Paul Foot

Victor Gollancz: From Marx to muddle

(October 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 102, October 1987.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Victor Gollancz
Ruth Dudley Edwards
Gollancz, £20.00

THE FIRST big public meeting I spoke to was on behalf of the Liberal Party: at an eve-of-poll meeting for Derek Monsey, Liberal candidate in Westminster in the 1959 General Election. When I arrived, very nervous, at the hall, everyone was very excited. “We’ve got a surprise speaker” I was told, “Victor Gollancz.” I was very impressed, though I had never heard of Victor Gollancz.

At the end of the meeting a rather kindly old man got up and said he had supported the Labour Party all his life, but now he thought the most important issue in the world was nuclear weapons. As Derek Monsey was the only candidate in Westminster who supported unilateral nuclear disarmament, the old man declared his intention to vote Liberal.

There was loud applause from the audience, most of whom were implacably opposed to unilateral nuclear disarmament (as was the Liberal Party).

At the end of the meeting, I was introduced to the great man. He congratulated me warmly on my speech, and then took me on one side. “I hope you don’t believe any of this nonsense,” he whispered. “You should be a socialist – in fact, I think you will be one.”

I was most indignant at the time, but it wasn’t long before the old man’s prediction came true, and I’ve had a sneaking affection for him ever since.

The affection grew as I read this comprehensive and enthralling biography. Victor Gollancz never went to parliament. He never taught at university. He had nothing but contempt all his life for the right wing leadership of the Labour Party. Yet he had a profound effect on politics in Britain for at least two decades.

His most extraordinary achievement was the Left Book Club, which lasted from 1936 to 1948. In its first ten years, the Club published six million books – a quite staggering figure. At its heyday just before the Second World War, the Club had 57,000 members, each of whom was guaranteed a new book a month. There was also a wide range of old socialist classics, specialist books, scientific books, history books and pamphlets.

This enormous output of Club books was augmented, in the run-up to the 1945 election, with the “Yellow back” pamphlets, all directed against the corruption and hopelessness of the Tory years before the war, and each selling about a quarter of a million copies. It is no exaggeration to claim, as Ruth Dudley-Edwards does, that Gollancz, with his commitment and his flair, did a great deal to shift the intellectual climate towards the Labour landslide of 1945.

After the war, when Ernie Bevin (“Britain’s Greatest Foreign Secretary” as all important people always call him) was saying, “I try to be fair to the Germans, but I ’ates ’em really”; when various Tories tried to whip up an anti-German fever such as the one which gripped the entire country after the First World War, Gollancz campaigned for an internationalist view.

He did not campaign as hard for the nationalisation of German industries (the real issue) as he did for food parcels for the poor. But his campaigning on this issue did a lot to stop anti-German hysteria. Similarly, at the height of the success of Zionism in kicking out the Palestinians and setting up a new state in the Middle East, Gollancz, a Jew and at one time a member of the Jewish Board of Deputies, spoke up for the dispossessed Palestinians.

So irrepressible was Gollancz’s vigour, so brilliant his intellect and so vast his conceit that it would seem that he could do anything. Indeed, Marx’s famous comment about history is reversed by this biography to read, “Gollancz made his own history and he made it just as he pleased.” But of course he did not. His life, perhaps even more than most, was circumscribed by the social forces with which he wrestled.

For instance, the Left Book Club had a membership of 57,000 in 1939, under a Tory government. Six years later, the dream of most Left Book Club members came true: a Labour government was returned with a massive majority. Everyone rejoiced, and almost at once, the influence of the Left Book Club declined. By the end of 1946 there were only 10,000 members, and in 1948 the Club was dissolved without anyone noticing.

How could it be that the thirst for socialist ideas and literature should tail off so very fast at the very moment of apparent triumph? The answer is that in social democratic electoral politics, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. The expectation and hope of a victory was a far greater inspiration to socialist ideas and agitation than was the reality of Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison.

Gollancz could sense the disillusionment all right and he never capitulated to the parliamentary cretinism of his former friends, John Strachey and Stafford Cripps. But instead of using the Marxist method which had inspired him in the 1930s to interpret the postwar disillusionment, he turned against Marx altogether:

“The real battle is not between capitalism and more socialism, but between the liberal or Western ethic and the totalitarianism of which the Soviet Union is now the major exponent.”

Then he argued that all political ideas should be subordinated to higher values, liberal values, religious values. These new statements of “value” won him praise from Tories who had denounced him in the 1930s and early 1940s.

How was it possible that such a lively and well-read socialist who did not simply decay as most old socialists do, should so reverse his opinions? How could a man who in 1929 described Das Kapital as “the fourth most enthralling volume of the world’s literature” recite so soon after the war the familiar reactionary incantations against Marx. Most of the answer, I suspect, lies in the roots of the brand of Marxism which inspired him in the 1930s, and which showed up the grim side of the Left Book Club.

In the early years of the Club, Gollancz was completely captive to the Communist Party. He conceded almost everything to them. Twelve of the first 15 of the LBC choices were vetted and approved by the CP (at least ten of those, today, are quite unreadable). The amount of indigestible Stalinist trash turned out in those pink and orange covers was astonishing.

Gollancz was one of three “choosers” of the titles. Only one of the others was CP – and even he (Strachey) was not a party member. Yet again and again, even on the simplest issues such as the right to dissent, Gollancz capitulated.

It was not simply that Trotsky and everything Trotskyist was not tolerated in the Left Book Club. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was turned down by Gollancz. H.N. Brailsford, one of the first among British socialist writers to appreciate the horrors of the Moscow trials, was one of the authors who suffered worst – both intellectually and financially – from Victor’s stubborn submersion in the CP line.

As so often, the party hack or fellow-traveller, when he suddenly becomes aware of his hackery, turns to rend his former mentors, and, in the process, throws the whole ideology out with the bathwater. Gollancz was quick enough to spot the CP’s opportunism over the Hitler-Stalin pact but his indignation led him to reject altogether not just the CP, but all Marxism which he thought they represented.

Thus, in a curious way, the Stalinism to which he was converted in the 1930s (he named Stalin as Man of the year 1937) and the social democratic government to which he formally aspired in the 1940s were both disastrous to his political development. Disillusioned with both he turned not to new socialist ideas, but against socialist ideas altogether.

I hope I have not put anyone off this book, however. It is far, far more illuminating about the 1930s and 1940s than most of the trivial contemporary stuff on the subject. The character of the man comes through very loud if not very clear. Criticism of him is easy and obvious. But perhaps the most interesting exercise is to compare him and his times with today.

In those days of slump and “downturn”, when there was still some life and hope in social democratic politics, they threw up vast, engaging and brilliant personalities who believed they could change the world and acted accordingly. A generation of Labour governments later, there is nothing remotely as impressive as Victor Gollancz anywhere on the Labour stage.

Last updated on 7.3.2012