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


page 61

The influence of the Left Book Club in the political culture of the left in the 1930s has been summed up by one historian:

In the Britain of the nineteen-thirties it was easy to identify a left-wing, antifascist, pro-Soviet, anti-war, popular-front intellectual. The sign of identification was not necessarily a party card, a lapel button, or a signature at the bottom of a revolutionary manifesto, but the colour of the bindings on his bookshelves.1

The Left Book Club maintained a similar profile in New Zealand. Among the left and liberal-left, 'everyone' was a member of the Left Book Club at least to the extent of reading the distinctive orange cloth-bound books.

In New Zealand the Left Book Club had its own National Association, with Winston Rhodes as its president and a former Presbyterian minister and well-known Wellington pacifist, D. M. Martin, as its vice-president. There was a New Zealand focus in the topics of discussion at its group meetings and public lectures, and eventually an attempt to establish an autonomous 'New Zealand Left Book Club'. But officially it functioned as a branch of the parent organisation: the London-based club which was founded in 1936 by the socialist publisher-entrepreneur, Victor Gollancz.

A 'pacifist schoolmaster turned successful publisher',2 Gollancz had founded the publishing house Victor Gollancz Ltd in 1928. By the mid 1930s he already had a number of pacifist and socialist tides to his credit, along with a strong contemporary fiction list which included authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Joyce Cary, Daphne du Maurier, Aldous Huxley and Franz Kafka. The novels supported the less commercially successful political books which had been, and remained, Gollancz's primary interest. The idea of a left-wing book club was first canvassed by the Workers' Bookshop, London's principal Communist bookshop, in 1935; but it was Gollancz, by this time page 62 looking to expand the political side of his business by 'specialising in books published at low prices, designed to convert people on a big scale to socialism and pacifism',3 who provided the initiative, the capital and the publishing expertise on which the Left Book Club was founded. The scheme was inaugurated in March 1936 and the first publication appeared in May.

The Left Book Club was in many ways a unique phenomenon, as an organisation and as a political movement. Book club schemes were already known in America, but in England this was a first (although it recalled earlier extra-political organisations such as Cobbett's Hampden Clubs and the Chartists). Founded on the eve of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, it was a peculiar expression of the political climate of the late 1930s. By the end of the decade it had been followed by a Right Book Club, a Liberal Book Club and several religious book schemes, but none of these were to have anything like the Left Book Club's success in terms of size and political influence.

The basic idea was 'to produce a series of books dealing with the three closely related questions of fascism, the threat of war, and poverty, aiming at effective resistance to the first, prevention of the second, and socialism as a cure for the third',4 at prices within the reach of a mass readership. There was, initially at least, no subscription or membership fee (the rules were later changed to require payment in advance for the first six months). The Left Book Club price of 2/6 (in New Zealand 3/9) was from one half to one sixth of the comparative normal retail price. Most of the titles were new publications commissioned by the club. Each member was entitled to a monthly 'choice' and also received the monthly newsletter, the Left Book News (soon renamed the Left News), which contained information about the books, an editorial by Gollancz, a review of the monthly choice, news of Left Book Club activities from around the world (including reports from New Zealand) and articles on current political issues. By the end of 1937 the scheme had expanded to include Additional, Topical, Supplementary and Educational books ('a sort of Left "Home University Library"'5 ) and a 'Reprints of Classics' series. A graduated scale of membership according to the number of books one received was introduced. Supplementing the books were , the monthly discussion groups of members, public meetings and lectures, rallies and weekend summer schools.

The majority of the Left Book Club tides were works of social, political and economic critique, focusing on the subjects of fascism, the threat of war and the horror of poverty and unemployment. They included such titles as: The Coming Struggle for Power and Theory and Practice of Socialism by John Strachey; World Politics, 118-36 by R. Palme Dutt; George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, one of the most popular choices; Spain in Revolt by H. Gannes and T. Repard; The Problem of the Distressed Areas by W. Hannington; and Beatrice and Sidney Webb's mammoth, 1200-page Soviet Communism. A New Civilisation? as an page 63 additional choice. But also included were works on health, cultural studies and social and physical sciences, such as Modern Marriage and Birth Control, Freud and Marx. A Dialectical Study, An Introduction to Economic Botany and Literature in Society. There were only a few works of fiction, poetry or drama, including the Poems of Freedom anthology edited by New Zealander John Mulgan (then studying at Oxford), Clifford Odets' classic 1935 strike play, Waiting for Lefty, Joseph Freeman's novel, An American Testament, a Left Song Book, and one children's book, The Adventures of Little Pig, and Other Stories.

Within a month of its inauguration the club had over 6000 members; by the end of its first year, 39,400; and by April 1939, 57,000. At its height there were 1200 local discussion groups in existence, including groups in Australia, South Africa, France, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, India, China and other countries as well as New Zealand. (The United States was excluded by copyright laws, Italy, Germany and Japan for political reasons.) The context for its sudden and quite phenomenal success was a political climate of disillusionment and uncertainty: a widespread feeling of political atrophy generated by the lack of constructive policies from established political parties to deal with the depression; an inactive Labour Party; the refusal of the Chamberlain government to enter into an alliance with the Soviet Union against Germany; the failure of the League of Nations and of the non-intervention policy of the western democratic powers over the Spanish Civil War. The Left Book Club was not intended to engage in direct political activity, nor to supersede existing political or labour organisations such as the Labour Party, the trade union movement or the Communist Party, but rather to operate outside and to supplement those structures. It embodied an ideal of enlightened public opinion as an effective political force, an essentially humanist faith in the power of rational debate. A Left Book Club badge (orange, of course) was inscribed with the words 'Knowledge, Unity, Responsibility', The club's constitution defined its aim as one of political education:

to help in the terribly urgent struggle for world peace and a better social and economic order and against Fascism, by giving (to all who are determined to play their part in this struggle) such knowledge as will immensely increase their efficiency.6

To Gollancz himself, whose politics owed more to nineteenth-century guild socialism and Fabian ideology than to revolutionary socialism, the venture was based on an Enlightenment belief that 'thought is the most revolutionary thing in the world'.7

The spectacular growth of the club was above all a product of the heightened political atmosphere of the years 1936-9, as the Spanish Civil War escalated and Hitler began his march into Europe. Spain was the focus of a major club campaign: public meetings, rallies, film shows and 'knit-ins' were held; Left page 64 Book Club groups adopted Basque children and constructed motorcycle ambulances; and a Left Book Club food ship was launched. And as Spain was the motive force behind the growth of the club, so the Popular Front was its raison d'etre. The selection committee, comprising Gollancz, former Labour Member of Parliament and fellow traveller John Strachey, and Harold Laski, a Labour Party executive member and Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, represented the spectrum of left opinion which constituted the Popular Front alliance. At Left Book Club rallies, speakers representing Communist Party, Labour Party, independent left and liberal positions argued for collective security, intervention in Spain and the alliance of liberal, left and labour movements represented on the platforms themselves. Three major Left Book Club rallies were held in London between 1937 and 1939, the last attracting an audience of over 10,000. A report printed in Tomorrow of the 1938 rally at Queen's Hall, written in the heat of the moment, evidently—'while the fervour induced by that spontaneous singing of The Internationale still inspires me'— conveyed something of the earnestness and almost religious fervour (the metaphor is the Left Book Club's) with which the organisation approached its task. The report concluded:

Perhaps even now the world can be saved, perhaps we ourselves, as well as our children, will enjoy the first World Socialist Commonwealth. But in any case there is work to do. And fifty thousand missionaries, fifty thousand prophets of the new Social Order, fifty thousand members of the Left Book Club, will do their share.8

Left Book Club publicity carried the same tone: 'In the desperately urgent political situation at home & abroad we believe that a doubling of the membership of the Left Book Club (every member being a centre of influence) can save our country & perhaps the world'.9

Although implicitly socialist, the club's political goal was broadly defined by the phrase 'a better social and economic order'. Its emphasis, on the other hand, was on the immediate struggle 'against Fascism'. The appeal of the club to 'all those who hope for a survival of democracy, whatever their precise opinions' was designed to mobilise all sections of progressive opinion in support of this struggle: in Gollancz's words, 'to win the maximum number of members and frighten the minimum'.10 However, the practical and ideological differences which this discourse encompassed were soon to become evident. The German- Soviet pact, followed by the outbreak of war, the vagaries of Communist Party policy and the general confusion on the left over the issues of war, pacifism, imperialism and fascism, contributed to a significant decline in sales, membership and momentum after 1939. Although the book club itself survived until 1948, many of the extra-political activities and the level of political energy page 65 it generated were casualties of the changing political and social climate brought by war.

It has been argued that, given the failure of the Popular Front in immediate political terms, the most important aspect of the Left Book Club was its role in introducing to political theory and activity a large number of people who were previously apolitical. It developed 'a new level of political consciousness [rather than an awakening of class consciousness]'.11 A significant percentage of the club's membership, it has been estimated, were young and/or new to political activity.12 Also formed under the auspices or stimulus of the Left Book Club were a number of specialist organisations among normally apolitical, professional groups, such as artists, musicians, writers and scientists. (It was intended to organise special groups for church people.) A Readers and Writers Group, which included among its members Cecil Day Lewis, Stephen Spender and Sylvia Townsend Warner, held readings and discussions on political and literary issues. The Musicians Group issued the Left Song Book. The Poets Group, in addition to publishing the Poems of Freedom anthology edited by John Mulgan, produced illustrated broadsheets and a journal entitled Poetry and the People, and recited at meetings of Left Book Club groups, Co-operative Guilds and trade unions with the aim of 'trying to restore the traditional link between poetry and the people'.13 There was a professional actors group, and under the auspices of the Left Book Club Theatre Guild around 250 amateur theatre groups produced political sketches and one-act plays. Among the club's literary plans, as reported by Tomorrows London correspondent, Freda Cook, it was hoped to be able to counter the influence of 'mass' culture with 'a serious effort... to produce light and cheap romances, coloured with the anti-fascist atmosphere instead of the usual snobbish capitalist background which is taken for granted.'14

The diversity of activities engaged in by the Left Book Club, and its important social dimension, have led one historian to describe it as 'not so much a book club, more a way of life'.15 It was much more than just a scheme for publishing and selling cheap political books. In New Zealand, similarly, the Left Book Club was envisaged as potentially forming the focus of a 'social and cultural life of the Left'.16 Here, the group activities associated with the club developed more slowly, but the books themselves arrived around the middle of 1936, not more than three months after the first publication appeared in England.

1 S. Samuels, 'The Left Book Club', in W. Laqueur and G. Mosse (eds.), The Left-wing Intellectuals Between the Wars, 1919-1939. New York: Harper and Row, 1966, p.65

2 B. Pimlott, Labour and the Left in the 1930s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977, p.155

3 V. Gollancz, quoted in S. Hodges, Gollancz. The Story of a Publishing House 1928-1978. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1978, p.118

4 J. Lewis, The Left Book Club. An Historical Record. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1970, pp.13-14

5 Left Book Club. 'Please' leaflet, 1936. H. O. Roth. Private collection

6 LBC leaflets. Roth collection

7 Gollancz, editorial, Left News, Nov. 1938

8 P.B.F., The Queen's Hall Meeting', Tomorrow, 2 Mar. 1938 (v.4, n.9), pp.283, 285

9 LBC leaflet, 1938. Roth collection

10 LBC leaflet, [nd]. Roth collection; Pimlott, Labour and the Left p.159

11 Samuels, 'The Left Book Club', p.76

12 Ibid.,p.76;Lewis, TheLeftBookClub,p.27

13 Quoted in ibid., p.78

14 F. Cook, 'National Rally of Left Book Club', Tomorrow, 2 Mar. 1938 (v.4, n.9), p.283

15 Samuels, 'The Left Book Club', p.86

16 C. F. Saunders, 'The Left Book Club', Tomorrow, 21 June 1939 (v.5, n.17), p.529