Left Book Club
The Left Book Club was a publishing group that exerted a strong socialist influence in the United Kingdom from 1936 to 1948, and is credited with helping the Labour Party to win its landslide victory of 1945.
Pioneered by Victor Gollancz, it issued a monthly book choice, restricted to members only, as well as a newsletter that acquired the status of a major political magazine. It also held an annual rally.
Membership peaked at 57,000, but after the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact of 1939, it disowned its large communist element, and years of paper-rationing led to further decline.
Formation and development
The Left Book Club, founded in May 1936, was a key left-wing institution of the late 1930s and 1940s in the United Kingdom set up by Stafford Cripps, Victor Gollancz and John Strachey to revitalise and educate the British Left. The Club's aim was to "help in the struggle For world peace and against fascism". Aiming to break even with 2,500 members, it had 40,000 within the first year and by 1939 it was up to 57,000. The LBC was one of the first book clubs in the UK and, as such, played an important role in the evolution of the country's book trade.
The club supplied a book chosen every month by Gollancz and his panel — Harold Laski and John Strachey — to its members, many of whom participated in one or other of the 1,500 or so Left Discussion Groups scattered around the country. Contributors included G. D. H. Cole, André Malraux, Katharine Burdekin and Clement Attlee, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, John Strachey, Clifford Odets, Edgar Snow, Ellen Wilkinson, R. H. Tawney, Léon Blum, J. B. S. Haldane and Stephen Spender.
The books and pamphlets with their distinctive orange (paperback 1936–38) or red (hardback 38–48) covers with their legend — not for sale to the public — sold for 2s 6d to members. Many titles were available for sale only in the LBC edition, with monthly 'choices' received by all members, with additional optional titles reprinting current socialist and 'progressive' classics. The volumes included history, science, reporting and fiction and covered a range of subjects, but all with a left-leaning slant.
1936 - 1939
Until the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, the club's output included many authors who were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain or close to it, and many of its books offered a positive portrayal of the Soviet Union and its international policies. During this period, they published works such as Dudley Collard's Soviet Justice and the Trial of Radek and Others (a defence of the first two Moscow Trials), Pat Sloan's Soviet Democracy (praising the 1936 Soviet Constitution), a reprint of Sidney and Beatrice Webb's Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, J. R. Campbell's Soviet Policy and its Critics (which defended the Popular Front and criticized Trotsky) and Hewlett Johnson's The Socialist Sixth of the World. The book World Revolution: 1917-1936 by C. L. R. James was written as a Trotskyist critique of the LBC's coverage of the Soviet Union. However, as a member of the Labour Party, Gollancz was concerned to keep the club at a formal distance from campaigns of which the Labour Party disapproved.
1940 - 1948
By early 1940, however, Gollancz had broken with the CP, a process documented in the articles collected in Betrayal of the Left in early 1941, and from then on the club took a strongly democratic socialist line until its demise in 1948. Despite its large membership and popular success the Book Club was always a huge financial drain on the publisher, with the advent of paper rationing at the onset of the war the club was restricted to just one monthly title. To replace the book club's additional choices and augment the LBC selections, Gollancz launched the "Victory Books" series, a series of shorter monographs available to the general public, including two of the biggest sellers of the War: Guilty Men by Cato (Michael Foot) and Your M.P. by Gracchus (Tom Wintringham).
In addition to books, the LBC also produced a monthly newsletter — which began as a simple club news sheet Left Book News, but gradually developed into a key international political and social affairs paper (as Left News) - with lengthy editorials from Gollancz. The LBC held its first annual LBC rally in February 1937, which were held until the late 40s.
Gollancz was a notoriously interventionist editor. He published Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier but insisted on prefacing its account of working-class life in the north of England with an introduction disowning its criticisms of middle-class socialists who had little understanding of working class life and later republished the book leaving out the second part of which he disapproved.
It can be argued that alongside the Fabian Society and Transport House, the LBC's popularising of socialist ideas was very influential on the Labour victory in the General Election of 1945. Many members acted as missionaries for the ideas espoused by the club, such as full employment, socialised medicine, town planning and social equality. Eight LBC authors were part of the new government (Lord Addison, Attlee, Bevan, Cripps, Philip Noel-Baker, Shinwell, Strachey and Wilkinson) and six were MPs (Maurice Edelman, Michael Foot, Elywyn Jones, JPW Mallalieu, Stephen Swingler and Konni Zilliacus). This led Victor Gollancz's biographer to write, "for an individual without official position, Victor's [Gollancz's] colossal influence on a vital election remains unmatched in twentieth-century political history." However, Gollancz was not rewarded with a position in the House of Lords by Clement Attlee who was worried he would become a thorn in his side there.
The success of the Left Book Club caused other political movements to set up similar groupings. A "Right Book Club" was launched as a conservative response to the Left Book Club in 1937 by Edgar Samuel, who worked for the bookselling firm Foyle's. Other political book clubs included the Liberal Book Club and the pacifist Peace Book Club.
In 2006, Ed Miliband MP started the Left Book Club Online as a successor to the original Left Book Club with the aim of stimulating debate around left-wing ideas and texts, but not publishing new work. The website now appears to be defunct.
A small group of booksellers in the UK are working on bringing back a publishing version of the Left Book Club and established a Limited company of the same name in 2002, their site LeftBookClub.com was launched in 2007, which also appears to be defunct.
- Laity, Paul (ed.), Left Book Club Anthology, The Independent.
- O’Sullivan, Dan, Wikipedia: a new community of practice?, Ashgate, UK: The Citizen, ISBN 978-0-7546-7433-7..
- Edwards, Ruth Dudley (1987) Victor Gollancz: A Biography, P. 231, Victor Gollancz Ltd
- Matt Perry, Sunderland, UK: Institute of Historical Research, University of Sunderland.
- Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction. University Press of Mississippi, 1997 ISBN 9780878059737 (p. 88).
- Edwards (1987) pps. 229 & 241
- Edwards (1987) ps.238
- Edwards (1987) pp. 396 & 399
- Russi Jal Taraporevala (1973), Competition and its control in the British book trade, 1850–1939, London: Pitman, p. 236, ISBN 9780273001447
- "Other Special Collections", Dunedin Public Libraries
- Lewis, John. The Left Book Club: an historical record. Gollancz. 1970. ISBN 0-575-00586-6
- Laity, Paul (ed). The Left Book Club Anthology. Gollancz. 2001. ISBN 0-575-07221-0
- Edwards, Ruth Dudley. Victor Gollancz: a biography. Gollancz. 1987. ISBN 0-575-03175-1
- Neavill, Gordon Barrick. "Victor Gollancz and the Left Book Club," Library Quarterly 41 (July 1971): 197-215. http://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/slisfrp/53
- Samuels, Stuart. "The Left Book Club," Journal of Contemporary History 1, no. 2 (1966): 65-86.