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OPINION: 6 books every leftist should read (and a few others)

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It’s a New Year, and I have a resolution I’d like to recommend: read some books! Leftists who want to be useful for social justice movements should be well-read in areas of history, philosophy and political economy. But for those who are just starting to get interested in the political left, where should you begin? 

Here are six books, and a few others, to read as an introduction to leftism. Some are classics, others will really only be useful for beginners, but all are enjoyable. And while this list is mainly intended for new leftists, conservatives should read these too, so they may engage with our actual ideas rather than strawmen.  

“Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” by Karl Marx 

This was the book that took me beyond Bernie Sanders-style politics. While it is perhaps the most difficult text here, it’s also very rewarding. This text contains an in-depth criticism of classical economists, as well as Karl Marx’s theory of how capitalism alienates workers. It also contains some beautifully poetic passages about a possible society in which money doesn’t rule over us, and we all have the freedom to seek self-realization.  

Afterward, you might also try “The Communist Manifesto” and “Wage Labor and Capital,” both free to read online.  

Related: [OPINION: Why American workers must unionize – and why that won’t be enough]

“The State and Revolution” by V.I. Lenin 

“So long as the state exists there is no freedom,” V.I. Lenin wrote in 1917. “When there is freedom, there will be no state.”  

Such a quotation might come as a shock for those who (wrongly) think socialism is whenever the state does anything.  

This fairly short and accessible work by Lenin contains the Marxist critique of the capitalist state and theorizes what a socialist state might look like. Even if you don’t think socialism is where the future is headed, Lenin’s critique of the state is still incisive and persuasive to this very day.  

If you enjoy the text, try Lenin’s slightly more difficult works “What is to Be Done?” and “Imperialism.” They all can be read for free online.  

“Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism” by Michael Parenti 

Sandwiched between an analysis of the relationship between fascism and capitalism and a defense of Marxism contains the tragic account of what happened when the Soviet Union fell. Whatever your thoughts on the U.S.S.R., it cannot be denied that its fall was a painful one for millions of people. I wrote a column on this subject largely drawing on Michael Parenti’s work.  

I highly recommend this book for anyone wondering just what happened at the so-called “end of history.” 

“Why Marx Was Right” by Terry Eagleton 

In this short work written for popular audiences, Terry Eagleton sets out to examine and debunk 10 common arguments made against Marxism. It’s both enlightening and entertaining, and tackles arguments claiming that leftwing politics are utopian or tyrannical. The book is most commendable in that it treats arguments against Marxism with seriousness — something the opponents of the left often fail to reciprocate.  

Related: [OPINION: How capitalism is driving the climate crisis]

“The People’s Republic of Walmart” by Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski 

This book is an accessible introduction to economic planning. It’s valuable for its critique of markets, and it lays out an argument that modern corporations like Walmart already do a great deal of planning. A socialist future, according to the authors, would involve democratizing the planning process already in place under capitalism. It’s also useful for its sections on the history of economic thought regarding markets and planning.  

 “The Conquest of Bread” by Peter Kropotkin 

Peter Kropotkin called himself an anarchist-communist, in distinction from “authoritarian” Marxism. This work contains a critique of capitalism from an anarchist perspective and sets out to present what an anarcho-communist society might look like. I personally don’t find the latter very persuasive, but I do enjoy chapters about “the need for luxury,” for example. Besides, I’d rather have a new leftist unpersuaded by Marx and Lenin turn to anarchism than resign themselves to hopeless, nothing-can-get-much-better liberalism. Read it for free online.  

Jared Quigg (he/him) is a junior studying journalism and political science.  

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