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The Left Book Club and adult education in Britain and Australia

Chloe Ward, from the University of Melbourne, recently presented at one of our lunchtime seminars. Her thesis is on the transnational history of the Left Book Club. You can follow Chloe on Twitter @doctorchlod

The Left Book Club (LBC), a subscription book club founded in 1936 by Victor Gollancz, has been seen by historians as, variously, a publishing enterprise, a communist front organisation, a British Popular Front and an educational agency. Historians have rarely explored its transnational connections. Last Thursday, I gave a paper at the ICHRE lunchtime seminar series exploring the LBC’s links with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Britain and Australia.

LBC-chloe

[Worker, 30 August 1938, 2]

In Britain, the LBC’s association with the WEA was informal. WEA tutors like the future Labour MP Stephen Swingler led its local discussion groups and political campaigns. Leading figures in the WEA warned against too close an involvement with the LBC because of its association with the Communist Party. In 1937 WE Williams, editor of the WEA journal The Highway warned that this ‘energetic ally of adult education’ risked abandoning its liberal, pluralistic agenda as it hurried its members to conclusions ‘by taking the short cut along the left fork’.[1]

In Australia, the WEA established formal links with the Club. The WEA’s NSW director, David Stewart, took up a joint agency for the Club with the Sydney Anvil Bookshop in 1937. In 1938 Stewart faced down demands from the Catholic Press for the WEA, a state-funded body, to cease cooperating with the Club. Stewart explained publicly that the Club fulfilled an indispensable role for working-class readers and WEA students. It provided them cheap, quality books that would otherwise have either been unavailable in Australia.[2]

The differences between the WEA’s attitude to the LBC in Britain and Australia, I argued, reflect their independent political and philosophical trajectories since Albert Mansbridge founded the Australian WEA in 1913. In Britain, the WEA defended its position as a liberal and ‘non-political’ institution against the left. In Australia, the WEA was more closely entwined with left-wing politics. They also demonstrate the great degree to which the book trade shaped the WEA’s collaboration with other organisations. Adult educators warmly welcomed the LBC’s cheap, informative books to an Australian market dominated by the British book trade.

 

[1] WE Williams, ‘Notes and Comments’, The Highway, April 1937, 173-174.

[2] David Stewart, ‘The Left Book Club: W.E.A.’s Reply’, The Catholic Press, 8 September 1938, 13.

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