Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice

“The New Year comes with bombs, it is too late

To dose the dead with honourable intentions:

If you have honour to spare, employ it on the living;

The dead are dead as Nineteen-Thirty-Eight.”

 

This remarkable poem ultimately deserves the status of a masterpiece. It is able to mix the personal with the political. Written during the course of an international crisis, it conveys the complex contradictions of the time.

The poet is unafraid to tackle the perplexing issue of nationalism. In addition, he mentions great philosophers like Plato, Hegel and Marx. However, he avoids making excessive commitments to any specific school of analysis. Freud gets a fleeting look in, but the writer is prepared to accept the seeming inadequacy of the tools at his disposal.

It is important to note that the poet is unafraid of the vulgar, the profane and the ordinary. He does not dwell on a cloud or preach from a tower. His sympathies, his fears, and his capacities are tilted towards the world that there is.

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Who Runs This Place? by Anthony Sampson

This text is a thorough investigation into the nature of political and economic power in the modern UK. Composed by a gifted journalist, it takes an empirical approach to understanding state and society. It is illuminating because it benefits from the adoption of a historical perspective.

In practice, the book builds on the insights the author apparently displayed in Anatomy of Britain. This means that the text explores the impact of neoliberalism on British institutions. Nevertheless, the argument basically eschews political or economic theorising. The emphasis is placed on the concrete and abstraction is neglected. Despite this choice, dismay at the excesses of the Third Way is evident.

The fact that things could have turned out differently haunts the pages. A disappointment with the rule of Tony Blair is repeatedly underlined. A quote from Aneurin Bevan serves as a poignant reminder of the calibre of politicians that the Labour Party could once draw upon:

“The ordinary man in Great Britain has been spending his life for the last couple of generations in this will-o’-the-wisp pursuit of power, trying to get his hands on the levers of big policy, and trying to find out where it is, and how it was that his life was shaped for him by somebody else.”

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

“Our sweet illusions are half of them conscious illusions, like effects of colour that we know to be made up of tinsel, broken glass, and rags.”

This Gothic novella by Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) is a fascinating read. It is a radical departure from her typical realism. Beautifully written, the compelling narrative wastes no time. When the story gathers momentum, the writer allows the plot to unfold without excessive description.

The central character suffers considerable emotional torment. Nevertheless, the text is composed cleverly so that the reader is not overly affected by all the anguish. This makes it a suitable Christmas book for people who want to be distracted from the commercial excesses of the season.

Evans put this tale together from a male perspective. This is interesting because she used a masculine pen name in order to guarantee a serious reception for her work. One message of the chilling story is that tyrannical individuals should not be given emotional support. Hence Evans injected some shrewd psychology into her attempt to convey horror.

The Meanings of Trump

The philosopher Alain Badiou was once moved to write a book called The Meaning of Sarkozy. In that text, he put the ostentatious French President in the context of a long tradition of French reaction. When people consider the rise of Donald Trump, they might do well to locate him in the histories of American populist reaction. It is wrong to underestimate the threat posed by the Trump movement, but it is vital not to see its emergence as something without precedent.

For many, Trump will only be seen as a tweeting businessman. The social media allows him to pose as a threat to establishment hegemony. Nevertheless, it is evident that there will be an accommodation between Trump and the American elite. The governing philosophy is likely to be a compromise between the instincts of one and the structures of the other.

While the history of reactionary America is a complex one, several presidential candidates have attempted to fight social progress. Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon are just two examples of individuals who sought to create a “silent majority” for reaction.

Populism is about the fashioning of a people, but it need not mean giving them authority. Populists of the right can speak for the masses without satisfying the demands they have imagined for them. Philosopher Jacques Rancière argued that populism:

“hides and reveals at the same time the great wish of oligarchy: to govern without people, which is to say without a divided people; to govern without politics.”

Ed by Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre

This biographical text of former Labour leader Ed Miliband was put together in haste. In places, it does read as if interview material has been put on the page in a barely processed form. The repetition of certain facts and opinions may irritate the reader. Nonetheless, the book is quite useful for those who want to understand why the Labour Party is in its present predicament.

The current problems of the Labour Party are not the responsibility of Ed Miliband. The difficulties in part flow from class fragmentation and a decline in political partisanship. However, the cliques around Miliband were inept in their responses to the rise of Scottish nationalism and English nationalism. Blue Labour did not articulate a clear enough alternative to the values of the Conservative Party, while Miliband struggled to project a compelling image via a hostile media.

The late Ralph Miliband was a great socialist thinker. His debate with Nicos Poulantzas has been somewhat unfairly constructed as a dialogue of the deaf by the insightful Bob Jessop. While Ed learned a lot from his brilliant father, the media used his background to depict him as Red Ed. Combined with the negative coverage generated by Ed’s defeat of his brother in the Labour leadership election, this caricature haunted his spell at the summit of the party. It can be argued that he failed to:

“apply the same sense of urgency and insurgency that characterised his leadership campaign to the job of party leader.”

Attlee by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds

This brief political biography is an interesting introduction to the life and work of the most successful leader of the Labour Party. Clement Attlee was apparently a modest man, but contrary to Winston Churchill’s famous remark, his modesty was not really necessary. Although Attlee has had many ideological critics, few of his opponents have had the impudence to condemn his role in the creation of the National Health Service or the welfare state.

Nonetheless, this text does highlight areas where Attlee showed a degree of weakness. His decision to develop nuclear weapons in secret remains a really controversial one. Further, he found it hard to manage the tensions between Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell. This management failure permitted the Conservative Party to dominate, even though the postwar settlement was too popular to be abandoned for many years.

The book does try to account for the remarkable achievements of the Labour Party under Attlee. However, it does not really contribute much to appreciating the shifting class forces which swept Labour to power in the landslide of 1945. The author merely replays the arguments of others:

“The factors explaining this left-wing swing have been well-documented  by historians…”