Socialist Summer Readings: the best of 2012

We asked some left-wing writers, journalists and performers, as well as some Socialist Review writers and readers, to tell us about their highlights from 2012. Whether you’re interested in novels, theater, films or texts, we have you covered.

Dean Parker
In the first week of May this year I picked up two books of recent NZ history held on reserve for me at the local library. The first was Gordon McLauchlan’s The Passionless People Revisited. The second was Workers in the Margins, by Cybele Locke. Both of them looked at post-war New Zealand history, Gordon McLauchlan’s covering more of recent times, Cybele Locke’s more of earlier decades, but both pausing for close examination of the market delusions of the 1980s.

The difference between the two books was staggering. Gordon McLauchlan’s was a weary despairing at his fellow citizens’ indifference in the face of modern market times. He’s in a difficult position, of course, as he was once a spruiker for the privatisation of Post Office telecommunications. He asks, how did we ever allow ourselves in the 1980s to be sold Labour’s package? Well, fuck it, we were listening to him, for starters.

His thesis is that we have got the politics we deserve, that the dismal society we live in reflects the lameness of our national character. And having said this he sits back and shakes his head because… what can you do? What can you do when the citizenry is so subservient, doltish, apathetic and puritanical?

Cybele Locke, by contrast, examines a series of interviews with trade union organisers and political activists, in particular looking at the organising of Maori, women and unemployed: hence the title of her book. It’s academic in its detail but within this detail the passion and determination of people like Judy Attenberger, Roger Middlemass, Jane Stevens, Therese O’Connell, Sue Bradford shine through. They recognise the enemy—economic downturns, wage and social welfare cuts—and figure out how to organise a fight-back and then set about it. They are as far away from Gordon McLauchlan’s passionless history as it’s possible to be.

Jagged Seas is Dave Grant’s excellent history of the New Zealand Seamen’s Union 1879-2003. A huge amount of information has been skilfully marshalled into it, revealing of politics, personality and class interests. All should have a copy, like the family Bible that Michael King’s History of New Zealand has become. For here is volume II of King’s History—the bits Michael King left out.

Theatre-wise it’s been a year of Shakespeare for me, mainly at the movies. There was an absolutely fantastic Timon of Athens, a modern-day version set against the Occupy movement and global capitalism. The movie version of Coriolanus, set amongst the breakup of Yugoslavia, was rivetting. Caesar Must Die, performed in an Italian prison, was a revelation. Though talking of revelations, possibly best of all was the staged Maori version Troilus and Cressida when a warrior story was brilliantly interpreted by a warrior culture.

Best locally-written play I saw (and the best I’ve seen in a while, actually) was Manawa, by James McCaskill, exploring—mercilessly—the inevitable descent of a Junior Bailey character (Junior Bailey was the 13-year-old jailed for his minor role in a mindless Glen Innes murder).

There was a wonderful version of Death of a Salesman performed in Auckland with George Henare as Willy Loman. When he first appeared, bowed down by the two suitcases of samples in each hand, your heart went out to him. Wasn’t just the suitcases that weighed him down, of course, it was all those beliefs in success.
Best overseas blog? John Molyneaux’s. From Lenin to Tolkien. Wonderful stuff. Molyneaux was once British junior chess champion, and moved on to playing poker for a living. There’s someone you can trust. Now lives in Dublin, writes on Marxism and art. What more can be said? Global Peace and Justice Auckland is a treasure-trove of left links.

[Dean’s most recent play, The Tigers of Wrath, just finished a season at Circa. He is the recipient of the Playmarket Award for Significant Artistic Contribution to Theatre in New Zealand.]

Alison McCulloch

If you want to understand the excesses of parts of the British media, you could wade through the 1,987 pages of Lord Justice Leveson’s “Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press”. Or, given that it’s summer, you could instead try Annalena McAfee’s novel The Spoiler (Harvill Secker). A longtime newspaperwoman herself, McAfee (who also happens to be married to British novelist Ian McEwan), has neatly sharpened her satirical pencil for this quite masterful takedown of journalism – and not just the tabloid kind.

It may sound a bit serious for summer, but Mark Derby and Bob Kerr’s Waiheathens: Voices from a Mining Town (Atuanui Press) is a readable delight that can be dipped into at any point. The book, which was produced for the centenary of the 1912 Waihi miners’ strike, comes in two parts. The first comprises 15 short chapters that, where possible, utilise first-person accounts, and range from the 19th century struggle by local Maori to hold onto land wanted by miners, to prison letters from union activists, to the present-day problems faced by Waihi residents. The second half reproduces Wellington artist Bob Kerr’s quite stunning “Gold Strike” paintings, which are currently on tour. (For details, visit this blog.)

Shulamith Firestone, the author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution died this year, prompting me to (somewhat sadly) revisit this second-wave classic. It’s a fascinating exercise in so many ways revealing, among other things, how far we’ve come since 1970, how far we haven’t, and how far we have to go. Sure, parts of the book don’t sit so well with advancements in feminist theory or 2012 sensibilities (I’m sure many argued they didn’t sit too well with 1970s sensibilities either). But it’s a classic and we should know our (feminist) history. Um, herstory.

[Alison graduated with a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Colorado in 2003. She is a journalist, feminist and is on the national executive committee of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand. Her book on the recent history of the reproductive rights struggle in New Zealand is forthcoming with Victoria University Press in 2013.]

Dougal McNeill

I’m going to cheat a bit and recommend two books so new I haven’t had a chance to read them yet. Steele Roberts have published the memoirs of the late Tama Poata – Seeing Beyond the Horizon – and they’re bound to be essential reading. Poata was an outstanding figure; a campaigner for Maori rights; a rank-and-file union militant; a socialist; an important artist and intellectual. I can’t wait to read more about his eventful and committed life. I have been waiting over a dozen years now to read Brian Roper’s History of Democracy. This book is a real labour of love, and a project Brian has dedicated huge amounts of time and imaginative energy to realizing. It’s already getting good reviews.

Highlights from 2012 I have read include Strong in the Rain, Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill’s powerful account of ordinary people surviving Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. John Dower’s Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern Worldcontains essays on Japanese politics and history that have much to teach and delight.

For fiction, James Kelman’s Mo said she was quirky(Hamish Hamilton 2012) is another masterpiece from Scotland’s great socialist novelist.

Pip Adam

I particularly enjoyed Geoff Cochrane’s new poetry collection The Bengal Engine’s Mango Afterglow(the pin-prick precise soundiness of the title gives you an idea of what’s inside). I loved the way this book was so contemporary and seemed concerned with things that are worrying and joyful today. It brings to the fore in beautifully wrought language the lives and places of Wellington that other literature tends to drive through on its way to somewhere else.

The other book that really changed me this year was Janice Galloway’s The trick is to keep breathing. I read a lot of books about descent but I found this book discomforting until I realised usually I would be reading about the descent of a male character or from a male narrator’s point of view. I learnt through this book that I’ve developed a very male gaze toward female suffering, addiction and psychology and it showed me that there is a different story to be told in a different way. I found it a hugely rewarding read that helped me realise that there are many legitimate aspects of female experience which I have unconsciously censored from my own writing. I’m looking forward to remedying this in my writing in 2013.

[Pip’s debut collection of stories – Everything We Hoped Forwon the NZ Post Best First Book Award in 2011.]

Russell Campbell

Juliet Gardiner, The Thirties: An Intimate History (HarperPress, 2010). Superb, massively detailed social history of Britain in the 1930s. Gardiner has her finger on everything including hunger marches, primitive living conditions, anti-fascist demonstrations, the Workers’ Theatre Movement and the Workers’ Film and Photo League; not to mention developments in medical care, architecture, retail, aviation and much much more.

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Vintage, 2011). Horrifying, revelatory history of the starvation, deportations and mass murder inflicted on millions who had the misfortune of living between Germany and Russia in the 1930s and 40s and who became victims of the imperialist ambitions of those country’s respective dictators. Snyder’s documentation of his account from archival sources is as impressive as his analysis of the political motivations driving the genocide.

Jagten/The Hunt (Denmark/Sweden, 2012, dir. Thomas Vinterberg). Chilling narrative of a small community ostracising a male teacher accused on minimal evidence of sexual abuse of a child. Reveals the dark underbelly of communal solidarity.

L’Ordre et la morale/Rebellion (France, 2011, dir. Mathieu Kassovitz). Gripping thriller recounting French military crushing of an incipient bid for Kanak independence in New Caledonia in 1988. Choosing not to sacrifice historical accuracy and political analysis to the demands of drama, Kassovitz (who is also co-screenwriter and star) locates the brutality of the colonial power’s response to a hostage-taking in rivalry between Mitterrand and Chirac in the upcoming presidential election.

In Darkness (Poland/Canada/Germany, 2011, dir. Agnieszka Holland). A powerfully affecting drama of the Nazi occupation of Poland, with Jews struggling to survive in the sewers of Lvov receiving assistance, mercenary at first, from a local criminal. The film pulls no punches in its unsentimental depiction of human nature under stress, while allowing, finally, for a glimmer of light to penetrate the gloom.

A classic: Days of Hope (UK, 1975, dir. Ken Loach). Loach’s 4-part TV series, written by Jim Allen and recently released on DVD, dramatises the history of Britain from WWI to the General Strike of 1926 through the lives of members of a Yorkshire farming family. Ruthlessly dissecting the hierarchical class structure and flexible political institutions which enabled the Establishment to survive spirited challenges from a militant labour movement, Days of Hope is both dramatically absorbing and intellectually provocative.

[Russell’s films with Vanguard Films include Sedition, Wildcat, and Kinleith ’80. His Observations: Studies in New Zealand Documentary came out in 2011]

Anya Tate-Manning
Theatre in Wellington in 2012 was remarkably varied and extremely diverse. The slow death of Downstage continues to give alternative production a larger audience base. Most recently, political theatre veteran and socialist Dean Parker opened a new show The Tigers of Wrath at Circa Two and Public Service Announcements, the political satire show by comedian James Nokise, aired its 6th episode at Bats theatre. A major shift was apparent at the Chapman Tripp theatre awards this year, a predominantly middle-class festival that celebrates traditional mainstream Pakeha work in the major two theatres. But this year, not only did the major acting award go to clown performer Thomas Monckton for a Fringe show, but the three major shows nominated in every category and taking all the

major awards were all Maori shows; The Maori Troilus and Cressida – Toroihi raua ko Kahira, a full translation of Shakespeare into Maori directed by Rachel House, performed in the Arts Festival and travelled to the Globe Theatre; Manawa by Jaime McCaskill performed at Circa Theatre and The Prospect by Maraea Rakuraku performed at The Gryphon Theatre. Production House Tawata are behind much of the groundbreaking work in Wellington at the moment, this year opening a record number of new shows and hosting the Matariki development festival of new writers works, with live readings of monologues and full length plays, all by first time writers. Tawata also produced Wellington’s first professional Sri Lankan theatre show, a solo by Ahilan Karunaharan, themed around the devastation of the tsunami.

In particular their production of The Prospect was a show that left a deep impact. Written for her 24 year old brother who was killed by the Mongrel Mob, Rakuraku’s first ever script about gangs in small town New Zealand was fierce, intelligent and shattering. Manawa was also very memorable show, about a Maori career criminal in jail from a young age, and a fresh Samoan immigrant. McCaskill wrote the show after working in prisons with young offenders and his feelings about our justice system are apparent in his writing and performance, and culminates in a powerful final moment where he seems to speak for himself and thousands of others, shouting “Fuck you New Zealand” to the audience.

[Anya is a Wellington actor, director and playwright. She directed and performed in the most recent Public Service Announcements at Bats]

Liz Ross

This year I’ve dipped into more books than I can count, re-reading and re-reading the classics of Gay Liberation as I was writing my book Revolution is for us: the Left and Gay Liberation in Australia. Some that stand out are writings from Alexandra Kollontai and Frederick Engels The origin of the family, private property and the state, both of which repay reading many times over. John D’Emilio’s Sexual politics, sexual communities: the making of a homosexual minority in the United States, 1940-1970 is a tribute to the organising that happened before Gay Liberation hit the US – and the rest of the world. A fascinating read and a tribute to the pioneers – and to John D’Emilio’s research in uncovering this hidden history.

Three others that are memorable are: Lee Alan Dugatkin’s The Prince of evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s adventures in science and politics, a fascinating account of how Kropotkin’s ideas of “mutual aid” in evolution were in direct opposition to Huxley’s promotion of the capitalist notion of competition as the driver of evolution.

The second was Massimo Salvadori’s Karl Kautsky, a revelation about the politics of a once great revolutionary socialist, a new appreciation of the early years of socialist politics. And the third is John Haldon’s The state and the tributary mode of production which clarified so much about the period immediately prior to capitalism – the “feudal” and “tributary” modes of production. The presentation at Marxism 2012 by Dougal on this very subject, was insightful, humorous and memorable – the book, the talk and the audiovisuals – all go to make this one of the most interesting economic topics of the year for me.

[Liz is a member of Socialist Alternative in Melbourne, Australia. Her book Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win! is a history of the Builderers’ Labourers’ Federation’s fight against deregistration. She will be speaking at Marxism 2013]

Rowan McArthur

Evelyn Reed’s Women’s Evolution (1975) is an in-depth study of women’s changing position in prehistory. Reed was a Marxist and activist, and this book offers a
female perspective of history and the importance of the roles of women in hunter gatherer to ‘primitive’ agricultural based communities. She reconstructs human history from the matriarchal clan to the patriarchal family, tracing the structure of human society back to a time where women and men had equal, if different, roles. This book goes back and pinpoints the factors that lead to the discrimination of women as a sex. This book gives greater depth and insights in to links between the rise of patriarchy and capitalism and in turn the systematic and economical oppression faced by women to this day. An excellent book for socialists to read to gain a greater understanding of the material conditions which underlie human evolution while simultaneously dispelling the widely held sexist and backward myths about prehistoric cultures.

This is our last post for 2012. We wish all our readers happy holidays, and will be resuming posting on the website from mid-January 2013.