Christmas presents for the deeply tragic

November 28, 2010 § 7 Comments

I know Christmas is an age away and not everybody celebrates it, but some people seem to be buying gifts and this gave me an idea for a post that I hope will be useful.

As someone with an unhealthily high level of interest in all things global and political I have been the frequent recipient of that most kindly intended of gifts: the “book about politics”. Some have been really good, some have been bloody awful, and many have ended up in the big and growing pile of “books I definitely intend to read at some stage”. The problem the giver has is that unless they are as unhealthily obsessed as the recipient, it is very hard to tell what is a good book and what isn’t. So here is my list of books I have read and enjoyed, and which I think would make a very good gift for anyone who has ever uttered the phrase “spoilt ballot” in anger.


John Pilger’s Heroes is one of my favourite books. It is his autobiography but manages to barely mention his own life at all. Instead it talks about the people he’s met and the events he’s witnessed; these stories truly are extraordinary. He was the only western journalist to remain in Saigon as it fell to the North Vietnamese, he was the first journalist to re-enter Phnom Pen after year zero, and he was chatting in the kitchens of the Ambassador’s Hotel in San Francisco in 1968 when Sirhan Sirhan barged past him and shot Bobby Kennedy dead. All these stories are told with a simple compassion and humanity which means that even if you don’t fully subscribe to Pilger’s politics, you can’t help but be moved, and often outraged, by the stories he tells.

Samuel Huntington‘s The Clash of Civilizations: And the Remaking of World Order is much less fun but everyone should read it. It is not boring – its far too annoying to be boring, but it is heavy going. However, it is a fascinating treatment of the debate that seems to have taken over the foreign policy of the western world. It may be one of the world’s most misunderstood books: contrary to popular belief it does not say that a clash of civilizations is inevitable, nor does it say muslims are trying to take over the world. What it does do is rather simplify the world’s politics into a number of power blocks – this is the weakest part of the book and I don’t really buy his “civilizations”. However what he then does is explain why Fukuyama is wrong about everything and how and why development does not inevitably lead to an American style state – and nor is that necessarily a bad thing.

His central premise is a plea for tolerance and to live and let live, and accept that there are many different systems of government, that history is not necessarily linear, and that the western world does not have the monopoly on correct political thought. He also points out the incredible dangers inherent in the belief in the superiority of your own political system, and in trying to foist it on others. The “clash of civilizations” is something to be avoided at all costs, and something towards which current foreign policy is headed. He’s dead right about this and if foreign policy wonks ditched the Fukuyama and read it I would feel a damn sight safer. For this we can forgive the other weaknesses in the book: it was written before the current obsession with political Islam and to a certain extent 9/11 was seen as proving him right. However Islam and the middle east are clearly the subjects about which he knows the least, and these are the weakest sections of the book.

The best critiques of these weaknesses and the best debunking of the whole “civilization” side of the debate comes in Amartya Sen‘s Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. I’d also recommend Sen’s The Idea of Justice. Its an economics book so it occasionally borders on the tedious, but unlike other books on economics it is right about everything. His section on capabilities is guaranteed to have any centre-left liberal punching the air and yelling “exactly”. I assume if anyone who isn’t read it they’d say “oh yeah, that’s why I’m wrong about everything”.

On the subject of books which explain everything about everything (I’ll get back to fun books in a minute I promise) John RawlsA Theory of Justice is the perfect book for anyone in search of a political philosophy whose starting points are liberty and compassion. I believe that was also Gramsci‘s starting point and his Prison Notebooks are an incredible read. Gramsci was an Italian factory worker and communist MP in the 1920s and as such was thrown into prison by the fascists. At his trial the prosecutor famously said “we must stop this brain from working”. Prison did the opposite and for the eleven years he spent there until he died he wrote and wrote and wrote. And it is brilliant. Some regard it as being more anarchist than communist; I’m not sure it is either but more the work of a truly original thinker with a strong sense of justice. His work on hegemony and civil society is wonderfully logical – some of the other stuff gets a bit dense, and it was never written for the public. The abridged version is much more readable, although the full version looks pretty cool on your bookshelf.

Back to the fun stuff. Anonymous‘ (actually Joe Klein) Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics is about as fun as it gets. An only slightly fictionalised account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign, it is not just readable because of the brilliant thinly veiled portraits of the politicians of the era (James Carville as Richard Jemmons being my personal favourite) but because it is one of the most true depictions of an election campaign ever written. Anyone who has run an election anywhere in the world will recognise the descriptions of the manic atmosphere, the stupid lifestyle driven by the twenty hour working days, the candidate’s hissy fits, and the fridge with nothing in it but forty diet cokes and half a tub of Philadelphia. The sequel, the Running Mate, isn’t bad either.

Of course Hunter S. Thompson‘s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is also a great read and – amazingly – it is all true.


The war on terror has proven to be a lucrative industry for book writers. However the number of good books written on Pakistan remains small. Anatol Lieven‘s Pakistan: A Hard Country will hopefully help plug that gap when it comes out, but it is not due for another month. In the meantime read Tariq Ali’s The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power. I now realise it is a little simplistic and, despite the authors criticisms of the PPP, is dismissive enough of all the other political parties and movements to give a somewhat warped view of the situation. However for all that, it is a cracking book, and a fantastic read. It changed my life in that it turned a passing curiosity into a deep passion and at least one postgraduate degree. Warning: this book may encourage you to incur further student debt.


If there is a lot of rubbish written about Pakistan it is nothing compared to the mounds of gibberish spouted about Afghanistan. Next to the actively bad books are those which are good, insofar as they go, but suffer from lumping the whole of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and central Asia together; and from taking exclusively about geopolitical concerns without getting into the domestic politics which is key to the whole thing. Of the books to fall into this trap Ahmed Rashid‘s Descent into Chaos: The world’s most unstable region and the threat to global security is by far the best. However better still is to read Giotozzi‘s Empires of Mud: Wars and Warlords in Afghanistan which, through telling the very readable story of rise to power of the hodge-podge of psychopaths who constitute the major warlords of Afghanistan, does a brilliant job of explaining the politics on the ground.


There are loads of good books on India so I’ll suggest just one: Paul BrassThe Politics of India since Independence because it is short, it is to the point, it is very well written, and it is extraordinarily comprehensive.


Peter Hopkirk‘s The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia has to be the most exciting history book ever written. It tells the terrifying, occasionally farcical, and always fascinating, story of Russia and Britain’s exploration and conquest of Afghanistan and central Asia. The bits on the British are really interesting, but the bits on the Russians are just incredible.

Vive La Revolution is Mark Steel‘s very interesting, very readable, mercifully short, and occasionally very funny book on the French revolution. As Zhou Enlai said, it is still too early to tell what the impact of the French Revolution will be, but it has to be considered one of the most important events in world history. It’s a complicated story, but Mark Steel makes it fun.

Books for people who need to be more idealistic

If you view giving gifts in an exercise in social engineering (and who doesn’t?) then here are some books to turn the most apathetic of your friends and family into a raving idealist. Paul Collier‘s The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It explains global poverty, Paul Kingsnorth‘s One No, Many Yeses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement explains global activism. Subcommandante MarcosZapatista Stories should do the job for the under twelves.

Of course there are flaws with the arguments in some of these books, but they should do the job as polemics and to redress a balance. Alternatively if you want a book to inject some realism into a tedious hippie, try The Selfish Gene.

UK politics

I haven’t read anything recent worth reading, but I re-read Dennis Healey’s The Time of My Life recently and it reaffirmed my view that it is the best book that has ever been written about the politics of the UK.

The Dominican Republic

Mario Vergas Llosa‘s The Feast of the Goat tries to be both a Llosa novel and the story of the politics of the Dominican republic during and after the Trujillo regime. Whether you enjoy the former parts depends on whether you like Llosa novels: I don’t really. But the latter parts are gripping and really gives what feels to be an authentic picture of how the higher echelons of a Latin American military dictatorship really work.

Former Yugoslavia

I met someone who was once told by a former UN Secretary General that there is only one book which will teach you anything at all about politics anywhere in the Balkan peninsula and that is Herge‘s King Ottokar’s Sceptre

Swords And Ploughshares: Building Peace in the 21st Century is Paddy Ashdown‘s thoughts on his time as High Representative in Bosnia. He has a unique politicians insight into the system, as well as having spent more time with the detail of Bosnian politics than almost anybody else.

For a more human feel, there is a wealth of personal testimony and fiction. As with all large tragedies, this varies from the truly moving to the mawkish. Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95 and Emir Kusturicas film Life Is A Miracle are the best works I’ve come across.


Its not really politics, but given the world’s obsession with political Islam at the moment we would all do well to understand something about the religion. Reza Aslan‘s No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam is the perfect introduction for the non Muslim. You don’t really need to share his analysis – that Islam is going into a period of reformation – to enjoy his explanation of Islamic history, the current debates and schools of thought within Islam, and the politics and (often) apolitics of Islam. In his next book How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting Radical Islam: God, Globalization and the End of the War on Terror he deals with the issue of political Islam head on, with an intelligence and a nuance sadly rarely heard in the current debate.


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