Left Book Club Collection

Ref: Special Collection

Title: Left Book Club Collection

Scope: Books published by the firm of Victor Gollancz on behalf of the Left Book Club 1936-1948

Dates: 1936-1948
Extent: 200 vols. plus, together with a part-set of “Left News”

Name of creator: Victor Gollancz Ltd.

Administrative / biographical history:
This collection represents a set of the books published by Victor Gollancz on behalf of the Left Book Club during the years 1936 to 1948. We hold a complete set – we were very happy to receive the final addition to our collection from the library of journalist and writer, Paul Foot, in December 2016: “The adventures of the little pig and other stories” by F. Le Gros Clark and Ida Clark. In all, taking into account both the selected “Book of the Month” and the additional choices offered to members, some 252 titles were published (though five of these were announced separately as Parts 1 and 2). The Collection consists of either Left Book Club editions or the considerably more expensive general editions published simultaneously by Gollancz; in just a few cases titles are represented by non-Gollancz editions. There is available also a part-set on microfilm of “Left News”, the journal edited by Gollancz and circulated to members of the Club.

The period immediately preceding the Second World War, and the War years and their immediate aftermath, was of great significance in the struggle between competing political ideologies - (Capitalist) Democracy, Fascism and Communism. As its name suggests the Left Book Club was founded to disseminate and advance left-wing political and social ideas, though these embraced both Democratic and Marxist viewpoints. Up to the outbreak of the Second World War largely uncritical approval of Soviet Russia was a prominent feature of its outlook (cf. Dudley Collard’s “Soviet justice and the trial of Radek and others” (1937)). The Club played a major role in the co-ordination of British left-wing opinion, especially in the years before the outbreak of war.

The Left Book Club was founded in May 1936, at a time when the worst of the economic Depression of the 1929-1932 period had receded and Keynesian and New Deal economics offered hope for future economic stability through planning. The three founders were Victor Gollancz, a publisher of left-wing political sympathies, who had encountered resistance in the book trade to the distribution of left-wing titles and whose financial and organisational resources supported the Club; John Strachey, a poltical campaigner of Marxist views, though not a Communist Party member, who had been for a time an ally of Sir Oswald Mosley in the Labour Party and then the New Party before breaking with Mosley: his book “The Theory and Practice of Socialism” was the Club choice for November 1936 and made a considerable impact on the membership; and Harold Laski, Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, member and then Chairman of the Labour Party Executive. Strachey was the intellectual force behind the Club and with Gollancz made the book selections offered to Club members. Strachey contributed seven titles to the Club list in all, Gollancz three, and Laski one.

The principal aims of the Club were to promote the progressive values of the Left, a definition embracing both Socialism and Liberalism, to oppose the spread of Fascism, and to prevent the outbreak of war which the growing strength of Fascism seemed to presage, by encouraging both the development of a Popular Front at home (akin to the Front populaire led by Léon Blum in France), and collective security in Europe. ‘Collective security’ implied an alliance between the democratic nations and the Soviet Union. The rise of Nazism in Germany under Hitler, who had taken power in 1933, of Fascism in Spain under Franco, leading in 1936 to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and the invasion of Abyssinia by Mussolini in 1935, all threatened to destabilise peace. The Spanish conflict was of great concern, reflected by the appearance of several Club titles, including Arthur Koestler’s first-hand account “Spanish testament” in December 1937. In line with its extensive political campaign in support of the Republican Government the Club notably organised a food ship for Spain, sent to Barcelona in February 1939. Beyond Europe, attention turned to the war in China of 1937 which followed the initial Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1932.

But the intention was also to address issues of social concern: unemployment, poverty and the need for economic and social justice: George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” appeared in March 1937, and Ellen Wilkinson’s account of the Jarrow hunger march and its causes, “The Town that was murdered”, in September 1939. At the same time a wide range of informative works on many other topics appeared - sociology, economics, philosophy, science, psychology and other subjects, as a means of promoting enlightenment.
A typical leaflet sent out with a Club edition in 1938 summarised its objectives thus: “The aim of the Club is a simple one: it is to help in the terribly urgent struggle for World Peace & a better social & economic order & against Fascism, by giving (to all who are determined to play their part in this struggle) such knowledge as will immediately increase their efficiency”. The rationale of the Club contrasted with that of the influential Pacifist movement led by Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, C.E.M. Joad, and the Peace Pledge Union of Canon Dick Sheppard.

The Club operated on a subscription basis, thereby guaranteeing a level of sales which would enable books to be offered at a low price. Although one title each month would be the selected “Book of the Month”, as the membership grew rapidly before the War several other choices could be offered; by contrast, during the austerity of the War years and post-War period only one book per month was available. All titles, as well as being offered to Left Book Club members in a special edition costing only half a crown (one eighth of a pound), would also be published in hard covers for sale to the general public at several times the cost. Club editions appeared for the first few years in distinctive orange limp covers bearing the legend ‘LEFT BOOK CLUB EDITION. NOT FOR SALE TO THE PUBLIC’ - replaced in 1938 by a red stiff binding. The rate of growth of the Club was impressive: the first book to be offered, in May 1936, was “France today and the People’s Front” by Maurice Thorez (General Secretary of the French Communist Party), to which 5000 members subscribed, but by the end of that year the Club had grown to 20,000 members. By April 1939 the membership had reached to its highest point of 57,000, with 1,500 organised “Left Book Club Discussion Groups” in existence. Each book came with a news sheet of announcements, initially called Left Book News but soon renamed Left News, containing reviews of forthcoming books and articles on a “Topic of the Month”, such as articles on Soviet Russia or the conflict in Spain.

Although many Labour Party members and supporters joined the Club the Labour Party officially showed hostility to it and tried to dissuade its members from taking part. The large Albert Hall Rally on February 7th 1937 demonstrated the broad appeal of the Club, with speakers as diverse as the Liberal M.P. Richard Acland and the Communist Harry Pollitt, as well as the three founders of the Club, and attracted messages of support from around the world. An unexpected development was the way in which local clubs organised political activities such as rallies, which represented various different shades of opinion in a way that single party rallies could not, cultural and intellectual activities within the Arts and professions, and educational Summer and Week-end Schools which drew together members from different parts of the country. The Club’s Theatre Guild set up some 250 amateur companies, performing plays of the left such as Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty” (a Supplementary choice for June 1937). The Christian Book Club issued “The Struggle for religious freedom in Germany by the Dean of Chichester in July 1938; Hewlett Johnson, the Dean of Canterbury, was a prominent member of the Club and himself contributed three Club titles.

Beyond Britain the Club’s example led from 1937 onwards to overseas Left Book Clubs being founded in many other countries throughout the world. As war approached the Club intensified its programme, in many towns and cities, of rallies in favour of a united front with Russia against Nazi Germany, including a mass meeting in the Queen’s Hall shortly after Eden’s resignation from the Government in February 1938. But with the signing of the Russo-German Pact of non-aggression, followed rapidly by the attack on Poland and the declaration of War of September 1939, the Club was faced with the failure of its major aim of preventing war. The subsequent opposition of Communist members and others, including temporarily John Strachey, to the War against Germany demonstrated its lost unity of purpose. Gollancz determined on a change of attitude towards Soviet Communism from the largely sympathetic stance taken by Club publications up to this point. The membership was sharply divided on both this issue and that of support for the War. In November 1939 the Club choice, Leonard Woolf’s “Barbarians at the gate”, contained strong criticism of Soviet government, which resulted in a critical notice in Left News by Strachey, itself criticised by Laski. Henceforth the Club, both through the books chosen for publication and Left News, inevitably became a forum for widely divergent views. With the outbreak of the War confidence and membership declined, though many groups continued to flourish despite the difficult conditions of wartime. Following the end of the War, in July 1946, Gollancz’s own book, “Our threatened values”, reaffirmed his faith in Socialist ideals but also his rejection of totalitarianism, referring to the possibility that the Russian Revolution might turn out “to have been of disastrous evil”.

Following the outbreak of the War, Club membership declined sharply, from 57,000 in 1939 to 15,000 in 1942, and in the post-war period this decline continued. In November 1948 Gollancz announced that the Left Book Club and Left News would cease.
[A detailed account of the Left Book Club is given in “The Left Book Club: an historical record”, by John Lewis (Gollancz, 1970), on which these notes are partly based, and which lists the titles issued].

  • Related collections: Klugmann Collection, Left Pamphlet Collection, Mendelson Collection, Zaidman Collection
  • Source: By purchase and donation
  • System of arrangement: Classified
  • Subjects: Anti-fascism – Great Britain; Great Britain – Politics and government – 1936-
  • Names: Gollancz, Victor, 1893-1967; Laski, Harold Joseph, 1893-1950; Strachey, John, 1901-1963
  • Conditions of access: Available to all researchers by appointment
  • Restrictions: None
  • Finding aids: Listed and catalogued.