You might think Jacobin staffers and contributors spend all our time reading boring old leftist theoretical texts. That’s not true — it’s only how we spend the majority of our time. The rest of the time, we read widely: fiction and nonfiction, history and philosophy, new books and old. Occasionally, we even read books that are fun.
We asked a handful of writers and editors to reflect on the best books they read this year and what made them worthwhile. Below, you’ll find recommendations for the perfect primer on Marxism to give your open-minded, liberal friend; a candid memoir about working as a union organizer in Arizona; a passionate argument for the value of city living; and the best novel we’ve ever read about organized radicals.
From all of us at Jacobin, thank you for reading us and for reading with us in 2022.
Since reading How Capitalism Ends, I’ve won every hypothetical argument with every possible naysayer. This primer on Marxism combines a vision of how today’s capitalism can transition into something better. It’s one of the most accessible leftist texts I’ve ever read. Perhaps this is owed to its author having been an academic, a T-shirt designer, and a construction site worker as well as employed, self-employed, and unemployed. Paxton puts his arguments in a logical framework and eschews bespoke definitions in favor of Karl Marx’s definitions, made plain.
An academic or theory nerd can read this and pass it along to their open-minded, left-curious, liberal friend. It puts forward arguments without being argumentative, deftly explaining why a liberal should become a leftist and why a leftist needn’t turn into Maximilien Robespierre. This book was designed to convince people of that fact — and help bring them over to the side that intends to do something about it.
— Muriel Toussaint
Chances are you’ve read articles decrying some injustice that end with a call for “the boring, difficult, unglamorous work of organizing.” But what does this work actually look like? Few books have explored this as deeply as Daisy Pitkin’s On the Line, which recounts her work organizing industrial laundry workers for UNITE in right-to-work Arizona.
Through her intense friendship with a worker-organizer named Alma, Pitkin explores the relationships between union staff and workers while resisting simple, self-serving answers. Candid about her role in the destructive conflict between UNITE and HERE in the wake of their failed merger, she admits to doing terrible things, believing they served a greater good. She explores the question of what it takes to survive these betrayals and remain in the struggle for the long haul by including historical material, especially the story of Clara Lemlich, teenage firebrand of the legendary 1909 garment workers’ strike, who went on to take part in decades of grassroots agitation far from the spotlight.
As leftists, we often see union battles, internal and external, as fables about ideological compromise, correct and incorrect strategy, or “rank-and-file” organizing versus bureaucracy. These stories reflect realities, but they rarely offer a neat fit when we take in the deep pride, hopes, vulnerabilities, and strengths people bring to this work. Unglamorous and difficult, to be sure, but never boring to anyone who believes that unions and socialism exist to aid the fulfillment of human potential.
— Laura Tanenbaum
Like most Americans, I learned next to nothing of value about Mexico growing up. This is a travesty, not just because it’s rude and ignorant to know nothing about your next-door neighbor. It is nearly impossible to make real sense of US history, society, and culture without understanding the many ways our two countries are inextricably linked. This is one of the main themes of one of the best books I read this year: Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands by Kelly Lytle Hernández, a historian at UCLA.
The “bad Mexicans” of the book’s title were the magonistas, a band of radicals and revolutionaries led by the brothers Ricardo, Enrique, and Jesús Flores Magón. They earned that distinction from Porfirio Díaz, who was Mexico’s de facto dictator from the 1870s until his overthrow and exile in 1911. The magonistas were not the only opponents of the Díaz regime, but they were among its most dogged and intransigent. In many ways, the movement took on its personality from Ricardo Flores Magón, its leading agitator and propagandist, who waged an unrelenting war against the Mexican state despite endless repression and persecution. Through their transnational political formation, the Mexican Liberal Party, the magonistas organized Mexican and Chicano workers in mining camps and border towns on both sides of the Rio Grande, preparing the way for the revolution that finally erupted in 1910. The magonistas did not lead the revolution. They were crushed after a disastrous armed uprising in early 1911, and Ricardo was hounded from northern Mexico to Los Angeles, to Saint Louis, even to Montreal. He died in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1922. But the ideas and example of the magonistas inspired many Mexicans to rebel against the Díaz regime, and their influence lives on in Mexican intellectual and political life today.
Hernández’s book is not a comprehensive overview of the maelstrom that was the Mexican Revolution. For that, there is Adolfo Gilly’s The Mexican Revolution or season nine of Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast. What Bad Mexicans does so well is situate the magonista movement not just in the history and politics of the Porfiriato but in US historical development as well. Hernández traces the roots of the FBI to the campaign against magonista organizing in the Southwest; shines a light on La Matanza (“the Massacre”), the terrible spasm of anti-Mexican violence that swept Texas in the 1910s; and reminds us that the first big wave of Mexican migration to the United States resulted from the great revolution most Americans know very little about. Mexican history is US history, and Bad Mexicans is a good entry point for anyone interested in learning more about it.
— Chris Maisano
Standing Fast is the best novel I’ve ever read about organized radicals. Based in part on Swados’s experience as a rank-and-file factory militant and intellectual in the Workers Party of Max Shachtman, the book is a fictionalized account of a dozen anti-Stalinist socialists in Buffalo and New York City, tracing their evolving hopes, disappointments, and dilemmas — both personal and political — from the eve of World War II through the early 1960s.
Whereas Vivian Gornick’s better-known The Romance of American Communism frames its exploration of American radicalism through the lens of psychoanalysis, Swados focuses on the contingent intersection between individuals and history. Avoiding any pat answers to hard questions, Standing Fast movingly captures the challenges of upholding socialist politics over the long haul, and it does so without falling into a facile, status-quo-accepting cynicism. The book really resonated with me — I imagine it’ll do the same for many leftists who have recently, or not so recently, had their expectations raised and dashed.
— Eric Blanc
Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism was the perfect book for me to read while commuting to and from a job as an organizer with United Auto Workers this past year. The book features dozens of vignettes of former Communist Party members that are just long enough to last a couple stops on the subway. Each story is equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking, especially for any modern-day socialist who will surely be able to see themselves or their comrades in the characters.
Those interviewed for the book had experiences ranging from being a prominent party leader who Gornick now characterizes as an “anti-communist communist” to being a rank-and-file member who was directed to go into industry. Regardless of their position, whether they were expelled or even denounced the party after leaving, nearly everyone described their years in the Communist Party as the best of their life. This is one of the most popular books among socialists for good reason — even the most stoic will find it moving throughout.
— Finn Cooley
Published in 1956, socialist psychologist and sociologist Erich Fromm’s slim volume The Art of Loving had sold twenty-five million copies by the end of the century. Not bad for a book arguing that love is the only answer to the core problems of human existence, that love is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism, and that society must therefore be radically reorganized along socialist lines.
The Art of Loving explicitly inveighs against capitalism, which not only materially constrains people’s lives but also diminishes cultures and deforms personalities, hindering the development of the innate human capacity to love. The result is a mass existential crisis: without the ability to love, we remain disconnected from ourselves, each other, society, nature, and life itself. With great discipline and concentration, individuals can learn how to love despite the countervailing pressures of capitalism — but for society to facilitate the capacity for love rather than suppress it, we’ll need to dispense with capitalism altogether.
The Art of Loving found its first enthusiastic reception in the counterculture of the late ’60s and lapsed into obscurity as memory of that era faded. But it’s due for a revival. The book is well suited to our time, as the socialist movement reborn between the two Bernie Sanders campaigns faces its first slowdown, leaving us grappling with big questions about the stakes of our project and why it’s worth sticking around.
— Meagan Day
Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of the Day is narrated by an English butler, Stevens, who is nearing the end of his life and reflecting on how he has spent his days. Over the course of the book, Stevens comes more and more to question the stories he’s told himself about the life he’s lived and about the virtues of the English lord he served for decades.
Near the beginning of the novel, Stevens waxes philosophically about the pride he’s taken in being a butler and carrying out his job with “dignity.” But it gradually becomes clear that Stevens’s idea of dignity is part of a tortured attempt to come to terms with cruel social hierarchies and the repressive demands of his role — a role, Stevens realizes, that has cost him love and authentic human connection. Ranging over ethics, politics, and romance, The Remains of the Day is above all a psychologically insightful and heartbreaking exploration of the lived reality of class.
— Nick French
Earlier this year, the renowned and mystery-shrouded author of the Neapolitan Novels and the recently adapted (by Maggie Gyllenhaal) The Lost Daughter published a thin volume of four essays-slash-lectures called In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing. Three of them were composed for the Umberto Eco series at the University of Bologna, and the last, titled “Dante’s Rib,” was read at the Dante and Other Classics conference in 2021. I started reading the book on a trip and accidentally left it on the plane on the way home; I went to the bookstore straight after to get another copy so I could finish reading — it was that good.
You can probably guess what’s going on in the pages from the book’s subtitle; it is no good for me to try to recap the essays here. What I’ll say is this: for a writer whose identity has become the subject of debate, argument, and even scholarly research, these four essays, comprised of her own words, delving into how she learned to read and write, her thought process, and her hopes for literature, are as close as we’ll ever get to knowing who Elena Ferrante is.
— Marianela D’Aprile
Since the publication of his 2010 book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Samuel Moyn has been a Socratic figure for the Left. No one more expertly or readably deconstructs entire histories we thought we knew. In Moyn’s hands, it turns out we never really knew them at all. This extraordinary talent served him well in rethinking equality and human rights in 2019’s Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, when Moyn asked us to reconsider the egalitarian potential of rights in a context where giving people only what is “sufficient” for survival is considered the height of liberal justice.
In his latest book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Moyn takes on a new and more chilling topic: war, and American war in particular. He highlights how many of the most important advances in humanitarian law and rhetoric were based on the cruel assumption that war would always be with us. This was a far cry from the ambitions of Leo Tolstoy and Adin Ballou, who dreamed that humankind’s most vicious enemy could one day be banished to the dustbin of history. With his signature erudition and compassion, Moyn traces how the desire to make war gentler perversely evolved into an argument for preserving it, culminating in the sanitizing of the American “war on terror.” American officials in four successive administrations highlighted US humanitarianism and efforts to keep soldiers safe from harm, even as they spread a regime of drone strikes and subcontracted military interventions around the globe.
Cormac McCarthy once wrote:
It makes no difference what men think of war. . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.
Moyn’s book uncomfortably asks whether this may be true, and if all our efforts to tame war are simply a substitute for ending it — or, even worse, a way of legitimizing it on a humanitarian basis. Humane will no doubt provoke heated discussions about its deep commitment to pacificism. But it deserves to become a classic of the antiwar genre, alongside Tolstoy’s nonfiction.
— Matt McManus
In 1996, the Marxist analytic philosopher G. A. Cohen was invited to deliver the annual Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Later, he revised and edited them as If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? I read that this year.
My standard joke about this book is that my goal in life is to get to the point where that question is a good way to own me, but honestly, the reflection on charges of hypocrisy that the title is drawn from is the least interesting part of the book. The rest of it is a brilliant, accessible, and often shockingly fun mixture of everything from a rigorous unpacking of the core arguments in Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach to personal reflections on Cohen’s upbringing in a working-class Jewish Communist family in 1950s Montreal.
— Ben Burgis
I tend to love all books that I do for The Dig, but housing has very much been on my mind recently. One book that made for a great interview and that proved to be enormously helpful in thinking through our campaign for social housing in Rhode Island is Gail Radford’s Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era. The book recounts the little-known story of how labor-aligned radicals during the New Deal pushed for a social housing system that might appeal to and house the majority of Americans. A revived real estate industry killed those dreams in Congress, meaning that twentieth-century public housing would be underfunded and limited to the very poorest Americans — only to be in significant part dismantled under the Clinton administration’s HOPE VI program (check out New Deal Ruins by Edward Goetz for more on this dismal history).
In Rhode Island and across the United States, a new generation of housing organizers is today looking not only to European experiences like Red Vienna but also to our own history. Housing activist and intellectual Catherine Bauer, who led the Labor Housing Conference, believed that social housing could only be won by mobilizing “those who are the most directly and vitally interested, families who need better houses to live in and workers who need work building those houses.” The same formula should guide our struggle today, mobilizing poor and working-class tenants who need housing alongside the building trades unions that will construct those homes.
— Daniel Denvir
A Communist refugee from Nazi Germany, Anna Seghers is better known in the English-speaking world for her dark novels The Seventh Cross and Transit, both of which deal with escapees from concentration camps. Several of the stories collected in The Dead Girls’ Class Trip tackle the Nazi era and its aftermath head-on as well. “The End” narrates a chance encounter after the war between a concentration camp survivor and one of his former guards, after which the former prisoner decides to track his past tormentor down across the German countryside. In just six pages, “Shelter” paints an anxious, claustrophobic picture of a woman in Nazi-occupied Paris who wants to take in a child sought by the Nazis. You can probably guess what “A Man Becomes a Nazi” is about.
But the collection also shows Seghers’s incredible tonal range, from the tender domestic tale “The Zieglers” to the fever-dream modern myth “Tales of Artemis” to the adventure-cum-anti-colonial-revenge story “The Guide.” As I went from story to story, I never knew what was coming next, but the further along in the collection I got, the more eager I was to continue.
— Ben Beckett
Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is a strange book, on a formal and historical level. Published in 1849 as Thoreau’s first book, much of it is made up of previously unpublished (or unmarketable) essays by him, fused together in a condensed day-by-day narrative of a canoe trip taken by him and his brother, John, in 1839. The semifictional travelogue, sprinkled with bursts of poetry and historical vignettes, is also something of an elegy, as John died in 1842.
The book was a commercial flop at the time, but do not let the nineteenth-century literary market (something Thoreau was no fan of) dictate your tastes for 2023. In its eclectic composition, A Week is a writerly treasure trove: it is a repository not only of the lucid nature writing for which Thoreau is most famous but also of serious considerations on the philosophy of history, literary theory, and aesthetics. To read it from the left, too, is fruitful; A Week offers some of Thoreau’s most penetrating critiques and analyses of the market, the division of labor, and their increasingly visible impacts on the antebellum American landscape. Of all his works, perhaps, A Week best dispels the common image of Thoreau as the hermit of Walden, instead demonstrating him to be a socially engaged, eminently dialectical thinker.
In its multilayered multitudes and flights of fancy, the book sincerely embodies Thoreau’s own attempt to live up to one of the ethical injunctions within its pages: “We must make shift to live, betwixt spirit and matter, such a human life as we can.”
— Alec Israeli
The best book I read this year wasn’t published in 2022 — it was published in 2015, but it was written long before that. This year, I finally got around to reading A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, her collection of short stories that I had heard unfailingly positive things about from people with great taste in literature. As someone who has generally identified as “not liking short stories,” I’m slowly being won over to the form by writers like Berlin, whose writing is sharp and raw, pointedly precise, sometimes even painful to read.
Berlin, who died in 2004, led a fascinating and often difficult life, growing up in mining towns, Chile, and Texas and spending portions of her adulthood in Oakland, Mexico, and Boulder, where she worked a variety of challenging jobs, struggled with alcoholism, and grappled with four children and three marriages. Through these stories, all linked, a picture is drawn of working people in these places and of one woman, sharply observant, trying to make sense of how her life unfolded.
— Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino
Like most readers, I spend a lot of time reading books that confirm my priors and a smaller amount of time reading books that challenge them. Even more rarely do I read books that draw creative and counterintuitive connections between so many disparate ideas and phenomena that the question of whether or not I agree is secondary, even boring, compared to the new ways of thinking that I experience on the page. Such was the case for me while reading sociologist Richard Sennett’s The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life, published in 1970 and recently reissued by Verso.
Sennett is an urbanist and thinks you should be too. Cities excite him not just because of the diverse people and experiences we encounter in them but because city living can change us psychologically, forcing our very conceptions of self and others to be challenged and reshaped on an almost daily basis. He wrote:
The book aims to convince its readers of something distasteful now to most: the jungle of the city, its vastness and loneliness, has a positive human value. Indeed, I think certain kinds of disorder need to be increased in city life.
By “disorder,” Sennett doesn’t mean crime but rather daily experiences that unsettle us — and that can offer us new possibilities for freedom. Those possibilities don’t have to be random; they can be planned, built into the fabric of the city, if we are brave enough to allow it.
Sennett’s analysis strongly reflects the New Left preoccupations of the era. He’s suspicious of bureaucracy, and his arguments verge on anarchist at times; I certainly don’t buy all of his psychoanalytic claims. But I was challenged, exasperated, excited, and thrilled by The Uses of Disorder. It changed the way I think about and act in my life in a way no other book this year did.
— Micah Uetricht