Haymarket Books is a small, Chicago-based leftist publisher in a country in which their perspective is that of the minority. But, that doesn't deter them: they've published books on Leon Trotsky
, the basics of Marxism, the Middle East, and women and socialism. Interestingly enough, they've also published some fantastic books on culture, poetry, and sports ? all without fail from a decidedly socialist perspective. I had the opportunity to speak with Rachel Cohen of Haymarket in early February.
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Powell's Chris Faatz: Rachel, tell me a little about Haymarket, where it comes from, and its mission.
Rachel Cohen: Well, we have to admit that it's true that Marxist perspectives have become marginal in the United States as nowhere else over the last fifty years. Yet, as the rich become richer and the poor poorer, many people in this country are confronting in their daily lives the contradictions and unfulfilled promises of our society, and Marxism offers the clearest take on this reality and proposes a genuine alternative. Haymarket publishes books that alert activists, thinkers, and workers today of the rich tradition of thought and struggle in this country and among workers the world over. We provide a set of tools ? politics, history, and analysis ? for a whole range of social justice movements taking shape in the United States today.
Faatz: How do you see yourselves in relation to other publishers, the market, and, most importantly, the social movements of today in this country?
Cohen: We've been excited in recent years both to be able to break new ground in some areas as well as to work alongside other publishers to bring forward some really important books and projects. For instance, we published our first young adult title last year, a book called A Little Piece of Ground, which exposes the injustice of the Israeli occupation through the eyes of a young Palestinian boy. It stands alone in the world of young adult literature, particularly in the U.S., but since it has been released here, it has received very favorable attention and has already won a few awards, including from the U.S. Board on Books for Young Adults and the Middle East Outreach Council. Corporate book publishers in the United States wouldn't touch A Little Piece of Ground, even though Macmillan published it in the United Kingdom and now it is doing very well there.
Faatz: Haymarket isn't the only socialist publisher in the country ? Monthly Review and South End immediately come to mind ? but you're rather unique in that you publish stuff that most people wouldn't immediately expect from a publisher of your flavor, such as books on poetry or literature. Can you speak to that seeming contradiction? How do you compare yourselves to Verso or South End?
Cohen: We are very pleased to be a part of a growing and diverse independent media movement in the U.S. There is no shortage of conservative publications and voices dominating mainstream presses, so of course there's no need for competition among left wing publishers. In fact, we are urgently in need of more critical voices and a broader spectrum of radical and socialist ideas reaching more and more readers.
So, in addition to books that directly represent Marxist theory and the historical traditions that stem from it, we look to connect a socialist perspective to peoples' lives today. To that end, books like Dave Zirin's What's My Name, Fool? apply socialist critiques and principled opposition to racism or sexism, for example, to one of the broadest cross sections of pop-culture and popular consciousness. We also just published a book called Vive La Revolution, by radical comedian Mark Steel, which is a hilarious retelling of the story of the French Revolution. It makes you laugh out loud while reclaiming the ideals of this bourgeois revolution from the mainstream historians' recasting of it as a bloody and anarchic coup. This sort of book helps to generalize a left wing perspective and inject a sense of confidence for fighting back into both culture and history among a wider layer of readers. We don't see a contradiction here ? socialist perspectives appeal to sports lovers as much as anyone and humor speaks to all of us.
Faatz: How do books like your conversations with the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer or the collection of essays and poems by South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus do for you? How about Trotsky on literature?
Cohen: I think each of these figures, Toer, Brutus, and Trotsky, bring a legacy of struggle as well as a unique voice to the international discourse in left politics and culture. Each of them, also, are people who as yet remain on the edges of popular consciousness in the United States. We've been truly pleased to publish books that help bring their stories and their contributions to literature and to literary thought into the current conversation. Our approach to each was to highlight their written work, placing it in context with their lives and the living struggles they are known for leading.
Faatz: Your recent edition of The Communist Manifesto is amazing. It's quite a project. Can you tell our readers a bit about the genesis of this book, and its makeup?
Cohen: We consciously set out to try to produce classic Marxist and socialist texts in new editions that are accessible to a wide audience. Often, books published a hundred or more years ago can seem daunting, or worse, irrelevant, and we wanted to give them a new life. Our first book like this was Leon Trotsky's Literature and Revolution, which has extensive notes and annotations by Bill Keach, a professor of literature at Brown University. Contemporary literary thinkers like Terry Eagleton have drawn on the perspective Trotsky lays out in this book, and thousands of artists today grapple with the questions Trotsky deals with in it, of how to produce politically potent art and the relationship between aspects of culture like art with social transformation. The Communist Manifesto was an obvious one to take on right from the start ? it's extremely relevant to society today, but it isn't always easy for readers to understand all the historical references. Previous editions have done little to put the work into an activist context. Phil Gasper, a professor of philosophy who teaches the Manifesto all the time, knew exactly how to translate Marx and Engels' words and annotated each line in the whole text, then added lots of explanatory materials. It's really remarkable.
Faatz: What's your bestselling book to date?
Cohen: Dave Zirin's What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States. It just struck such a chord ? sports fans who are wary of politics and politicos who don't care for sports all love this book. It has something for everyone, and really saves sports from the commercialization, racism, and profiteering we see today and presents a vision for how sports can be reclaimed for the rest of us by showcasing athletes who have done and are doing this. Dave himself is certainly a socialist, and this book shows you can make a socialist case about the world in all kinds of ways.
Faatz: What do you have coming up that's exciting?
Cohen: Of course we're really looking forward to Dave's new book, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports, coming out in June. The great sportswriter Robert Lipsyte says that "Dave Zirin is the best young sportswriter in America," which we totally agree with! Plus it has a preface by Chuck D, who we can give thanks to for the inspiration for the title.
We're also publishing a book by Dahr Jamail, the independent journalist that many people will know from his reporting from Iraq. His perspective as an un-embedded reporter is unlike most any other out there ? angry, thoughtful and he doesn't shy away from the critical political questions facing the antiwar movement today. His book will be called Dispatches from the Red Zone.
There are several titles that fall into the category of socialist classics ? writings by Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollontai, and a reissue of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution (October is the 90th anniversary of the 1917 revolution).
Also, we are very proud to publish a collaborative effort between a Palestinian activist and author and an Israeli journalist on a book called Between the Lines, which breaks significant ground in the current debate over the Israeli occupation.
Faatz: Thanks, Rachel.
Cohen: Thank You!