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A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950

The Left Book Club in New Zealand

The Left Book Club in New Zealand

The principal agent for the Left Book Club publications in New Zealand initially was Hamilton bookseller Blackwood Paul. As a student at Auckland University College in the early 30s, Paul had been a member of the committee page 66 which founded Phoenix and an editor of the literary review Kiwi. After graduating that year in arts and law he returned to Hamilton to work in, and soon become manager of, the family bookselling business, Paul's Book Arcade. In 1936 he travelled to England where he met Victor Gollancz and secured distribution rights for the Left Book Club in New Zealand.17 The books were sold in New Zealand through a few bookshops or by individual agents. In Christchurch, Harold Fenton, a newspaper agent, advertised in Tomorrow as a Left Book Club agent in August 1936. Thereafter the club was advertised regularly in Tomorrow and in the Communist Party's Workers' Weekly, and in Woman Today but, unsurprisingly, not in the daily press.

The extent of the Left Book Club's influence in New Zealand in terms of membership can only be guessed at. There are no membership records, and it is thus impossible to estimate how many people belonged to the club, let alone how many read the books in libraries or borrowed from friends. There is, however, some indication of the numbers who were actively involved in Left Book Club groups. Twenty-six groups were established in New Zealand between 1937 and 1940. The first was formed in Christchurch in July 1937, followed by Auckland in August. By the end of that year there were eight groups established; by April 1939, 14. Membership of the groups ranged from a few hundred in places like Wellington and Auckland, down to 12 in Te Kuiti and 10 in Dargaville. The significant numbers were in the main centres. The first annual general meeting of the Wellington group noted that the group's membership had jumped from 50 to over 500 in six months; a report of April 1939 gave its total membership that year as 350, many of whom, however, were only 'loosely connected' with the group; its 1940 annual report recorded a total of 450, again including 'a great number of "dead" (or at any rate dormant) members'.18 The Auckland group claimed to have a readership of 450 and active membership of 150 in April 1939. Christchurch had 130 members in February 1940, Dunedin, 170. Total membership at the time of the first national conference was estimated at 1100.

If numerically the club could hardly be described as a mass-based political movement, what is perhaps surprising is the geographical spread of the groups. The books and left sympathies were not confined to the main centres. Left Book Club groups were established in provincial centres and rural communities ranging from Dargaville, Te Kuiti and Te Awamutu in the North Island, to Hororata, Coalgate and Blackball in the South.

The national conference held in Wellington in April 1939, initiated by Christchurch members and attended by representatives of 14 groups, led to the formation of a New Zealand Left Book Club Association which was to be based in Christchurch. The draft constitution before the conference stated as the association's object:

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Left Book Club / Paul's Book Arcade leaflet, 1938? (distributed with Tomorrow)

Left Book Club / Paul's Book Arcade leaflet, 1938? (distributed with Tomorrow)

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To work for a better social and economic order for the maintenance and extension of civil liberties, and for world peace, by the study and discussion of social, economic, political and cultural problems.19

Curiously, the association dropped the direct reference to fascism contained in the original Left Book Club statement of intent, despite the requested amendment from the Dunedin group which would have included the phrases: 'By educational activity to promote awareness of and resistance to fascism with special reference to its relation to New Zealand' and 'To promote understanding of and support for socialism and its advancement in N.Z.'20 Its specific reference instead to 'the maintenance and extension of civil liberties' prefigured what would be a primary concern of the Left Book Club in New Zealand.

The conference elected Winston Rhodes and D. M. Martin as president and vice-president, and Evelyn Lawn, a teacher and graduate of the Canterbury University College arts faculty and student Radical Club, as secretary. C. F. Saunders, a Christchurch journalist, Communist Party member and manager of the Christchurch Party bookshop, was appointed 'national editor'. Other executive officers were: Jack Basham, manager of the Progressive Bookshop in Auckland; A. T. Smith, a contractor and president of the Ruawai group; and J.CD. McDonald of Palmerston North. The association was intended to coordinate the activity of the various groups and also published a monthly bulletin (of which no extant copies have been found). This followed unsuccessful negotiations for a four-page supplement in Tomorrow and for a regular column in the Labour Party newspaper, the Standard The reasons for the failure of negotiations with Tomorrow are not recorded; one can only speculate that the editors of the magazine—determinedly 'non-partisan' as we have seen—were reluctant to associate themselves formally with an organisation which was, despite its protestations to the contrary, a political (and to some people communist) organisation. The Standard, which would most likely have agreed with the latter assessment, would only offer the club regular advertising rates.

In the absence of any membership records, and given the diversity of the groups, it is also impossible to determine the composition of the Left Book Club in New Zealand in social or occupational terms. And it is difficult therefore to assess the extent to which its influence extended to 'even the humblest worker',21 as the club hoped, and it achieved the communion of the intellectual left and working class which constituted, theoretically, the Popular Front. The Left Book Club in England has been described as 'predominandy a middle-class phenomenon', with approximately 75 per cent of its membership estimated to have been drawn from professional or other white-collar occupations.22 This was despite frequent editorial comment on the need to enlist the involvement of the working class, and a short-lived Associate Membership scheme for trade union or workplace groups. Its influence has been assessed as lying less in its role as a page 69 medium for mass political education and mobilisation than as a focus for an intellectual avant-garde.

In New Zealand there were some efforts made to reach a working class audience: the Manawatu group in Palmerston North held fortnightly study groups 'mainly for railwaymen',23 and the Dunedin drama group gave a performance at the Hillside railway workshops. Existing records give no indication, however, of any active recruitment amongst or cooperation with trade unions, nor, more interestingly, with the Workers' Educational Association. Comment on the actual composition of the different Left Book Club groups can be only general or speculative. What is clear, and unsurprising, is that the initiative tended to come from professionals and white-collar workers. The occupations of convenors and secretaries of the groups, as far as these can be established, were: a university lecturer, a doctor, a Member of Parliament, two teachers, three clerks and one civil servant, a trade union secretary, a farmer, a linesman and a contractor.

17 J. Paul. Interview with author, 23 Aug. 1985; P. W. Day, 'Blackwood Paul', Comment, 23, May 1965, pp.10-11

18 The Left Book Club. Conference Decisions', Tomorrow, 26 Apr. 1939 (v.5, n.13), p.412; Left BookClub (Wellington group). Second annual report, 21 Feb. 1940. C.F. Saunders Papers. Jack Locke Deposit: item 10. University of Canterbury Library. Membership figures of LBC groups have also been derived from Tomorrow, 15 Mar. 1939 (v.5, n.10), p.316; reports in the Left News; Report of National Committee New Zealand Left Book Club Association fortheyear 1939-40. Locke Deposit: 10. See Appendix 1 for membership figures of other LBC groups in New Zealand.

19 Proposed Rules of the New Zealand Association ofLeft Book Clubs, [1939]. Roth collection

20 Amendments to Original Draft Constitution submitted by the Dunedin Left Book Club Group, [1939]. Roth collection

21 V. Christensen, secretary, Manawatu LBC group, correspondence, Manawatu Evening Standard 5 Dec. 1939, p.6

22 Samuels, 'The Left Book Club', p.65

23 Report of National Committee . . . 1939-40: Summary of Group Reports, p.2