George Orwell, whose Road to Wigan Pier was one particular of the Left Book Club’s earliest selections – even though he upset plenty of its members with the book’s second half. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Photos
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 yet 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 adjust sweeping Britain and beyond, encouraging informed and compassionate debate”. He added that he had a huge collection of Left Book Club titles, some bought new by his parents and other individuals 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 – need to have supplied Corbyn with a uncommon pleasurable moment in the previous handful of weeks: the believed of them on his shelves possessing very same type of heart-filling effect that the daffodils had on Wordsworth.
My own collection is not so huge. In reality, it runs to just 1 book, Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, and I didn’t inherit it. I bought it 20 or 30 years ago since I liked the thought of possessing such a fine book in its low-cost and original type – seeing the words and photographs as its first readers should have noticed them. Published in 1937, the year right after the Left Book Club was founded, it have to be the club’s most enduringly popular title. Other authors and their books have come and gone: names such as JBS Haldane, André Malraux, Clifford Odets and Edgar Snow lie amongst the forgotten. And however they had been as soon as momentous amongst the type of self-enhancing men and women 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 purpose.
Gollancz was the publishing brain behind the thought. 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 specific edition that would be presented to club members for 2s 6d. Sometimes the book would already have yet another publisher, and occasionally it would be commissioned by the panel. Naturally sufficient, the titles reflected the panel’s political prejudices – Laski and Strachey have been Marxists, Gollancz belonged to Labour – with the outcome that the list was blindly pro-Soviet until the Hitler-Stalin pact shattered that daydream in 1939. But offered the critical 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 neighborhood 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.
Associated: The road to Wigan Pier, 75 years on
Could something like that accomplishment ever occur once again? At first sight, it would look mad to consider so. A book is an antique method of political dissemination. Ideology and knowledge-hunger surely died with the focus group and the Tweet. But too numerous current counter examples suggest the case is far from clear-cut. Thomas Piketty, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben: it was the printed book that contained their ideas rather than social media. A form devised in the 15th century is proving remarkably resilient. A book, like a fire, is one thing folks can collect round. It can be – see reading groups and literary festivals – the focus of a good evening out, or the initial provocative stage in a far more severe approach. Or each.
The reborn Left Book Club intends to publish what it calls “a complete variety of progressive traditions, perspectives and ideas”, which reading groups can talk about and develop to promote “progressive social change in the interests of working people”. It sounds doctrinaire, a phrasing from the 1930s, but then that anxious decade bears a close resemblance to the present in so many methods. “Crisis” is the term at residence 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 for that reason suitable, 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 following 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 last book he published prior to the outbreak of war, his 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 buddy of his wife started to attend simply because she “thought it had anything to do with books which had been left in railway carriages and have been being sold off cheap”.
In contrast, every accessible seat was taken at the Conway’s principal hall, which had tables that supported bottles of wine as nicely as copies of the club’s first book (Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth by Kevin Ovenden). Two thirds of the crowd looked below 30, with a gender balance of 50:50 it was also almost completely white. “Can Corbyn’s Labour turn out to be a mass movement for radical adjust?” was the theme of the discussion, as announced on the invitation. Ken Livingstone produced the keynote speech. Kevin Maguire, the Daily Mirror’s political columnist, chaired the panel, which incorporated the new Left Book Club’s principal founders, Jan Woolf and Neil Faulkner, respectively a writer and a Marxist historian.
Related: Sixty years of campaigning to finish poverty – in photos
The discussion was rapidly extended to the audience. It was lively and generally 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 nevertheless to be officially announced. Some of the language was vengeful. “Those rightwing swines in Scotland deserved to drop,” Faulkner said. At other occasions it was simply loose and assertive. “Our economy is up shit creek and it’s gonna get worse,” Livingstone stated. On the complete (the very same trend is apparent on the BBC’s Query Time), the concerns from the audience showed a sharper appreciation of difficulty ahead than the answers from the panel. Nobody, possibly out of kindness, queried the premise of the motion – to ask if “Corbyn’s Labour” exists or will go on existing.
The “broad left” was mentioned a couple of instances – an opportunistic alliance that would include the Greens, the SNP and even the Lib Dems (groans at this point). Marxists, as well, if any can be identified.
Gollancz knew a little about the issues of such a project. As the publisher who commissioned The Road to Wigan Pier, he was also amongst the initial to read Orwell’s typescript. He loved the initial of the book’s two parts 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 right after the very first edition. Its awkwardness, which is nearly a point of beauty, survives in mine.