The Red and the Green
Iris Murdoch’s The Red and the Green (1965) is her ninth foray into fiction, the genre she became much more well-known for than her philosophical writing, which was a blend of existential agonising about the choices we make and explorations of morality and what might count as what is ‘good’. Murdoch was, at the beginning of the Second World War, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and you see lingering remains of her political commitment through her books, which I’m working through now.
This was her only historical novel. Murdoch was born in Dublin, and some of her earlier novels were also set in Ireland. She apparently did not have much sympathy for Irish Republicanism, but this book does trace through the different political positions in a very interesting way. The novel was meticulously researched and set in Dublin in 1916 in the lead up to the Easter Rising, with red passion and blood tying an Anglo-Irish family in incestuous and at times farcical relationships with each other and history.
A Darker Domain
Val McDermid’s A Darker Domain (2008) is an absorbing well-structured book set in the aftermath of the 1980s miners’ strike. McDermid a Scottish lesbian crime-writer, writing from the edge of mainstream culture, is a good and often radical observer of police work, sometimes perhaps a little too sympathetic to the plight of the plods but also attending to the slippery edges between internal corruption in the force and politics.
This book includes an explicit nod to David Peace’s harrowing and, at moments, impossible to bear account of the strike, GB84, but McDermid is here more in line with a BBC Sherwood-style bad apple and bad “external forces” approach to the police. There are also some implausible accounts of class relationships in this book that are crucial to the narrative. Still, this does make sense because there are some links between radical movements and how we remember the strike now.
Politics of the Mind
Iain Ferguson’s Politics of the Mind: Marxism and Mental Distress (2017) is a very good clearly-written account of debates around the labelling of ‘mental illness’ and attempts to find a way around the medical model’s reductionist individualising approach to what makes us sick in capitalist society. It explicitly brings Marxism to bear on what drives us mad, and does this in a way that does not write off the different accounts of distress given by those who suffer as being mere ideology or ‘false consciousness’.
There is a little too much sourcing of the debates in the circuit of people in or around International Socialists and the SWP, including, rather unbelievably, Alex Callinicos’s thoughts on related matters. But I managed to get over my own sectarian distaste at this partial account to eventually accept that Ferguson was anyway providing us a useful map of the territory. The book is at times irritating, but actually still a really useful introduction to the field for outsiders; a reminder that what we feel is not all in the mind.
Anders Bartonek and Anders Burman’s edited Hegelian Marxism: The Uses of Hegel’s Philosophy in Marxist Theory from Georg Lukacs to Slavoj Žižek (2018) brings together a series of essays on key figures in a tradition in Marxism that is, in my view, crucial for understanding the shape of the world and the possibilities for changing it. That tradition began in 1923, but Bartonek and Burman remind us that Lenin was well-versed in and sympathetic to Hegel, and there are essays on György Lukács, Karl Korsch, Evald Ilyenkov, and Herbert Marcuse, as well as a critical essay on iek.
Among other things, and this is clear in the very interesting essay by two Russian contributors, the book shows us what there was about Hegel that disturbed Stalin and his bureaucratic entourage, and how Hegel was wiped out of academic and research publications in the Soviet Union. This book is a voice for an alternative Marxist tradition both to Stalinism and to the reduction of politics to the economy. It gives us a different kind of “humanist” critique of what capitalism does to us and what collective consciousness of alienation and resistance we need to end it.
The Jacques Lacan Foundation
Susan Finlay’s The Jacques Lacan Foundation (2022) is a scathing and funny account of the internal machinations of one of the many competing psychoanalytic communities. There are plenty of contenders for the leadership of psychoanalysis after Freud’s death, both as a theory and practice, among organisations and individuals. The followers of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan are among the worst and most sectarian, with most of their venom directed at rivals that are closest to them.
Susan Finlay, who did an academic study using Lacan’s work at Manchester University before taking up a post as writer in residence at the Freud Museum in London, knows this world and the infighting that characterises it very well. In this book she has, as one of her main targets, Lacan’s son-in-law Jacques-Alain Miller, who still controls the publication rights to Lacan’s seminars. So, only here can you read about ‘Alain-Jacques Melange’s’ ‘mental translation’ of a lost Lacan case-book. I hope you laugh as much as I did.
These five books are each, in their own way, about capitalism and the way we are lured into dead-end alternatives to mobilisation against it. Reading is a distraction too, but a necessary one to enable us to take some time out before reconnecting, refreshed, with the struggle.
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