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Pluto Press is 50 years young! To celebrate our Golden anniversary, we asked our founder Richard Kuper to cast his mind back to the early years of Pluto Press and recount the origins of our publishing house. 

Keep your eyes peeled for our 50th anniversary celebrations. We have bookshop takeovers, events reissues of some of our classics – including Change the World Without Taking Power by John Holloway and Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal – as well as the return of our  Big Red Diary…  

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Pluto Press has its origins in the anti-Vietnam war movement, the student movement and the militancy of grassroots workers’ organisation of the 1960s. It’s worth returning to that era and looking into the origins of this late-sixties ferment which made the launch of a far-left socialist publishing house possible.

I had gone to LSE as a postgraduate student in the autumn of 1964. A member of the International Socialism group since February of that year, I found only two other members at LSE and another in the anarcho-syndicalist grouping Solidarity. The far left was miniscule, but we were in the right place at the right time. The world was changing and disillusionment with the complacency of our elders and betters gathered apace. Disillusionment with Harold Wilson’s Labour government was not slow in coming; the escalation of the war in Vietnam slowly polarised the world and electrified those who might have had hopes in the Labour government. Left-wing ideas – Marxist ideas – were finding a following and rebellion against the stultifying intellectual offerings of most university courses mounted. The problems of capitalism had been solved, we were told, and we were entering a new world of shared values and the end of ideology. There appeared, for so many academics, no more interesting questions to ask.

This didn’t go down well with a recently expanded student body, hungry for education and understanding of a world they did not see through such rose-tinted spectacles. We were soon engulfed in wave after wave of radical questioning of the ways of the world. Social democracy was seen as administrative and paternalistic, doing good for others when capitalism deigned to allow some of its bountiful profits to be taxed and redistributed. The masses were expected to be passive and grateful for what they received. The most clearly articulated alternative explanation for the social order was the stifling orthodoxy passing for Marxism, justifying the USSR and its satellite regimes in Eastern Europe or in Mao’s China.

There were alternative currents of thinking – from the new left which emerged after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, to the highly popular Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Yet in the late sixties, in Britain and elsewhere, a postwar generation erupted with a desire for personal freedom and liberation from tired social norms. The international eruptions of 1968 were immediately visible signs of a widespread desire to remake the world. ‘Demand the impossible’, a slogan of May 1968 in France, captured the mood.

It was not to be – at least not in that form! Groups like International Socialism, the IMG (International Marxist Group) and others came out of the shadows from 1967 onwards. A new, relatively open Marxism was being offered in sharp contrast to the dogmatic current on offer – whether Stalinist, Trotskyist or Maoist. It was in this heady atmosphere that the idea of Pluto Press emerged in 1969.

I remember sitting next to Michael Kidron in an IS National Committee meeting and him saying “When I’m a publisher I’ll do this” to which I replied “No, I’m the publisher!”. Well, a number of discussions followed, including a weekend visit to Mike and Nina in the Yorkshire village of Lund where they were living, Mike being at the time an economics lecturer at Hull University. Many ideas were floated, and scenarios envisaged. The New York Review of Books was a worthy model and we toyed with a “Lund and London Review of Books”.

But all came to naught. Mike, already an expert on South Asian economic development, was offered a job at Queen Elizabeth House in Oxford and I decided to go ahead on my own, abandoning the free spirit and grand ambition we had been playing around with. Mike wished me well but wasn’t overly impressed as I set out to provide an independent series of pamphlets and books geared to the intellectual development (as I perceived it), self-motivating revolutionary activism that IS was trying to foster.

This meant in the first instance, interventionist pamphlets pushing the basic revolutionary message, working-class and movement history and accessible revolutionary theory relevant to our current situation. The early publications were all closely linked to IS’s perceived needs and many were published on behalf of IS, including Pluto’s very first pamphlet by Michael Farrell, Struggle in the North and Pluto’s first Book, by Tony Cliff, The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them. The latter was used as an organising tool by IS, seeking to implant itself in the shop-stewards movement. It was sold overwhelmingly door-to-door or branch-to-branch by IS members on the ground, visiting local contacts, arranging public meetings, going to their trades councils and union branches. The book enjoyed a receptive audience with over 15,000 copies sold in a period of months – not years.

Early books that followed included (a disappointing) Antonio Gramsci: An Introduction to his Thought; Paul Frölich’s majestic Rosa Luxemburg in a new translation; Alfred Rosmer’s Lenin’s Moscow, a history of the early years of the Comintern in its first English translation, some essays by the Marxist theorist Karl Korsch, a collection of IS essays on Party and Class; André Gunder Frank’s extended essay, “The Sociology of Development and Underdevelopment of Sociology”; a reprint of J.T. Murphy’s history of the British working-class movement, Preparing for Power; and, from the archives, a series of labour history pamphlets introduced by members of the thriving IS Historians Group.

The name Pluto was chosen with the idea of the god of the underworld answering back in mind. Although when classically-educated Paul Foot pointed out that Pluto was also the god of money, I had to promise that the name would be changed, once our fortunes were made, to the Plutocratic Press – however it was not to be!

I knew nothing about publishing, of course, and had to learn rapidly on the hoof. I was at once commissioning editor, subeditor, copy-editor, proofreader, translation checker, bibliography constructor, bookkeeper. We had a desk and some storage space in the new IS headquarters at Cottons Gardens and a couple of comrades worked part-time to help service orders and keep the show on the road. Within a couple of years, I’d really had enough. I had a full-time job as a technical college lecturer (in those days the 12-hour class contact time gave me vast oceans of free time), was an active IS member on its National Committee, and had two very young kids, and a relationship that was falling apart.

Fortunately for Pluto and socialist publishing, Mike and Nina Kidron were in the process of moving to London with energy, enthusiasm and a grander vision than I could summon up at the time. Mike brought his editorial vision, and Nina her organisation, networking and negotiating ability, and her design sense, and together the project was transformed. Gifted maverick designer Robin Fior had already produced a number of Pluto covers and his equally gifted and less maverick friend Richard Hollis joined as our main designer in the seventies.

Mike and Nina were insistent that we formalise the endeavour as a truly independent publishing project. Our decisions on what to publish would flow from our vision of what was needed to influence political activism and develop socialist analysis among a new generation of activists. We really were living in the midst of a vibrant world in upheaval with a buzzing range of alternative movements and projects. We attempted to ensure that Pluto was part of this, shaping and being shaped by this unprecedented upheaval, and reaching our target readership by selling directly to trades unions, student unions, women’s organisations and theatre audiences as well as through the expanding network of radical bookshops that emerged in the 1970s.

Early successes included Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It, Patrick Kinnersley’s The Hazards of Work and the Big Red Diaries, particularly the original 1974, and the 1976 Women’s Diary.

Pluto’s output expanded enormously – almost four hundred titles had been published by the mid-eighties – and a number of important series generated, including Workers’ Handbooks, Marxism Series: Ideas in Action, the Big Red Diaries, The State of the World Atlases, the Militarism, State and Society series, Pluto Plays, Arguments for Socialism, Politics of Health, Pluto Crime and Liberation Classics. We published extensively in the areas of movement history, race politics, Ireland, popular culture, feminism and sexual politics. Anne Benewick was production manager from 1972 and managed the Atlas programme; and the editorial team was joined later by Pete Ayrton, Paul Crane and Neil Middleton.

Although our interests and political perspectives were slowly diverging, we still published a number of books from the IS stable in the seventies, in particular Tony Cliff’s The Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism (1975 – a spectacularly misjudged analysis!) and his four-volume work on Lenin (1975–79). IS moved towards a narrower and more dogmatic politics and an increasing conviction that it was the embryo of the new revolutionary party the working class so badly needed. It was finally to transform itself into that party (at least in name!) as the Socialist Workers’ Party at the end of 1977. Michael Kidron had drifted away before this and I chose actively not to join this new Party, which I believed was cutting itself off from so many sources of innovation to be found in the broader social movements of the day. I cleared my head by writing a critique of the concept of democratic centralism, seen at the time as the essence of Leninist theory of organisation, and moved on.

In this period we expanded outwards. We became a distributor, and co-publisher of related titles generated by Urizen Books and South End Press in the United States and Ink Links in Britain, as well as a distributor for Counter-Information Services, History Workshop, Feminist Review and others. We set up our own trade sales organisation, Volume Sales, in partnership with Allison & Busby, under the direction of Ric Sissons who would later run Pluto Australia.

New departures in publishing included working with Max Stafford-Clark and the Royal Court Theatre to encourage theatre-goers to read play scripts. The innovative practice of printing programmes which included the entire play has since been widely taken up. The State of the World Atlas by Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal – a visual encapsulation of major social and political trends – was created and produced by Pluto Press and published by Pan Books in 1981. It was described as ‘an occasion of wit and an act of subversion’ by the New York Times, and as ‘inventive brilliance’ by New Scientist. It was the first of a number of related titles in the series, of which many hundreds of thousands of copies were sold worldwide in English and in many foreign-language editions.

While the Atlas series continued to be successful, changes in the publishing industry resulted in reduced financial margins. Changes in bookselling practices also took their toll, the informal distribution channels weakened, and many radical bookshops folded. Eventually, five years after celebrating a much-belated “10 years in the Red” in 1981, Pluto Press succumbed to the financial stresses of underfunding, economic recession and the effect of Thatcher’s privatisation, deregulation, unemployment, the assault on the unions and growing inequality. Consequently, Pluto’s target readership fragmented and dispersed. After a period of reconstruction, the backlist was acquired by Roger van Zwanenberg in 1987 and Pluto was given a new lease of life. Many never even noticed the change.

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Richard Kuper founded Pluto Press in 1969 and was a founding member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians and of Jewish Voice for Labour.