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.
A more detailed account of Jack’s early politics is given on this site.
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.