Paul Foot

A socialist bookshelf

(July 1983)

From Socialist Worker, July 1983.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Words as Weapons: Selected Writings 1980–1990 (London: Verso, 1990), pp. 235–236.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

You have to look hard for some good news these bleak summer days, but I am cheered by two bits of it last week.

The first was that the takings at the bookstalls at Marxism 83, a week-long series of meetings, debates and discussions between Marxists, reached an all-time (and in the circumstances quite extraordinary) high of £9,000. More people came to Marxism this year than in any other, but the proportion of books sold to people who registered was higher, I gather, than ever before.

These fantastic sales among people who have not got very much money is further proof, if proof were needed, that socialists as a breed read more than anyone else. The ideas which keep people socialists against all the pressures of society push them more and more towards books.

But stop! Is there not some hideous deviation here? Is all this book-buying just a sign of property consciousness?

I remember during a day school for Socialist Worker readers in Manchester some ten years ago fleeing during a break to a secondhand bookshop with one of the school’s organizers.

As I emerged with a couple of prize possessions, he remonstrated with me. Was this not just covetousness for possessions, a sort of obsession with belongings which had a distinctly bourgeois ring to it?

I supposed he was right, and hid the books shamefacedly. But on reflection, I realize he was not right at all. First, there is the old argument about private possessions and public property.

As John Strachey argued in his little book Why You Should be a Socialist nearly fifty years ago, the whole point about the public ownership and planning of the means of production is that it releases capital for producing things that people need and want. He argued for more public ownership and more equality not to abolish private possessions but to make them more widely available.

Then there is a special argument about books. However marvellous the progress in other forms of media such as tapes and videos, for people who think and who value ideas there is no replacement for books.

This is because books do not impose a pace on their reader. They can be studied at the reader’s own level of concentration and consciousness. And then they can be re-read.

Of course public libraries are wonderful institutions, and under any system even remotely socialist would be expanded far beyond anything we have at present.

But there is a peculiar advantage in owning books, since they can be marked, stored away in shelves and in the mind, and returned to again and again when a new idea or argument comes along.

In an old questionnaire among Communists in Fife, the third or fourth question was: ‘Are there any books in the house?’ Plenty of workers, usually the best Communists, answered ‘Yes’.

And that brings me to the second piece of good news. Last January I was driven from Harwich to Felixstowe by Dave Saunders, a seaman on a North Sea car ferry.

We were talking then about the collision of two ferries, which had killed six workers in dreadful circumstances.

As we came back to Harwich, Dave suddenly changed the subject and started talking about Shelley. As we went into his house, I fell eagerly on a big bookcase, full of old books of every description: Dickens, Shakespeare and Shelley.

Last week I was up that way again, for a meeting in Ipswich, led off with great vigour by Dave Saunders.

He was speaking for the workers on the ferries who had gone on strike against a crude attempt of the owners to sabotage their nationally agreed wage rise.

I was delighted to see that those workers won their fight (as far as I can see game, set and match). And I certainly believe that Dave Saunders’s bookcase had something to do with it.

Last updated on 2 September 2014