Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

What’s a good leftist book for a liberal who is looking to learn more about the left?

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HarveyI asked this question on Twitter the other day, got a lot of interesting suggestions, and several people asked me to post it.  If you suggested any of these to me, and would like credit, let me know (since I didn’t say I was doing that ahead of time, I didn’t want to do it without asking). I’d love to hear more from people about their thoughts, and I’m glad to add more books if you have further suggestions. I’ve left off a couple that were either jokes or that I think missed what I was getting at–it’s possible I missed some.

I’m less interested in a book that a liberal would like than one that would be a good starting point if they are looking to explore beyond where they are today. Of course, asking this question leaves two crucial ones unanswered–what do we mean by liberal and what do we mean by left? I left these terms vague because I was curious to see what people’s answers were without me imposing my definitions. My sense is that this list leans U.S.-centric and white male. And it’s also true that different books would make sense for different people.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

And here’s the list, in no particular order:

Howard Zinn, The People’s History of the United States

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism 

Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything

Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, Labor’s Untold Story: The Adventure Story of the Battles, Betrayals and Victories of American Working Men and Women

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed 

Richard D. Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism

Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, Death of a Yuppie Dream

Michelle Alexander,  The New Jim Crow 

Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation

Michael Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future

Benjamin Kunkel, Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis 

Sam Pizzigatti, The Rich Don’t Always Win

Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America 

Andre Lourde, Sister Outsider

G. A. Cohen, Why Not Socialism?

Jacques Ranciere,  Dissensus

Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class

Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

Mariana Mazzucatto, The Entrepreneurial State

Postscript: One other thing you can do is join a Jacobin magazine reading group. Don’t study collective action alone.

Postscript Two: If you are in the DC area and interested in a Jacobin reading group, check us out here (we do books too).


Written by David Kaib

December 7, 2014 at 11:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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7 Responses

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  1. I see how it is


    December 7, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    • I don’t know which Bruenig this is.

      David Kaib

      December 7, 2014 at 11:14 pm

      • The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, and Poetic Terrorism

        chaos never died.

        an elegy for the death of autonomous spaces outside of the grasp of the state and capital

        demanding that you can create your own autonomous spaces through art, poetry, dance, and other expressions of affirmative joy.

        a call to break with the hierarchies and orders of late capitalist life – and the delusions about Law and Self and God that they entail – and to instead embrace the passionate chaos of being itself.

        “Don’t just survive while waiting for someone’s revolution to clear your head…. act as if you were already free.”


        December 8, 2014 at 9:08 am

      • You know. The one you snubbed. Gianni at least respects the TAZ.


        December 8, 2014 at 12:30 pm

  2. Of this list, I’ve read six:

    Howard Zinn, The People’s History of the United States
    Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine
    Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything
    Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
    Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class
    Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation

    I have not read Rick Wolff’s book, but I’ve liked any of the shorter things I’ve read by him.

    The two Klein books are very good. Her books are revealing/insightful and approachable. I liked Zinn’s book, and as far as I remember, I liked Kazin’s. I read it two years ago, but I don’t remember if I had any strong opinions (whether favorable, unfavorable, or mixed).

    I would not recommend Death of the Liberal Class. I gave up a couple of chapters into it after getting very irritated with his cursory his treatment of World War I. My graduate dissertation covered this period, and I was annoyed to see him brush off the anti-war movement so quickly. He has a tendency toward generalization which runs counter to sound historical analysis.

    However, Hedges’s style/tone can also be somewhat grating. He writes as an old “fire and brimstone” Puritan preacher. A fire against injustice is good, but, in Hedges’s writing, it can become tiresome.

    I would contrast this with Michelle Alexander’s style of writing. Alexander’s writing is filled with a deep empathy and a passionate indignation about injustice (which stems from her empathetic humanism) that is never tiresome but rather always enriching or rejuvenating. The New New Jim Crow is a very powerful book with a clear and compelling argument, with a wealth of research to back it up. It’s also great for showing how disastrous of a president Bill Clinton was.

  3. Along the lines of Wolff I’d recommend anything by Gar Alperovitz but especially What Then Must We Do? ( for a grounded analysis of specific forms of ownership that challenge capitalism at the levels of production and in the street.

    I came to radicalization from an awkward angle – via music and art. I wouldn’t recommend that path except for anyone stuck at that dead end of feeling as though their choices for sharing their creativity are either being broke or ‘selling out.’ For me, John Berger’s essays connected left theory with the materiality of working with my hands. Also, Ben Davis’s recent 9.5 Theses on Art and Class is a nice door into orthodox Marxist thinking about art practice.


    December 8, 2014 at 1:45 pm

  4. […] What’s a good leftist book for a liberal who is looking to learn more about the left? […]

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