In January 1936, the publisher, Victor Gollancz, had lunch with Stafford Cripps and John Strachey, where they discussed the possibility of establishing a United Front against fascism. It was during this meeting that Gollancz suggested the idea of creating a Left Book Club. It was also agreed that Harold Laski, the Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, would make an excellent partner in this venture. The main aim was to spread socialist ideas and to resist the rise of fascism in Britain. Gollancz announced: "The aim of the Left Book Club is a simple one. It is to help in the terribly urgent struggle for world peace and against fascism, by giving, to all who are willing to take part in that struggle, such knowledge as will immensely increase their efficiency."
Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977) has argued: "The basic scheme of the Club was simple. For 2s 6d members received a Left Book of the Month, chosen by the Selection Committee - which consisted of Gollancz, John Strachey and Harold Laski. Left-wing books could be guaranteed a high circulation without risk to the publisher, while members received them at a greatly reduced rate." As Ruth Dudley Edwards, the author of Victor Gollancz: A Biography (1987), pointed out: "They were a formidable trio: Laski the academic theoretician; Strachey the gifted popularizer; and Victor the inspired publicist. All three had known a lifelong passion for politics and all had swung violently left in the early 1930s. Only Victor did not describe himself as completely Marxist, though he was objectively indistinguishable from the real article."
The first book, France To-day and the People's Front, by Maurice Thorez, the French Communist leader, was issued in May 1936. This was followed by other books that dealt with the struggle against fascism in Europe. This included books by Stafford Cripps (The Struggle for Peace, November 1936), Konni Zilliacus, The Road to War, April 1937), G.D.H. Cole, The People’s Front (July 1937), Robert A. Brady, The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, September 1937), Richard Acland (Only One Battle, November 1937), H. N. Brailsford (Why Capitalism Means War, August 1938), Frederick Elwyn Jones (The Battle for Peace, August 1938) and Leonard Woolf (Barbarians at the Gate, November 1939).
The Left Book Club also published several books on the impact of the Great Depression. This included George Orwell (The Road to Wigan Pier, March 1937), G.D.H. Cole and Margaret Cole, The Condition of Britain (April 1937), Wal Hannington (The Problem of the Distressed Areas (November 1937) and Ellen Wilkinson (The Town that was Murdered, September 1939).
The Spanish Civil War was another subject that was well-covered by the Left Book Club. This included Harry Gannes and Theodore Repard (Spain in Revolt, December 1936), Geoffrey Cox (Defence of Madrid, March 1937), Hewlett Johnson (Report of a Religious Delegation to Spain, May 1937), Hubertus Friedrich Loewenstein, A Catholic in Republican Spain (November 1937), Arthur Koestler (Spanish Testament, December 1937) and Frank Jellinek (The Civil War in Spain, June 1938). However, Victor Gollancz rejected the idea of publishing Homage to Catalonia. In the book George Orwell attempted to expose the propaganda disseminated by newspapers in Britain. This included attacks on both the right-wing press and the Daily Worker, a paper controlled by the Communist Party of Great Britain. Although one of the best books ever written about war, it sold only 1,500 copies during the next twelve years.
Victor Gollancz had hoped to recruit 10,000 members in the first year. In fact, he achieved over 45,000. By the end of the first year the Left Book Club had had 730 local discussion groups, and it estimated that these were attended by an average total of 12,000 people every fortnight. As Ben Pimlott pointed out: "In April 1937 Gollancz launched the Left Book Club Theatre Guild with a full-time organiser; nine months later 200 theatre groups had been established, and 45 had already performed plays. Sporting activities and recreations were also catered for." As The Tribune newspaper reported, "walks, tennis, golf and swimming are quite different when your campanions... are... comrades of the left". By March 1938, membership of the Left Book Club had reached 58,000.
John Strachey was the most popular author published by the New Left Book Club. His books included The Theory and Practice of Socialism (November 1936), The Coming Struggle for Power (September 1937), What are we to Do? (March 1938) and Why you should be a Socialist (May 1938).
The Left Book Club published several books written by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. This included Rajani Palme Dutt (World Politics 1918-1936, July 1936), Wilfred Macartney (Walls have Mouths, September 1936), Robin Page Arnot (A Short History of the Russian Revolution, October 1937), A. L. Morton (A People’s History of England, May 1938), Wal Hannington (A Short History of the Unemployed, September 1938), John Ross Campbell (Soviet Policy and its Critics, February 1939).
Other important books published by the Left Book Club included Philip Noel-Baker (The Private Manufacture of Armaments, October 1936), Stephen Spender (Forward from Liberalism, January 1937), Dudley Collard, Soviet Justice and the Trial of Radek and Others (May, 1937), Clement Attlee (The Labour Party in Perspective, August 1937), John Lawrence Hammond and Barbara Hammond (The Town Labourer, August 1937), Edgar Snow (Red Star over China, October 1937), Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb (Soviet Communism: a New Civilisation, October 1937), Richard H. Tawney (The Acquisitive Society, November 1937), Eleanor Rathbone (War can be Averted, January 1938), Konni Zilliacus (Why the League has Failed, May 1938), Agnes Smedley (China Fights Back, December 1938), Joachim Joesten (Denmark’s Day of Doom, January 1939) and Victor Gollancz (Is Mr. Chamberlain Saving the Peace?, April 1939). By 1939 membership of the Left Book Club rose to 50,000.
Harry Pollitt remained loyal to Joseph Stalin until September 1939 when he welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany. He published a pamphlet entitled How to Win the War. It included the following passage: "The Communist Party supports the war, believing it to be a just war. To stand aside from this conflict, to contribute only revolutionary-sounding phrases while the fascist beasts ride roughshod over Europe, would be a betrayal of everything our forebears have fought to achieve in the course of long years of struggle against capitalism."
Joseph Stalinsigned the Soviet-Nazi Pact with Adolf Hitler in August, 1939. At a meeting of the Central Committee on 2nd October 1939, Rajani Palme Dutt demanded "acceptance of the (new Soviet line) by the members of the Central Committee on the basis of conviction". Despite the objections of several members, when the vote was taken, only Harry Pollitt, John R. Campbell and William Gallacher voted against. Pollitt was forced to resign as General Secretary and he was replaced by Dutt. William Rust took over Campbell's job as editor of the Daily Worker. Over the next few weeks the newspaper demanded that Neville Chamberlain respond to Hitler's peace overtures.
Victor Gollancz was appalled by this decision and in March 1941 the Left Book Club published Betrayal of the Left: an Examination & Refutation of Communist Policy from October 1939 to January 1941. The book was edited by Gollancz and included two essays by George Orwell, Fascism and Democracy and Patriots and Revolutionaries.
Some members of the Left Book Club disapproved of the electoral truce between the main political parties during the Second World War. On 26th July 1941 members of the 1941 Committee led by Richard Acland, Vernon Bartlett and J. B. Priestley established the socialist Common Wealth Party. The party advocated the three principles of Common Ownership, Vital Democracy and Morality in Politics. The party favoured public ownership of land and Acland gave away his Devon family estate of 19,000 acres (8,097 hectares) to the National Trust.
In 1942 the Common Wealth Party decided to contest by-elections against Conservative candidates. The CWP needed the support of traditional Labour supporters. Tom Wintringham wrote in September 1942: "The Labour Party, the Trade Unions and the Co-operatives represent the worker's movement, which historically has been, and is now, in all countries the basic force for human freedom... and we count on our allies within the Labour Party who want a more inspiring leadership to support us." Large numbers of working people did support the SWP and this led to victories for Richard Acland in Barnstaple and Vernon Bartlett in Bridgwater. Later, Victor Gollancz argued that "had there been no Left Book Club there would have been no Bridgwater."
The Left Book Club continued to publish books throughout the Second World War and they no doubt helped to bring about the landslide victory of the Labour Party in the 1945 General Election. As his biographer, Ruth Dudley Edwards, pointed out: "By March 1947 he (Gollancz) was sick rather than just tired of the Left Book Club. With fascism defeated and a Labour government in power, the aims for which it had been set up were now irrelevant." With the Left Book Club down to 7,000 members, Victor Gollancz closed the organization down in October 1948.
Victor's conception of a Popular Front embraced all opponents of government from dissident Tory to communist - an objective for which there was small support. There was, however, considerable left-wing backing for a socialist-communist United Front, an idea to which the CP was deeply committed and the leadership of the Labour party implacably opposed. Victor therefore saw his immediate political priority as that of persuading the rank-and-file members of the Labour and Liberal parties that they had much in common with those further to the left. Therefore, communist literature must bc brought to a wider reading public, and through an organization that had a broad appeal.
The moment when the LBC germinated from a vague idea into a specific project came in early January 1936. Sir Stafford Cripps, prominent Labour MP and a recent and enthusiastic Marxist convert, invited Victor and John Strachey to lunch, to discuss the possibility of founding a weekly paper to promulgate socialism and oppose fascism. That the meeting produced no concrete plans (though Tribune was launched a year later) no doubt boosted Victor's impetus towards immediate personal action. Strachey, the most influential English Marxist writer of the 1930s (and a Gollancz author) seemed an ideal ally. Although he was a communist, the wise men of the CP had refused him a party card, recognizing the usefulness of his nominal independence. As they left Cripps, Victor proposed to Strachey that he co-operate in selecting books for a Left Book Club, and together they decided that Harold Laski, Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics and probably the most influential teacher of his generation there, should be the third selector.
They were a formidable trio: Laski the academic theoretician; Strachey the gifted popularizer; and Victor the inspired publicist. All three had known a lifelong passion for politics and all had swung violently left in the early 1930s. Only Victor did not describe himself as completely Marxist, though he was objectively indistinguishable from the real article. The three, through a longing for all-encompassing solutions to the problems of the human condition, were natural followers of a philosophy that admitted no doubts. Laski once explained that his journey to Marxism had given him "an increasing confidence in its will: the paradoxical sense that a fighting philosophy confers an inner peace unobtainable without its possession." Having gained that inner peace, they all showed themselves to be dedicated proselytizers, and won, individually and collectively, the hearts and minds of thousands of young people in pursuit of Utopia.
In choosing his co-selectors, Victor (a Labour Party member) had this deep-running community of ideals and attitudes as the chief criterion, followed by intellectual respectability and an appearance of political breadth. Strachey was under Communist Party direction. Laski was an influential member of the Labour Party's National Executive Committee who contrived meanwhile to hold the conviction that inadequacies in the British democratic system would stymie the introduction of socialism, and he shared Victor's doubts that the classless society could be brought about without revolution. In pursuit of the Popular Front goal, they committed themselves inevitably to a period of nimble, and taxing, ideological footwork.
Strachey was excited by the idea of the Club. Seeking a guarantee of a reasonable income, he wrote to Victor on 10 January that "it might become something really influential if one made it a principal charge on one's interest". Victor wished to harness Strachey's enthusiasm as cheaply as possible, so he offered him just the normal reading fee of two guineas a manuscript. Laski, offered only one guinea on the good socialist grounds that, unlike Strachey, he had a job, kindly refused any remuneration.
From the outset Victor displayed a typical combination of parsimony and generosity. To make the Club as effective as possible he was determined to keep wages and royalties to the minimum, thus freeing funds for advertising or organization. The frequent allegation that the Club was but a cunning entrepreneurial device to make yet more money in the name of anti-capitalism had no validity. Victor was not prepared to risk bankrupting Gollancz and was reluctant to spend an unproductive penny, but in the drive to make converts he gave his money as freely as he gave the time that he could otherwise undoubtedly have used to make himself rich.
The aim of the Club is a simple one: it is to help in the struggle for World Peace and a better social and economic order and against Fascism, by (a) increasing the knowledge of those who already see the importance of this struggle, and (b) adding to their number the very many who, being fundamentally well disposed, hold aloof from the fight by reason of ignorance or apathy.
That the success of this aim is of terrible urgency at the present time, when the world is drifting into war, and when Fascism is triumphing in country after country, needs no emphasis.
Nine considerations impelled my activity: (i) we must prevent war; (2) we could do it only by uniting as many nations as possible in opposition to Hitler; (3) in view of Germany's geographical position, if of that alone, the Soviet Union, France and Great Britain must be the core of any effective combination; (4) no such unity was conceivable unless these peoples and their regimes learned to understand one another; (5) no such unity was conceivable, either, without unity at home - a unity of all anti-fascists, from communists at one extreme to a section of conservatives at the other; (6) domestic unity was demanded, also, by the need for preventing such a triumph of indifference, or even of pro-fascism, here in Britain itself, as would encourage Hitler to strike; (7) this triumph could be further obstructed by (a) the indifferent becoming anti-fascists, and (b) anti-fascists growing keener, more active; (8) the prerequisite for such a change was a greater understanding of what fascism meant by way of internal bestiality and external aggression; and (9) to effect this understanding, an expose of fascism must be supplemented by an expose of its opposite - of the socialism that has for pith and marrow, or alas! (as I must now say) ought to have, the ideal of international brotherhood.
A major reason for the NEC's hesitations on the Popular Front was that the Communist Party had been agitating vigorously for one since 1936. The Communists did not make a fundamental distinction of principle between the united front and the popular front - the first was seen as a preparation for the second. The Labour Party Executive was therefore inclined to regard both with equal suspicion as tactics designed principally to increase Communist influence in the Labour Party. This suspicion was not diminished by the linking of united and popular fronts with the situation in Spain.
Closely associated with the Communist Party, and providing a prolific propaganda backing for Communist campaigns for aid to Spain and for united and popular fronts, was the Left Book Club. The Club devoted all its efforts to the explanation and advocacy of a People's Front, recalls its leading official. The Club certainly printed more on the subject than anybody else, was responsible for getting the idea widely discussed in political circles in Britain - and created a firm association in the minds of most people between the Popular Front and Communism.
The Club was the brainchild of Victor Gollancz, pacifist schoolmaster turned successful publisher. The basic scheme of the Club was simple. For 2s 6d members received a "Left Book of the Month", chosen by the Selection Committee - which consisted of Gollancz, John Strachey and Harold Laski. Left-wing books could be guaranteed a high circulation without risk to the publisher, while members received them at a greatly reduced rate...
The growth of the Club was partly spontaneous, partly a consequence of imaginative organisation. From the start, giant Club rallies were held in large halls all over the country. In attendance and in drama, the Club's biggest meetings outdid any organised by the Labour Party. People came to a Club rally as to a revivalist meeting, to hear the best orators of the far left - Laski, Strachey, Pollitt, Gallacher, Ellen Wilkinson, Pritt, Bevan, Strauss, Cripps, plus the occasional non-socialist, such as the Liberal, Richard Acland, to provide Popular Front balance....
At Bridgwater - where Vernon Bartlett won a famous "Popular Front" by-election victory in November 1938 - Left Book Club activities may have been a crucial factor. Gollancz maintained afterwards that "had there been no Left Book Club there would have been no Bridgwater", and it is very likely that Bartlett gained the backing of the constituency Labour Party (against fierce Transport House opposition) because of Left Book Club activities.
Richard Acland, Liberal MP for the neighbouring North Devon constituency and the Club's most prominent and active Liberal supporter, had taken part in a number of Club meetings in the Bridgwater constituency in the summer of 1938, before the seat became vacant. One of these, at Minehead, was announced by a poster which read "Why not pull together, Liberal, Labour and Progressive Conservative for Peace, Democracy and Security." In September (when the imminence of a vacancy was still unsuspected) the Club's monthly journal, Left News reported that Minehead had no Labour Party but "the LBC Group decided to take the necessary steps to bring one into existence... the LBC will give the new organisation the fullest assistance of its organisation and propaganda departments. The Club Secretary has agreed to become temporary Organising Secretary of the about-to-be-formed Party. Later, Club members set up a local party in nearby watcher, where Labour organisation was also dead.
What we say is rather... that in the Left Book Club we arc creating the mass basis without which a true Popular Front is impossible. In a sense, the Left Book Club is already a sort of popular front that happens to have happened. It is a body of people who happen to have come together and happen to agree on a number of vital topics. Sooner or later, in their various organisations, it is absolutely inevitable that they will act on that agreement.
This brings me on also to the next question, which is: "Are you a new political party?" The answer is emphatically "No." Rather are we a body of men and women of all progressive parties, hammering out our differences, coming to agreement, and then acting in our various organisations.
My feeling is this: if we succeed on a big enough scale in creating this mass basis, then all objections to a Popular Front, from whatever quarter, necessarily and automatically vanish.... Now if I have made myself clear, you will not misconstrue me or think I am describing this as a Popular Front meeting when I say that the whole idea of the Left Book Club is reflected in the composition of our platform this afternoon. We have here Professor Laski, who since I first knew him at Oxford before the War (we are living in such an atmosphere that I had almost said before the last War) has devoted himself unswervingly to the Labour Party. We have Mr Acland, one of the Liberal Party Whips. We have Mr Strachey whom some people allege to be a Communist. We have Mr Pollitt, who certainly is a Communist. We were to have had with us this afternoon, as you know, Sir Stafford Cripps, and it is really with tremendous disappointment that I tell you that he cannot come because lie has influenza. Sir Stafford, as you know, has been in a thousand fights for peace and the working man... And then we have my very clear friend, if lie will allow me to call him so, Pritt, who has also been a tireless worker for peace and freedom... Now Pritt, as you know, is a member of the Executive of the Parliamentary Labour Party. I do not know what his views may be on the question of the United Front and the Popular Front, which his party has boycotted, but I know he clearly has no objection whatever to the sort of unity I have been putting before you; otherwise lie would not be on the platform. Nor for the matter of that, has his leader, Mr C.R. Atlee, who has sent us a message as follows: "I am very glad to have an opportunity of sending a message to members of the Left Book Club.
It is of the utmost importance that there should be as wide a circulation as possible of the views of those people who, though presenting the problem from different angles, are united in a conviction of the need for changing the present system of society. Socialism cannot be built on ignorance, and the transformation of Great Britain into a Socialist State will need the active co-operation of a large body of well-informed men and women. For this reason I consider the Success of the Left Book Club to be a most encouraging sign.
Classroom Activities by Subject