Sunday, April 27, 2014

Monopolising Marx and Engels, or censoring the Internet?

"REMOVING our work from the archive, Fred? In this case, Property really is Theft!

Marxists Internet Archive
 is an international project which, thanks to the efforts of a growing team of unpaid but dedicated volunteers, has made a wide range of socialist and progressive literature available on the internet, free of charge, translated into many languages,  and reaching around the world.

For students, and for militants wanting to educate themselves about the movement's history and ideas, it is, if you'll forgive a non-materialist expression, a godsend! The M.I.A. is not just non-profit but non-sectarian. Authors listed in their expanding collection range from Adorno and Althusser through to Zizek and Emil Zola. Having this material in electronic form makes it easier to peruse if you want to trace a subject or passage, but more important is having it available at all.

You could spend near a lifetime looking for some of the writings in bookshops or libraries, you would have to know what you were looking for, and still might not find it. Even in Britain the number of left-wing bookshops has declined, and now many public libraries are being closed, and those remaining are unlikely to see some obscure Marxist philosopher as meriting expenditure. That's  assuming the work in question is to be had.

For many years the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Moscow supplied cheap paperback editions of classics like Lenin's What Is To Be Done  or  State and Revolution. When that source dried up its place was taken to some extent by Beijing. There used to be a bookshop in London's Chinatown where you could get them. It may have been harder to get this "export only" literature in China itself. In discussion with a Chinese academic at the time of Tiananmen Square she complimented fiends who had quoted Marx and Lenin, saying wryly that "In China we don't get  the chance to read that kind of thing. We don't even get to read Mao properly. Just that bloody little red book!"

A few years ago the M.I.A. comrades found their Chinese language site was being blocked, much as some governments used to jam radio stations they did not like.

Even in the heyday of Stalinist publishing it was selective of course, and some books were killed off with their writers. When I wanted to read Osip Piatnitsky's Memoirs of a Bolshevik a few years ago I had to go to the British Library. Not everyone has the time or access, or I'd have had to wait in a queue. Piatnitsky's book was published in English in 1935, but he was arrested two years later and executed in 1938, so the book remained out of print for decades, even after Piatnitsky was posthumously rehabilitated in 1956.

Cecilia Bobrovskaya's Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of a Rank-and-File Bolshevik (1934) was similarly unavailable, from the same publishers, but I was delighted to be able to download a copy from the Marxist Internet Archive..Both Piatnitsky and Bobrovska's books are enlightening as to history and good reads.

But of course for most people visiting the Marxist Internet Archive site the main interest will be accessing the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The recent chaos in world capitalism has reportedly had even Wall Street brokers deciding they should read up what Marx said, and there is certainly some serious discussion among less pecunious groups like students. The availability of theoretical material which all can access is also relevant for those discussing the revival of independent working class education along the lines of the pre-war Plebs League, who had to manage with none of the electronic marvels we enjoy today.

But a spanner has been thrown into th works. When I first read this I thought it might be a hoax.
"Lawrence & Wishart, who hold the copyright for the Marx Engels Collected Works, have directed Marxists Internet Archive to delete all texts originating from MECW. Accordingly, from 30th April 2014, no material from MECW is available from"

It's not a hoax. It's real. Lawrence and Wishart, the publishing house which used to be associated with the British Communist Party, is using copyright to prevent a left-wing initiative circulating writings by Marx and Engels internationally.

A friend in Ireland who saw my comment on Facebook has drawn my attention to a petition about this, which is gaining thousands of signatures. Lawrence and Wishart have also received letters deploring their action, from readers in many countries.

In response to such criticism, L&W say they are not the first publisher to take such actions. This is true. In the Middle Ages when the new media technology upsetting power and privilege was the invention of printing, the Church took quite draconian measures to curb unauthorised lay people getting hold of, nay even reading and studying, copies of the Bible.

Lest this comparison seems too extreme - after all L&W has not burned anyone at the stake, and does not even support a Russian Stalinist Inquisition nowadays - we should acknowledge a more recent case. The Socialist Workers' Party in the United States (no connection with its namesake in the UK) may have abandoned Trotskyism, but its publisher Pathfinder has been reluctant to give up its copyright on many of Leon Trotsky's writings. Business is business. Pathfinder's lawyers sent a warning letter to MIA about some of the work it was making available.

This brought protests at the time.
And I am surprised that Lawrence and Wishart should want to follow the precedent.

It is not as though Marx and Engels are struggling young writers whose right to earn a crust is being protected by their publishers, against some unscrupulous pirate publisher out to exploit them. The long-dead authors are not the beneficiaries of Lawrence and Wishart's proprietary hold on their work. And the Marxist Internet Archive is not a profit-making commerical competitor.

L&W say allowing the free use of  works over which they have copyright would be commercial "suicide",  They claim they are only a shoe-string operation these days, but maintaining their monopoly on Marx and Engels helps them publish more contemporary authors. I am not sure this argument stands up even from a business point of view. I doubt whether any library or institution with the money and intention to buy Marx and Engels' Collected Works at around £40 a volume these days is going to change its mind because you can get some of it on the internet.

Even more unlikely is that any worker or student from here to Tokyo or Timbuktu, deprived of an article they were hoping to find on the Marxist Internet Archive, will be able to rush out and buy the Collected Works, published by Lawrence and Wishart. I also doubt whether the London publisher has got around to producing editions in Arabic, Serbo-Croat or Tagalog, the sort of thing M.I.A. can be proud of doing. (My late friend and comrade Bongani Mkhungo alas died after a lifetime of toil and struggle in 2009, without fulfilling his ambition to translate the Communist Manifesto into Zulu, a language not yet on M.I.A.'s list).

I don't know whether the current writers cited by Lawrence and Wishart will be happy with their publisher using their names to justify it depriving others of work by Marx and Engels. But I think I can imagine what Marx and Engels might say. These great founders of scientific socialism had to make a living, but they lived for the movement, not off it, and longed for the chance to spread their ideas around the world and correspond with other thinkers and revolutionists. They would have leapt at the opportunities presented by the internet.

And in a case like this, when ownership of copyright is asserted to remove access to his work,  I can see Marx agreeing for once with Proudhon, that "Property is Theft"!.

What MIA says:

L&W defends its position:

And the Petition:

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At 3:58 PM, Blogger dave_bruce said...

Sorry, no, I refuse on principle to sign the petition. Though typically well-written, your article is seriously flawed.

1. L&W is NOT attempting to "monopolise" Marx and Engels: it has told MIA to remove from its site the 50-volume Collected Works (MECW), NOT, repeat NOT, all of Marx or Engels works or even all of those in English. Many are well out of copyright; L&W has no legal grounds for objecting to MIA's publishing them and hasn't done so.

2. MECW is a "scholarly" edition of translations which L&W published over years from IIRC the 1970s onwards. It paid for translations, research, editing and so on and retains the copyright. It has recently done a deal with a digital distributor to make the works available to institutional libraries world-wide. Obviously, the deal is pretty worthless if the texts can be obtained for free, despite MIA's slightly casual presentation. The funds that L&W will get will help it to continue and to publish new work. I might not like the politics of L&W's staff (never met 'em) or recent titles on their list (not read 'em) but I'm damned if I'm going to campaign to deprive them of the right to publish or risk putting them out of work.

3. You say, "They claim they are only a shoe-string operation these days, but maintaining their monopoly on Marx and Engels helps them publish more contemporary authors. I am not sure this argument stands up even from a business point of view."

I repeat, to suggest that L&W is "maintaining" a "monopoly on Marx and Engels" that it never had is nonsense. It has copyright (a different thing altogether) on ONE edition of the work IN ENGLISH ONLY which is explicitly not aimed at the "mass market". All that stuff about "a worker or student from here to Tokyo or Timbuktu" not being able to read Marx or Engles is mawkish tosh. Ditto those points about authors who became Stalin's victims. Important stories, yes, but irrelevant.

L&W's argument DOES stand up from a business point of view. Every publisher on the planet depends on its "back-list" to fund new work, be it L&W, Penguin or HarperCollins. When I worked in trade book printing, well over 60 per cent of what we printed was from back lists. You and many others are not to blame for being ignorant of publishing's "business models" but you are at fault for writing about them in spite and encouraging campaigns that put jobs at risk.

4. You say: "I doubt whether any library or institution with the money and intention to buy Marx and Engels' Collected Works at around £40 a volume these days is going to change its mind because you can get some of it on the internet."

Ye gods! I never knew you were also an expert on library acquisitions. I'm not but I do know that the cost of a book is a fraction of the total cost of buying, housing, cataloguing, insuring and issuing it. Digital libraries offer significant savings and, for reference works, worthwhile technical advantages. And so on.

5. L&W will have to meet the cost of digitising those fifty volumes to acceptable standards. Having also spent years digitising back lists for major UK publishers, I can assure you that it's time-consuming and expensive, especially for titles originally set in hot metal. Will MIA users help pay for that?

So, though I never sign, let alone launch, Internet petitions, I'm minded to make an exception here and ask something like:

"Are you in favour of free access to every English translation of Marx and Engels even though (a) you don't need the MECW edition for political education or debate and (b) free access to MECW could mean people losing jobs and/or books not being published? IOW, are you in favour of looting L&W's assets to win the "right" to a cheap read you'll probably never exercise?"

Go on, go on, tell me you'd answer "Yes".




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