocence – travelled around the part of Kashmir under Pakistan’s control, a region which gets very little attention, asking questions and listening carefully to the answers. So we hear from women who were abducted two generations ago … separatists who have lost sight of the cause they are striving for … families blighted by living alongside what should be a ceasefire line … military men admitting candidly all the wrong turns the army has made … and suffusing it all, a compassionate but lightly-worn awareness of how Kashmir’s troubled past continues to haunt the present.
Among novels, I was completely engrossed by Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi, or the story of a black goat (published in Chennai by Context), marvellously translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman. This tells the story of a scrawny little kid goat, given to an elderly couple by a passing stranger, which just about survives amid an arid, drought-prone countryside. It’s a biting allegory about caste and marginalisation – and an entirely absorbing read.