Marx21 has asked around and compiled this year-end list of twenty-five notable books of 2020. Missed one of your favorites? Write in and tell us.
HISTORY AND POLITICS
Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the Fight for Trans Liberation, Laura Miles (Bookmarks, March 2020).
- While there have been great strides towards recognition of trans lives in the last decade, there have also been reactionary moves in the opposite direction, seen in the ‘bathroom wars’ under Trump and worse, and trans people are subject to appalling levels of oppression, violence, and poverty. In this 272 page book Laura Miles does a great job in presenting the socialist cast for trans liberation. Miles starts with the often concealed wide variety of gender expression in different cultures and over time. She builds on the theories of Engels and other Marxists on the family and women’s oppression to construct a revolutionary socialist theory explaining the oppression of trans and non-binary people under capitalism. Miles also notes the use of biological science and psychiatry in promoting bigotry, and how people have fought back. The book gives a trenchant outline of the development of sexual politics and gender theory, and arguments between Marxism and identity politics on strategies for trans liberation. The book is accessible and useful both to activists and socialists who need to learn more about transgender issues, and to trans people working towards their own liberation. While the book was written in Britain, and uses many British examples, Miles also takes a world view, and all the lessons are applicable to debates here.
Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel, Rachel Holmes (Bloomsbury, Dec. 2020).
- A welcome major new biography of the radical suffragette and socialist which covers all aspects of her career, as well as relevant movements and comrades. Holmes knowledgeably handles many of the political decisions and controversies of Pankhurst’s career, and quotes extensively from many or her scandalously still unpublished writings.
Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, Claudio Saunt (W.W. Norton, March 2020).
- In May 1830, the United States formally launched an “Indian Removal” policy which was justified as a humanitarian, but grew to a systematic enterprise of fraud, intimidation, and violence. In a well-researched corrective to much US history, Saunt narrates how white supremacy and the expansion of capitalism led to the shameful bureaucratic and militaristic ‘expulsion’ of 80,000 indigenous people, killing thousands of Native American lives in the process and reshaping the U.S. Republic. Saunt details the immense effort this took, the choices made from the President on down and demonstrates that this disgraceful history was not inevitable. Indigenous peoples fought against the policy throughout, while many U.S. citizens decried it as against Americas democratic values, but were overruled by the profit motive, including the desire to secure new lands for the expansion of slavery. Unworthy Republic has been called “required reading,” and an explosive study of power and how we got to where we are today.
Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, Sudhir Hazareesingh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sept. 2020).
- This is now the most completely researched and authoritative biography of Toussaint, the leader of the Haitian revolution and anti-colonial wars. Hazareesingh, a Mauritian-born scholar, weighs the contradictory contemporary accounts of his dealings and definitively counters recent conservative treatments (like Philip Girard’s 2016 biography). Although the narrative traces Toussaint’s development from a religious child and his personal temperament, it is a political biography, and the research adds insight to events such as the Haitian slave insurrection of 1791, the later military campaigns, and political machinations with revolutionary and Napoleonic France. The book gives a new appreciation of how Toussaint used African traditions while developing political ideas of liberty from the French Revolution. It is a strength of the work that is sides with Toussaint, and takes his intellectual, political, and military contributions seriously. Readers will enjoy the inspiring portions of Toussaint’s own writing used throughout the narrative. However, the book could have given more time to Toussaint’s left critics at the time of his 1801 constitution, which kept the plantation-based economy in the hands of the French elite in order to concentrate on national development & defence (a lacuna common to both Stalinist and anti-racist liberal interpretations). [If you have not already, anyone interested in Haiti, black radicalism, or the history of revolution should also read the great Black Jacobins by CLR James. While James book remains a key revolutionary text, Hazareesingh’s exciting readable narrative has added much useful historical research, and delightful final chapters on Toussaint’s influence since.]
South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War, Alice L Baumgartner (Basic Books, Nov. 2020).
- While the underground railroad is famous for helping slaves flee to the north, the less known escape southward is explored in this book. In 1821 Mexico won independence from Spain, and by 1837 had abolished slavery–when Texas was still part of that country. Texas fought to secede from Mexico, backed by slaveholders, and after it joined the United States as a slave state in 1845, the numbers of enslaved black people there increased enormously. But thousands ran away, sometimes crossing the Rio Grande where refugees travel in the other direction today. After the fugitive slave act of 1850 ex-slaves who had crossed the Mason-Dixon line to “nominal freedom” could be sent back to the south, but Mexico refused to sign such a treaty. Slaves from as far away as North Carolina and Alabama also fled to free Mexico. From among them, Baumgartner unearths fascinating details of self-emancipation. Tom, who had been enslaved by the ex-Texas army officer and politician Sam Houston, ran away across the southern border and joined the Mexican military that had been Houston’s enemy in the last war. In 1852, Seminole groups that included runaway slaves fought and won land in Mexico for the refugees, which still belongs to their descendants. While the number who sought freedom in Mexico was smaller, perhaps a tenth, of those who reached Canada, Baumgartner also demonstrates their importance to US history. The increasingly radical antislavery policies of Mexico, the seizure of Alta California and the creation of Texas as a slave state (seen as a buffer between the deep south and Mexico), all heightened the controversy of slavery’s expansion that led to the Civil War and its abolition.
On the Barricades of Berlin: An Account of the 1848 Revolution, August Brass, translated by Andreas Weiland (Black Rose Books, Feb. 2020).
- Published in English for the first time, this classic and exciting eye-witness account of the German revolution is by August Brass, who led the successful defense of the barricades in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. As well as once being in a Hegelian club with Karl Marx, Brass was a journalist and novelist, and it shows in his lively descriptions, well translated by Andreas Weiland.
The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, Michael Goldfield, (Oxford University Press, January 2020).
- Michael Goldfield (a current professor at Wayne State University and formerly a civil rights and labor union activist and member of the socialist Sojourner Truth Organization) has combed the academic and archival sources, unearthing exciting struggles linking racial oppression and class struggle during the New Deal, focusing on the south. He concentrates his prodigious research on four key industries (giving Southern agriculture surprisingly little attention), and uncovers both horrible examples of established unions compromising with the white supremacist power structure, and inspiring stories of black and white working class unity, helping to undercut racism in the process. Starting with a Marxist understanding of the southern economy and a sociology of racial oppression derived from Dubois, later chapters examine the defeat of the CIO’s “Operation Dixie” and evaluate the plusses and minuses of parallel Communist Party organizing. His contention is that the failures of Southern labor organizing in this period is central to understanding the decline in US unionism, growth in economic inequality, and continuation of white supremacy up to the present. Although one may differ with Goldfield in some matters of interpretation, his major goal is an important one, and his research adds to our understanding of actual relations of race and class struggle, the period, and its relevance for today. Robin D.G. Kelly writes “The Southern Key holds the organizer’s lesson: just as our present was not inevitable, neither is our future.”
Berkeley: The Student Revolt, Hal Draper (reprinted Haymarket, June, 2020).
- Haymarket has reprinted Hal Draper’s classic political history of the 1964 “Free Speech Movement” and student demonstrations in Berkeley, CA. Draper was an important American Marxist who started the International Socialist clubs and was instrumental in the student movements while at Berkeley. Thomas Harrison in New Politics said “Hal Draper’s book remains the most vivid narrative and incisive analysis of the Free Speech Movement that I know… recommends itself to all those interested in the history of protest and the left in this country, but especially, I think, to the young radicals and socialists who are today immersed in the great multiracial movement against police violence and for fundamental social change.”
Digging Our Own Graves: Coal Miners and the Struggle over Black Lung Disease Barbara Ellen Smith, with photographs by Earl Dotter, (Haymarket, Nov. 2020).
- New edition of this 1987 work on the 1968 Black Lung Movement & the United Mine Workers of America takes the story of workers power, attacks on unions, and public health up to today, with an updated conclusion and new introduction, which will help apply these lessons to the era of COVID-19.
Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic, Eric Eyre (Scribner, March 2020).
- Eyre, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Virginia reporter, lays bare the deadly corporate greed of firms that continued to push massive amounts of addictive painkillers on vulnerable populations, and the state and federal agencies that could have stopped it, but did nothing. The story goes well beyond the now infamous Sackler family. While this book overlaps with much of Sam Quinones’ 2015 Dreamland, which had a more national scope, Eyre maintains a real feeling for Appalachian communities in his turf, and starts with a local Sav-Rite Pharmacy that in three years distributed 12 million opioid pills in a town with a population of 382. From there he uncovers in detail the immense shipments of drugs to from large wholesale drug distributors who had the data to know what was going on, but continued to rake in immense profits off addiction while out of the public eye. The human effect of this trade is brought out by the multiple interviews with addicts and the families of people who have overdosed. But they are not just victims, we also see how residents worked together against this manufactured epidemic. Throughout, Eyre integrates the story of his own long-term investigative reporting, an essential function disappearing with the decline in independent regional newspapers.
The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism, Mike Davis (OR Books, July 2020).
- This is a revised edition of Davis’ 2005 Monster at the Door, written during the (H5N1) Avian Flu outbreak. Mike Davis and Rob Wallace (below) are the go-to authors on understanding the economic, social and political aspects that combine with biology to create pandemics. Here Davis looks into how the profit motive distorts every aspect of public health, and details the many ways the Trump administration was unprepared and non-responsive to the pandemic, adding that this was an egregious extension of problems that go back to Obama’s administration and much further, despite continued warnings. The main strength of Davis’ writing is how it powerfully uses well researched examples from a range of disciplines to lay the blame not just on particular policy choices, but on capitalism itself.
Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19. Rob Wallace (Monthly Review Press, Oct. 2020).
- Wallace, a Marxist evolutionary epidemiologist and author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, has been warning of the emergence of new infectious diseases for decades. He was perfectly posed to explain the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and its links to global capital. This somewhat disjointed collection of essays, commentary and interviews is educational on technical aspects, but even more on what many epidemiologists miss in looking at the roots of epidemics in capitalist agribusiness, commodification of nature, and habitat destruction. The later essays explain Wallace’s research into regenerative agriculture and alternative methods of food production that could be less alienating and ecologically destructive.
The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology, John Bellamy Foster (Monthly Review Press, June 2020).
- John-Foster Wallace has been instrumental in unearthing Marx’s ideas of the metabolic rift between man and nature and the disastrous effect of Capitalism on the environment. This volume serves as a sequel to his 2000 Marx’s Ecology, looking at the hidden importance of Marxism in the developing science of ecology. It essentially traces the roots of “ecosocialism” from Engels to today. This is not the first book to read on Marxism, nature or climate change, but a fascinating addition to our knowledge.
Chosen by God: Donald Trump, the Christian Right, and American Capitalism. John Newslinger (Redwords, Sep. 2020).
- In this book, written before the 2020 elections, socialist John Newsinger attempts to answer why 81% of evangelical Christians voted for a figure like Donald Trump in 2016, examining the history of how the Christian right came to have such a powerful voice in US politics, especially the Republican Party. To do so he examines the growth of a “spiritual-industrial complex” during the Cold War, the rise of the televangelists and “moral majority,” and how the anti-choice and Islamophobic (and pro-market) policies led a right-wing politicized movement to embrace this “sinner” as the mouthpiece of God. He concludes with the nature of this unstable alliance, and the possibilities that this major movement will take a turn to outright fascism.
Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn, Gabriel Pogrund, Patrick Maguire (Penguin/Body Head, Sept. 2020).
- The authors, two British journalists, interviewed over 100 people to create this inside story of socialist Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party in Britain between its inspiring and surprising near-victory in the 2017 general election to its bitter defeat in 2019 after being undermined by a hidden right wing cabal inside Labour who would rather see the Conservatives win that have a left-wing socialist succeed. The book relates that at first the Labour left was forced into internal battle with the right inside its headquarters. But for the cause of “unity” Corbyn was pushed into tactical retreats. Neither of the journalists are from the left, and tactical considerations of alternatives, or the limits of Parliamentary reform under capitalism, are better learned elsewhere. However, the book uncovers many details of how Brexit and smears of anti-Semitism were weaponized against Corbyn, and provides lessons for Socialists considering the role of elected office.
Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. Arundhati Roy (Haymarket, Sept. 2020).
- “Azadi!” is Urdu for “freedom.” The pieces brought together in this collection were written by Roy in 2019 and 2020, a time she sees as beset by rising fascism in India and elsewhere, and all move towards that goal of Azadi from different directions. As well as political reports, analysis, and searing speeches on Kashmir, India under Modi, and the coronavirus, there are essays on language and the role of fiction in imagining alternative worlds, all in Roy’s beautiful and committed prose.
Rebel Musics Volume 2: Human Rights, Resistant Sounds, and the Politics of Music Making. Ajay Heble, Daniel Fischlin, eds. (Black Rose Books, Oct. 2020).
- This “second volume” is really an updated second edition of an earlier anthology of essays on political music and use of music in social movements. The range of music covered is impressive, and many of the essays may turn you on to a new genre, or help you see old favorites in a different light. At times some essays come too close to suggesting music on its own is the most effective form of politics, but it also is filled with inspiring examples of “rebel musicians…mobilizing for political change, resistance, and social justice.”
Reminiscences of RAR: Rocking Against Racism 1976 – 1982, Red Saunders & Roger Huddle (reprinted Redwords, Nov. 2020).
- The classic and previously out-of-print collection of reminiscences of the British concert series and cultural movement against racism and fascism, now reprinted with new cover art.
The Dialectics of Art, John Molyneux (Haymarket, Dec. 2020).
- An important book for those interested in a Marxist understanding of (mostly visual) art that does not, like Berger or Adorno, pull back from the most difficult and avant garde contemporary examples. This book recycles some of Molyneux’s earlier insightful pieces on canonical artists from Michelangelo and Rembrandt to Picasso and Pollock, and deals with several British contemporaries. But here he goes further in explaining what defines “art,” from the emergence of capitalism in the Italian Renaissance and Dutch Republic to today. Molyneux’s definition starts with “unalienated labor” combined with an idea of “embodied meaning” (that is not that far from Bell’s “significant form” despite his “radical disagreement” with that critic), and adds a vision adjacent to Marcuse’s “aesthetic dimension.” While this theory as developed here is not the last word, it is not wrong, and, despite any quibbles you may have on specific judgements, it is used to good effect in his evaluation and explanation of actual art works. It is rooted in a profound Marxist understanding of the importance of alienated labor, and sees art as a distinct area of human activity outside commodity production yet still embodying social contradictions. Without making the mistake of seeing art making as a sufficient mode of social activism, Molyneux still points to art’s liberatory potential.
Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented, 1918–1939 (Museum of Modern Art, Dec. 2020)
- This 288 page catalog for the current exhibition quotes the radical German artist Hannah Höch saying “We regarded ourselves as engineers, we maintained that we were building things.” The “we” here was a range of fine artists, designers, typographers, photographers and producers of Dada anti-art or revolutionary propaganda in the dynamic inter-war years. This fascinating exhibition documents how artists saw their role in contributing to a rebuilding of the world during the rise of modernism following the shock of World War I and the death of an old order. Artists and designers from the Bauhaus, de stijl, German expressionist anti-fascists, and the many revolutionary artistic movements in the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution are featured (including female artists like Höch, Liubov Popova, and Marianne Brandt, along with John Heartfield, Gustav Klutsis, Aleksandr Rodchenko and others). The show is built around the Merrill C. Berman Collection at MoMA, and while that is enough to make a great exhibition, a definitive treatment of the period would need more international loans to fill it out. The catalogue features several scholarly essays into different aspects of the era’s revolutionary art forms.
- The Medu (“roots” in the Sepedi language) Art Ensemble formed in the late 1970s in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid. This is the catalogue of the exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago featuring 130 objects, including over 60 graphic posters by members of the ensemble and related artists. What started as 15 artists fleeing to exile grew to about 50 members from around the world. They operated underground just across the South African border in Gaborone, Botswana, and smuggled their work into South Africa to be mounted in public spaces, from which it was quickly destroyed by authorities. In 1985 the South African Defense Force raided their headquarters, killing 12 and ending the Medu collaborative.
FICTION AND POETRY
African American Poetry, 250 years of Struggle and Song. Edited by Kevin Young (New American Library, 2020).
- While there are many poetry anthologies of Black American poets, the poet and critic Kevin Young has created a massive and marvelous collection for the New American Library worthy of creating space on any poetry lover’s shelves with their favorites. From the colonial period and slave and free poets of the 19th century to the work of poets around Cave Canem and other contemporaries, Young includes canonical and obscure choices, with revealing contextual notes and biographies. As in most anthologies, not every poem here is for everyone’s taste, and you may bemoan the omission of some favorites, but the contextualation may also have you appreciate some you otherwise would have skipped over. Even his section on the well-loved Harlem Renaissance is a revelation, including many lesser known examples to good effect. There are, of course, love and pastoral poems, and poems of all forms from sonnets to free verse to jump rope rhymes. But political and social poems are more prevalent here than usual outside of specifically political anthologies. This is partly Young’s choice, making the book, ordered in chronological sections, almost a social history. But it is mainly a natural product of the way those subjects are disproportionately, and necessarily, taken up by Black poets in American society. This makes the book more of a work in itself and less of a random collection than most anthologies.
The Rate of Falling, Sean Cumming (Lulu, 2020).
- A 33-page chapbook of 19 short poems from a Scottish-born socialist, and Marx21 member, now active in Portland OR. “Morro Bay” uses the tropes of pastoral poetry and haiku to embody the dialectical relationship of nature and human industrialization. Other poems deal with Black Lives Matter and police violence, American ennui, the decline of empire, and what human relationships can rebuild from the rubble. Unlike much of contemporary political poetry, tending towards Whitmanesque rants and based in affirmation of identity, or the street-fighting autonomist postmodernism found in Commune Editions, Cumming seems committed to a conciseness of language, and delicately constructed small lines often harkening back to W.C. Williams. This does not pretend to be an epic political statement or poetic manifesto, but is a small gem from a poet to be watched.
The Cold Millions, Jes Walter (Harper, 2020).
- The newest novel from Jess Walter (author of the great underworld story Citizen Vince and the bestseller Beautiful Ruins) is his most political yet, without losing any of his well-written invocations of setting, personality, and creative plot. Set in and around Spokane Washington during the 1909 free speech fights, the novel features two fictional brothers: migrant workers who interact with members of the IWW and their opponents. Many of these other characters (including Elizabeth Gurley Brown) are based on well realized research into these real people. The seamless mix of fiction and historical characters creates a sort of historical fiction from below that surprisingly works in combining subtle character development and a gripping plot (which I won’t spoil here), with fascinating working-class history. It may leave you torn whether to read other Walter novels next, or more non-fiction on the Free Speech fights.
The Rhino Conspiracy, Peter Hain (Muswell Press, Jan. 1st 2021).
- An ex anti-apartheid activist is the main character in this thriller based on rhinosorous poaching in South Africa. The author is the South African born British ex-Labor minister, who was a leading member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Anti-Nazi League during the 1970 and has written extensively on Nelson Mandella. So it is not surprising his novel delves not just into animal preservation and ecological themes, but government corruption, international trafficking, and political betrayal. As a work of literature, it is not at the John Le Carre level, but a passable political thriller.
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, Machado de Assis, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Liveright, 2020).
- A novel written 140 years ago that makes most contemporary fiction look formally conservative. Machado de Assis, born the poor mixed-race grandson of freed slaves in Brazil, was voraciously self-taught, and seen as Brazil’s greatest writer by the turn of the century. However, his reputation has faded outside the Portuguese speaking world. The book takes the form of first-person recollections and musings by an unaccomplished aristocrat after his death. The criticism of the character, and his world, are never made explicit, but are as present as Flaubert’s ironic depiction of the Bourgeoisie in Bouvard and Pécuchet. Written in 1881, the text is formally experimental, full of playful conceits and constraints in a popular but metafictional avant garde tradition that harkens back to Cervantes and forward to Borges, the French ULIPO school, and Italo Calvino.
Cane Warriors, Alex Wheatle (Black Sheep, Oct. 2020).
- Young adult novel following a 14-year-old protagonist in Tacky’s Rebellion, a major slave revolt in 1760 Jamaica.