Victor Gollancz, an architect of the Left

Sir Victor Gollancz was born on April 9th, 1893. Although he never taught at a university, and never entered Parliament, he was one of the UK Left’s most influential figures. He became a teacher and a publisher, and a leading left-wing activist of the inter-war years.

He flirted between humanitarianism, liberalism and communism, but his sympathies were mainly with communism, even though he never joined the party. His eponymous publishing house promoted socialist and pacifist works, but his greatest achievement was the founding of the Left Book Club. It was the UK’s first book club, and lasted from 1936 to 1948. It published six million books, and prior to World War II it had 57,000 members, each guaranteed a new book a month for 2s 6d, published in lurid covers, orange for paperback (later yellow) and red for hardback.

He was a fellow traveller, one of Lenin’s “useful idiots.” He made Stalin his man of the year in 1937. Paul Foot described him as “completely captive to the Communist Party,” and who “conceded almost everything to them.” Of the Left Book Club’s first 15 choices, 12 were vetted and approved by the Communist Party, and described by Foot as “quite unreadable.”

The Book Club was immensely influential in giving intellectual weight to the Left, and is thought to have paved the way to the postwar Labour landslide. Today it is more famous for the books it didn’t publish than for the ones it did. Gollancz, who had published Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier,” declined to publish his “Homage to Catalonia” because of its criticism of the Communists in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell took it to Secker and Warburg, who went on to publish his “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” two of the most powerful anti-Communist books ever written. Orwell wrote that "Gollancz is of course part of the Communism-racket."

Gollancz broke with Communism at the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, but never renounced his hard-left ideas. His contribution rather reminds us today of the gullible idealists who latch onto and laud every regime that proclaims itself Socialist, turning a blind eye to the repressions, the political imprisonments and murders, and the cronyism of leaders who live in luxury while the common people starve. Orwell would have seen Venezuela for what it is, through the cold eyes of realism, but Gollancz, like his latter-day descendants, would only have seen it through rosy pink spectacles that admit the light of idealism, but not that of harsh reality.