Ramsey Kanaan is the co-founder of PM Press, one of the most interesting small publishers in the business today. Powell's Chris Faatz caught up with him this past month and asked him a few questions.
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Ramsey Kanaan: For my sins, I am/was indeed the founder of AK. AK is actually named after my mother — Ann Kanaan — though I often used to tell folks me mother was named Kalashnikov. I spent the best part of three decades (I started young — 13) with AK, and when it became more than just me, we set it up as a workers' co-op in the U.K. So pretty much everything I've learned about publishing, distribution, propaganda, writing, editing, co-operative work, running a business, etc., etc., was all done through the rubric of AK.
Most of it was invented as we went along. I'm very proud of what we did with/at AK — and PM was started by me and another AKer, Craig O'Hara. We're now lucky to be able to do even more with PM. Same ends, similar means, just taking in a wider scope of formats, genres, and platforms, to get the ideas out there, and hopefully, folks interacting with them.
Faatz: It's pretty apparent from perusing your catalog and the books you've already published that you operate from a radical, left libertarian, even anarchist perspective. What kind of a market do you find for that kind of material?
Kanaan: Well, there's the market that already exists — largely what is left of "the movement" (however defined) from the '60s, and then the later generations of younger activists, who came up through punk, the alter-globalization movement, and suchlike. The challenge, I think, has always been not only to better inform 'the movement', but to figure out how to get the ideas across to everyone else. In effect, how do we actively contribute to building a movement (however defined) which is genuinely going to take on Capital and the state.
There's no one "correct" path. In terms of ideas, we're exploring all aspects of art, culture, genre fiction, music, video, academic texts, and inspirational manifestos to get the words and sounds and visuals across... and hopefully, to build an audience.
Faatz: Just briefly, how do you define anarchism or left libertarianism for those who are curious?
Kanaan: It'd depend on the audience, of course. To those not well versed in political theory (or practice), I'd define anarchism as the rather common-sense notion that folks are best able to organize their own lives, without the impediments of hierarchy, authority, the state, capitalism, et al. It's a particular form of horizontal, as opposed to vertical, social and economic organization. For the more sophisticated, the snappy response is that it's the self-emancipation of the working class.
Faatz: Having said that, everyone who knows anything about anarchism has a favorite introductory text for friends and co-workers who come up with the famous question relating to anarchy as disorder, chaos, and a dog-eat-dog world. One of my favorites is Daniel Guerin's book, Anarchism. What do you recommend? What is there on the PM list that speaks to people wanting to know more about a left libertarian form of politics?
Kanaan: Guerin is definitely one of my favorites. So is Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. And Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward. In terms of what PM has published, Peter Marshall's monumental Demanding the Impossible is a 1,000-page introduction to the broad river of anarchy. Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer's The Floodgates of Anarchy is a fantastic introduction to good old class struggle anarchism. And For All the People by John Curl is a wonderful excavation of the hidden history of co-operative movements and work in North America.
Faatz: It's funny you should mention the novel Woman on the Edge of Time.
As far as fiction runs, I love Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed. What other literary forays into libertarianism can you recommend?
Kanaan: The Mars trilogy, and The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson ought to be must-reads. Stan is a utopian socialist, which is absolutely fine by me. News from Nowhere by William Morris not only depicts a socialist society, but the processes and pitfalls of actually arriving there.
Faatz: You don't just publish books. What other stuff do you make available?
Kanaan:Our interest is to get the ideas out there. We do that both with various genres of books (graphic art, comics, fiction, nonfiction, etc.), formats of books (our titles are all available in hard copy and in all of the various electronic formats, for those so inclined), and by releasing DVDs and CDs (again, both in hard copy and electronically) — documentaries, music, and spoken word. Whatever folks might be into.
Faatz: Speaking of music, you've done some substantial books on the politics of music. Would you say something about them?
Kanaan: I'm interested in bringing out the emancipatory potential, or elements, in all forms of culture. Growing up in/with punk (and somewhat, folk) music, it's been somewhat easy to start with what you know. We've published The Story of Crass, undoubtedly the definitive biography (based on interviews with all of the members of the band) of the group that not only spawned the genre now known as anarcho-punk, but revolutionized a generation — and continue to do so almost 30 years after they disbanded. And with Sober Living for the Revolution, we're examining the radical end of the "straight-edge" scene — a musical subculture who eschew the use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Often puritanically conservative, for sure, but again, containing all kinds of revolutionary ideas, actions, and adherents.
Faatz: What are your guidelines in choosing the material you publish? What, in short, is your mission statement?
Kanaan: We have two criteria. First and foremost, whatever we publish has to be good! We take it as a given that the material is, broadly speaking, Lefty/adding something to the world. But it has to be quality, both the material and its presentation/packaging.
The second criterion is that we have to think we might be able to sell it. Which is, unfortunately, not the case for everything that we want to do.
Faatz: I see coming up three books by Paul Goodman. What piqued your interest in him, and why are you choosing to publish him at this time?
Kanaan: Goodman is one of many great figures (writers/authors/speakers/activists) who not only had a huge impact in their time (in the case of Goodman, his Growing Up Absurd sold a million copies in the early '60s), but whose voice/ideas are as relevant today as they were back in the day. Drawing the Line Once Again (a collection of his anarchist writings) and the New Reformation (his last book of social criticism, published in 1970, at the height of his disillusionment with the '60s movement he helped birth) are out now. The Paul Goodman Reader should be following in a couple of months — the definitive collection, collecting together the vast scope of his writings (and fiction and poetry), and following this, a collection of talks and lectures that have never previously been published.
Faatz: You're also publishing a book of Gustav Landauer's writings. Who was Landauer, and why do you think he's important at this time?
Kanaan:Landauer was the most well-known German anarchist, and has been criminally neglected outside of the German-speaking world. Much like Goodman, he wrote widely on politics, current affairs, art, literature, and — along with his close friend Martin Buber — propagated a secular Jewish spiritualism. He was active in the short-lived Bavarian uprising/commune of 1920, was captured, and was killed. This is the only major collection of his political writings to have been translated and published into English. We're pretty excited! And as folks will discover, his writings offer far more than just historical curiosity.
Faatz: Lastly, one of the most exciting and impressive books I've seen in a while is Peter Marshall's Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. How is that book doing for you, at 840 action-packed pages?
Kanaan: So far, it's selling rather well, and has started to get some major review attention — as well it ought, of course. It's sold 1,000 copies in the first few months of publication, and sales seem to be picking up, so we're pretty happy.
Faatz: Thanks, Ramsey, very much, for your time.
Books mentioned in this post