"REMOVING our work from the archive, Fred? In this case, Property really is Theft!
Marxists Internet Archive
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
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 marxists.org"
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: