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Commentary on Marx-Engels Collected Works dispute

Value, Price and Profit

April 30, 2014

For five years now, off and on -- as massive financial crisis and spiking unemployment have given way to healthy corporate profits and a “recovery” characterized by a surge in low-wage job creation — the word has gone around that people are rediscovering Marx’s Capital.

Whether very many have the stamina to finish its opening chapter, on the commodity form, may be doubted. (Over the years I have been in at least three informal study groups that broke up before getting through the analysis of money in chapter three.) But anyone seriously considering making the trek through Capital might best start with Friedrich Engels’s shorter commentaries on it, including a number of reviews he published anonymously or under pseudonyms, as many an author’s friend has on Amazon.

Engels was not disinterested, of course, but as a critic he had the considerable advantage of knowing, from long and close acquainting, what Marx was trying to say.

You can find those fugitive pieces — and hundreds of other primary works, major and minor — at the Marxists Internet Archive, which has been around since well before the dawn of the World Wide Web. It makes available a constantly expanding array of texts by scores of writers (not all of them Marxists and some not radical by any standard) in an impressive range of languages, and all at no charge. The site draws more than a million readers per month. And yes, traffic has increased during the Great Recession and the not-so-great recovery.

More remarkable even than MIA's long-term survival as an independent and volunteer-staffed institution, I think, has been its nonsectarian, non-exclusionary policy concerning what gets archived. Much left-wing argument has traditionally taken the form of “But X isn’t really a Marxist! I am, and should know, and will demonstrate it now at great length.” (Quite a few documents in the MIA collection consist of just such claim-staking efforts.) MIA volunteers must occasionally shudder or roll their eyes at each other’s choice of authors to include in the archive’s holdings.

But they’ve agreed to “archive the controversy," so to speak -- and MIA’s users are all the better off for everyone’s generosity of restraint. The whole institution seems to embody what Marx himself identified as the goal of his work: a society of “freely associated labor," in which everyone gives according to ability and receives according to need.

And so it is all the sorrier a development that, as of tomorrow -- i.e., May 1st, the reddest of red-letter days -- the first 10 volumes of the English-language Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) will be taken down from the site, per a demand by the publisher Lawrence and Wishart.

After almost a decade of allowing its Marx translations to be freely available to a worldwide audience, the press is asserting its copyright in order to make digital access available to universities by subscription. MIA announced the impending change last Wednesday, giving readers one week’s notice.

The following day, I posted a notice and commentary on the situation at Crooked Timber. My tone was, it’s fair to say, a bit testy, but nothing like the tsunami of invective that hit Lawrence and Wishart soon after. A petition against L&W’s decision began circulating and soon had thousands of signatures, many of them accompanied by angry comments.

A friend who teaches political science in London mentioned that she’d written to the press, saying, "Should you really pursue this idiotic line of action, I and dozens of other people are quite happy to organise a boycott (to involve hundreds more) not only of your books, but of citing works published by you.”

Among responses to the news, it was definitely one of the more polite. On Friday, Lawrence and Wishart made a statement that sounded like it was being issued from a bunker under siege.

It characterized the protesters as believing that the press should, in effect, "commit institutional suicide.” Indeed, by that point some people were making the recommendation quite clearly. (For a calmer but quite pointed answer to L&W, see this reply, from the archive.)

Shooting yourself in the foot is seldom fatal, but reloading to fire a second time cannot be recommended. The publisher's aim is improving, however.

David Walters, one of the core group running the digital archive’s daily operations, tells me that Lawrence and Wishart not only demanded removal of the first 10 volumes’ worth of content, running to some 1,100 items, but even the tables of contents for the remaining 40 volumes. Now, the table of contents for a book can be an enticement to buy. With L&W we are faced, not with an overzealous protection of intellectual property, but evidence of diminished capacity to make a rational decision.

While Lawrence and Wishart's decision to re-privatize its translations was ill-advised and then some, its handling of the protest has been almost incomprehensibly self-destructive.

For the press has now dashed to smithereens its hopes of turning the MECW digital edition into a revenue stream. As of a few days ago, the entire collection became available in 50 PDFs that reproduce exactly the layout of the printed volumes -- at least for people savvy enough to know where to locate, and how to download, that sort of thing. Meaning, of course, that we late-adapters will probably have access in a few weeks.

In its statement last week, L&W portrayed itself as victim of "a consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to consumers." There is -- or rather, there soon will be -- some truth to that. People with no interest in Marx's critique of political economy or Engels's speculations on paleohistory are doubtless going download the PDFs anyway, just to assert that they can.

But what’s really been at issue throughout this past week’s furor is something utterly unrelated to a consumerist ethos. Lawrence and Wishart asserted its juridical rights to restrict, and to charge for, access to intellectual goods to which a great many readers have some reasonable moral claim -- scholars, that is, and Marxists, and Marxist scholars above all, perhaps. When I say they had a moral claim, it’s because those readers were largely responsible for circulating, teaching, and thinking about the texts.

That audience has not begrudged L&W its profit. On the contrary, we’ve given the press most of its business over the decades. Since 1987, the Marxists Internet Archive has expanded, extended, and deepened the public that’s interested in what the publisher has to sell. Establishing and running it, David Walters told me via email, "was a HUGE amount of work done by us before anyone at L&W even heard of the internet.”

The texts Marx and Engels wrote belong to whoever wants to read them. L&W is a delivery mechanism -- one among others -- and at present its viability is under review.

So, to wrap up, a message to David and everyone else at the archive: Thanks. And to Lawrence and Wishart: You’re welcome -- but seriously, cease fire immediately.

 

 

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