In a 4 January column for the Daily Wire, Dennis Prager, talk show host and founder of the partisan YouTube channel Prager U, opines that it is often very difficult to know what the left stands for or wants. Prager stresses that there is no standard book that might provide insight into the question:
It is not easy to understand what the Left—as opposed to liberals—stands for. If you ask a Christian what to read to learn the basics of Christianity, you will be told the Bible. If you ask a (religious) Jew, you will be told the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud. If you ask a Mormon, you will be told the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Ask a Muslim, and you will be told the Quran. But if you ask a leftist what one or two books you should read to understand leftism, every leftist will give you a different answer—or need some time to think it over. Few, if any, will suggest Marx’s “Das Kapital” because almost no leftists have read it and because you will either not finish the book or reject it as incoherent.
Prager makes a bad faith effort to understand leftism, offering a bizarre list of principles, anecdotes, and pathological diagnoses. He variously concludes that the left is fundamentally committed to “chaos,” that it is “emotion based,” “not mature,” “wants to dismantle everything” and “provides those who otherwise lack meaning something to cling to for meaning.” Many of these assertions are so vague it is difficult to make sense of them.
The left is a complex movement with a long, rich and sometimes disturbing history. It has included everything from liberation theology to Marxist materialism and everyone from logicians like Bertrand Russell to critics of reason like Jean-François Lyotard. In this respect, it is little different from the political right (well profiled by Roger Scruton in his recent book on the history of conservatism). But most historians of conservative thought acknowledge the differences between libertarianism, classical liberalism and traditionalism; and between those who call for the enforcement of a homogenous religious and national culture and those who see that as a horrifying use of tyrannical state power. The left is a broad church—but so is the right. Prager’s oversimplifications ironically demonstrate his own unwillingness to observe basic standards of rational deliberation.
Nonetheless, Prager’s meandering commentary demonstrates the need for clearer accounts of what the left believes. Ten books are especially crucial here. They by no means represent my own views: indeed, I am not especially fond of some of these authors. However, I hope they will provide some guidance on left-wing thought, for moderates or conservatives with more intellectual curiosity than Prager.
The Ten Books Every Leftist Should Know
- A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft
Wollstonecraft’s ground-breaking 1792 book is one of the earliest articulations of feminist theory and politics in the western world. It responds to the revolutionary era by calling for women to receive the same treatment as their male counterparts in many areas of life, including education and politics. Importantly, Wollstonecraft also criticizes classical liberalism for not living up to its own ideals of moral egalitarianism and civic virtue.
- The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Also written during an age of revolution, The Communist Manifesto is history’s most interesting and influential political pamphlet. While it lacks the theoretical richness and nuance of Marx’s Capital, the Manifesto lays out much of the framework of the Marxist critique of capitalism. Surprisingly, Marx and Engels spend a lot of time praising capitalism, as the most productive system in world history. They also admire its capacity to upend traditional forms of authority and enable higher degrees of rationalism and freedom. But the authors also point out that capitalism creates new structures of oppression and exploitation, rather than offering real freedom to everyone. They also develop an important theory of history, which claims that capitalism is only the latest economic system, built on the ruins of many others, and that one day a better system will emerge.
- The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
Once considered the Bible of second wave feminism, De Beauvoir’s heady tome helped move feminist analysis beyond the limitations of classical liberalism. Drawing on an impressive range of theoretical and historical materials, De Beauvoir analyzes the many ways in which women have been subordinated to men throughout history, generating a sense of psychological inadequacy in many women and producing damaging pathologies in men. Strikingly, she argues that male weakness drives patriarchy. De Beauvoir also stresses that girls are encouraged to subordinate themselves to men, by their mothers and other female role models. The book is not without its problems. Her famous injunction that “one is not born, but becomes a woman” anticipates later criticisms of gender essentialism, but it is unclear how much De Beauvoir feels gender is performed and socially determined and how much is due to biological sex. Nonetheless, the book is eminently readable.
- Black Skins, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
Fanon’s two classic books give voice to the racialized subjects of the colonial world. Born in the French colony of Martinique, Fanon came of age during the Second World War, when the racism and imperialism of European culture devastated Europe itself. Black Skins, White Masks discusses how racial minorities become disempowered through countless overt and subversive forms of racism, which are constructed and reproduced within society. It also analyzes how feelings of marginalization become internalized. The Wretched of the Earth is a manifesto on how colonized peoples can fight back, and includes lengthy and controversial analyses of the use of violence and the problems of appealing to culture. Both books are key to understanding anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements and various forms of critical race theory.
- The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith
Keynesian economics has inspired generations of social democrats and democratic socialists, and Galbraith’s book is one of the most important works in that tradition. Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is a brilliant manifesto, but it is dense and often surprisingly tedious. Rawls’ Theory of Justice is intellectually brilliant, but technical and dry. The Affluent Society, by contrast, is eminently readable. Galbraith argues that economists have focused far too much on abstract measures of economic well-being, such as GDP, and not nearly enough on the concrete question of how well each person is actually doing. Once we redirect our attention to individual well-being, we will recognize just how many people the capitalist economy can leave behind—and try to do something about that.
- Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault
In spite of his privately radical orientation, Foucault’s theoretical views can readily be used to support more reactionary positions. However, his influence on the left has been enormous, despite fierce debates on how to interpret him. Probably his most readable book, Discipline and Punish offers a genealogical analysis of the modern penal system. Foucault argues that our conception of punishment fundamentally changed in the late eighteenth century, when we shifted from targeting the bodies of criminals to influencing their minds. The book’s most famous image is Bentham’s panopticon: an ingeniously designed prison in which inmates would not know whether they were being watched. As a result, they would internalize the expectations of authority and discipline themselves, without the need for force. Foucault claims that modern society increasingly fits this disciplinary paradigm. In an age of constant surveillance and relentless pressure to conform, this may have been far sighted.
- Orientalism by Edward Said
Few books have inspired more left-wing analyses of culture and religion than Orientalism. Drawing on Michel Foucault and many others, it has influenced postmodern approaches to a range of disciplines. Said claims that the concept of the west is extremely ambiguous. Its stability has always depended on projecting the non-west as different and often inferior. The most obvious example is the west’s treatment of the Orient, which, for Said, is primarily those regions dominated by Islam. Said conducts a systematic analysis of how the Orient is represented in European and American art, history, science and other disciplines, concluding that such presentations are often highly stereotyped and misleading, and fail to take the differences between Islamic peoples seriously. Such depictions provided ideological ammunition for colonial and imperialist projects—with horrifying consequences that continue to this day.
- The Postmodern Condition by Jean François Lyotard
The Postmodern Condition is, in itself, not the most profound or well written book—but it was the right book at the right time. While he did not coin the term postmodernism, Lyotard provides its standard definition: a declining faith in meta or grand narratives, including those of religion, Enlightenment and, especially, Marxism. We should abandon such narratives, Lyotard implies, in favour of engaging in local struggles to establish a more pluralistic and free society. Lyotard’s book is the closest thing we have to an urtext of postmodernism.
- Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
Anyone who has read Judith Butler’s prose in Gender Trouble and its 1993 sequel Bodies that Matter will probably understand why she famously won a Bad Writing competition (in 1998). (Fortunately, Butler’s 1997 book The Psychic Life of Power, is a lot clearer.) But Gender Trouble remains Butler’s magnum opus and the most important theoretical statement of left-wing approaches to sex and gender. Butler argues that traditional feminist theory and the brand of identity politics influenced by it wrongly assume the existence of an essential woman, who is marginalized in the same way everywhere. Instead, Butler encourages us to see gender as performed in various ways at various different times. Efforts to destabilize our stereotyped visions of gender through parody can lead to more liberated kinds of gender expression. Queer theory and trans activism would not be the same without Butler.
- Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher
Slavoj Zizek’s Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism is the most important philosophical work to reintroduce Marxist ideology and dialectics to Gen Xers and millennials, but Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism was the most influential. Published in 2009, just as the first serious cracks in the neoliberal end of history ideology were appearing, the book opens with the melancholy observation that it is easier to envision the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Fisher describes how feelings of powerlessness and depression generate a sense of capitalist realism: the idea that the world cannot be fundamentally changed and we are ultimately insignificant cogs in a machine over which we have no control. This is depressing stuff—and, tragically, Fisher took his own life in 2017, while still in his 40s. But, since his death, his reputation has grown, largely because of his accessible prose and willingness to take music criticism and pop culture seriously as topics of theoretical analysis. As people on both the left and right increasingly reject neoliberalism, Fisher’s work will no doubt become even more important.
Many books that have inspired me personally—such as Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom and Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others—didn’t make this list. But these ten texts provide a good introduction to many of the most important streams of left-wing thought and have had a lasting impact.