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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Literature of the Left

The political left has produced countless classic works of analysis, memoir, and fiction…

Lately, a number of notes from Current Affairs readers have all asked me variations on the same question: What should I read to deepen my understanding of the “political left”? Some of these are from college students who are newly politicized and want to get a better grounding in the ideas. Some are from the more conservative members of our reading audience, who consider themselves open-minded and are on the cusp of being grudgingly persuaded that leftists do make one or two good points now and then. Many times, these readers ask me if there is “a book” they can read, something that will definitively sum up the case for the left.

There isn’t such a book, though. And that’s a good thing. At least when it comes to my own kind of leftism, which is in the libertarian socialist tradition, a core value is skepticism of those who peddle “definitive” anythings. A free-market conservative might tell you that everything is neatly summed up in Capitalism and Freedom, a Christian might give you a bible, and a Marxist could send you home with Capital. I’m skeptical of the whole “Great Books” notion, wherever it arises, because I generally think that while there are some Very Good Books, wisdom is to be found in many sources, and my own political views have developed just as much from reading people whose ideas I hate as people whose ideas I absorbed and adopted. To me, the most important part of being a leftist is not whether you have read the Grundrisse or not, but whether you are a curious, empathetic, advocate for humane egalitarian values. These values can be worked out with or without access to some canon of left literature, and there are people who have never read a page of political theory who have sounder politics than some of those who have spent entire careers reading and writing it. So while it would be tremendously helpful if I could hand people a single fat volume and say “Read this,” it’s a virtue rather than a defect of leftism that this volume doesn’t exist. (I also have a natural disinclination to recommend books because I have esoteric tastes that I don’t think others will share.)

Despite that windy series of caveats, I can tell people some books that I’ve found useful and encouraging. I do love books, my books are treasured friends and I rely heavily on their counsel. And on the left, we have a great written tradition that is often sadly forgotten. Here, then, are the books that did the most to develop my sensibilities and intellectual approach. I am not necessarily recommending them. I’m just telling you what they were.

You won’t be surprised to learn that first among them is Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power. Regular readers may weary of my perpetual invocations of Chomsky, but I actually think many of Chomsky’s books can be a bit of a slog, and because his approach is usually simply to describe the particular facts of some specific situation, it can be hard to see the underlying philosophical unity of his work. Understanding Power, which is based on conversations he had with ordinary people asking whatever questions came to mind, is rich with insight and is the best available introduction to his thinking.

I first became a “leftist” rather than a “liberal” when I was in college, through exposure to the classics of anarchist thought. When I discovered the writings of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, and Bookchin, it was a revelation. In anarchism, I saw a beautiful way of synthesizing the love of equality and the love of freedom. I had loathed capitalists because they talked incessantly about freedom while defending hierarchical societies with concentrated economic power. But I had also been suspicious of orthodox communism, because I didn’t see how it could ever avoid replacing concentrated economic power with concentrated state power. The anarchist philosophers were clear thinkers who understood that authoritarian socialism can never be authentic socialism, but capitalist liberty can never be authentic liberty either.

In particular, I enjoyed Peter Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, which elegantly lays out the socialist argument: In a world of abundance, there is no reason why everybody cannot be prosperous, free, and fulfilled. Alexander Berkman’s The ABCs of Anarchism was another helpful primer, describing socialist premises in clear language. Errico Malatesta’s At The Cafe does the same thing, but far more entertainingly: It’s written in the form of a series of contentious dialogues between three highly opinionated Italians in a coffee shop. Bakunin himself is useful mostly in aphorisms, having never produced an especially thorough long-form work, but Bakunin on Anarchism collects the fragments together.

Specific insights came from specific places. From P.J. Proudhon’s What Is Property, I realized that the theory of property “rights” is philosophically unsound. From Emma Goldman’s travelogue of Russia, I saw how the socialist dream, if not accompanied by a sincere love of freedom, can be perverted and twisted to produce dystopian ends. From Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You I developed a respect for the religious conscience of Christian anarchism, even as I continue to lack religious belief. From Berkman’s and Kropotkin’s memoirs, I came to admire the resilience and dedication of people imprisoned for daring to speak up against tyranny, inequality, and nonsense.

The other two specifically anarchist thinkers I learned much from were Rudolf Rocker and Murray Bookchin. Rocker’s Nationalism and Culture (which I’ve written about in my book Interesting Times) is a useful—if overlong—explanation of why nationalism is always destructive, and a good case for “universalist” thinking. Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism is a bit dated, but contains both an argument that properly-deployed technology can be liberating and a strong challenge (“Listen, Marxist!”) to certain left orthodoxies.

I’ve always liked “idiosyncratic” leftists whose ideas don’t necessarily fit with everybody else’s. (So among the Marxists, I like Rosa Luxemburg the most.) Independent-mindedness and a hatred of dogma is what drew me to George Orwell. I never cared for 1984 or Animal Farm, because I think they’re too obvious to be interesting, but I could reread Homage to Catalonia countless times. There’s a particular passage in there, where Orwell describes revolutionary Barcelona in 1936 and says he knew it was a vision of a world worth fighting for, that is makes a better case for left political commitments than any number of volumes of economic theory. Orwell also makes a strong case for the fundamental reasonableness of socialism in The Road to Wigan Pier, though it contains a few needless swipes at vegetarians and “fruit-juice drinkers.” Down and Out In Paris And London was important in opening my eyes to the contempt societies can have for the destitute, and his essays are inevitably both stimulating and infuriating. Orwell is a complicated and sometimes distasteful figure (at the end of his life, when he was bedridden with tuberculosis, he gave a list of communists to the UK government), but he wrote more crisp, thoughtful nonfiction than almost anyone else in the history of the language. (I could take or leave the fiction.)

I’ve picked up other scraps here and there. That same rejection of orthodoxy drew me strongly to Albert Camus, and reading The Myth of Sisyphus is a good way to find comfort in hopeless times. His Resistance, Rebellion, and Death and The Rebel are also powerful tributes to the importance of being a dissident. Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism was important in showing me how “individualism” could be reconciled with socialism, though I reject its silly ideas about charity. A bizarre little book called Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life was oddly inspiring to me when I was 19, because it offered bold thinking about how cities could be transformed. Likewise the totally impractical but nevertheless attractive writings of Buckminster Fuller, like Utopia or Oblivion and Critical Path. (I never read his more well-known Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.) I also remember thinking that Lewis Mumford’s social and architectural commentary was very wise, and though now I couldn’t tell you anything he said, I am sure some of his words made their way into the soup of my ideas.

The architect Christopher Alexander produced what is, to me, the most important work on the way left politics can be applied to solve planning and design problems. Alexander, who has sparred with mainstream architects over the years, has written some truly beautiful books including The Timeless Way of Building, A Pattern Language, and The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the EarthThey show the common elements to good, humanistic design across civilizations, and provide a practical and visionary means of resisting what I’ve called “neoliberalist architecture.” In his 4-volume The Nature of Order, Alexander offers a contentious but highly appealing theory of how order is created in nature and how to make our buildings and communities harmonious with the natural world. 

At specific moments in my life, certain books became especially important. When I was in law school, I found Duncan Kennedy’s Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy a great source of comfort, since it told me that my professors were largely full of crap and explained the precise way that the profession of law replicates social inequality. (I’ve since found an even better book, Fred Rodell’s long out-of-print Woe Unto You, Lawyers! And Clarence Darrow’s Attorney For the Damned showed me the kind of lawyer I wanted to be, until I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer at all.) Similarly, when I started a sociology graduate program, I found pleasure in a book called What’s Wrong With Sociology?

You’ll see that my general tendency here toward “theory.” If I were making recommendations to others, I would actually suggest being less theoretically-inclined than I am, and reading far more about the history of left social movements: why they came about, what they were fighting for, what they left undone. It’s one of my great shames that I never read more history in school, but I am trying to make up for it, and I find it nourishing and encouraging to examine the struggles for dignity and justice waged by people across time. I also think it’s hard to understand the place and time we live in without having examined the forces that made it, and reading histories of slavery and Reconstruction is essential to understanding race. (I did not know until just this year that there were once about a dozen slave auction houses within a few blocks of where I currently live.) Ibram Kendi’s award-winning history of racist ideas is a good way of understanding just how racist American history has been. (Quite racist.) 

I am currently trying to better familiarize myself with labor history through books like There Is Power In A Union and From The Folks Who Brought You The Weekend. Erik Loomis’ upcoming labor history book looks excellent too. A lot of people familiarize themselves with left history through Howard Zinn’s People’s History, but I’ve been far more captivated by the accompanying volume Voices of a People’s History, which collects primary documents, like speeches, tracts, and diary entries, from the people who actually lived the lives and fought the fights. I think primary sources are actually the best way to read history, and the political tracts of Thomas Paine and Eugene Debs are good at showing that injustices were never natural or inevitable, that there were people at the time who were calling them out just as strongly as we would today.

I’ve always been a “utopian” at heart, and the history of utopian literature is rich and filled with delights. Charles Fourier always charmed me, even though his visions were ridiculous, and he believed someday the seas would turn to lemonade and lions would become “anti-lions.” My favorite has always been William Morris’ News From Nowhere, which shows a world in which people make beautiful things and give them to one another freely. I know that Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is the classic utopian novel, and sold millions of copies, but I only skimmed it when they assigned it in college. In the late 19th century, there were dozens and dozens of utopian works, many inspired by Bellamy, that tried to work out how a better future society could be organized. So many of these have disappeared, and in the “there is no alternative” era we forget just how willing a previous generation was to contemplate fantastical visions of social change. I’ve just come across a fascinating book called Merrie England by Robert Blatchford, an English socialist who responds to many of the same arguments we hear today, about how capitalists make the world go round and inequality is necessary. Apparently it was so popular in England at the time that “for every one convert to socialism made by Karl Marx’s Das Kapital there were a hundred converts made by Merrie England.”

If the utopians are forgotten these days, the feminist utopians are even more neglected. The University of Pennsylvania hosts a list of utopias and science fiction written by women before 1950, and it’s seemingly endless. In deeply repressive times, these women dared to imagine radically different kinds of worlds, many of which reversed or eliminated gender roles. In 1880’s Mizora: A World of Women Mary Lane imagines what would happen if men ceased to exist, while in Annie Cridge’s Man’s Rights, published in 1870, a society is pictured in which men wear elaborate floral dress and are told they must grow up to be housekeepers for their wives. Some of these writings, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, have received continued attention, but most are today out of print and difficult to find. The later 20th century also saw other brilliant feminist utopian writing, such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Ursula LeGuin’s anarchistic The Dispossessed (LeGuin says her only regret is that she forgot to put a communal pickle-barrel in the novel).

In fact, you’ll notice that most of the books I have cited have been by white men. I am not proud of that; you can’t learn very much about the world if you only read the words of one type of person. But these are the books I happened to encounter early on, and I am honestly relating the effect they had on me. My intellectual universe was significantly expanded when I started making a conscious effort to add more books by women and people of color to my reading diet. These included works of feminist theory like The Second Sex and The Female Eunuch, and the revelatory essays of James Baldwin, which are among the finest pieces of writing in the language. But they also included autobiography, fiction, and history. Some important memoirs for me were Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, Rigoberta Menchú, and Malcom X’s. A volume of Martin Luther King’s speeches and writings showed me the real King, the one that usually gets flattened and sanitized into “I Have a Dream.” I also love the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Note that this is a different book from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which is the one everyone gets assigned in school. Douglass wrote that one when he was a young man, soon after escaping slavery, and it is a brief overview of his bondage and liberation. The Life and Times was written when Douglass was an older man, and contains much more of his life, including his campaigns for racial equality, his activity during the Civil War, and his acquaintanceship with Abraham Lincoln. I have found it helpful to read personal accounts by people I admire, because there are many good lessons to be gleaned from hearing about someone’s intellectual growth and their navigation of problems and frustrations. The memoirs of Victor Serge, who led one of the most interesting revolutionary lives of the 20th century, are a personal favorite. And it’s a shame so few people read Geronimo’s memoir these days.  

I am not a great reader of fiction, but that’s because of my limits as a reader rather than because of some principle. I’ve only ever connected with two explicitly “political” novels, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Ignacio Silone’s Bread and Wine. But I’ve picked up bits and pieces elsewhere in fiction, from Douglas Adams to Franz Kafka, as well as in the writings of Eduardo Galeano, whose books like Mirrors and Memory of Fire sit somewhere between fiction and history and are poignant looks at the diversity and similarity of human experiences across time. My two favorite novels, both of which have some “leftist” underlying sensibilities, are Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk and Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. Hasek’s novel is a satisfying romp through the absurdities of war starring a lazy, garrulous dog-thief who irritates all his superiors, while the Sirens of Titan contains the beautiful line “a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

You may also have noticed that I tend to read “old” things. This is not because I’m a crabby “golden age” type who things nothing good is written anymore. It’s mostly because I think human problems and thoughts are often the same across the ages, and I like reading about how people have worked through the same problems in their own time. Reading these old texts also makes you feel proud, as if you’re grounded in a tradition and are trying to keep a legacy alive. Most of these old writers had serious shortcomings (Proudhon was anti-Semitic, Kropotkin supported World War I, and the feminist utopians were, like so many progressives of the time, disconcertingly fascinated by eugenics). But, in all their flaws, they can still offer us a place to start, and ideas to build from and improve upon.

There are certainly contemporary left writers who are well worth reading. Everything put out by Barbara Ehrenreich or Thomas Frank is usually sensible, jargon-free, and fun. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is urgent and essential. Naomi Klein occasionally overstates her case, but she’s more right than nearly anyone else. David Graeber, frustrating as he occasionally is (I disagree with him strongly on the political utility of puppets), has produced a brilliant work in Bullshit Jobs that shatters the idea that capitalism is “efficient.” (If I wanted a few books to show someone why free market economists are delusional, I’d give them Yanis Varoufakis’ Foundations of Economics and Talking to My Daughter About The Economy, Doug Henwood’s Wall Street, and Rob Larson’s Capitalism vs. Freedom. Alternatively, I could just take them to meet a homeless person.) Gar Alperovitz’ America Beyond Capitalism is a good start in making a different economic system seem plausible.

The world is full of incredible books. One of the reasons I so resent mortality is that it means I am physically prevented from reading everything I’d like to read. I’ve only cited the books here that have informed my general “leftism,” but there are many more that are useful on specific issues. If I wanted an overview of socialist thinking and practice, I’d pick Michael Harrington’s Socialism. If I wanted a history of anarchism, I’d take Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible off the shelf. If I wanted to learn about criminal justice, I’d turn to Bryan Stevenson, James Forman, and Michelle Alexander. If I wanted to become better educated on trans issues, I’d read biologist Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. If I wanted to learn how to respond to Charles Murray, I’d take James Flynn’s How To Defend Humane Ideals. If I wanted to write about how socialist egalitarian philosophy differs from and responds to the liberalism of John Rawls, I’d pick up G.A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality. (Since I am rarely inclined to write about that, I do not often pick up Rescuing Justice and Equality.)

I’ve also learned plenty from non-leftist sources, even from arguing with the works of Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand. Personally I spend more time reading conservatives these days than reading leftists, because I am trying to understand how their arguments work and why their rhetoric is persuasive. Oh, and once we get beyond political things entirely, there’s even more to cover. There is plenty of “political” insight to be found in totally non-political works, even reality television, and I’ve learned a good deal about the American workplace from watching Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and Undercover Boss. My favorite writers aren’t really political at all, or at least I don’t like them for reasons having to do with their politics. P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Parker, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov have all taught me to use words more precisely and effectively. But there really is just so much to read and so little time; I’ve recently been told that both Edith Wharton and Dawn Powell are brilliant and unjustly neglected, when am I going to read them?

And I should say: I’ve cited a lot of books here, but that’s because I want to show the richness of left writing. I’m not snobby about books, I don’t think there’s anything people “have” to have read, and the gaps in my own knowledge are absolutely vast. I’d never read a page of Dostoevsky until about six months ago (now I’ve read about four pages), and plenty of times I drift away from a book once I have gotten the central point. A lot of people say they’ve “read” things they’ve merely browsed, and I’m no different. I see no problem with that. Emma Goldman’s autobiography is 900 pages long. I read the interesting bits, okay? I enjoy books, but if there’s one thing I hate, it’s book snobbery.

I realize that I have not done much to help the readers who asked me for a book suggestion. My own political views have been formed over time, from experience, based on scraps from here, there, and everywhere, and I think that’s probably how everybody’s should arise. But at least I can make note of some works I’ve found that have been lost or neglected, and pay tribute to the writers who have helped me work out my own eccentric little sub-strand of “leftism.” There is no single Literature of the Left, but I can give you my own personal literature of the left, and the books that have cleared up the world for me and helped me find my purpose.

The books mentioned in this essay have been compiled into a helpful Goodreads list by a reader.

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