International Publishers – 100 years producing ‘the literature of the revolution’
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NEW YORK—“The literature of the revolution is taking its prominent place in the English-speaking world.” That was how this newspaper reported on the growth of International Publishers back in the 1920s when the company debuted its first full catalog of books, covering everything from classical works of Marxism to developments in the U.S. labor movement to the latest happenings in “the new Russia”—the Soviet Union.

International arrived on the scene in 1924, a time when almost no one was making the works of scientific socialism available to an American audience. It hasn’t stopped since. As International’s vice president, Tony Pecinovsky, told People’s World, “International Publishers was not only one of the first Marxist publishers in the U.S., it is also one of the longest continually publishing Marxist publishers in the U.S.”

Over the past century, the radical imprint has put out thousands of titles in copies numbering in the tens of millions. The achievements of those 100 years of publishing will be the subject of an upcoming day-long seminar hosted at New York University’s Tamiment Library on Oct. 26.

“This is an especially important time to celebrate and recognize International’s history,” Pecinovsky said. “With a new generation exploring socialism, we’re celebrating IP’s past, but we’re also gearing up for our future.”

Titles from International Publishers displayed in the window of the Workers Book Shop on 13th Street in New York City in 1942. | Library of Congress

While it’s perhaps best known for its extensive selections of affordable paperback classics like The Communist Manifesto and What is to be Done?, or the 50-volume Marx-Engels Collected Works, International’s reach has gone far beyond works of philosophy and political strategy.

For the better part of the 20th century, it was the premier publisher of radical literature in North America—covering the struggle for socialism, the strategy and tactics of organizing and mobilizing the working class, the fights for African American equality and Black Liberation, women’s liberation, peace, and international solidarity.

“Long before mainstream publishing houses, academic publishers, trade publishers, etc., recognized the importance of publishing books on Black Liberation, IP was there,” Pecinovsky said.

Backing up the claim—and more—Pecinovsky continued:

“We published Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts when most of academia still argued that slaves benefited from slavery; we published W.E.B. Du Bois’ autobiography when most of the publishing world had turned their backs on him claiming he was a “foreign agent”; we published Betty Millard’s Woman Against Myth, a ground-breaking study that helped lay the foundation for the 1960s and ’70s wave of feminism; and we are the publisher of Philip S. Foner’s monumental 11-volume History of the Labor Movement in the United States.”

Among the other authors whose writings have flowed out to the world from International’s printing press are luminaries like Antonio Gramsci, Angela Davis, Claude Lightfoot, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, William Z. Foster, and countless more.

Courtesy of @TheDailyWorker on Instagram

Shannon O’Neill, the curator of the Tamiment-Wagner Collections at NYU Library, which is hosting the Oct. 26th seminar, says that International Publishers is “central to the larger story of radical publishing in the United States in multiple senses.”

First, she told People’s World, “in terms of the circulation of words and ideas that challenge capitalist, racist, sexist, imperialist systems; and second…in terms of reaching the masses through affordable, well-edited, easily accessible texts, IP has always been at the forefront.”

O’Neill believes it’s also important to underscore the fact that despite numerous attempts by the U.S. government to destroy International over the years, it has not only persisted, but continued to have an impact on history. “It is often IP’s texts that have circulated picket lines, union halls, and curricula inside and outside academia,” she said.

That’s a point Pecinovsky made as well. “We published books during the height of the McCarthy era that were deemed subversive and anti-American,” he said, “and our founder, Alexander Trachtenberg, was put on trial and thrown in jail.” He recalled that International “showed solidarity with world socialism and the national liberation movements then freeing themselves from colonialism and imperialism—something no other U.S.-based publishing house can lay claim to.”

All of that will be celebrated at the big birthday bash being planned at NYU, but it’s not just International’s past glories that are the centerpiece of the seminar—it will also be a glimpse toward the future that Pecinovsky believes is still ahead for the company. “This seminar is really a jumping-off point for a new, reinvigorated International Publishers,” he said.

O’Neill agrees. “The symposium isn’t only thinking about IP retrospectively, but also addressing the current and future impact IP has on political discourse and action.” She said that the aim of the event is to situate International’s role “within our present political context, in which we are collectively witnessing a rise (again) in the suppression of radical thought and words.”

Pecinovsky pitched the seminar as an opportunity to present “an outwardly-projecting IP that is actively reaching out to authors and trying to recapture its legacy as a premier publisher of Marxist titles.”

Courtesy of International Publishers

That’s apparent from the diverse collection of scholars and historians slated to address the conference. Giving the keynote will be Dr. Gerald Horne, the Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston.

Horne is the author of several historical monographs published by International, including studies of Jim Crow and the roots of U.S. fascism, Communists in the Civil Rights movement, the struggle against white supremacy on the African continent, and more.

Expressing the unity of theory and practice—appropriate for a Marxist publisher—International and Tamiment have assembled panels that span the bounds of academia and current labor and political struggles.

Smith College Prof. Elisabeth Armstrong will speak on women in the anti-imperialist peace movement. Historian Paul Buhle will take a look at the life of Alexander Trachtenberg and the founding of International Publishers. Denise Lynn plans to examine the works of two prominent Communist women, Betty Millard and Claudia Jones, and their writings for the party’s Women’s Commission publications.

Melisa Ford will talk about the biographies she’s preparing on Black women Communists from the Midwest. Labor activist Justine Medina will examine how William Z. Foster’s classic works on union organizing have influenced today’s fight inside Amazon’s warehouses. Some books in International’s back-catalog that are getting new releases, like Yuri Smertin’s biography of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, will also be in the spotlight.

Those are just a few of the more than a dozen presentations scheduled for the day. Communist Party USA leaders like Jarvis Tyner, Joelle Fishman, Denice Miles, and Joe Sims will also be in attendance, talking about the long relationship between the CPUSA and International, as well as giving previews of upcoming books that some of them have in the works.

The event won’t be all talk, though. A pop-up exhibit co-curated by Pecinovsky and O’Neill will showcase a collection of unique artifacts and documents from across International’s hundred years of publishing.

The impact of IP books on today’s labor and political struggles will be a feature of the seminar at NYU, along with a look at the company’s hundred-year history. | Courtesy of International Publishers

Pecinovsky said it was tempting to “wander down the rabbit hole and get distracted” by all the things Tamiment has from the International Publishers archives, but one of the items he found most captivating was what is believed to be the company’s first catalog, from 1926.

“We can see how IP’s offerings changed and grew over time, how it’s focus shifted,” he said. “It constantly kept pace with developing ideological questions in the world socialist movement, the struggle for peace, African American equality, Black Liberation, feminism, and workers’ rights.”

O’Neill said she’s most looking forward to a display focused on the extensive correspondence between W.E.B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and International Publishers in the 1950s and ’60s. “The letters reveal a lot about IP’s commitments as a radical publisher and ultimately demonstrates the role that IP has played in global political discourse,” she said.

Registration details for the conference are below, but if you can’t attend in person, you don’t have to miss out. All the presentations and papers from the seminar will—of course—be compiled and released as a new book by International Publishers in spring 2024.

REGISTER HERE for the International Publishers 100th anniversary seminar at NYU.

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C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.