Monday, July 27, 2020

Pages of Our History: Charles H Kerr & Co

Charles Hope Kerr
By Robin McGregor

Charles H Kerr & Co is not a particularly well-known name on this side of The Pond but it is possible that some readers will at have a few books from this Chicago publishing company on their bookshelf from when it was the main labour movement publisher in the days before the First World War.
Charles Hope Kerr was born in 1860, the son of a mathematics teacher at a boys’ school in the American state of Georgia. His parents were abolitionists helping slaves escape via the underground railway, an activity which forced them to take advantage of it and flee the state northwards, where his father became professor of Greek at Madison University.
Originally a Protestant Congregationalist, after graduating in Romance languages from his father’s university in 1881 Kerr started working as a clerk at a Chicago publishing house specialising in producing material for the Unitarian cause. Here he gained skills on which he built a long, productive, if not financially rewarding career.
Amongst his early achievements he dramatically boosted the circulation of the denominational paper Unity from 1,600 in 1883 to 8,000 by 1891. From 1886 it was published by a company bearing his name. The contents of Unity were not to the taste of the more conservative Unitarians, and even the more liberal ones were not pleased by Kerr penning a favourable review of an anarchist work in the pages of a Unitarian church journal.
This hastened his departure from Unitarianism and the company was re-established as an independent entity in 1893. One-thousand shares costing $10 each were issued. Of these, $500 was taken up by Kerr, a few wealthy supporters chipped in, but most went to supporters for whom the chance of discounts on future publications was the main attraction. A new monthly, first entitled New Occasions and then New Time, dealing with a mixture of progressive religious and secular views achieved a circulation of 30,000. When it was sold to its Editor it soon collapsed, suggesting that having Kerr’s hand at the tiller was vital.
The timing of the launch was not a good one: soon afterwards a trade depression struck. He managed to survive by appealing to supporters to invest small sums in what he described as a co-operative venture.
Although the company described itself a co-operative, it seems to be something of a one-man band, indeed not a few follow workers denounced him on this very point. In 1894 Kerr bravely published The Pullman Strike by William Carwardine, which was a sympathetic account of the recent important strike by the Chicago railwaymen that no other local publisher would dare touch as a result of pressure from George Pullman himself. This was just one book in an extensive list from a dazzling range of progressive viewpoints ranging from anarchism, bimetallism, evolutionism, feminism, and the Single Tax cause.
Kerr was never a man to adhere to a single cause for long. By the turn of the century he had abandoned his Populism for Marxism and became an active member of the most left-wing section of the Socialist Party of America.
This was the party, founded in 1901, that obtained 900,000 votes in the 1912 presidential election. It was an unsteady and varied coalition of socialists, trade unionists, municipal reformers, populist farmers, immigrants and a few Afro-American intellectuals. Despite winning mayoral positions and Congressmen, participation in elections was frowned upon by members of syndicalist tendencies. Its opposition to American participation in the First World War saw a few members leave in protest – but the Bolshevik Revolution presented another challenge, with many of those supporting it leaving to join the new Communist Party.
The Socialist Party had a national newspaper, the Appeal to Reason, that was commercially produced. This was a positive choice for the party, which feared that an editorial board would become an unwanted power in its own right. This also had the advantage of allowing Kerr to publish for the party but was never bound by its more right-wing leadership, and in turn the leadership was not embarrassed by any of Kerr’s mix of authors.
Much of his output took the form of pamphlets and small books in series such as The Pocket Library of Socialism and the Library of Science for the Workers, in distinctive red, new-fangled cellophane covers. The latter series included his best seller Shop Talks in Economics, written by his associate Mary Marcy in 1911. This was a basic introduction to Marxist economics, which sold two million copies and was translated into languages as diverse as Chinese and Finnish. These were priced very cheaply at five cents a copy, but $6 could allow branches to buy 1,000 copies of similar booklets.
On a much more ambitious scale he supported the massive task of translating the first complete English translation of the second and third volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital. Their familiar red-covered volumes were taken up by the London publisher Swan Sonneschein, who reprinted them frequently for decades. The publication of Socialist Songs with Music, the first such American collection, was a lighter product of his press.
His publications were generally small and cheap booklets, so they had little appeal for general booksellers who could not make a profit on them unless they could be sure of large sales. Instead, most of the business was by mail-order, with the books and pamphlets being advertised in his International Socialist Review (ISR) and other left wing periodicals, or sold via sympathetic unions and meetings of branches of the Socialist Party.
Kerr’s output was not limited to books and pamphlets. It produced educational playing cards, postcards and board games, but it is likely that the ISR was Kerr’s most important publication. Established in July 1900, it was originally a worthy intellectual publication with 800 subscribers. A revamp in 1908 with better paper and illustrations took circulation from 4,000 to a peak of 45,000 copies by 1911, boosted by such techniques as offering cheap copies of his books and pamphlets to new subscribers.
Regular subscription income from periodicals are often a mainstay for publishers because, being paid in advance, it gives a cushion for the more unpredictable income from book sales which, even if successful, only comes in after they are sold. It is reasonable to assume that a successful periodical allowed the company to produce low-margin books. A more unusual promotional offer made by Kerr was giving a phonograph to subscribers taking out a 25-year subscription.
Sadly, anyone taking up this offer would not have received a quarter-of-a-century worth of magazines. It closed in 1918 when the Federal authorities, armed with draconian war-time censorship powers, banned the ISR from the mailing system because it opposed American involvement in the First World War. Violent attacks on the Socialist Party by police and vigilantes had an indirect effect on Kerr as well as a direct one.
In 1917 a War Department spy visited Kerr’s shop hoping to buy anti-war literature to incriminate him but was told he could not because the book in question was banned. Instead he sent some other books published by Kerr to his bosses in Washington. They were not impressed to be sent older works by Marx and Kautsky and other 19th century works that were not banned, and the translation of Plato’s Republic by Kerr’s father. In 1918 the Canadian government made it illegal for any Canadian to possess any literature published by Charles H Kerr & Co, under penalty of a $5,000 fine or five years' imprisonment, a worthy if back-handed tribute to his work.
Rising paper costs and disruption of the transatlantic trade in the early war years hit the company and the circulation of the ISR declined.
 Apart from this, Kerr was badly hit financially when the union leader Bill Haywood unexpectedly fled to the Soviet Union whilst out on bail when appealing against a 20-year sentence. Kerr had contributed substantially towards the bail fund, which was, of course, lost.
This and the subsequent violent and legal repression of the Left in the Red Scare after the war ensured that the later history of the Company was at best one of only marginal significance.
Exhausted from his tireless and financially ill-rewarded labours Kerr finally retired at the age of 68 in 1928, but not before handing over the firm to the Proletarian Party of America (PPA), which had emerged from the left-wing part of the Michigan section of the Socialist Party of America. Kerr himself spent the last 16 years of his life in retirement living in Los Angeles with the sister of Mary Marcy before dying in 1944.
The PPA was the sort of regional party that found Communist Party discipline irksome. In the 1930s Kerr’s company published only a few new books, mostly by the PPA’s leader, but its backlist of classics kept it in business.
The Communist Party’s own International Publishers was founded in 1924 and soon took over the task of publishing the works of Marx and Lenin, aided by the Party’s contacts with the Soviet Union. With his background, it is unlikely that Kerr would have taken well to Bolshevik discipline.
The PPA finally closed in 1971 but the publishing firm remained in the hands of some Chicago radicals attached to the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Instead of being wound up as expected, it found a new niche market of publishing works of labour history that included several chronicling the battles it took part in. Its looks as though its last book was published in 2015 because the page on the publisher’s website for forthcoming books is blank.

Readers interested in seeking more details should consult Allen Ruff’s We Called each Other Comrade: Charles H Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press 1997 and 2011, which is the standard history of the firm but is a bit weak on the relatively unimportant post-First World War period.

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