T. A. Jackson

Ralph Fox’s Political Writings

Source: Ralph Fox: A Writer in Arms
Published: Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1937.
Printer: Western Printing Services, Ltd, Bristol.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

RALPH Fox’s political writings formed naturally the greater bulk of his work. At the same time, since their purpose was more immediately utilitarian, they tend to show his powers less fully than do the works in which he was able to take a wider sweep and give a freer rein to his imaginative-creative bent.

This does not mean that Ralph Fox was ever either an example of pedestrian orthodoxy or an advocate of such. At his most orthodox—in the Communist sense of course—he was never pedestrian. Rather did he, in those moods and on those occasions, tend from sheer exuberance of vitality to out-orthodox the orthodox and cap all with an individuality and force of expression which, at times, all but landed him unwittingly in the heretic camp. All but—never quite; for though Ralph Fox in his earlier work showed to a harsh criticism the perky irreverence of the newly graduated, along with not a little of sheer Yorkshire impudence, he showed also even thus early his more solid and enduring qualities—a large fund of Yorkshire homeliness and good humour, more than an ordinary share of traditional Halifax canniness, a fine understanding developed by excellent training, and above all that special imaginative understanding that was never wholly missing from even the most occasional and utilitarian of his works.

His reply to Professor Laski, for instance, which though published under the same title must not be confounded with his later work, Communism and a Changing Civilization, included in the Twentieth Century Library, was quite a bright and useful performance. At the same time there is no reason to regret the fact that it is out of print and forgotten, since a}1 that was good in it and more is included in a riper and more comprehensive form in the later and more mature work.

His two slim volumes on The Class Struggle in Britain, his Colonial Policy of British Imperialism, his pamphlet Marx and Engels on the Irish Question, and his Lenin: A Biography, were all in varying ways the product of his term of service in the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. It was there that he made the elaborate set of notes which formed their basis. And it was there, too, and in that service that he acquired his profound sense of the significance of Marx and Engels to the working-class movement in Britain.

At that time the materials accessible to the ordinary English reader for a study of the life and significance of Marx and Engels were scanty to the point of non-existence. Worse still: a legend had been promulgated of Marx buried inextricably under piles of the more repellent volumes in the British Museum Library; and of Engels parked in his arm-chair by the fire in his Regent’s Park home, or in his Eastbourne lodgings, spending his days in drinking old Burgundy and cursing the British Labour and Trade Union leaders for a pack of verdammte Schweinhunde!

The dissipation of these malicious legends and their replacement by a full, varied, and stimulating knowledge of the actual Marx and the real Engels—mighty men among the mightiest fighters that ever upheld the banner of a glorious cause—was not wholly, or even mainly the work of Ralph Fox. But he did play a prominent and a worthy part in that work. And most particularly to him must be awarded the credit of having been among the very first to rediscover the truth that it was to the personal exertions of Engels more than to any other single man that we owe the revival of Socialism in Britain in the 1880’s.

There are indications of this in both Ralph Fox’s Class Struggle in Britain, and in the pamphlet on the Irish Question. The former work unfortunately remains incomplete. It was intended originally to cover developments down to 1932, and in that design the concluding instalment—covering from 1923 onwards—would have been both the largest and the most important section. But Ralph Fox had the defects of his qualities. That very exuberant vitality which makes his work vivid, carried him into so many differing fields of activity in rapid succession or simultaneously that his plans often suffered a crash in consequence. It was, it would seem, the chance of writing a life of Lenin—prompted by a publisher’s inquiry—that caused him to postpone, temporarily (as he thought), the completion of his Class Struggle in Britain. Similar distractions, all, in part, growing out of the need to earn a living, caused the postponement to become prolonged—and now permanent.

Another of those defects of his qualities marred somewhat his work on The Colonial Policy of British Imperialism. Like many another, Ralph Fox could not always read his own notes, and set down dates and proper names as best as he could decipher them, intending to verify them later. In the swift rush of his multitudinous commitments he did not, unfortunately, always remember to do this. And, consequently, the Colonial Policy laid itself open to criticism on the score of inaccuracy in detail. Moreover the whole picture suffers from a lack of dialectic discrimination. It is too one-dimensional. But, this notwithstanding, it was, and is, a creditable and a useful work.

All these however must take rank as his minor works, as the apprentice-work of a writer of exceptional gifts who must needs sow his literary and political wild-oats before coming to the full development of his powers. He began to show his full powers in his Lenin, and in his Communism. In his Genghis Khan he reached the threshold of his full strength.

From the first Ralph Fox showed an ability to break away from the two besetting sins of British Marxist writers—the substitution of a Party jargon for living English; and its concomitant: the substitution of fossilized and frozen concepts for real thinking. Even before he had met with Engels—grim protest “to many of our comrades the Materialist Conception of History is an excuse for not studying history”—Ralph Fox had shown an eagerness to adventure into and explore phrases and aspects of Marxism, and concrete applications of the Marxian method, that the old, bad, pre-war British Marxian tradition, hidebound in its pre-occupation with economics (conceived in their most abstract, formal, and therefore falsified sense), would have condemned as heretical and freakish. Even in his most ultra-orthodox moods, when he was most exuberantly insisting upon the Party line in its ultra-purity—and therein, let it be confessed, falsifying the line to the extent of making it too Euclidian—even in those moods of exuberance Ralph Fox never degenerated into clichés or jargon of any kind. In his more enduring moods he showed a spontaneous many-sidedness which made him an invaluable ally in the fight to claim “all knowledge” as the proper province of Marxism.

In his Lenin micro-criticism has detected many faults. Sometimes he attributes to Lenin a saying which Lenin merely repeated from another. At times he errs in detail. His statement of Lenin’s theoretical position lacks the diamond-like clarity and sharpness of definition of such a little masterpiece as R. P. Dutt’s short life of Lenin. Even so, I know of no other work, not even the engaging recollections of Clara Zetkin, or the still more engaging memories of Krupskaya, that makes the glow and warmth of Lenin so real and apparent.

His Communism is remarkable in a similar way. While its statement of Communist theory is quite competent, and fully sufficient for its purpose, there are other works which tell us more of what Communists think. Yet there is no work, easily accessible, which tells us more of what Communists feel—even though it does this more by implication, by the colour and rhythm of its presentation, than by direct statement.

His Genghis Khan has never yet been adequately appraised. In one sense it was too well written. It moves with such a sparkling ease and facility that the profundity of its historical grasp, and the truly revolutionary significance of its material content is lost in the fascination of its flow. Only those who know how very little has hitherto been done towards bringing this immense tract of history within the scope of a Marxist comprehension—or, indeed, of any sort of comprehension at all—can have any idea of the dimensions of the task that Ralph Fox succeeded in performing. He had exceptional qualifications for the task. His interest in Asia was of old standing; and he was early among the very few who realize that what commonly passes for universal history, and that most of all in England, is at best the history of one-third of the human race. It is not too much to say that his study of the rise of the Central Asiatic civilization—a civilization that is linked spatially with that of China and that of nearer Asia, while historically its roots run back to Babylon and Nineveh and forward to Delhi and the empire of the Moguls—is a permanent contribution to the understanding not only of world history, but even of the history of Europe itself. The transition from nomad clans, each with their petty “king” or khan, to a vast feudal empire, was never more clearly shown. And it is infinitely suggestive in its analogies with the obscurer tracts of European history.

Possibly my reactions to his Genghis Khan are coloured by personal associations. It was a subject we more than once discussed while we worked together on the Sunday Worker, and I believe I can claim some small share in stimulating him to contemplate and ultimately to produce the work. We worked well as friendly goads to each other. In fact, as I now remember, our last conversation took the form of a fraternal bragging match in which we sought each to outbid the other in promises to contribute to the “The Past is Ours” series of literary studies in the Daily Worker. Ralph Fox, I remember, insisted upon his claim to “do” Fielding and Thackeray. He surrendered Smollett and Dickens to me. We were still fighting with burlesque animosity over our respective claims to “do” Jane Austen when one of us, I forget which, had to leave. He did carry out his promise as to Fielding. My promises remain unfulfilled. Instead I am contributing to a memorial which carries with it the melancholy reminder that they will have to be fulfilled without the stimulus of his rivalry, and the aid of the friendly criticism he was always ready to give.

In such circumstances it is hard, indeed, to appraise his work objectively. To find fault seems worse than churlish. To praise runs the even more intolerable risk of seeming to surrender insincerely to conventional sentimentality. Yet as Ralph Fox was never ashamed of his own emotions—those who were with him at the last speak of him as shouting from sheer joy in battle—there can be no better course than to follow his example and say flatly that the extracts here given prove that, grieve though we must over what we lost in losing all that Ralph Fox might yet have become, our grief must be tempered by the realization that we are very greatly the richer in possessing what he actually achieved.