The company's story begins improbably enough with the birth of Charles Hope Kerr to abolitionist parents living in LaGrange, Georgia just before the start of the Civil War. According to some accounts, the Kerrs used the Underground Railroad, designed to transport fugitive slaves, to beat a hasty retreat from the South. By 1881, Charles Hope Kerr had graduated from the University of Wisconsin, where his father chaired the Department of Classics. The younger Kerr's undergraduate training in Romance Languages would later serve him well as he was to translate into English such works as Antonio Labriola's Essays on the Materialist Conception of History and Paul Lafargue's brilliant The Right to Be Lazy.
When the Haymarket bomb exploded at a Chicago labor demonstration in 1886, Charles Hope Kerr was a resident of that city, an experienced editor of Unitarian periodicals and the founder of his own Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company. He later recalled learning much from the left Unitarians, though he noted that the radicalism of many of them dimmed quickly when the property question came to the fore.
In the wake of Haymarket and of the 1894 Pullman strike, the property question was to become an increasingly sharp concern for Kerr and for his wife, the feminist temperance advocate, May Walden. After first embracing the monetary reform ideas of the Populist movement, the couple accepted socialism at the century's turn. A 1900 Kerr Company catalog suggests the expansive range of interests which the publishing house brought with it in joining forces with the organized left, promising books "on socialism, free thought, economics, history, hygiene, American fiction, etc."
A year later music would join the list, with the publication of Socialist Songs With Music, the first such collection printed in the U.S. Kerr edited Socialist Songs himself and provided a translation of the "Internationale," one destined to become the standard English text. In subsequent years, socialist playing cards, post cards and even board games found places in Kerr catalogs alongside works of theory.
In the early twentieth century, the Kerr Company became the world's leading English-language radical publisher. It issued, between 1906 and 1909, Ernest Untermann's translation of the three volumes of Marx's Capital, the first full such text, and published the initial popular edition of the anthropological classic Ancient Society, by Lewis Henry Morgan. The works of Clarence Darrow, Peter Kropotkin, Carl Sandburg and Jack London also graced Kerr's lists.
The International Socialist Review (ISR), published by Kerr and affiliated with the Second International, began in 1900 as a rather staid and academic journal edited by the socialist intellectual A. M. Simons. But, after 1908, under Kerr's and later Mary Marcy's editorship, it became a lively mass circulation magazine featuring radical theory, culture (including exclusive publications of London's short stories) and reportage. Contributors included virtually every well-known figure in the radical labor movement, here and abroad.
During the critical World War One years, the Kerr Company represented not only a publishing house, but also a current in the American socialist movement. Openly and uncompromisingly revolutionary, sympathetic to the proletarian socialism of the Industrial Workers of the World and intractably opposed to militarism, the Kerr Company vigorously opposed the war, both before and after U.S. entry. The U.S. government as vigorously opposed the Kerr Company, seeing to it that ISR was banned from the mails under the infamous Espionage Act. Repression, splits in the Socialist Party and the decimation of the IWW all took their toll and, by 1928, an exhausted Charles H. Kerr retired from the company which he had directed for 42 years.
Kerr left the company which bore his name a rich heritage, especially as the American publisher of works representing the viewpoints of the libertarian far left and of revolutionary industrial unionism. Out of the IWW experiences came Kerr's publication of Austin Lewis' The Militant Proletariat, one of the most important theoretical works written in the U.S. Especially during the war, ISR opened its pages to the best of the European far left, including Rosa Luxemburg, Otto Ruble, Hermann Gorter and S. J. Rutgers. Not only did Anton Pannekoek's articles appear, but his Marxism and Darwinism, translated into English, became a Kerr pamphlet. Perhaps most remarkably, in 1913, shortly after being investigated by the Socialist Party leadership for its heterodoxy, the Kerr Company published a translation of Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte done by the SP's sternest left critic, Daniel DeLeon. Kerr himself, though still an SP member, also included DeLeon's 1897 introduction and to top off a noteworthy adventure in nonsectarianism, added a "Publisher's Note" stressing that the "events of sixteen years have in many ways confirmed [the introduction's] forecast" on political matters.
Prior to leaving, Charles H. Kerr took steps to ensure that the company would continue. Well before he departed, he turned over much of the operation to John Keracher and other members of the Proletarian Party. The PP, which originally adhered to the Communist International, dissented from any analyses which hinted that the time of triumph of American Bolshevism was at hand. It proved to be a small party, but an apt caretaker for the Kerr Company. The Proletarians' roots in the Michigan Socialist Party imparted a deep respect for Kerr's past. Perhaps for that reason, the PP never sought to transform Kerr into a narrow party press. The PP also enjoyed a substantial following among self-educated skilled workers. It often conducted workers' schools and, at times, seemed as interested in spreading knowledge of the natural sciences as in propagating Marxism. This love of knowledge, along with the long-range perspectives of the PP, fit Keracher and his associates well for radical publishing work.
Through 1971, the Proletarians ran Kerr, a company much diminished in size from its early twentieth century heyday, but one still able to keep Marxist classics in print and even to add an occasional new title, such as Keracher's own witty and biting critique of advertising and media, The Head-Fixing Industry.
In 1971, with the PP passing out of existence, its leaders gave control of the Kerr Company to a new Board of Directors, including longtime IWW leader Fred Thompson, labor defense activist and radical economist Joseph Giganti, socialist historian and expert on American Indians Virgil Vogel, and Burt Rosen, a Korean War draft resistance activist and veteran socialist. Cooperating with the Illinois Labor History Society, the revived Kerr Company far exceeded the original expectations of its new Board of Directors, which, as Thompson recalls, at first hoped to give a "decent burial" to a historic institution by distributing its existing stock. Instead, and largely through the hard work of Burt Rosen, the company rebounded and published new biographies of Eugene Debs and of Lucy Parsons, as well as Daniel Fusfeld's masterful short history, Rise and Repression of Radical Labor. Old Kerr titles by Engels, Marx and Lafargue were reprinted, along with The Autobiography of Mother Jones, a labor classic first published in the twenties, reissued in time to sell thousands of copies in mining towns during the coal strikes of the seventies.
The past couple of decades have seen further growth of the Kerr Company. Organized as a worker-owned co-operative not-for-profit educational association, its rapidly expanding list features beautifully printed but reasonably priced books which bring back into print some of the best of C.L.R. James, Mary Marcy, Edward Bellamy, Eugene V. Debs, Clarence Darrow, Isadora Duncan, Vachel Lindsay, Mary MacLane, C. H. George, and Voltairine de Cleyre, as well as heretofore unpublished writings by T-Bone Slim, Claude McKay, Slim Brundage, and Covington Hall, and new books by H. L. Mitchell, Staughton Lynd,, Warren Leming, and Carlos Cortez. Several books on Haymarket, a "Sixties Series" (inaugurated by the first textually accurate edition ever published of the celebrated 1962 Port Huron Statement), a "Lost Utopias Series," a "Bughouse Square Series" and a large and steadily growing number of books on the IWW: These are just a few of the important books brought out by Charles H. Kerr in recent years.
Now (in 2003) in its 118th year, the Kerr Company is not only a living link with the most vital radical traditions of the past, but also an organic part of today's struggles for peace and justice in an ecologically balanced world.