The best books about communists

6 authors have picked their favorite books about communists and why they recommend each book.

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The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen,

Book cover of The Sympathizer: A Novel

The narrator of this novel is a North Vietnamese spy embedded in a South Vietnamese refugee community in California. Full of treachery, duplicity, and betrayal, it is also hilariously funny. More than any other novel I’ve read, it captures the milieu of exile perfectly. Waiters, taxi drivers, and corner-store owners plotting murder in California and counter-revolution back home; wars from across the ocean fought all over again on the streets of Los Angeles. Every modern tale of exile resonates in this novel.

Who am I?

In 2010, I met a Somali refugee in Cape Town. His name was Asad Abdullahi. He told the tale of his life with a richness bordering on genius and I was hooked. I spent the next two years tracing his childhood footsteps through the Horn of Africa, looking for anyone and everyone he had encountered. In the course of writing a book about him, I read countless other books about exile, migration, and human beings on the move. My five recommendations are among the books that helped me imagine the experience of exile best. 

I wrote...

A Man of Good Hope

By Jonny Steinberg,

Book cover of A Man of Good Hope

What is my book about?

This book tells the story of a young Somali man, Asad Abdullahi. Separated from his family at the age of seven at the onset of civil war, he spent his childhood roaming the streets of East Africa.

Aged 19, Asad put $1,200 in his pocket and headed down the length of the African continent to Johannesburg to make his fortune. So began an adventure in a country richer and more violent than he could have imagined. A Man of Good Hope is the story of a person shorn of the things we have come to believe make us human – personal possessions, parents, siblings. And yet Asad is an intensely human life, one suffused with desires and a need to leave something of permanence on this earth.

Love and Capital

By Mary Gabriel,

Book cover of Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution

It’s a page-turner, taking us through the lives and tribulations of Karl Marx’s wife, Jenny, and her daughters, in living and working with the world’s most well-known revolutionary. It’s a rare glimpse into the human side of the formidable critic of capitalism showing him as a devoted father and husband. And above all, the book opens us up to the important but forgotten role of Jenny in the romance of revolutionary change in the mid-19th century.

Who am I?

Marxian Economics and its relevance to a better world and socialism has been my passion since I became an adult. My expertise in this subject, such as it is, has been sharpened by the study of Marx and Engels’ great works, but also by the efforts of so many others since; some of whom are included in my five best books. But above all, it is the knowledge that in this world of nearly 8 billion people, most do not have a happy and fulfilling life but face daily toil and struggle to live (and die). Humanity has the power and technology to do better; we just need to organise our social and governmental structures to achieve it.

I wrote...

The Long Depression: Marxism and the Global Crisis of Capitalism

By Michael Roberts,

Book cover of The Long Depression: Marxism and the Global Crisis of Capitalism

What is my book about?

Setting out from an unapologetic Marxist perspective, The Long Depression argues that the global economy remains in the throes of a depression. Making the case that the profitability of capital is too low, and the debt built up before the Great Recession too high, leading radical economist Michael Roberts persuasively presents his case that this depression will persist until the profitability of capital is restored through yet another slump.

My Red Blood

By Alix Dobkin,

Book cover of My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement

The child of Communist parents, Alix would grow up to be one of the most profound movers and shakers of the lesbian music movement, producing the first full-length lesbian album, Lavender Jane Loves Women, in 1973. But this memoir is a series of chapters on her early years growing up in the 1950s with progressive activists and folk club life, embarking on her own career in the folk circuit, singing against the backdrop of repressive politics, and coming into the women’s movement as a married mother about to fall in love with another woman.

Who am I?

My expertise as a scholar of the women’s music movement spans 40 years--ever since I attended my first concert and music festival in 1981. A lecturer at UC-Berkeley, I’m the author of 19 books on women’s history, and published the first book on women’s music festivals, Eden Built By Eves, in 1999 (now out of print.) More recently I’ve organized exhibits on the women’s music movement for the Library of Congress, co-authored The Feminist Revolution (which made Oprah’s list), and I’m now the archivist and historian for Olivia Records.

I wrote...

The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture

By Bonnie Morris,

Book cover of The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture

What is my book about?

The Disappearing L offers an overview of the rise and fall of lesbian cultural spaces. What was the soundtrack of the feminist revolution? How did artists, producers, and fans create a vast network of women’s concerts, recording companies, and festivals that offered meaningful performance spaces for women coming out as lesbians—and performers too radical for the mainstream? The book examines how women’s bookstores, women’s studies programs, and other year-round institutions built spaces that included a music subculture—only to see independent venues vanish once LGBT rights and mainstreaming were attained. As women’s music spaces are disappearing, how will we remember them?

Ethel Rosenberg

By Anne Sebba,

Book cover of Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

This 2021 book, the latest in the Rosenberg oeuvre, not only recounts the history of what happened to the Rosenbergs but chronicles past historical accounts. One of the most important legacies of this literature is to remind us how all events are historically grounded. The Schneirs wrote that the Rosenberg trial “was a product of its times, displaying in microcosm many of the prevalent sociopolitical assumptions and preoccupations of the day.” The same could be said of the books by the Schneirs, the Meeropols, and Doctorow, which viewed the Rosenbergs through the sympathetic prism of American progressivism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Sebba also explores the enduring mystery of the “single-minded” Ethel Rosenberg, a “tragic figure” who herself committed no espionage but orphaned her sons rather than naming names or implicating her husband.

Who am I?

The executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg seem so distant that it is jarring for me to contemplate that I was born in 1960, only seven years after their deaths. Growing up Jewish, I often heard the Rosenberg case invoked as an example of anti-Semitism. But it was not until I was an undergraduate history major that I read the scholarly literature about the Rosenbergs and subscribed to the newsletter of the Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case. My ongoing interest in the case helps me remind students about two crucial points: ongoing historical scholarship gets us closer to the “truth” but we may never know what “actually” happened. Which is OK.

I wrote...

The Good Doctor: A Father, a Son, and the Evolution of Medical Ethics

By Barron H. Lerner,

Book cover of The Good Doctor: A Father, a Son, and the Evolution of Medical Ethics

What is my book about?

The Good Doctor is my effort to contrast the “old” medical ethics of my father, an infectious diseases physician from the 1950s to the 1990s, with the “new” medical ethics that I learned in medical school and have practiced since. My father was an unabashed paternalist, thinking he knew what was best for his patients. While undoubtedly a remarkable and revered physician, he nevertheless made many choices that would be deplored today, including orchestrating the care of his relatives and even physically interfering with the resuscitation of a patient he thought should die.

Today, autonomy, in which patients make their own medical decisions, has become paramount—and with good reason. But we have also lost the passionate, patient-centered type of medicine that exemplified my father’s career.    

The House of Government

By Yuri Slezkine,

Book cover of The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

This is a long book, but easy to read and worth the investment in time. It is about the USSR primarily in the 1920s and 1930s as seen through the lives of people who lived and worked in the House of Government in Moscow. The book traces the lives of people as they (and their children) rose and fell in power and grace. It uses interviews of many of the people so you get the real human story here with all the passion and pain.

Who am I?

Roger Reese has studied, researched, and or taught Soviet history since 1984. He has been on the faculty of Texas A&M University since 1990. He has published five books and numerous articles and book chapters on the military history of Russia and the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr. book prize for his most recent book, The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917.

I wrote...

The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917

By Roger R. Reese,

Book cover of The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917

What is my book about?

Reese’s comprehensive social history takes readers beyond the battlefield to examine living conditions, military education, and officer-soldier relations in the late Imperial Russian Army. He argues that the officer corps’ incompetence, abusive behavior, and reactionary attitudes eventually drove the soldiery to revolt. Thorough, critical, and well written, it challenges numerous myths and presents a provocative new explanation for Russia’s collapse in 1917. He uses letters and memoirs to get the soldiers’ and officers’ view of their experience in the army, which humanizes the reader’s understanding of what the men went through.

Miguel Marmol

By Roque Dalton, Richard Schaaf (translator), Kathleen Ross (translator)

Book cover of Miguel Marmol

Dalton was a wonderful poet and radical activist tragically executed by his Salvadorean comrades in 1975 when they erroneously believed him to be working for the CIA. The Salvadorean left has a poor record in devouring its own in bouts of paranoia that attended the civil war of the 1980s. Marmol, who survived deep into old age, was a ringleader of an uprising in 1932 that briefly promised a peasant overthrow of a state controlled by an oligarchy of a dozen families. The uprising was repressed with such force that the military was able to retain political power for the next four decades. This book is beautifully written and translated wonderfully well by Richard Schaaf and Kathleen Ross.

Who am I?

My passion for Central American politics and history derived quite directly from the conflicts in the region from the late 1970s onwards. Previously I had worked in Bolivia, where I had studied as a doctoral student, and although many people still view Latin American countries as pretty homogenous, I quickly discovered that they are very far from being so. I had to unlearn quite a bit and acquire new skills, although luckily, indigenous languages are really only dominant in Guatemala. Now we can be rather less partisan although many injustices remain.

I wrote...

Power in the Isthmus

By James Dunkerley,

Book cover of Power in the Isthmus

What is my book about?

The political history covered here opens in 1820 when the Spanish forces had either left or were about to retreat from the region, and the republics of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica were forming. Panama, which became independent in 1903 with secession from Colombia, is often considered part of Central America. The book treats the region as a unit in the first five chapters and then considers each state individually in the next six, paying particular attention to the Nicaraguan Revolution. It doesn’t cover the last thirty years, some of which are considered in my shorter follow-up, The Pacification of Central America, Verso 1994.

International Communism and the Spanish Civil War

By Lisa Kirschenbaum,

Book cover of International Communism and the Spanish Civil War: Solidarity and Suspicion

Lisa Kirschenbaum, also offering a transnational approach to Comintern history, highlights the role of the Comintern apparatus and shared experiences in forming a common bond between communists. Whether it is the various training schools in the Soviet Union, the propaganda efforts English-language communists worked for, or their service in Spain during the Spanish Civil War as part of the international brigades, communists remained committed to their ideals, even as the Soviet Union drifted away from them. Focusing on the grassroots support for communism, Kirschenbaum treats their belief in the movement as legitimate. This belief helps explain not only why so many people came to identify with key ideas in the movement, such as anti-fascism, but also why some left the movement following the Stalinist terror or the Nazi-Soviet pact. 

Who am I?

I’ve always been interested in the topic of international relations and when I started graduate studies, I focused on Russian and Soviet foreign policy between the World Wars. When I began my research, I learned of the existence of the Comintern and was fascinated both by this attempt to develop a worldwide movement and its connection to Soviet foreign policy. Since then, I have focused on trying to understand the individuals who populated the parties and the organization and unearthing a legacy that still resonates today. One cannot fully understand the history of decolonization or of human and civil rights movements without considering the influence of the Comintern. 

I edited...

Left Transnationalism: The Communist International and the National, Colonial, and Racial Questions

By Oleksa Drachewych (editor), Ian McKay (editor),

Book cover of Left Transnationalism: The Communist International and the National, Colonial, and Racial Questions

What is my book about?

In 1919, the Communist International was formed in Moscow, Russia. The Communist International’s (Comintern) purpose was to guide the world communist movement and bring about revolution. Over time, with the failure of the communist revolution in Europe, priorities changed. A new area of concern for the movement was the fight against imperialism and, later, the fight against racism. Left Transnationalism brings together scholars from all over the world to analyze how the Comintern and its goals resonated in various regions outside of Europe. Taking a transnational perspective, this collection provides new insights into the development of the communist movement, the legacy of interwar communism, and how anti-imperialism or racial equality became intertwined with the communist movement. 

The Shining Path

By Orin Starn, Miguel La Serna,

Book cover of The Shining Path: Love, Madness, and Revolution in the Andes

Peru is often described as a country that is a combination of the coast, the Andes, and the Amazon, and this book on the origin of the Maoist Shining Path group in the Andes not only illuminates some of Peru’s recent political history, but also shines a light on many of the disparities that still exist between rural and urban Peru and between la costa, la sierra, and la Amazonia.

Who am I?

I lived in Peru for five years, working as a writer, filmmaker, and anthropologist. For part of that time, I lived with a recently-contacted tribe in the Upper Amazon, visited Maoist Shining Path “liberated zones” and later made a number of documentaries on the Amazon as well as have written a number of books, most of which are on some aspect of Peru. Peru remains one of the most fascinating countries on Earth--a kind of dense amalgamation of ancient civilizations, archaeology, immense biodiversity, incredible beauty, and lots and lots of adventure. Although there’s no substitute for visiting Peru yourself--reading about it is a great way to begin your adventure!

I wrote...

The Last Days of the Incas

By Kim MacQuarrie,

Book cover of The Last Days of the Incas

What is my book about?

The Last Days of the Incas tells the epic story of the fall of the Inca Empire to the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the aftermath of the Incas’ bloody civil war. It also tells the story of the Incas’ 36-year-long rebellion after the conquest, during which they relocated their capital from the Andes to a hidden place in the Amazon jungle, learning to fight the Spaniards on horseback and nearly succeeding in pushing them back into the sea from whence they came.

The book also relates the more recent discovery by the American explorer Hiram Bingham of Machu Picchu, which he stumbled upon while searching for The Incas’ lost guerrilla capital, hidden in the upper reaches of the Amazon.

The Agitator

By Peter Duffy,

Book cover of The Agitator: William Bailey and the First American Uprising Against Nazism

In this deft work of nonfiction, Duffy tells the life and times of William Bailey, a rough-hewn, big-hearted longshoreman turned Communist activist, and how on one summer day in 1935 he and several compatriots came to stage a remarkable protest by hauling down a swastika flag from the SS Bremen, the flagship of Hitler’s commercial fleet. Events unfold as the deluxe passenger liner, which was heartily patronized by many Americans and Europeans, hosted a glitzy party while docked in Manhattan harbor. It was years before the outbreak of World War II, but Hitler already had commenced his anti-Semitic and other repressive initiatives. The trial and acquittal of Bailey et al., and the diplomatic fallout, was what Duffy describes as “the first blow landed against the Third Reich by foreign adversaries, delivered without guns or bombs.”

Who am I?

Seth Rosenfeld is an independent investigative journalist and author of the New York Times best-seller Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. As a staff reporter for The San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle, he specialized in using public records and won national honors including the George Polk Award. Subversives, based on thousands of pages of FBI records released to him as a result of several Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, won the PEN Center USA’s Literary Award for Research Nonfiction Prize, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sunshine Award, and other honors.

I wrote...

Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power

By Seth Rosenfeld,

Book cover of Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power

What is my book about?

In the mid-1960s, the FBI was secretly involved with three charismatic figures: the ambitious neophyte politician Ronald Reagan, the fierce but fragile radical Mario Savio, and the liberal university president Clark Kerr. Subversives traces these converging narratives in a dramatic and disturbing story of FBI surveillance, illegal break-ins, infiltration, planted news stories, poison-pen letters, and secret detention lists, all centered on the Free Speech Movement at the University of California’s Berkeley campus.

Subversives provides a fresh look at the legacy of the sixties, sheds new light on one of America’s most popular presidents, and tells a cautionary tale about the dangers of secrecy and unchecked power.

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