It's the time of the year for "best" and "top" lists. As in 2011, 2010, and 2007, I've looked back over the books I've read this year to come up with my top book list. I'm considering only books I read for the first time this year and ones published fairly recently, basically in 2010-2012 and for the most part I am excluding books on economics and unions which deserve separate list. That will help keep the total to just over ten. This is not a rank listing.
I really enjoyed reading Farber's book. One of the most well-informed and astute analysts of Castro's Cuba, Farber writes from what he describes as "the classical Marxist tradition that preceded Stalinism in the USSR." In the intro, Faber says he will concentrate on "those questions that I believe have been subject to a great deal of mythmaking, fallacies, and misunderstandings..." So there is a polemical quality to this books which makes it delightful reading.
Farber's book has won endorsements from leading academics such as Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Jorge Dominguez, and Adolfo Gilly. It has also received in-depth coverage from Havana Times, and has been favorably reviewed by Pablo Velasco and Sacha Ismail at Workers' Liberty and Charles Post at New Politics.
2. Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan in America.
This is must reading for all serious Bob Dylan fans. Wilentz is a Professor at Princeton University and author of such works as The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (W.W. Norton, 2005) won the Bancroft Prize. He also has an interest in American popular culture, having teamed with rock historian Greil Marcus to edit Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad.
Wilentz knows his Dylan and he knows American popular culture and links them in enlightening ways. There are occasions when I think Wilentz lets his aesthetic judgment be outweighed by his appreciation of Dylans ties to earlier American culture. For example, I don't understand Wilentz's praise of Dylan's Christmas CD, which I thought was horrible.
3. Stewart Acuff Playing Bigger Than You Are - A Life in Organizing
A fascinating memoir/autobiography by Stewart Acuff, former organizing director for the AFL-CIO. It is essential reading for every youngish labor organizer and social justice and activists and for those who are not so youngish.
Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire: the Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.
Frank is great, as usual. And, for this one, he not only gave a reading at Wichita's Watermark Books, but went out for pizza afterwards with a number of local activists. Cool.
5. Chuck Collins, 99 to 1
This is a concise (124 pages, plus 14 pages of notes) examination of how wealth inequality is wrecking the economy. It is well-organized with lots of tables and graphics. If you want to know how the 99/1 economic divide means in the real world and the damages that it does, this is a great place to start.
One limitation, Collins analysis doesn't really discuss the central role of the attacks of unions and limits on the ability of workers to organize in the dramatic rise of inequality. Or the necessity to increase the power of workers in turning the situation around.
6. Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.
Kazin, co-editor of Dissent and professor of history at Georgetown has written a new history of the American left, a sort of companion to John Nichols, The S Word, which made my 2011 list.
The publisher describes it this way:
Kazin tells a new history of the left: one in which many of these movements, although they did not fully succeed on their own terms, nonetheless made lasting contributions to American society that led to equal opportunity for women, racial minorities, and homosexuals; the celebration of sexual pleasure; multiculturalism in the media and the schools; and the popularity of books and films with altruistic and antiauthoritarian messages.
Michael Glitz has a good review on Huffington Post.
The scholar and author Manning Marable died just on the eve of publication of his magnum opus, this sober, detailed, engrossing biography of Malcolm X. One trusts he is resting easy, knowing that the early reviews were rapturous and that the book did justice both to his lifelong work as an educator and champion of progressive causes and to Malcolm X's ever-growing importance as a figure both in the black community and impassioned fighters for freedom and justice around the world.I'm not sure about the "ever-growing importance" of Malcolm X.
Emahunn Campbell wrote, just before the publication of Marable's biography, on the Activist blog of the Young Democratic Socialists.
I hope that Marable’s book will uncover and develop Malcolm’s relationship to socialists and socialism. Although one cannot refer to Malcolm as a socialist–he did not have a chance to fully develop or move towards a socialist position–he did have strong opinions about the depredations of capitalism, especially after his split with the Nation of Islam (NOI). To be sure, he went from being a proponent of black capitalism, which was an ideological residue from his time as the national spokesman for the NOI, to becoming anti-capitalist due to his engagement with socialist and Marxist literature as well as his travels to Cuba and a number of decolonizing nations in Africa and the Middle East that claimed to be developing their respective national paths to socialism. ...
While no socialist organization can claim Malcolm, one can definitely imagine how profoundly developed his thought would have been if he was around long enough for it to manifest itself in his organizational pursuits.Lawrence Gulotta describes the relationship between Malcolm X and democratic socialists A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer here. Gulutta notes
No church wanted to receive Malcolm X’s body, after the assassination, for fear of retribution by the NOI. Finally, after a week of calling Harlem churches, the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ was willing to arrange the funeral and made its auditorium available. A thousand people came to pay respects to Malcolm X and his family. The national civil rights leaders, and Harlem civic leaders, including Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, stayed away from the funeral. It was a small group of democratic socialists, including Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, James Furman, and John Louis, that were present at the funeral. Dick Gregory, not a socialist, was present. King, Whitney Young and Kwame Nkrumah sent condolences. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee presided over the program. Marable doesn’t mention Clifton DeBarry or George Breitman attending the funeral.8. Cornelius L. Bynum, A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights.
I've written on the importance of A. Philip Randolph before here on the NAR, so I looked forward to this book. And I was not dissapointed. Bynum, Associate Professor of History and Associate Director, African American Studies and Research Center, Purdue University, has written a very valuable intellectual history of A. Philip Randolph through the post-WWII campaigns to end Jim Crow in the military and to establish a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. It does not explicitly discuss Randolph's key role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s. the 1963 March on Washington, or the 1965 Freedom Budget for All Americans.
Bynum's books discusses the evolution of Randolph's thought and action as he dealt with the dual problems of class exploitation and racial repression.
9. Michael G. Long (editor) I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin's Life In Letters
A fascinating and educational collection of 150 letters by Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and trainer of generations of activists in non-violent social change.
Sociologist William Julius Wilson writes
"I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin's Life in Letters provides fascinating insights into Bayard Rustin’s activist life. It includes hundreds of letters in Rustin's own words that reveal his tireless and brave efforts to promote American civil rights, as well as his personal tragedies. All aspects of Rustin’s experiences are captured in these letters, including his struggles with opponents dedicated to silencing him as an international symbol of nonviolent protests against racial injustice. This remarkable and deeply moving publication is a must-read."
10-11 Van Jones Rebuild the Dream and Robert Kuttner, A Presidency in Peril
Two leading progressives examine frustrations with the Obama administration and what the left should do.
12. William Cunningham, The Green Corn Rebellion
A reprint of the 1935 novel by William Cunningham about the 1917 rebellion by Oklahoma farmers against the draft and World War I. There is a fine, informative introduction by historian Nigel Sellars, author of Oil, Wheat, and Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma. I half-expected this to be mainly of historic and regional interest. But, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a really good read and stands alongside Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Upton Sinclair's better works.
Here's a nice review by Elizabeth Breau.