Despite having written, translated, and edited well over 150 books, his work is relatively unknown both in Australia, where he was born, and in England. The English literary establishment has largely ignored him partly due to his Australian nationality and also because of his Marxism.
His poetry from the 1930s has been treated dismissively by literary history. Yet he played a major role in left-wing literary activities in England during the latter half of the decade.
Particularly important to him is the democratic tradition of Australia which makes heroes of the gold diggers of Ballarat who fought for their rights at the Eureka stockade.
Lindsay was born in 1900 in Melbourne, the son of the artist Norman Lindsay, but his parents separated early on, and Jack was brought up in Brisbane by his mother. His childhood and youth oscillated between petit-bourgeois respectability and working-class deprivation.
Lindsay’s only schooling until the age of twelve was some little time at a kindergarten and he seems to have taught himself to read, and had to begin in the infants’ class even when he did start school.
At the age of fourteen he won a scholarship to Brisbane Grammar School where he befriended other scholarship boys. He entered the University of Queensland in 1918, graduating brilliantly in 1921.
During his time at university, he was to fall under his father’s aesthetic influence. Norman Lindsay was a follower of Nietzsche and espoused a reactionary outlook. In the early 1920s, Jack Lindsay was living in Sydney, where he co-edited a literary magazine, Vision, which was dominated by his father’s ideas.
But by 1926 Jack Lindsay left for Europe and after a time in Paris set up the Fanfrolico Press in London with collaborators, one of whom was a Communist (although this did not yet signify a change of ideas), publishing his own translations of the classics, his first study of William Blake and much poetry. In 1927 he also started a literary magazine, the `London Aphrodite’. His published efforts folded around 1930-1 and Lindsay moved to the West Country where he lived in poverty as a virtual recluse for most of the decade.
During this time, Lindsay began to move intellectually and emotionally away from Nietzschean philosophy towards Communism. In late 1935, with his mind upon what was happening in Europe, he read the works of Marx and Engels and some Lenin. Around the New Year of 1936, he declared that he had found Marxism and began writing for the `Left Review’ and `Poetry and the people’.
That year, he wrote two poems which signalled his new direction. Both of them were inspired by newspaper articles, one concerning England and one about Spain. Lindsay read a critical review in the `Times Literary Supplement’ of Alan Hutt’s book, `This final crisis’. In response to this, Lindsay wrote a long poem, which was published in the Left Review in May 1936.
Unlike many even of the English poets of the 1930s, Lindsay was impelled to express a Marxist view of history in his work.
Putting his historical imagination to work, Lindsay invoked the peasants’ revolt, the Anabaptists and Levellers, Luddites and Chartists and William Morris.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out, encouraged by Edgell Rickword, Lindsay wrote another poem, ‘On guard for Spain’, reprinted as a penny pamphlet and performed at a rally in Trafalgar Square in 1937, and subsequently upon a great number of occasions throughout Britain, often to very large audiences. He joined the Communist Party either towards the very end of the 1930s or in 1941, depending on what source you accept.
Lindsay also began writing fiction during the 1930s, and would publish over forty novels in his lifetime. His novels were steady sellers in England, but considerably more popular in the Soviet Union, where they sold over a million copies under the pen name Richard Preston.
Lindsay continued to write out of his political convictions throughout the war years. Joining the army to fight Fascism, he wrote dramatic narratives in verse. In the late 1940s he turned his attention back to editing and producing periodicals, while continuing to write novels, drama, poetry, and political and critical essays. He also continued his activity in the Communist Party, advocating a close relationship with the Soviet Union and working with various writers’ groups and coalitions for peace.
Lindsay’s fascination with the notion of "ripe" historical moments and how individuals interface with them is reflected in the settings of his novels. The "Prelude to Christianity" trilogy (`Rome for Sale’, `Caesar is Dead’, `Last Days With Cleopatra’) along with `Brief Light’, a fictionalized biography of Catullus, chronicle the lives of key politicians and noblemen at a time of great ferment in Rome. `The Barriers are Down’ is a novel set at the collapse of the Roman Empire, around 450 AD. His `1649: A Novel of A Year’ and `Men of ’48’ tell stories set in tumultuous times in English history. Similarly with his contemporary novels, such as the postwar series of novels `Of the British Way’.
His work on the idea that culture is productive activity, with the production of cultural artefacts existing in dialectical relationship with other productive phases of life was first set out in a discussion paper presented in 1945 to a conference organised by the cultural committee of the Communist Party. Lindsay’s ideas however put him at odds with many British Communists, for he took exception to the view that culture, as part of the superstructure, was something superficial or extraneous.
These ideas were implied in his `After the ‘Thirties’ (1956), but Lindsay did not further develop them until he resurrected the discussion document for inclusion his `The Crisis in Marxism’ in 1981, which betrays a heavy reliance on Hegel. Lindsay continued to write extensively on dialiectics and aesthethics. In 1978 he published his second study of William Blake, fifty years after his first, showing Blake’s place in the British radical tradition. By his death in 1990, Lindsay had written, edited, or translated more than one hundred seventy volumes.
Adrian Caesar `Dividing Lines: Poetry, Class and Ideology in the 1930s’
Joel R. Brouwer `The Origins of Jack Lindsay’s Contributions
to British Marxist Thought’
Croft, Andy. 1984. "Extremely crude propaganda?" The historical novels of Jack Lindsay. In Mackie 1984, 32-45
Jack Lindsay and British Poetry in the 1930s
by Adrian Caesar