Recommended Reading

Book monster

This page is a collection of links to all of my favorite writings on politics and organizing.  The readings highlighted here are slanted towards being relatively accessible, which excludes overly academic and/or long texts. This list is structured not as a syllabus of things that have to be read together but more as a menu of things to pick and choose from.

History

  • Book: A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn
    • This is the most canonical and widely read book on radical politics in the US. It’s a history of all the things that happened that were far more important than what presidents did or said, focusing on social movements as the true engine of positive social change.
    • A free html version is available online.
    • While Zinn preferred not to get stuck debating labels, when he did care to self-identify, he called himself an anarchist.
  • Book: Women, Race, & Class, by Angela Davis
    • This book is a history of liberation movements from the 1800s – 1950s, with particular attention paid to chronicling those black women revolutionaries who fought from the isolated position imposed on the left through white supremacy and patriarchy. This history is important on its own terms and becomes more essential still because of how it reveals that ways that racism and sexism can tear social movements apart. Davis also highlights the less common but powerful instances when white people and men allied with black women to fight capitalism and oppression across identity lines.
  • Social Movement History

    • Book: I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, by Charles Payne
      • This is a history of the black freedom movement in Mississippi in the 1960s, particularly the activity of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC was in part the child of Ella Baker, and so there’s a lot to be gained from reading this book alongside the Baker biography noted below. This is plainly the most well-written and cogently argued social movement book I’ve ever read, and it contains so many lessons for contemporary organizers. SNCC was the radical youth wing of the Civil Rights Movement, and they consistently carried out the riskiest and highest reward actions and campaigns around the country, starting with the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, then taking rides on interstate buses to protest segregation laws, and, in what was probably their finest moment, the Freedom Summer campaign they carried out in Mississippi.
    • Book: Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Evolution, by Georgakas and Surkin
      • This book recounts the story of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers that was formed out of the car factories in Detroit in the 1960s. The organization reached far beyond the factory floor and is a microcosm of all revolutionary movements as it contained so many of the internal tensions, complexities, and struggles that have animated urban socialist movements in the US ever since. While the organization was relatively short-lived, at its peak it achieved a kind of momentum and synergy that so many leftist groups today aspire to.
    • Book: Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression, by Robin D.G. Kelley
      • When you think of Communists in America a certain image comes to mind, one which is oversimplified if not wrong. The Communist movement in the US varied widely year by year and region by region, and this book about Communist organizing in rural and urban Alabama illustrates this. While the book contains a tremendous amount of fascinating history about these people, most notable is the organizing they did among rural Black sharecroppers, some of the country’s most deprived and subjugated people. Yet, when the sharecroppers came together to form their own union to directly confront the local landowners and unspeakably violent white supremacists, they many times prevailed and secured real victories.
    • Book: From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago, by Jakobi Williams
      • Fred Hampton is a towering figure in the leftist imagination with videos of his charismatic speeches being shared widely on social media, but deeper histories of him and his work are sparse. This text tells the story of the Illinois Black Panther Party and affirms Hampton’s legendary status in the annals of movement lore. While the Illinois Party achieved a lot in its brief time before the police and FBI assassinated Hampton at the age of 21 and violently suppressed their organization, what they are deservedly most known for is forming the original “Rainbow Coalition” which united urban Blacks, Puerto Ricans, youth gangs, and the white poor in a comprehensive program of revolutionary politics. They organized free breakfast programs for poor kids, free medical care for underserved communities, self-defense from police violence, the desegregation of public spaces, jobs for the unemployed, and so much more. While Hampton might be more appreciated now for his soaring rhetoric, what’s far more impressive than even his words is the relationship-building he and his comrades did on the ground bringing oppressed people together to fight for a better world.
    • Book: Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Bloom and Martin Jr.
      • This is the best-written and most comprehensive introduction to the Black Panther Party from its beginning to end with a focus on the national organization. While I personally am more inspired by the orgs of the time that had more bottom-up politics, such as SNCC pre-1965 and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Black Panther Party is undoubtedly one of the most important revolutionary organizations of the 20th century in the US and deserves to be read about and learned from.
  • Labor History

    • Book: Teamster Rebellion, by Farrell Dobbs
      • The 1934 Teamster strike in Minneapolis was one of the pivotal strikes of the decade (and century) that forced the federal government to pass comprehensive labor laws later that same year. The strike was centered around truckers but because of the solidarity they built with other workers and because truckers shipped most of the goods that kept much of the economy running, the strike took on the character of a general strike. This book was written by one of the lead organizers of the strike and is every bit as dramatic and engaging as one could imagine labor history to be.
    • Book: Reds or Rackets: The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront, by Howard Kimeldorf
      • Excerpt from the publisher’s website: “Kimeldorf focuses on the political contrast between East and West Coast longshoremen from World War I through the early years of the Cold War, when the difference between the two unions was greatest. He explores the politics of the West Coast union that developed into a hot bed of working class insurgency and contrasts it with the conservative and racket-ridden East Coast longshoreman’s union. Two unions, based in the same industry—as different as night and day. The question posed by Kimeldorf is, why? Why “reds” on one coast and racketeers on the other?”
    • Book: Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly, by Peter Cole
      • Ben Fletcher was a longshoreman and black socialist union organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World who was the main leader of the interracial IWW Local 8 that controlled the port of Philadelphia for 10 years from 1913 – 1922. I think even Cole understates how significant that local is in historical terms. Relatively few unions in US history have ever had even one of the following traits, and to have all four together is a unique and extraordinary achievement: Local 8 was 1) explicitly anti-capitalist (when most longshoremen unions on the East Coast were corrupt and conservative), 2) interracial (at a time of extreme segregation in society including in the labor movement), 3) stable for a period of 10 years (before its leaders were imprisoned in the first Red Scare at the onset of WWI), and 4) won the highest wages in their industry in the country.
      • While the accomplishments of Fletcher are great, unfortunately the book itself doesn’t live up to the potential of the subject largely because there’s little known about Fletcher’s life. The details that can be knitted together into a book are somewhat sparse if no less important.
      • Robin Kelley wrote a forward to the 2nd edition which is available online.
    • Book: The Wobblies in their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era, by Eric Thomas Chester
      • If one wants to know what it was like to live through and participate in one of the periods when a mass socialist labor movement was ascendant in the US, this book puts you in center of some of the pivotal moments. While many IWW histories have well-earned reputations for being heavy on details and light on story-telling, this book does a good job balancing narrative and historical events and trends. It is far from a comprehensive look at the IWW and rather just focuses on just three of the IWW’s most prominent campaigns between 1913-1917: agricultural worker organizing in California and copper miner organizing in Arizona and Montana. The second half of the book provides an in-depth treatment of how these campaigns provoked the federal government to single out the IWW for devastating repression at the onset of the US entry into WWI.
    • Blog: Organizing.Work
      • A blog that’s a collection of workplace organizing stories and theory. Most of the content is directly related to or about the Industrial Workers of the World, which is an anti-capitalist labor union in the US.
      • A couple of my favorite entries are this account of a multi-school sick-out by education assistants in Minneapolis and theoretical piece on “solidarity unionism“.
  • Biography

    • Article: Spadework, by Alyssa Battistoni.
      • Battistoni recounts her personal growth as an organizer and her experience getting deeply involved in the campaign to unionize grad students at Yale in the mid-2010s. The essay speaks to many of the often hidden but fundamental truths and tensions in organizing.
    • Book: Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, by Barbara Ransby.
      • This is a biography of the civil rights organizer Ella Baker.  It is my personal bible for grassroots organizing. I think her life’s work organizing on the ground is unparalleled in it’s longevity, attention to strategy, and emphasis on bottom-up democracy and direct action. We don’t hear about her much these days, but I think she’s more important in terms of history and in what can be learned from her life, than Martin Luther King, Jr., Tom Hayden, Saul Alinsky, and Malcolm X put together. Baker created and belonged to radical movements on the ground in ways that none of these other figures did. Of her colleague MLK, who she didn’t much get along with, she said, the “movement created Martin, and not Martin the movement.” Baker isn’t exactly an anarchist per se, but many anarchists, like former Black Panther and current anarchist writer and organizer Ashanti Alston, cite Ella Baker as an important influence.

Identity and Oppression Politics

  • The short version of my thoughts on identity politics is that when it’s mixed with liberalism and capitalism, it inevitably reproduces all the problems it’s trying to do away with. But when identity politics is integrated with a critique of capitalism and the state, then it is essential in helping us understand society and in strengthen radical social movements.
  • Video lecture: What Is Racial Capitalism and Why Does it Matter?, a talk by Robin D.G. Kelley
  • Article: Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-optation
    • This piece makes important arguments about how oppression politics play out in social movements, specifically looking at the complex dynamics within Occupy Oakland.
  • Article: Time Wise & The Failure of Privilege Discourse, by R.L. Stephens II
    • This post is on how much mainstream discussion around ‘privilege’ focuses on individual self-improvement to the exclusion of a politics of social transformation.
  • Article: Identity Crisis, by Salar Mohandesi
    • Looks at the history of socialism and identity politics through the lens of the major social movements of the 20th century.
  • Article: Idylls of the Liberal: The American Dreams of Mark Lilla and Ta-Nehisi Coates, by Asad Haider
    • There are two polar opposite views on race within liberal (pro-capitalist) mainstream politics: One pole sees discussion and struggle around issues of identity as a distraction from the “real” politics of economics and of governing society. The other pole sees identity as the only form of politics and sees economic issues as separate or a distraction. In this essay, Asad Haider critiques Mark Lilla as the spokesperson for former kind of liberalism and critiques T-Nehisi Coates as a dominant voice in the latter kind of liberalism.
  • Article: Class and Identity: Against Both/And, by Sophia Burns
    • This piece is about how capitalism and class are so deeply intertwined with oppression (e.g., white supremacy and patriarchy) that it’s impossible to try to fight one without fighting the other. My third piece on liberalism was going to be on this topic, but Burns says here everything I wanted to say in the first place.
  • Article: A Critique of Ally Politics, by M.
    • This post analyzes how when privileged people merely follow oppressed people, they are often wielding power without taking responsibility or being accountable for their actions.
  • Book: How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society, by Manning Marable
    • This is one of the classic texts on anti-Black racism in America. Unlike liberals who try to constantly separate capitalism from white supremacy, this book teases out how those two forces have intimately reinforced each other to create the circumstances we see today. The book illuminates the dynamics of class relations between white and Black America as well as pointed questions of class relationships within the Black community.
  • Book: Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, by Silvia Federici
    • This is the most famous Marxist feminist book. Like genocide of native peoples and enslavement of African peoples laid the white supremacist and colonialist foundation for the modern era, Federici argues that the rise of capitalism is has always been accompanied by massive patriarchal violence against women. She specifically looks at the witch trials in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s where in more than 100,000 women were killed and in which many more were tortured and how this violence was necessary to cement the foundation of patriarchy that was necessary for capital accumulation and the control of women’s bodies that continues to this day.
  • Article: The Combahee River Collective Statement by the Collective and Article: Race, Class, and Gender by Selma James
    • These are two canonical texts on the relation of race, gender, and class from the 1970s and are worth reading together.

Liberalism

  • What You Need to Know about Liberalism, series by me
    • Article: Part I: What It’s Made of, What It’s Missing, and What It Means for Organizing
      • This piece constructs a practical definition of liberalism, shows how it manifests itself in society, and looks at how its neglect of an analysis of power leads liberalism to subvert everything it claims to stand for.
    • Article: Part II: Capitalism and the State
      • This piece shows how liberalism subverts everything it claims to stand for through its reliance on capitalism. I’ve not been impressed by introductory pieces on anti-capitalism, so this is my attempt to lay out the basic conceptual foundations of capitalism, why it’s bad, and how it invariably leads to extreme inequality.

Liberal Institutions

  • Public Education

    • Article: Public K12 Education as a Capitalist Industry: A Political Guide for Radical Educators and Organizers, by me
      • On the surface public education appears to be immune to the worst parts of capitalism because it is publicly-funded and -run, there’s no profit motive, and there’s no commodity being brought to sale. However, if you dig deeper you discover that all the elements of traditionally capitalist factory production also apply to public education, just in a slightly modified form.
    • Book: Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, by Bowles and Gintis
      • This book applies political economy to the education system, showing how all the contradictions of capitalism show up within public schools.
    • Book: Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order, by Jon Shelton
      • The introduction and first chapter of this book provide a powerful analysis of the dramatic rise of teacher strikes in the 1960s and 1970s and how these strikes related to public sector labor law, New Deal liberalism, and the pivot towards neoliberalism. Particularly fascinating to me is how these teacher strikes were illegal in all states through the 60s but in response many states ended up passing laws legalizing teacher strikes. The authors of these bills intended to legalize strikes as a way to decrease their intensity and frequency by making teacher unions jump through more bureaucratic hoops before being allowed to strike and by increasing the penalties for striking illegally.
      • Chapter two shows how these teacher strikes often were racialized and gendered in a way that pitted under-paid white women professionals against poor, urban families of color. New Deal liberalism didn’t really have a way to solve this contradiction in part because of money needed to adequately pay educators and fund schools was being depleted by declining urban tax bases as middle-class whites moved to the suburbs and manufacturing jobs continued to leave Northern cities for the South and overseas. The way to overcome this contradiction was to refocus pressure on the rich in order to fund everyone’s needs, as the author alludes to, but politicians and the media were successful in this period in foreclosing those more radical opportunities in a way that still influences public education discourse today. The Chicago Teachers Union is one of the few educator unions of the era that successfully combined racial justice and union power.
      • Chapters 3-6 are a set of case-studies of the big strikes of the 1970s, and while it’s interesting it’s also much more dense and dry. I skimmed much of it and think others could to without missing much.
  • Non-Profits

  •  Prisons

  • Police

    • Article: The Myth of Liberal Policing, by Alex Vitale
      • Excerpt: “The reality is that the police have always been at the root of a system for managing and producing inequality. This is accomplished by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people in ways that benefit those already in positions of economic and political power. Police have always functioned as a force for controlling those on the losing end of these economic and political arrangements, quelling social upheavals that could no longer be managed by existing private, communal, and informal processes. This can be seen in the earliest origins of policing, which were tied to three basic social arrangements of inequality in the 18th century: slavery, colonialism, and the control of an industrial working class. This created what Allan Silver called a “policed society,” in which state power was significantly expanded to face down the demands for justice from those subject to these systems of domination and exploitation.”
    • Article: Origins of the Police, by David Whitehouse
    • Article: Policing Is a Dirty Job, But Nobody’s Gotta Do It: 6 Ideas for a Cop-Free World, by Jose Martin
      • This is about what could be instituted to replace police. I whole-heartedly agree but also think it’s important to note that the police can’t be abolished without abolishing capitalism.
  • Privatized Housing and Gentrification

    • Book: Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, by Samuel Stein
      • This book presents a political economy of gentrification, showing how powerful alliances between real estate capital and city governments create zoning and housing policies that are constantly tearing up communities and benefiting the rich.
    • Book: Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis
      • If you ever find yourself asking, “maybe capitalism isn’t that bad,” this book is one of the most fact-supported and well-argued correctives to that idea. With terrifying clarity Davis shows how widespread slums are in the global south, how far they fall short of the most basic housing needs of people, and how they have been created by neocolonialist machinations, international banking policies, and the negligence and powerlessness of the global human rights community.

Organizing and Social Movements

  • Strategy and Tactics

    • This is a collection of my blog posts on 1-on-1 organizing conversations
    • Article: Base-Building: Activist Networking or Organizing the Unorganized?, by Tim Horras
      • Excerpt: “The task of radicals, at present must be digging in deep to the class, going “to the masses,” building long-term relationships with layers of oppressed and working class people, and organizing in our neighborhoods and workplaces. This is the punishing, demoralizing grind work that activists prefer to avoid, but it constitutes the only way forward.”
    • Book: We Make the Road by Walking, by Horton and Freire
      • Two legends of popular education, Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, have a week long dialogue about their respective theories and practices of social change. The dialogue was recorded and then edited down into the form of a book. The ideas jump off the page and you can feel the energy and power of the two theorists as they talk through the role of political education in grassroots social movements.
    • Book: Rules for Radicals, by Saul Alinsky
      • Even though I disagree with half the ideas in this book, I think the other half is quite instructive and occasionally brilliant. Also, because Alinsky has been so influential, it’s worthwhile knowing the ideas of his you do disagree with to be able articulate why you disagree with them when you see them enacted in contemporary organizing. Much of the mainstream model of community organizing used today is primarily influenced by Alinsky and his followers, with all the good and bad that entails. Alinsky is also a really flashy writer, which makes him easier to swallow for new organizers than a lot of other content out there on organizing.
      • For some critiques of Alinsky’s method, check out these articles.
  • Theory

    • Book: Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, By Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward
      • One of the seminal texts in the social movement literature, this book argues that movements against economic inequality fail when they focus on electoral politics rather than of disruptive action to meet their goals. The authors make their argument by examining four social movements as case-studies: the movement of the unemployed during the Great Depression, the radical labor movement of the 1930s, the Civil Rights Movement, and the movement for welfare rights in the 1970s. I remember there being some wacky ideas I disagreed with in the concluding chapter, but the rest of it is gold.
    • Book: No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, by Jane McAlevey
      • This book features spot-on arguments about militant union strategy, labor history, and explanations for why today’s labor movement is so drab. Among other things, it breaks down the differences between organizing and mobilizing, and how the former is based in relationships that build power while that latter is based in surface-level protests that rely only on day-of protest numbers and media savvy instead of actual workers.
    • Book: This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, by Mark and Paul Engler
      • This book covers a lot of material about social movement history and dynamics. Of most interest to me was the comparison and contrasting of goal-oriented organizations with specific unified strategies that are active within larger social movements (think SNCC or the CIO) vs. spontaneous moments in movements with wide public participation where the politics, actions, and strategies are often more diverse and diffuse (think Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter). People in organizations tend to view these more spontaneous upswells as wasteful, lacking direction, and easily dismissed, but this book articulates the value of such moments towards bringing people in and changing popular perceptions more effectively and swiftly than any single organization can. Certainly, these two very different aspects of social movements each have strengths and limitations, but the book explains why it’s a mistake to impose our ideas about one onto our evaluations of the other.
      • The book also contains a history and defense of “strategic nonviolence”, which is a discourse and practice which I think is immensely valuable in many ways but not as universally applicable as the authors and others suppose.

Socialism and Economics

  • Article: My piece on Capitalism and the State.
    • Even though this is Part II on a series on liberalism, it is readable as a stand-alone piece on anti-capitalism. Along the way, I show how socialism differs from capitalism and how socialism might look if built from the bottom-up instead from the top-down.
  • Video: Noam Chomsky answering questions about socialism after a talk.
    • This is still to me the best and most clear way to define socialism: “The core of socialism was understood to be workers control over production.” Aka, workers having control of their workplaces, NOT giving control of the economy over to an elitist vanguard party like the Bolsheviks. He talks at length about how Lenin was a “right-wing deviation” of the socialist movement and how Leninism was at its heart an anti-socialist project.
  • Article: Socialism as a Set of Principles, by Nathan J. Robinson, at Cultural Affairs
    • This article is about how socialism is less about a rigid blueprint for society and more about the principle of democracy whereby people have the ability to make decisions about their lives in their neighborhoods and in their workplaces. In contrast, under capitalism the core decisions are made not be the people as a whole but by a tiny fraction of those who own capital (aka, the companies, the real estate, etc…)
  • Article: Capitalism Is Collectivism, by Samuel Miller-McDonald, at Cultural Affairs
    • Capitalists like to claim the banner of individualism, but Western mega-corporations are much more authoritarian and demanding of individual submission and conformity than anything related to socialism.
  • Book: Wall Street: How it Work and for Whom (free online download), by Doug Henwood
    • After reading the basics about socialism and capitalism some people really want to sink their teeth into how the contemporary economy works. For those who are craving this deeper understanding and with the motivation to cut through more dense topics, this book is a perfect introduction to what finance capital is, the role it plays in our economy and society, and is written from a critical and loosely socialist perspective. Among the topics Henwood explains in accessible but not dumbed-down language are the stock market, Wall St. banks, derivatives, government and corporate bonds, the relationship between savings and investment, the Federal Reserve Bank, Keynesian vs. laissez-faire policy, and a history of the corporate form.
  • Anarchism

    • Anarchism is a sub-category of socialism. Those socialists who believe that radical social change can be achieved outside of political parties and government elections are anarchists, whereas those socialists that believe in using political parties and government power are technically “state socialists”, but often, and confusingly, the term “socialist” is used as short-hand to refer to state socialists. Instead of the state, anarchists advocate using democratically run, bottom-up institutions in the form of labor unions, community organizations, and grassroots social movements to push for radical change.
    • Radio interview: about anarchism with Noam Chomsky
      • This is the 50-minute video that first introduced me to anarchism and radical politics, and for me it’s still the best and most cogent argument for comprehensive revolutionary change that I’ve come across. Almost every question that someone new to anarchism would have is addressed.
      • I like the audio version myself, but if you prefer to read, this is the transcript.
    • Book: Anarchism and the Black Revolution, by Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin
      • This book touches on a lot of different angles of the anarchist movement and is written by a veteran of both the Civil Rights Movement’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers. Lorenzo is still organizing and writing to this day.
      • Many who are curious about anarchism initially get frustrated about the lack of a fully-mapped out strategy for transforming society. This book contains one of the more detailed and appealing proposals for such a strategy that I’ve come across.

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