The Left Book Club, our global crisis, and political activism

The inspiration for this publication stems from my undergraduate research into the Left Book Club (LBC), 1936-1948, an anti-fascist literary organisation, and leader among the British Anti-Fascist movement before and after World War Two.  The Club had three explicit goals; preventing war, defeating fascism, and engineering socialism.  It was on these three topics that the Club produced literature in the form of monthly selections for members, alongside extra-educational books, and a monthly periodical named, Left News.  At its height in 1939, the Club’s local Group-network spanned 1,200 different organisations, with forty ‘special Club premises’ where members could meet to discuss book selections, engage in cultural activism, and share political views.  

A Brief History of the Left Book Club

The LBC was unique in British pre-war politics, with the explicit and highly laudable aim to 

“… Help in the struggle for World peace and a better social and economic order against Fascism, by… increasing the knowledge of those who already see the importance of the struggle, and… adding to their number the very many who… hold aloof from the fight by reason of ignorance or apathy.” 

As an educational and publishing body, the Left Book Club was not a political party, but rather a means for facilitating the election of such a party that reflected the Club’s Popular Front policies.  The Club promoted international anti-fascism alongside domestic socialist reforms, such as state ownership and organised production.  It was believed that socialist reforms, enacted through democratically acquired power, would correct the imbalances and abuses within capitalist Britain at the time, and thus prevent the rise of fascism which fed off poverty.  Britain’s recovery from the Great Depression proved to be more energised than mainland Europe, which explains to some extent why the British Union of Fascists (BUF) were not as threatening as their German counterparts.

Conversely, the power of Hitler and Mussolini was projected across the continent through their armies, but before that, through their voices, and words, travelling over the airwaves.  Contextually, the new mass media of the late nineteenth-century was regarded as a ‘magic bullet’ of broad and immediate impact by the 1930s.  Thus the Club employed an eclectic range of media (pamphlets, postcards, stamps) with each extra-literary action (theatre, poetry, lecturing), contributing in a piecemeal manner to a coherent anti-war discourse.  Financial aid through donations, food ships, and volunteers acted as the link between the Club’s discursive activism and material anti-war effort abroad.  Alongside topical accounts of fascist expansionism abroad in places such as Spain and Czechoslovakia, and active participation in the former’s Civil War, the Club promoted an understanding of fascism and socialism. It was believed that the teaching of such issues, the former’s evil and the latter’s rationality, in a time of immense crisis, would energise the electorate into ejecting the ineffective pre-war National Government. 

The Popular Front movement itself was a coalition of left-wing groups against fascism, which resulted in brief governments in Spain and France during the 1930s in direct opposition to fascism, which energised Gollancz in his domestic efforts.  Due to the formation of the British National Government in 1931, the Labour Party was largely ineffective as an opposition to Neaville Chamberlain in the lead up to war, calling for rearmament too late in the day.  Thus the importance of the Club was two fold; as both a leading anti-fascist, anti-war and pro-socialist literary organisation, and, as Paul Laity argues, the largest oppositional body to the government in the pre-war years.  The Club made its impact through the practice of ‘writing to action’, as John Coombes puts it – identified during the French Front Populaire government period – whereby a vast network of politically active writers and creatives engineered political agitation, in support of a Popular Front government.

While a book club does not sound revolutionary, at the time it was a novel idea that used the budding mass media environment to circulate political ideas and topical events in the aid of the Club’s grand objectives (Stop War, Stop Fascism, Create Socialism).  The Club was speaking to a newly literate, technical and radical middle class “hooked on modernity”, often employed by the government, wanting to understand contemporary politics from a range of Liberal, Labour and Communist perspectives.  At its peak, the Club had 57,000 members receiving selected books, who would then act as intellectual conduits of left-wing ideas for the rest of the nation.  

The PF united all anti-fascists, including Communists, with a coalition of Communist, Liberal and Labour-Left views constituting the Club’s intellectual scope. Although the Liberal perspective most certainly received the least attention, and was distrusted by the Communists, and vise-versa.  Due to this ‘broad-chuch’, the Club’s legitimacy as an independent organisation was often undermined by conflicting and contradicting ideas and commitments.  Soviet-socialsit polemics published by the Club could at times contradict the Club’s principles, due to a need to to not tactically undermine the Soviet Union, as well as the dogmatic beliefs of some of the Club’s authors.

Radical Left-Wing Activism vs. Communism

While the Popular Front movement aimed to include Communists within its coalition, left-wing anti-fascist activism has been traditionally determined as “an aberration engineered by the Communist Party”.  The study illustrates how the LBC wrestled with its Communist influences, and ultimately maintained its commitment to the principles of the Popular Front, rather than succumbing to the Communist-line directed from Moscow.  In articulating the  Club’s intellectual independence, it is illustrated how the Club adhered to the Popular Front principles of liberty, democracy and individual freedom – through their intersectional objectives of anti-war, anti-fascism, and pro-socialism.  While the Left Book Club and the Communist Party of Great Britain both aimed to defeat fascism, the former did so in the defence of liberal parliamentary democracy, while the latter did so in defence of Soviet-socialism. 

The Club was able to reassert its intellectual independence by deploying a distinct democratic socialism, couched within a “social patriotism” that took Britain along what was considered a “middle way” of socialism.  Inspiring for Third World countries at the time.  Each of the Club’s discursive-pillars was undermined by the Club’s internal, complimentary, but mainly contradictory, Soviet-socialist discourse.  The Club’s anti-war position was contradicted by Communist opposition to ‘Imperialist-War’ (Britain declaring war on Germany).  The Club’s democratic principle was undermined within its anti-fascist discourse, due to the Soviet-socialist disavowal of liberal-democracy (and subsequently civil liberties).  And the Club’s pro-socialist discourse was corrupted by the Soviet-socialist belief in the revolutionary road to socialism, while the Club believed socialism could be engendered through reform and parliamentary legislation.  

Each of these contradictions were present from the Club’s inception, although the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invasion of Poland, September 1939, acted as the catalysing event. In reaction, the Club’s internal contradictions were forced to a decisive conclusion, whereby the Club split between those supportive of the Soviet Union and those supportive of war against Nazi Germany. The Club continued to publish following the outbreak of war, now focused on  the defeat of fascism for a ‘patriotic’ democratic-socialist future.  To maintain the Club’s coherent and strong pro-democratic message, the Communist ‘anti-imperialist war’ position was absconded and a patriotic democratic-socialism promoted, as the means and motivation for defeating fascism.  This still reflected the belief socialism was a cure to fascism and war, but a socialism that belonged to the British people, not the Soviet Union.

The LBC and Labour’s 1945 Election

The Club’s restated socialist discourse, as a coherent ‘patriotic socialism’, supported by Popular Front reformist-policies and democratic-principles, was critical to maintaining the Club’s relevance and purpose in facilitating a Popular Front programme of government.  There is a continuity of ideas, rhetoric, and personnel between the LBC’s ‘patriotic’ democratic-socialist Front and Clement Attlee’s government in 1945, including Attlee himself, who wrote for the LBC.  This causal-link is contextualised by evidence found by George Field, showing the British public were most anxious about a lack of democracy, and the unequal material state of the nation, as the War ended in 1945.  Concurrently, Labour’s 1945 victory was the most decisive of its history, capturing 70% of the working-class vote – reflecting Labour’s success as a ‘national’ party, as well as the strong assertion of working class interests and need for support to rebuild communities.  The LBC’s patriotic democratic-socialist discourse was an intellectual contribution to policy and politics, for the Labour 1945 Government, in victory and in governance.  

National pride and working-class consciousness, which had been swelling due to wartime egalitarianism, and the exposure of the public to the country’s deep economic-structural faults, drove the Labour victory in many ways.  These popular ideas, underpinned by a collectivist ethos, were spread by thousands of LBC “missionaries”, trained in debating the technical issues of socialism, and with access to many workplaces, including the armed forces and even Attlee’s government.  Which included eight LBC authors, with more Club members on the back benches.  They continued the dissemination of literature promoting ‘reformist’ policies, such as the ‘public corporation’, and the promotion of a ‘patriotic socialist’ rhetoric which Attlee’s politics continued to employ following the election.  While one cannot easily qualify the importance of the LBC to Labour’s victory in relation to other factors, one can make connections between the LBC’s ideas and rhetoric, and Labour’s victory and subsequent five year programme of government.

Our Global Crisis

Why is a historically obscure book club relevant to the origins of this publication?  Well, this thesis originated as research into fascism, and then subsequently anti-fascism. However, the original drive to study historical fascism was irked by a private political concern.  That concern being the breaking of political convention and outright trickery in the Brexit campaign, and beyond, from the perpetrators in Government now continuing that streak of deception and deliberate ambiguity.  With authoritarianism on the rise globally, and a cynical, distrustful, and deceitful vein of politics dominating this country, I believed the study of fascism would help illuminate our present day troubles. 

I am not arguing that we are experiencing the same level of crisis as the 1930s, or that our Government is fascist, but I am drawing parallels between two significant moments in democratic history. Both the Left Book Club and this publication created in the wake of huge financial crises (the Great Depression, 1929-1932, and the Great Recession, 2007-2009) that have lasting impact. Political destabilisation follows economic destabilisation. And in both the 1930s and 2010s, we saw a rise in xenophobia, racism and general bigotry.

Concurrently, the world, as it was then, is experiencing a global crisis which has left no nation unaffected.  While Covid-19 is nowhere near as serious as a global war, it has created social and economic breakdown which has parallels with wartime destruction and disruption to trade networks. So there is the comparative context of mass economic deprivation and the rise of irrational and hateful politics and ideologies leading up to the cataclysmic event that is Coronavirus (World War 2). However, there is no enemy for us to fight, no cause to rally around, and no sense of tangible community to defend. Thus we are left with extra economic deprivation, more anger and irrationality, and no enemy to fire at. If governments continues to shirk responsibility and blame the minorities in society, this hatred mixed with unemployment is a recipe for disaster

Our Political Activism

The economic impact of Coronavirus, and the heightened social ills within this country, was this publication’s catalyst and remains its preoccupation.  The practice of ‘writing to action’ has been assimilated through research into the Left Book Club, its activism, and the Popular Front.  While we are not garnering financial support to be sent to Republican Spain, we hope to energise and invigorate our readership into donating to local charities that we have outlined as both effective and in need of financial support in this time of crisis.  But the act of becoming pro-actively more informed on social issues is itself a form of activism.

Why is this narrative and historical epoch of British anti-fascism important? To left-leaning people, it is a reminder that a radical left-wing project can prevail as the voice of common sense, if it can only throw off the shackles of excessive dogma.  This may be a leap too many, but a parallel can be found in the way the Labour Party is currently shedding its ideological dogma, while attempting to keep the radical policies which now present as common sense in our current climate.  Just as nationalising health and other industries was the jurisprudence the nation needed at a time of post-war reconstruction, this nation and this world requires radical plans to combat the fallout of Coronavirus, as well as the ever present threat of climate change.  

Concurrently, fascistic leaders are in power in America, Brazil and Russia, with authoritarianism on the rise and democracy in retreat within the EU itself, as well as in more fragile circumstances.  Our own Prime Minister plays fast and loose with the truth, panders to irrational xenophobic views, and deliberately hides the threat of Russia to the British people.  We can count ourselves lucky that his thoughts never stray too far from his own ego, however his carelessness and lack of responsibility is a danger in itself.  By failing to challenge hateful rhetoric, while actively encouraging it, Johnson is  benefiting from a rise in irrationality and hatred.  But how long can we tolerate the rise in irrationality and emotion-politics at the expense of reason and progress?

Until the next election, we can only hope. But in the mean time, this publication’s political activism will take the form of articles on tangible progress, achieved by communities and charities that do believe in something other than personal gain and hatred. This publication will oppose the assault on reason, progressivism and altruism by being a champion of all three. And it will do so in the name of Civil Society, in the hope of stimulating a sense of collectivism that will be sorely needed in the coming years.

By Oliver Storey

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