“Books to help you understand – and change – the world.” That’s the slogan of International Publishers, and for over 90 years, the company has been producing and distributing titles aimed at fulfilling that lofty goal.
Founded in 1924 by Alexander Trachtenberg, a refugee who came to America after fleeing Czarist Russia’s anti-Jewish pogroms, the company made a name for itself in its early years as a pioneer in the publication of Marxist literature, critical takes on U.S. capitalism, and radical interpretations of American history.
International has recently undergone a digital makeover that positions the company to play a big role in the era of Trump. The company is fresh off the launch of its new website, a modern eCommerce hub that’s making its extensive catalog available to an audience eager for radical books. With socialism growing in popularity and resistance to the new president’s agenda exploding everywhere, the time may be just right for companies like International to make a splash.
“Sales have gone up dramatically since November,” says Gary Bono, who heads up operations at International.
Titles such as the 1935 classic Against Fascism and War are moving out the door at a brisk pace. Written just before World War II, the book outlined the strategy and tactics necessary for beating fascism during the Great Depression. Its author, Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov, famously took down Hitler’s henchman Hermann Goering in a Nazi courtroom after being falsely accused of helping burn down the German parliament building.
With a number of Trump’s policy advisors hailing from the so-called “alt-right,” a conservative offshoot mixing racism, white nationalism, and neo-fascist populism, it appears many of today’s left-wing activists are turning to writers like Dimitrov and others.
Marxist publishing for the 21st century
“In today’s political climate,” Bono says, “it is particularly important that the new generation learn from past experiences – from the words of those who have experienced things like this before.”
He believes that more people are realizing that there is another way, that “they need not be constrained, intellectually, by today’s ‘accepted wisdom’.”
International Publishers has long been known as a source for alternative wisdom. Since its founding in 1924, it has been one of the primary publishers of the classics of Marxism and was among the first to print some of the works of historical figures like Vladimir Lenin and Antonio Gramsci in the English language.
The company helped bring socialism to a mass working class audience in the United States in the 1930s and 40s with the 25-cent paperbacks of its “Little Lenin Library.” Even today, affordable editions of books like Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s Imperialism are among International’s best-sellers.
The onset of the Cold War and the anti-communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy period threatened to finish the company. Trachtenberg, still at the helm in the early 1950s, was a defendant in the Smith Act trials for the crime of thinking. Novelist Howard Fast said at the time, “Both the man and the books he has published are on trial… The books go beyond the man himself, a body of Marxist-Leninist literature surpassed in few countries indeed, made available to the American people because this man has known neither fear nor pessimism, and has again and again surmounted obstacles almost insurmountable.” Trachtenberg would serve four years in prison before the Supreme Court vacated many of the Smith Act convictions. Upon his release, he went back to work until his retirement in 1962.
Successors James S. Allen and Lou Diskin kept the company going through the 1960s and 70s with a steady flow of Marxist classics and books by CPUSA leaders. Betty Smith took over as president of International and guided it through the 1980s and ensured its survival after the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe. When Marxism was on the rocks, Smith kept International alive for the next generation of activists.
At a time when online shopping has become the norm, however, it has been getting harder for International to reach its audience without going through intermediaries like Amazon. It was under Smith’s tenure that a decision was made to update International for the digital age. Mike Votto, a partner with Envy Creative, a web design agency based in Milwaukee that oversaw the revamp of International’s online presence, says the biggest challenge was “taking what the IP [International Publishers] team has been doing for the past several decades and trying to replicate it digitally.”
Votto says it was humbling to work with a brand and an institution that has “spent nearly a century publishing some of the foremost literature on progressive thought,” but bringing its website into the 21st century was “unlike many of the projects that walk through our agency’s door.”
The goals with the redesign were pretty simple. “Create a user-friendly, convenient eCommerce system that gets these important volumes into the hands of eager readers as quickly and painlessly as possible.” Votto says that International’s new platform is flexible and can continue to grow as web standards, customer expectations, and product offerings change.
Books to change the world
With the new website, International hopes to reach those eager readers with books to help them become more informed activists. With an easy-to-use online store, the company is also hoping even more selections from its extensive catalog will gain a wide readership.
While it may have become known to millions for its cheap and accessible paperbacks, International is also renowned for products like its massive 50-volume Marx-Engels Collected Works. From 1975 to 2004, it collaborated with Lawrence & Wishart Publishers in Britain and Progress Publishers in Moscow in an ambitious project which gathered all the known writings and correspondence of the founding fathers of communism into a single collection. The set remains the gold standard of Marxist libraries to this day.
Stretching beyond the classics, meanwhile, contemporary titles such as Daniel Rubin’s Will Capitalism Last? bring Marxist analysis of U.S. politics up to the present day.
In addition to its many works of theory, International also boasts an impressive offering of titles covering American and world history, literature, and the full range of labor and democratic struggles.
From Frederick Douglass and John Brown to W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis, many important texts of the African-American freedom struggle are available in exclusive editions. And for workers who find themselves in the crosshairs of the Trump administration, Philip S. Foner’s 10-volume History of the Labor Movement in the United States provides a background to early trade union struggles that can only be found at International.
Works by authors like Herbert Aptheker illuminate American history through the lens of historical materialism, bringing a socialist perspective to events such as the revolution of 1776 and the revolts of slaves in the pre-Civil War South. Complementing its historical titles, International markets a range of books crucial to understanding current events as well, whether it be the environmental crisis, Iran, or the crumbling of imperialism.
And the company’s offerings continue to grow. The latest is a collection of writings by Marx and Engels on the U.S. Civil War, featuring an introduction from noted historian Andrew Zimmerman. In the works for the coming months is a new edition of Palmiro Togliatti’s Lectures on Fascism, which consists of outlines from classes the Italian leader taught at the Comintern in the 1930s.
There are also plans for an updated edition of Philip S. Foner’s documentary study, The Bolshevik Revolution, to be issued just in time for the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Though many predicted that the appearance of tablets and e-readers would make books obsolete, International and other small radical publishers like it are showing that there is still an audience for the printed word. And with Donald Trump driving sales, the future of socialist publishing may not be as bleak as one might have expected.