We Called Each Other Comrade — a window into American radical publishing history

“We Called Each Other Comrade”: Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers

By Stefan Christoff
Free City Radio
January 6th, 2015

We Called Each Other Comrade is a great book to read within the context of contemporary activist discussions on the construction of radical institutions; parallel social, economic and political structures that can challenge dominant systems of power and injustice.

Both an exhaustive study and also including narrative elements, the book, published by PM Press, follows the establishment and nearly century long political trajectory of Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, a Chicago-based publishing house launched in 1886 by printing Unitarian tracts, evolving over decades into a publishing house voicing the radical ideas around the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), continuing to publish progressive books and materials well into the 20th century.

We Called Each Other Comrade is uniquely interesting book as it illustrates a fascinating example of a progressive project adjusting and changing honestly in concert with deepening and complex relationships with social movements.

One key publishing project outlined is the emergence and development of the critically important International Socialist Review, which became a key space for political debates and expression of the American left at the beginning of the 20th century. A magazine that achieved significant national distribution, firmly on the left of the American Socialist Party in the period leading up to World War I, the magazine took a strongly anti-war position and also published texts by writers part of anarchist organizing efforts.

Writers who contributed to the project included Mary “Mother” Jones, the Irish-American schoolteacher and labour / community organizer who was a IWW co-founder along with another journal contributor Bill Haywood, a labour organizer involved in some key workers strikes, such as those by the Western Federation of Miners and also the Lawrence textile strike in Massachusetts, moments that continue to define American labour historical identity until now.

Lawrence textile strike Massachusetts

photo : Lawrence textile strike, 1912, Massachusetts.

Aside from the International Socialist Review, the Kerr Publishing Company was also one the first publishing house to translate and make available in the US many key texts by Karl Marx, while also publishing Industrial Socialism by Bill Haywood and Frank Bohn, One Big Union by William Trautmann and also May Walden’s Socialism and the home.

Also key to the importance of We Called Each Other Comrade, is that it looks into the major state repression that progressive activists and institutions faced during the violent nationalism of World War I, given that both the International Socialist Review and the Kerr Publishing Company took a strongly anti-war position and fully joined the movement against the American entrance into the killing fields, the book outlining :

A vital oppositional voice and institutional center for the prewar American movement’s left wing, Charles H. Kerr & Company could not avoid the storm. It, too, became a target for war-bred harassment and state repression not long after U.S. entry into the fray. The firm survived as well but came away severely injured. The majority of movement publishing ventures did not weather the first year of American involvement.

The company belonged to a diverse social and political movement. Extending ideologically and politically from the authentically anarcho-syndicalist elements within the IWW that disavowed politics, that movement spanned a range from those who favored dual strategies of parliamentary campaigns and militant direct action to those who concentrated on gaining stable, respectable electoral strength and office through legal means.

The call for class struggle against war, quite distinct from the dissenting voices of various pacifist opponents, clearly marked all factions of the movement as immediate targets as soon as the country became a belligerent. Those deeply opposed to socialism readily took advantage of and used the era’s heightened jingoist and xenophobic sentiment to isolate and hobble the left as treasonous “slackers,” “war resisters,” … “anti-American,” or simply “troublemakers,” The political stances of the various movement groupings up to and well into the war made such attacks inevitable. Outspokenly oppositional on the issue of war and peace, Charles H. Kerr & company would not pass unnoticed.

In this section on the war We Called Each Other Comrade details the various legal challenges and draconian legislation passed by US lawmakers that targeted anti-war and left voices including the publishing house, including the banning of Kerr Publishing Company from using US national postal services for significant periods during the war.

Also detailed in the book are many of the organizational strategies and frameworks developed by the Kerr Publishing Company, that shifted, adapted and changed over time to respond to shifting political and economic realities. In many ways the Kerr Publishing Company is an example in cooperative economic funding, grassroots crowd-funding from a different era. For these details the book is important for read for current day activists working on, developing and exploring various ideas around models for radical institutions. Kerr Publishing Company is illustrated clearly as a project that can illuminate the possibilities for detail-driven, membership-based organization, while also the limitations faced by such models when under state repression.

We Called Each Other Comrade is an important read generally speaking because it illustrates and points to alternative, radical narratives of American history, celebrated in the book’s pages are not politicians and businessmen, but grassroots voices from social movements that were instrumental to the existing legal infrastructure around workers rights that union movements are still fighting to defend. Also the book is a clear illustration on the importance of alternative publishing in establishing a space for counter narratives, a political space for ideas that challenge the authoritarian frameworks of political and economic power.

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