Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk
W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBois’ collection of essays is a foundational work not just of the politics of race in America, but of processes of racialization and of sociology in general. Based upon a series of articles first published in The Atlantic Monthly it is at once a work of history, political struggle, social theory and literature. The Souls of Black Folk is huge. And essential reading for anyone who wants to examine how social relationships are built, maintained, and potentially transformed. As a biographer wrote, “Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. Souls… justified the pursuit of higher education for Negroes and thus contributed to the rise of the black middle class. By describing a global color-line, Du Bois anticipated pan-Africanism and colonial revolutions in the Third World. Moreover, this stunning critique of how ‘race’ is lived through the normal aspects of daily life is central to what would become known as ‘whiteness studies’ a century later.”

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The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Published in the west beginning in 1974, Solzhenitsyn’s massive discussion of forced labour in the USSR was widely circulated underground in that country until 1989, and is now part of Russia’s standard high school curriculum. The Gulag – an acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps – was a network of forced labour facilities most notable for its punitive use against political prisoners and critics of the state, which was largely downplayed if not outright denied in the Soviet bloc and came to represent to critical socialists the very worst of Stalinist totalitarianism and to pro-Western advocates the natural outcome of the socialist project. Solzhenitsyn described a vast penal apparatus that functioned both politically and economically – to isolate ‘anti-social’ and anti-state elements while serving as quiet deterrent to the general population and provide a massive pool of effectively-slave labour for the construction of infrastructure and public works. Continue reading “The Gulag Archipelago”


Edward Said

Said’s analysis of power and knowledge as they appear in Western representations of the Middle East has become a classic text of post-colonial theory and has entered the canon of post-structuralism more generally – though Said, it should be noted, considered his work to be firmly grounded within the humanist tradition to arise out of the Enlightenment. Rooted in historical and literary analysis, it argues, in short, that Western perceptions about the Middle East are based not on actual knowledge of the region but on a long-standing archtypical conception in which something called ‘the East’ is fundamentally dissimilar to and at odds with something called ‘the West’. Continue reading “Orientalism”

A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal
Jonathan Swift

“A burlesque of projects concerning the poor” it has been called. Swift’s little satire on commodification of human life, the ‘roll-up-your-sleeves’, ‘can-do’ attitude to social ills and the political economy of emergent industrial capitalism has become a standard cultural reference point, its title a part of everyday parlance. It’s the name of a student newspaper in Dallas, it is referenced in books and films and journalism regularly, and it even provided a major source of inspiration for the classic slasher film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Continue reading “A Modest Proposal”

The German Ideology

The German Ideology
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Before there was The Communist Manifesto there was The German Ideology, Marx’ and Engels’ first thorough articulation of the theoretical framework that would come to be called Marxism – its historical materialism, its critique of capitalism, its idea of socialism. It is, really, an outline or notebook, a text in which Marx and Engels work through the insights and critical appraisals of other thinkers in order to set out what’s different about their own analysis. That is, The German Ideology is not the place to go for the most sophisticated or polished word on Marx’s framework; but it is the place to go to see how Marx got to his framework, how he put it all together in the early years, and where the origins lie of so many other of his and Engels’ works. Continue reading “The German Ideology”

First Principles

First Principles
Herbert Spencer

In London’s Highgate Cemetary, the tombstone of Karl Marx looks out over another slab of rock, this one marking the interred remains of Herbert Spencer – at least as well-known and intellectually significant in in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but largely forgotten shortly thereafter but for this simple phrase, “survival of the fittest”. Yup. That’s Spencer. Sociologist, biologist, philosopher, political theorist, radical democrat-turned-conservative, and the guy who planned to lay out for all the world to see a universal science/ philosophy in which the progressive force of evolution explained not only biological development but psychology, social order, and political life. Not enough? Not just evolutionary process but a rule of universal natural law would explain just about everything, once it was identified and explained. And Spencer figured he was the man to do it.

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What Is To Be Done?

What Is To Be Done?
V. I. Lenin

There is, obviously, no single traceable text or single cause behind the rise of the Bolshevik Party, which seized power in Russia in 1917 to establish the world’s first socialist state and which would – rivaled only by the holocaust and the Second World War – come to define the twentieth century. If you’re looking for somewhere to begin, though, this little booklet by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – or V.I. Lenin as he is known – is a good choice. Theoretician, organizer and a key leader of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), Ulyanov went into exile in 1900 after a number of years of communist propagandizing and organizing in Russia. In 1902, he took the alias “Lenin” and penned a short book that would shake the world. Continue reading “What Is To Be Done?”


Thomas Hobbes

Written amidst the chaos of the English civil war as Cromwell’s roundheads faced off against monarchists and innumerable radical political and religious communities sprung up in the cracks, Thomas Hobbes’ call for a strong central government to command order and to restore and uphold the social contract remains one of the world’s most influential books on political philosophy.

Hobbes’ politics is explicitly rooted in his conception of human nature and what he deems to be the natural state of human existence – the war of all against all, encapsulated in his most-famous statement that life before the social contract and the state is always and everywhere “nasty, brutish and short”. Competition, selfishness, individual advancement at the expense of others – this is the natural drive of man, and is only held in abeyance by the real and legitimate fear/ knowledge that all others are motivated by the same self-interest and hence that the state of war is unending. Recognizing this, humankind is motivated to compromise – to surrender some of its own perfect freedom for protection against the unchecked freedom of others. The social contract and its political expression, the state, arises, then, from a general recognition of the tension between security and human freedom – “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself“. Selfish brutes that we are, we will kill or be killed unless there is something stopping us. A general consensus forms out of our instinct for self-preservation – I’ll rein in some of my impulses, you rein in some of yours. And we’ll set up someone with strength and power to enforce that compromise. That’s the gist of it.

Democracy, aristocracy, monarchy – whatever the form government takes, it is based on the premise of social contract as a means of protecting us from ourselves, says Hobbes. His preference, of course, was monarchy – not surprising given his dim view of human nature, which leads fairly easily to the conclusion that security and order are paramount (and hence the term ‘leviathan’, the great and sovereign power of enforcement). And so Hobbes pretty consistently takes a beating from those who think of themselves as ‘progressive’ or in any way left-ish, and his name has become synonymous with the most pessimistic view of human potential for goodness and for state policies that emphasize mistrust and discipline. And fair enough. There is no doubt that Hobbes privileged order over freedom, nor that his portrayal of our natural state as selfish and violent and insecure continues to exert dangerous influence in policy-making. But there’s more here, too. There is Hobbes’ call for full legal equality, on the basis that we all equally surrender our freedom to the state; there is Hobbes’ call for public works and social infrastructure – funded by general taxation – to support those in need. But in all, Hobbes thought us petty, pathetic creatures. While the other great theorist of human nature and social contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, presents a political theory that is rooted in the possible, in what-we-ought-aspire-to, Hobbes’ project is a different one, more akin to Machiavelli’s reflections on statecraft – a project grounded in the pessimism that is realpolitik. And politics, of course, exists where these meet, in the tensions, contradictions and compromises between what is what might be, between what we fear and what we hope, between the practicable and the possible.


Mikhail Gorbachev

Translated to English as ‘restructuring’, Perestroika was the term coined by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for his wide-ranging program of political and economic restructuring – a program which initiated a half-decade of rapid transition culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union altogether, profound crisis for the socialist left around the world, and the end of the Cold War. The book, then, is not the significant issue here. Rather, it is important as a discussion of a tremendously-significant time in modern history and as a document of economic, geopolitical and cultural upheaval that re-drew the socio-political borders of the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Continue reading “Perestroika”

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