International Publishers begins its second century of printing ‘books to change the world’
Some of the participants at the International Publishers 100th Anniversary Symposium, from left: Dr. Denise Lynn, Dr. Melissa Ford, Dr. Gerald Horne, International Publishers Vice President Tony Pecinovsky, Dr. Dennis Laumann, and Dr. Elisabeth Armstrong. | Photo and graphic design: C.J. Atkins / People's World

NEW YORK—“Books! Books! Books!,” Dr. Gerald Horne thundered as he addressed a Manhattan audience Oct. 26, “Books on trial!”

Delivering the keynote address at a day-long conference honoring the 100th anniversary of International Publishers, the radical historian recalled the Smith Act witch-hunts of the early 1950s, when the Marxist volumes issued by International were “in the crosshairs of the effort to decapitate the Communist Party” and kill progressive ideas.

Horne said that, like the Red Scare days, the extreme right is once again out to squelch thinking that challenges the racist, sexist, and homophobic ideologies of capitalist rule. He pointed to Republican efforts to scrub “woke” readings from curricula and smear “critical race theory” as reverse racism, and he blasted the GOP’s library-cleansing book bans.

Quoting the words of Jewish playwright Heinrich Heine, Horne warned, “Where they burn books, eventually they will burn people, and for those of us whose ancestors were burned and lynched, we take such things very seriously.”

Horne was one of more than a dozen speakers at the International Publishers 100th Anniversary Symposium, sponsored by the Tamiment Library at New York University.

International Publishers was founded in 1924 at a time when Marxist literature was essentially non-existent on the market. It quickly became the leading company making works of scientific socialism available to an American audience, and it hasn’t stopped since.

Over the past century, the radical imprint has put out thousands of titles in copies numbering in the tens of millions. Tamiment curator Shannon O’Neill said every one of those books was, in the eyes of the ruling elite, a “sin against the gods of monopoly.”

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

Dr. Gerald Horne. | C.J. Atkins / People’s World

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.

Some of those topics were the focus of talks given throughout the day by other symposium speakers, who ranged from academics to independent researchers to political activists engaged in exactly the kind of struggles talked about and analyzed in between the covers of International Publishers books.

Horne, for one, wants to make sure the company never stops putting out those kinds of books. He announced that he wants to entrust IP with the Spanish and Chinese translation rights to all of the dozens of books he’s published, give his next book to International, and endow a $1,000 scholarship for IP to seek out the best manuscript on a topic related to Indigenous struggles.

The literature of the revolution

Opening the day’s events, International’s vice president, Tony Pecinovsky, reviewed the rich history of the company, going back to its founding by Alexander Trachtenberg in 1924, who was indicted during the McCarthyite days for “conspiring to publish and circulate books” that allegedly advocated the overthrow of the government by force and violence.

What Trachtenberg was really guilty of, Pecinovsky said, “was publishing books that shattered the myths of capitalism, the myths of white supremacy, the myths of male supremacy.”

Presaging Horne’s comments, the International VP said that “fascist-like figures today are again out to destroy words,” with the goal of erasing the ideas of those “who affirm equality, justice, and peace” and silence anyone who uses books and analysis to “challenge capitalist hegemony.”

The founder of International Publishers, Alexander Trachtenberg. | People’s World Archives

Legendary left intellectual Paul Buhle, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left, weighed in on the place that International Publishers occupies in the long tradition of radical book publishing in the United States, particularly within the genre known as “proletarian literature.”

Pointing to International’s pioneering role in bringing African American literature and working-class novels into print, Buhle said, “Some of the best books of the century only emerged thanks to IP,” because university presses and mainstream publishers didn’t pay any attention to such things “until the late ’60s.”

Dr. Elisabeth Armstrong, chair of the Women and Gender Studies Department at Smith College, put the spotlight on the many women writers who rose to prominence in the 1930s and ’40s when their work was brought to a wide audience for the first time by International.

“Revolutionaries needed tools,” Armstrong said “and IP was one of those tools.” Statistics and economic data concerning things like the capitalist rate of exploitation of workers were nowhere to be found in those days, but International filled the gap—with the effort often led by its female researchers and writers.

One thing they worked on, for instance, was the Labor Fact Book, an ongoing International Publishers series lasting from 1931 to 1968, that compiled information from government and industry sources to give working-class intellectuals the evidence they needed to indict the capitalist system.

International Publishers exhibit at the 1951 convention of the American Booksellers Association in Cleveland. | International Publishers Archives

As Armstrong put it, “This was the stuff you couldn’t get out of the bourgeois press.” In essence, International’s Labor Fact Book collection was the forerunner of all the hundreds of progressive think tanks and research institutes that compete with the free-market policy lobbyists in Washington, D.C., today.

International’s internationalism

Examining how IP has put the “international” in internationalism throughout its ten decades, Univ. of Memphis African History professor Dr. Dennis Laumann traced the intriguing story of a single International Publishers title, Kwame Nkrumah, a critical biography of the CIA-deposed Ghanaian leader of the 1960s.

International Publishers

Laumann spoke of how he endeavored to track down the book’s Soviet author, Yuri Smertin. Long assumed dead, Smertin, as it turns out, is still very much alive and doing the same kind of valuable work. Laumann is now in contact with the Russian scholar of African history, who only just discovered that IP had printed his book all the way back in 1987.

When most academic presses were ignoring African affairs, Laumann said that wasn’t the case with IP. “It wasn’t easy to find books in the ’80s about Africa,” he told the symposium. “International Publishers was essential to carrying the flame of Black Liberation, Black history, and African history.”

Laumann is author of the foreword for a new edition of IP’s Nkrumah book, coming soon.

Researcher Carlos Martinez, author of The East is Still Red, a book on Marxism and economic reform in China, discussed how International Publishers’ solidarity with the Chinese Revolution goes back to the very beginning of the fight for a new China, long before the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic. International was the first publisher, Martinez pointed out, to bring Mao Zedong’s popular essay, On Practice, to an English audience, in 1937.

Pushing the boundaries of historiography

A third panel of academics examined IP’s expansive century-old catalog, questioning the ways in which particular authors and titles pushed the bounds of historiography.

Dr. Denise Lynn, University of Southern Indiana professor and editor of the journal American Communist Studies, is currently working on a project dealing with the CPUSA Women’s Commission publications Working Woman and Woman Today for International Publishers. Her presentation to the Tamiment symposium was a preview of that upcoming release.

“The late ’40s and early ’50s were a real takeoff for CPUSA attention on what was called ‘the woman question’,” she said. While white feminists were some of the earliest names associated with this development, Lynn pointed to the central role played by Black women leaders in the party, like Claudia Jones, who worked to broaden and expand communist understanding of women’s oppression to encapsulate the unique experiences of women of color.

Dr. Melissa Ford, center, takes a question from the audience. To the left is Dr. Denise Lynn, and at the podium is emcee Kooper Caraway. | C.J. Atkins / People’s World

Dr. Joel Wendland-Liu is a professor and researcher at Grand Valley State University and former editor of Political Affairs. He brought the audience back to the mid-20th century, when an International Publishers book—Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism—was at the center of one of the great controversies of political economy in the Western world.

Monthly Review editor Paul Sweezy challenged Dobb’s analysis concerning the origins of capitalism as it emerged from feudalism, and the two battled it out in the pages of the journal Science & Society in what became known as “the transition debate.”

The intellectual feud guaranteed fresh sales of Studies in the Development of Capitalism for years, cementing the title as one of IP’s most successful economic texts (after Marx’s Capital). “And every 25 years or so, there is another resurgence of the ‘origins of capitalism’ debates,” Wendland-Liu said, meaning people again go searching for out-of-print copies of this International Publishers classic.

Picking up on the theme of IP’s women pioneers, Dr. Melissa Ford, history professor at Slippery Rock University, excavated the story of Grace Hutchins’ 1932 International Publishers title, Women Who Work.

International Publishers, 1927.

Though feminism is largely seen as being divided into two groups—the suffragettes of the early 20th century and the “second wave” liberationists of the 1960s—Ford says there was a lot going on when it came to the struggle for women’s equality in the middle of the Great Depression, and it was happening in books put out by IP.

“Hutchins was pushing for child care, public laundries, maternal leave, shorter hours for working mothers,” and more in a period when no one else was yet adopting or advocating such reforms, Ford said. This was “radical parenting” before the concept even existed.

Women like Hutchins were doing this under the auspices of the CPUSA, even though their own comrades were often not yet ready to adopt and fight for all their proposals. True, the Daily Worker ran “women’s columns” featuring the latest recipes and sewing patterns, but the radicalized women of the 1930s wanted more, and thanks to IP, Ford pointed out, they had an outlet through which they could demand it.

Ford will soon have a new volume out with International Publishers that collects short biographies of a number of Black Communist women.

Rutgers U.S. history professor Dr. Norman Markowitz discussed Philip S. Foner’s landmark 10-volume History of the Labor Movement in the United States, put out over several years by IP decades ago. Recently, the unfinished manuscript of an 11th volume was discovered in the IP archives and released to the public.

It covers the early Depression years, which were the focus of Markowitz’ remarks. Reading Foner, he said “the most important lesson” that comes out of that period is “the essential role played by the Communist Party” in organizing and mobilizing resistance and winning reforms. He lamented, “It’s sad that Foner didn’t have time to continue his work and write the history of the big wins” of the later New Deal period.

Looking forward

Turning the spotlight from IP’s proud legacy to its contemporary relevance and upcoming releases, a final panel featured a number of activists and leaders from today’s CPUSA. Long-time party leader and 1972 and 1976 vice presidential candidate Jarvis Tyner reminisced about how he came to join the Communist Party.

Veteran CPUSA leader Jarvis Tyner, right, and Dr. Elisabeth Armstrong, second from right, talk with symposium attendees after the event. | C.J. Atkins / People’s World

Spending much of his youth in his mother’s West Philadelphia beauty shop and seeing the struggle first hand in the segregated South where the rest of his family lived, Tyner learned the basics of communism without even knowing that’s what it was yet. Joining the party only sped up the process.

“I was a working-class kid, I couldn’t go to college,” Tyner said. “But I went straight to graduate school when I joined the party.” International Publishers books—along with immediate first-hand assignments in the trenches of political and social struggle—were his teachers.

Connecticut CPUSA Chair Joelle Fishman was a classic “red diaper baby,” and she told the symposium audience, “I cherish the fact that I grew up with IP books in the ’50s and ’60s.” She said they helped launch her future as a communist organizer. Her favorites, though, were the biographies and autobiographies and those dealing with political strategy.

Speaking about her own campaigns for electoral office in the 1970s and ’80s on the People Before Profits ticket, she said, “Ben Davis’ Communist Councilman from Harlem and Simon Gerson’s Pete: The Story of Peter V. Cacchione, New York’s First Communist Councilman were our guides.” The CP’s campaigns were designed, Fishman said, to “change the narrative of anti-communism, demolish stereotypes, and build coalitions.”

Both Tyner and Fishman are currently working on autobiographies for International Publishers.

Amazon Labor Union organizer Justine Medina. | C.J. Atkins / People’s World

Amazon Labor Union organizer Justine Medina, who is also a CPUSA youth leader in New York, talked about the way in which International Publishers books are still playing a key role in the major labor struggles of today.

William Z. Foster’s American Trade Unionism(1947) is one of the books that workers at the retail behemoth have been reading in group study sessions. Medina said, “IP literature is still so useful.”

Denise Miles, an educator and social justice activist from Chicago, chairs the CPUSA’s Education Commission. In her remarks to the symposium, Miles concentrated on International Publishers’ best-selling title of all time—The Communist Manifesto.

Discussing the rich social, historical, and strategic insights found in the short pamphlet from 1848, Miles said, “The Manifesto tells many stories.” The most important of which, she argued, is that “the inherent inability of capitalism to respond to the needs of its working-class majority signals its obsolescence.”

She said that the key takeaway from this book—a book which remains at the heart of International Publishers’ mission—is that “the working class must come to fully know itself” in order to change the system. Miles is author of the foreword to a 175th anniversary edition of the Manifesto, to be released soon by IP.

Closing out the symposium was CPUSA Co-Chair Rossana Cambron. “The history of International Publishers is not just the history of a book company, it is the history of the Communist Party, the history of a movement,” she said.

Communist Party USA National Co-Chair Rossana Cambron. | C.J. Atkins / People’s World

Discussing the light-hearted literary fare that some book companies specialize in, Cambron said, “IP didn’t just print feel-good stories or things to distract from your troubles, it took on the challenge of finding a winning solution in the struggle against capitalism.

“Its books brought hope for a better world.” But even more importantly, she said, “Its books taught the workers who read them that they were the ones who, together, could bring that better world into being.”

Cambron concluded by confidently declaring, “For a century, International Publishers has told the people’s stories, and I have no doubt that it will keep doing so for the next 100 years.”




The full remarks of all symposium participants will be collected and printed as a special commemorative book by International Publishers in 2024. Watch for updates. Video of the event will be available soon from NYU and the Tamiment Library.

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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. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.