Victor Gollancz, the son of Alexander Gollancz, a prosperous wholesale jeweller, was born in London in 1893. After his education at St. Paul's School and New College, Oxford, he became a schoolmaster at Repton School.
In 1917 Seebohm Rowntree recruited Gollancz as a member of his Reconstruction Committee, an organisation he hoped would help plan the reconstruction of Britain after the war. Gollancz became a strong supporter of William Wedgwood Benn, the Liberal MP for Leith. Gollancz worked closely with Benn as secretary of the Radical Research Group. In 1921 Benn introduced Gollancz to his brother, Ernest Benn, the managing director of the publishers, Benn Brothers.
On the recommendation of William Wedgwood Benn, Gollancz was employed by Benn Brothers to develop the list of magazines the company published. Within six months Gollancz had convinced Ernest Benn to let him publish a series of art books. The books were a great success and during a seven year period turnover increased from £2,000 to £250,000 a year. Benn wrote in his diary that the increased company profits "reflects the greatest credit to the genius of Victor Gollancz".
Gollancz also recruited novelists such as Edith Nesbit and H. G. Wells. He employed Gerald Gould, fiction editor of the Observer, as chief manuscript reader. Gollancz realised that if he published works selected by Gould, the books would be guaranteed at least one good newspaper review. Gollancz believed that good reviews was a major factor in the selling of books. In critics liked a book published by the company, Gollancz purchased full-page adverts in national newspapers such as The Times and the Daily Herald to tell the public about the good reviews.
Although Ernest Benn believed Gollancz was a "publishing genius" he was unwilling to give him full control over the company. There were also political differences between the two men. Whereas Benn had moved to the right during the 1920s, Gollancz had moved sharply to the left and was now a strong supporter of the Labour Party. Gollancz had disapproved of the publication of Ernest Benn's own book, Confessions of a Capitalist, where he extolled the merits of laissez-faire capitalism.
In 1927 Gollancz left Ernest Benn and formed his own publishing company. Victor Gollancz was an immediate success. Using methods developed at Benn Brothers, he recruited writers such as George Orwell, Ford Madox Ford, Fenner Brockway, H. Brailsford and G. D. H. Cole.
In January 1936, Gollancz had lunch with Stafford Cripps and John Strachey, where they discussed the possibility of establishing a United Front against fascism. It was during this meeting that Gollancz suggested the idea of creating a Left Book Club. It was also agreed that Harold Laski, the Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, would make an excellent partner in this venture. The main aim was to spread socialist ideas and to resist the rise of fascism in Britain. Gollancz announced: "The aim of the Left Book Club is a simple one. It is to help in the terribly urgent struggle for world peace and against fascism, by giving, to all who are willing to take part in that struggle, such knowledge as will immensely increase their efficiency."
Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977) has argued: "The basic scheme of the Club was simple. For 2s 6d members received a Left Book of the Month, chosen by the Selection Committee - which consisted of Gollancz, John Strachey and Harold Laski. Left-wing books could be guaranteed a high circulation without risk to the publisher, while members received them at a greatly reduced rate." As Ruth Dudley Edwards, the author of Victor Gollancz: A Biography (1987), pointed out: "They were a formidable trio: Laski the academic theoretician; Strachey the gifted popularizer; and Victor the inspired publicist. All three had known a lifelong passion for politics and all had swung violently left in the early 1930s. Only Victor did not describe himself as completely Marxist, though he was objectively indistinguishable from the real article."
The first book, France To-day and the People's Front, by Maurice Thorez, the French Communist leader, was issued in May 1936. This was followed by other books that dealt with the struggle against fascism in Europe. This included books by Stafford Cripps (The Struggle for Peace, November 1936), Konni Zilliacus, The Road to War, April 1937), G.D.H. Cole, The People’s Front (July 1937), Robert A. Brady, The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, September 1937), Richard Acland (Only One Battle, November 1937), H. N. Brailsford (Why Capitalism Means War, August 1938), Frederick Elwyn Jones (The Battle for Peace, August 1938) and Leonard Woolf (Barbarians at the Gate, November 1939).
The Left Book Club also published several books on the impact of the Great Depression. This included George Orwell (The Road to Wigan Pier, March 1937), G.D.H. Cole and Margaret Cole, The Condition of Britain (April 1937), Wal Hannington (The Problem of the Distressed Areas (November 1937) and Ellen Wilkinson (The Town that was Murdered, September 1939).
The Spanish Civil War was another subject that was well-covered by the Left Book Club. This included Harry Gannes and Theodore Repard (Spain in Revolt, December 1936), Geoffrey Cox (Defence of Madrid, March 1937), Hewlett Johnson (Report of a Religious Delegation to Spain, May 1937), Hubertus Friedrich Loewenstein, A Catholic in Republican Spain (November 1937), Arthur Koestler (Spanish Testament, December 1937) and Frank Jellinek (The Civil War in Spain, June 1938). However, Victor Gollancz rejected the idea of publishing Homage to Catalonia. In the book George Orwell attempted to expose the propaganda disseminated by newspapers in Britain. This included attacks on both the right-wing press and the Daily Worker, a paper controlled by the Communist Party of Great Britain. Although one of the best books ever written about war, it sold only 1,500 copies during the next twelve years.
Gollancz had hoped to recruit 10,000 members in the first year. In fact, he achieved over 45,000. By the end of the first year the Left Book Club had had 730 local discussion groups, and it estimated that these were attended by an average total of 12,000 people every fortnight. As Ben Pimlott pointed out: "In April 1937 Gollancz launched the Left Book Club Theatre Guild with a full-time organiser; nine months later 200 theatre groups had been established, and 45 had already performed plays. Sporting activities and recreations were also catered for."
The success of the Left Book Club encouraged socialists to believe there was a market for a left-wing weekly. Gollancz was approached by a group of Labour MPs that included Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, George Strauss and Ellen Wilkinson and it was agreed to start publishing Tribune. Gollancz joined the editorial board and William Mellor was recruited as editor. George Orwell, now recognised as Britain's leading left-wing writer, agreed to contribute articles and later became the literary editor of the paper.
Other important books published by the Left Book Club included Philip Noel-Baker (The Private Manufacture of Armaments, October 1936), Stephen Spender (Forward from Liberalism, January 1937), Clement Attlee (The Labour Party in Perspective, August 1937), John Lawrence Hammond and Barbara Hammond (The Town Labourer, August 1937), Edgar Snow (Red Star over China, October 1937), Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb (Soviet Communism: a New Civilisation, October 1937), Richard H. Tawney (The Acquisitive Society, November 1937), Eleanor Rathbone (War can be Averted, January 1938), Konni Zilliacus (Why the League has Failed, May 1938), Agnes Smedley (China Fights Back, December 1938), Joachim Joesten (Denmark’s Day of Doom, January 1939) and Victor Gollancz (Is Mr. Chamberlain Saving the Peace?, April 1939). By 1939 membership of the Left Book Club rose to 50,000.
Harry Pollitt remained loyal to Joseph Stalin until September 1939 when he welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany. He published a pamphlet entitled How to Win the War. It included the following passage: "The Communist Party supports the war, believing it to be a just war. To stand aside from this conflict, to contribute only revolutionary-sounding phrases while the fascist beasts ride roughshod over Europe, would be a betrayal of everything our forebears have fought to achieve in the course of long years of struggle against capitalism."
Joseph Stalinsigned the Soviet-Nazi Pact with Adolf Hitler in August, 1939. At a meeting of the Central Committee on 2nd October 1939, Rajani Palme Dutt demanded "acceptance of the (new Soviet line) by the members of the Central Committee on the basis of conviction". Despite the objections of several members, when the vote was taken, only Harry Pollitt, John R. Campbell and William Gallacher voted against. Pollitt was forced to resign as General Secretary and he was replaced by Dutt. William Rust took over Campbell's job as editor of the Daily Worker. Over the next few weeks the newspaper demanded that Neville Chamberlain respond to Hitler's peace overtures.
Victor Gollancz was appalled by this decision and in March 1941 the Left Book Club published Betrayal of the Left: an Examination & Refutation of Communist Policy from October 1939 to January 1941. The book was edited by Gollancz and included two essays by George Orwell, Fascism and Democracy and Patriots and Revolutionaries.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s Victor Gollancz was heavily involved in trying to get Jewish refugees out of Germany. After the war Gollancz worked hard to relieve starvation in Germany. He founded the Jewish Society for Human Service and its first objective was to help Arab relief.
Some members of the Left Book Club disapproved of the electoral truce between the main political parties during the Second World War. On 26th July 1941 members of the 1941 Committee led by Richard Acland, Vernon Bartlett and J. B. Priestley established the socialist Common Wealth Party. The party advocated the three principles of Common Ownership, Vital Democracy and Morality in Politics. The party favoured public ownership of land and Acland gave away his Devon family estate of 19,000 acres (8,097 hectares) to the National Trust.
In 1942 the Common Wealth Party decided to contest by-elections against Conservative candidates. The CWP needed the support of traditional Labour supporters. Tom Wintringham wrote in September 1942: "The Labour Party, the Trade Unions and the Co-operatives represent the worker's movement, which historically has been, and is now, in all countries the basic force for human freedom... and we count on our allies within the Labour Party who want a more inspiring leadership to support us." Large numbers of working people did support the SWP and this led to victories for Richard Acland in Barnstaple and Vernon Bartlett in Bridgwater. Later, Victor Gollancz argued that "had there been no Left Book Club there would have been no Bridgwater."
The Left Book Club continued to publish books throughout the Second World War and they no doubt helped to bring about the landslide victory of the Labour Party in the 1945 General Election. As his biographer, Ruth Dudley Edwards, pointed out: "By March 1947 he (Gollancz) was sick rather than just tired of the Left Book Club. With fascism defeated and a Labour government in power, the aims for which it had been set up were now irrelevant." With the Left Book Club down to 7,000 members, Victor Gollancz closed the organization down in October 1948.
After the Second World War political differences with George Orwell resulted in Gollancz not publishing two great novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, he had several important successes including Kingley Amis's Lucky Jim, John Updike's Rabbit, Run and Colin Wilson's The Outsider.
In the 1950s played an active role in the formation of the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (NCACP). In 1958 Gollancz joined with Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, J. B. Priestley, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot to form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Victor Gollancz died in 1967.