Reading Group: Ben Harker, “Jack Lindsay Reads the Short Course”

short courseWe are delighted that Ben Harker, Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British Literature at the University of Manchester, will be leading our next reading group at Pushkin House on Friday 21st November, 5.30pm–7.30pm. We will be circulating the texts soon so please contact Matthew Taunton or Rebecca Beasley if you would like to attend.

Jack Lindsay reads the Short Course. The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union / Bolsheviks (Short Course) was published in 1939, edited and authorised by the Central Committee of the CPSU, and was widely assumed to have been written by Stalin himself. It was accurately described by E.P. Thompson as ‘a document of the very first historical importance’, and a ‘gigantic historical fabrication’ which formed ‘the fundamental “education” text of Communists from Stalingrad to Cardiff and Calcutta to Marseilles.’ It mattered not only for its historical narrative, but for its construction of a centrally authorised theoretical Marxism.

This session takes as its focus resistance to that theoretical model within British Communism. The reading for the session will include a chapter of the Short Course alongside an unpublished paper presented by Communist novelist Lindsay to the CPGB’s cultural wing in 1945. Lindsay’s text challenged the theoretical orthodoxy encoded in the Short Course and incensed the party leadership. He argued that the approved base-superstructure model, which presented culture as essentially secondary to economic structures, distorted Marx’s thought. Drawing on Marx’s more humanist early writings, including the as yet untranslated Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Lindsay called for a ‘creative Marxism’ attuned to culture’s capacity to shape consciousness. Standing behind Lindsay’s theoretical intervention was his conviction that the well-documented wartime ‘cultural upsurge’ of working-class participation in the arts—in which Lindsay was a central figure—signalled a new maturity in ‘the rising class’, and the need for a correspondingly more active and sophisticated mode of cultural leadership from the party. Though largely contained by the party, this theoretical dissonance formed a significant prequel to the better-known troubles ahead: Lindsay’s unseasonal revisionism on theoretical matters anticipated positions associated with both the New Left and those of Gramscian modernisers in the 1970s.

BEN HARKER is Lecturer in Twentieth-century British Literature at the University of Manchester. His first book was Class Act: The Cultural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl (Pluto Press, 2007) and more recently he co-edited British Communism: A Documentary History (MUP, 2011). In 2013 he was the Jackson Brothers Visiting Fellow at Yale University. His articles on culture and the left have appeared in journals including History Workshop, Textual Practice, Science & Society, ELH and Literature & History. He’s an editor of Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism and is currently writing a book entitled British Communism and the Idea of Culture.

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