Academic bestsellers

A week or two ago, Henry at Crooked Timber wrote:
"David Greenberg had two interesting articles last week about the gap between academic and popular history, and how to bridge it. This suggests an interesting question. Which academic books are fit for human consumption? Or, to put it less polemically, which books written for academic purposes deserve, should find (or in some cases have found) a more general readership among intelligent people who are either (a) non-academics, or (b) aren't academic specialists in the discipline that the book is written for. Nominations invited. To start the ball rolling, I'm listing three (fairly obvious imo) contenders myself.

E.P. Thompson, Making of the English Working Class. A classic, which reads more like a novel than a piece of academic history, rescuing organizers, sectaries, pamphleteers and gutter journalists - from the enormous condescension of posterity. Moving, smart, and wonderfully written.

Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty. A stunningly simple idea, worked out to its logical conclusions - it creates a new vocabulary for understanding how social institutions work.

James Scott, Seeing Like A State. Libertarians will like the critique of state-led social engineering, but be discomfited by Scott's account of the totalizing effects of markets. Traditional social democrats and socialists will have the opposite set of reactions. Both should read it (as should anyone else interested in the intersection between political theory and real life)."

Here's my suggestions:

1. E.P. Thompson Making of the English Working Class. This is indeed a wonderful book, a deeply human and humanist version of Marxism, which places the agency of ordinary folk (rather than oppressive structures) at the centre of the story. Thompson joined the Communist Party as a teenager during WWII, before going off to serve in the fight against fascism in Italy. This was the age of the Popular Front, when Stalin's Russia seemed like a great bulwark against Hitler. Anti-fascism remained a core element of Thompson's worldview, and he continued to be inspired by his older brother, who died fighting alongside partisans in Bulgaria. After demob, he worked in adult education in Yorkshire, so his first audience as an academic was not priveliged undergrads, but working class men.

In 1956, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Thompson (and his wife Dorothy, also a great historian) finally broke with Stalinism. The Making of the English Working Class was written in 1963 in the shadow of Stalinism, and the vision of human freedom it celebrates must be read as a critique of the Communist betrayal of Marxism.

Thompson was to be associated with the new left, but was always critical of the overly theorised versions of academic Marxism popular in the new left - his devastating critique of such positions being set out in his The Poverty of Theory.

In his later life, Thompson continued to attack Soviet stalinism and was a key link in the samizdat chain that allowed Eastern dissidents to get heard in the West, helping to sustain resistance to those regimes in the way that the messianic artisans he described in The Making helped sustain resistance in the dark times after the defeat of revolutionary France.

2. CLR James The Black Jacobins. This makes a nice companion to Thompson. As Peter Linebaugh has written, while Thompson was writing in the shadow of the Soviet tanks in Budapest, James was writing against the Communist murder of non-CP anti-Franco partisans in Spain. The Black Jacobins tells the story of the Haitian revolution, showing how slave struggles in the colonies helped drive the great revolutionary moment of 1776-1792, unveiling a different dimension to the emergence of the great values of liberty, democracy and rights which triumphed in the French and American revolutions.

James might not exactly qualify for this list, because he wasn't really an academic. He was a true scholar, but he wrote for the masses. His Notes On Dialectics was an introduction to Hegal written for sharecroppers.

James had many lives - Trinidadian novelist, Lancashire cricket correspondent, Detroit Trotksyist, Pan-africanist, Brixtonian. Also worth reading are his cricket book, Beyond a Boundary, and his book on Melville, Renegades, Mariners and Castaways, but the best way of getting a sense of his breadth is collections like At the Rendezvous of Victory and Future in the Present, both sadly out of print. See the CLR James Institute. (Previous post: Nello.)

3. Hannah Arendt Essays in Understanding. I could have chosen any of Arendt's books - her most well-known Origins of Totalitarianism, which carefully provides the tools to understand the terrible forms of oppression which dominated the twentieth century, her sadly neglected polemics within Zionism collected in The Jew as Pariah, or Men in Dark Times, her book of homages to Rosa Luxemburg, Walter Benjamin, George Lessing and Brecht.

Essays in Undertanding, though, is the best place to start who want to experience Arendt's importance to the political situation today - essays like "The Eggs Speak Up", which takes its title from Lenin's nostrum that you can't make an omlette without cracking an egg.

(If you can't get hold of Essays, try The Portable Hannah Arendt. Previous post: The real axis of evil.)

4. Richard Sennett The Conscience of the Eye. This is not Sennett's most accessible book (his recent books on work culture, The Corrosion of Character, and the welfare state, Respect, are easier to read), but it's my favourite. Essentially, it asks how we can live in cities, how we can live together despite our differences. Sennett was Arendt's student and, like her, he resists easy categorisation in terms of right and left, liberal and conservative. His Fall of Public Man is an attack on countercultural rebellion; Flesh and Stone is explicitly written as a religious believer, but also is in homage to Sennett's friend Foucault; while Corrosion of Character is about as socialist as it gets in mainstream publishing. Some of his writing is on-line here.

5. W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful non-fiction books there is. It is soaked in the language of the King James Bible, each chapter opening with a snatch of music from a spritual. It moves between the personal (I cry every time I read "The Passing of the First-Born", on the death of his son) and the political, the ethnographic and the activist, in a way that today's academic writings, confined within strict disciplinary boundaries, simpy aren't allowed to. It's a long way from Souls to afrocentrism.


Popular Posts