May 2016        


The radicalism of Swift

Almost everybody in Ireland has at some point read Jonathan Swift’s book Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver (1726). No doubt readers of Socialist Voice know that at some levels Swift’s brilliant satire targets the relationship of Britain and its colony, Ireland.
     Almost 290 years since the first publication of Gulliver’s Travels the Marxist critic Thomas Metscher, in his newly published pamphlet The Radicalism of Swift, spells out just how spectacular and unique this political satire is—and how worth rereading. Metscher demonstrates how the significance of apparently entirely imaginative stories can be understood politically and radically. By quoting directly from the text and discussing characters, situations and dialogue he reaches out to the meanings Swift wrote into the text.
     While Metscher goes into the specifics of the politics, he also points out how a text that depicts the class society of its time will be true for class society at all times. Major themes in Gulliver’s Travels, apart from colonial suppression and exploitation, are insurrection and war as the normal relationship between people and nations. And, as Metscher points out, little has changed.
     The writer also refers to Swift’s pamphlet A Modest Proposal (1729) as “one of the most vehement indictments of a ruling class in all literature.” This text, alongside two later, equally savage rewritings of it by more recent radical Irish satirists, Liam O’Flaherty and Tomás Mac Síomóin, is available from Connolly Books in the book entitled Three Leaves of a Bitter Shamrock, published by Nuascéalta in 2014.
     Thomas Metscher’s pamphlet about Swift and Gulliver’s Travels is a pleasure to read. The author persuasively places Swift at the beginning of Irish national literature in English, formulating the Irish point of view within Anglo-Irish ascendancy literature and thereby undermining it. He inspires us to reread A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels—now often considered a children’s story—to appreciate their unparalleled satire and to take pride in Jonathan Swift as one of our own radical traditions.
     The Radicalism of Swift, published by the Communist Party of Ireland, is available from Connolly Books.

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