An interview with David Castle, editorial director at Pluto Press.
Pluto Press emerged in 1969 with a commitment to radical political publishing on the left. Birthed at a time of immense change themselves, I was inspired to contact them to hear about what they have made out of the turbulent pandemic months, of a time where everything changed instantly, and a lot of assumed certainties were dismantled.
I spoke to David Castle, editorial director and commissioning editor at Pluto Press, who has been at the publishing house since 2003. He took the time to share his thoughts about radical publishing, contemporary times and the future lingering in the nearby peripheries.
JD: Could you tell me a bit more about Pluto’s history and how you came about, and explain a little more about Pluto’s editorial mission?
DC: Pluto was founded in 1969, a bit over 50 years ago, and it has broadly had the same mission throughout that time. We’ve always been a radical political publisher, right from the start. We’ve evolved as the political landscape has changed on the left, we’ve reflected that, but a commitment to anti-capitalist politics, to left politics, has been retained all that time.
In terms of its origins, it came out of a particular political moment, it was 1969, after the big uprisings in France  which had echoed across the Atlantic and to a lesser extent over here in the UK. There was a big wave of new social movements emerging. There was a reawakening of radical left politics of a Marxist sort, but also, there was the growth of second wave feminism, burgeoning of an environmental movement and early LGBT movements. There were also massive protests against the Vietnam War and a lot of student radicalism. All those things were sort of intersecting with each other, and Pluto was really born out of that. It was founded by someone who must have been very young at the time, he’s still with us, Richard Kuper.
We’ve published all sorts of things over the years, even some crime fiction in the 80s, plays – there were a lot of Pluto plays coming out in the late 70s early 80s. We hit a bit of a difficult time through the late 80s and actually went through a change of ownership. Then we found ourselves on a firmer footing throughout the 90s and 2000s and reorientated a little bit to have more of a global perspective.
We see ourselves as a radical political publisher and very much trying to have a close relationship with the social and political movements out of which we have emerged. We publish out of those movements; we will publish for those movements.
JD: So how has 2020 and the pandemic, changed or affected your publishing, or has it not? Have you always had to deal with conflict?
DC: We’ve always dealt with problems, right? It was a massive shock as I think it was for pretty much everyone when it hit. We weren’t prepared for it. There was a bit of panic in that bookshops closed their doors. One wholesaler went bust. We did wonder: how are we going to cope? In fact, it turned out we coped very well because we developed a direct relationship with our readers, we were in a good position because we were able to sell books from our website, we already had quite a good social media presence and we were already doing things like podcasts and videos to connect to our audience.
We just focused on trying to talk directly to our audience and we found that really paid off. In terms of how it’s changed us, this is going to be really central to how we operate from now on. It was important before, but the pandemic has actually strengthened us because now we feel more confident just being ourselves. Beforehand, we sometimes felt we were a little publisher in a big capitalist market [chuckles]. So being able to relate to our readership directly, that’s fantastic, and we can just build on that.
JD: From my research on the website, it says that you as a publisher like to share conflicting points of view which I think it is quite in the spirit of radicalism that you give space to all these different viewpoints.
Yes, I think that’s important – I don’t think all authors would agree with each other on everything. In fact, I know they wouldn’t. It is necessary to provide a space for the differences on the left to be worked through rather than saying we need to decide what is right, we are going to adopt a particular line and we are going to exclude everything else. We would probably end up with a very sterile list if we did that. Of course, there are only certain things that we publish, every political project has its boundaries and that’s important as well, but within those boundaries there needs to be quite a lot of diversity.
JD: Thinking about the theme of this edition of Smiths, a lot of us are thinking about the future right now. So what future do you see for Pluto and what future does Pluto envision for the world?
DC: I think the pandemic affected lots of people very badly and I recognize that it was tragic for many people: many people lost their lives, people lost those they loved, and many lost their jobs. There was a lot of hardship for a lot of people. At the same time, for many people, it was an opportunity to reflect, to reassess, to think differently as things slowed down for a bit. Some of us saw what it might be like if we worked less, commuted less, consumed less. There were glimpses, I think, of some good things, of how things might be in the future. People connected better with their neighbors, mutual aid groups formed, there was a lot of solidarity, – with healthcare workers, with key workers – that was all good. I fear we’re now losing that. That was a moment, and it is now moving away. We need to hold on to those insights. So, the world that I would like and I am sure other people at Pluto would like would be a world where we can enjoy life to the full and also [address] the dreadful inequalities in the world, the continuing violence and exploitation that we see.
It’s a tough time, but we’ve got to be honest about the obstacles ahead. The biggest challenge, I think, is the obstacle of climate change. We’ve got to face it head on. We’ve got to find a way that we can live more sustainably ourselves and in a way that does not cause exploitation of others and in a way that can be rolled out globally. I mean that is such a big task. But we know what we need, and the thing that we at Pluto can do is develop those alternatives as best we can, the outlines, the policies that can be implemented, or show how some of those realities can or are already being achieved now on a limited scale: at the level of a neighborhood, a community, a social center or even a city, through forms of municipal socialism. I suspect that is what we need at the moment, and then we can move on from there. It’s hard to be utopian right now, I have to say, the challenge is huge. I fear things are going to get worse before they are going to get better.
JD: On that bright note, what book in your catalogue best reflects the very arbitrary theme of this edition of our magazine: Future Never Spoke?
DC: Connecting with what we’ve just been talking about, we’ve just published a book by Max Ajl called The People’s Green New Deal. There have been a number of proposals for a green new deal and they all look at reviving economies while implementing social justice and tackling the problems of climate change and other environmental problems that we face. This book tries to imagine a green new deal on the global level. It faces some of the injustices of existing green new deals and tries to outline how it would work on a global level around the principles of degrowth and with a commitment to anti-imperialism. So in terms of a book thinking about the future and developing a more positive future, this would be a good book for your readers to turn to.
JD: That’s brilliant, and final question: who is your favorite radical thinker?
DC: Before I worked at Pluto, I worked at a magazine called Red Pepper with the editor there, Hilary Wainwright. She has been a big influence for me over the years. She showed me the importance of radical democracy and how you can develop these lived alternatives in practice on a small level. Reading David Harvey, I really got to understand the workings of global capitalism properly and really got to understand Marx. I also read a lot of Stuart Hall, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and that began at Goldsmiths. I began to understand the relationship between subjectivity and politics, how the political field is constantly changing and how cultural and political forces in turn change people’s subjectivity.
That helped me understand politics in a different way really, in terms of the challenges of changing people’s minds, but also how there’s always room for change, however bad it looks. The current political conjuncture isn’t completely sealed, there’s always competing forces, opposing forces, emergent forces which could disrupt the conjuncture that we’re in.