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.”

Continue reading “The Souls of Black Folk”


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”

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”


Alllen Ginsberg

“America” is just a single poem. It is joined on this list by another piece from the same collection – the title poem from the 1956 work Howl, which inspired art, rebellion and political repression that defined a generation. By rights, the whole book oughta be here. But it’s not, given the parameters I set myself with this list. Only those texts that are most culturally-significant – those that we remember or those which, though forgotten, echo in important ways that would be understood by most folks in the English-speaking “west”. And so, while some poetry appears on this list in book-form – Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads for example, which is known as a whole work more than as individual poems –  Allen Ginsberg’s Howl-the-collection must give way to “Howl” the poem and this, his “America”. Continue reading “America”

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?”

Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Mary Wollstonecraft

One of the earliest of feminist political statements, Mary Wollstonecraft’s argument for the political rights of women and investment in women’s education sought to extend the principles of republican democracy associated with the French and American revolutions to the question of gender relations, and proved a foundational text not only of early feminism but of democratic theory more generally.

Much of the basis of Wollstonecraft’s argument is the common good – women, excluded from education and public life, can not adequately educate their own children nor contribute fully to the society at large; indeed, to not educate women poses a fundamental danger, weakening their ability to reason and making them a problem men must manage rather than a citizenry capable of managing its own affairs. But a moral argument is provided as well – that women and men are equally human in the eyes of God, both endowed with the capacity for rational thought, and therefore subject to the same moral laws.

An active player, with her husband William Godwin, in the debates around democracy and republicanism that raged at the time, Mary Wollstonecraft was well-placed to influence some of the leading liberal thinkers and politicians of the day. And her book was indeed well-received at first, becoming a central reference point in the wider debate around sex and gender that was a regular part of political discussion. Following her death, however, Godwin published his own memoirs of life with Mary Wollstonecraft, celebrating (he thought) her unorthodoxy and revealing in the process her multiple love affairs, her illegitimate child, and her struggles with depression. The result was a backlash against Wollstonecraft’s work as the revelations of her personal behaviour overshadowed the arguments she had put forward. For decades Vindication remained out of print, and it was only in the twentieth century, as the suffrage movement grew and writers such as Virginia Wolfe began returning to Wollstonecraft for inspiration, that her memory was rehabilitated and her historical importance recognized.


“Jerusalem” (from Milton)
William Blake

Known by many as a hymn and contender for an unofficial anthem of the United Kingdom, William Blake’s short poem is actually an excerpt from a preface to one of his greatest works, the epic Milton.

Based upon the mythology of a young Jesus’ visit to Glastonbury, England, the lines of “Jerusalem” prophecy the second coming, the return of Christ to construct the kingdom of God, “the new Jerusalem”, here on earth. But the mystic and spiritualist Blake was equally a fierce revolutionary, and the poem leaves no doubt that the “new Jerusalem” imagined stands in contrast to the “satanic mills” of industrial capitalism. Mind, imagination, the sword are all called upon in the struggle to build heaven on earth – not only with the return of the saviour, but here, now, everyday.

It is dismaying that Jerusalem has become a hymn to patriotism, an anthem of England, an institutional song of an institutional church. Certainly this was not Blake’s intent – Blake the madman, Blake the sensualist, Blake the revolutionary, Blake the condemner of slavery, the proponent of free love, the theologian of humankind’s divinity and God’s humanity.

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. So begins one of the best-known works of fiction ever, full stop. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities follows London and Paris in the years immediately preceding and immediately following the 1789 French Revolution.

Taking as its inspiration a non-fiction account of the revolution by Thomas Carlyle, A Tale… is not your typically-tragicomic Dickens, but an attempt to tell the real dynamics of the revolution in story form. The brutality of the pre-revolutionary monarchy and the widespread immiseration of the French peasantry; the revolution’s fall from righteous rage and hope to indiscriminate  murderousness in the years after 1789; the parellels Dickens recognized in the England of the same time – this is Dickens weaving personal tales out of Carlyle’s anlaysis of the lives of states and populations as cycles of destruction, re-birth, destruction.

150 years and 200 million copies later, there are few novels that can match its legacy.

Steal This Book

Steal This Book
Abbie Hoffman

“It’s embarrassing when you try to overthrow the government and end up on the best sellers’ list.” That, they say, was Abbie Hoffman’s response to the book’s massive success. Written as a collection of advice to activists in the America he referred to as “the pig empire”, Steal This Book long ago surpassed in impact and longevity the book that was intended to be the manifesto of the late 1960s radical student left – fellow Yippie Jerry Rubin’s Do It! (A book, by the way, that anyone interested in radical politics or the 60s counter-culture really ought to pick up, despite the fact that it didn’t quite make this list.)

Wanna grow pot? Make a bomb? Run away to form a commune? Get ridiculous stuff for free – including a buffalo courtesy of the U.S. government? Steal stuff – the only  truly moral response to an empire by and for corporations? Then do indeed start here. Steal Steal This Book and know why that tiny little outfit called the Yippies – who tried to run a pig for president and make a revolution on lots of sex, lots of drugs and a complete disdain for work – was both so important and so deluded.

I confess – we bought our copy. But it’s signed, so it was up high behind the counter, and the guy just wouldn’t leave his post at the till.

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