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4 July 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:18am

Can you fight fascism with a book club?

By Anoosh Chakelian

“Rich women have rarely done their own dishes, cared for their own children, or even fucked their own husbands.”

A polite titter ripples among the 13 or so people gathered at a book club on a Thursday evening in London.

A YouTube video beamed onto the wall with a projector, called “What the f**k is social reproduction?” by communist organisation Plan C, isn’t your usual nibbles ‘n’ Neapolitan Novels book club fare. But this isn’t your usual book club.

With meetings in pubs, people’s flats, bookshops, libraries and university campuses – like this grungy meeting room at the University of London’s SOAS, just off Russell Square – a group of publishers are reviving an anti-fascist tradition that flourished in 1930s Britain.

Pioneered by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz in 1936, the Left Book Club was created to educate and energise left-wing readers in the face of burgeoning fascism. (After the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939, the club tried to distance itself from its Communist roots.)

“The spring of 1936 was an auspicious time to start a book club catering to the Left,” wrote publishing historian Gordon B Neavill in 1971. “A sense of looming catastrophe was in the air. The depression had seriously challenged capitalism as a viable system.”

As one of the first book clubs in the UK, it both revitalised the British left and publishing industry – with 57,000 members at its peak in 1939, 1,200 groups meeting across the country, and over 70 titles published and distributed. (A Right Book Club was soon set up by Foyles in 1937 to counter its success.)

The Left Book Club’s dissemination of socialist ideas was even said to have influenced the outcome of the 1945 general election – with eight authors published by the Left Book Club forming the newly elected Labour government, including the new prime minister Clement Attlee, and six further authors on the Labour backbenches.

To be a member, you had to subscribe for a minimum of six months. Each month, the Club chose a book, and circulated unique Left Book Club editions exclusive to members via booksellers and newsagents. At two shillings and sixpence, these were usually two to four times cheaper than when the same books would hit shop shelves after members had received them first.

Since 2014, staff at the radical indie publisher Pluto Press have been resurrecting the Left Book Club, which officially launched as a not-for-profit with a website last year. With the rise of populism, and an emboldened far right in Europe and beyond, they feel now is the right time to revisit Gollancz’s project.

“The situation we’re in now is so very similar to what was happening in the late Thirties, or even early Thirties,” says Veruschka Selbach, managing director of Pluto Press and director of the Left Book Club.

“It’s frightening when you really look at it, when you look at what’s happening in the labour market – the whole idea of AI coming in, robots taking over jobs, this was happening in the early Thirties: that exact same thing was happening with mechanised production.”

She also links “huge technological change” brought by the internet with the arrival of the aeroplane back then. “The aeroplane really changed the way we see the world, and the internet has really changed how we see the world. And the internet is now allowing us to do this in a different way.”

“There was a massive economic crash on Wall Street, then there was a massive depression. The value of wages had dropped so no one was earning enough money, there were hunger marches, people were starving, there was massive inequality, so the elite were seen as very out of touch with the workers and seen to be exploiting them,” says Melanie Patrick, programme manager of the Left Book Club, drawing parallels with today’s inequalities.

“And there was fascism, Oswald Mosley starting the British Union of Fascists here, you had Germany, Austria, Italy…”

A website and mailing list has helped the new Left Book Club sign up members – as of March, they had around 400 – but it is also using old methods. Like the original set-up, they print their own unique editions of their chosen books for members and the prices are low (£4.99 for a book every other month, and £8.99 for a book a month). Books are sent in the post to members.

To try and reach as broad a membership as possible, they have books coming through from big mainstream publishers like Penguin to the tiny anarchist publisher Dog Section Press.

“It’s actually the most affordable way to get these books,” says Patrick. “And for a lot of the new books coming from big publishing houses, our edition will often be cheaper than their edition. So it is absolutely guaranteed the most affordable way.”

The discussion I attend is of the 2012 book Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle by Silvia Federici, the scholar behind the feminist Wages for Housework movement.

Members – who include people working in publishing, academics, a man visiting from the Netherlands and a Labour Party staffer – get stuck in to a meaty yet impeccably polite discussion about unpaid labour and gendered work. Ideas prevalent on the left today, like universal basic income, crop up.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about debating radical politics at one of the UK’s most left-wing universities. But the Left Book Club is a small sign of a wider effort to counter right-wing populism in the UK with old-school methods – just as protest culture has been revived by issues such as Brexit, Britain’s response to Donald Trump, and climate chaos.

“This is for us to create a rigorous political intellectual project,” says Left Book Club’s communications coordinator Brekhna Aftab. “But then to engage with activist groups and to get them to use the LBC as a springboard for really informed political mobilisation, I think. So it’s to put theory into practice.”

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