Marx's Cross Atlantic Journey

'Capital' Comes to America

Allen Ruff

The appearance in English of the three volumes of Karl Marx's Capital, published by the Chicago-based socialist publisher, Charles H. Kerr & Company between 1906 and 1909, marked a significant event in the global dissemination of socialist thought. That project would not have taken place without the conscious internationalist commitment of Kerr & Co.'s activists to provide the key works of Marxism to the US working class movement. As such, the publication of Kerr's Capital, a standard throughout the English-speaking world until the mid-1960s, cannot be fully appreciated without some understanding of those who carried it out and how the undertaking came about.
Born in 1860, Charles Hope Kerr apprenticed in Chicago's publishing trade in the early 1880s after graduating from the then State University of Wisconsin. He started the firm bearing his name in 1886 and gradually turned his energies toward the publication of radical titles as his social and political consciousness evolved due in large part to the Windy City's harsh social and political realities and glaring contradictions.1 Attracted during the depression ridden 1890s to the populist reform movement with its utopian hope of building of a 'Cooperative Commonwealth', Kerr published an increasing array of books and pamphlet tracts on monetary reform, railroad regulation and government control of the banking industry, as well as the monthly New Occasions, 'a magazine of social and industrial progress'.

During the latter part of that decade, the company published an expanding list of titles by utopian socialists, radical feminists, anarchists, single-taxers, bimetallists, Fabians, freethinkers, evolutionists as well as a number of utopian panacea novels. In 1897, Kerr launched The New Time: A magazine of social progress which he later described as a 'semi-populist, semi-socialist magazine'. Along contributions from a who's who of turn-of-the-century American reform, its pages carried occasional communications from socialist labour champion Eugene Debs, as well as a regular 'Scientific Socialism column of news and views on the progress of Social Democracy in the US and abroad.2

Kerr's connection with the Socialist International had roots in 1899. The Chicago branch of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), one of the earliest organisational expressions of Marxian socialism in the US, launched the weekly Worker's Call that March and Kerr soon cultivated fraternal relations with the paper's editor, AlgieM. Simons.3

Like Kerr, an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin, Simons initially became acquainted with Marxist thought while a research assistant to the progressive professor of political economy, Richard T. Ely. Upon graduating in 1895, he took a job with the University of Chicago settlement house on the city's South Side, where he researched working class living conditions in the stockyards districts for the Municipal Board of Charities. Simons' experiences and observations in the 'Back of the Yards' left him morally outraged and disillusioned with gradual liberal reform efforts and he moved leftward. He joined the SLP in 1897 and became editor of the Worker's Call.

Simons's vigorous commitment to 'scientific socialism' had immense impact on Charles and his wife, May Walden Kerr. She later recalled that the two of them had 'sopped up a lot crazy ideas that we had to give up to make way for Marxism' and how the articulate, analytical strength of Simons's arguments among the small circle of activists who regularly gathered at the Kerrs' home engendered an enthusiasm 'that nearly set the house afire'.

As her husband later put it, 'like numerous other Americans, we were looking for real socialism, but as yet knew little about it';Kerr, Charles H. 'Our Co-operative Publishing Business: How Socialist Literature Is Circulated is Being Circulated by Socialists,' International Socialist Review (Henceforward ISR) 1, 9: pp. 669-72.6 that he had not been 'inside the movement' before 1899 'due to the accident of its not being presented to me' but that he 'had not the slightest difficulty in accepting the logic of the socialist position when once perceived'.

While there already was a long history of socialist activity, largely but far from exclusively of a utopian variety in the US, the Marxist-based socialist movement in the United States at 1900 lagged far behind its European counterparts. Simons and Kerr attributed such 'backwardness', in part, to a lack of awareness and resources. Kerr later recounted that 'when we began our work the literature of modern scientific socialism was practically unknown to American readers …' and that what was available was largely '… of a sentimental, semi-populistic, character … of doubtful value to the building up of a coherent socialist movement'. As Simons put it, '…American socialist literature has been a byword and a laughing stock among the socialists of other nations'.8

Determined to remedy the situation, the duo embarked on a number of collaborative publishing projects as Kerr announced in June 1899 that 'the course convinced us that half-way measures are useless, …

Under Simon's editorship until 1908, the monthly aired socialist perspectives on a broad range of political and social questions. With articles by a veritable 'who's who' of the national and international movement, it became the most important socialist theoretical publication in the country. Regular features included monthly column reports on the 'World of Labor' by the socialist trade unionist Max Hayes, and 'Socialism Abroad', a digest of movement developments in Europe and elsewhere edited by Ernest Untermann, the German-born emigré and future translator of the Kerr editions of Capital.

Kerr began offering a lengthy list of 32-page duodecimo five cent pamphlets, 'The Pocket Library of Socialism' starting in March, 1899 with Woman and the Social Problem by Simons' wife, the socialist feminist May Wood Simons.11 Wrapped in red glassine and priced as low priced $6 per 1,000 copies to company shareholders, the series contained thirty-five titles by 1902 and sixty plus by 1908 including Marx's Wage-Labour and Capital, translated by the English socialist J.L. Joynes and issued as number seven of the series in1899 and Marx on Cheapness, number fifty, appearing in 1907. The Library by that time had reached a circulation in the hundreds of thousands.12

The company employed a number of different strategies to expand its lists of socialist titles. Kerr, for instance, purchased imprints, plates and copyrights of works previously published in the US. The firm, for example, obtained rights to titles previously issued by the International Library Publishing Company, the SLP's New York-based operation, among them A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Kerr edition,1904). In 1907, Kerr purchased the copyrights to additional titles including Marx's Civil War in France and The Eighteenth Brumaireand Paul Lafargue's The Right to Be Lazy from the Debs Publishing Company, which had acquired them in 1901 from the International Library.

An extended list of adaptations and translations began to appear in the company's catalogue soon afterward as Kerr translated French and Italian titles and the Simonses worked from the German. May Wood had already translated Karl Kautsky's Frederick Engels His Life, His Work and His Writings (1899) and Algie Simons assisted in the translation of Wilhelm Liebknecht's No Compromise-No Political Trading. Kerr meanwhile translated Vandervelde's Collectivism and Industrial Development as well as the first of several works by Paul Lafargue, who gave the company permission to publish his Socialism and the Intellectuals (1900) shortly after meeting the Simonses. The couple also translated Kautsky's The Social Revolution (The Erfurt Program). The company would also issue works from the Italian, most significant among them Kerr's translation of Antonio Labriola's Essays on the Materialist Conception of History.Kerr had established trade connections prior to the turn of the century with the London firm of Swan, Sonnenschein, the publisher in 1887 of the authorised English edition of Capital, Volume I. The company in 1900 issued an edition of Frederich Engels's Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, translated from a French edition by Edward Aveling and published by Sonnenschein in 1892, and Kerr proudly advertised it as the company's 'first cloth bound socialist book'. The Kerr lists soon included additional standard Marxist works such as the Communist Manifesto, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, and Engels' Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the latter translated by Ernest Untermann.

By 1905, the company's catalogue also included a number of works by some of the key figures of Britain's broader socialist movement. Kerr had already issued serialisations of William Morris's News from Nowhere, published by Sonnenschein in 1893, and Robert Blatchford's Merrie England in The New Time. He issued both works in updated book form and also published Blatchford's Imprudent Marriagesand Morris's Useful Work versus Useless Toil as part of the Pocket Library series. Kerr subsequently published Blatchford's other works, Britain for the British (1902) and God and My Neighbor (1904). The Pocket Library also included Hyndman's Socialism and Slavery, a critique of Herbert Spencer. The company issued Edward Carpenter's Love's Coming of Age (1903), and in cooperation with Sonnenschein, imported his Towards Democracy (1905). The Kerr list also came to include Socialism, Its Growth and Outcome by E. Belfort Bax and William Morris (Sonnenschein,1893/ Kerr, 1909).

The 1867 edition of Das Kapital bore the names of the Marx's Hamburg publisher, Otto Meisner as well as 'New York: L.W. Schmidt, 24 Barclay Street' on its title page and the work quickly became available to the small circles of German socialists in the US. Excerpts of it were published in the Arbeiter Union, edited by the German 'Forty-Eighter' Adolph Douai between October, 1868 and June 1869. A first English extract, a broadsheet published by the 'First International, New York Section' appeared in 1872.

Beginning in April 1876, the English language weekly organ of the then-named Social Democratic Working-Men's Party, The Socialist (New York), began running a series of chapter by chapter summaries of Capital accompanied by quotes from Marx. The installments, thirteen in total, continued after The Socialist became the Labor Standard with the formation of the Workingmen's Party of the United States and ran through August 19, 1876. The apparent editor and translator of the series was Douai, a contributing editor of the Labor Standard who at the time had begun work on a full translation of Kapital.

Marx, in October, 1877, had prepared revisions with the intent of having it translated and published in the US and had actually sent them to Sorge at Hoboken, New Jersey. Writing to Sorge earlier, Marx passed along instructions for Douai to compare the 2nd German edition with the more recent, revised French edition and he promised to send the updated French volume for Douai. But the project fell through, according to Engels, 'for want of a fit and proper translator'

An early English-language abridgment of Capital translated by Otto Weydemeyer, son of the German revolutionary Joseph Weydemeyer, was published at Hoboken by Sorge, c. 1875, as a 20cm, forty-two page pamphlet,''Extracts from the Capital of Karl Marx'. Weydemeyer's source was a summary of Capital by Johann Most published at Chemnitz in 1873, a text which Marx and Engels found unsatisfactory and disappointing Those 'extracts' were later serialised in the Labor Standard beginning on 30 December 1877 as well as in the Chicago Socialist, and the New Haven Workmen's Advocate.

Writing under the pseudonym of John Broadhouse, H.M. Hyndman carried out an English translation from the extant German edition of Das Kapital's first ten chapters, published in October, 1885. Engels, writing to Sorge in April, 1886 described the work as 'nothing but a farce' and 'full of mistakes to the point of ridiculousness'.

Regardless, in late 1885, the publisher, union job printer and home of the 'Labor News & Publishing Association', Julius Bordollo & Company at 705 Broadway, New York began offering installments of the Broadhouse-Hyndman work, apparently re-set in-house, of a 'first English translation … in 27 parts at 10 cents; subscription price for the whole work, $2.50.' The source for the Bordollo reprint evidently was To-Day—a monthly magazine of scientific socialism imported from London and distributed by Bordollo.24 The monthly, initially edited by J.L. Joynes and E. Belfort Bax and purchased by Hyndman in 1885, carried forty installments of the Broadhouse-Hyndman work between October, 1885 and May, 1889, publicised as the 'First English translation of Karl Marx's Capital'.Then, in early January, 1887 what was then 'Swan, Sonnenschein, Lowrey & Co., London' issued 500 copies of the first authorised English edition of Capital, a critical analysis of capitalist production. Translated from the third German edition by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling under Engels ssupervision, the work initially appeared as a two volume octavo set. Its first run sold out within two months and an additional five hundred appeared that April, as half the total number went to the US.

Swan, Sonnenschein & Company went on to publish single-bound editions of Volume I in 1889 and 1891, printed at Aberdeen University Press by John Thompson & J.F. Thomson.30 They were distributed in the US through a formal arrangement with Appleton & Company at New York, with the latter's name appearing on the title page above Sonnenschein's. Of the 1,500 copies issued in London between 1887 and 1891, 794 were sold in Britain; and 700 made their way to the US.. (Sonnenschein would subsequently issue The First Nine Chapters of Capital, a separate volume "reprinted from the stereotype pages of the complete (sic) work," in 1897.)

Using the Sonnenschein Lowrey two volume 1887 edition and the joint Appleton & Co. 1889 imprint, the Humboldt Publishing Company at New York completely reset and released its own edition. That version initially appeared between 1 September 1890 and 15 October 1890, serialised as numbers 135 thru 138 ' double number' issues of the 'Humboldt Library of Science'. Binding the four installments together, the company then proceeded to issue its single volume the following year, which Engels criticised as an unauthorised 'pirate' upon receiving word of it from Sorge. Bound in red cloth and stamped on the front cover with the Humboldt trademark, the volume was promoted as a book showing 'how to accumulate capital' and reportedly sold some 5,000 copies.

The Kerr publication was truly an internationalist effort. The company, in cooperation with the Worker's Call, had initially imported a number of the Sonnenschein single volume edition in October 1901 and in May, 1902 sent a cash order to London for two hundred and fifty additional copies. Informing the ISR' s readers that the 'inferior American edition' was no longer available, Kerr offered generous advance sale discounts on the volume's regular price of $2.50 since 'the co-operative house of Charles H. Kerr & Company was not organised to make profits, but to serve the interests of Socialism…'.

Translated from the second German edition, Volume Two, 'The process of circulation of capital', appeared in July 1907. Sonnenschein had placed an advanced order for 500 copies for it and a London edition, bound in red cloth and embossed on the front cover and spine with 'Half Guinea, International Library' and 'Sonnenschein', and 'Charles H. Kerr & Company, Chicago' and 'Swan, Sonnenschein, London' on the title page soon appeared.

Translated from the 1st German edition, Volume Three, 'The process of capitalist production as a whole' was originally scheduled for printing in early 1908. While noting that the translation was paid for by Dietzgen 'as a gift to the American socialist movement' and that the Second International patron had pledged additional monthly sums to secure articles from European socialists and to help out with the company's deficit, Kerr wrote that an additional $2,000 was needed to cover production costs. He requested that his readers order the volume in advance to help defray that expense.51

Volume Three finally appeared in July 1909 and Kerr began offering the volumes singly and as a complete three volume set. All three volumes bore the union 'bug' of John F. Higgins, the company's long-time printer and as such became the first 'authorized' edition produced in a union shop. The Kerr edition immediately became the accepted English version, as Swan, Sonnenschein, in conjunction with Kerr, began to distribute it throughout the English-speaking world.

The Kerr edition of Capital passed through a number of separately dated print runs through the 1910s and imprints appeared as late as 1933. In 1936, the company sold its original plates of Volume One to the Modern Library and the New York house issued its own hardback imprint, with 'Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1906' remaining on the copyright page (a source of future confusion for bibliographers and antiquarian booksellers, alike).

While other English editions of Capital appeared, such as the translation done by Cedar and Eden Paul published in London by Allen & Unwin in 1928, Kerr's three volume edition in one form or another remained the standard English text until the appearance of the Progress Publishers edition in 1967, superseded in 1976 by the Penguin edition translated by Ben Fowkes.

As for the Kerr Company, it experienced various ups and downs including an onslaught of government repression including the suppression of the International Socialist Review, vital to its functioning, during World War I. The company survived that period's 'Red Scare' and continued on well after its namesake retired in 1928 after passing its reins on to a next generation of socialist activists associated with the Proletarian Party, an early communist grouping that arose out of the splintering of the Socialist Party in 1919. Holding on through the bottom of the 1950s McCarthy era, the venture was saved from passing out of existence in 1971 by yet another generation of socialists, anarchists and labour activists committed to its project. It experienced somewhat of a revival in the 1980s, passed its hundredth anniversary in 1986, and continues its existence as the oldest socialist publishing house in the world.

On his regularly appearing "Publisher's Notes" page of the ISR, Kerr would often emphasise that the company was organised to do just one thing-to bring out books valuable to the international socialist movement and to circulate them at prices affordable for working class readers. Certainly, the publication of the full English edition of Capital remained the crowning achievement of that project.

Vol. 53, No. 26, Dec 28 2020 - Jan 2 2021