Left Book Club

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Left Book Club
Left Book Club logo.jpg
Logo for the Left Book Club
Founded 1936
Founder Victor Gollancz
Country of origin United Kingdom
Headquarters location London
Distribution Pluto Press
Publication types Books
Nonfiction topics "A full range of progressive traditions, perspectives and ideas"
Official website www.leftbookclub.com

The Left Book Club was a publishing group that exerted a strong left-wing influence in Great Britain from 1936 to 1948.

Pioneered by Victor Gollancz, it offered a monthly book choice, for sale 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 subsequent years of paper-rationing, during and after the war, led to further decline. It ceased publishing in 1948.

The concept and series was revived in 2015,[1] following at least one earlier effort to relaunch the series in the early 2000s.

Early success and organisation[edit]

The Left Book Club, founded in May 1936, was a key left-wing institution of the late 1930s and the 1940s in the United Kingdom. It was set up by Stafford Cripps, Victor Gollancz and John Strachey to revitalise and educate the British Left.[2][3] 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[2] and by 1939 it was up to 57,000.[3] 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.[4]

Historian Michael Newman says:

Between 1936 and 1939, the LBC provided hope for thousands of people who were seeking a solution to the burning moral issues of the era. Despite its pro-Communist line, the Club's socialist propaganda and education probably ultimately strengthened the Labour Party and contributed to its victory in the postwar election.[5]

The club supplied a book chosen every month by Gollancz and his panel (Harold Laski and John Strachey) to its members, many of whom took part in one of the 1,500 Left Discussion Groups scattered around the country. The books and pamphlets with their distinctive covers—orange for paperback (1936–1938) and red for hardback (1938–1948) editions—bore the legend "NOT FOR SALE TO THE PUBLIC" and sold for 2s 6d to members. Many titles were available for sale only in the LBC edition, with monthly 'choices' received by all members; there were also reprints of current socialist and 'progressive' classics for members to buy. The volumes covered history, science, reporting and fiction and a range of other subjects, but always from a left-leaning perspective.

In response, Christina Foyle founded the Right Book Club, to counter what she regarded as the pernicious influence of the Left Book Club. It offered a variety of titles with Conservative and classical Liberal themes.

1936–1939: Popular Front[edit]

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.

World Revolution: 1917–1936 by C. L. R. James was a Trotskyist critique of the LBC's coverage of the Soviet Union during this period.[6] At the same time, Gollancz, as a member of the Labour Party, was concerned to keep the club at a formal distance from campaigns of which the Labour Party disapproved.[7]

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 the book's criticisms of middle-class socialists who, Orwell said, had little understanding of working class life. Later Gollancz republished the book leaving out the second part of which he disapproved.

1940–1948: War and its aftermath[edit]

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. Thereafter the Club's selection of authors and titles reveals an eclectic mix.

Despite its large membership and popular success the Book Club was always a huge financial drain on the publisher, and the advent of paper rationing at the onset of the war meant that 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. These included two of the biggest selling publications of the entire War period: Guilty Men (July 1940) by "Cato" (Michael Foot, Frank Owen and Peter Howard) and Your M.P. (1944) by "Gracchus" (Tom Wintringham).

In addition to books, the LBC also produced a monthly newsletter. This began as a simple club newssheet Left Book News, but gradually developed (as Left News) into a key periodical about international, political and social affairs, with lengthy editorials from Gollancz.

The LBC held its first annual LBC rally in February 1937, and the tradition continued until the late 1940s.[8]

Authors and titles, 1936-1948[edit]

1936-1939[edit]

1940-1948[edit]

Influence[edit]

Alongside the Fabian Society and Transport House, the LBC's popularising of socialist ideas was a major influence behind the Labour victory in the general election of 1945.

Many members of the club acted as missionaries for the ideas espoused by the club, such as full employment, socialised medicine, town planning and social equality. No less than eight Gollancz authors were part of the new Labour government (Lord Addison, Attlee, Bevan, Cripps, Philip Noel-Baker, Shinwell, Strachey and Wilkinson), and a further six were MPs (Maurice Edelman, Michael Foot, Elwyn Jones, J. P. W. 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."[9] 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 Left Book Club was accused of being under Soviet influence both financially and ideologically. One expression of this was its failure to publish Trotskyist writings critical of the USSR. Another example was Gollancz's refusal to publish George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia: he would not even read the manuscript.[10][11]

The success of the Left Book Club led to imitation by other parts of the UK's political spectrum.[12] A "Right Book Club" was launched as a conservative response to the LBC in 1937 by Edgar Samuel, who worked for the bookselling firm Foyle's.[12][13] Other political book clubs included the Liberal Book Club and the pacifist Peace Book Club.[12]

Historian A. J. P. Taylor points out the membership consisted largely of schoolteachers. Labour Party leaders were annoyed that the club was diverting high-minded middle-class Britons into reading communist tracts instead of joining the Labour Party.[14] Taylor notes the crankiness in the choices of books made by Strachey, Laski, and Gollancz. For example, one of the first two choices was by a biologist envisioning a future in which artificial insemination would enable Lenin (or Stalin) to father every child in the Soviet Union. Taylor denies it was a subversive organisation, saying that "members of the Left Book Club worked off their rebelliousness by plodding through yet another orange-covered volume."[15]

Relaunch[edit]

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.

Over the past 15 years a small group of booksellers in the UK have attempted to revive the Left Book Club. In 2002 they established a Limited Company of the same name and their site LeftBookClub.com was launched in 2007.

In 2015 the Left Book Club was relaunched as a non-profit organisation with the aim of encouraging left-wing debate and discussion among its followers. Its first publication was Kevin Ovenden's Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth, with 2016 publications including Samir Jeraj and Rosie Walker's The Rent Trap: How We Fell into It and How We Get Out of It and Ken Livingstone's Being Red: a Politics for the Future.[citation needed] The revived Left Book Club intends to publish four books a year and is funded by subscriptions and voluntary contributions.[citation needed] It retains the distinctive orange covers of its original incarnation.

Labour Leader and MP for Islington North Jeremy Corbyn offered wholehearted support to the project. "The relaunch of the Left Book Club is a terrific and timely idea, and will give intellectual ballast to the wave of political change sweeping Britain and beyond, encouraging informed and compassionate debate. I have a large collection of Left Book Club publications collected by my late parents and me. The works will open minds and inspire. I support the new LBC wholeheartedly."[citation needed]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kit Caless, "Inside the UK's Most Radical Indie Publishers, Part Four: Pluto Press", Huck Magazine, June 6, 2018.
  2. ^ a b Laity, Paul (ed.), Left Book Club Anthology, The Independent .
  3. ^ a b O’Sullivan, Dan, Wikipedia: a new community of practice?, Ashgate, UK: The Citizen, ISBN 978-0-7546-7433-7 ..
  4. ^ Edwards, Ruth Dudley (1987) Victor Gollancz: A Biography, P. 231, Victor Gollancz Ltd
  5. ^ Michael Newman, "Left Book Club" in Fred M. Leventhal, ed., Twentieth-century Britain: an encyclopedia (Garland, 1995) p. 448.
  6. ^ Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction. University Press of Mississippi, 1997 ISBN 9780878059737 (p. 88).
  7. ^ Edwards (1987) pps. 229 & 241
  8. ^ Edwards (1987) ps.238
  9. ^ Edwards (1987) pp. 396 & 399
  10. ^ Edwards, Ruth Dudley (17 April 2012). Victor Gollancz: A Biography. Faber & Faber. p. 197. ISBN 9780571294800. 
  11. ^ Miles, Jonathan (2010). The Nine Lives of Otto Katz. Random House. p. 205. ISBN 9780593062302. 
  12. ^ a b c Russi Jal Taraporevala (1973), Competition and its control in the British book trade, 1850–1939, London: Pitman, p. 236, ISBN 9780273001447 
  13. ^ "Other Special Collections", Dunedin Public Libraries 
  14. ^ A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914–1945 (1965) p. 397.
  15. ^ A. J. P. Taylor, Politicians, socialism and historians (1980) p. 189

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]