A brief history of the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

It’s a challenge to offer a “brief” history of Charles H. Kerr, because this Chicago radical institution has been in continuous operation since 1886, making it the oldest left publisher in the U.S., and arguably in the world (1).  The project initially emerged from the dissident religious circles that had proliferated as the Unitarian church confronted the issue of slavery.  The abolitionist camp, influenced by Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, would drift farther away from any sort of emphasis on supernatural theology and towards a vision of a humanist ethics,  becoming excited about the possibility of reconciling the emerging science of Darwinian evolution with a nonsectarian spirituality, and closely connected to the Free Religious Association, started in 1867, which sought to unite freethinking dissidents of all stripes and creeds (or lack thereof).  It was in these circles, and specifically working on the tendency’s Chicago-based magazine Unity, that a young Charles Hope Kerr, fresh from the study of romance languages at the University of Wisconsin, would get his first taste of the publishing world.

In 1886, Kerr would use the connections with Unity to found Charles H. Kerr & Company, an independent publishing house that would take over the business of printing and distributing the magazine.  (The “& Company” would remain a convenient fiction for a decade or so. Kerr was largely a one-man operation in its earliest days.)  1886, of course, was also the year that the state of Illinois sentenced seven prominent Chicago anarchists to die on the gallows for their supposed involvement with the bomb that exploded in Haymarket Square.  The reactions in the pages of Unity were generally timid, afraid of being tarred with the brush of radicalism, the official editorial statements failed to take a stand on behalf of the innocent defendants in the case (although the magazine would also run an article or two with a much more pro-anarchist position).

It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1891 that Charles Kerr began to move leftward, taking the publishing house with him.  Populism—that late 19th century wave of grassroots agitation sweeping the Midwest—had seized Kerr’s imagination, as had Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialist novel Looking Backward.  That very same year, he took it upon himself to publish American anarchist William Henry Van Ornum’s Why Government At All?, which did little to endear him to the Unitarians behind Unity.  Kerr would become further radicalized with his marriage in 1892 to May Walden, a feminist and temperance advocate.  In 1893, Kerr made a definitive break with Unity, which at this point had become not only increasingly incompatible with his politics, but also a financial drain on the publishing house.  He replaced it with the more explicitly political periodical New Occasions, firmly tied to the current of populist reform, describing itself as “a magazine of social and industrial progress.”  The Kerr Company would also get its first taste of conservative reaction that year, with the publication of Matilda Gage’s Woman, Church, and State drawing the ire of Anthony Comstock and his infamous New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.  (Kerr responded by running ads for the book emblazoned with “Condemned by Comstock!”)

Kerr’s faith in peaceful progress toward socialism was shattered during the 1894 Pullman strike, when federal troops were used to break the Chicago railway strike that had paralyzed the nation’s transportation infrastructure.  Kerr turned the resources of the publishing company towards the struggle, publishing William H Carwardine’s first-hand account in August of 1894, with all proceeds going towards the families of those workers still out.  By 1899, Kerr had left behind populism and resigned from New Occasions, becoming aligned with the new Socialist Labor Party under the influence of Algie Simons, who had become vice-president of the Kerr Company in 1900.  It was really in the context of the Pullman strike and Kerr’s growing socialist convictions that the Kerr Company began to take off as a publishing project committed to providing resources to a growing anti-capitalist social movement.  Part of this was figuring out ways to keep the project afloat financially if the publishing strategies were going to sacrifice profit for politics.  Always an innovator, Kerr hit on the idea of “cooperative publishing bonds”—supporters were able to buy a ten dollar bond (eventually through monthly installments), and for the duration of the time the share in the company was held, supporters received a wholesale discount on the materials they ordered from the press.  Not only did this likely encourage small alternative channels of radical book distribution and disperse financial control over the company through a broad base of supporters, it’s a strategy that’s still integral to movement presses today—just think of South End Press’ Community Supported Publishing initiative or the Friends of AK Press and Friends of PM Press programs.

With the support of the company’s cooperative “investors,” the Kerr company would embark on projects like the Pocket Library of Socialism, the so called “little red books” which sought to popularize both American and European socialist theory.  In 1899, Kerr would publish “Socialist Songs,” which included the first English translation of the working-class anthem, “The Internationale” (translated by Charles H. Kerr himself).  In 1900, Kerr began publishing “The Library of Science for Workers,” and in 1901 the company released May Walden’s socialist-feminist book Socialism and the Home.  As Charles Kerr, himself, put it, the aim of the press had become to publish “clear socialism in clear English,” making the new radical class politics as widely accessible as possible.

Meanwhile, Algie and May Simons would help the company develop substantial connections with the flourishing European socialist movement, resulting in the first American translation of Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (which was a best-seller for the company). Kerr also distributed the first American edition of Volume 1 of Marx’s Capital, but it was ultimately the support of autodidact Joseph Dietzgen, whom the Simons brought together with the Kerr company’s publishing resources, that allowed Kerr to fund the first complete English translation of all three volumes of Capital, a project completed in 1909 by Ernest Untermann, who worked his way through the tomes while living on a chicken farm in Orlando, Florida.

Kerr also began publishing a new magazine in 1900—the International Socialist Review (2), which would quickly become one of the most important nonsectarian journals of radical left thought in the U.S.  As Algie Simons eventually distanced himself from the project, becoming more involved with the reformist faction of the Socialist Party that sought to collaborate with the American Federation of Labor, Charles Kerr continued to become even more radical in his outlook, gravitating towards the rank and file militant industrial unionism of the Industrial Workers of the World.  The Review would correspondingly transition from a theoretical journal for a presumed socialist intellectual elite to a theoretical journal for the revolutionary masses, increasingly providing essential nationwide coverage of working-class insurgency, like the IWW’s Free Speech Fights which erupted in 1909.  In 1910, Wobbly poet Ralph Chaplin joined the Company, becoming its chief graphic artist, as did firebrand and muckraker Mary Marcy.  With this infusion of new radicals into the Company, Kerr would go on to publish Big Bill Haywood’s 1911 anticapitalist manifesto Industrial Socialism, and agitate against U.S. intervention in the Mexican Revolution.

Ultimately, as WWI began, the Kerr company proved to be too great a threat for the American government to ignore.  Taking a militant anticapitalist and antiwar stance on the conflict and the draft (with, for instance, Marcy’s 1915 exhortation for workers to “paralyze the industrial machinery that makes war possible”), the ISR became a prime target for the 1917 Espionage Act, which forbade the use of the post to distribute “seditious” material. The 1917 raids targeting the IWW also took a heavy toll on the company (press employee Ralph Chaplin was among those rounded up).  The Kerr company threw its support behind Big Bill Haywood in his federal trial, posting $2,000 of company funds and Mary Marcy’s house for his bail—all of which was forfeited when Haywood escaped the U.S. for Soviet Russia rather than stand trial.  This repression took its heaviest toll on Marcy, who was driven to suicide in 1922.

Kerr, however, persevered until 1928, and continued publishing important left-wing books like the Autobiography of Mother Jones and The Deportations Delirium of 1920, chronicling the Red Scare and the mass deportation of radicals.  Ultimately, after 42 years, Charles Kerr decided to retire, turning over the press to the Proletarian Party, a small Communist organization headed by Scottish immigrant John Keracher, who taught classes on Capital in the back of his Detroit shoe store before moving to Chicago.  The Proletarian Party was the very first group purged from the newly formed CPUSA in 1919 and played an important role in the sit down strikes of the 1930s that would lead to the emergence of the CIO.  Ultimately, it continued, if with lesser intensity, Kerr’s legacy in publishing popular, nonsectarian, mass oriented Marxist literature, including in 1935, the first English edition of Engel’s Anti-Dühring.

Kerr Company continued to survive as the publishing wing of the (dwindling) Proletarian Party throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, until the mid-70s, when the board was repopulated by a new collection of socialist agitators, including the Wobbly historian Fred Thompson. Under the influence of Thompson and other labor activists and historians, the Kerr Company began to delve back into the treasure trove of American labor stories, reissuing some of the company’s greatest hits, including the Autobiography of Mother Jones and Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy.

It wasn’t until the early 80s, though, that the Kerr Company would really come into its own once more as a new incarnation of Charles Hope Kerr’s fiery radical spirit. In 1983, control of the company was turned over to Penelope and Franklin Rosemont, artists and labor agitators who had joined the board in the late 1970s. Under the influence of the Rosemonts, the Kerr Company would continue to preserve the history of America’s radical agitators and labor activists, with collections like Ben Fletcher’s The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly, and the collected speeches of Lucy Parsons, widow of the Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons. But like every one of the Kerr Company’s many turns, the company’s list changed to reflect the concerns and the excitement of the radicals of the era. Under Penelope and Franklin’s wing, the Kerr Company was responsible for reprinting some of the most important documents to come out of post WWII labor radicalism and the New Left, including CLR James’ Facing Reality, Marty Glaberman’s Punching Out, and student-activist manifestos The New Radicals in the Multiversity and The Port Huron Statement. By virtue of the Rosemonts’ involvement with the burgeoning young radical movement in Chicago, the Kerr Company became one of the central publishing outlets for the new synthesis of radical political agitation and counter-cultural revolt that emerged in the 1960s and which permanently reshaped the face of American politics.

Not content to simply republish the work of others, the Rosemonts set to work writing their own histories of America’s most important radical figures and movements, and encouraging others in their circles to do the same. Driven by a desire to capture history from below, to cast off the “official” record of how things were that seemed to always focus on the viewpoint of the victors, Franklin, Penelope, and others who had come together in Chicago under the mantle of Surrealism, like the Blues historian and musician Paul Garon, would spend the next thirty years writing a new radical history of America, treating figures like Slim Brundage, Claude McKay, Memphis Minnie, and T-Bone Slim alongside Big Bill Haywood, Lucy Parsons, Mother Jones, and the great Wobbly bard Joe Hill. Hill is, in many ways, the key to this unlikely alliance between these great figures of American counterculture, and these great figures of labor activism—after all, Joe Hill is one of the great songwriters, poets, artists, and cartoonists of American labor. Hill’s story, especially in the hands of Franklin Rosemont, in his Joe Hill, is the story of a truly cultural union, of the IWW as the singing, dancing, and laughing union.   And in its devotion to this kind of vision of revolution—one that’s open-minded, experimental, focused on direct action and self-organization rather than orthodoxy and obedience—the Kerr company of today is continuing on the path blazed by Charles Hope Kerr over a century ago.

1) We’re fortunate to have a not brief at all history of the Kerr Company’s first half-century in Allen Ruff’s  We Called Each Other Comrade: Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publisher (University of Illinois, 1997), soon to be reissued by PM Press.
2) No relation to the International Socialist Organization’s current magazine of the same name.


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