- 1 Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1776)
- 2 Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke (1790)
- 3 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1791)
- 4 The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels (1848)
- 5 What Is To Be Done? by Vladimir Lenin (1901)
- 6 The Beveridge Report by William Beveridge (1942)
- 7 The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek (1945)
- 8 Animal Farm by George Orwell (1946)
- 9 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
- 10 Little Red Book by Chairman Mao (1965)
Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1776)
This is the all-time bestselling American political tract – and while Paine’s name is more closely associated with Rights of Man written 15 years later in praise of the French revolution, Common Sense was more directly influential. It made the case for American independence and the establishment of a republican democracy when both ideas were the preoccupations of a minority. Most Americans at this stage were still very attached to Britain’s “empire of liberty”, and wanted more self-government within it. Common Sense was brilliantly transformatory. Paine inspired and galvanised 2.5 million colonists to fight and win the war, and then the founding fathers to create the US constitution based on its principles.
Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke (1790)
Edmund Burke, a Whig MP – as well as an author, orator and philosopher – who had supported the American colonists in their struggle for independence, was unexpectedly a critic of the French revolution. He was powerfully in favour of liberty – but not the imposition of equality. The attempt to create it, against the natural order of things, would necessarily involve violent horrors before transmuting into dictatorship, he believed. Politicians needed to respect society’s organic roots in small, immutable platoons. Top-down sweeping attempts to change them could only fail. This has become one of the most influential conservative tracts of all time – the bible of those opposed to revolutions to promote egalitarianism
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1791)
Mary Wollstonecraft had already argued for the constitutional entrenchment of citizens’ rights, but she was galvanised to argue for the rights of women when the revolutionaries in the French National Assembly dismissed the case for educating women. Even the leaders of Europe’s greatest challenge against the old order believed that woman’s destiny, beset by her emotionality, sensibilities and biology, lay in the privacy of the home. Wollstonecraft irrefutably, even by the standards of the time, made the case for women’s co-education alongside men as their equal companions and the mothers of children. Not to educate women impoverished everyone. It was a landmark intervention foretelling the yet-to-be-completed equality between the sexes.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels (1848)
“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle,” Marx and Engels declared uncompromisingly. “Working men of all countries, unite!”, they urged, in a final struggle against the forces of capital. Europe’s bourgeoisie, in control of the new forces of capital that has superseded feudalism, objectively oppressed an industrial proletariat. The proletariat’s historical destiny was to overthrow bourgeois domination in a violent revolution from below. Workers had to combine with whatever progressive forces, a new communist era of progressive income tax, abolition of inheritance and free public education would be born, leading to a stateless and classless society. This was the inspiration that launched socialist ideas across Europe and would eventually lead to communist China and Russia.
What Is To Be Done? by Vladimir Lenin (1901)
More than 50 years after the communist manifesto there was little sign of the communist revolution that Marx and Engels had promised. There were bitter strikes and industrial unrest across Europe, but the auguries for a revolution from below seemed very distant – especially in Russia, where bourgeois capitalism had yet to transform Tsarist feudalism. Lenin’s answer to the question he posed was that the communist party had to take a vanguard role, educating workers about the exploitation they suffered and organising them politically into a coherent revolutionary force. This was not going to happen spontaneously, as Marx and Engels had foretold. What is to be Done? was the rationale for the communist party’s vanguard role in both Russia and China – both economies that in Marxist terms were far too undeveloped for communism.
The Beveridge Report by William Beveridge (1942)
This was the brilliant wartime report that became the bible of millions who never wanted to return to the 1930s – and who elected the Attlee government to deliver the modern welfare state. Beveridge inveighed against the five great evils that had disfigured pre-war society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease – and urged a comprehensive policy of social progress. It had to be led and organised by the state, he argued, but not to stifle the incentive to help oneself. He passionately believed in the insurance principle as a core part of the new settlement and was opposed to means testing; everyone should pay in to a system of national insurance and receive the same benefit. Similarly everyone should have the opportunity to banish disease through the creation of a decentralised national health service. It was the intellectual origin of the modern welfare state.
The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek (1945)
This is the source book of contemporary conservative thought – the inspiration for not merely the rebirth of laissez-faire economics over the last 40 years but the rise of libertarian individualism. Hayek denounced economic planning in all its guises – whether socialist , communist, fascist or mixed economy Keynesianism. The state, he argued, could only achieve its planning ends through coercion and the denial of liberty. It would become ever more tyrannous and oppressive, stifling the capacity of competitive free markets to solve economic problems creatively, and so ultimately lead to serfdom. by Keynes declared he agreed with its philosophy, but it was utterly impractical. It was to take Lady Thatcher, who constantly referred to it, and Ronald Reagan to turn Hayek’s maxims into public policy with results that will be permanently contested and challenged.
Animal Farm by George Orwell (1946)
This paradigm-changing novel by the democratic socialist and Observer writer George Orwell is a satire aimed at undermining Stalin and, as crucially, the admiration in which he was held by many in the British intelligentsia. The animals, led by two young pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, take over Manor Farm in an act of revolution and proceed to run it in the name of equality. What happens in practice is that Napoleon drives out Snowball and abandons all his plans for social improvement, works the gallant horse Boxer to death and turns into exactly the same figure as the farmer the animals displaced. “All animals are equal,” proclaims the now very fat pig, “but some are more equal than others.” Animal Farm became a byword for how Stalinism worked in practice, and snuffed out any realistic chance the British communist party had of becoming a major political force.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
This was the foundation of the modern environmental movement. Painstakingly and exhaustively researched, it exposed the widespread use of toxic pesticides to improve crop yields as a menace to nature and humanity alike. The title brilliantly captured the book’s core message – that human and natural life are interdependent, that today’s generation has a duty to itself and succeeding generations to organise itself so life is sustainable and that the price of not doing so is not only materially damaging – it risks silencing the tumult of nature as it comes to life in the Spring. The chemical industry attacked the book and its author – but its popularity not only forced changes to the way pesticides were administered, but triggered a much wider examination of what humans were – and are – doing to nature.
Little Red Book by Chairman Mao (1965)
This collection of Mao’s writings was the inspiration for the savageries of the cultural revolution. Its depiction of anyone with bourgeois sympathies, cultural tastes or lifestyle as necessarily an enemy of the people was used by Mao’s young Red guards – often students – to arrest, denounce, torture and murder anyone in authority for trumped-up reasons without trial or redress. It became the excuse for a purge from below, cementing Mao’s insecure hold on power as the economy and living standards stagnated. Up to half a million people, including humble teachers and nurses, are estimated to have been killed. The amoral savagery left an indelible mark on Deng Xiaoping, exiled and humiliated, who seized power in 1978 to implement the market-based reforms that have driven China’s astonishing rise to today’s economic pre-eminence.
This is part of the Observer’s 100 political classics that shaped the modern era. Please leave suggestions below of books that inspired and shaped your political consciousness and we’ll round up the best in next week’s Observer
Source: The Guardian