One point in common in all my phases has been the need to live wholly in accord with the dominant idea. Not to treat ideas and beliefs as a sort of luxury-product, as something to be taken out at convenient moments, brushed up, and put on display, then stowed away again till the next convenient moment. I have always tried, to the limit of my ability and understanding, to incarnate the idea, without trimming or compromise, in every aspect of my living.
-Jack Lindsay, ‘The Fullness of Life’
Jack Lindsay’s politics were central to his life, guiding how he lived as well as the work he created and the activities in which he engaged.
Early Life & Political Beginnings
Jack Lindsay would later write that it was not Marx who nurtured his revolutionary spirit but Blake and Shelley, whose work he encountered as an adolescent in his mother’s copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury; Book IV of the anthology includes the work of all major Romantic poets.
At the same time, he experienced the social and political turmoil caused by World War I, including the divisive effect of the conscription referendums (1916, 1917) that he described in the novel, The Blood Vote (1985). He was disturbed by the disjunction between the glibness of the pro-war, pro-conscription stance and the physical evidence of returned soldiers, traumatized by their terrible experiences. In his autobiography, Life Rarely Tells, he wrote: ‘The war, so long elbowed aside by my adventure into poetry, now crowded all around me, invading my senses with a ceaseless gun-rattle and scream.’ His journey to manhood, he writes, was accompanied by ‘a deepening murder threat.’ (1982: 91)
At the University of Queensland he became involved in student politics, campaigning actively for Aboriginal Rights until the cynical response to the students by the premier who agreed to support them, knowing he was about to resign and that his (Labour) party would reverse the decision, turned him away from institutional politics. Instead Lindsay threw his support behind class-based political change, dressing as a Bolshevik to celebrate the Russian Revolution (1917). This was the Brisbane of the Red Flag Riots, when the raising of red flags was outlawed by the government and led to at least one major clash between police and protestors, as well as other clashes between Russian emigrés and settlers who believed that the nascent Australian capitalist state was about to be destroyed by Soviet communists.
Jack also worked as a tutor for the Working Men’s Association (W.E.A.), where he encountered the Director of Studies and English Socialist, T.C. Witherby, his friend Vere Gordon Childe and I.W.W. unionist, Jim Quinton. From them Jack learned about socialism, class-based political activism and Marxism.
When he moved to Sydney in 1921, he entered the bohemian world of his father, Norman Lindsay. Norman was implacably opposed to any form of political activism, substituting for it an idealised, elitist and masculinist vision of art practice. For some years Jack complied with his father’s dictates, immersing himself in a world of art and beginning his own life-work as a writer and publisher with the founding of Fanfrolico fine art press. It was not until he moved to London, to set up Fanfrolico in a larger centre that he re-discovered his political ideals.
Return to Political Activism
In London Jack confronted the English class system and was appalled by its social inequities. Once again he turned to socialism and then to Marx’s writings to understand the alienation he felt and the social practices he observed. After some years spent in relative isolation (in the early 1930s) he began to move in left wing circles, debating his political beliefs and writing his social critique in modern novels, historical studies and poetry. His mass declamation, ‘Who Are the English?’ (1936) was not only a statement of opposition to fascist forces in Spain, but also a major declaration of his own communist beliefs.
In the mid-1930s Jack started a serious study of Marx’s work and in 1941 joined the Communist Party. His relationship with the Party was not always easy; he was often as non-compliant within the Party as he was outside, maintaining his right to criticize what he saw as inconsistencies or errors in its policies and practices. This was a debate he would engage for the rest of his life, as he wrote or translated the 160+ books that sustained him and his family. As he said in ‘The Fullness of Life’, his politics was not an accessory to take out and display when it was profitable; it went to the heart of his being, guiding his thinking and acting. The story of his politics is the story of his life.
For the rest of his life Jack grappled with the consequences of his left-wing allegiance. Arguably, this included the marginalisation of his own work by conservative reviewers and dogmatic academics. Writer Andy Croft noted in his study of Jack’s contemporary, Randall Swingler:
The British State was conceded powers to determine the limits of public debate and the extent of participation in that debate. The road to Guantanamo Bay may be said to have begun in the late 1940s, with the systematic removal of Communists, first from public life and then from public memory. The security services ensured the first, British cultural institutions the second. (http://andy-croft.co.uk/appearance.php)
Jack’s work certainly attracted politically-based censure, as Croft noted: ‘The TLS used a review of Jack Lindsay’s Byzantium into Europe to call for the banning of Communists from the universities.’
More covertly, MI5 began surveillance of Jack in the 1930s and a number of those files have recently been released to public access. Some of the entries in Jack’s MI5 files are reproduced on this site to give the flavour of this surveillance and its reach.
‘Send to Box 500’: The Entries
The files we saw had hundreds of entries, some of them still redacted. It seems the most likely reason for this is to protect the identity of informers used to gather information. Overall, the impression is of intense surveillance over decades that revealed no illegality and nothing of any particular threat to the state except perhaps a critical consciousness that would not accept mainstream values without analysis.
We noted that ‘Send to Box 500’ was written on a number of the letters to Jack we found in the files and seems to have been code for ‘send to MI5’. In order to give a sense of the entries, they are organized here in terms of how information was gathered.
- Identification checks: made of him wherever he went to live, or whenever he left the country. As he travelled to the USSR during the Cold War, his movements were traced and his luggage was always searched, though nothing of interest was ever found
- Mail Interceptions: his mail was regularly opened and copied, both mail he posted and mail sent to him; the annotation, ‘send to Box 500’ meant ‘send to MI5’. Photographs and microfilms were also made of his mail.
- Phone Taps: phone calls were intercepted and transcribed; both calls by or to him, and also calls that mentioned him were copied to his file
- Reported Conversation: conversations between Jack and other people were recorded somehow and transcribed; and conversations that mentioned him were again copied to his file
- Car checks: these were carried out on people who visited him; the number plates of cars parked outside his house were recorded and their owners traced
- Financial records copied: copies of Jack’s bank accounts; cheques from publishers were filmed; and his tax returns were copied
Features of the entries that we noted particularly were these:
- Multiple handling: it was interesting note how many people had handled many of the pages – they were signed or initialed by up to eight or ten different people
- Tenor of description: Jack was repeatedly described as ‘an untidy man’ and as being ‘of untidy appearance’. His skin, marked by childhood chicken pox, always drew comment and there seemed to be a kind of prurient delight in presenting him as slovenly and unkempt, which was not my personal memory of Jack. Andy Croft noted the same use of commentary on appearance by MI5 to discredit poet and Jack’s fellow communist, Randall Swingler.
Given that Jack was never found to have done anything illegal and was open about his views and about his membership of the Communist Party, this level of surveillance seems excessive. It is most interesting in what it reveals of the tenor of the time, particularly the Cold War era, as well as the strategies used by state institutions to intimidate and control citizens. As Andy Croft noted in his paper, Swingler’s MI5 files tell us more about MI5 than they do about Swingler; we might say the same about Jack’s files.
A Puzzle Solved
One file entry that intrigued Helen Lindsay was a letter, dated 3rd May 1949, from MI5 to Miss N. Wadsley at the B.B.C.
Helen explained that Jack had been puzzled for many years why his work for the B.B.C. had been terminated, despite its excellent reception. This was in 1949 and in this post-war period money was tight and earning a living as a writer very difficult. This withdrawal of work by the B.B.C. had been distressing, particularly since Jack was not able to get any reasons for the withdrawal of the offers of work. This letter in the files provided the answer, though Jack did not live to read it.
The first paragraph notes that MI5 has been informed that a translation of a Greek play and a talk on ‘Post-War Trends in British Literature’ by Jack Lindsay has been broadcast by the B.B.C., and that Lindsay’s notes from his talk were used by the B.B.C.’s Russian Service. The second paragraph simply details Jack’s association with communism as a writer and speaker about literature and history, and member of the Society for Cultural Relations with the U.S.S.R. The letter is signed ‘C.S.Weldsmith’.
Miss Wadsley is left to draw her own conclusions as to what action she should take, though it is clear what action she is expected to take, based on this letter from one of the country’s most powerful and secretive organizations. She complied and Jack lost a source of income. Yet, it appears that Jack’s subversive activity at the B.B.C. consisted simply of a well-received translation of an ancient Greek play and a study of contemporary British writing.
Again, we might echo Croft’s conclusions, firstly that institutions within the British state worked actively to remove communists from both public life and public memory, and secondly that this tells us more about those institutions than about the communists they persecuted. On the other hand, for anyone interested in communist intellectuals such as Jack Lindsay, their files tell us a lot about the society they were working within, the ways in which they were viewed by state operatives, as well as some intriguing and revealing details about their lives – as in this letter from MI5 to the B.B.C.