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Saturday, July 09, 2011

Department of Book Reports: "We Called Each Other Comrade"

Allen Ruff's "We Called Each Other Comrade": Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers (PM Press $24.95) is social history at it's best. The subject of the book is Charles H. Kerr, who began publishing Unitarian tracts and books, starting in 1886, was a pioneer of books published in cheap editions and made accessible for the average man. Kerr (1860-1944) led a very interesting life, filled with ideas with many stops along the way. The books he published reflected an intellectual curiosity and showed his migration from Unitarianism, to Marxism, the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, and finally to the Proletarian Party, a splinter group of the original Communist Party of America.

Ruff's gift to us in this book is not only the examination of one mans life, but an exploration of ideas current in the late 19th century and into the Pre-World War One years on the left. Along the way we get a history of book publishing (centered mostly in New York, but with a strong presence in Chicago, where Kerr's house was located); the drift of Unitarian thought from it's Congregational roots to the church we would recognize now; to Marxist ideas in American thought; a history of the origins of the Socialist Party, which had a big hand in the founding of the IWW, otherwise known affectionately as the Wobblies; to the suppression of Left opposition to the "imperialist" first world war; and it describes the fractious and turbulent history of the American Left, which resonates even today. It is fascinating stuff.

Kerr himself revolutionized in many ways book publishing, offering books, pamphlets and ephemera at low cost to the customer. Always a man who thought education important, he wanted to make readily available these ideas to the common person. He also started the journal, International Socialist Review (ISR), which along with the Masses, was a very important vehicle for left-wing thought, and became another victim of the Great War when Kerr was not allowed to send it through the mails.. Kerr also translated from the French, the English lyrics to the Socialist anthem, The Internationale, which begins Arise Ye Prisoners of starvation/ Arise Ye wretched of the Earth, which many of you might recognize from the Franz Fanon anti-colonial book. He was a man of solid, middle-class background, who, as he got older, moved more and more to the Left.

The Charles H. Kerr Company still exists today and it's slogan is "Subversive Literature for the Whole Family Since 1886. This is the second edition of "We Called Each Other Comrade", first published in the mid 1990's and reissued by PM Press with a new foreword by Paul Buhle, a noted historian of American radicalism. I should note that the publisher provided me with a copy & a super cool sticker gratis. This book brims with ideas and reminds us that what we suffer today is not new, and must be opposed. "We have been nought/ We shall be all".

I will continue my commentaries on the American Modernist writers soon, with some thoughts on Ernest Hemingway, coming up soon. For now, I did want to tell you about "We Called Each Other Comrade", which is available at (Jackson Street) Books on 7th and fine Independent bookstores everywhere. Visit us on Facebook Jackson Street Books.

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