Throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century, the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company was the preeminent socialist press in the English-speaking world. From its headquarters in Chicago it disseminated the classic texts of the European socialist tradition and published a variety of original books and periodicals promoting radicalism on both sides of the Atlantic. The company's influence waned considerably in the decades after 1928, when its founder retired, though it remains active to this day.
Charles H. Kerr founded his press in 1886, and for most of the following four decades its evolution closely paralleled his own as a reformer. Kerr was born in LaGrange, Georgia, in the spring of 1860 as secessionism was on the rise. He soon moved with his abolitionist parents to the North. The family eventually settled in Madison, Wisconsin, where Kerr spent his teenage and college years before graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1881. Shortly thereafter he moved to Chicago, where he befriended Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones. Jones was the pastor of All Souls Church and the editor of Unity, the Midwestern beacon of liberal Unitarianism. Kerr became Unity's business manager and editorial assistant in 1883 and served in that capacity until 1886, when he assumed full responsibility for the paper's publication under the auspices of the newly launched Charles H. Kerr & Company.
Over the course of its first seven years the company developed into the most prominent Unitarian publisher in the Midwest. Kerr devoted much of his energy to Unity while he also expanded the business. Initially he did so by printing a variety of books and pamphlets, most written by Jones and others in his liberal Unitarian circles. In the early 1890s, however, Kerr became enamored with the Populist movement then sweeping the nation. Gradually he began to drift away from his Unitarian moorings. This ideological shift generated tension between him and Jones, who remained the editorial force behind Unity; in 1893 the two men elected to part ways.
In 1899, Kerr announced that the company's publications would henceforth reflect his new commitment to socialism. His adoption of the socialist cause was facilitated by his friendship with Algie M. Simons, the editor of the Socialistic Labor Party's The Worker's Call. Conversations with Simons cemented Kerr's developing commitment to radical politics, and the two men soon became co-collaborators. In 1900 they founded the International Socialist Review (ISR), a monthly paper that would prove a touchstone of American socialism for the better part of two decades. Throughout its first eight years the paper functioned as a sounding board for different strains of socialist thought. ISR was thoroughly internationalist in its orientation, reporting on developments in every corner of the world. Yet it also undertook a mission to familiarize workers in the United States with the basic teachings of socialism. Kerr augmented ISR's efforts in this regard by producing and distributing English editions of radical classics such as Marx's Capital. Moreover, the company printed a variety of original books and pamphlets with titles such as What Socialism Is and What Socialists Think. Kerr hoped that by answering the criticisms of socialism's American detractors, these publications would extend the movement's reach into working-class communities.
Kerr retired from the company in 1928, and in the decades that followed it faded from prominence. Now a nonprofit cooperative, the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company continues to print works of radical history, criticism, and theory.
Heath W Carter
See also: American Federation of Labor (AFL) ; Depression of 1893 ; Gilded Age ; Haymarket Riot ; Industrial Workers of the World ; Pullman Strike (1894) ; Socialism, Christian
Garon, Paul, ed. The Charles H. Kerr Company Archives, 1885–1985: A Century of Socialist and Labor Publishing. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 1985.
Roediger, Dave, and Franklin Rosemont, eds. Haymarket Scrapbook. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1986.
Ruff, Allen. “We Called Each Other Comrade”: Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.