‘Distance lends enchantment to the view’: The Left Book Club abroad.

Chloe Ward 2

Chloe Ward

Chloe Ward, who is spending some time with MBS as a Universitas 21 Visiting Fellow from the University of Melbourne writes this week on the transnational history of the Left Book Club. You can follow Chloe on Twitter @doctorchlod.

In April 1946 Horace Flower, the manager of the Queensland Farmers’ Co-Operative Association, wrote to the British publisher Victor Gollancz. Flower thanked Gollancz for his ‘splendid work … to open the eyes and the minds of so many world-citizens’ through the Left Book Club. He wrote that the Club’s influence through extended well beyond Britain’s borders:

… ‘distance lends enchantment to the view’ … If you remove the distance then you find we are pretty much alike and with about the same large percentage of unthinking citizens who blindly accept what the Beaverbrooks and Northcliffs (sic) of the world tell them to believe” [1]

Left Book Club Membership Form c. 1938

Left Book Club Membership Form c. 1938

Gollancz founded the LBC in 1936. It was a publishing enterprise, a Communist front organisation (to some) and, as I plan to argue in my PhD, a social movement. It published, circulated and discussed anti-fascist books chosen every month by Gollancz and the political economists Harold Laski and John Strachey. Its 57,000 members met in 1200 local Club discussion groups across the country. In doing so, they sought to prevent war and bring about a democratic peace.

The international connections of the LBC are relatively underexplored. Flower was one of several thousand Australian LBC subscribers. In Australia, LBC activity centred on radical bookshops in state capitals. As in Britain, the Australian LBC attracted communists, socialists and radicals. Like their British counterparts, they took discussion of the monthly Club book for their principle task. In November 1938 the Sydney group launched a national journal, the Australian Left News, which reported different states’ activities and published original journalism.

Australian Club members used the Club to overcome the ‘tyranny of distance’ between Australia and Britain. In their writings and discussions they made claims for their relevance to British anti-fascist politics. These met relative indifference in Britain. British Club members showed little interest in imperial politics or the Australian LBC. Nonetheless, the ways Australians responded to the LBC and anti-fascist politics speaks to the proliferation of ways of understanding ‘Britishness’ beyond Britain’s borders.

A Left Book Club Book

A Left Book Club Book

These efforts were largely imaginative. A letter to the ALN described the literal, cultural and political distance involved in joining the European anti-fascist struggle from so far away:

Two months ago you were in London, having tea in Lyons and walking down Oxford Street towards Baker Street station … A short air trip, and you would be within hearing of the guns in the Spanish War. Now you are in another world with new problems and different solutions, and you have to adapt your insular and London self to an Australian and Sydney setting.[2]

Empire held the key to Australians’ claims on a vaunted place in the anti-fascist movement as representatives of white civilization in Asia. In Britain, fallout from the Munich negotiations overshadowed the release of Amleto Vespa’s Secret Agent of Japan in October 1938. In Australia, the book provided a way of internationalizing European diplomacy. In their discussions the Australian groups linked air raid precautions, Munich, and the Japanese threat to Australia’s borders, which they tried to assimilate to a common policy for national and international defence.[3]

The Australian LBC’s organisers argued about where obedience to the British project ended and its reformulation for Australian purposes began. In January 1939 the Adelaide Club took the ALN’s editors to task for abandoning Gollancz’s declared liberal, pluralistic vision of the Club’s politics and taking a forthright, anti-capitalist position. In reply the Sydney group declared that, whatever its sympathies with the original Club, ‘“keeping in step” does not mean imitating … [and] we believe we should supplement from the Australian angle our English contemporary’.[4] This ‘Australian angle’ was largely a political difference. The LBC’s official organisation in Australia, and especially in Sydney where the ALN was produced, had close links to the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), and fewer countervailing forces against its influence, as represented in the British Club by Harold Laski and, increasingly, Gollancz himself.

The Second World War widened the political gulf between the two LBCs. This exposed very different thinking about the ‘democracy’ the Club defended. In Britain, the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the outbreak of war divided Gollancz’s office between its communist and non-communist factions. Gollancz then excised its anti-war membership, including non-communists, from the Club. He argued they betrayed the democratic principles for which the Club was founded and the war was fought. The ban on CPA in June 1940 led to police seizing individuals’ Club books. Club members then united in defence of the liberal freedoms their circulation signified.

The Australian LBC reformulated its relationship to Britain once more during the war. ‘Research groups’ of Club members in New South Wales and Victoria published short books about problems of domestic and topical importance to Australians: for example women’s labour, the minimum wage, and housing. Yet even while refocusing the Club’s objectives on Australian issues, these writers united Australian and British interests in visions of future transnational, socialist achievement. One, for example, repeated Stafford Cripps’ declaration that the war was ‘in reality, a people’s war of liberation’ in its epigraph.[5]

Australian LBC readers’ activities are symptomatic of how people could and can define political identities against ‘Britishness’ even outside Britain. Their example also points to the importance of media both in mediating political and cultural identities, and as a tool in their further dissemination. Horace Flower, to his 1946 letter to Gollancz, attached copies of a private newsletter he had distributed locally for the previous three years. Sending the newsletter to the London publisher helped Flower feel he had ‘a definite link with a man who has done a mighty big job towards the evolution of real world-citizens’. Yet Flower’s action, and the activities of the LBC, points to neither to the primacy of Gollancz in the LBC’s achievements, or to objective emergence of cosmopolitan, ‘real world-citizens’. Rather, these are instances of the transnational circulation and appropriation, of ideas about Britain and its place in the world that could inspire political activity in different national contexts.

[1] Horace Flower to Victor Gollancz, Papers of Sir Victor Gollancz, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS.157/3/LB/1/43.

[2] ‘London Letter’, Australian Left News, February 1939, 6.

[3] ‘Australian Group News’, Australian Left News, January 1939, 12.

[4] ‘Action must supplement thought’, Australian Left News, January 1939, 2.

[5] F Oswald Barnett & W.O Burt, Housing the Australian Nation, Research Group of the Left Book Club of Victoria, 1942.

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