How Lenin (and International Publishers) changed my mind about Marxism
Some of the titles by V.I. Lenin offered by International Publishers, including the book that changed the author's mind about Marxism, 'Introduction to Marx, Engels, Marxism.' | Photo courtesy of Bennett Shoop

When I was just 18, I began to develop an interest in studying Marxism. I had been left-leaning in my political outlook for a few years before that, having a vague understanding of the inequalities of capitalism and professing a similarly vague opposition to it, but I lacked any kind of strong theoretical foundation that could explain it.

A long-distance friend told me he was going to be in town that March, and I went with him to protest an AIPAC conference in D.C. On our trip to the city, we discussed politics, and he suggested to me that my hesitancy about Marxism may be misplaced. I came from a background in queer and feminist politics, and I had resisted engaging with Marxism due to the criticisms of it I had come across that argued Marxism was silent about issues of race, gender, and sexuality.

He encouraged me to actually engage with the material if I wanted to understand the place of these issues within Marxism, and I must admit I felt a bit foolish to have allowed others to shape my attitudes towards something I had not actually read myself.

Following his advice, I went online and picked out a short little green book called Introduction to Marx, Engels, Marxism by V.I. Lenin. Though I did not understand the significance at the time, this book was from International Publishers. I finished the book in one day, and so many disparate pieces and ideas seemed to fall into place. I was captivated by Lenin’s writing style and his ability to outline so clearly principles that had eluded me about the machinations of capitalism and its exploitation of workers. Upon finishing, I immediately sought out more.

Picking up a single little book by Lenin eventually led to an entire library of IP classics. | Photo courtesy of Bennett Shoop

I bought another International Publishers book, this one called The Emancipation of Women, also by Lenin. I was fascinated to see a man in the early 20th century arguing for demands for women’s liberation I had not seen most men around me even begin to consider—today, in the 21st century! While certainly still seeing absences and room for criticism, I had begun to realize that I hadn’t been getting the full story of Marxism. I eventually purchased everything else by Lenin that International Publishers sold on its website, and this served as the foundation for the rest of my political journey that would follow.

A few years later, I have now amassed quite the collection of International Publishers books, both old and new. These books continue to speak to the issues we are facing today in the progressive movement, even many of those published nearly a century ago. As a scholar and an organizer, I continue to find myself returning to IP classics like Strategy for a Black Agenda by Henry Winston, Reconstruction: Battle for Democracy by James S. Allen, and American Trade Unionism by William Z. Foster, as well as new publications by IP such as Revolting Capital by Gerald Horne, which speaks to the history of my own locale living in the D.C. area.

In October, I had the pleasure of attending a symposium at New York University commemorating 100 years of International Publishers, which felt like quite a full circle moment connecting my beginnings as a young leftist to my life as an organizer and historian now. At first glance to many young people, this is just another anniversary among many, and one which might sound far from exciting. But I assure you, this is a momentous occasion. For me, International Publishers has been with me since the start of my political journey as a young adult, and this anniversary marks a time to reflect on what International Publishers symbolized both past and future.

The handful of speakers at the symposium touched on a number of different topics, ranging from International Publishers’ groundbreaking role in publishing books on Black history and its transnational dimensions as a publishing house to IP’s history of persecution by the federal government for daring to put knowledge in the hands of the working class and its role as a pioneer in building a left intellectual tradition in the United States.

Dr. Melissa Ford, center, takes a question from the audience at the International Publishers 100th Anniversary Seminar at NYU. To the left is Dr. Denise Lynn, and at the podium is emcee Kooper Caraway. | Photo courtesy of Bennett Shoop

Hearing scholars like Denise Lynn speak on the conflict between Betty Millard and Claudia Jones over the erasure of Black women in Woman Against Myth reminded me that the struggles and debates happening now on the left are not new but rather a continuation of a long political history of which International Publishers has been an integral part. The presenters all highlighted that the problems for which we seek solutions today have been discussed for decades before us and that many have tragically failed to look behind us as we strive to move forward.

While many, like myself, have at one point or another thought of discussions of gender, race, and sexuality as foreign to Marxism’s analytical and organizational foundations, the history of International Publishers proves this to be a grossly ahistorical summation. Lisa Armstrong, Melissa Ford, and Denise Lynn pointed to the ways in which women used International Publishers and the Communist Party as starting points for pursuing programs for women’s liberation.

Highlighting the work of Anna Rochester, Betty Millard, Claudia Jones, and Grace Hutchins, these scholars made it clear that women had their own long history of theorizing about their conditions and their liberation in the pages of IP’s publications. Importantly, they also illustrated the ways in which, against the odds, LGBTQ+ people organized in the ranks of the U.S. left and found their place in its Marxist traditions. Jarvis Tyner also pointed to the history of his own radicalization and the ways that the work of the Communist Party and International Publishers on Black liberation influenced him to join the movement and his later decision to run for Vice President twice on the CPUSA ticket.

The author, left, with Communist Party USA veteran leader and two-time vice presidential candidate Jarvis Tyner at the International Publishers 100th Anniversary Seminar at NYU. | Photo courtesy of Bennett Shoop

Within these pages, within this history, are ideas which address many of the pressing issues of today. Against Fascism and War still provides us with an indispensable view of fascism as it threatens the rights of working people all over the country once again. From Ghetto Rebellion to Black Liberation continues to speak to ongoing struggles against police brutality in Black communities. The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Unions uniquely lends itself to understanding the current situation of the labor movement as shown by the UAW’s historic and victorious strike. And on a personal note, Introduction to Marx, Engels, Marxism is still the first book I recommend to people interested in studying Marxism nearly a decade later.

This symposium and this centennial remind us that just because something is a hundred years old does not mean it is outdated. International Publishers, as a literary pioneer in understanding a number of foundational political struggles in the U.S., remains as relevant today as it was when it was the vanguard of Marxist publishing in the early 20th century. As more and more young people move towards socialism, the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Winston, and Foster will fall into many new hands through the publications of IP, just like they did for me with that little green book years ago.

International Publishers show us that history is not dead, but a foundation upon which we live, whispering its centuries into our present. And if we let them, these whispers can become the wind in the sails of our movement.

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Bennett Shoop
Bennett Shoop

Bennett Shoop is Washington, D.C.-based activist for the LGBTQ+ community and the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.