Orwell’s battle with the intelligentsia, or what the new Left Book Club can learn from the old one

By Oscar Clarke

Nearly seven decades after the last one folded, a new Left Book Club has been founded. It has just released its first title – a book about the Syriza movement – and the timing could hardly be more appropriate. For, if nothing else, Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election is evidence that socialism didn’t die with Tony Benn. And perusing the Club’s website, I learn that its founders themselves are more than a little enthusiastic about Corbynism (one of them has written a long article about how it represents the end of Mrs Thatcher’s “counter-revolution”). But it is perhaps because of their dizzying enthusiasm for the latest left-wing current that they have not, in their own account of the history of the old Club – to which Orwell was both participant and observer – given the most detailed description of the reasons why it fell apart. So that is what I have decided to do here. Perhaps it will serve as a cautionary tale.

The original Left Book Club was founded in 1936 by the publisher Victor Gollancz, the writer John Strachey and Harold Laski, who was a lecturer at the London School of Economics. The idea was to provide a cheap political education. In return for a small annual subscription-fee, members would receive the Club’s chosen titles every month and could also attend regular LBC reading groups. Plainly the political education was not a general one. The Club’s two primary objectives were (1) to make the case for socialism and (2) to unite as many people as possible to the anti-fascist cause. In Coming Up for Air, Orwell satirised the almost-fascistic fanaticism with which this latter aim was advanced, his protagonist, George Bowling, observing that LBC meetings were dominated by hatred and propaganda. For Gollancz, though, anti-fascism was a matter of supreme urgency. In the belief that only a firm and united Europe could stand up to Hitler – and thus prevent war – he wanted to encourage the various leftist factions in Britain to put the main issue above their petty, internecine squabbles.

But he also wanted the Left Book Club to be more than a purely political venture. As a publisher, he had an aesthetic appreciation for pleasing prose. Like the poet John Lehmann, who founded the journal New Writing – ostensibly with the aim of anthologising the anti-fascist (and pro-communist) writings of the Auden-set – Gollancz recognised Orwell’s talent as an essayist. Lehmann’s journal published “Shooting an Elephant” and “Marrakech,” which contained some of Orwell’s most famous insights about the absurdities of the “White Man’s Burden.” (The latter essay – and I only mention this because I have never seen this point raised in the biographies of Orwell that I have read – also demonstrated his awareness of the relationship between conspiracy theory and pogroms. Noticing that in Morocco, like Europe, “you hear… dark rumours about” supposed Jewish power he drew the parallel between this and the “witches,” once burned at the stake, “who could not even work enough magic to get themselves a square meal.”) Gollancz, meanwhile, published The Road to Wigan Pier as a Club choice. The first part of the book, he thought, advertised Orwell as one of the most talented socialist writers in Britain. The second part, however – largely a critique of “sandal-wearing,” middle-class socialists – tested his patience. He wanted to publish only the bits that he had found agreeable, but eventually settled for the compromise of writing a preface denouncing the bits that he had not.

His literary sensibilities notwithstanding, the formation of a left-wing coalition – eventually a “grand coalition,” including Churchill and Anthony Eden – remained Gollancz’s primary fixation right up until September 1939. As will be revealed, the centrality of this aim became an impediment to the intellectual openness of the Club, Gollancz feeling the need to censor authors whose works might upset certain orthodoxies. His relationship with Orwell was one of the casualties of this urge. Rejecting to publish the next piece of reportage that Orwell sent his way (making a gift of the chagrined author’s brilliance to Fredrick Warburg), the two did eventually collaborate, along with Strachey and Laski, on a collection of essays – but only after the bedfellows for whom Gollancz had sacrificed so much had monumentally disappointed him. More on that shortly.

The first obstacle in the way of Gollancz’s mission for left-wing unity was that the Labour Party wanted no part in any front involving communists. Popular Front coalitions were winning elections in Spain and France, but Labour were unable to simply forget that communists had, until March 1933, treated reformist social democrats as their primary adversaries, denouncing them as “social fascists.” When the Communist Party changed tack and proposed a “United Front” against fascism, Labour responded by publishing Democracy Versus Dictatorship, a pamphlet comparing Stalin with Hitler. Laski, who was on the left of the Labour Party, and Strachey, a one-time MP who had abandoned the Party in 1931, saw things differently. After witnessing Labour fail to address Britain’s unemployment crisis during the first years of the depression – causing the collapse of Ramsey MacDonald’s government – and the subsequent rise of Nazism, they arrived at two conclusions. First, social democracy had failed; second, capitalism, in its “last stages,” would engender fascism – which was the popular left-wing interpretation of what had occurred in Germany. Both conclusions implied that a Bolshevik-style revolution had become a necessity.

Inevitably, they both became enthusiastic fellow-travellers, as most of those engaged in the debunking of capitalism did in the ’thirties. “All people who are morally sound,” Orwell wrote in a wartime letter to Humphrey House, “have known since about 1931 that the Russian regime stinks.” Not so Strachey, who wrote in The Coming Struggle for Power that communism would be the “salvation of the British people,” nor Laski, who penned Democracy in Crisis, excusing Soviet abuses of freedom as a necessary part of the struggle for a more comprehensive freedom than that afforded by the democracies. Gollancz, meanwhile, visited Russia in 1937, shortly after nominating Stalin “man of the year” in an interview for Cavalcade magazine. Unlike Andre Gide, he did not suffer any disillusionment. His sojourn had imbued him with a rather sycophantic “sort of spring-time feeling… that pre-history is over and history is just beginning.”

Labour’s disavowal of organisations like the LBC, coupled with its founders’ palpable fondness for the Soviet Union, meant that the Club naturally became something of a Communist Party front. Most of its authors were Party members, many of its books were written with the sole intent of eulogising the U.S.S.R., and its leaflets carried articles justifying the purges. Gollancz rejected at least two books on the Spanish Civil War – one of which was that Orwell title: Homage to Catalonia – because they drew attention to the fact that Stalin was crushing, rather than supporting, the revolution. He chose to publish Arthur Koestler’s Spanish Testament instead, which was written while the Hungarian was still working as a Comintern agent.

All of this did not prevent tremendous success. After all, “the central stream of English literature,” Orwell wrote in Inside the Whale, “was more or less directly under communist control” in the late nineteen-thirties. It was “the sin of nearly all left wingers from 1933 onward… to be anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian.” The Club was simply wedded to an orthodoxy represented by Auden, Isherwood, Day-Lewis & co. Indeed, Stephen Spender wrote one of its monthly choices after he joined the Party. And it wasn’t only Gollancz who refused to publish unpleasant truths about the Soviet Union. The New Statesman weren’t interested in Orwell’s Spanish dispatches either, and Kingsley Martin’s journal was extremely quiet on the subject of the purges.

Gollancz would always vehemently deny that the Club was a CP front, for he was himself a Labour Party supporter and a liberal at heart. But as his biographer, Ruth Dudley Edwards concluded, his indignant responses to such accusations were probably a measure of his guilt. He had been a schoolteacher before he became a publisher and, as one of his students later recalled, had always believed profoundly in the liberal idea that education precipitated progress. The LBC was founded as an educational institution, but more and more it had become a tool for Communist Party propaganda. One Club meeting, addressed by the CPGB General Secretary, Harry Pollitt, was concluded with a hearty rendition of the Internationale.

Whilst Strachey’s politics became ever more extreme – he endorsed the myth that Trotskyists had collaborated with the Gestapo in Spain, for instance – Gollancz began to wonder if he had betrayed his own principles. By wilfully ignoring facts which might be exploited by “the enemies of socialism,” he was lying in the service of a doctrine which promised to do away with dishonesty. By the winter of 1938 he was criticising himself. He wrote a letter to the author Leonard Woolf, predicting “a future more and more dominated by lying propaganda” (Orwell certainly shared that fear), adding that:

I believe the most important thing of all is to preserve, so far as they can be preserved, tolerance, the open mind, freedom of thought and discussion… I have myself for many years held the view that these things… were not ultimately possible in a capitalist society: and I have therefore been prepared – though with extreme reluctance – to defend the suppression of these things in the Soviet Union, on the grounds that… ‘the end justifies the means.’

This was what a repentant Koestler would later call the totalitarian ethic. Unfortunately, Gollancz did not immediately abandon it. In the same letter to Woolf, he had asked him to write a book on the defence of Western Civilisation. Woolf did, and he sent Gollancz the manuscript in the spring of 1939. It bore the wonderful title: Barbarians at the Gate. But the book criticised Stalin, and recent events had caused Gollancz to reconsider whether the time was right for freedom of discussion on this issue. For Hitler had just taken all of Czechoslovakia, prompting Gollancz to write an indignant pamphlet against appeasement, Is Mr Chamberlain Saving Peace? Like many on the left, he was now convinced that only an Anglo-French-Soviet pact of mutual assistance could check Hitler and prevent war. He informed Woolf that the opponents of such a pact would surely use his criticisms of Stalin in their propaganda; he would have to delay publication for a few months. Woolf was incredulous, but Gollancz was unmoved.

Only a couple of months later, Stalin shocked the world by inviting Ribbentrop to the Kremlin and entering into a Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler. No one knew about the Secret Protocols which assured the partition of Poland, but shortly after Britain had declared war with the enthusiastic backing of Britain’s communists, the CPGB received a communique from the Comintern revealing that this was an “imperialist war.” (When the American Party received this news, as Orwell’s retelling of the story goes, a member of their Central Committee returned from a toilet break to learn that the Party line had inversed in his absence.) Now Gollancz’s communist friends – those who had been loudest in condemning Hitler for years – suddenly became pro-Nazi (something Orwell had predicted would happen in The Road to Wigan Pier).

The CP journal, the Daily Worker, printed an infamous article entitled “Hitler Speaks” on February 1st 1940, in which they agreed with the Austrian that Britain and Poland had forced war upon Germany. And after the Worker, citing a German source, predicted the invasion of the Low Countries – not by the Nazis, but by Britain and France – it became clear to Gollancz that the Party was pursuing a policy of Leninist Revolutionary Defeatism. Spreading propaganda against the war effort, the CP acted in the fanciful belief that a Nazi conquest would be followed by a European revolution which would bring communists to power everywhere. Roger Moorhouse, in his recent book on the Nazi-Soviet Pact, found Molotov expressing this slightly mad idea:

Today we support Germany but just enough to keep her from being smothered before the miserable and starving masses of the warring nations become disillusioned and rise against their leaders. Then the German bourgeoisie will come to an agreement with its enemy, the allied bourgeoisie, in order to crush with their combined forces the aroused proletariat. But at that moment we will come to its aid, we will come with fresh forces, well prepared, and in the territory of Western Europe, I believe, somewhere near the Rhine. The final battle between the proletariat and the degenerate bourgeoisie will take place which will decide the fate of Europe for all time. We are convinced that we… will win that battle.

After Gollancz wrote Where are you Going? An Appeal to Communists, in the late spring of 1940, Orwell, in a letter to his friend Geoffrey Gorer, wrote “I saw Gollancz recently, he is furious with his communist late-friends, owing to their lies etc., so perhaps the Left Book Club may become quite a power for good.” In early 1941, the two collaborated, along with Strachey and Laski – who were also appalled by the lengths to which the communists had persevered with the doctrine that ends justify means – on a book of essays entitled The Betrayal of the Left. They documented in immense detail how every Daily Worker and CP campaign since late 1939 had been geared towards facilitating the defeat of Britain by Hitler.

It was an important historical document, but the Betrayal of the Left was effectively the swansong of the Left Book Club. One of Orwell’s essays from the volume – “Patriots and Revolutionaries,” which formed the basis of an expanded and better-known later essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn” – appropriately concludes the LBC anthology which Paul Laity put together a few years ago. For, though the Club struggled on until a couple of years after the War, it had alienated almost everyone but fellow-travellers during the ’thirties, and subsequently paid the price for trying to be honest after many of its readers had decided that Hitler was not so bad after all.

If the articles on their website are anything to go by, the founders of the new Left Book Club will proudly participate in the inquisition against the Parliamentary Labour Party’s Blairites. “Support for war” is the primary evil to be corrected by Jeremy Corbyn’s morally superior alternative: anti-imperialism. But, refusing to follow their thoughts beyond this point – especially now that President Assad has enlisted Russia in his war against Syrian civil society – is perhaps actually a sign of moral deficiency. In any case, by making themselves prisoner to such orthodoxies, their Club is more likely to become a crude propaganda machine than an educational institution, and they might discover that their readership will desert them if they ever decide to broaden their political horizons.


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