Monday, February 17, 2020

Not For Sale to the Public: The Left Book Club 1936-1948

By Robin Macgregor

 Many New Worker readers will have on their bookshelves volumes published by the Left Book Club. Unmistakable in their bright orange paperback or reddish hardback board format, they will be some of the 257 titles published between 1936 and 1948 by the London publisher Victor Gollancz for the Left Book Club (LBC).
1936 was the year of Franco’s coup against the left government in Spain and Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland that made the dangers of fascism increasingly obvious to neighbouring countries. The LBC was created to promote the cause of anti-fascism and to oppose the British government’s policy of appeasement. Appeasement was not just a Tory policy, with fresh memories of 1914–1918 many on the left would do anything to avoid a repeat of the “War to End War”. The influential Peace Pledge Union had many members and thought that handing over France and Poland to Germany was a perfectly acceptable means of avoiding war. Apart from the international situation, throughout its life the Club addressed domestic economic and social issues.

The Man and his Business

Born in 1893 in London to German Jewish parents, Victor Gollancz was an Oxford Classics graduate who first worked on art books for publisher Ernest Benn before setting up his own company in 1927.
Here he attracted established popular authors such as H G Wells, Ford Madox Ford, Daphne Du Maurier and Edith Nesbit, who welcomed the heavy advertising expenditure Gollancz undertook. As with his later LBC books, his trade books were immediately recognised at a distance by their bright yellow dust-jackets. Traditionally minded book-trade rivals sniffed at his vulgar full page newspaper advertisements but they paid off handsomely. Before establishing the LBC he had already added left-wing political and economics to his list. As in the LBC and his business, Gollancz was a hands-on editor, even with major authors: George Orwell’s snobbish {The Road to Wigan Pier} was published only with Gollancz’s preface disowning parts of it. He also wrote personal letters to booksellers promoting books he strongly liked.
After the demise of the LBC, the post war era saw the company thrive with a new generation of authors such as Kingsley Amis, John le Carre and JG Ballard. Knighted in 1965 he died in 1967, active until his death. In 1998 the company was sold to publishing giant Orion, which maintains the imprint for science fiction and fantasy.
Gollancz’s own political views were very changeable but he always had a sometimes optimistically naïve Christian socialist outlook, drifting, like many of his generation, from the Liberal to Labour parties. Although never a member, he was strongly supportive of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) pre-war anti-fascism, willing to lose one of his best-selling authors when he refused to publish George Orwell’s Spanish Civil War fantasy Homage to Catalonia. This view changed drastically with the 1939 German-Soviet Pact that allowed the Soviet Union to build its defences. His 1941 The Betrayal of the Left made clear his anti-communism. Soon after Hitler was soundly defeated he wrote a pamphlet Our Threatened Values, which deplored the poor conditions of Germans under the Allied occupation and which is now a favourite with holocaust deniers.

The Club

The first book club was the New York-based Book-of-the-Month Club that was set up by publishers in 1926 to encourage sales to reluctant book buyers. The technique was to offer carefully selected (and commissioned) books to match particular markets, with members ordering at least one book per month. Long print runs of a limited number of titles allows lower prices, albeit with cheaper bindings and sometimes with cheaper paper. Gollancz copied this model. Unlike some clubs, Gollancz took care to ensure that LBC titles were only sold through the established book trade. This kept bookshops on his side so that they would still stock his popular fiction and detective stories, which remained his bread and butter. LBC volumes generally cost two shillings and sixpence (12 pence) in their cheaper club bindings, but two or three times that for their traditionally cloth-bound versions. Even LBC books were more expensive than the sixpenny ‘Specials’ on current affairs from Penguin however, which had been established as a commercial paperback venture in 1935.
Although the LBC sought to defend democracy it did not really practice it. Gollancz was the driving force of the Club, which was founded after an agreeable lunch in a Soho restaurant. It was he, along with John Strachey and Harold Laski, both leading left Labour figures, who choose the books. When Gollancz’s interested waned, so did the Club. Laski was a London School of Economics (LSE) professor who became Chairman of the Labour Party and Strachey had been a Labour MP who supported Oswald Mosley until it became clear where he was going politically. Their support for communist policies and initiatives often put them at odds with the Labour Party leadership and bureaucracy.
The first advertisement for the Club’s first book appeared in March 1936. In May it appeared: France Today and the People’s Front by the French Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez. Reckoning the Club would break even with 2,500 members, the first book had 5,000 subscribers. By the end of 1936, 20,000 people had signed up necessitating the appointment of a full-time organiser in the shape of John Lewis, who was in 1971 to publish its official history: The Left Book Club: An Historical Record. An LBC rally filled the Albert Hall in February 1937 and membership reached 44,888 in May.

Rise and Fall

Its initial success soon inspired a much less successful Right Book Club, founded in 1937 by London book seller Christina Foyle, which had a string of retired admirals selecting books. The Labour Party also set up a Labour Book Service to counter the LBC.
LBC membership peaked at 57,000 in 1939, but suffered a rapid fall with the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact that allowed the Soviet Union to strengthen is defences. This came as a shock to the British left and split the Club. Numbers rapidly declined to 15,000 by 1942. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and Stalin’s popularity drastically rose, LBC membership nevertheless still declined slowly. It had 7,000 members when the last book was issued in November 1948. It could be argued that the Club had fulfilled much of its task by 1940 when Dunkirk made it clear that the Nazis were a threat that could not be ignored or dealt with by diplomacy.
From the beginning, the strongest support came from the CPGB and its membership. Whilst the Labour Party leadership sternly disapproved of working with the communists, this did not prevent thousands of Labour Party members joining and they provided the bulk of the members after 1939. That did not prevent Labour leader contributing The Labour Party in Perspective to the Club’s list.
There are disagreements on just how working class the membership was. No national trade unions affiliated but there were active trade union groups. LBC books with engine oil stains are evidence that some were read in factories during lunch breaks. It clearly appealed to activists rather the masses. Its peak membership of 57,000 in 1939 was easily dwarfed by a trade union membership of 6,274,000 and sales of the Labour supporting Daily Herald at around 2,000,000 copies.
The Left Book Club soon became more than simply a book club. No less than 1,500 LBC discussion groups were set up. Summer Schools, speaking tours and specialist groups such as the Left Book Club Theatre Guild were established, with 250 local amateur groups. Russian language courses and study tours of the Soviet Union were organised. Local LBC branches knitted scarves for victims of the Spanish Civil War. Abroad it inspired a similar movement in Australia and some of its books had the honour of being banned from entering British India.
A monthly periodical, Left Book News (later Left News), was set to promote and co-ordinate activity. It allowed remarkably full and frank discussions, including printing reader’s letters saying some choices were totally unreadable.
In 2015 the name and format was revived, but it seems to be devoted to pushing books from a few left publishers and the Divine Chocolate company.

The Books

What of the books themselves? They were a mixed bag. Most were polemical books of the hour, equipping activists with information to assist in campaigns. These included books with such self-explanatory titles such as Rudolf Olden’s Hitler the Pawn and Geoffrey Cox’s Defence of Madrid, and Max Werner’s The Military Strength of the Powers. Lord Addison’s British Agriculture brought a bit of class to the Club whereas Sir E D Simon’s The Smaller Democracies came from the pen of a Liberal politician to demonstrate the breadth of the Club’s support. Some books have proved to be of lasting value: David Petegorsky’s Left Wing Democracy in the English Civil War is, decades on, still worth reading for the subject matter and the more popular A L Morton’s A People’s History of England, although now very dated, can still be profitably enjoyed and Ellen Wilkinson’s study of unemployment in Jarrow, The Town That Was Murdered, has attained classic status.
There were a number of popular educational titles such as Alan Beck’s Chemistry: a Survey and Richard Acland’s Public Speaking. For lighter relief there was The Left Song Book. When the course of the war turned and for the few post-war years of the Club, it devoted its energies to books such as Gaetano Salvemini’s and George La Piana’s What to do with Italy and less urgent works on contemporary problems such as the second last title, Franz Zweig’s Men in the Pits. The books were generally plain and unillustrated. The only real exception to this was JF Horrabin’s Atlas of Empire, and even it had basic black and white line drawings.
A full list of the Club’s output will be found in John Lewis’s official history mentioned above.

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