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Left Book Club Anthology

Edited by Paul Laity
ISBN 0575072210

This book is a great introduction to the Left Book Club. Its introduction sets out how the Club worked: “members were committed to buying a designated title from his (Gollancz) list every month, for a minimum of six months. The books were often specialy commissioned for the LBC, but were sold to the general public at two or three times the club price of 2s 6d. They were distributed via bookshops and some newsagents. To encourage as many new readers as possible, the monthly choices were supposed to require ‘not the slightest knowledge of politics, economics or history for perfect understanding.’ Gollancz wanted to create an active political readership,an intellectual popular front.”
He got the idea from the Book Society which operated a similar scheme as a conventional business. (X)

The anthology ranges across political reportage, autobiography, plays, science (eugenics), history and fiction. Everyone will have their favourites. I particularly liked Spanish Testament by Koestler which tells of his imprisonment by Franco forces and Our Street by Jan Petersen which is “an account of left-wing resistance to Nazism in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin”. I was also intrigued by extracts from the Left Song Book and would like to have seen more of their Five Famous Rounds with New Words. The extract from Prices Rise (sung to the tune of Three Blind Mice) certainly whetted my appetite :

Prices rise, prices rise
See how they mount,
see how they mount
They’ve raised the price of your daily bread
And given you cruisers and guns instead
For they know it won’t trouble you when your dead
That prices rise (p.174)

The LBC was a powerful political force; one which always had strong links with the Communist Party. Paul Laity doesn’t shy away from this issue. He makes it clear that “One aspect of the selection process was never made explicit – the unwillingness on the part of Gollancz, Strachey and Laski to criticise the Soviet Union and its leadership, or to publish anything which would seriously annoy the Communist Party.” (XV) Strachey in particular was keen on Stalin, commenting on the show trials he said there was “no conceivable alternative after the accused had told their stories but to shoot them”. (XVII)
Laity concludes that “It’s pretty clear now that it came close to being a ‘front’ organisation.” (XV)

Perhaps it was inevitable that the enthusiasm and idealism of the LBC were accompanied by naivety. With the rise of Fascism in Europe young people had a clear enemy, and looked to Communism as a counter ideology and power. Orwell and other writers, however, were not comfortable with what came to be known as Stalinism.
Paul Laity has done an excellent job of putting the debates and works in a political and historical context.

Members of the LBC believed they could change the world… I hope that people read it now and take some of that with them.

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