Miscellaneous Social Analysis

Carl von Clausewitz, On War
      Classic analysis of war and military strategy. The abridged Penguin edition (ed. Anatol Rapoport) contains the chapters of most enduring general interest.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty; The Subjection of Women  [1859, 1869]
      On Liberty is one of the most eloquent defenses of freedom of thought and expression ever written. Some freedoms, of course, are only disguised forms of class domination (e.g. “freedom of trade”), so Mill’s analysis when he ventures into those areas must be taken with a grain of salt. The Subjection of Women is just one of the pioneering feminist works written by Mill and his wife Harriet Taylor Mill. For the others, see Essays on Sex Equality (ed. Alice Rossi).

Clarence Darrow, Resist Not Evil  [1902]
      This little book by America’s most admirable lawyer begins by noting the exploitive role of states and armies, but concentrates primarily on demonstrating the evil and folly of prisons, law courts, and the entire criminal “justice” system. A shorter statement of the same positions can be found in Darrow’s Address to the Prisoners in the Chicago Jail.

Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence  [1908]
      Trenchant defense of class violence and the tactic of general strikes. From Georges Sorel (ed. John L. Stanley) is a good selection of other writings by this erratic but often insightful thinker.

Randolph Bourne  [1886-1918]
      Bourne is most remembered for his lucid and courageous analysis of the patriotic hysteria that followed America’s entry into World War I. The most important of his essays, “War Is the Health of the State,” is online here. Others can be found in several different anthologies of his writings.

George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism  [1937]
      There is much that is dated and dubious in this work — it largely argues in favor of a genuine social-democratic welfare state — but also lots of lively and provocative social criticism.

Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: A Study of the Writing and Acting of History  [1940]
      Interesting examinations of Babeuf, Fourier, Michelet, Renan, Taine, Marx, Engels, Lassalle, Bakunin, Lenin and Trotsky. Josef Weber’s article The Problem of Social Consciousness in Our Time includes some penetrating appreciations and critiques of this book.

George Orwell  [1903-1950]
      Orwell is deservedly admired because of his efforts to combine a radical social practice with “common decency,” a modest, low-key personal style, and a concern with down-to-earth issues of everyday life. He is not really all that radical, nor is he free from compromises or confusions. But virtually all of his nonfiction is worth reading — Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia, and his rich array of essays and reviews (see the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell). Of his six novels, 1984 and Animal Farm are of course basic. The others are all mildly interesting. The weakest is A Clergyman’s Daughter, but even it has one powerful section (the dramatic chorus of homeless folks at the beginning of chapter 3).

Anton Pannekoek, Workers’ Councils  [1950]
      Still the classic work on this crucial topic. Pannekoek’s other book, Lenin as Philosopher, is a more specialized work, concerned with critiquing Lenin’s pseudo-Marxian philosophy.
      For more recent discussions of workers councils and related forms of revolutionary self-organization, see René Riesel’s article on councils, Raoul Vaneigem’s little book on Total Self-Management, and the last two chapters of “The Joy of Revolution”.

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia  [1951]
      I’ve never found the Frankfort School (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, etc.) very interesting. Their best insights can be found more clearly and concisely expressed in Marx, Lukács, Korsch, Reich or the situationists. Their turgid style and equivocal content make it only too obvious that they are academics, and their primary appeal is to other academics, to whom they provide a reassuring legitimation of the notion that there is something radical about endlessly rehashing abstruse philosophical issues without ever arriving at any practical decision. If you want to sample the Frankfort School at its best, you might try Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Its Nietzsche-style aphoristical form tends to produce more concise and provocative remarks on a variety of subjects. But even so, notice how many of Adorno’s observations amount to a helpless resignation, the sense that one can do nothing because the system has conquered all. (“There is nothing innocuous left. . . . There is no way out of the entanglement. . . .”) It’s all so gloomy and dispiriting. Nietzsche is just as scathing, but so much more invigorating.

Walter Benjamin  [1892-1940]
      Somewhat the same criticisms could be made of Walter Benjamin as of the Frankfort School, but to me he seems less pretentious, more open, honest and sympathetic. Illuminations and Reflections present some good selections of his essays and other writings.

Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power  [1957]
      A comprehensive examination of what used to be referred to as the “Asiatic” type of totalitarian social systems. The author also refers to them as “hydraulic” systems, because agricultural economies that involve the coordination of extensive irrigation works have tended to produce and reinforce this kind of highly centralized state.

Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens  [1950]
      An interesting study of the play element in culture.

Lewis Mumford, The City in History  [1961]
      This is one of the best overviews of history ever written. In the process of examining the pros and cons of every type of past society, Mumford implicitly brings into view the factors that would make for a truly human community. Of Mumford’s many other books I recommend Technics and Civilization, a critical analysis of technological development whose sober insights contrast glaringly with the simplistic hot air spouted about this topic by both technophiles and technophobes; and Interpretations and Forecasts: 1922-1972, a sampling of his essays on a wide range of other topics, from literature and art to science and religion.

Paul Goodman  [1911-1972]
      Paul Goodman is another independent social critic I think very highly of. He somehow manages to be imaginative and practical at the same time — a rare combination. Read Communitas (a marvelous book about cities and city planning) and at least some of his essays. Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals is a good general selection. There are many other collections devoted to specific areas: literature (Creator Spirit Come), media (Format and Anxiety), youth (Growing Up Absurd), education (Compulsory Mis-education, The Community of Scholars), psychology (Nature Heals, Gestalt Psychology), politics (Drawing the Line, People or Personnel, Like a Conquered Province, New Reformation).
      Here is his essay on radical filmmaking. And here is another, Banning Cars from Manhattan.

Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction  [1977]
      This book by architect Christopher Alexander and his colleagues has some of the imaginative freshness of Goodman’s Communitas. Though less radical, it is much more comprehensive, going into detail about 253 different “patterns” (topics or themes), ranging from broad issues of community planning to fine points of arranging the rooms you live in.

Daniel Boorstin, The Image
      Conservative but insightful examination of the spectacularization of American society. See Debord’s critiques of this book in The Society of the Spectacle ##197-200.

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda  [1962]
      An excellent study of the manipulation of social consciousness, not just by means of propaganda in the narrow sense, but also in a broader, more all-pervasive sense approximating in some ways to Debord’s concept of the spectacle.

Joseph Gabel, False Consciousness  [1962]
      Examination of the parallels between social and psychological forms of false consciousness. See Debord’s allusions to this book in the last chapter of The Society of the Spectacle.

Josef Weber et al., Contemporary Issues: A Magazine for a Democracy of Content
An unusually high-quality radical journal published in London and New York from 1948-1970. See my critical appreciation, Josef Weber and Contemporary Issues and three articles by Weber, The Great Utopia; The Problem of Social Consciousness in Our Time; and Appeal for an English Edition of Diderot’s Jack the Fatalist.

Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life; Everyday Life in the Modern World  [1958, 1968]
      Lefebvre has lots of illuminating insights on life in modern capitalist society, but they aren’t very well organized and you have to wade through a lot of turgid verbosity to find them. Compare the conciseness and lucidity of Debord’s text on the same topic: Perspectives for Conscious Changes in Everyday Life (which incidentally was originally presented at a conference convened by Lefebvre).

Cornelius Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings (3 vols.)
The first two volumes of this set (ed. David Ames Curtis) contain the earliest and most valuable of Castoriadis’s work (1946-1960), when he was one of the key contributors to the ultraleftist journal Socialisme ou Barbarie. The third volume (1961-1979) contains more hot air, as he was becoming more academic and ideological.

Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals  [1971]
      Alinsky was a professional “community organizer” who would be hired by progressive groups to help arouse and bring together different sectors of a community so as to challenge the status quo and win reforms. His goals were usually rather limited and his methods often involved very dubious compromises (with local politicians, businesses, churches, etc.). Nevertheless, Rules for Radicals is packed with provocative and sometimes downright ingenious tactics that might be adapted for more radical purposes. His earlier book, Reveille for Radicals, is not so interesting.

Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (3 vols.)  [1973]
      This is by far the most lucid and thorough exposition of nonviolent tactics I have ever seen. Sharp does not base his study on abstract ethical arguments, but on practical historical experience. In the second volume, The Methods of Nonviolent Action (the most important one if you aren’t sure you want to read the whole thing), he examines the pros and cons of no fewer than 198 specific tactics, in each case giving historical examples of how they worked or failed in practice. Because many of these tactics (strikes, boycotts, etc.) are generally valid and essential, this work is recommended for all radicals, not just for pacifists.
      [Advantages and Limits of Nonviolence]

C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law  [1957]
      “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” See below.

Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle  [1969]
      “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Though often hilarious, these two little works are full of insightful social analysis. Parkinson and Peter have each written several other interesting and entertaining books on related themes.


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).

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