Left Book Club Anthology
Paul Laity, ed.
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Saturday, August 18 2001, 4:48 PM
The story of the Left Book Club is a publisher's -- or a politician's --wet dream.
Established in London in 1936 by Victor Gollancz, with editorial back-up from writer-politicians John Strachey and Harold Laski, LBC became a political movement in its own right. It was far more than a British version of Book of the Month Club with a left slant. LBC held mass national rallies, assembled a network of 1200 member clubs in Britain and beyond, sponsored 40 clubhouses, ran intellectual summer camps, and even had the odd swimming team. All this, and it made Victor Gollancz a quite prosperous publisher too. His colleagues Strachey and Laski went on to become, respectively, cabinet minister and chair of the British Labor Party.
LBC published books by the millions. Their orange-cover mass-market hardbacks became a staple of intellectual life in Britain. Even the Conservatives imitated LBC, but without substantial success. Today those 250-plus LBC volumes are hard to come by in British used books shops. One friend takes particular delight in his collection of a couple dozen aging volumes. "Got them all for five quid at a yard sale. Used book shops sell them for eight pounds apiece," he reported happily. LBC titles covered politics, economics, and nearly any topic that a reformer with a typewriter could think. Keeping track of these titles and their reprints is the stuff of specialist bibliography.
Besides the likes of roving thinkers like George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, the LBC authors list carried future prime minister Clement Atlee and eight post-war Labor ministers. LBC emerged at a particularly ripe moment in pre-war Britain when the abominable Baldwin government was proving itself entirely incapable of advancing social reforms demanded by the Depression and confronting fascism, particularly in Spain. Indeed, British conservatives regarded that Hitler fellow as having some sound ideas that could be well applied to the Trade Union Congress in Britain. LBC, on the other hand, established itself with the express purpose to "help in the struggle for world peace and a better social and economic order, and against fascism."
LBC membership rapidly catapaulted to 57,000 and its volumes poured off the presses. The titles, of myriad topics, greatly differing appeal, and distinctly variable quality, constituted an argumentative library of their own right. LBC is often credited with a major influence in shaping the massive social reforms of postwar Britain. The basic ideas of the social welfare state -- the National Health Service, education reforms, industrial nationalization -- were all explored in LBC books. Although this anthology does not reprint the programmatic materials that have dated, it is in many senses a requiem for a publishing project that succeeded in midwifing such profound and beneficial changes.
Paul Laity, an editor at the London Review of Books, has written an excellent and succinct historical introduction to this LBC anthology. From a wealth of possible texts for anthologization, he has assembled a selection that provides a reasonable sense of LBC's list and the Popular Front-influenced argumentative milieu it advanced. I was particularly pleased to see excerpts from the nearly-forgotten but extraordinary anti-Nazi reportage by G.E.R. Gedye in Fallen Bastions, published in early 1939. Gedye's work, long out of print and deserving of a new edition, was one of the great contributions to the literature of witness in the twentieth century.
For all of Victor Gollancz's talent as a publisher in obtaining such excellent material for the Club's list, he exhibited an equal measure of political obtuseness. Gollancz remained infatuated with Stalinist politics long after others on the British left had recognized these for intractable totalitarianism. Gollancz happily countenanced the Great Purge and its show trials, as he had earlier dismissed factual reports of Party-manufactured famine in the Ukraine. He was committed to a vision that admitted no disturbance. When the Club commissioned George Orwell to write the book that became The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Gollancz was famously disturbed to read the book's second section which slashed furiously into the inability of bourgeois intellectual socialists to gain substantial purchase on the cultural loyalties of the working class.
Reading descriptions of Soviet commissars as "half gramophones, half gangsters" was almost enough for Gollancz to can the manuscript, but he settled for publishing it together with a rejoinder introduction --included here -- that wagged a patronizing finger at Orwell. (It took twenty years before an American edition was published in 1958, by which point in the Cold War the book blurbs highlighted Orwell's critique of socialist incapacities and proclaimed this a political classic.) At least Orwell could get published, more than could be said for a Trotskyist like C.L.R. James, a would-be LBC author and one of the most marvelously free-ranging intellectuals of the past century. The Popular Front ethos never extended that far.
Although matters never fully reached this state, the Left Book Club branches often had the appearance of Communist front organizations and Gollancz never particularly cared. The CP did not take overt control largely because the LBC branches served as such a good recruiting ground, particularly as people incensed by Spanish fascism and the Civil War attended LBC events and joined the Party. Only when the British Communist Party opposed Britain's entry into the war in Europe, given that the Soviet Union remained at peace with Germany, did Gollancz find the Party objectionable. The Club's association with the Party began to condemn it in the eyes of the British left and the project lapsed into a long downhill slide. Gollancz managed a brief reconciliation with Orwell to produce an edited volume, The Betrayal of the Left (1941), which condemned the Party's influence on British politics and the LBC itself. The reconciliation did not last long, for Gollancz soon refused to publish Animal Farm as politically unacceptable and dismissed Orwell as an over-rated writer. The Club, however, was nearing its finish in 1948, ironically in the midst of a Labor government realizing ideas brought to the fore in LBC books.
The anthology includes selections from the best-known LBC books --Koestler's Spanish Testament, Odets' 'Waiting for Lefty', and Snow's Red Star Over China -- and from lesser-known (at least in the US) writers like Bert Coombes, a working-class writer whose These Poor Hands (1939) describes life in the coal mines. Given the massive array of possible texts for inclusion, Laity provides an intelligent selection. An astonishing intellectual debt remains owed to left publishing of the '30s, which promoted heterodoxies that nearly disappeared during the Cold War. David Margolies' Writing the Revolution (Pluto Press, 1998), for example, undertakes a similar anthologization of The Left Review and its brief-lived Popular Front cultural politics. Publishing projects like the LBC and Left Review were instrumental in creating that concantenated mixture of politics, social observation and literature that was to emerge as the British cultural studies movement.
Left Book Club Anthology is available from Weidenfeld and Nicolson