The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Recommended Reading

Combating corporate propaganda and the corrupted "common sense" about the benevolence of the political and economic system under which we live requires the proper tools. Without quality literature that holds within it the power to dispel the myths and articulate methods for our side we have nothing. We should take from Marx the idea that it is not enough to merely interpret the world, but we have to change it. Developing our political weapons, our ideas, allows us the opportunity to train our minds in preparation for the enormous challenges we will undoubtedly face as we go up against the most expansive socioeconomic system Earth has ever seen. The one thing we have to remember, however, is that it runs because of us.

So what I will propose here, and this will remain a work in progress, are some readings that I find pretty fundamental to grasping how to fight back. This list will always be incomplete, as I nor anyone else has the time to read or analyze every book, pamphlet, journal, etc. that could be valuable to our understanding of the world. That being said, what I list here I consider either to be fundamental to developing a serious political and economic of how the world functions or something particularly relevant to the specific topical category. To stay in theme with the blog, I will emphasis works that deal with culture, society, ideology, and how we as radical activist can alter them or challenge the dominant ideology. Still, plenty of other works will make it into the list as well.

I will attempt to break this section down into beginning material, intermediate, and more advanced, because I know the personal frustration that can arise from being handed something way over your head; some of us on the left have perhaps a habit of doing this. It is even more difficult if you are engaging a work, especially a theoretical work, on your own without the benefit of a discussion group. Some of these will be free material available on the web such as certain theoretical works at the Marxist Internet Archive or online journals such as the ISR or ISJ, some will be books available through Haymarket or other outlets, and some will be brief newspaper articles or pamphlets with available links (note: there is also a handy google search bar in the top left of the sidebar). Not everything that I place on this list will I necessarily agree in full with but at the very least it will be a provocative piece that fosters some sort of critical dialogue that I believe to be useful or instructive for us on the left. Other sources anyone recommends I will of course consider as well, suggestions are more than welcome. However, I won't post anything on here that I haven't read or are completely unfamiliar with.


What is Socialism?

Introductory Material: Just getting into radical politics? Have a vague feeling something is wrong with society but not exactly sure how to articulate it? I feel you, and remember being there. Anything in this section is a relatively brief introduction to socialism and the struggle for a new society where exploitation, alienation, inequality, racism, and oppression are things of the past.

Who Does Obama Answer To? - A short article appearing in the Socialist Worker, written by Brian Jones, that delves directly into the question of why we cannot, even if Obama was as radical as right-wingers paint him, rely on the president to make any fundamental changes to society. It's succinct but the message is clear.

ISO Intro Packet - This is by far the most comprehensive, yet very basic introduction to what we mean when we say socialism. It's available for free from the International Socialist Organization. It includes a brief "Where We Stand" section, explaining that socialism should not equate with Soviet Russia or Cuba, despite the rhetoric used to justify the regimes there. It goes on to make a very convincing case for socialism, explains some fundamental tenets of how socialists should organize, includes a basic historical framework for the arguments presented, and ends with some contemporary comments on the state of the world, especially in relation to war and imperialism. It is not written by one author, but a compilation of various pieces written by a wide array of socialists. It's separated into a few easy sections, each that can be tackled in an hour or two. It is by far the quickest, simplest introduction to what socialists mean, or should mean, when we speak of replacing capitalism with system free of exploitation and inequality.

The Meaning of Marxism - Paul D'Amato's Meaning of Marxism is probably one of the best introductions to Marxist political and economic thought you can find. It a short, lucid book that will lay out, step by step, the essentials of socialist thought. The principles are clear, the language is not over the top, and it won't take you hours like you would digging through tombs of Marx and Engels to pull out key concepts. It brings Marx to today's terms and is highly recommended for everyone, beginner or advanced. Quality reading for the slightly bewildered lefty with vague notions of desiring social justice or the dedicated activist with an already firm analysis of the world. Good for study groups or tackling solo.

The Next Step: Okay, so you've gone through the basics or are already familiar with the fundamentals of socialism, arguments for economic democracy, Marx's critique of capitalism, and why we can't just reform the system, or maybe some combination of those things. This stuff might get a little longer, a little more intense, and, depending upon your commitment, you may or may not want to try to organize some study group around this material. Even informally, it helps to have someone to talk to with this stuff, but it's definitely not required.

Ten Socialist Classics - Now, don't worry yet! I'm not about to send you off to delve directly into Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxembourg, etc. This is a collection of articles written by different authors at the Socialist Worker that gives a basic introduction to the main themes and ideas expressed in the classic works that a lot of socialists give credence too. My critique is that I believe these are rather limited, and there is a plethora of other authors rather than a small handful selected here. Still, what is important is not so much the authors chosen but the fundamental themes: from the difference between "Utopian" and "Scientific" socialism to the mass strike, from the question of reform or revolution to why imperialism is inherent to capitalism, these questions are fundamental to grasping why the world works the way it does and, more importantly, where our power lies and how best we put our efforts into changing it.

The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History's Most Important Political Document - Phil Gasper, author of numerous works on socialism, gives an actually easy-to-understand interpretation of Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto. Everyone has heard of it, yet how many have read it? A more important question, perhaps, is how many people have read it with any sort of serious context, which Gasper provides, or without the invective preface thrown on top the work by other publishers? I wish I had this version of the Manifesto when I first attempted to read this back in high school, it sure would have cleared some things up. Instead, I got a thin little booklet with an introduction given by some haughty academic who basically said "here's what Marx meant, his ideas were basically shit, his predictions wern't correct, and he was an anti-Semite." The reality, however, is far from that, and Gasper brings this old political document back to life at a vital time when the word socialism has found it's way back into politics.

Fairly Advanced: Here's some tougher stuff. Perhaps it's due to the length, the complicated theoretical ideas presented, the excessive wordiness of it all, or more likely all of that rolled into one. Either way, this is the stuff you put off until you're quite comfortable with the political lingo, have a pretty solid grasp of socialist principles, etc. I would also suggest, and have found it is most conducive to actually comprehending the material and what it is truly trying to express (as it can be quite easy to trick yourself into thinking you know what something is trying to say), to tackle these things with at least one other person but preferably in some sort of group where questions, dialogue, and debate can freely occur.

The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx - Karl Kautsky. Mentioning the name might ruffle some feathers in the more sectarian wings of the left, but his grasp and ability to articulate what Marx wrote is quite phenomenal, and it's a hell of a lot shorter than Capital. The so-called "Pope" of Marxism can be a little wordy sometimes, and you may have to reread a certain paragraph a couple times to really have it sink in, but it will provide a much more lucid understanding of Marxist economics and the flaws of capitalism as a means of providing for human need. It's split up into three sections, "Commodities, Money, Capital," "Surplus-Value," and "Wages and Profits," which are each in turn split into subsections which can be easily split up into different discussions for different evenings. I'd definitely take notes.

Revolutionary Rehearsals - Now, this isn't so much that it's long or too theoretical, but you will be bombarded with different names of cities, places, people, organizations, and acronyms that are too entirely hard to keep track of. It's the work of five different authors and the editor on the various uprisings in France 1968, Chile 1972, Portugal 1974, Iran 1979, and Poland 1980. In every single instance what could be called a "pre-revolutionary situation" was present or an actual revolution occurred; in no instance did a socialist revolution occur, however. The authors take the position that this was due mainly to the failure of the left (in a complicated matrix of unique political, economic, and cultural situations) to organize politically along revolutionary lines. Fascinating read, especially for the history buffs, but gives a practical and insightful look to why it's essential to actually build and organize some sort of organization capable of calling for revolution.

The Really Tough, Headache-Inducing Sort of Reading: Just wait, this section will be fleshed out as soon as possible.

Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics)


Culture, Consciousness, and Ideology

This section will contain Marx, Gramsci, Lukács, Benjamin, Althusser, Freire, Newton, etc. Definitely check back! All of these will be updated with brief introductions and I attempted to find the bulk of this section in free online version, with the exception of Huey Newton's work which appears unavailable except through book format.

Antonio Gramsci - International Socialism 114: Antonio Gramsci's Revolutionary Legacy provides a great introduction to his work and thought. For Gramsci himself, read Selections from the Prison Notebooks
Paulo Freire - Pedagogy of the Oppressed (
Online version is missing Chapter four)
Huey P. Newton - The Huey P. Newton Reader
George Lukács - History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Tough Read, I recommend tackling this one with others in some sort of discussion group, very wordy).
Frantz Fanon - National Culture and the Fight for Freedom, The Pitfalls of National Consciousness, and The Wretched of the Earth
Walter Benjamin - On the Concept of History, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and and interpretation of Walter from the ISJ Benjamin's Emergency Marxism
Louis Althusser - Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses
Leon Trotsky - What is Proletarian Culture, and Is It Possible? and
Literature and Revolution


General History

Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution - This "stand-up history of the French Revolution" by comedian Mark Steel is perhaps one of the only books I have repeatedly laughed out loud while reading. It's hilarious and light while simultaneously expresses a sympathetic look back at the revolutionary upheaval in late eighteenth century France. One of the most profound and important revolutions to date, Steel's sympathetic analysis is vital to dispelling the hostility normally directed at the revolution. As a history major, I found the work particularly entertaining, but this is the type of book that would actually make teenagers enjoy reading about history. It's brilliant, really, and should not be relegated to history buffs.

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation - Author Jeff Chang, dubbed "Hip-Hop America's Howard Zinn," gives readers an illuminating look into the complex social, economic, political, and cultural intricacies that gave rise to one of the world's most versatile and engaging musical genres. Hip-Hop is more than just beats and rhymes and Chang enthusiastically details its rise from its roots in the South Bronx. His history often lets the artists speak for themselves and his research reveals the extensive depth to which hip-hop is inevitably tied to social reality of the world around it. It's an entertaining read, and even for those of you not particularly keen on hip-hop culture, the prodigious mountain of scholarly work concerning various economic and political phenomenon that intertwine with it's rise makes this book worth getting. It's exciting, lucid work and, although it's five-hundred and some odd pages, the laid-back style and quality writing make it seem much shorter; my only complaint was that it wasn't longer!



Will be updated with literary works that I found to be valuable either to my own personal political development or to our movement as a whole.

12 Million Black Voices - An absolutely poetic, powerful, and poignant piece written by Richard Wright, assisted with a plethora of contemporary photography, that captures the very essence of both city and rural life for Black Americans in the early 1900's. He explores the various social relationships, especially between Blacks, poor Whites, whom he justifiably identifies as tied by common material interests but separated by ideological fervor, and the exploiter classes whom he labels the "Lords of the Land" (Southern aristocracy) and "Bosses of the Buildings (Northern capitalists). Wright was the editor of the Harlem Daily Worker and one of the most prominent Black literary figures of his time. Absolutely essential reading for anyone concerned with the struggle for civil rights and the plight of Black men and women in the United States.

Looking Backward: 2000-1887 - Edward Bellamy outlines what he considers to be the perfect utopian society in Looking Backward, where the main narrator is put to sleep and wakes up one-hundred years later in what is essentially Bellamy's concept of a socialist society. Aside from the obviously unrealistic pretense of the plot, let us be clear from the start that the novel is plagued by a variety of problems, which should be explored. First, however, this novel was what originally galvanized my political metamorphosis from confused, conspiracy-prone, rebellious teenager to understanding that society could fundamentally be organized in a different manner. Bellamy gives often beautiful accounts of particular aspects of how a socialist society could function while weaving in percussive critiques of capitalism. Secondly, the narrator comes from a wealthy background, so Bellamy utilizes this set up to combat the common, and even more theoretically challenging arguments, that proponents of capitalism thrust at us. Needless to say, however, the drawbacks must be pointed out. Bellamy's postulation of socialism represents the concept that Hal Draper labeled "socialism-from-above." Draper even mentions the book in his "Two Souls of Socialism" pamphlet where he criticizes Bellamy's work, far too harshly in my opinion. Secondly, there are undoubtedly prejudices which exist in his work that cannot be excused, but were fundamentally products of his time. He presents the idea that "separation" can be maintained if among the races if different communities desire it, his brief mention of third world nations provides a rather paternalistic attitude towards what he obviously considered backward people, and finally, his treatment of women in the novel is particularly lacking. Aside from all that, the corny love story throughout can become tiresome if you're not into those things, but I've known people who said they don't mind it. Personal preference, eh? Anyway, I've read it twice, it provides the possibility of opening up dialogue for HOW a socialist society could look, even if the fundamental concept is flawed and particular sections are trash. At the very least, it is an entertaining read. The sequel, Equality, can only be found online as far as I know.

Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Mejia
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley
Fight Club: A Novel

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