Red Ink: The Charles H. Kerr Story

Tim Dayton

”We Called Each Other Comrade”: Charles H. Kerr and Company, Radical Publishers. by Allen Ruff. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997, 312 pages with index, $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paperback.

THE WORLD OF Debsian socialism seems both unbridgably distant and surprisingly near as we approach the end of the 20th century. Distant is the optimism that sees the arrival of socialism, of the “cooperative commonwealth,”as an inevitable, inexorable product of the evolution of capitalist society.

Distant, also, is the complete confidence of the era’s socialists that the significant problems of the world around them would be solved with relative ease in this newly dawned socialist world.

And yet, the world of the Second International as it existed in the United States should not seem utterly alien to the world in which we now find ourselves. While socialist thought was well established among the intellectuals and the working class, we should recall that it was a distinctly minority viewpoint.

More dramatically, the disputes among various tendencies took place without the mid-20th century litmus test: the question of one’s relation to Moscow.

Awareness of the present moment’s differences from and similarities to the Debs era is just one of the virtues of Allen Ruff’s “We Called Each Other Comrade.” Other outstanding features of the book are: useful outlines of the political, intellectual and cultural context relevant to Kerr and Co.; the account of Kerr’s roots in radical Unitarianism and his development therefrom; close attention to the ideological and political tensions within the Socialist Party, particularly as they affected and were intervened in by Kerr and Co.; descriptions of the associates of Kerr: Algie Simons, Mary Marcy, Ernest Unterman, and others; and detailed accounts of the business of publishing, including Kerr’s strategies and tactics for coping successfully with the vagaries of the business climate with which he had to cope without at the same time violating his deeply held political beliefs.

Charles H. Kerr

Born in 1860 into a liberal Unitarian family, Charles H. Kerr began his career in publishing from within Unitarianism. After completing his studies at the University of Wisconsin, he moved to Chicago where he apprenticed with and become publisher for the “Unity-men,”a group of liberal Unitarians associated with the journal Unity.

In describing Kerr’s career from 1883-1893 and his development within and eventually out of Unitarianism, Ruff reveals the close relationship between politics and religion, particularly the relationship between liberal Protestantism, Emersonianism, and the development of the socialist movement in the United States.

The liberal Unitarians associated with Unity sought to improve the world through ethics and education. But the daily realities of industrialized Chicago, as well as spectacular events such as the Haymarket incident, appear to have urged Kerr to seek an unambiguously political perspective on the world.

Kerr accordingly moved from Unitarianism to Populism, a move made public when he ceased to publish Unity and founded New Occasions (later called New Time) in 1893. The populist moment in Kerr’s development was relatively brief, but indicates Kerr’s close and organic connection to the development of the socialist left in this country, at least as it was experienced among the native-born.

Like Nick Salvatore’s Eugene Debs: Citizen and Socialist, Ruff’s book demonstrates that an outstanding American socialist became a socialist through a process of political and intellectual development rooted in his experience as an American, not as the result of some epiphanic conversion or because of an innate (and ultimately psychological) rebelliousness.

While Ruff concentrates his attention on Kerr, the brief portraits of other figures associated with him suggests that as with Kerr’s, their politics were “shaped less by an impulsive and inexplicable leap of faith or conversion experience than by a rational, informed assessment of history and existing social and political conditions and a set of informed assumptions about the future direction of American society.”(82-83)

Kerr and Co.: Socialist Publishers

Following his departure from New Time and populism in 1898, Kerr became an explicitly socialist publisher. Ruff organizes this part of Kerr’s career in relation to the emerging political tendencies within the Socialist Party.

Kerr’s first phase, from 1899-1908, while sympathetic to what would become distinctively “left”positions, preceded the marked division between factions that would become a serious issue within the Socialist Party.

Among Kerr and Co.’s major contributions in this first phase were: founding the International Socialist Review, the major theoretical journal of the period; publishing an inexpensive Pocket Library of Socialism (which by 1902 had put into circulation thirty-five titles totaling a half-million copies); backing (with the financial assistance of Eugene Dietzgen) Ernest Unterman’s translation of the three volumes of Das Kapital into English (published 1906-1909); publishing significant works of European socialists including Marx and Engels, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Ferdinand Lasalle, Karl Kautsky and Antonio Labriola, to name a few; and, finally, bringing out a stream of volumes that brought Marxist perspectives to bear on questions of U.S. history, society, and politics.

While Ruff reserves the Gramscian term “counterhegemonic”for his book’s conclusion, there is no mistaking the nature of Kerr and Co.’s project: They wanted to transform the frame of thought within which Americans operated, and make socialism the enlightened common sense of the masses.

The second phase of Kerr and Co. as a socialist publisher is marked by a turn leftward, a turn that came amidst tumultuous debates and conflicts within the U.S. Socialist Party and within the parties of the Second International generally. While the intra-party struggles were rather involved, they can be presented schematically without too much loss.

At the practical level, while the right emphasized working within the AFL and asserting power through the ballot box, the left emphasized building industrial unions and asserting power through direct action. At the theoretical level, the right tended toward evolutionary gradualism, while the left tended toward voluntarism.

While clearly aligned after 1908 with the party’s left wing, Kerr and the writers most closely associated with him attempted to establish a position which gave due weight to both electoral activity and industrial unionism, the development of the social productive forces and the development of class consciousness.

Kerr’s movement leftward was reflected in Kerr and Co.’s publications. When Algie Simons, who had served as editor-in-chief of the International Socialist Review until 1908, moved to the Socialist Party’s right wing, Kerr took over editorial duties on the ISR.

Under Kerr—with considerable assistance from Mary Marcy—the journal became more lively in terms of both format, which was spiced with illustrations, and content, which avoided the rather dry theoretical essays Simons featured in favor of more practical and tactically oriented pieces. This change, combined with the growth of the socialist movement and Kerr’s ingenious efforts to boost sales, saw the circulation of ISR grow from around 3000 when he took over to 40,000 by 1911.

Book and pamphlet publications from this period included works by Mary Marcy—including her remarkable primer Shop Talks on Economics,which she describes as “an attempt to say, in the language of working men and women, the things Marx says in his own books”(9)—James Connolly (the Irish leftist executed by the British following the 1916 Easter rising), Kautsky, Plekhanov, William Morris, Karl Liebknecht, Sen Katayama (an important Japanese leftist), Big Bill Haywood and Frank Bohn.

The Kerr Line

The temptation to run to an extreme in the divide between left and right in the socialist movement was powerful, and Kerr writers sometimes fell victim to it. (It is worth noting that Ruff is generally even-handed in his treatment of the factional and personal disputes he recounts.)

American left-wing socialists were attracted by European Syndicalism, an attraction that sometimes led writers in Kerr publications to positions of extreme “workerism,”expressed with a moralism reminiscent of today’s identity politics.

Emphasis falls on the utter difference between worker and capitalist, and overly restrictive definitions of who qualifies as a worker are put forward; disagreements are placed before the court of supposed class affiliation rather than reason.

Further, a tendency to make the grand gesture resulted in the willingness of both left- and right-wingers to resort to rhetorical devices in order to win debates, rather than to hammer out real solutions to real theoretical and practical problems.

One example is Bill Haywood’s response to right-wing attacks on sabotage (a term Haywood overused precisely because he knew that it was bait to which his opponents unfailingly would rise) as a tactic for the labor movement. Haywood asserted that putting Socialist Party candidates in office was a form of sabotage: it gummed up the operation of a repressive government.

While this clever semantic play may have frustrated his right-wing opponents, it did little to advance understanding of the relationship between industrial unionism and political action.

The debates of the early teens were soon overshadowed by the outbreak of World War I, and the collapse of the Second International as the various socialist parties rallied to their national colors, rather than to socialist internationalism.

The Antiwar Position

Unlike their European cousins, the U.S. left, principally the Socialist Party, the IWW and the independent left press, maintained an antiwar position before and after the U.S. declaration of war. As a result, it was subjected to vicious government repression.

On top of this, business seized the opportunity presented by the hyper-patriotism of the moment to attack some old enemies. This assault damaged the left gravely in many areas, and as Ruff shows, foremost among the sufferers was the left press.

Because this is such a large, regionally and otherwise diverse country, the press served an important unifying function, drawing together the easily fragmented movement. But the dependence of the press upon the U.S. Post Office—the details of which Ruff handles particularly well—to deliver its goods meant that it depended upon the cooperation of a government whose most important policies it attacked.

Vulnerable, the left press was severely disrupted during the war. The Appeal to Reason managed to stay alive by adopting a pro-war position; the International Socialist Review (denied mailing permits) went under, and Kerr had trouble sending books through the mail.

While the disruption of postal service seems to pale in comparison to such products of the war hysteria as mass deportations or the murder of Frank Little in Butte in 1917, it was a significant piece of a determined campaign conducted between 1917 and the early twenties to destroy the left.

When combined with the disorientation caused by the collapse of the Second International and emergence of the Third, the period presented socialists with an extraordinarily difficult series of choices.

Paradoxically, the defeat of the U.S. left between 1917 and 1921 suggests that Kerr and Co.’s advocacy of the dual strategy of developing industrial unions (which for Kerr at least did not exclude working inside as well as outside the AFL (Ruff 116-17)) and trying to put socialists in office was correct.

The foremost industrial unionists, the IWW, were eliminated as a serious force by governmental and vigilante pressure which could not be countered or thwarted by sympathetic public officials, since the electoral strength of the socialists had not reached critical mass.

Right-wing socialists, on the other hand, watched in dismay as their AFL allies vigorously supported the American war effort. For its part, the AFL would suffer in the twenties as American capital, free of the specter of a radical union, launched the infamous “American Plan.”A combination of electoral and industrial unionist activity seems the proper political line to have taken.

Whether this line could have been pursued more successfully than it was under the circumstances is certainly an open question, and one that Ruff’s book, with its clear presentation of Kerr and Co.’s position, provokes. Having more socialists in office by 1917 might have deprived anti-socialists of the full use of repressive force.

But even if the left and right had fully agreed on tactical issues and overcome their differences, one doubts the impact would have been so immediately profound as to put a really great number of socialist candidates in office.

Victory in Defeat?

Of course, the left could have joined the AFL and a number of prominent individual socialists, followed the example of most European socialists, and supported the war effort. This might have denied their foes the pretext for an offensive against the left—but at the price of the socialist movement’s political integrity and reason for existence.

But what does it mean that the Socialist Party and the other elements of the U.S. left opposed the war, while the European socialist parties did not, and that the U.S. Socialist party entered an irreversible decline, while the European parties soldiered on?

Eric Foner puts the matter forcefully in his essay, titled after Werner Sombart’s famous question, “Why is There No Socialism in the United States?”

Of the two great `isms’ created by the nineteenth century—socialism and nationalism—the latter in Western Europe proved far the stronger in 1914. Socialist internationalism was crucified on the cross of socialist support for the war effort.

Was the American party’s opposition to the war a courageous act of suicide? At least, history ought to record that the American Socialist party went to its death not because there was less socialism in the United States than in Europe, but because, apart from the Russian Bolsheviks, the American was the party that remained most true to socialist principles. (History Workshop Journal issue 17, 1984: 72)

If Foner is correct, then the story of the American Socialist Party is tragic, as is that of Kerr and Co.’s unsuccessful attempt to make socialist ideas prevail.

But to judge the attempt unsuccessful is to reproduce the common and tempting error of thinking that history moves according to the rhythm and tempo of individual human lives. It does not, and one comes away from Ruff’s book convinced that Kerr and Co. made a significant contribution to the attempt to replace capitalism with a better form of social organization, and with respect for the Kerr group’s dedication, intelligence, resourcefulness and commitment to principle.

ATC 76, September-October 1998