Chelmsford TUC

Working Class Culture

The Book That Influenced Me

At the September 2002 General Meeting delegates to Chelmsford TUC decided to ask leading figures in the Trade Union, Co-operative and Labour Movement which book had had the greatest influence on them - not an easy decision to make.

The responses we have received to date are as follows:

Doug Nicholls, General Secretary, CYWU

The novel that had the greatest influence on me is But My Fist Is Free by William Ash. This is a novel about trade union struggles in the engineering industry in the late sixties. It is profoundly moving and philosophical and records moments in working class history which forged new politics and new ideas for progress in Britain and the world. It is to the twenty first century what The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist was to the twentieth. The book is available from George Mann Books PO Box 22, Maidstone Kent, ISBN 0 7041 0265 X

Paul Mackney, General Secretary, NATFHE

I would choose Black Jacobins, CLR James’s book on the Slave Revolt in San Domingo (Haiti): for its optimism on the ability of the downtrodden to overthrow the most mighty (local slave-owners, the French and the British); for its insight into questions of leadership strategy and tactics for anyone fighting for a better world; for its cogent analysis of the inter-play of class and race issues; and for its sheer humanity.

A few quotes from a well-thumbed edition: Before the revolt, "no-one had previously conceived that so much power was hidden in the people". (p 356)

"The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental." (p283)

One for New Labour! ... "In politics, all abstract terms conceal treachery". (p125)

When CLR James died, at the request of a black delegate, Birmingham Trades Union Council stood for a minute in respect for him.

Jeremy Dear, General Secretary, NUJ

Choosing one book is so difficult but I think I’d have to go with a rather obvious choice in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It is one of the best explanations of how workers are exploited by the current economic system and of the need to fight for change.

Alice Mahon MP

Thanks for asking me which book had the greatest influence on me. It was The Raggged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell. It had such an influence because it exposed unrestrained capitalism and the misery it causes to working people.

Gerald Kaufman MP

The book that most influenced me politically was Why You Should Be a Socialist by John Strachey. It explained why our political and economic system was unfair and how it could be made fairer. It made me a socialist and induced me to join the Labour Party.

Eamonn O’Kane, General Secretary, NASUWT

It is extraordinarily difficult to identify one book above all others but if forced to make a choice I would nominate Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott. Scott normally wrote about nobles and aristocrats but in this book he wrote forcefully and movingly about a simple country girl, Jeanie Dean, who stood by her sister, who had been wrongly accused of infanticide when all the world turned its back and undertook, for the 18th century, the heroic and daunting task of walking from Edinburgh to London to plead her sister’s case before the English queen.

It sounds sentimental, but it’s not. The book is an evocation of the values of honesty, integrity and genuine love. It is a pity is no longer widely read.

John Monks, Former General Secretary, TUC

I am spoiled for choice. First, I’d put Animal Farm by George Orwell which steered me clear of fundamentalism and authoritarianism. Then the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck which illustrates just how hard life is for the masses of ordinary people. Then For Whom The Bell Tolls by Hemingway which underlines that there are causes worth fighting for and dying for. There are many others that I could have chosen but this is my premier league.

Ed Sweeney, General Secretary UNIFI

I would choose Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes or A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Bill Connor, General Secretary USDAW

The book that probably had the greatest influence on me was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. I could relate to the conditions of the workers described in the story and it is a graphic illustration of the damage Capitalism does to workers’ health and well-being in pursuit of profit. It is also one of the most effective explanations of the Socialist alternative and how this could be achieved if workers acted in unity. It is also well written and extremely humorous.

John Edmonds, General Secretary GMB

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens has an enduring effect. It was the first Dickens which I read as an adult and it was a revelation -graphic, funny, touching and the language is a delight. The book also told me all I ever needed to know about the English class system!

Annie Watson, Director, Commonwealth Trade Union Council

I would say that one of my most influential books was The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer which I read in the early 1970s. It was instrumental in helping me to understand feminism and the part women could and should be playing in the trade union movement. Ever since, I have been working to increase the influence of women union members in the UK and internationally. It’s still an uphill task!

Rhodri Morgan, First Minister, National Assembly for Wales/Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru

My choice is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It is a very gripping story of the Great Depression as it affected the Okies, the small tenant farmers of the Oklahoma Dustbowl, who emigrated to California. I do not know of a similar really gripping study of the Depression (or the Slump as it was more commonly known in Wales). It brings the resilience of the poor out wonderfully well and shows how a family reacts when its back is to the wall.

Bill Morris, General Secretary TGWU

My choice is Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. His book inspires hope and one can only marvel at his sense of forgiveness. It also made me reflect on my own experiences of being brought up in a rural community, so much so that I felt I was walking side by side with him.

Michael J. Leahy, General Secretary ISTC - The Community Union

The book that most influenced me was The Rugged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.

Peter Hunt, General Secretary Co-operative Party

My book is Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell because it deals with the threat of totalitarianism, not only from fascists but from any political perspective. It shows that in wars, it is people that get hurt, not systems. The best bit for me is the description of the rivalry between different socialist groups. It shows how an apparently pure idea can be dogmatically twisted to suit a totalitarian viewpoint. I even thought I was an anarcho-syndicalist for some time after I read the book! (I was 15 years old though). Now I know that I was just a co-operative socialist at heart.

Richard Howitt MEP, East of England Region

The book, which had the most influence on me was Parliamentary Socialism by Ralph Miliband. It taught me early on the importance of combining parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, to advance our ideals of justice, equality and internationalism.

Dr. Beverly Malone, General Secretary, Royal College of Nursing

When I was asked to write about my favourite book, my initial thoughts were about what kinds of great literature have influenced me, or the important texts on nursing and leadership that have shaped my professional life.

But when I really thought about the book to which I refer most often, I realised that my choice is actually the Bible. It informs, inspires, challenges and educates. It shows us the ways in which human beings, from the very beginning of history, have asked the big questions about life and death - and looked for answers.

If I have to pick out words from scripture that are especially important to me, it is the 23rd Psalm and Romans 8:28. ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want’ ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.’

W. Hayes, General Secretary, Communication Workers’ Union

The book that has influenced me the most is "The Art of Loving" by Eric Frome. Contrary to what the title may suggest the book is not about dealing with the opposite sex but rather with man’s fundamental nature. Man, unlike animals, is separated from nature and all his activity is about reconnecting with nature i.e. we are self-conscious beings unlike the rest of the creatures on the planet. It is a fairly profound book and Eric Frome was a leading psychoanalyst of the 1960’s. I found it to be a great book and I frequently refer to it.

Gerry Doherty, General Secretary, Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association

The most influential fiction book that I have read is "Mila 18" by Leon Uris. Although the characters are fictional the book is based on the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto during WW2. I first read it as I was only beginning to become politically aware and as well as stirring in me the realisation of what can happen when evil is not confronted at the outset it also enlightened me as to the extent of man’s inhumanity to fellow men and how indomitable the human spirit can be in adversity.

As for non-fiction my favourite is "Long Walk to Freedom", Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. As well as recounting one of the most remarkable lives imaginable it is also a testimony, not only to the integrity of the human spirit, but also how even the largest of obstacles can be overcome with commitment to the cause, proper organisation and inspirational leadership.

Brendan Barber, General Secretary, TUC

I read John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” as a teenager. I found the Joad family story of the struggle to survive in the face of incredible hardship and adversity inspiring and uplifting. Of particular resonance for trade unionism Steinbeck asserts that every little beaten strike is evidence of the best of the human spirit. Steinbeck’s mastery of language is compelling, his ambitions for humanity even more so.

Sally Hunt, Joint General Secretary UCU

Title: No Mean Fighter, Author: Harry McShane, Publisher: Pluto Press.

"Brains and politics, cunning and commitment. It was a wake-up call on how to organise and why."

Geoff Shears, Chief Executive Officer, Thompsons Solicitors

"The Iron Heel", by Jack London, influenced me as a socialist and prospective lawyer, and moved me as a human being. At a time when socialism appeared to be a rising force in the USA, a century ago, it foresaw and portrayed the victory of fascism from the retrospective viewpoint of a long established, rational and successful socialism. There is a remarkable chapter on "The Case of Jackson’s Arm" which illustrates graphically how capitalism injures workers, and which inspired me to work for Thompsons so as to join the trade union fightback.

When you return we hope that this list has increased.