The Marxist Outsider: T.A. Jackson as Autobiographer and Critic

By Philip Bounds

In his magisterial history of working-class autodidacticism in Britain, Jonathan Rose describes the late T.A. Jackson as “the most brilliant proletarian intellectual to come out of the British Communist Party”.1 It is a judgement with which it is very hard to disagree. Born into an impoverished family in London and deprived of all but the most rudimentary formal education, Jackson had a voracious hunger for knowledge and wrote pathbreaking and still eminently readable books on history, philosophy, politics and literature. He also made a deep impression on the thousands of people who turned out to hear his lectures and speeches. It seems unlikely that anyone else in Britain did as much to inspire working-class recruits to the Communist Party to immerse themselves in the life of the mind. Moreover, Rose is by no means the only recent scholar to pay tribute to him. As early as 1984, in his study of communist philosophy in Britain, Jonathan Rée singled him out as the most distinguished example of what he called the “proletarian philosophers”.2 He has also featured prominently in recent studies by Helena Sheehan, Erin McLaughlin-Jones, Hanna Behrend and others.3 More than sixty years after his death, Jackson remains one of the few British communists who inspires something approaching unconditional admiration among historians of the left.

It is not only Jackson’s intellectual accomplishments that have helped to keep his memory alive. The impression one gets is that his admirers esteem him as much for his personality as for his brainpower. Writing at a time when most communist authors conveyed a rather suffocating air of unswerving loyalty to their cause, Jackson forged an authorial persona that was altogether more mischievous, undisciplined and disreputable. Even his most partisan writings speak of a man who never quite fitted in and who loved nothing more than carping at authority from the sidelines. To put it another way, Jackson was a romantic outsider in an age when a willingness to toe the party line counted for more than intellectual independence. There are two places in his work where his status as an outsider and his fascination with marginality are most obviously on display. The first is in his great memoir Solo Trumpet, published in 1953 about two years before his death. The second is in the substantial critical writings on Dickens, Shakespeare and Scott which came out in the late 1930s.

The purpose of this article is to examine both bodies of work with a view to showing how their concern with outsiders tends to define them. Briefly comparing Solo Trumpet with the more conventional communist memoirs of the age, I argue that Jackson portrays himself as an incorrigible troublemaker whose political identity is shaped by his congenital inability to integrate himself into mainstream society. I then try to show how his preoccupation with outsiders carries through into his writings on Dickens, Shakespeare and Scott, especially in his insistence that all three writers derived their unique insights as social critics from their ambiguous social identities.4 The article concludes with a brief consideration of the wider political significance of Jackson’s compulsive individualism.

The outsider’s road to socialism

Thomas Alfred Jackson was born on August 21 1879 in Clerkenwell, an area of London whose association with radical politics goes back at least as far as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.5 The son of a left-leaning compositor with pronounced Fenian sympathies, he seems to have been suspicious of the status quo from his earliest years. Yet in spite of his natural cussedness, which often expressed itself in uncompromisingly confrontational language, he was never a very clubbable man and he generally treated his colleagues on the left with a certain wariness. There were two things in his early childhood which imbued him with a lifelong sense of not really belonging. The first was his extremely poor eyesight, which made it impossible for him to mix easily with other children. The second was his almost fanatical hunger for knowledge. Educated at the Duncombe Road School in Upper Holloway between 1886 and 1893, Jackson adored his lessons and became an omnivorous reader at a very early age. Wholly self-educated from the age of thirteen, intent on exploring every subject from quantum physics on the one hand to modern theology on the other, he conducted himself in adult life in accordance with Lenin’s bracing observation that “Communism becomes an empty phrase, a mere façade, and a communist a mere bluffer, if he has not worked over in his consciousness the whole inheritance of human knowledge.”6

If Jackson intended to carve out a normal life for himself when he left school, he had effectively destroyed his chances by the time he reached twenty-one. After training as a compositor at a printing firm near Chancery Lane – an episode we will return to in the next section – he found that no one was willing to employ him because of his left-wing politics and his reputation for unreliability. With all prospects of professional advancement receding, he threw himself into the world of the Marxist left and eked out a meagre living from it for the next fifty years.

Although his commitment to the socialist idea was never in question, he was anything but a “good party man”. In the first decade of the twentieth century he moved from one socialist sect to another, causing trouble in all of them. He then acquired a reputation as one of the most entertaining, curmudgeonly and persuasive stump orators in Britain, spending much of the time between 1911 and 1920 in a sort of voluntary exile in the North of England. It was only in the 1920s that he seemed to move to the heart of Marxist politics. In 1920 he played a minor role in founding the Communist Party and was employed by the organisation for about nine years. At various time he sat on its Central Committee, served as a Party delegate to meetings of the Comintern in Moscow and contributed to the editing of the Communist, Worker’s Weekly and the Sunday Worker. However, nothing prevented him speaking his mind when he thought that the prevailing line was unwise. After a preliminary skirmish with the Party leadership in 1924 over the issue of “Bolshevisation”, he emerged as one of the leading critics of the notorious Class-Against-Class strategy which the Party adopted at the behest of the Comintern in 1928. Horrified at the thought that British communists were being asked to isolate themselves from the broader labour movement, he lost his place on the Central Committee in 1929 and was effectively sacked as a Party worker. He never returned to the upper echelons of communist politics.

The paradoxical result of Jackson’s ejection from the leadership of the CPGB was a sudden flowering of his literary career. Freed from his day-to-day political responsibilities and able to move with his wife Lydia to a modest cottage in Sussex, he spent much of the 1930s and early 1940s as a full-time writer. The torrent of books, articles and pamphlets which flowed from his pen at this time were often vastly ambitious. In the field of philosophy his most important work was the legendary Dialectics (1936), which slowly expanded over a period of three years from a brief article into a tome of nearly 650 pages. His gifts as a popular historian were reflected in A Great Socialist – Frederick Engels (1935), Trials of British Freedom (1940) and the titanic Ireland Her Own (1943).7 In the area of literary studies his chief publications were Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical (1937) and two lengthy essays on Shakespeare and Scott which appeared in the Soviet journal International Literature in 1936 and 1939 respectively.

If his productivity slowed up considerably during the ten years between the end of the War and his death in 1955, it was primarily because of an unforeseen tragedy which threw his personal circumstances into chaos and once more made him reliant on the largesse of the Party. When his wife died after a minor operation in 1943, Jackson suddenly found himself homeless and without an income. Virtually his only option was to become a lecturer in the CPGB’s Education Department, a job which obliged him to travel tirelessly throughout Britain at an age when most people would have retired. In spite of his teaching commitments, he still managed to publish three relatively short books in his last decade. These were Socialism: What? Why? How? (1945), Old Friends to Keep (1950) and Solo Trumpet (1953).

Nearly everyone who came across Jackson in his lifetime seems to have been struck by his enormous eccentricity. Lanky, shabbily dressed and not always entirely clean, he cultivated an image which combined the sardonic humour of a Dickens with the earnestness of a Lenin and the rather louche charisma of a nineteenth-century coster. His appeal was to the sort of person who thought of radical politics not as an expression of English respectability but as a blessed escape from it. The great virtue of Solo Trumpet, the book to which we must now turn our attention, is that it provides an imperishable record of Jackson’s inability to conform and in so doing throws his distinctive political style into vivid relief. No other book evokes so effectively what might be called the outsider’s road to socialism.

Solo Trumpet: a memoir from the margins

Most of the autobiographies written by British communists have been studies in respectability.8 Although their authors take care to emphasise their uncompromising opposition to bourgeois society, they generally portray themselves as upright citizens of unimpeachable moral character. It is common for Marxist autobiographers to ascribe their rebelliousness to what might be called wounded innocence at work. In what is usually a fairly lengthy description of their early experience of paid employment, they recall the anguish of going out into the world of work and trying hard to make a good impression, only to discover that their employers are selfish, exploitative and immoral. The implication is that young men and women take exception to capitalism because the behaviour of the ruling class offends against their high standards. One example must suffice. In the opening pages of Revolt on the Clyde (1936), William Gallacher sets up an unintentionally comic antithesis between his own youthful virtue and the greed of his early employers. Positioning himself as the pious and devoted son of a simple, compassionate but overworked mother (“What joy it was when first I could give my mother something towards my keep”), he recalls how the Scottish grocer who employed him when he left school “took full advantage” of his “capacity for hard work”.9 Having put up with a great deal of casual exploitation in his early days in the job, his temper finally snaps when he is instructed to deliver a consignment of ham on his afternoon off. Sacked on the spot for his precocious display of indiscipline, he is reinstated the following morning when he cheekily turns up to demand his wages. As if to underscore the totemic significance of this event, Gallacher tells us that it had a “definite bearing upon my becoming a working-class agitator.”10

The great significance of T.A. Jackson’s Solo Trumpet is that it provides a clean break with this entrenched tradition of autobiographical piety.11 While the book is by no means free of self-righteousness, it brings an almost Augustinian frankness to its account of the circumstances in which Jackson was radicalised. Far from portraying himself as a conscientious worker whose idealism is stymied by exploitative employers, Jackson admits (or at least implies) that his disenchantment with the ruling class arose from his inability to accept the necessary disciplines of the workplace. The first thirty pages of the book depict a wilful young man who liked to alternate between causing mayhem at work and avoiding work altogether. After being taken on as a trainee compositor by a printing firm at the heart of the City of London, the teenage Jackson spent much of his time indulging in “larks” with his fellow apprentices. These included behaving yobbishly at the Lord Mayor’s Show, cheeking his superiors and occasionally letting off firecrackers beneath the foreman’s stool.

More important still were Jackson’s frequent lapses into absenteeism. Among the most memorable passages in Solo Trumpet are those in which the author takes advantage of a lull in work, slinks out of the printshop and luxuriates in the manifold ambiences of Victorian London. As early as the second page we see him clambering out of a dormer window onto the roof, remaining there with a book until an “inopportune burst of sunshine…revealed my whereabouts to the foreman.”12 A few pages later he evokes the sheer excitement of exploring London’s more historic byways, noting that his trips through Fleet Street, St. Paul’s and Paternoster Row were “like being transported to Wonderland on a Magic Flying Carpet.”13 The impression Jackson conveys in these passages is that he spent much of his late adolescence as a sort of proletarian flâneur. Determined to resist the exhausting schedules of the working day, he ignores the utilitarian function of the buildings he passes and surrenders wholly to their aesthetic associations.

As a consequence of his taste for “devilry” in the workplace, Jackson found himself excluded from his chosen profession at an early age. Identified as the leader of a minor rebellion against an unpopular manager, he was blacklisted “throughout the trade” and never received the training he claimed to crave. But even at this early stage there were other factors fuelling his dislike of respectability. The most important was undoubtedly his hunger for knowledge. It is clear from Solo Trumpet that his extraordinary programme of self-guided study was well underway by the time he reached the age of fifteen. After immersing himself in the likes of Dickens, Scott, Thackeray, Addison, Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, Johnson and Shakespeare, he polished off the bulk of Macaulay’s favourite writers and then settled down to read every single text on Sir John Lubbock’s famous list of the hundred best books. He seems to have been better read by the time he came of age than most graduates are at the end of their lives. However, in a much-quoted passage towards the beginning of Solo Trumpet, he makes it clear that his early reading only had an indirect effect on his burgeoning feelings of disaffection. Instead of equipping him with a political understanding of capitalist society, his engagement with the canon of “great books” ushered him into an alternative reality which made his everyday circumstances seem boring in comparison:

The trouble was that all these books – masterpieces though they might be – belonged to the Past, both in their origin and in their mode of expression. Insensibly, preoccupation with these “classics” treated as a single category – the Best – caused a student to slip into regarding Culture as a fixed Mind-world in which one either ascended with the geniuses to supreme heights or sank with the dullards and the dunces to the uncultured slime. Insensibly in this way, one acquired a complete detachment from – if not a downright contempt for – the ‘uncultured’ vulgarity and sordidness of everyday life and actuality, with a positive revulsion against the suggestion that this “vulgar” reality could be, and should be transformed by practical activities which, perforce, “subdued to the medium they worked in”  had to be in some measure, sordid and vulgar likewise.14

The great breakthrough in Jackson’s life occurred when his desperate personal circumstances transformed his attitude to his studies. Outraged by a society that had consigned him to the scrap-heap for a minor offence, he increasingly came to scour his books for tips on changing the world. The decisive moment came in 1898 when he first read Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England, the charming work of sub-Morrissian propaganda which exercised a profound influence on the British working-class in the period before the Great War: “Inside of an hour it had done my business: I was a ‘Socialist’ – as I have remained ever since.”15 Indeed, there is a sense in which the spirit of Merrie England pervades the whole of Solo Trumpet‘s early chapters. When Jackson looks back on the more demotic pleasures of his youth, he writes with extraordinary vividness about many of the aspects of English culture which Blatchford loved most deeply – spit-and-sawdust pubs, small grocers’ shops, rashers cooked on grid irons and beer carried in cans. It seems unlikely that passages such as these are solely motivated by nostalgia. By evoking the vanished ethos of a small-scale, craft-based and only semi-industrial England, Jackson is probably taking a sly dig at the Communist Party’s obsession with technological progress. Certainly there is no other place in the literature of British communism where a card-carrying member of the Party seems closer to distributism than to Marxism.

Jackson’s conversion to socialism is recounted on page 48 of Solo Trumpet – about a third of the way into the text. It is followed by a transitional chapter which explores his experiences in the socialist movement in the period between 1898 and 1911. Starting out as a neophyte member of H.M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Jackson sides with the so-called “Impossibilist” revolt against Hyndmanism and becomes a founder member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) in 1904.16 He later abandons the SPGB for the Independent Labour Party (ILP) before eschewing party membership altogether after leaving London in 1911. Although Jackson’s account of his wanderings through the left is full of acute insights into the socialist culture of the day, its broader significance lies in its continuing challenge to the conventions of communist autobiography.

Most communist autobiographers portray their entry into the left in rapturously positive terms, seeing it as the gateway to a life of selfless, satisfying and often heroic activism. Jackson is noticeably more ambivalent about it. While not denying that his early experiences on the left taught him a great deal, he also seethes with exasperation at his memories of incompetent leadership, lack of strategic vision and political naiveté. It could even be argued that he implicitly compares his relationship with the SDF, the SPGB and the ILP to his earlier relationship with his employers at the printing works. Just as his employers refused to provide him with the training he needed, so his comrades on the Marxist left failed to satiate his hunger for knowledge and his need for meaningful political activity. And just as he responded to his employers by deliberately resorting to “devilry”, so he responded to his more self-important comrades by provoking them beyond endurance – or at least encouraging others to do so. A famous example of his undiminished taste for “larks” occurs in his affectionate account of the SPGB stalwart Moses Baritz. Having been refused admission to an SDF meeting in Salford, Baritz apparently climbed onto the roof of the hall, produced a clarinet from his coat pocket and blew some severely atonal obbligatos down the ventilating shaft. The result was high chaos during a speech by Hyndman and the immediate offer of a seat in the front row.17 This is scarcely the kind of anecdote that one would expect from a Gallacher or a Pollitt.

The last seventy pages of Solo Trumpet deal with Jackson’s life in the ten years or so before the establishment of the Communist Party in 1920. The implicit message of these pages represents another dramatic break with the traditions of communist autobiography. Having already portrayed himself as an incorrigibly cussed member of the left, Jackson makes it clear that one of the things which most attracted him to the socialist movement was that it enabled him to sustain the marginal, fugitive and disreputable lifestyle that had been forced upon him after his expulsion from the printing industry. As astonishing as it seems to the modern reader, Jackson earned a living in the period between 1911 and 1920 as a sort of itinerant orator.18 Living primarily in the North of England, especially in Leeds and Newcastle, he spent much of his time speaking at radical meetings and drawing a “wage” from the collections taken afterwards. The air of bohemian mischief pervading this stage of his life was reinforced by the political goals he chose to pursue.

Although he gave speeches on an enormous range of political, historical and philosophical themes, his main objective in the years leading up to the Great War was to make the case against religion. His reason for doing so was that prosecutions for blasphemy had begun to increase dramatically in the North of England, primarily because the authorities regarded religious belief as a powerful specific against working-class militancy. Working closely with J.W. Gott’s Freethought-Socialist League, Jackson took a leaf out of Richard Carlile’s book and deliberately incited prosecution for profanity or blasphemy in order to bring the law into disrepute.19 It was a tactic which enjoyed modest success. After being arrested for profanity on three separate occasions and spending two brief periods in jail, Jackson suddenly discovered that the police were more likely to arrest him for disorderly conduct than for offending against Christian orthodoxies. Shortly afterwards the arrests dried up altogether as the police grew weary of doing battle.

Jackson’s account of his time as a streetcorner orator announces a theme which dominates the second half of Solo Trumpet. His closing chapters are littered with anecdotes which blur the distinction between politics and crime. As befits a founder member of the SPGB, an organisation whose early militants apparently formed themselves into a semi-criminal subculture,20 Jackson implies that a willingness to defy respectability and exist on the margins of society is crucial to the revolutionary project. If a society’s laws are stacked in the interests of the ruling class, the best way of resisting them is to break them as often as possible. Similarly, a revolutionary party which lacks resources of its own should feel no compunction about stealing from the wealthy – a message illustrated to hilarious effect by a description of how the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) relied on “judicious scrounging” in the workplace to finance its ambitious programme of publications.21

More subtly, Jackson also implies that outsiders like himself can play a crucial role in mediating between the different factions in the revolutionary movement. He makes it clear that when he first arrived in the North of England his aim was not merely to disseminate a radical message but to encourage socialists to overcome their differences and unite around a common programme. Refusing to exacerbate divisions on the left by recruiting to the Freethought-Socialist League, he encouraged people who sympathised with his ideas to remain active in whichever organisations they already belonged to: “It was a sort of guerilla drive which had as its ultimate aim the re-union of the Socialist sects on a basis of Marxist ideology.”22 This theme carries through to Jackson’s account of the foundation of the Communist Party in 1920, where he portrays himself as making tireless efforts to persuade his comrades in the SLP (which he had joined towards the end of the war) to suppress their hostility to other socialist organisations and join them in the new party. Indeed, the passages about the foundation of the CPGB are among the most provocative in the book. Writing at a time when many Party members were still beholden to nonconformist shibboleths about the need for respectability and loyalty, Jackson is mischievously making the case for the slightly louche contrarian who stands apart from the political crowd, coolly appraises the strengths and weaknesses of opposing arguments and in so doing persuades his colleagues to co-operate with each other.

Serving as a capstone to a literary career that had begun over thirty years earlier, Solo Trumpet throws the main concerns of that career into vivid relief. No one who reads Jackson’s earlier books in conjunction with the autobiography can be in any doubt that the theme which binds his oeuvre together is that of the virtue of outsiders. The purpose of the rest of this article is to illustrate the point with reference to Jackson’s literary criticism.

On Dickens: Jackson as literary critic

Although Jackson wrote about literature fairly consistently from the 1920s onwards, most of his literary criticism was contained in brief newspaper articles.23 It was only during the 1930s that he addressed literary themes at greater length, primarily in Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical (1937), “Marx and Shakespeare” (1936) and “Walter Scott and his Historical Significance” (1939). These writings were part of a much wider effort by communist intellectuals to excavate the history of the “English radical tradition”, prompted in part by the CPGB’s adoption of the so-called Popular Front policy in 1935. The cultural aspect of this policy was first enunciated by the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov in a famous speech to the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in Moscow. According to Dimitrov, fascist organisations throughout the world had gained a crucial advantage over the left by portraying themselves as the most dynamic inheritors of their respective national traditions. The Italian fascists had presented themselves as successors to Garibaldi, their French counterparts had identified Joan of Arc as the progenitor of Gallic fascism and even the American fascists had made inroads into public consciousness by identifying themselves with the rebel forces in the War of Independence. Dimitrov’s point was that Communist Parties could only outflank the fascists by launching a sort of parallel project from the left. Instead of acquiescing in the idea that fascist values had deep roots in the history of every country, member parties of the Comintern had to persuade people that their national traditions were continuous with the politics of communism. More precisely, Dimitrov called on communists to draw people’s attention to the existence of rich traditions of popular revolt in their respective countries – traditions which had gone a long way towards shaping the established forms of national identity:

Communists who do nothing to enlighten the masses on the past of their people…in a genuinely Marxist spirit, who do nothing to link up the present struggle with the people’s revolutionary traditions and past…voluntarily hand over to the fascist falsifiers all that is valuable in the historical past of the nation.24

The British communists embraced Dimitrov’s cultural strategy with considerable enthusiasm. In the second half of the 1930s they produced a succession of pioneering works on the English radical tradition, ranging from panoramic surveys of the history of popular revolt through to minutely detailed studies of thinkers such as Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Morris who had opposed the status quo from a broadly “left” position.25 Among the most important works were A.L. Morton’s A People’s History of England (1938), Jack Lindsay’s John Bunyan: Maker of Myths (1937), Lindsay’s magisterial A Short History of Culture (1939) and a series of essays on radical intellectuals in Left Review. Although Jackson’s studies of Dickens, Shakespeare and Scott were distinguished contributions to this body of work, they were set slightly apart from the writings of other communists by their attempt to portray their subjects as radical outsiders. Implicit in each of them is the assumption that the writer sees more clearly (and certainly more radically) when viewing society from a marginal position.

Jackson’s preoccupation with outsiders expresses itself in the book on Dickens in three ways – in its account of the rise of the novel, in its portrayal of Dickens as a cultural radical and in its sketch of Dickens’s relationship with the British labour movement. Surveying literary culture in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Jackson argues that the novel was originally an outsider’s form par excellence which only achieved respectability after a long battle against the ideology of classicism. In its early days, or so it is argued, the novel was detested in polite society because of its association with the culture of the lower orders. Quite apart from the fact that early novelists such as Bunyan and Defoe habitually resorted to “picaresque” subject matter, they also drew on narrative forms which had been at the heart of popular culture for centuries – among them the fable, the fairy tale and the romance. This combination of demotic content and popular form offended against all the assumptions of classicism, not least because it made a mockery of the idea that a work of art should exhibit the quality of “formed perfection”.26  It was only after the French Revolution put paid to the ideology of classicism that the novel began to be taken seriously in elite circles. Although its eventual “canonisation” was due to a variety of factors, one of the most important elements in its rise was the efforts of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett to show that picaresque content posed no threat to refined forms of expression. Anxious to prove that a gentleman could retain his “classicality” while writing about the lowest subject matter, or so Jackson implies, these and other novelists produced a succession of books in which the margins of society were meticulously evoked in the language of antiquity: “He [Samuel Richardson] salved his gentlemanly conscience by making his earlier novels elaborate satires, in which his classical learning was turned to account in the form of a ludicrous use of the machinery and diction of the Iliad and the Aeneid to present adventures in low life and brawls between trollops and their paramours.”27 In emphasising the role of “low life” in the early history of the novel, Jackson is not simply making a point about the capacity of benighted cultural forms to achieve elite status. He is also making a wider though implied point about the capacity of marginalised groups to influence, antagonise and transform the mainstream.

Implicitly defining the novel as a form which affords particular prominence to voices from the margins, Jackson clearly regards Dickens as the novelist who represents the dispossessed and the marginalised most faithfully. His argument is that Dickens articulated a thoroughgoing cultural critique of capitalism and that he was especially sympathetic to society’s most vulnerable groups, notably children of all classes. Picking up on an observation in John Ruskin’s Unto This Last (1860), he insists that Dickens was motivated all along by a proto-Marxist belief in the spiritual poverty of market societies. If the employing class is continually obliged to hold down wages in order to accumulate capital, or so Dickens allegedly believed, it follows that the dominant culture will be tarnished by an emphasis on self-denial. In a society defined by Mr Gradgrind’s credo that one should “buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest”,28 there can be no outlet for humanity’s instinctive need for emotional warmth, ethical disinterestedness and aesthetic inspiration. Among the biggest casualties of the Gradgrindian ethos are children of all backgrounds. Naturally outgoing and generous, they can only be adapted to the demands of the marketplace if their spirits are broken at an early age. According to Jackson, Dickens’s goal in many of the novels is to show how the various “systems” of education in Victorian Britain were all directed towards this single end. Where Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby or Mr Murdstone in David Copperfield rely on corporal punishment to discipline their charges, Miss Monflathers in The Old Curiosity Shop insists on instilling her pupils with a sense of their own moral worthlessness. Mrs Pipchin in Dombey and Son goes so far as to imprison “delinquents” in a dungeon, while in the same novel Dr Blimber terrorises the boys in his care with a combination of stifling etiquette and academic pedantry. And these are only a few of the educational luminaries whose barbarism Dickens satirises in an oeuvre of nearly twenty novels. The culmination of his attack on bourgeois self-denial is his wholly revolutionary proposition that children have rights as well as responsibilities. Insisting that every child should be provided “not merely [with] the bare necessities of physical existence” but also with “food for the emotions, for the fancy and for the mind”,29 Dickens proposes that the only reasonable way to bring up children is to brush with the grain of their natural generosity.

Having portrayed Dickens as a staunch defender of the marginal and the dispossessed, Jackson goes on to imply that much of his literary greatness derived from his own marginality. His rather startling argument is that Dickens was a “petit-bourgeois Radical” on the fringes of the labour movement whose career followed much the same trajectory as that of the Chartists. As a writer who hated the ethos of capitalist society, or so it is implied, Dickens believed that the warmth of the common people could go a long way towards rescuing Britain from its moral and cultural malaise. This made him naturally sympathetic towards the campaign to secure the vote for working people, since he realised that society as a whole would only benefit from their moral example if they possessed a fair amount of political power. The consequence of all this was that his novels closely paralleled the state of the Chartist movement as it battled for electoral reform.

As confident as any Victorian naturalist in his methods of classification, Jackson suggests that Dickens’s career moved through three distinct stages. The first began in 1836 and lasted until 1842, encompassing novels such as Oliver Twist, Barnaby Rudge, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. Its most salient characteristic was a sort of boundless optimism about the imminent dissolution of the British class system. Writing at a time when the Chartist campaign to enfranchise the masses seemed certain to succeed, Dickens gave the impression that class distinctions had a purely notional existence and would disappear altogether once people behaved with a modicum of compassion. Peopling his early books with bourgeois philanthropists such as the Cheeryble brothers, Mr Pickwick and the Garlands, he held out the prospect that the wealthy would effectively surrender their power for straightforwardly ethical reasons:

In reality there are no classes, only humanity…In a word – all the preventable ills of the world would be remedied if only men behaved to each other with kindliness, justice, and sympathetic understanding. There were, of course, rich people and poor; but these were casual, accidental and transitory divisions whose ill effects would disappear if only the rich used their power and wealth sympathetically to assist the poor to escape from poverty, and the poor took example from the manly and intelligent self-reliance of the deserving rich.30

If the Dickens of the late 1830s was essentially a moralist, urging people to live up to the better side of their nature and comparatively uninterested in institutions, Jackson believes that the two final stages of his career witnessed a dramatic shift towards pessimism on the one hand and minute sociological observation on the other. The second stage stretched between 1842 and the end of the decade and engendered books such as Dombey and Son, A Christmas Carol and Martin Chuzzlewit. Chastened by the failure of the People’s Charter and only moderately encouraged by the revival of Chartism a few years later, Dickens now came to realise that the ruling class was a lot less averse to hanging on to its power than he had previously assumed. A major preoccupation of his middle period was the nature of pride, conceived as the natural ally of hierarchy. Recognising that the spirit of philanthropy was wholly alien to the owners of the new “commercial houses”, he ruefully acknowledged that the modern bourgeoisie “wielded a power as great as that of Roman Emperors; and…in their pride of wealth and power, exacted from their connections and dependants a deference and obedience greater than those for which the Emperor Caligula had had his throat so deservedly cut.”31

By the time Chartism collapsed for the last time in 1848 (an event which coincided with the suppression of democratic revolutions throughout Europe), Dickens had begun to realise that inequality in Britain had deep structural causes. The overarching theme of his final period (c.1848 to his death in 1872) is the idea that British institutions are deliberately designed to prevent the common people from exercising power. He illustrated this view with great trenchancy in Bleak House (1853), which showed how the legal system seeks to exclude the uninitiated by adopting procedures of a wholly unnecessary complexity. Such was his anger at this state of affairs, or so Jackson argues, that by the end of his life he had become sympathetic to the idea of armed insurrection – a sympathy given vivid expression in his portrait of the Parisian canaille in A Tale of Two Cities.

Insofar as Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical is remembered today, it is largely because of the vigorous attack to which George Orwell subjected it in his great essay “Charles Dickens” (1940). Jackson is singled out for criticism on the very first page of the essay, on the grounds that he exemplifies the tendency of intellectuals to “steal” Dickens by projecting their own beliefs onto his work. According to Orwell, who also excoriated G.K. Chesterton’s medievalist interpretation of the Dickensian oeuvre,32 Jackson had been guilty of making “spirited efforts to turn Dickens into a bloodthirsty revolutionary.”33 He had also misrepresented Dickens’s social position by wrongly implying that he was some kind of “proletarian writer”.34 Yet the vehemence of Orwell’s attack on Jackson conceals a rich irony. Although Orwell attains a level of critical insight that Jackson could never hope to match, the main arguments of “Charles Dickens” owe a significant debt to those of the earlier work. What Orwell effectively does is appropriate one of Jackson’s keenest insights, surreptitiously modify it and then use it to belabour the entire radical culture to which Jackson belonged. The main point of agreement between Orwell and Jackson concerns the nature of Dickens’s “moralism”. As we have seen, Jackson had characterised the young Dickens as an inveterate optimist who believed that most of society’s problems could be solved so long as people behaved more responsibly. Orwell restates this argument in strikingly similar language, noting that “his [Dickens’s] whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.”35 He also goes along with Jackson in recognising that Dickens encapsulated his moralism in a succession of bourgeois philanthropists or “Good Rich Men”, citing Pickwick, the Cheerybles, Chuzzlewit and Scrooge as his examples. However, Orwell departs fundamentally from Jackson in his assessment of whether Dickens’s opinions ever really changed. Whereas Jackson argues that Dickens abandoned his moralism at an early stage and transformed himself into a searingly pessimistic critic of British institutions, Orwell insists that he remained indifferent to the idea of political action throughout his career and usually favoured a “change of heart” over a change of circumstances. In another striking echo of Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical, he explores this idea by advancing his own version of Jackson’s argument about the three stages of Dickens’s career. Concurring with Jackson that the first stage was one of immense optimism about the possibility of reforming human nature, he concedes that Dickens became “slightly despondent” in the 1850s but insists that he was restored to full moralising vigour by the end of his life:

…in the last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (published 1864-5), the good rich man comes back in full glory in the person of Boffin. Boffin is a proletarian by origin and only wealthy by inheritance, but he is the usual deus ex machina, solving everybody’s problems by showering money in all directions. He even “trots” like the Cheerybles. In several ways Our Mutual Friend is a return to the earlier manner, and not an unsuccessful return either.36

Orwell’s reasons for reworking Jackson’s arguments become clear towards the end of his essay. Although he is generally critical of Dickens’s moralism, he insists in his closing paragraphs that an emphasis on changing the self can play an important civilising role in a totalitarian age. Surveying the vogues for Stalinism and fascism which prevailed among the intellectuals of his day, he bemoans the fact that educated opinion in the West is in thrall to a totalitarian culture which ruthlessly subordinates common decency to the pursuit of power. The great virtue of Dickens is that his naïve insistence on the distinction between right and wrong serves to impede a complete outbreak of political barbarism, if only because it sustains an “idea of human brotherhood” which still inspires the common people.37 Orwell’s implication is that socialism can only succeed if people devote as much time to changing themselves as to changing society. Having appropriated one of Jackson’s main arguments, “Charles Dickens” draws to a close by turning it against the political culture to which Jackson had made such a signal contribution. It is a classic piece of Orwellian mischief.

Jackson on Shakespeare and Scott

Jackson’s essays on Shakespeare and Scott are less accomplished than the book on Dickens but their autobiographical significance is in some respects more pronounced. As we have seen, Jackson portrayed himself in Solo Trumpet as someone who had been able during the formation of the CPGB to mediate between the various factions on the left by keeping his distance from all of them. In the essays in International Literature he projects this mediating capacity onto Shakespeare and Scott. Both men are figured as habitual outsiders who attained exceptional insight into the society of their time by positioning themselves between the dominant trends in economics, politics and culture.

The essay on Shakespeare links the distinctive ideology of his plays to the ambiguities of his class position. Born into the lower reaches of the bourgeoisie and educated at a reasonably good school, Shakespeare chose to defy the conventions of his class by trying his luck as a “penniless intellectual” in London. As a result of his declassé status he acquired a broader range of social sympathies than most of his contemporaries. In particular he developed a keen understanding of the slow process by which feudalism evolved into capitalism. During the period in which the Elizabethan theatre was at its height, England’s bourgeoisie was seeking to contain emergent capitalism’s potential for anarchy by entering into an alliance with the absolutist state. Shakespeare was able to understand the manoeuvrings of the elite more acutely than anyone else because of his relative freedom from collective ties. Moving restlessly back and forth between the two sides in the alliance — as familiar with the settled traditions of the aristocracy as with the novel mores of the new commercial classes — he was able to appreciate the constructive tendencies in both of them without sacrificing his outsider’s capacity for scepticism. The result was that he simultaneously endorsed the rapprochement between bourgeoisie and aristocracy while recognising that in the long run it offered no solution to the problem of social order. Indeed, Jackson argues that Shakespeare came close to adopting a sort of proleptic anti-capitalism in many of his plays. Aware that capitalism was destined to play a progressive role in the immediate future, he nevertheless recognised that its insalubrious combination of poverty, individualism and instability would one day need to be transcended. His was a “healthy, well-poised, sceptical, melioristic humanism” that represented the “highest standpoint attainable by the artist-philosopher” in the period before the emergence of Marxism-Leninism.38

Jackson’s article on Scott was a response to the work of Georg Lukács, whose classic essay “Walter Scott and the Historical Novel” appeared in International Literature in 1938.39 Rejecting the idea that Scott should be classified as a “romanticist”, Lukács argues that one of his main contributions to the development of historical fiction was a species of punctilious centrism. Many of his novels depict moments of historical transition when civilised life was threatened by the conflict between two apparently irreconcilable social forces. The function of Scott’s heroes is invariably to “enter…into personal relations with people in both hostile camps”,40 in the process establishing circumstances in which some kind of compromise can be hammered out. A good example would be Edward Waverley — the eponymous hero of Scott’s 1814 novel about the Jacobite Uprising — who mediates between the Stuarts and the Hanoverians without giving himself wholeheartedly to either side. Jackson endorses Lukács’s account of Scott’s centrism but also wishes to extend it. Responding to a criticism of Lukács’s essay by the English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner,41 he argues that Lukács had failed to deal adequately either with Scott’s interest in Scottish history or with his attitude towards the relationship between Scotland and England. According to Jackson, Scott was simultaneously a proud Scottish patriot and a convinced advocate of Scotland’s union with the British isles. He believed that the relationship between England and Scotland had generally been pervaded by a spirit of mutual compromise, with the result that the close political ties between the two countries had been beneficial to both sides. Jackson’s point is that Lukács’s endorsement of Scott’s centrism would have been immeasurably strengthened if he had taken these issues into account. Scott’s novels are full of episodes in which raging tensions between Scotland and England are resolved by the search for a “middle way”. Taken as a whole, they ascribe particular importance to the (alleged) reconciliation between former Jacobites and English Whigs at the time of the French Revolution. When the descendants of the rebels of 1745 returned to Britain and found themselves absorbed into the political establishment, the union between England and Scotland was at last put beyond question. In Jackson’s opinion, Scott’s handling of the national question furnished an “outstanding lesson for our own day”. In emphasising the way that multinational states can flourish on the basis of mutual respect between their constituent nations, he had prefigured the efforts of the modern USSR to transcend the limitations of nationalism.42

Why did Jackson place so much emphasis on the theme of mediation in the writings of Shakespeare and Scott? As I have suggested, one of the reasons was surely that it conferred a measure of credibility on his own status as a political outsider. However, it might also have appealed to him for more pressing political reasons. In Britain the Comintern’s policy of establishing a Popular Front against fascism had not been very successful. Anti-fascists on the left, the centre and the right were simply too suspicious of each other to subsume their differences in a unified campaign. Perhaps there was a part of Jackson’s mind which hoped that a latterday Waverley might yet emerge to bind the various anti-fascist groups together. His endorsement of Scott’s attitude towards the relationship between Scotland and England might also have reflected a growing concern about the influence of Scottish nationalism. Although the CPGB did not support the idea of an independent Scotland, there were many Marxist intellectuals in the 1930s who carried forward John Maclean’s call for the establishment of a “Scottish workers’ republic”. The most famous of them was undoubtedly the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who was expelled from the CPGB because of his nationalist sympathies. One sign of the growing influence of this Marxist-nationalist bloc was the fact that Left Review devoted an entire issue to the Scottish cultural scene in November 1936.43 When Jackson wrote so enthusiastically about the characters in Scott’s novels who mediated between England and Scotland, he was perhaps implicitly distancing himself from those of his comrades who wanted to break up Britain in the name of socialism. The contemporary relevance of his suspicion of Scottish nationalism scarcely needs underscoring.

Conclusion

A lot of writing on the history of British communism has emphasised the stolid, unpretentious, level-headed ordinariness of many of the people who were attracted to the CPGB.44 The mere existence of T.A. Jackson and his bevy of admirers reminds us that the Party also appealed to a quite different sort of person. The one thing that Jackson cannot be accused of is being ordinary. As his work as a memoirist and critic shows, he was a man who not only embraced a fugitive lifestyle himself but praised those authors whose artistic vision derived its power from their status as outsiders. Indeed, there is a case for saying that his eccentricities made him a better tribune of international communism than the dour functionaries whom the Party entrusted with senior positions. As we have seen, Jackson’s reasons for becoming a communist had as much to do with his desire for self-realisation as with anything else. Appalled at the thought that he would have to spend the prime of his life working in a printshop, he absented himself from the world of formal employment because his urge to read, to write, to cultivate his own garden meant more to him than earning a wage. In that sense his great achievement was to embody in his everyday life the idea that the ultimate goal of socialism was not simply to abolish poverty, unemployment and inequality but to create conditions in which individual creativity might flourish.

Whether he knew it or not, Jackson had more in common with the Marx of 1844 than with the prosaic theoreticians of the Communist International. Moreover, his refusal to fit in made him much less prone to the sort of unthinking political loyalties from which the international communist movement suffered so badly. On one occasion, while receiving a visitor to his cottage in Sussex, he expressed his ferocious suspicion of Stalinist leader-worship with especial clarity:

It was a moonlight night, and Tommy said: “I’ll show you my garden”. And at the bottom of the garden was a big bunch of thistles in a circle, and in the centre was a bleeding big thistle…And Tommy Jackson said…”That big circle of thistles represents the Central Committee of the Party and that big one in the centre is Harry Pollitt. And every Sunday morning I come down here and have a piss on the whole fucking lot of them.”45

This anecdote may not capture Jackson at his most eloquent or even-handed, but it does tell us a great deal about his visceral distaste for the reflexive sycophancies of Leninist politics. Who would now deny that the British Communist Party would have benefited from more people like Jackson and fewer people like Bill Rust, Douglas Springhall or even Rajani Palme Dutt? In the final analysis his career embodied a curious paradox. Sometimes it is the querulous outsiders — the bloody-minded members of the awkward squad — who do more for the cause of human liberation than the massed ranks of disciplined loyalists.

Notes

1. Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 40.

2. See Jonathan Rée, Proletarian Philosophers: Problems in Socialist Culture in Britain, 1900-1940 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). See also Rée’s article “Proletarian Philosophy: A Version of Pastoral?” in Radical Philosophy, No. 44, Autumn 1986, 3-7.

3. See Helena Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (New Jersey, Humanities Press, 1993), 339f; Erin McLaughlin-Jenkins, “Sounding the Trumpet: T.A. Jackson on Darwin, Marx, and Human Existence” in John Laurent (ed.), Evolutionary Economics and Human Nature (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2003), 153-168; Hannah Behrend, “An intellectual Irrelevance? Marxist Literary Criticism in the 1930s” in Andy Croft (ed.), A Weapon in the Struggle: The Cultural History of the Communist Party in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1998), 115. For other recent scholarly writing on Jackson, see, inter alia, Pamela Fox, Class Fictions: Shame and Resistance in the British Working-Class Novel, 1890-1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 34f; Philip Bounds, British Communism and the Politics of Literature, 1928-1939 (London: Merlin Press, 2012), 221f; Philip Bounds, Orwell and Marxism: The Political and Cultural Thinking of George Orwell (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 92f.

4. Although Solo Trumpet came out nearly twenty years after the writings on Dickens, Shakespeare and Scott, I have examined it first because it throws considerable retrospective light on the earlier writings. I have confined myself to the writings on Dickens, Shakespeare and Scott because these are the only substantial pieces of literary criticism which Jackson ever produced. His innumerable shorter pieces on literature are highly readable but thematically much less important.

5. This brief sketch of Jackson’s life serves as an introduction to my reading of Solo Trumpet. It is largely drawn from the following sources: T.A. Jackson, Solo Trumpet: Some Memories of Socialist Agitation and Propaganda (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1953); Vivien Morton and John Saville, “Jackson, Thomas Alfred (1879-1955)” in John Saville and Joyce M. Bellamy (eds.), Dictionary of Labour Biography, Vol. IV (London: Macmillan, 1977), 99-108; A.L. Morton, “T.A. Jackson”, Morning Star, October 25 1979, reprinted in History and the Imagination: Selected Writings of A.L. Morton, eds. Christopher Hill and Raphael Samuel (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 307-309; Vivien Morton and Stuart Macintyre, T.A. Jackson: A Centenary Appreciation (London: Communist Party History Group, n.d. [1979]); Rée, Proletarian Philosophers; Kevin Morgan, “Jackson, Thomas Alfred (1879-1955)” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004),
http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/65941.

6. Quoted in Robert Sullivan, Christopher Caudwell (London: Croom Helm, 1987), 39.

7. A Great Socialist – Frederick Engels was a pamphlet issued by the National Council of Labour Colleges in 1935 to mark the fortieth anniversary of Engels’s death. Although hard copies are now vanishingly rare, the whole text can be found online at
https://www.marxists.org/archive/jackson-ta/pamphlets/engels.htm.

8. For recent work on British communist autobiography, see, inter alia, Kevin Morgan, “Parts of People and Communist Lives” in John McIlroy, Kevin Morgan and Alan Campbell (eds.), Party People, Communist Lives: Explorations in Biography (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2001), 9-28; Kevin Morgan, “Harry Pollitt, Maurice Thorez and the Writing of Exemplary Communist Lives” in Julie Gottlieb and Richard Toye (eds.), Making Reputations: Power, Persuasion and the Individual in British Politics (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005), 56-69; Bounds, British Communism and the Politics of Literature, 92f.

9. William Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde: An Autobiography (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980 [1936]), 2. Gallacher was the Communist MP for West Fife between 1935 and 1950. See, inter alia, Andrew Thorpe, “Communist MP: Willie Gallacher and British Communism” in Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen and Andrew Flinn (eds.), Agents of the Revolution: New Biographical Approaches to the History of International Communism in the Age of Lenin and Stalin (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005), 132-158.

10. Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde, 1.

11. For reasons of space I have confined myself in this article to examining Jackson’s published autobiographical writings. It should be noted, however, that the Marx Memorial Library in London holds an unpublished draft of Solo Trumpet as well as the unpublished manuscript of a projected second volume of Jackson’s memoirs. I hope to examine these writings on some other occasion.

12. Jackson, Solo Trumpet, 2.

13. Ibid., 11.

14. Ibid., 21-22. Quoted in part in Rée, Proletarian Philosophers, 11; Fox, Class Fictions, 35.

15. Jackson, Solo Trumpet, 48.

16. For some reason, Jackson could not bring himself to mention the SPGB by name.

17. See Jackson, Solo Trumpet, 84-85.

18. Although Jackson insists that he only resorted to freelance oratory because of his failure to get a steady job, it is evident from the sheer brio of his writing that he relished his new role.

19. Jackson provided a lively account of Carlile’s battles with the law in Trials of British Freedom: Being Some Studies in the History of the Fight for Democratic Freedom in Britain (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1945 [1940]), 99f.

20. See Robert Barltrop, The Monument: The Story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1975), 70f. There are several references to Jackson in this book.

21. Jackson, Solo Trumpet, 147.

22. Ibid., 97.

23. There is a fascinating selection of Jackson’s articles from the Daily Worker in Old Friends to Keep (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1950), which aims to introduce the history of the English novel to readers with no literary education.

24. Georgi Dimitrov, The Working Class Against Fascism (London: Martin Lawrence, 1935), 70.

25. For a lengthy survey of this body of work, see Bounds, British Communism and the Politics of Literature, Chapter 6.

26. T.A. Jackson, Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical (New York: International Publishers, 1987 [1937]), 8.

27. Jackson, Charles Dickens, 12.

28. Quoted in ibid., 20.

29. Jackson, Charles Dickens, 45.

30. Ibid., 66.

31. Ibid., 68.

32. See G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2007 [1906]).

33. George Orwell, “Charles Dickens” in Inside the Whale and Other Essays (London: Gollancz, 1940). Reprinted in Peter Davison (ed.), The Complete Works of George Orwell, Volume 12: A Patriot After All 1940-1941 (London: Secker and Warburg, 2000 [1998]), 20.

34. Ibid., 21.

35. Ibid., 23.

36. Ibid., 23.

37. Ibid., 55.

38. T.A. Jackson, “Marx and Shakespeare”, International Literature, No. 2, February 1936, 92. An abridged version of this article appeared in Labour Monthly, Vol. XLVI No. 4, April 1964, 165-173. Jackson italicised the word “humanism” in the original. The Anglo-Australian Marxist Jack Lindsay would later take Jackson’s argument about the Elizabethan alliance between the bourgeoisie and the crown and make it the centrepiece of his own work on Shakespeare, claiming that the breakdown of the alliance accounted for the sudden irruption of pessimism into Shakespeare’s plays after 1600. See Jack Lindsay, “William Shakespeare”, Left Review, Vol. 3 No. 6, July 1937, 333-339; A Short History of Culture (London: Gollancz, 1939), Chapters 54 and 55.

39. Georg Lukács [spelled Lukacz in the original], “Walter Scott and the Historical Novel”, International Literature, No. 4, April 1938, 61-77. Lukács’s article drew on material from his book The Historical Novel, first published in Moscow in 1937. See Lukács, The Historical Novel, translated by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (London: Merlin Press, 1989).

40. Lukács, “Walter Scott and the Historical Novel”, 74. Lukács also makes the point that Scott’s deployment of mediating characters allows him to depict the relationship between contending social forces in an appropriately panoramic or totalising fashion.

41. Townsend Warner had written a letter to International Literature complaining that Lukács had not addressed Scott’s attitude towards Scotland and its place in the United Kingdom. See T.A. Jackson, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Georg Lukács, “Points from Letters”, International Literature, No. 9, September 1938, 100-101.

42. See T.A. Jackson, “Walter Scott and his Historical Significance”, International Literature, No. 8-9, August/September 1939, 68-76.

43. See Left Review, Vol. 2 No. 14, November 1936. The issue contained articles by the likes of Neil M. Gunn, James Barke, Edwin Muir, Catherine Carswell and Willa Muir.

44. See, inter alia, Kenneth Newton, The Sociology of British Communism (London: Allen Lane, 1969); Thomas Linehan, Communism in Britain, 1920-1939: From the Cradle to the Grave (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

45. Lawrence Daly, quoted in Rée, Proletarian Philosophers, 129.

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