Three Verso publications are in the top 10 of New Stateman’s Red Reads: ’50 books that will change your life’:
3. The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)
My wife Caroline put the Communist Manifesto in my Christmas stocking one year. I had never read it before and I found it offered the best possible explanation of what the world was about that I had ever read. It pointed out that the real conflicts in the world were not between black and white, men and women, Muslims, Christians and Jews, Americans, Russians and Chinese; it was about the conflict of economic interest between 95 per cent of the population of the world, who create the world’s wealth, and the 5 per cent who own it. I think of Marx as a prophet: the last of the Old Testament prophets. And we should think of him as a teacher. Many political leaders, such as Stalin, have tried to steal him, but he is immune to that, because ideas survive without requiring the endorsement of kings, emperors, dictators or presidents. Karl Marx discovered it all long before I did, and I am very grateful to him.
4. The New Testament
If a man were to appear today who preached pacifism, who urged setting no store by status, told the wealthy to sell everything they have and give the proceeds to the poor, and freely associated with those whom respectable society regarded as outcasts, we would consider him a radical. The New Testament may have been (mis)used by churches to entrench privileged interests for centuries, but that should not conceal the revolutionary nature of Christ’s teachings – nor that it was precisely because he so upset a moneyed, conservative elite that he was crucified. Keir Hardie is just one of many left-wing politicians who have happily confessed that their convictions owed more to the New Testament than to any theoretical tract.
6. Rights of Man
Thomas Paine (1791)
Rights of Man belongs to the left in several important ways. It was the first time in history that “rights” had been claimed by anyone but kings and noblemen: we owe the concept of “human rights” to Paine’s Promethean project of stealing the concept from the heavens and sharing it on earth. It is also an imperishable statement of the rights of the living over the claims of the dead, and in particular the claims of traditional, landed, aristocratic interests over the rising class of self-educated artisans. Read in conjunction with Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, to which it was originally written as a rebuttal, Paine’s essay is an indispensable political classic.
Like any worthwhile work, it contains some ironic and cautionary elements when read today. Paine was too optimistic about the French Revolution, to the “left wing” of which he eventually fell victim. He may have set out the first ever plan for a welfare state, but he was in general opposed to “big government”. Yet whenever and wherever people demand constitutional government and written guarantees of their liberties, they are seconding the motion that Paine first proposed.