We asked rs21 members what they’ve been reading in 2021, whether new works of revolutionary theory, fiction, or old classics. These were some of the examples our members had.
James B – Psychoanalysis and Revolution (2021)
Pyschoanalysis and Revolution argues for the relevancy of psychoanalysis as a tool for those of us involved in liberatory politics. Central to this is the idea that our unconscious is both internal and external to us, is determined by history, culture, ideology and economics, and that the ways in which we are divided from each other by those factors is reflected within it. We are ‘divided subjects’. As the authors write, “alienation in capitalism produces ‘inner’ conflicts that can be invisible as such, but which are known for their effects, for what they cause or motivate in people, such as their inexplicable suffering, the derangement of their lives, their absurd decisions or their erratic actions, sometimes destructive or self-destructive.” (p.12).
Therefore, Parker and Pavón-Cuéllar argue, psychoanalysis can provide a way to strengthen revolutionary movements by allowing us to see our hidden faults and failings, and avoid the unwitting repetition of past mistakes. In this way the unconscious becomes a weapon in our struggle. The middle section of the book is concerned with discussing how the psychoanalytical concepts of repetition, drive and transference can be related to this end.
The authors go further though, and argue that it is only through an engagement with liberatory politics that psychoanalysis can be truly practised. What they refer to as the “impossibility of psychoanalysis” (p.132) is, firstly, the result of the domination of the ‘mental health industry’ by the so-called psy professions of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy. These all aim at adaptation to or replication of the status quo. Secondly, because psychoanalysis itself, in its mainstream form, is both prohibitively expensive to undertake and its conceptual framework is saturated with the ideology (‘the dark pit of the unconscious’, ‘the primacy of the ego’) of capitalist society.
This short book is not a primer on radical psychoanalysis and one of its main threads is aimed at clinical practitioners, yet I came away having been challenged and wanting to know more. It contains a useful guide to further reading which I’ll be delving into.
Matthew C – The City We Became (2020)
N.K. Jemisin weaves a thrilling modern urban fantasy from the proposition that the world’s great cities are alive in her latest novel, The City We Became.
New York is born – due to the weight of its history, population and sheer vibrancy – and comes to consciousness in the form of six human avatars. They represent its five boroughs and the city itself, as well as the diverse population that makes up New York. However, the birth threatens a strange, eldritch ‘Enemy’ that is organising to ensure the city is defeated.
This Enemy appears in many different forms, including gentrifiers and other monsters. The avatars need to unite to save the spirit of the multi-ethnic, sentient mega-city from the threat. While using HP Lovecraft’s concepts, Jemisin also ensures that she targets the notoriously racist worldview of their creator.
This is the first volume of Jemisin’s The Great Cities trilogy, which, if her previous series of books such as The Broken Earth trilogy are anything to go by, will continue to surprise and excite readers.
Charlie H – Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age (2021) and others
One of the highlights of the year for me was the long-awaited Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age, edited by Colin Barker, Gareth Dale and Neil Davidson. It’s a collection of rich and diverse accounts of modern revolutions and revolutionary movements from Eastern Europe, Latin America, Egypt and elsewhere. The essays illustrate both the power and imagination that characterise revolutions, as well as the barriers that prevented them from going beyond capitalism. It’s an excellent reminder of the ‘actuality of revolution’, as well as a fitting memorial to two comrades whose loss is still keenly felt.
Dinny McMahon’s China’s Great Wall of Debt is from 2018, so the numbers are out of date, but its analysis still holds. It’s an accessible journalistic account of China’s debt problems, which neatly balances the eye-watering numbers against a clear account of how and why China’s ruling class have so far managed to avoid a financial melt-down. But McMahon also illustrates their lack of options for overcoming the issues, and shows how each temporary solution increases the stresses on other parts of the system.
Retiring earlier this year has given me much more time to read and re-read, and I’ve particularly enjoyed rediscovering Ursula Le Guin’s short stories – sharp, inventive and beautifully written. She was always keen to challenge received notions of what science fiction should be, and to break the boundaries between different genres. The two best collections are The Wind’s Twelve Quarters & The Compass Rose and Orsinia. Many of the stories are also available online, including the beautifully poignant ‘The Day Before the Revolution’.
Amy McG – Racism as Zoological Witchcraft (2019)
This short, critical non-fiction text sets out the arguments for Black-veganism, and might just be the best book you’ll read in a while. Aph Ko demonstrates the linkages between anti-Black racism and animal oppression. Although veganism is sometimes reduced to an individualised lifestyle choice, Ko reaffirms its anticapitalist, anti-oppression core by centring consumption and exploitation throughout Racism as Zoological Witchcraft.
Using Jordan Peele’s Get Out as an achor text, Ko shows how the notion of ‘animality’ been deployed to maintain a system of white (largely cisgender, male) supremacy across time and space. Although its targets may change, to be ‘animal’ is to be exploitable, extinguishable and unworthy. Ko argues that racism and speciesism function like witchcraft, allowing power holders to tamper with people of colour, and non-human animals, extracting from them and reducing them to shells (p.56).
To break the spell, Ko calls for an abandonment of status-quo activism, whereby struggles are understood as disparate, making both power and paths to resistance less visible. Ko instead calls for struggles based on the pursuit of total-liberation. Although the book enters quite nebulous territory at this point, Ko maintains her clear, forward-moving tone.
This book was the most memorable book I read all year. It crystalised a lot of feelings I had about veganism and anti-racism, and drew them together effectively. The centrality of consumption and exploitation (of bodies) in the text mean it should slot nicely into any socialist library. I think folks will find the use of illustrations and popular culture refreshing and useful, both as readers and revolutionaries.
John W – John Brown (1909)
W.E.B. Du Bois’ biography of John Brown, the abolitionist martyr, was written at the beginning of the twentieth century and is still in print. Du Bois, an African-American Marxist and an influential thinker in the Black liberation movement, wrote the book early in his career, as a contribution to the fight against racism.
The biography, meticulously researched, tells the story of John Brown, a white man who opposed racism, and particularly slavery, from childhood. It tells of how he came to the conclusion that talk of peaceful opposition to slavery was just that – talk – and so, for the last fifteen or so years of his life, he advocated the overthrow of slavery by violence.
The biography tells how the seizure of arms from the army’s arsenal at Harper’s Ferry nearly succeeded, failing only by an understandable misjudgement on Brown’s part. It also tells how, previously, Brown had played a prominent role in the American Civil War in Kansas over slavery there.
Exciting and inspiring. John Brown should become one of your heroes. And maybe W.E.B. Du Bois should too.
Gus W – The Black Jacobins (1938) and others
I started this year on a high, reading C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins. This masterful account of the Haitian Revolution not only shows socialist history in its most advanced form, but inspires still today, with its chronicle of slaves defeating imperial powers. It remains a foundational text and one regularly worth revisiting.
It felt like there was a major leap forward in queer politics this year too, despite the constant reactionary attacks. The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye and Transgender Marxism by Jules Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke both contribute to a vision of queer liberation perfect for these dark days. Faye’s book provides a near comprehensive account of the ways trans people are attacked in Britain, as well as a coherent vision for what transgender liberation looks like. Similarly Transgender Marxism contains a veritable mine of essays to explore, all of which enrich not only queer theory, but the ideas and practices of Marxism.
My other standout of the year was The Tailor of Ulm by Lucio Magri. Whilst nominally a history of the Italian Communist Party from one its notable thinkers, and occasional antagonists, the book provides an in-depth investigation of the politics of communism in the post-war. In particular, the final essay, reviewing the lessons and points of opportunity for a new communist politics in this century should be essential reading. An often haunting and mournful book, but one that ultimately ends on a point of hope.