A politically inspired literary group of the thirties is set to make a comeback in the shape of a new Left Book Club. The Research Collections houses a number of the original well-known Left Book Club texts emblazoned with ‘Not for sale to the public’ across the front cover. Inspired by the original Left Book Club, the new group are hoping to encourage discussion on the politics of today.[1]

Not for Sale

So where did it all begin?

The Left Book Club was founded in 1936 in order to disseminate texts of leftist political importance at a low price. These books set out to provide readers with the appropriate knowledge so that they can ‘help in the terribly urgent struggle for world peace & a better social and economic order & against fascism’. The Left Book Club provided a platform for left-wing thought and a way to provide members with a political education. The texts were chosen by Victor Gollancz (the publisher), John Strachey and Harold Laski. They varied on themes; covering both domestic and foreign affairs as well as social, political and economic issues to provide a ‘balanced intellectual diet’.[2]

New Member
Left Book Club brochure sent out to members (please click to enlarge)

The Left Book Club offered three modes of membership:

Membership Type Description
Ordinary Ordinary members received monthly books costing 2s 6d. Members were obliged to pay this book fee for six months. Written notice of six weeks was needed in order to discontinue membership.
B This membership scheme was designed for those who could not afford the price for a minimum of six months, those who were unable to read a book a month and those who only wanted books of political importance.
C or Tribune These members purchased four books of their choosing across a 12 month period. The books cost 3s 6d and they did not include a copy of The Left News. Once the four books had been purchased, the member had no further obligation but continued to be a member for the remainder of the period.

The Club was very much a product of its time and its popularity in initial years can be put down to the international economic situation. Despite the worst of the depression having passed, fears of recurring downturn still existed and by offering texts at an affordable price the Left Book Club was able to utilise this experience to share their message. The main issue was the rising face of fascism, as stated in their membership aims. Fascism presented opposing political opinions and provided the potential for another world war. Providing texts which outlined the political discourse of the left whilst highlighting the dangers of right-wing thought would enhance the knowledge of members and enable them to take action.

The membership of the Club began to decline with the outbreak of the Second World War. The main goal of preventing another war had failed and factions began to appear. Attitudes to British involvement caused divides amongst members with numerous resignations due to ideological disputes.[3] These disagreements also occurred at the leadership level; Gollancz and Laski felt the war should be supported as it was to fight fascism, whereas Strachey argued that it was an imperialist conflict which may turn on the Soviet Union.[4] The practicalities of total war also made it difficult for the Left Book Club to remain a priority for many members and print numbers reduced to 10000-11000 by the end of 1941.[5] Despite this decrease in popularity, the Club remained active after the war until 1948.

The Books

The Socialist Sixth of the World by Hewlett Johnson (1940)

Socialist Sixth of the WorldHewlett Johnson was nicknamed The Red Dean of Canterbury for his sympathetic nature to the Soviet Union and its allies. Johnson begins by asking readers to set aside their resentment towards the USSR and to read what he defines as a ‘fairer picture and a deeper understanding’.[6] The original draft had been prepared before the declaration of the Second World War and was delayed as a result of the conflict. Johnson argued that despite the change in circumstances the content of the book was still relevant and asks readers to read the epilogue first in order to understand the struggle for peace the Soviet people had faced since its establishment. Johnson’s aim was to explain the experiment of a new order of society which was occurring across the Soviet Union and to try and break down the ‘mutual distrust and suspicion’ that marked the period.[7]

Comrades and Citizens by Seema Rynin Allan (1938)

Comrades and Citizens

Seema Rynin Allan used personal accounts and social experiences to define the wider Soviet national policy. Allan argued that policies and institutions changed rapidly but it was important to determine the individual effects this had on the citizens. She lived in the Soviet Union between 1932 and 1934 and used this time to observe and interview locals to determine what life was like under the regime. The book covers topics such as collectivisation, gender roles and literacy levels.

To access the Left Book Club texts please email the Research Librarian.

[1] For more information see: http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-3acd-Left-Book-Club-to-make-comeback-after-six-decades#.VaYxCqRViko

[2] Samuels, S., ‘The Left Book Club’ in Journal of Contemporary History (1966) Vol.1, No.2 p.70

[3] Neavill, G. B., ‘Victor Gollancz and the New Left Book’ in The Library Quarterly (1971) Vol.41, No.3 p.211

[4] Samuels, p.82

[5] Neavill, p.213

[6] Johnson, H., The Socialist Sixth of the World, London: Victor Gollancz (1940) p.5

[7] Ibid, p.18