Tommy Jackson used to refer caustically to certain comrades who ‘had the habit of trying to put in wedges thick end first’. To avoid this error in the most difficult task of trying to assess his immensely varied literary output in one short article, I will start with some of his minor writings.
First we should not forget his journalism—the mass of fine work buried in the Communist, the Sunday Worker and later journals. Some of the Communist material was reprinted in pamphlet form—a study of the British Empire and an account of the Russian Revolution in which R.W. Postgate collaborated.
Other pamphlets followed: the delightful, lighthearted History of Clerkenwell Green written for the opening of Marx House. This was the area in which he was born and grew up, and he knew and loved every corner of it. There was his study of Engels, and, a little gem, in 1935, The Jubilee and How. Much later came Socialism: What? Why? How?, based on his always popular lectures.
He was, indeed, as a Soviet reviewer once called him, ‘a brilliant populariser’. This phrase, abbreviated by his family to Brilpop, became a sort of nickname.
These writings, if you like, were trifles. His first, and arguably his most substantial, major work was Dialectics: The Logic of Marxism. This was, as he said, ‘an attempt to clear the ground for a better and fuller appreciation of that which gives Marxism its unity—namely the dialectical materialist method.
Today it is fashionable to decry the Marxism which served us in the 1920s and 1930s, and no doubt its limitations were considerable. But it is perhaps worth saying that whatever those limitations it was an immense advance on earlier levels of understanding which had been too concentrated on Marx’s economics to see that Marxism was a unified world outlook which must be taken as a whole.
Perhaps the major achievement of the 1930s was the rediscovery of the dialectic method as lying at the heart of Marxism. In this rediscovery no one in Britain (or perhaps anywhere else) played a more important part than Tommy Jackson.
Dialectics is a long, solid book, by no means always easy reading. But it is continuously enlivened by the wit, the polemic sparkle and the homely similes and illustrations which abound.
One specimen must suffice, as topical today as it was then. Speaking of the many intellectuals who ‘discover’ and annex Marxism without seeing its unity, he writes:
Marxism becomes an Old Curiosity Shop in which political amateurs and literary dilettanti can rummage for decorative oddments, just as they rummage in the Caledonian Market for old china, pewter plates and bawdy prints.
Dialectics grew in the writing from its original form of a polemical article against a certain Fred Casey into a volume of 648 pages in which his erudition found full play. One can open it almost at random to find, in one chapter, for example, an illuminating comparison between fascism and Bonapartism or in another an exposition of the way in which Mendelyeff’s Periodic Law illustrates dialectics.
If Dialectics came by accretion, the opposite is true of Jackson’s other great work, Ireland Her Own. This was the fulfilment of a long cherished and often discussed plan and was originally written on a most lavish scale.
The difficulties of publishing in the period just after the war forced him to compress it to less than half its original length .
It was a heartbreaking task, entailing the destruction of much that would have been of the greatest value. Yet as it stands, in its wonderful combination of passion and clarity, this remains the one book which one can safely offer to anyone who wants to understand about Ireland.
Solo Trumpet, Tommy’s autobiography, is another truncated work, a mere fragment of what was originally written. The unpublished parts are just as lively, and just as informative about the history of our movement as what has appeared.
Other historical writings include an introduction to a volume of essays on the French Revolution written by French Marxists, and his Trials of British Freedom. This covers a number of cases—from Wilkes to the Communist leaders in 1925—in which those in the dock stood, in one way or another, for some threatened liberty. In no other book, perhaps, is his enjoyment of a dramatic situation more apparent.
Enjoyment is the ruling feature, too, in his literary criticism. At a time when much Marxist criticism was rather solemn and pontifical, he wrote about books which he loved because he loved them. He felt that a book was only worth writing about if it was good of its kind, and he looked for what was positive. Judgment could come later, and his judgments, when they came, always commanded respect.
Best known of his writings in this field, and now almost legendary, is Charles Dickens: the Progress of a Radical. But equally remarkable are the full-length articles in International Literature on Scott and Shakespeare. I remember his surprised delight at being told by the editor that he could have all the space he wanted. English editors had never been so generous! He took full advantage of this dispensation, but in Old Friends to Keep, studies of English classical novelists, where he had to work to very strict limits, he showed, how much could be said in a few words by anyone who knows how to do it.
Morning Star, 25 October 1979
SOURCE: Morton, A. L. (Arthur Leslie). T.A. Jackson, in History and the Imagination: Selected Writings of A. L. Morton, edited by Margot Heinemann and Willie Thompson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), pp. 307-309.
and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A. L. Morton
edited by Maurice Cornforth
Friends to Keep: Studies of English Novels and Novelists
by T. A. Jackson
On the Jackson Trail by Peter Osborne
Proletarian Philosophy: A Version of Pastoral? by Jonathan Rée
Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left:
Essential Historical Surveys
Marx and Marxism Web Guide
Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional, & Related Topics:
A Bibliography in Progress
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