George Orwell, whose Road to Wigan Pier was 1 of the Left Book Club’s earliest selections – though he upset lots of its members with the book’s second half. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
Aiming to “set the agenda for a new age of political debate”, the Left Book Club was re-launched this week at a meeting at the Conway Hall in London. The Left Book Club final published a book in 1948. Jeremy Corbyn had but to be born. Nevertheless the Labour leader has generously endorsed the revival as “a terrific and timely idea” that will give “intellectual ballast to the wave of political alter sweeping Britain and beyond, encouraging informed and compassionate debate”. He added that he had a massive collection of Left Book Club titles, some bought new by his parents and others that he acquired second hand. I speculate that the memory of these books in their plain red or orange covers – their flash upon his inward eye – have to have offered Corbyn with a uncommon pleasurable moment in the past handful of weeks: the believed of them on his shelves obtaining identical kind of heart-filling effect that the daffodils had on Wordsworth.
My personal collection isn’t so huge. In truth, it runs to just 1 book, Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, and I didn’t inherit it. I purchased it 20 or 30 years ago due to the fact I liked the concept of having such a fine book in its low cost and original form – seeing the words and photographs as its first readers have to have noticed them. Published in 1937, the year after the Left Book Club was founded, it need to be the club’s most enduringly well-known title. Other authors and their books have come and gone: names such as JBS Haldane, André Malraux, Clifford Odets and Edgar Snow lie among the forgotten. And yet they had been as soon as momentous among the sort of self-improving individuals that the Left Book Club wanted to enlighten and console, in the hope that they would thereby be equipped “to fight against war and fascism”, which Victor Gollancz insisted was the club’s basic objective.
Gollancz was the publishing brain behind the concept. A selection panel comprising himself, the economist Harold Laski and the political journalist John Strachey would publish a book each and every month in a unique edition that would be provided to club members for 2s 6d. At times the book would currently have one more publisher, and often it would be commissioned by the panel. Naturally sufficient, the titles reflected the panel’s political prejudices – Laski and Strachey were Marxists, Gollancz belonged to Labour – with the result that the list was blindly pro-Soviet until the Hitler-Stalin pact shattered that daydream in 1939. But offered the significant and earnest nature of the books – and what they demanded of the reader – the club was an astonishing good results. By 1939 it had attracted 57,000 members and set up 1,500 discussion groups in workplaces and local communities. Its influence as an educational and political movement stretched via the war into the early years of the first Labour government, eight members of which had been Left Book Club contributors.
Connected: The road to Wigan Pier, 75 years on
Could something like that achievement ever take place once again? At initial sight, it would seem mad to believe so. A book is an antique strategy of political dissemination. Ideology and knowledge-hunger certainly died with the concentrate group and the Tweet. But as well several recent counter examples recommend the case is far from clear-reduce. Thomas Piketty, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben: it was the printed book that contained their suggestions rather than social media. A kind devised in the 15th century is proving remarkably resilient. A book, like a fire, is some thing folks can collect round. It can be – see reading groups and literary festivals – the focus of a good night out, or the very first provocative stage in a a lot more serious method. Or both.
The reborn Left Book Club intends to publish what it calls “a full range of progressive traditions, perspectives and ideas”, which reading groups can talk about and develop to promote “progressive social alter in the interests of operating people”. It sounds doctrinaire, a phrasing from the 1930s, but then that anxious decade bears a close resemblance to the present in so many ways. “Crisis” is the term at property in each: the crisis of capitalism and social inequality of environmental degradation and international relations, all accompanied then as now with the worry of actual or imminent violence. In the prewar novels of Orwell and Graham Greene, “bomb” and “gun” are words that you notice.
It was therefore acceptable, although possibly accidental, that Tuesday’s relaunch took spot in the Conway Hall in Bloomsbury, which has an interior that combines the golden age of Heal’s with a touch of the Odeon, and meeting rooms named soon after Fenner Brockway and Bertrand Russell. (The institution has late-18th century origins, but the hall was constructed in 1929.) I didn’t know what to expect. In Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air, the final book he published just before the outbreak of war, his very first-individual protagonist, George Bowling, took a sour view of Left Book Club meetings. He describes dusty parish halls, empty rows of chairs and thinly attended lectures on the menace of fascism. A pal of his wife started to attend simply because she “thought it had something to do with books which had been left in railway carriages and have been getting sold off cheap”.
In contrast, every available seat was taken at the Conway’s major hall, which had tables that supported bottles of wine as nicely as copies of the club’s 1st book (Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth by Kevin Ovenden). Two thirds of the crowd looked beneath 30, with a gender balance of 50:50 it was also practically entirely white. “Can Corbyn’s Labour turn out to be a mass movement for radical change?” was the theme of the discussion, as announced on the invitation. Ken Livingstone created the keynote speech. Kevin Maguire, the Day-to-day Mirror’s political columnist, chaired the panel, which integrated the new Left Book Club’s principal founders, Jan Woolf and Neil Faulkner, respectively a writer and a Marxist historian.
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The discussion was swiftly extended to the audience. It was lively and typically cordial, and briefly newsworthy when Livingstone announced that he was to join Maria Eagle as the co-chair of the committee reviewing Labour defence policy, which had nonetheless to be officially announced. Some of the language was vengeful. “Those rightwing swines in Scotland deserved to shed,” Faulkner said. At other instances it was simply loose and assertive. “Our economy is up shit creek and it’s gonna get worse,” Livingstone mentioned. On the entire (the identical trend is apparent on the BBC’s Query Time), the questions from the audience showed a sharper appreciation of difficulty ahead than the answers from the panel. Nobody, maybe out of kindness, queried the premise of the motion – to ask if “Corbyn’s Labour” exists or will go on current.
The “broad left” was described a few instances – an opportunistic alliance that would contain the Greens, the SNP and even the Lib Dems (groans at this point). Marxists, too, if any can be located.
Gollancz knew a small about the issues of such a project. As the publisher who commissioned The Road to Wigan Pier, he was also among the very first to read Orwell’s typescript. He loved the first of the book’s two components and hated the second, when the narrative leaves off describing hardship and turns to the socialist prescription for curing it. In his view, Orwell had traduced his fellow socialists as Stalinists, vegetarian cranks and middle-class snobs. The Communists amongst the club’s associates had been specifically upset. In an desperate attempt to placate the book’s critics, Gollancz wrote an introduction that dissed the second half. It vanished soon after the very first edition. Its awkwardness, which is practically a point of beauty, survives in mine.