London, 1937. One year after its launch, visionary publisher Victor Gollancz’s original Left Book Club held a national rally that packed out the Albert Hall. By 1939, the Club had 57,000 members – each receiving one new book a month from authors including George Orwell – and there were more than 1,500 clubs up and down the country. When Clement Atlee’s Labour government took power and instituted the welfare state and other innovative socialist measures in 1945, 11 members of the cabinet were Left Book Club authors, including the prime minister. Are we looking at a pre-digital populist social network, organising protest in the same way that Twitter and Facebook do today?
Yes, the digital revolution and social media have changed everything. They have given new ease to political organising and the dissemination of information and ideas. But online activism doesn’t make a real-world radical book club movement redundant. In fact, it makes it more necessary than ever.
Liking and retweeting, writing posts and commenting under articles are never going to be enough to challenge the status quo or force the powers that be to alter their ways. To an extent, it’s proxy activism: a simulacrum of the actual heavy-lifting required for real social change. More often than not, social media is an exercise of preaching to the converted. Too often it gives us the illusion we’re communicating on a global platform, when in reality we’re trapped in different bubbles on many different platforms, behind invisible walls which are rarely breached. How many minds have really been changed by short pieces, 140-character tweets, or even a whole article?
Political change happens when we work together with others, but social media is essentially a solo activity. Yes, it seems like we’re really talking to people. But the reality is we’re focused on our phones and other devices, and often using social media as an excuse to duck out of real-world interactions. The intrusion of digital media and its relentless stream of information into our lives shortens attention spans, and often distracts us from sustained and serious thought.
The truth is that social media isn’t enough. Minds get changed and major social upheaval happens when people read challenging books and talk through their implications face-to-face. Good books are in-depth, fact-filled explorations of an idea or argument examined in all its nuance, and are often the product of a lifetime of thought. A great book stays with you and changes you, and can force you to reexamine your most cherished beliefs. It’s rare that a tweet can accomplish the same.
But reading can be hard and daunting, especially if you’re not used to it. And reading by yourself isn’t enough to foment political change. Reading and debating as part of a group, on the other hand, encourages us to take on complex texts and see them through to the end. And when a group of people sit together to talk through a text, each individual reading of the book is deepened. Ideas are brought into the world and can become visions that in turn can become political policy, or point to new paths for activism. We all want change, but without these visions, it won’t materialise.
Gollancz’s first Left Book Club was set up at a time of global economic collapse, social unrest, hunger marches, extreme poverty, and the rise of fascism and Nazism as popular movements. Its stated aim was to “help in the struggle for world peace and against fascism”. What Gollancz saw was that when people have nothing, it’s easy for them to turn to populist demagogues if that’s the only alternative offered. Instead, what Gollancz aimed to do was offer new, positive, energizing, progressive ideas to people who might never otherwise hear them, and to deliver those ideas as part of a real-world social movement.
The first Left Book Club was about much more than just meeting to talk about books. Communists, socialists, liberals, feminists, anti-colonialists and progressives from all walks of life met to have fun together – going on walks, holding dances, performing plays and poetry – in short, building a movement based on friendships that no digital connection can ever replace. And, most importantly of all, attending a Left Book Club was free.
In 2015, a non-aligned, volunteer-run, not for profit collective made up of activists, writers, publishers, booksellers and trade unionists revived the Left Book Club. Once you’ve become a member today you’ll receive four books a year, and book club attendance continues to be open to non-paying attendees. And again, like the original Left Book Club, the Club is a positive progressive real-world social network in the darkest of times – and isn’t interested in your data.
In the past year we’ve published five books (Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth by Kevin Ovenden, Being Red: A Politics for the Future by Ken Livingstone, The Rent Trap: How We Fell into It and How We Get Out of It by Samir Jeraj and Rosie Walker, Cut Out: Living Without Welfare by Jeremy Seabrook, Here We Stand: Women Changing the World edited by Helena Earnshaw and Angharad Penrhyn Jones) with two more upcoming (A People’s History of the Russian Revolution by Neil Faulkner and Sound System: The Political Power of Music by Dave Randall). We’re proud of what we’ve achieved – but our lack of funding means our book clubs haven’t yet got off the ground.
We’re therefore using digital technology to crowdfund, with the support of Noam Chomsky. We’re also using all possible means at our disposal to build our movement, including, of course, social media. Our website, Twitter and Facebook accounts tell the world what we’re up to, administer our book clubs, build connections with similar enterprises, and scout for new and diverse voices to publish and stimulate the debate. But we don’t and won’t hold clubs online, and we don’t and won’t have online discussion forums. Our mission – to read, debate, and change the world – can only happen offline.
The Left Book Club is fundraising to build a network of real-life book clubs and to turn its website into a hub for new progressive writers. Watch Noam Chomsky’s endorsement and find out more here: www.crowdfunder.co.uk/leftbookclub