No more heroes

Left Book Club Anthology

Edited by Paul Laity<em> Victor Gollancz, 254pp, £20</em>

ISBN 05750722

Not all summer repeats are duds. Indeed, the problem with most repeats is that they are of work that was execrable in the first place. In a better world, repeats would be of distant, real classics, and this feat has been performed by Paul Laity in his assemblage, in one volume, of some of the best output of Victor Gollancz's 1930s publishing marvel, the Left Book Club.

Within these pages, nostalgics and freshly minted radicals alike may experience the unnerving sensation of having their political passions rekindled. The club, which published millions of copies of anti-system books and also spawned debating clubs, summer schools, poetry groups and swimming teams, was a shining exception in a dreadful decade.

Laity and his publishers deserve further credit for showing the refreshing lack of compromise required to reprint these jewels within the same austere orange covers that enclosed the original monthly editions. This particular monochrome treasure box includes not only the LBC's famous treatises on political method, but also the gripping, unforgettable narratives from destabilised foreign capitals and cursed industrial towns which painted a world that needed changing so very much.

There is Orwell on the physical awfulness (and practical counter-productivity) of too many middle-class socialists. Then there is John Strachey's "Theory and Practice of Socialism", and also "Forward from Liberalism", Stephen Spender's wondrously trusting hymn to Soviet communism. A knee-trembling weakness for Stalin was always the club's main vice. Among these mingle Gollancz's "narratives of adventure", exposing the twin threats of domestic economic misery and arbitrary dictatorship overseas.

Laity reproduces Orwell in Wigan and Bert Coombes in South Wales mining villages; overseas, there is Koestler among the Spanish fascists, George Gedye confronting the Gestapo in Hitler's Austria, and Jan Petersen on the eerie fusion of an ongoing civilian life with Nazi reality in Berlin of 1934.

Does this volume survive being a reprint? Yes. It succeeds not just as history, but also as inspiration, fuelled by a sense of human possibility all too often missing from contemporary protest vehicles. The only complaint is that its 254 pages necessitate the pruning of longer works; Orwell, Coombes and Gedye are worst hit. Laity may have determined that a heavier, more physically intimidating, 400-page volume - still in stern 1930s orange - might have deterred more people in the shops than it attracted. He was probably correct.

So, given record apathy in the general election, why cannot our own centre left produce a set of equally thrilling literary grenades? Among the available formats, the internet has an array of brilliant political chatrooms and organising influences, but certainly no venture (cyber or otherwise) has yet equalled the drama that the club achieved. Yet the critical aim now is for the spirits deterred by mainstream politics to be harnessed by positive alternatives, such as Richard Taylor's campaign for Kidderminster Hospital, rather than more dangerous forces, such as the racism in northern towns.

To emulate the LBC's exploits, the writing talent definitely exists, in full active service, despite all the discouragement that a still largely booming economy and an overwhelming Blairite hegemony can supply. But anti-system critiques, whether supremely executed (such as recent books by Christopher Hitchens) or merely impressive (such as Naomi Klein's No Logo) or wholly abject (such as Noreena Hertz's The Silent Takeover), are too often presented in designer-jacket formats more suggestive of Chanel than earnest, interested humanity. The protest itself too often becomes, in its Nike-inspired svelteness, a further, hideous offshoot of the consumerism that it nominally set out to attack. Buy book. Possibly glance at a few pages. Ram it on shelf. Feel protest done for week. Get dinner. Forget.

Beyond that, saturation-scale news television - as top-down and authoritarian as political interaction gets - has made the need to lift the level of debate, in a neo-LBC style, a hundred times greater. During the club's lifetime, there was only one television channel, and it was watched by virtually no one.

Short of cleaving an axe through each TV screen from sea to murky sea, it is hard to think of ways to rekindle equivalent political passion. But Taylor's Wyre Forest insurrection provides strong clues. Almost every constituency will have its own hospital, school or special cause that receives no joy from mainstream politics.

Perhaps a whole new race of local Gollanczes, whoever they may be, may yet mobilise, complete with website, cyber-pamphleteering and every other trick, and not just in tens, but in hundreds of parliamentary seats, aiming to copy Kidderminster's success next time round. Perhaps the conventional political parties will adopt the causes as their own; I hope Labour does. Let us all hope so, before even the slight threats of neo-dictatorship and substantial social distress loom any larger. Enjoy the book.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, In the line of fire