T. A. Jackson

Old Friends to Keep


The Approach to Literature

[sections 5-7]


Some proof of the genuineness of Communist concern for the preservation of mankind’s cultural heritage and its rescue from defilement at the hands of bourgeois decadence is provided by the studies given herein. That they were designed, primarily, to encourage the reading-habit and to excite a special interest in that “classic” fiction which, except to the academically trained few, the atmosphere of bourgeois-decadence tends to exclude altogether from view—save only so far as it provides excuses for Hollywood travesties—these things are self-evident.

What is, perhaps, not so obvious is the author’s unshakable conviction of the indispensability of a cultivated imagination as a condition precedent for revolutionary class-struggle, and of the high worth of classic fiction as a means of stimulating and developing that imagination.

That (in Marx’s words) “the idea becomes a material force when it seizes hold of the masses” is easy to be seen. But how, it may be asked, can the idea of revolutionary struggle be extracted from the classic fiction produced in an essentially bourgeois epoch, by men and women all taking the standpoint of bourgeois society?

The answer is two-fold. Firstly, the object of revolutionary proletarian struggle is not to perpetuate the proletariat or its need to struggle. On the contrary, it is to abolish both. Militant our cause is, and necessarily, identified with class: triumphant it will become co-extensive with the whole of a reintegrated humanity. And it is as essentially humanistic, inspiring and quickening the aspiration towards a mankind emancipated, enlarged and, at last, master of its fate, that these “classic” writers are to be read and treasured.

Then again: however decadent today, the bourgeoisie had its heroic past when it, too, was a revolutionary class, rightly struggling to be free from all the relics of feudal arbitrariness and oppression. In its day it was the banner-bearer of progress, the militant vanguard and champion of all the oppressed. In its decadence the bourgeoisie would be glad to forget these things: but these classic works remain to remind us, and inspire us to the parallel progressive struggles of our time.

Furthermore it is only externally (so to say) that the really great artists are “bourgeois”". Fundamentally they are human, and so far universal in their range. The more profoundly the imagination penetrates into the essence of social-reality, the more surely the artist reveals that most universal of truths—that motion is the essential characteristic of reality. “Things have just this value—they are transitory”. Fixity, immobility, finality, static indifference—these are attributes of the veil of illusion it is the function of great art to strip away. That which abides eternally is and can be nothing but motion; and the function of art is to so quicken feeling, that it sets the intelligence searching and urges the will to action. As it reveals in full clarity each situation history establishes, art does so with the implied challenge: “Is this all? Up! once more!” Inescapably the greater the art, the more certainly it is—revolutionary.


It is thus that the “classics” of English fiction provide us with a criterion by which to evaluate and elucidate the decadence of the novel of today.

A good line of comparison is through the use (and disuse) of the hero as central pivot. The tale of a hero—an Everyman with whom the reader can identify himself or herself a hero who ventures boldly, and with courage, persistence and resource out-faces every peril, overcomes every difficulty and emerges triumphant—that, in one or other of its myriad permutations is the main strand in classic fiction. And this, too, gives the normal reader, young or old, just the reassuring sustenance his soul craves.

The “cultured” writers of today have ceased to attempt anything of the kind. “We, the intelligentsia”, they say in effect, “can’t be bothered with Everyman, and we don’t believe in anything heroic”.

For all that, it required heroism to establish bourgeois society, and yet more heroism will be required on a mass scale to transcend bourgeois society and prevent it from dragging humanity down to the grave along with itself. And there is, too, an easy explanation for this decline of the novel from the lively serenity and balanced optimism of the classics to the diffused morbidity, scepticism and pessimistic-misanthropy (miscalled “realism”) of the fashionable novel of today.

In Defoe’s time, the bourgeoisie was in the full flush of revolutionary triumph. It felt supremely confident of its ability to sweep away all the obstacles it might meet assured of its ability to remake the world in its own “image and likeness”. And its optimism was justified; it has done what it set out to do—only the result is visibly and horrifically something far beyond the power of the bourgeoisie to bring under control.

As the bourgeoisie improved its victory, so there developed within its social system, and on a mounting scale, all the tensions, antagonisms and contradictions inseparable from its specific mode of production.

In its joyous revolutionary youth it could be exalted with the sense of vast potentialities ahead, only awaiting a touch to release. Today the very viciousness of the anti-communist intelligentsia gives a measure of bourgeois exasperation, bewilderment and despair in the face of forces it itself has helped to engender, forces constituting a newer and vaster potentiality, also only awaiting a touch to release, which menace bourgeois society with inevitable historical extinction.

This is anything but a situation which, from the bourgeois point of view, can be expressed in terms of a triumphant hero-saga.

Moreover, the competitive individualism which historical necessity impelled the bourgeoisie to introduce on the basis of a small producers’ economy takes on a radically different value as that economy evolves into manufacture, and finally into the modern machine-industry controlled by monopoly capitalist imperialism. In each stage it intensifies the antagonism of the interest of each to that of all, and that between the personal being of the individual and his social-being his existence as a detail in a specific form of society.

Competitive individualism, with the ever-multiplying subdivision of social labour, forces each individual (outside the ranks of the industrial proletariat) to become a specialist—even though his speciality may be “merely that of doing nothing”—and a specialist is necessarily in some degree an ignoramus outside the range of his speciality. Add to that the notorious facts that “the bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto regarded with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers”. “It has resolved personal worth into exchange-value”, and “left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash-payment”—and it becomes clear why those who cannot see anything beyond bourgeois society are plunged into misanthropic despair, into introspective Mahatma seeking, or into running whining to the priests to beg for saving miracles.

That it has ceased to be possible to applaud existing social reality in the unitary terms of a hero symbol is clear. But for that reason the hero takes on a newer and higher significance for the revolutionary struggle to bring the future into being. Every day makes clearer that history is presenting each of us with the heroic choice: “Choose ye this day whom ye shall serve”.

TO hunt stupidly for a “middle way”—to seek fatuously to cobble-up a compromise combination of irreconcilable opposites—these any man of intellectual or artistic integrity must see as the cowardly evasions they are, pitiful attempts to delay the day of final decision. Bread-and-butter necessity may force an artist to disguise his thought—but in so far as he is truly an artist and a humanist he must be horrified and repelled by bourgeois social-reality. Only so far as he has to support him a deep-rooted faith in the creative potentiality of proletarian revolution can the artist of today brace himself to “see life steadily, and see it whole”.

[ 7]

An excellent illustration is found in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce recognises that the essence of social-reality today is no longer intelligible unity but its converse—strife, contradiction, waste, frustration and irrationality. But Joyce is in the right line of classic tradition, and requires a hero.

He surmounts the difficulty by splitting his hero into two discordant but inter-conditioning halves, and tracing their respective “thought-streams” contrapuntally through the impacts of a single day. One “half” is the poet-scholar (carried over from the Portrait of the Artist) Stephen Daedalus—fervent Irish Nationalist, nearly a priest, sceptical and disillusioned teacher in a Jesuit school in Dublin. The other is an average “little man”, non-intellectual, an advertisement-canvasser, Leopold Bloom.

In a way, they symbolise the one the “Spirit”, the other the “World” or the “Flesh”. But in their inter-relation they symbolise still more the conflict which threatens bourgeois society with well-earned destruction. This for his purposes Joyce symbolises as the fight between Acquiescence and Submission on the one side and Repudiation and Revolt on the other, and it is Joyce’s genius to show both elements present in discordant antagonism in each of his two halves.

The “thought-stream” method, followed with scrupulous fidelity, does not make easy reading. In the case of the Jesuit-trained Nationalist, poet-scholar and sceptic, the thought-stream is crowded with incongruous oddments from a wide range of reading. Tags from the Liturgy of the mass bring up phrases from Swinburne; Thomas Aquinas drags in Tom Moore; Scripture texts evoke Nationalist street-ballads, all in most unholy discordance.

But by this method Joyce does succeed in conveying an emotional intuition of the shoddy sordidness, the utter waste and the brutish unreason of bourgeois social-reality, and the cruel malformation and frustration it imposes on the soul of man.

An element of comedy-pathos is introduced by showing the “little man” possesses aspirations towards the nobility and culture which his upbringing and circumstances place far beyond his reach. Conversely, an element of tragic-farce comes in when the poet-scholar reveals the carnal inclinings his sensitiveness and his priestly-training make it psychologically impossible for him to satisfy.

The “little-man’s” socially determined spiritual impotence thus pairs with the poet-scholar's induced, psycho-physical impotence, which reveals itself most inopportunely and humiliatingly in a brothel. His priestly-training has made it impossible for him to envisage his sex-cravings and functions otherwise than as base, degrading, revolting and repellent.

The place is Dublin, the time, the years of heartbreak following the fall of Parnell—and before James Connolly returned from America bringing a new hope to Irish manhood. The more intimately you know Dublin, and what those years of desolation meant to a sensitive spirit, the more you will get from Ulysses. Without the historical clue, for instance, you may miss (along with the whole brooding menace of the novel’s atmosphere) one of its most telling strokes.

We are taken to a funeral in Glasnevin. Every detail is shabby, sordid, commonplace without relief; not one of the large company is there for other than sordid reasons—not one prompted by real respect for the departed. As they gather around the grave one of them notices a rat scurrying for shelter behind a tomb. A sordid incident—seemingly leading nowhere. But as they turn to depart, the one who saw the rat says: — “Let’s go this way, and pay our respects to the Chief”.

Translated this means: “let us take the path by Parnell’s grave”. The sight of the rat brought a thought of the “rats” who brought down Parnell, and this released the long-buried streak of heroic enthusiasm and a desire to meditate a moment by the grave in which the hopes of Ireland were buried for a full generation.

Strokes such as this reveal the subtlety, delicacy and profundity of Joyce’s art. Passionate (but frustrated) Irish Nationalist Republicanism is the basic implication of Ulysses.

Leopold Bloom’s spiritual difficulties are multiplied by his lack of national roots. As a middle-European of Jewish ancestry, who has drifted to Dublin to find it a blind-alley of no escape, he belongs nowhere. Stephen Daedalus’ difficulties are multiplied by the fact that he has too many roots.

His birth and family associations root him in Ireland and Nationalism. His schooling, and his mother’s wishes, root him in the Catholic Church. But British rule, applauded and upheld by the Catholic Hierarchy, seeks to root him also in the British Empire and “loyalty” to the British crown. Claim and counter-claim make him the battle-field of totally irreconcilable passions.

The church frowns upon his militant Nationalist republicanism. Orthodox Dublin Castle Protestantism scorns Catholicism equally with Nationalism, while it patronisingly accepts the support and adulation of the Catholic Hierarchy. Stephen cannot and will not abandon his Nationalist convictions—not if all the Popes from Peter to Pius X stood threatening a major excommunication. Critical-scepticism has destroyed in him all faith in the Catholic doctrine, but he cannot openly repudiate the Church without in effect “deserting to Dublin Castle and the English”. He cannot remain a “good Catholic”, still less a near-priest, unless be does follow the Hierarchy into the British camp. He solves the difficulty by deciding that he must leave Ireland to save his soul alive.

The original Odysseus had to breakaway from Circe and her beguilements to become able to regain his home and purge it in mighty wrath from swarming parasites.

If I read Ulysses rightly it gives yet another convincing demonstration that we, too, to save our souls alive, must free ourselves from every weakness and delusion to become able to smash through the embodied evil, bourgeois social reality, and attain for mankind a new and higher point of departure.

SOURCE: Jackson, T. A. (Thomas Alfred). “The Approach to Literature”, in Old Friends to Keep: Studies of English Novels and Novelists (London: Lawrence and Wishart Ltd, 1950), pp. 9-26. This page: Section 5: pp. 18-20, section 6: pp. 20-23; section 7: pp. 23-26.

Note: I have supplied numbers for the sections which in the original are divided by asterisks (*   *   *).

Section 1: Jackson objects to the “lies” about communism and the USSR—that they devalue inter alia "things of the spirit"—disseminated by Aldous Huxley and others. Jackson proclaims himself “a Stalinist, a Marxist, a Humanist, and an ardent English Nationalist”.

Section 2: The separation of individual and society is fallacious. The writer is part of society, a product of the past, a producer of the future. The artist is never neutral, but always evaluates and criticizes his society in his work, being for, against, both, or pulled in opposite directions. In a moment of crisis the writer will be useful to the counter-revolutionary or revolutionary faction.

Section 3: Marxism’s view of history is explained. Marxism repudiates a pessimistic view of history. The various stages of civilization, exploitation and resistance, are summarized. The future belongs to communism.

Section 4: Civilizations rise and fall, but some cultural achievements are permanent. Culture is a key component of the classless society of the future, and will rise to unprecedented heights. The arts in bourgeois society today are degraded; apart from consumption by some idle rich patrons they are supported only for making money or furthering exploitation. The arts are reduced to advertising and trashy popular culture.

Section 5: Reading classic fiction stimulates the imagination needed for revolutionary struggle. The proletariat’s goal is to abolish class society and hence the role of the proletariat within it, to re-integrate humanity, and thus it is humanistic. The bourgeoisie, once heroic, is now decadent. The imagination embodied in the classics penetrate the depths of social reality, show society in motion and dispel the illusions of stasis. Great art is revolutionary.

Section 6: The classics of English fiction provide us with a criterion with which to evaluate “the decadence of the novel of today.” The hero is a key factor; the contemporary intelligentsia, unlike the early bourgeois order, scorns the heroic. Jackson gives no examples of decadent novels. Competetive individualism has morphed from its early bourgeois function to one of stupid specialization, not conducive to heroism. Heroism is required for proletarian revolution and for today’s artist to see life whole.

Section 7: Surprisingly, this essay concludes with a positive evaluation of James Joyce’s Ulysses ... as a classic. This is a unique position for a Stalinist to have taken at the time, as Joyce was generally seen (even when conceded as a great writer, see Strachey) by Stalinists as decadent. Joyce condemns bourgeois society with all of its contradictions. As a classical author he requires a hero, and splits his hero in two, both riven with contradictions—Stephen Daedalus (spirit) and Leopold Bloom (flesh). Joyce’s Dublin reflects the desolation of the time, that period between the demise of Parnell and the appearance of Connolly. There is no way out for Daedalus other than to leave Ireland to preserve his integrity. Ulysses implies “Irish Nationalist Republicanism”. So, Jackson validates Joyce by completely distorting his work. This almost seems like a ruse to circumvent Stalinist orthodoxy, but it probably is not. Jackson also puts the Irish question front and center in his essay on Gulliver. Aside from the stupidity of reducing a complex work to simple politicization—although Jackson does put forward an interesting conceptual structure—he completely misses out on Joyce’s rejection of Irish nationalism.

— RD

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