From 1936 to today: the battle for political education in the UK

Why we need the Left Book Club.

1936. A worldwide depression was pushing new economic thinking after a monumental economic crash and a global pandemic. New technologies – flight, film and radio – were changing the way we communicate.  Fascism was on the rise. Refugees were fleeing authoritarian regimes. Tensions between captains of industry and workers were increasing.

This was the world in which Victor Gollancz started the original Left Book Club. The aim of the club was, in his words a simple one: “To help in the terribly urgent struggle for World Peace and a better social and economic order and against Fascism, by giving (to all who are determined to play their part in the struggle) such knowledge as will immensely increase their efficiency.”

Gollancz had identified a paucity in political education during his years as a teacher in a public school. He believed that through discussion, political awareness and understanding, war and strife could be avoided. He said ‘our very salvation depended on the political education of the masses’.

Gollancz was keen to ensure that the Club was a place for discussion and debate and did not align with one political party or theory. The books the Club published reflected that.

The Club published a book a month between 1936 and 1948, including George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China. The books were often specially commissioned for the LBC, but were also sold to the general public, at two or three times the club price, and distributed via bookshops and newsagents. The sales of each of the club’s monthly selections far surpassed those of most other topical books.

Alongside the monthly book choice, the Club published a newsletter that acquired the status of a major political magazine. It also held an annual rally and encouraged subscribers to set up their own local book clubs. By 1939, 1,200 groups were meeting throughout the UK. At its height, the Club had 57,000 members.

The Club exerted a strong far-left influence in Great Britain, offering explanations and guidance and a sense of direction and action in a very confusing and terrifying time. It is often credited for Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, the government that brought us the NHS.

Today. A worldwide depression is pushing new economic thinking after a monumental economic crash and a global pandemic. New technologies – the internet and social media – are changing the way we communicate.  Fascism and racism are on the rise. Refugees are fleeing authoritarian regimes and war. Tensions between corporations and workers are increasing, fuelled by austerity policies and deepening inequality.

This is the world that prompted the revival of the Left Book Club.

In 2015, a small group of of writers, activists, publishers, booksellers and trade unionists re-established the Club. Political education is still at the heart of the organisation. At a time when disinformation and fabrication are rife on social media and traditional media are under threat, it is more important than ever to provide materials that inform, challenge and enlighten – sparking debate and discussion. At the time, an MP called Jeremy Corbyn said: “The relaunch of the Left Book Club is a terrific and timely idea.”

Director Ken Loach set out why: “The need to transform our society becomes ever more apparent. Despite the damage capitalism inflicts, the idea of capitalism remains strong. We need to learn from our past, our heroic struggles and great writers. Reading and re-reading the classic texts of the socialist tradition has never been a more urgent task.”

The LBC publishes a book every month, from a broad range of publishers and subjects covering both classics and new titles. The books are specially curated by a panel of academics, booksellers and activists to encourage people to develop a critical overview of how society is organised and how we might do this better.

In the last five years more people, especially younger generations, are actively engaging in politics than ever before. And still, politics isn’t a required subject in schools.

Celebrating its 5th anniversary in September 2020, the revived Club is using modern tools to bring people together and provide resources for self-education. Reading groups are held online and in person. Authors participate in individual groups and in larger events held in partnership with other left organisations. The Club provides a sense of community and a safe space for discussion where people can learn from each other and develop their thinking. It helps people feel that real change is possible and encourages them to put their ideas into action.

Now, as in 1936, we are facing enormous challenges that will require innovative thinking and hard choices. Understanding the issues is the key to making the right decisions for future generations and ourselves.

Veruschka Selbach is Managing Director of the Left Book Club.

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