Sometimes, the most unlikely of sources can make you see something that has been staring you in the face forever and has just passed you by.
I am continuing my intermittent read of The Prose Factory by D.J. Taylor, and his chapter on the 1930s is, predictably, all about left wing literary movements. It is a reasonably fair account, I think, given that I suspect Taylor’s own political inclinations are centre-right and he doesn’t come across as at all sympathetic to Marxist views. But he manages to connect a few things that I hadn’t really connected before.
Let me try and put this into chronological order. In 1929, the Wall Street Crash had sent the Western economies spinning into the Great Depression. In May of that year, the Labour Party under Ramsey MacDonald had come out ahead in one of the tightest of elections and formed a minority government. That is not the most stable situation for dealing with the economic shocks that were to come over the next couple of years. So, in 1931, MacDonald entered into coalition with the Tories as the National Government, which won an overwhelming victory in the 1931 election. The National Government held something over 500 seats in Parliament, the only opposition being provided by a small group of rebel Labour MPs. Despite the National Government being theoretically a coalition, it was overwhelmingly dominated by the Conservative Party, with the Tory leader, Stanley Baldwin, taking over as Prime Minister in 1935.
What this meant (and the connection that Taylor spelled out for me) was that the left had no political voice, just at the start of a decade that was filled with causes for which the left needed to be heard. And so the left started to turn to extra-parliamentary ways of making their views known. Thus you got things like the hunger marches, which had been occurring intermittently since the start of the century, but which now became much larger and more frequent. One march from Scotland brought 100,000 people to Hyde Park in 1932. These marches were often organised by the communist party, and so were just as often brutally put down by the authorities. The communist party was also behind the large numbers of working class young men who travelled to Spain to fight for the Republicans (there were some British volunteers who fought for Franco, but they were neither so numerous or so well organized as those who fought against him).
But this activism also had a more intellectual underpinning, provided by the spread of the Workers’ Educational Association, which had been formed at the beginning of the century but which was at its largest and most successful during the 1930s. And also by the totally unexpected success of Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, which aimed to break even with 2,500 members but had over 40,000 within the first year. The club would make books more widely available and far cheaper than usual, and published works ranging from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier to Murray Constantine (Katherine Burdekin)’s Swastika Night; books that brought home again and again the social conditions and political enemies that those on the left were up against. There were Right and Centre Book Clubs, but these had neither the reach nor the effect of the Left Book Club.
With the sense of community and purpose provided by the likes of the hunger marches and the Spanish Civil War, and the spread of ideas promulgated through bodies such as the WEA and the Left Book Club, the left found a powerful and often working class voice throughout the 1930s, just at the time when they had no voice in government.
The National Government shed all pretence and became a straightforward Conservative government under Baldwin, as it remained under his two successors, Neville Chamberlain (from 1937) and Winston Churchill (from 1940). Under Churchill, and with a war to fight, the government again became a coalition National Government, but again it was predominantly Tory. After Baldwin’s election of 1935, there was no general election until 1945, when it was generally assumed that the great wartime leader, Churchill, would sweep back into power. It was a shock, therefore, when Clem Attlee won an overwhelming victory for Labour. But it perhaps shouldn’t have been, because that victory was the fruit of all those years during the 1930s when the left had been deprived of a political voice and so had found new ways to make their voice heard. The Attlee victory, if you like, was a direct consequence of Victor Gollancz creating the Left Book Club, which had, after all, published a book by one C.R. Attlee.