Formed in 2020, the International Union of Left Publishers emerged as a platform of left publishers to promote left books through Red Books Day (21 February), to defend left authors, publishers, and bookshops, and to develop a copyleft method of sharing books across our countries and languages.
Over the past decades, we have noticed two related dynamics that have challenged left publishing:
1. The rise of the far right
- Neo-fascists and their allied forces have made physical threats against left authors, publishers, bookstores, and magazines. Attacks on these institutions have been punctual and terrifying. Assassinations of authors have come alongside the fire-bombing of our cultural institutions. The roots of this neo-fascist strength go back to the Cold War, during which Washington, DC provided the capitals of the Third World with the authorisation to murder communists, mainly, but also leftists of all stripes, such as in Brazil (1964) and Indonesia (1965). Remembering that terrible history remains vital.
- The far right has driven an anti-Marxist agenda that promotes unreason, obscurantism, and hatreds of various kinds, including misogyny, racism, and an intolerance towards social diversity. The anti-Marxist ethos deepened by the far right is shared by a cross-section of liberalism, which rarely comes out in defence of the left when it is attacked by the far right.
2. The suffocation of the publishing industry
- Under pressure from declining revenues, capitalist publishing houses have attempted to squeeze as much profit as possible from every imaginable avenue, including the sale of foreign rights. This has made the question of rights confounding for independent presses, and especially for left presses.
- The emergence of platform booksellers – notably Amazon – has provided a short-term opportunity for small and independent publishers, increasing their potential reach, eliminating intermediaries, and shortening payment cycles. In the long run, however, these platforms harm the larger ecosystem with their near monopoly behaviour, driving out individual publishers who find their profit markets squeezed. It is dangerous to allow corporate monopolies to be the main conduit for sales, as they can cut the spigot at any time.
- Capitalist consolidation has taken place in the world of publishing, but in the world of left publishing, we are atomised and isolated. This has meant that we do not have a clearing house to know about books that one another is publishing and books that we could publish in common. It has been hard to know how to contact authors in different countries to get rights. This level of isolation from each other has had a negative impact on our work. It is even more confounding for publishers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, who are often sidelined by left presses in the North Atlantic.
To counter the first set of problems, the informal Indian Union of Left Publishers, made up of publishing houses affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), put out a call for Red Books Day on 21 February 2020. The call was endorsed by the International Peoples’ Assembly and by a range of political and social forces, as well as left publishers. The response from publishers and bookstores around the world was heartening. The day itself was a success. It proved that the concrete possibility exists to create an International Union of Left Publishers (IULP).
Roughly forty publishers have joined the IULP. We have had two meetings with all the member publishers and created three committees: an executive committee, a publications committee, and a rights committee. The work we have done together includes:
1. Red Books Day
Every year on 21 February, we ask writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, and readers to go out into public places – including bookshops – and to read, and bring alive, any red book. This event, Red Books Day, takes place on the date The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848.
In 2020, more than thirty thousand people from South Korea to Venezuela joined in a public reading of The Communist Manifesto in their own languages. The epicentre of Red Books Day was in the four Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana, where the bulk of the public readings took place. Without question, Bharati Puthakalayam and the Tamil Nadu State Secretariat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) created the greatest number of events, from a morning reading of the manifesto under the labour statue on Chennai’s marina to evening readings at union halls. Peasant organisations affiliated with the Communist Party of Nepal held readings in rural areas, while the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil held readings in their occupied settlements. In Havana, study circles met to read the manifesto, while in South Africa the Sesotho translation was launched and read for the first time. Left publishing houses from Expressão Popular in Brazil to Batalla de Ideas in Argentina and Inkani Books in South Africa also joined the effort. Many participants reported that this was the first time that they had opened a book by Marx and that the captivating prose has drawn them to start study circles of Marxist literature.
Due to the pandemic, Red Books Day 2021 was held largely online, but enthusiasm nonetheless remained high. The publishing house Založba in Slovenia released a short film entitled Dan rdečih knjig (Red Books Day), in which Založba’s writers read from the manifesto. Meanwhile, the publishing house Yordam Kitap in Turkey asked its authors to read from the manifesto in Turkish and organised a talk with Ertuğrul Kürkçü, a leader of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Small, appropriately distanced gatherings took place in Kerala, where the manifesto was read in Malayalam and English, as well as in Brazil, where militants of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) organised readings of the manifesto in Portuguese in their encampments. Not one corner of India was without Red Books Day events, as readings took place from Assam to Karnataka to Tamil Nadu.
The highlight of Red Books Day 2022 was that half a million people in Kerala (India) read the books of EMS Namboodiripad in 35,000 meetings across the state. Various colleges in Perinthalmanna (Malappuram) held a three-day-long book festival, The Battle of Literature in the Era of the Ban, while the Purogamana Kala Sahitya Sangham (Association of Progressive Art and Literature) held programmes across Kerala. At the Vijayawada Book Festival in Andhra Pradesh, Prajasakti Bookhouse erected a popular Communist Manifesto book stall, while in villages in Maharashtra, night classes were held that reminded participants of the early days of the peasant movement. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders gave talks at many of these events. Readings were held in Indonesia and Turkey, Brazil and Venezuela. Films were screened and music was sung while social media buzzed with the hashtags of Red Books Day in multiple languages. The South African shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo held a talent show on Red Books Day at the eKhenana occupation site. ‘The price for land and autonomy is always paid in blood. But struggle is not only shared suffering. It is also shared joy’, the organisation declared.
2. Joint books
As part of our experience in building the IULP, we produce books together, from selecting the content to carrying out production process with the respective committees. We began modestly – with three publishers – and have grown to approximately thirty publishers participating in producing the same red book to be published on the same day in our various languages:
- Lenin 150 (April 2020)
- Mariátegui (June 2020)
- Che (October 2020)
- Paris Commune 150 (May 2021)
- Kollontai 150 (April 2022)
3. Solidarity Rights
The IULP is developing a new formula for sharing rights to our books and building a procedure in which some of them can be shared with our entire IULP membership in a solidarity fashion. More details about these rights will be shared soon.
Thus far, we have produced several books, such as Washington Bullets, which was translated from English into Spanish by Batalla de Ideas (Argentina) and then offered, gratis, to other Spanish-language publishers outside of Argentina to print and sell.