Privatizing Marx

We shouldn’t sympathize with Lawrence and Wishart. Karl Marx’s work belongs to the public.

Opposition to the privatization of Marx’s and Engels’s writings is part of the struggle against the crisis, austerity, and neoliberalism all over the world. (Public Domain)

The global economic crisis and the social movements emerging in response have stimulated a revival of interest in Karl Marx’s critique of political economy. Thomas Piketty’s much-discussed book highlights the nexus between capital, inequality, and impoverishment — a nexus central to Marx’s own thought. With mainstream economists proving incapable of offering realistic alternatives to a deepening crisis, a demand for a Marxist critique that can speak to present needs is growing.

Marxist scholars and activists around the world have found in the Marxists Internet Archive (MIA) an essential tool in their struggle for social change. The MIA is an extraordinary resource, providing easy and free access to essential works of the international labor and socialist movements. The volunteers of the MIA have published ten of thousands of works in sixty languages of various socialist thinkers and militants. They have invested years of effort into maintaining the online archive, netting around two million views every month.

Yet on the eve of May Day, the British publishers Lawrence and Wishart (L&W) forced the MIA to delete those parts of the Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) that had been available on the website. L&W share with the New York-based International Publishers and the long-defunct Soviet Progress Publishers the ownership of the rights to the English translation of the MECW: fifty volumes in total, produced over thirty years.

For nine years, L&W allowed the MIA to make parts of theMECW available online. These became an essential tool for scholars and activists around the world. But by the deadline of 30 April 2014, the MIA had to pull down more than 1,600 documents.

Why have Lawrence and Wishart suddenly decided to rip out the heart of the MIA?

Lawrence and Wishart portray themselves as a small, radical house with just a few editors who “have to make a living” and are now trying to recoup the immense costs of the MECW production. Since we do not live in a “socialist utopia,” they argue, allowing free access to the MECW on the MIA website would be like committing “institutional suicide.”

Unfortunately, the logic of Lawrence and Wishart’s self-commiserating argument has been quite influential, even among their critics.

A first petition that has now gathered more than 6,000 signatures has decried the immense irony of a private publishing house claiming the copyright of the works of the main critics of private property. The New York Times gloated over the controversy in an article, commenting how “uncomradely” it is to claim a copyright on Marx, while various interventions on the Left have focused on the difficulties of small left-wing publishers to survive in the era of the Internet. Discussion of the case has noted the contradiction between existing class relations and the socialization of intellectual works facilitated by the Internet.

The appearance of mirror sites of the original MIA site and the posting of PDFs of the entire MECW online have surely proven the limits of Lawrence and Wishart’s attempt at privatizing Marx’s and Engels’s works. Yet the free downloading of the MECW is an individualized solution. This is the removal from the biggest public online archive of the socialist movement of the works in English of the founding fathers of scientific socialism — downloading the entire collection for free one person at a time is a small consolation.

Debates on copyright, moreover, divert attention from the real question at stake. They ignore that the translation and editing work of the bulk of the Collected Works available on the MIA had been largely financed by the Soviet Union before its collapse in 1991.

Traditionally associated with the British Communist Party, L&W’s role in the publication of the MECW very much depended on its collaboration with the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow. It was only after the implosion of the Communist Party that L&W became the small independent publishing house it is now — a publishing house that avowedly identifies itself with the Eurocommunist approach, which sees the breaking of any connection between left politics and class struggle as the way forward.

Given this historical background, it is much more plausible that L&W, rather than recouping immense production costs of the MECW, need money for unrelated reasons and want to turn the MECW into a profitable asset through selling a digital version to university libraries. L&W representative Sally Davison herself told the New Yorker that much of their revenue from the MECW is spent on publishing new books.

In other words: L&W is exploiting their rent on Marx’s and Engels’s works to get funding for their current, unprofitable, publications. The work of the dead thus finances that of the living.

That’s why, even if L&W, “surprised at the recent online response,” announced on May 2 that they were going to find a solution “to meet the desire for greater access,” after almost two months nothing has happened. And it is very unlikely that anything substantial will change. In Davison’s words, “the idea that the international revolutionary movement is deprived by not having complete access to an academic fifty-volume version of Marx and Engels is, well, daft.”

This is how L&W responded, albeit implicitly, to the many signatories of a second petition, which does not dispute L&W’s copyright as such, but only their privatization of the MECW. Kevin Anderson, collaborator to the still-incomplete project of the historical-critical edition of Marx’s and Engels’s works (the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe), has underlined the importance of keeping the MECW online for activists and scholars not only in the Global South, but everywhere. The same opinion was expressed by hundreds of signatories from Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, India, China, Russia, Europe, and the US.

Institutionalizing access to the MECW through university libraries not only excludes those who are not readers at these libraries; presenting this as a possible solution also ignores the fact that, in the wake of the crisis, state support to public libraries and universities has shrunk dramatically. That’s why so many scholars deem the easily accessible MECW through the MIA a fundamental online resource, whose removal has already negatively affected their studies.

For Einde O’Callaghan of the MIA, the decision shows little understanding of how the Internet works. Internet availability does not reduce hard copy purchases — it enhances them. Indeed, many used the MIA and MECW symbiotically, purchasing volumes for page consultation and using the online material to search for specific terms and passages. The decision to withdraw the MECW material from MIA thus seems counterproductive even from a commercial point of view: People can just use pirate copies, and will be if anything more likely to boycott L&W in general.

But L&W’s decision implies an orientation, not to the individual reader and consumer, but rather to corporate relations with big universities in the English-speaking world. That’s why, despite their stated surprise at the online response, the reaction of thousands of ordinary readers does not look like a major concern for them, and I very much doubt they will ever agree to find a collaborative solution.

Looking beyond the façade of a copyright dispute, this story provides us with another sad example that, as Marx put it in his analysis of “primitive accumulation,” in the capitalist world, “labor” is the source of property, “‘this year’ of course always excepted.” This controversy is not a question of whether publishers, editors, and translators should or should not be paid for their own work. The real question is whether a publisher is allowed to exploit its rent on Marx’s and Engels’s works in the name of its own survival.

If “daft” is the only thing Lawrence and Wishart have to say to those asserting the urgent political need for Marx’s and Engels’s Collected Works, how can this publisher pretend to be part of and respond to the present revival of interest in Marx’s critique of political economy?

But the movement will decide who is right. Opposition to the privatization of Marx’s and Engels’s writings is part of the struggle against the crisis, austerity, and neoliberalism all over the world. First attempts have been made to raise this issue in anti-cuts campaigns and the trade-union movement in the UK. More must be done in this direction — because Marx has never been more needed.