Widely unknown in modern Britain (I was aware that it had existed at some point, but it was only the news that it was being brought back that encouraged me to actually read up on the subject), the Left Book Club was a publishing group with (as you might be able guess from the title) a strong politic bias leaning towards the Left. In fact, it was widely believed that the LBC was one of the major reasons that the Labour Party managed to swing its way into power in 1945, following on from a landslide victory.
The Left Book Club was, for a time, one of the most powerful groups of literary-minded people in the country. Membership of the club peaked at somewhere around 57,000, and only members were allowed to receive a copy of the monthly book choice, along with a newsletter which, essentially, became a political magazine in support of the Left.
The Origins Of The Left Book Club
Founded in May, 1936, the LBC was one of the most important left-wing institutions of the 30s and 40s all across the country. The book club itself was set up by Victor Gollancz, John Strachey and Stafford Cripps as a dynamic means of educating and revitalising the flagging British Left. Ostensibly, the Club’s mission was to “help in the struggle for world peace and against fascism”, two notions which were, at the time, practically seen as the same thing.
I’ve read that the original goal was to break even with 2,500 members, the LBC actually attracted as many as 40,000 of its members within the first year alone. It was in 1939 that the organisation reached its peak, with around 57,000 people registered as members of the LBC. This is, in part, said to have been as a result of the immense popularity that the first half of George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier (a book which is, for obvious reasons, fairly near and dear to me) enjoyed.
Gollancz, John Strachey and Harold Laski were the panel in charge of supplying a book to its readers every month. These books were never sold to the public, and many of these titles were only available as part of the LBC edition. Typically, the books provided ranges from fictional novels, to history, science and a variety of all topics.
In fact, the only overarching theme of the entire LBC was that its books, essentially, all presented a left-leaning view of the world. Surprisingly, the owners of the Club kept themselves distanced from communism and the then powerful Communist Party of Great Britain.
The Road To Wigan Pier, With Gollancz
Victor Gollancz, as the main name behind the LBC, was a notoriously involved editor, often removing entire paragraphs and sections from the books he chose, in case they offended their readership. For an ostensibly forward-thinking leftist organisation, with a focus on “education for the masses” as it were, Gollancz was careful to keep many of the chosen books’ views as inoffensive to the Leftist, Trotskyite, Stalinist, communist, socialist and fairly-liberal audience as possible.
Although he published Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, he insisted on prefacing the books with an introduction disowning its, often quite scathing, criticisms of the middle-class socialists who did not understand the men and women they claimed to hold fraternity with. In fact, he later republished the book with the second half taken out, just in case Orwell’s scolding polemic offended any of the Club’s middle-class members.
The Lasting Influence Of The Left Book Club
Alongside a few other socialist/leftist organisations, the LBC had a major effect on much of the Labour Party, particularly during the socialist ideologies of 1945. Many members would later become known as visionary socialists, campaigning for the Club’s ideas, including full employment, socialised medicine, equality and even town-planning.
After the Left’s immense success with the Book Club, it didn’t take long for the Tories to follow suit, establishing a Right Book Club; these were soon followed by the Liberal Book Club and the Peace Book Club, amongst several others.
The LBC In My Lifetime
Over the past few years, there have been several attempts to bring the LBC back to life, after it died off in 1948. In 2006, Ed Miliband (yeah, the one who didn’t become PM because he ate a sandwich weirdly and didn’t come across as greasy enough) launched the Left Book Club Online as a digitalised successor to the original. This site didn’t publish any work and, in fact, appears to be abandoned.
The Left Book Club And The 2015 Relaunch!
Recently launched as a non-profit organisation, the LBC is dedicated to encouraging debate on left-wing topics, or one wider-reaching topics from a leftist point of view. The goal is for the LBC to publish four books a year and remain funded by subscriptions and voluntary contributions. The Lord Thy Leftist God, Jeremy Corbyn, has already come out in support of the idea, saying:
“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.”
Some of the first books to be published include Syriza: Inside The Labyrinth, by Kevin Ovenden, and Ken Livingstone’s Being Red: A Politics For The Future.
Why Does The Left Book Club Matter?
Essentially, it doesn’t. The issue I have with this leftist organisation is that it will no doubt fall into the same trap as its predecessor; creating socialist content for a middle-class audience. I come from Wigan, I spend my days surrounded by people dressed in dirty tracksuits and wearing jeans when it comes to a sense of formality; most of these people vaguely support Labour, but that is only because of some twisted perception of them as being for the people, and the only real alternative to the pompous, arrogant posturing of the Conservatives, with their seat-shining faces and their greased hair and their severe, formal intonations, like the ringing of Big Ben in the throat.
The reason that socialist philosophy, true socialist philosophy, doesn’t really matter up here anymore is that everyone is on the make, everyone is trying to be something and nobody with the education or the inclination to spend their days reading dry books on politics by Ken Livingstone cares about the people spitting into the street and drinking Stella Artois and smoking weed outside the Dog & Partridge pub (which used to be known as the Last Orders).
Still, as I’m ostensibly a member of the middle-class – even the bastardised version of the middle-class we have these days – I’m hoping for something to emerge from this latest not-for-profit experiment which will encourage me to believe in something like socialism. I think the philosophies supported by Corbyn, and to a certain extent, Orwell himself, could be something of a consolation when a shivering woman sees me staggering home above the blue LEDs embedded in the floor outside the train station and ask me for change. Maybe, instead of a couple of quid, I could hand her a copy of a new Road to Wigan Pier, and tell her that better times are a-coming.