Verso, the left-leaning book publisher, recently came up with an essential undergraduate reading list on politics, philosophy, economics, literature, sociology or history. Most of it are very heavy stuff and would not be read by your ordinary student back in my alma mater (University of the Philippines Visayas). But most of the books listed there, sad to say, can be considered intellectual fads rather than serious inquiries on the world and serve as guide to change it.
Here are some of the books I read (and believe are essential) from The Essential Verso Undergraduate Reading List:
Top of the list, the second biggest-selling book ever published. This slim text is required university reading for any left leaning student (and your susceptible right wing chums). Not only is it a classic, but the basic principles of communism seem like a breath of fresh air compared to modern day-capitalism, even if it was written over a century and a half ago. The new edition contains an introduction by Eric Hobsbawm. It’s also a great introduction to the writings of Marx. Capital is more approachable after this one.
When the V&A did a recent retrospective about postmodernism, they dated it from 1970-1990. It was astonishing to wonder if a period of art and ideology had come and gone and all could be summed up with pop art and furniture? Frederic Jameson, the “theorist supreme” of postmodernism was one of the first to document the aesthetic change as a very social and political one too. Any reading of postmodernism includes this text, the classic of the cultural turn. It’s also a brilliant tool to learn about modernity preceding it, and why a change was brought about. Dense, but extensive and essential.
Okay, this may be the last one about Marx and quite possibly the best. Étienne Balibar examines all the key areas all the way from the Manifesto to Capital and the biggest ideas in a slim, concise 139 pages. No politics, economics, literature or philosophy students can go without this title.
Another book in the list that I read but did not appreciate that much is Pocket Pantheon: Figures of Postwar Philosophy by Alain Badiou. Well, there are some pretty good tributes to leading French philosophers that Badiou knew but it is far from the promise of the book’s marketers that it offers “A journey through twentieth-century philosophy with the titan of French thought.” Perhaps I expected too much from Badiou in this book.
There are two other books that I’ve read only sections or chapters of (and perhaps return to in the future): Mapping Ideology edited by Slavoj Žižek and Ideology: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton. Here are some other books in the list that I would love to read in the future:
One of those brilliantly unusual creations, The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat is a novel of political philosophy not too dissimilar to the likes of Sophie’s World. The book tells the story of Professor Caritat, who wanders through the neighbouring countries of Utilitaria, Communitaria and Libertaria (no prizes for guessing what those places are like) to find the best possible world. Some of the biggest ideas debated in under three hundred pages, it’s a work of complete originality and a choice introduction to political philosophy.
Keep this by your side when you attempt to read Marx’s Capital. No good bibliography has Marx without Harvey. David Harvey writes in a factual manner: informative, clear and engaging. This book doesn’t just aim to make Capital more accessible, it includes many critical interpretations and only serves to make Capital more relevant than ever.
Most of the books here are academic in nature and are largely for the purposes of churning out impressive papers for fellow academics. But as Marx always emphasizes, we must be more keen on how every theoretical apparatus can either serve or obstruct the concrete practice of liberation, of transforming the present. In this sense, there are other more essential texts that deserve our attention:
- Mao Zedong – Selected Writings: Five Volumes, Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong
- V.I. Lenin – What Is to Be Done, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, State and Revolution, Two Tactics of Social Democracy, “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism
- Friedrich Engels – Anti-Dühring, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
- Joseph Stalin – The Foundations of Leninism
- Jose Maria Sison – Struggle for National Democracy, Philippine Economy and Politics
- Karl Marx – Das Kapital, Wages, Prices and Profit, Civil War in France, Critique of the Gotha Program, Preface and Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
- Amado Guerrero – Philippine Society and Revolution, Specific Characteristics of Our People’s War, Our Urgent Tasks
- Armando Liwanag – Stand for Socialism Against Modern Revisionism, Reaffirm Our Basic Principles and Rectify Our Errors
And there are many others I can think of by Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Frantz Fanon, and so on. Perhaps that should merit a future post.