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History

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Leonard and Virginia Woolf

Overview

The Political Quarterly was founded in 1930 by Leonard Woolf (husband of Virginia Woolf), Kingsley Martin (founder of the New Statesman) and William Robson.

Our former editors include Leonard Woolf, Andrew Gamble, Kingsley Martin, Sir Bernard Crick, Michael Jacobs and David Marquand. For the full list, click here.

Political thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes, Arthur Koestler, Harold Laski, and Bertrand Russell have written for us, as well as Leon Trotsky, Benito Mussolini, William Beveridge, Ernest Gellner, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Shirley Williams, and Barbara Wootton.

How we started

Kingsley Martin and William Robson, who were then junior members of the teaching staff of the London School of Economics and Political Science, took the lead in bringing their idea of a new political journal to fruition.

The first meeting was held at the London School of Economics and consisted of about 40 or 50 leading intellectuals. Soon afterwards the founders issued a printed prospectus. The signatories included members of both the Labour and Liberal parties, and people of no party affiliation.

As William Robson later wrote about the foundation of the journal:

“We felt the need for a forum where a philosophy, a policy and a programme could be hammered out for the socialist movement, which was growing in strength but was lacking a coherent body of ideas…. the Political Quarterly… was to provide a bridge between the world of thought and the world of action, between the writer, the thinker and the teacher on the one hand and the statesman, the politician and the official on the other”

Leonard Woolf later described the journal as being “written for experts by experts”.

John Maynard Keynes with Kingsley Martin

The first issue

The minimum amount considered necessary to ensure a trial run of the Political Quarterly for three years was £2,000, allowing for substantial deficits during this period.

Martin, Robson and Woolf persuaded a number of their friends and acquaintances to contribute sums varying from £5 to £150, but the total came to less than half the amount needed. After a series of persuasive letters from Robson, Bernard Shaw was convinced to donate £1,000 to plug the gap. They set up a small committee to take responsibility for launching the quarterly. This consisted of Leonard Woolf, A. M. Carr-Saunders, Harold Laski, J. M. Keynes, T. E. Gregory, Kingsley Martin and William Robson.

Publication began in January 1930, published by Macmillan. Virginia Woolf hand sewed early editions of the journal. 

Early years

The first issue of the Political Quarterly stated that:

“The function of the Political Quarterly will be to discuss social and political questions from a progressive point of view. It will act as a clearing-house of ideas and a medium of constructive thought. It will not be tied to any party and will publish contributions from persons of various political affiliations. It will be a journal of opinion, not of propaganda. But it has been planned by a group of writers who hold certain general political ideas in common and it will not be a mere collection of unrelated articles…”

The year before the financial crisis of 1931 was a difficult moment at which to launch a new periodical. The journal experienced significant losses in 1930, 1931 and 1932. However, it managed to survive, and among those who helped them was Sir Stafford Cripps. In 1933 Robson approached George Bernard Shaw for further funding, but he flatly refused, writing: “Derelict magazines are hard to kill; or rather they are hard to bury… I think it shocking to bleed Cripps personally to keep the wreck afloat”.

Kingsley Martin was appointed editor of The New Statesman and Nation. In the summer of 1931 he retired as joint editor of the Political Quarterly and was succeeded by Leonard Woolf. Martin remained a member of the editorial board until his death in 1969 and he took a continuing interest in the paper he helped to found.

The 1980s and the split of the Labour Party

Although the Political Quarterly’s board for time to time contained occasional Conservatives and Liberals, and contributors had ranged from Mussolini to Trotsky, there was a tendency for most people associated with the journal to have some kind of affiliation to the Labour Party.

This came under severe strain in the early 1980s, when the party itself split, with a breakaway group forming the short-lived Social Democratic Party. This split was reproduced within the Political Quarterly’s Board. About half of the Board continued, along with the then chair, Bernard Crick, to stay with Labour, while others, including the editor at the time, Rudolf Klein, and one of the founders of the SDP, Shirley Williams, went with the new party.

For a time, relations within the Board became tense, with proposals for new board members or editors being scrutinised suspiciously for their effects on the balance. The decision to have two editors dated from that time, with Colin Crouch (a Labour supporter) being appointed alongside Klein. On Klein’s retirement he was replaced by David Marquand, another SDP founder. The tensions subsided, the idea of having two editors being retained just in order to make the work less onerous.

Further reading

The story doesn’t stop there. You will find more on our Wikipedia page here, which we help to keep updated. You might also find these titles interesting:

Downhill all the way: An autobiography of the years 1919-1939, by Leonard Woolf, 1967.

“Leonard Woolf at the Political Quarterly”. The Political Quarterly.

The Progressive Tradition: Eighty Years of The Political Quarterly, by Andrew Gamble and Tony Wright, 2011.

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