Libcom.org's reading guide on literature with a focus on work and accurate representations of working class life, culture and resistance to power.
Working class literature: reading guide
- The Stars My Destination - In a world where transportation is possible with a thought, prisoners break free, economies crash and the slums emptied. Gully Foyle is marooned in space with a material that could destroy the universe. He has to give it away, but to who?
- Post Office - The job as a postal worker is a thankless one as Bukowski tries to keep his sanity delivering mail around Los Angeles.
- Factotum - Bukowski recounts the conditions in 1944 having faced rejection from the draft, yo-yoing in and out of employment.
- Ham on Rye - Semi-autobiographical 'coming-of-age' novel, telling the story of a young man growing up in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.
[Disclaimer: it should be remembered that while Bukowski was a very good writer, he was also a rampant misogynist and these views come through in his books.]
- "Repent, Harlequin!" said the Ticktockman - Famous short story where time is regulated and being late is a crime. Despite the Ticktockman, the timekeeper who collects time as a punishment, and being sent to Coventry, the Harlequin revolts to create tardiness.
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
- The Difference Engine - Seminal novel set in an ahistorical Victorian England, where Lord Byron leads the technocratic government funded by trade unions, the Luddites and their Swing Riots threaten London and the first commune is declared in New York.
- Rivethead - Down and out memoirs of an assembly line worker for GM Motors over the 1980s. In amongst co-workers going postal in the local bar, drinking on the job and witnessing mental breakdowns, Hamper wrote the book during his shifts on the shop floor.
- Catch 22 - Former World War II bomber Joseph Heller's 1961 satirical masterpiece is a savage indictment of military madness and stupidity, and the desire of the ordinary man to survive it. It is a tale of the dangerously sane Captain Yossarian, who spends his time in Italy plotting to survive. It does, however, contain casual sexism throughout.
- A Farewell to Arms - Anti-militarist novel set against the backdrop of the Italian campaign during World War One, based largely on Hemingwey's experiences in the war.
- For Whom the Bell Tolls - Novel about a young American dynamiter in the International Brigades attached to a republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. A great novel, though Hemingwey regurgitates many of the Stalinist myths about the Civil War.
Ursula Le Guin
- The dispossessed - Sci-fi classic telling the story of life on a planet run along anarchist principles.
- The Four Ways to Forgiveness - Novel about two planets called Yeowe and Werel and the struggle for freedom between the "owners" and "assets".
- The Iron Heel - Dystopian sci-fi novel. The character agitates and struggles for a socialist revolution against an oligarchy. Envisages fascism, despite being written many years prior to its advent.
- The Mexican - short story about a Mexican revolutionary who uses his skills as a boxer to buy guns for the growing rebellion. It ends with a prize fight in the United States, with the hero up against the boxing establishment and the racism of white Americans.
- Anagrams - Benna leads different lives, English teacher, nightclub singer, aerobics instructor. She's a mother and she's never had children. The stories and settings shift around but all are a darkly comic look at being a 30 something woman in America.
- Break their Haughty Power - The true story of 13-year-old Joe Murphy, chased out of his hometown by anti-Catholic bigots, who became a union organiser for the IWW. The novel takes us through lynch-mob assaults on Wobblies in Washington in 1919, the nationwide railroad strike of 1922 and the Colorado coal miners' strike of 1927.
Hubert Selby Jr.
- Last Exit to Brooklyn - Series of stories set in 1950s Brooklyn; a local union official struggles with his sexuality during a strike, a sex worker trawls the bars for sailors and steals their money, and a crossdresser is thrown out of her home. Trigger warning, features a rape passage.
- Going Away - Autobiographical novel about a worker who, after being fired from his job, drives from LA to New York, drinking booze, having romantic encounters, visiting important sites of US working class history and listening to car radio news accounts of the unravelling events of the Hungarian Revolution.
- Oil! - Loose source for the film There Will Be Blood, Oil! pits oil tycoon father against socialist sympathetic son in the midst of the Teapot Dome Scandal and unionising trouble on the fields.
- The Jungle - Sinclair's undercover journalism-cum-novel about the conditions of America's meat packing industry and the effect it had on those that worked it.
- The Grapes of Wrath - Steinbeck's realist masterpiece looking at the plight of a family of tenant farmers forced to leave Oklahoma during the Great Depression.
- In Dubious Battle - Story about two Communists who set out to organise a strike of seasonal fruit pickers in California.
- Of Mice and Men - Classic story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant farm workers travelling around the US searching for work during the Great Depression.
- Standing Fast - A story of an interlinking group of radicals spanning from before World War II, through the war and then into the early 1960s, including a fictionalised account of the 1946 Oakland general strike.
- Johnny Got his Gun - Excellent working class anti-war novel by once the once-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, following the internal monologue of a WWI soldier who wakes up mute and brutally injured.
- Slaughterhouse-Five - Vonnegut's darkly humourous novel recounting the story of an ill-prepared soldier and the grim reality of the Second World War.
- Jailbird - Story of a man recently released from prison after serving time for his role in the Watergate scandal, while discussing the history of the American labour movement, political system and the 'Red Scare' of the late 1950s.
- Player Piano - Vonnegut's novel about a permanantly unemployed working class, dispossessed by mangerial engineers and automation.
- The Black Ball - short story about attempts to organise workers across colour lines in the segregated Southern United States.
- The Invisible Man - Novel about a black working class man who leaves the segregation south to make it in Harlem. Deals with racism and class conflict in a series of odd jobs and unemployment. Also deals heavily with how the Communist party and Black Nationalists interact with and exploit racial tensions and class conflict.
- The Unknown Industrial Prisoner - Grimly humourous portrayal of life on an oil refinery, by an ex-refinery worker, from the high towers from which a worker falls to his death to the secret hiding places the workers keep for themselves.
- The House that was Eureka - Novel about the Unemployed Workers' Movement & anti-eviction riots Sydney during the great depression, which flashes back and forth to Sydney in the 1980s, making contemporary links between the eras.
- The Watcher and the Watched - Working class novel set in 1960s Newcastle, in which we watch a working class community get ripped apart from the point of view of Tim 'Tiger' Mason, who eventually confronts a slum landlord and joins a young Asian immigrant to confront racism.
- Kiddar's Luck - Vivid autobiography about his life growing up next to the train-sheds his father worked in on the outskirts of Newcastle, the book is a natural depiction of a working class boy growing up, seen through the eyes of the socialist adult he became.
- Rape of the Fair Country - Early union organising and chartist inspired revolts in the Welsh mining heartlands, amidst the backdrop of the industrial revolution. First in the Mortymer trilogy.
- Hard Times - Dickens' work highlighting the difficult economic and social conditions of the working class, described as a "passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modern world" (though also containing anti-trade union sentiments).
- A Tale of Two Cities - Novel about the plight of the French peasantry in the years leading up to the French revolution, and the parallels with life in London.
- Jude the Obscure - The story of Jude Fawley, a young working-class man whose dreams of becoming a scholar are destroyed by class society.
- Peace, love and petrol bombs - This semi-autobiographical novel traces the political and personal growth of a young Scottish burger-flipper who with his coworkers begins to fight back against his employer: a multinational fast food chain.
- How Late is Was, How Late - Novel following Sammy, a shoplifter and ex-convict from Glasgow who, after a two-day drinking binge, gets into a fight with some plainclothes policemen in which he is severely beaten and left blind. The story explores how he comes to terms with his new disability.
- The Busconductor Hines - Story of a busconducter living in a bedsit, bored of his job and fully aware his plans to emigrate to Australia won't come to anything. However, he takes solace in his wife and child, and his eccentric, anarchic imagination.
- You've Got to be Careful in the Land of the Free - Jeremiah Brown is flying back home to Scotland tomorrow. But life is dangerous in the US for a anarchist immigrant foreigner and with just one beer turning into a night out, it's a wonder if he'll make it back alive.
- A Chancer - Tammas is a loner, a drifter, a chancer. Stuck in dull jobs and finding nothing he wants to do, he dreams of moving to Manchester or New Zealand or the Highlands, anywhere but Glasgow.
- Mo Said She Was Quirky - Helen's on her way back from work when she sees a homeless man that reminds her of her long lost brother and sends her into a reverie. 24 hours following the thoughts of a mother, a girlfriend and a croupier.
- Hangover Square - Late 30s novel following George Harvey Bone and his similarly unemployed feckless acquaintances in and out of Earl's Court pubs, with war and changing attitudes looming.
Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long
- No Mean City - A book hated by the Glasgow City fathers and the regular bookshops refused to sell it, yet has sold millions of copies: one brother commits to the class struggle, the other becomes the razor king of the Gorbals – it’s life in the raw (and not too far from the truth).
- Docherty - The author uses his memory of growing up in an Ayrshire mining community to tell the story of Tom Docherty and of lives filled with human worth.
- Homage to Catalonia - Orwell's famous 1938 account of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, from his point of view as a volunteer in the POUM militia, with vivid descriptions of classless anarchist Barcelona following the revolution and terrorised Stalinist Barcelona after the counter-revolution.
- Animal Farm, a fairy story - Erroneously considered a damning of collectivism, Orwell's allegorical fantasy is a critique of the Bolshevist and Stalinist regimes set on a farm as animals attempt to create a society.
- 1984 - A world with constant surveillance, perpetual war and a militarised police state, George Orwell's most famous novel was a warning against totalitarian governments, all the more relevant now then when it was written.
- Down and Out in Paris and London - Tramping memoirs from Orwell, where he worked in Paris as a dishwasher and then travelled around London, going from one bedsit to another.
- The Road to Wigan Pier - Orwell's examinations of the conditions for the working class in the north of England prior to World War Two and how he became a socialist.
- Keep the aspidistra flying - Not wanting to be concerned with money or a safe life typified by a house with an aspidistra plant, a copywriter quits his job to become an artist.
- GB84 - Fictional portrayal of the 1984-85 UK miners' strike, describing the insidious workings of the British government and MI5, the coalfield battles and the dwindling powers of the miners' union.
- The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - Short story about a teenager from a blue-collar area of Nottingham with bleak prospects who turns to long-distance running to escape both emotionally and physically from his situation.
- Swing Hammer Swing - Novel set during 1960s Glasgow, in which Thomas Clay faces his mounting problems: his wife in the maternity hospital prematurely while they await news of their transfer to high-rise housing, or for his tenement to be demolished beneath his feet. With no job and his novel still unpublished, he staggers from crisis to crisis.
- The Devil's Carousel - Story of a Scottish car factory and the strange characters in it, including a smelly militant shop steward and 'the Martians': experts and managers who convene high above the shop floor and decide how to build cars without letting the work force in on the secret.
- The ragged trousered philanthropists - A Marxist critique of society dressed up as a novel, Ragged Trousered Philanthrophists follows construction worker Frank Owen trying to convince others about socialism, a figure based on Tressell himself.
- Movern Callar - Movern Callar arrives home to find her boyfriend dead on the floor. She grieves by getting mortal on nights out, shifts at the supermarket, Krautrock mixtapes and sunbathing in Spain.
- Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit - A young English woman’s escape from her religious family told with great sensitivity – a tale self liberation.
- The Good Soldier Švejk - Satirical anti-war novel in which the absurdity and hypocrisy of the military, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the church are repeatedly revealed through the main character's enthusiasm for obeying authority.
- The Trial - Franz Kafka's seminal novel, telling the tale of a respectable functionary in a bank, who is suddenly arrested and must defend his innocence against a charge about which he can get no information.
- Rossum's Universal Robots - a stage play about a factory that has invented a new, more efficient worker called a Robot (first usage of the term). The robots replace the global labour force but things quickly go wrong and the Robots rise up against their masters.
- Germinal - Zola's masterpiece exposing the inhuman conditions of miners in France in 1860s. This powerful novel follows a young worker who enters a mining community and leads a strike against pay cuts.
- November 1918: A German Revolution - Four volume work on the German revolution of 1918-1919.
- The treasure of the Sierra Madre - B. Traven's best known novel about three men prospecting for gold in the mountains of Mexico, and the things it drives them to do.
- The cotton pickers - B Traven's novel about migrant labourers, poverty, crappy jobs, and the occasional successful strike in 1920s Mexico.
- The death ship - Story of a sailor who loses his papers and, unable to prove his very existence, ends up working on a "death ship" destined to be sunk for the insurance money.
- Assembly Line - Short story about a New York businessman who meets a Mexican peasant basket maker, whose talent is perfect for exploitation.
- Out of the Night - The story of a German revolutionary who, after the failed German revolution, becomes an agent for the Communist International, fights fascism in Europe, gets captured by the Gestapo and eventually loses his faith in Stalin.
- The Kaiser Goes, the Generals Remain fictionalised account of the Sailors revolt in 1918 and the abdication of the Kaiser. Based on the authors own experience as a sailor in the Imperial High Sea's Fleet.
- The Country Girls - A superbly written and almost true story of how a young Irish woman escapes conservative Ireland to live life as she pleases – the book was banned and publicly burned in the Irish Republic.
- Strumpet City - Novel following the lives of a dozen different characters as they are swept up in the tumultuous events of Dublin between 1907 and 1914, including the 1913 Dublin Lockout.
- The Unseen - Novel looking at the Italian Autonomia movement of the 1960s-70s through the eyes of a single working-class protagonist, from high-school rebellion, squatting, setting up a free radio station to arrest and the brutalities of imprisonment.
- Two Short Stories - The first story, Let a thousand hands reach out to pick up the gun, is a montage of newspaper reports of the death of Mara Cagol, one of the founders of the Red Brigades. The second, FIAT, is a first-hand account of work (or its refusal) at the infamous FIAT plant in Turin, Italy.
Luther Blisset/Wu Ming
- Q - Set during the 16th Century Reformation, a radical Christian heretic takes part in rebellions - such as the German Peasants' War - against the powers of both Protestant and Catholic churches.
- Altai - Sequel to Q, in which characters from the first book come back to settle old scores, as the Republic of Venice and the whole 16th Century world order seem ready to crumble.
- Manituana - Fantastically researched historical fiction about the Iroquois, a group of native American tribes who side with the British during the American war in independence.
- 54 - Hollywood actors, cold warriors, mobsters, drug dealers and homing pigeons. What will Yugoslavian president Tito do, now that Joe Stalin is dead? What is the hidden link between Lucky Luciano in his Italian exile, Cary Grant in schizophrenic combat with himself and a stolen TV set which turns out to be self-conscious and sensitive to boot?
- The Path to the Spiders' Nests - The story of a cobbler's apprentice in a town on the Ligurian coast, who steals a pistol from a Nazi sailor, and becomes involved in the Italian Resistance.
- Accidental death of an anarchist - Dario Fo's best known play, based on the events surrounding the 1969 murder of Giuseppe Pinelli in police custody.
- The Conformist - Story set in Rome and Paris between 1938 and 1943, Marcello, a fascist spy, accepts an assignment from Mussolini to kill his former mentor. The novel is a case study in the psychology of fascism that express itself in the need to conform and be "normal".
- Fontamara - Novel describing life in a rural central Italian village, Fontamara, in the 1930s. The people (the Fontamaresi) are poor and unaware of goings on outside their village, exploited by the rich and women are raped by fascists. Eventually one of them, Berardo, tries to lead a rebellion.
- Men and not men - Story set in Milan in 1944 during the Italian Resistance, it tells the story of a partisan code-named "En 2" who organises an ambush against the fascists.
- The White Tiger - A darkly humourous story of a boy from an Indian slum who moves to Delhi and works as the chauffeur for a rich landlord, before killing him and running off with his money.
- A Fine Balance - Story set in Mumbai between 1975 and 1984 during a period of increased government power and crackdowns on civil liberties called 'The Emergency', looking at the changes in Indian society since independence.
- Men Who Live on the Sea - Story about the terrible factory conditions faced by workers processing fish on Japanese factory ships.
- The Prostitute - Short story demonstrating gender tensions within the workers' movement, in which a prostitute asserts her own subjective experience as a working class woman.
- The Crab Cannery Ship - Novel about the harsh lives of workers on crab fishing ships and their struggles against their employers' exploitation.
- Militarized Streets - Novel about the 'Jinan Incident', an early armed clash between Japan and China, and severe military aggression of the Japanese in the incident.
- Miner - Story of a miner's resistance to the authority of his tyrannical employers.
- Heart of a Dog - A scientist implants the testicles and pituitary gland of a recently deceased man into a stray dog, creating a monster. A damning critique of the New Soviet man and the Leninist program, written in 1925 it remained unpublished until 1987.
- The Master and Margarita - The devil comes to destroy the USSR, and only a writer and his lover can stop him.
- Mother - Novel following the radicalisation of an uneducated young Russian woman, which went on to define the genre of Socialist Realism.
- Omon Ra - Omon Krivomazov has always wanted to be an astronaut but not everything is as it seems in the USSR's space program; cosmonauting dead dogs, bikes on the moon and no way out but up.
- Birth of Our Power - Pan-European novel, taking us from the workers' stronghold of Barcelona at the end of the First World War where hopes for revolution are fueled by the news of revolution in Russia.
- Men in Prison - Based on his personal experiences as a political prisoner, Serge describes the brutality of prison life at the beginning of the 20th century.
- Conquered City - Masterpiece describing the defence of Petrograd from the White Armies during the Russian revolution, capturing the atmosphere without the use of a central character.
- The Case of Comrade Tulayev - Masterful fictionalisation of the purges and how they affected the various character types in the political upheaval of Stalinist Russia.
- We - In a country constructed of glass, under complete surveillance and devoid of individuality, D-503 discovers he has a soul and is now in danger.