The Left Book Club (1936-1948)
At nearly 200 titles, the Mahn Center holds one of the largest sets of Left Book Club (LBC) editions in the U.S. The Club’s distinct orange and red cloth-bound books combined mass publishing with mass politics, as organizer Victor Gollancz sought to educate his readership on poverty and unemployment, socialist theory, and the threat of fascism every month for twelve years. Under his Victor Gollancz Ltd moniker he published 252 Left Books, most of them new publications, and reached 57,000 subscribers by 1939, a significant event in the publishing and political history of twentieth-century Britain. During its first three years of rapid success, the LBC was not just a book service, but “a way of life” (Samuels 86).
- Gollancz had run his own publishing firm since 1928 and realized that the wide-circulation book club model could bring radical politics to a popular audience.
- A subscription to LBC cost nothing. Club editions were at least one-third of the book’s standard price.
- Popular politicians and authors who published by the LBC include Clement Attlee, Stephen Spender, and George Orwell.
- Over 1,000 LBC discussion groups formed across Britain, hosting lectures and social events.
- WWII ended the Club through its ideological consequences, paper rationing, and displacement of subscribers. Operations ended in 1948 at 8,000 members
The collection at Ohio University Libraries came together incrementally. In person or with this map, visitors can trace select books’ journeys from Great Britain to the Mahn Center, as certain volumes carry the marks of previous owners and sellers. The inside covers of Mission to Moscow, Pts. I and II (1942) by Joseph E. Davies have epigrams in the handwriting of an officer-in-training who was likely reading the books just before he went to war. A narrative exists beyond the texts, with signatures, locations, and notes revealing the lives of LBC members during this epoch.
- Club editions are distinct from their standard trade counterparts in appearance and material, as illustrated by the dual copies of The Protection of the Public from Aerial Attack (1937).
- Until WWII, many perceived the LBC to be pro-Soviet. Dudley Collard’s Soviet Justice and the Trial of Radek and Others (1937) and Our Threatened Values (1946) by an ideologically changed Victor Gollancz demonstrate the Club’s shift from pro- to anti-U.S.S.R.
- The most famous LBC title is George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). In this first edition, Gollancz uses a long Foreword to distance himself from the author’s critique of an elitist socialism within the Club.
Beyond the Books
- Many of the original order forms for new subscribers remain in the Mahn Center’s volumes as well as in a separate file.
- Leaflets advertise Gollancz’s different categories of membership for more casual readers. Introductions of additional books, for example the “Topical” and “Educational” series, often went beyond politics and attest to the Club’s wide success in the mid-1930s.
- New membership categories often coincided with political causes, such as the Food Ship for Spain. This scheme donated money to republicans in the Spanish Civil War for every new subscriber recruited by an existing member.
Thanks to a Libraries’ 1804 Special Library Endowment Fund, the Mahn Center’s LBC set will soon reach about 230 titles, making it the largest in the U.S. and one of the most complete in the world, alongside holdings at The University of Sheffield and Princeton University. A bound, complete run of the Left News (1936-1948), the accompanying periodical that outlined the Club’s mission through editorials, letters, and activity reports, rounds out the new acquisitions.
For further reading, see John Lewis’ The Left Book Club: An Historical Record (1970) and Stuart Samuels’ “The Left Book Club” in the Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 1, no. 2, 1966, pp. 65-86.
For more information about the Left Book Club volumes at the Mahn Center, please contact Miriam Intrator.
Page created by Marc Blanc, ENG 4940 Research Apprenticeship, Spring 2017