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NY Times, May 1 2014 (How appropriate)
Claiming a Copyright on Marx? How Uncomradely
By NOAM COHEN
The Marxist Internet Archive, a website devoted to radical writers and
thinkers, recently received an email: It must take down hundreds of
works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels or face legal consequences.
The warning didn’t come from a multinational media conglomerate but from
a small, leftist publisher, Lawrence & Wishart, which asserted copyright
ownership over the 50-volume, English-language edition of Marx’s and
To some, it was “uncomradely” that fellow radicals would deploy the
capitalist tool of intellectual property law to keep Marx’s and Engels’s
writings off the Internet. And it wasn’t lost on the archive’s
supporters that the deadline for complying with the order came on the
eve of May 1, International Workers’ Day.
“Marx and Engels belong to the working class of the world spiritually,
they are that important,” said David Walters, one of the organizers of
the Marxist archive. “I would think Marx would want the most prolific
and free distribution of his ideas possible — he wasn’t in it for the
Still, Mr. Walters said the archive respected the publisher’s copyright,
which covers the translated works, not the German originals from the
19th century. On Wednesday, the archive removed the disputed writings
with a note blaming the publisher and a bold headline: “File No Longer
The fight over online control of Marx’s works comes at a historical
moment when his ideas have found a new relevance, whether because the
financial crisis of 2008 shook people’s confidence in global capitalism
or, with the passage of time, the Marx name has become less shackled to
the legacy of the Soviet Union. The unlikely best seller by the French
economist Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the 21st Century,” harks back to
Marx’s work, examining historical trends toward inequality in wealth.
Despite this boomlet in interest, however, Lawrence & Wishart, located
in East London, hardly expects to have an online hit on its hands, said
Sally Davison, the publisher’s managing editor. The goal is to create a
digital edition to sell to libraries in place of a print edition, which
costs roughly $1,500 for the 50 volumes.
“Creating a digital strategy is key to our survival,” she said. “We are
currently negotiating with somebody, that’s why we’ve asked the archive
to take it off; it’s hard to sell it to librarians if a version already
Lawrence & Wishart has been losing the argument online, however. The
publisher said that it had received about 500 irate emails, along the
lines of “How can you say you are radicals?” There are more than 4,500
signatures on an online petition to oppose the notion of a copyright
claim on Marx’s and Engels’s writings; the petition cites the
incongruity, noting that the two philosophers “wrote against the
monopoly of capitalism and its origin, private property, all their
lives.” And the libertarian Cato Institute enjoyed teasing its
ideological adversaries with an I-told-you-so blog post titled, “Because
Property Rights Are Important.”
Ms. Davison said she was flabbergasted to see Lawrence & Wishart cast as
the oppressor. The publisher has two full-time employees and two
part-time employees and barely makes ends meet, publishing a handful of
journals, like Anarchy Studies, and about a dozen left-wing books a
year, she said.
“We make no profit and are not particularly well paid,” she said.
Ms. Davison defended her position by quoting Marx to the effect that you
must adapt to real-world conditions: “We don’t live in a world of
everybody sharing everything. As Marx said, and I may be paraphrasing,
‘We make our own history, but not in the conditions of our own choosing.’ ”
The publisher also tried to turn the tables on its critics, questioning
whether it was indeed radical to believe that there is no ownership of
content produced through hard work, like the mammoth translation and
annotation of Marx’s and Engels’s work, a project initially directed by
the Soviet Union in the late 1960s that took some 30 years of
collaboration among scholars across the world.
In a note on its site, Lawrence & Wishart said its critics were not
carrying on the socialist and communist traditions, but reflecting a
“consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to
consumers, leaving cultural workers such as publishers, editors and
writers unpaid, while the large publishing and other media conglomerates
and aggregators continue to enrich themselves through advertising and
The statement noted that many works by Marx and Engels — including “The
Communist Manifesto,” which urges, “Workers of the world, unite!” — were
freely available in translation on the nonprofit archive and other sites.
Ms. Davison said, “This is a 50-volume, academic edition; it isn’t
necessary to revolutionary activity,” and noted that much of the
material included things like “Marx writing to Engels asking if you want
to come by my house to go to this meeting.”
Because of how the complete works of Marx and Engels were translated
into English, Ms. Davison said, the copyright had been shared among
three publishers: Progress, a company in the Soviet Union that no longer
exists; Lawrence & Wishart, once the official publisher of the British
Communist Party; and the radical New York publishing house,
International Publishers. Lawrence & Wishart, she said, has taken the
lead in trying to form a digital strategy.
She said she expected a deal to take effect by early next year, and
Lawrence & Wishart and International Publishers both said they would
discuss how to divide the proceeds.
Even without the removed Marx and Engels material — consisting mainly of
early philosophical and economic writings, as well as notes and letters
in which their ideas were first hashed out — the Marxist Internet
Archive still will host roughly 200,000 documents in more than 40
languages from political theorists and economists.
Peter Linebaugh, a professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio, who
has studied the history of communism, said that the comprehensive
English translation of Marx’s and Engels’s writings was a galvanizing
event, and that he had great respect for the effort that went into
pulling it off. He expressed disappointment over the publisher’s move,
and disputed the idea that you could divide Marx’s work into the
important and the mundane. “What seems like arcane scholarship,” he
said, “can appear as a bombshell to young militants.”
Surveying the entire affair, he concluded, “This is the triumph of
capitalism, having the small fish biting at each other.”
to see our boy David Walters.
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