We recently sat down with four of the people involved in the revitalization of the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company to talk about the re-emergence of the company, the new books that have either just been published or will be published in the near future, their plans for the future and the vision they have for the distinctive contribution that Kerr will make.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company?
Paul Garon: Charles H. Kerr started his publishing company in 1886 and it began as a Unitarian outfit publishing Unitarian books. But it wasn’t very long before he got drawn into socialism and began to publish socialist books, more or less around 1900, but he had already been leaning towards socialism. In 1905, he formed the International Socialist Review and that played a huge part in the growth of the labor movement in this country.
The next big step, which was a bad step, was the Palmer Raids of 1920 when they picked up a lot of Kerr authors, as well as other reds who they wanted. I think that led to the first period of doldrums. Kerr didn’t do anything for a while; the people who were still left printed reprints of things that they already had, but there weren’t many new books.
Charles Kerr finally decided to retire after about 40 years running the company and turned it over to John Keracher who, at that point in time, ran the Proletarian Party. Keracher took the company up into the 60s and 70s and that’s when Franklin and Penelope Rosemont became involved. When they got on the Board, it was the beginning of the modern period with the company publishing all sorts of red books, not to mention all sorts of surrealist books. I think that brings us pretty much up to today.
John Bracey: Can I add one important thing that shouldn’t be overlooked? Kerr translated Karl Marx’s three volumes of Capital into English.
Paul: That was a biggie.
John Bracey: When CLR James wanted to go talk, he told me, “I want the Kerr edition.”
John Bracey: Yeah, that’s what he said when he went to talk to the kids down in Hyde Park; he said he wanted the Kerr edition. I said, “I happen to have the three volumes” because I bought them for $2 in a comic book store. The guy had them hidden in the back. Because he said they’re subversive and I said, “What do you want?” “For $2, you can have all three of them.” And so I put them in a double wrapped paper bag and I snuck them out of the store and took them home, and I still have them.
John Clegg: And one more addition, the founding of the company in 1886 means that Kerr is the oldest radical publisher in the United States, and we would be the oldest radical publisher in the entire world if it weren’t for the fact that Freedom Press was founded in the same year in London. We share that title with Freedom Press.
Could you tell us a little bit about why you want to bring the publisher back to life?
John Clegg: I think we all would like to speak here now so maybe I can say one thing which is that last year America saw the largest social movement since the 1930s, involving millions of people in the streets. The tradition that we represent, specifically, since the 1960s of publishing black radical texts, texts that tried to change the world in that era and can still have that potential to change the world today, I think, it is vital for this new movement that we’re seeing emerging. So I think that bringing back these radical texts from the 60s and 70s, as well as the earlier phase for us is a very important mission.
Mia Beach: I would say that, as part of the small group of people who approached Kerr last year, trying to help it, we came from several years of interest. A lot of us are people who are based out of Chicago or the Midwest who grew up with Kerr books. They were really key to our radicalization and our education. We were a group of people who didn’t want to see Kerr folded into another publishing project. We didn’t want to see it get absorbed so that it might disappear. We wanted it to be able to keep its independence. But we wanted to be able to offer some help and some new energy to offer Kerr to a new group of readers who might also be influenced the way that we were influenced. I think that that was a motivating factor for several of the people who approached Kerr last year.
Paul: And there’s one other thing. Franklin Rosemont died in 2009 and that had an effect on all of us. At some point, Penny realized she couldn’t really run the current company single- handedly and she started grooming Tammy Smith to take a bigger role. Penny really said, in essence,”If I die, will you keep running it?” Tammy said, “Oh yes.” I think that’s where the new group came from. Mia, it must have been five or more years now that a bunch of people in your group came up to see us. We met at the Bakers Square Restaurant. It was a long time ago, but already you were showing us that you were interested in doing something for Kerr. Now that you’re actually doing it, I’m thrilled. I think everybody else is too.
John Bracey: Yeah, I got included in as new old blood or however you want to call it. I got pushed by two people–Toussaint Losier who’s on our faculty (at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst) who does Chicago work and knows a lot of people. He said, “Some people might ask you to join the Kerr Board.” I said, “What Kerr Board?” He said, ‘Well, we’ll call you later.” And then I got a call from Dave Roediger.
Let me go back for a minute. The importance of Kerr was that it never was the white left. Kerr was always the integrated left. You know they didn’t publish white people; they published radical people. They had a certain kind of uniqueness on the left in that they didn’t have a theory that added on black people at the end, if at all. The black experience was integral to surrealism and anarchism and not tacked on at the end. It was Franklin who was trying to do that when I met him back in 1963 and Bob Greene and all the rest of them. They were unique in that throughout its history it has had that collective outlook.
For example, you have Paul’s works on the blues which nobody complains about him being white. He was a white guy writing about the blues, because he knew more about it than anyone else.
And so there’s no doubt that you don’t have that thing which you get with the Socialist Party or the Communist Party or the Socialist Workers Party which was always asking me to join. “And what do black people have to say?” “Oh, they have a tendency or section.” “No, I don’t do sections.”
I ended up at Kerr not because I’m a black person in the corner of the board. I got to read all the books, or at least most of them. And that’s different, that’s important and that’s kind of where Noel came in with Race Traitor with the connection with Franklin.
Dave Ranney sent me a version of your draft mission statement as a way of giving me some background information for this interview. I remember a distinct emphasis on what you hoped to accomplish. It was not simply to start up a publishing company again but you had some larger goals. John Clegg hinted at some of that in his earlier answer, but I wonder if you could be a bit more specific about what you would like to try to do in the next few years.
John Clegg: I feel that the answer to that question has a lot to do with publishing books but it also has a lot to do with the capacity of Kerr to build a new audience in connection with the uprisings that we saw last year and the growing and intensive interest in the black radical tradition that John Bracey was describing.
I think Kerr has a huge potential to connect with a new generation of activists, a new generation of young people who understand the crisis of American capitalism and of American policing in a way that Kerr has a 100 plus year history of exploring and analyzing and fighting. Publishing fighting books for a new generation that is able to take to the streets on the scale that Americans have proven themselves able to do in the last year is how I would summarize our mission–fighting books for a new fighting generation.
Mia: I would agree with that. We really want to publish new titles, but we also want to use the back catalogue because Kerr has such a rich history. We’re not like a new press starting out; there’s actually a great deal of amazing books that have already been published and so introducing some of those older titles. In tandem with newer titles to people who might have missed them before or weren’t around when they were originally published is just as important.
John Bracey: And we’re also rescuing CLR James from the hands of the cultural studies people because what just drives me up the wall is people saying that James is the father of cultural studies. That’s total crap. No, no; he’s a revolutionary who thought that everyday life shows you the future in the present. That’s what culture meant to James. It was never separate from politics.
The lived experience of everyday people is what James wrote about 40 or 50 years ago. James’s view is that independent struggles don’t need advice. When Selma James wrote on the female question, she didn’t check with me on that. You know, I didn’t check with her either. The independent struggles represent the movement for socialism–not everybody in the same room at the same time trying to agree. That’s not going to happen.
You know it’s moving forward if you’re moving against capitalism, from whatever your standpoint is. That’s the movement and that’s everywhere, all the time. That’s what Kerr books demonstrate– both the James books and Franklin’s books–especially the surrealist ones.
Surrealism is a movement of people who don’t have to ask each other what to do but who share an outlook. I think young people know that they can move on and will be judged by what they build, not whether it’s the correct line. That kind of stuff has people all hung up sometimes.
So I want to follow up–if you could talk a little bit more specifically about what you might consider your short term plans (what would you like to accomplish in this first year of your renewed activity) and what you want to do in the two or three years after that. How many books, what kind of distribution, what order of magnitude in terms of the number of copies, the number of sales?
John Clegg: I think we should talk about Noel’s book and Chuang and Bradley’s book if that’s OK with everyone.
Paul: But we should mention that we have a poetry anthology lined up as well.
John Bracey: We will be updating and reprinting The Art of the Demonstration because young people need to know how to organize one without having a lot of money.
In the short term, short of abolishing capitalism, we’re going to sell books. We want our books to be things that advance awareness and struggle and have people understand that struggle and that they’re part of a longer tradition and to think their way through different kinds of ways of looking at the world. That gives them a freedom and a clarity, not to be bound by “ideological straitjackets,” which is what always ties the left down in this country. For example, political correctness, which we used to laugh at. That was a joke when we brought it up; nobody believed in it. I mean that was not a compliment–it was like: “You knucklehead.” And we want to help young people know that there’s a way to do it, other than to do it in a lockstep kind of way. They’re doing it anyway; they just don’t know if people did it before them, that it’s okay to do that. The books will demonstrate that. I think Noel’s book demonstrates that. Noel’s activity covers all the things you need to look at.
What are the first two or three books that you’re going to be publishing as exemplars of the kinds of books you’re interested in?
John Clegg: I could say something about Social Contagion and maybe John Bracey could say something about Cop Killer by Bradley Green. I don’t know who should say something more about Noel’s book. Should we divide it up amongst us?
Mia: I can’t talk about Noel’s book, but I could talk about the podcast and other outreach efforts after you all talk about books, if that works.
John Clegg: I’ll start with Acceptable Men and John and Paul, you can jump in if I miss anything. Acceptable Men is a memoir by Noel Ignatiev, a Chicago militant from the socialist Sojourner Truth Organization and, later, the journal Race Traitor and Hard Crackers. Acceptable Men is a story of Noel’’s life and work in the Gary Steel Works in the 1970s, which had been a conscious decision he made as a revolutionary to work alongside African-American workers in the steel mill in the hardest and dirtiest jobs in the plant. The book embodies Noel’s spirit, his deep commitment to anti-racist working class struggle, but also his humor. It is a hilarious book. It’s a book of stories of workers resisting work in the heart of American industry in the 1970s.
John Bracey: Bradley Green’s book, Cop Killer, is a unique one. It’s not quite an autobiography, more a memoir and reflection by a member of the Chicago Black Panther Party, who also was a first-rate NBA level college basketball player, whose career got cut short. He was a bodyguard for Fred Hampton and was wounded in the shoot-out before Fred got killed. He was then imprisoned.
In prison, he initiated a resistance movement that consisted not only of teaching the inmates how to read and write but also taking on the prison system itself, almost on a daily basis. Why it’s unique is that he is so critical–he does something, he thinks about it and he analyzes it–what’s good, what’s bad, and so forth, and he moves on.
For Bradley, the Panthers were a revolutionary group; that’s what they were about and he makes that front and center. That’s his whole life, he doesn’t give up on that. When he goes back to jail again after he’s been hiding for 10 years, he does another 10 years. He doesn’t write about that last 10 years, just the part that takes place in the 1980s.
I’ve never read anything like it. I don’t know anybody that was in those movements that can explain them that well. I don’t know anybody that is as honest about that world. He clearly is an extraordinary person.
Right in the middle of one of our conversations, he says that by the way, I got a college degree from Northern Illinois and I got into this master’s program but I didn’t want to go. This is in his spare time while attacking the guards and organizing study groups. He didn’t mention that in the book; he just assumed that everybody did that.
And the details that he can recall, he must have a photographic memory. You get details that I’ve never seen in any of the histories of that period, I mean it’s a magnificent book.
And the sub-theme is that he would have been an NBA basketball player. He grew up three blocks from me in Chicago. He’s five years younger than me, but we know the same neighborhoods, we know the same people, we played in the same playgrounds. And he has that world down pat. There are no errors and there are no mistakes–the street addresses are correct, the alleys are correct, the people are correct.
This book is not a watered down, made-for-TV, version of the Black Panther Party. This is what happened and his participation in it, with all the ups and downs and failures and successes. And it’d be extremely important for people to read something like that, because there’s nothing else out there like it. The closest one is James Forman’s The Making of Black Revolutionaries. Forman was a teacher of Bradley’s in elementary school so you have all these connections. The connections are amazing. Green also knew Muhammad Ahmad and the Revolutionary Action Movement. We knew the same people at different times in different kinds of ways. To repeat, it’s a brilliant book.
John Clegg: I can say something about Social Contagion. Acceptable Men and Cop Killer are both rooted in Chicago–very much rooted in the black radical traditions of Chicago at least since the 1960s, but in some ways, much earlier as well. Social Contagion is a very different kind of book. It’s a book about the Wuhan Industrial Zone in China by a collective of communists from China and outside.
Chuang has published two journals on China that I think represent the best English language analysis of China from our kind of radical point of view. The book is about the origins of COVID19 in Wuhan. It’s a book that blends Marxist political economy with on-the-ground ethnography of the struggles of ordinary Chinese workers in the midst of the pandemic. It shoots down many of the myths that we have about the Chinese state and its reaction to the virus.
It shows that in many ways the Chinese state’s reaction was not only destructive of life but deeply incompetent and that it forced ordinary Chinese people to take up the struggle to survive on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis. In Social Contagion, we get interviews with Chinese activists in Wuhan describing their situation, describing the things they were forced to do to band together and provide mutual aid in the midst of the pandemic. But we also see the power of the Chinese state, not as a power that would save anyone from the disease, but as the power of a counter-insurgency that was brewing in the midst of this crisis. The measures the Chinese state adopted to surveill its own citizens to better control and manage the epidemic are not only applicable to China, but to an increasingly threatening form of counter-insurgency that other governments around the world are adopting.
We think it’s a really important text that does what Kerr has done best in the past–present an internationalist radical critique that makes no excuses for supposedly state socialist regimes that oppress their own citizens and it does that with a view to a global state power that we are fighting as much in the United States as Chinese workers are fighting in China.
Mia, can we ask you to talk about the other stuff?
Μia: Part of our revitalization effort was to revamp the website to make it more contemporary and more intuitive. But, along with that, we are launching a podcast. Some of the podcasts will be interviews of authors that have previously published with Kerr; some will be historical; some will be in tandem with the launch of specific books, some will be about books in the catalog that we would like to showcase, and others will be about how our books relate to current movements. The first episode was with Penelope Rosemont and David Roediger talking about the history of Kerr.And we’ve got an upcoming one about Lucy Parsons. Finally, we’re hoping to set up a series of what we’re calling Conversations. I think it would be great if John Bracey could talk about what he and Sonia Sanchez have been talking about.
John Bracey: Sonia and I thought that, since we did so many things together, why didn’t we do conversations with younger people on selected topics. We could put them out as a podcast but, also at the end of the year, publish them as a book of Conversations Between Generations. You’d have a mix of an accomplished scholar and a young person in the field. Sonia and I would just get it started and get out of the way. Sonia’s committed to doing that and we’re going to try to get as many done as possible.
It’s not going to be old people telling people but more saying tell us what you think and tell us how we can help you. We don’t think you’re crazy, we don’t think you should be like us; you should keep on doing what you’re doing, and we will stand with you. We want to institutionalize those relationships. if we do them as a book at the end of the year, it could be titled Kerr Conversations Between Generations.
Paul: I wouldn’t say it’s a new commitment but it’s a renewed commitment to the arts, I mentioned the poetry anthology which I think will be a feminist poetry anthology but Mia knows more about it than I do, but we also have some plays lined up. One of them is by Dave Ranney who’s on the current board and another one is called “Praise Boss”.
Mia: One of the things that we’re pretty committed to is not just publishing theoretical, historical or political texts but also including the arts like Paul mentioned. That includes surrealist art and poetry anthologies. Kerr had a wide variety of genres that they published and we really want to keep all those things.
John Bracey: Yeah, we don’t want to be boring. Revolution should not be boring. You know, you gotta dance and when you dance, you gotta look good. And that would be Kerr’s take on it. How you feel and why you’re doing this matters. You should enjoy yourself in the struggle. The struggle should not be a struggle; struggle should be enjoyable.
Mia: The poetry anthology that we’re in the process of working on is based around the theme of work; it’s anti-work poetry. It might end up being feminist in nature in that both of the people compiling it and editing it are women but our main focus is the capitalist subject matter.
In light of the pervasive influence of the web, what do you see as the place for books? What’s special about books? What’s important about books? How do you place books where they can be newly appreciated, apart from all the noise?
Paul: I am a used rare book dealer so I could at least address that. We really do sell antiquarian books and an early rare Kerr book means a lot more to us than a brand new one.
John Bracey: We got that article that Bella sent around that showed in fact that books in print are not going down and the idea that Kindle is going to take over the world is just not happening. They hit a kind of wall on that and print books are back; they’re not sinking and, in fact, if you look at the best seller lists, publishers are selling more print books. It surprised me. I assumed Kindle had taken over, but not yet; people want books–a beautiful book, something they can hold, something they can write on themselves, something they can feel and touch.
John Clegg: It’s important to note that one of the reasons that book sales are up is that books on social justice are selling a lot more than ever before. The expansion of book sales, contrary to the myth that the digital market is taking over books, is in part driven by political reasons.
Mia: I think that everyone involved with Kerr shares a common love of the book as an object and there’s a lot of respect for that tradition. In order to make the books more interesting so that people want to own these books, we have to commit to making the books nice to hold, easy to carry and something that you want to take around with you and be seen with.
Being seen with a cool book is a thing if you’re out in public. There’s something to it that is actually more satisfying. It’s a conversation starter and I don’t think that’s going to go away. When you’re reading a book on your cell phone, people just think that you’re scrolling the Internet.
When you have a book in your hand, people know that you’re reading and I think it’s a different signifier. I believe in the book as a beautiful object and I believe that book reading can be a community building activity
John Bracey: Our long term goal is to destroy the distinction between intellectual and manual labor; it’s a very insidious notion that some people make books and other people write books. The process of making the book has an artistic tone to it. Books can be beautiful. You don’t have to be an intellectual to do a beautiful book.The people who write books don’t have greater insight into the world than the people that make the books; there is a false dichotomy that people in the Academy are smarter than people that are not in the Academy.
Kerr Books can demonstrate that in the way we do books. In fact, I even suggested doing a podcast on making a book just to show how a book is made. There is an artistic visual conception of what a book will look like and then, the bookmakers use technical skills to bring that into reality.
John Clegg: On that tip, I want to give a shout out to our wonderful designer, Dakota Brown, who is writing his dissertation on the history of the typesetter union in Chicago, which was a union that Franklin Rosemont’’s father was involved in organizing. Dakota is a typesetter himself and he’s carrying on that tradition by studying the tradition by designing and laying out the books that we’re publishing. We’re really happy to be working with him. He’s a great comrade, as well as a great designer.
Paul, just before we go, can you take two minutes to tell the people who are going to read the interview a little bit more about Franklin and Penny and what was distinctive about their period of time leading Kerr?
Paul: They met each other at Roosevelt University in Chicago; they were very interested in the IWW. In fact, they signed me up when I first got to Chicago in the 60s. But they were also interested in surrealism. Their interest in politics never really disappeared.
John Bracey: I met them both at Roosevelt. They kind of wandered over to where we had a black radical table and they kind of sat around. They looked like they were running away from something, because they looked so young–like the police were coming after them or their families. They would just casually mention something about African-American culture–have you read this; what do you think about that; do you like that person.
And then they formed an Anti-Poetry Club which got us into a lot of trouble. They wouldn’t register with the student government so they couldn’t get any money from the school. I said, “Look, I’m not that much of an anarchist” and I offered to act as an officer of the club so we could get the money.
Our first event was a meeting that we didn’t have. We just stood outside in the hallway. People filled up the auditorium and we kept saying, “What’s going on in there?” And then we decided that the meeting was over and we just walked away.
We did a play too. Everybody wrote their own part. And they could start or finish whenever they wanted and you could face the stage in any way you wanted. People had no idea what was going on. I’m sitting in the back with my back to the stage playing my drums. Franklin is playing his guitar. Somebody is playing the flute. Bob Greene is chanting something about rebellion.
People had no idea what we were doing and then we just stopped and walked away to thunderous applause.
Our big event that got us banned was when we invited Joffre Stewart, a leading anarcho-pacifist poet in Chicago, to come talk. The event was in the Chem Lab auditorium. Joffre starts off by setting the City of Chicago flag on fire, then he sets the State of Illinois flag on fire, then he sets the American flag on fire. By this time, smoke is all over the place, and here come the University police with their fire extinguishers. We got kicked off campus and were banned. We can’t do anything and Joffre is also banned from the campus. But Roosevelt alums have a right to perpetual use of the campus. Joffre came back the next morning to use the library, and the fight was on. The faculty backed us.
The president said to us we were expelled but we said no, you’re not Roosevelt, we’re Roosevelt. The faculty, who we didn’t realize hated the president, supported us against the president. So the president resigned. It was an amazing group of people and the most courageous people that I have ever met.
Franklin and Penelope were remarkable people that did remarkable things. They formed an Illinois State History Society so that Franklin could be buried next to the Haymarket Martyrs in a cemetery and the only way to do that was to own the cemetery. You know he didn’t care less about Illinois history; he wanted an entity to own the cemetery. Franklin is buried next to the Haymarket anarchists as he wanted.
That was Franklin and Penelope. They always had something they were doing. Franklin never cussed because he liked to talk to young people. He could talk to 12 and 13 year olds about comic books in their language and they loved him. He never censored himself because he never had to.
That was deliberate on his part; he wanted everybody to be able to be Bugs Bunny. We argued about Yogi Bear versus Bugs Bunny. I argued that Yogi Bear was the black version of Bugs Bunny because he had a partner named Boo. He didn’t want to work. And he had a full head of hair and a sidekick named Boo. What is that but a black person? Come on! We argued that to the day that Frank died.
But they were special. I never met two people like them before. So when Dave Roediger said that Penny couldn’t do it anymore and would I come back, I said sure!
 The Palmer Raids, conducted by the US Department of Justice, targeted anarchists, communists and radicals of all kinds. The targets were arrested and often deported.
 Race Traitor published two special issues on surrealism.
 See https://soundcloud.com/kerr-podcast.
 See https://abc7news.com/books-reading-book-sales-coronavirus/8640527/.
We encourage our readers to head over to Charles H. Kerr’s website and check out their new releases, including Noel Ignatiev’s memoir, Acceptable Men.