A self-described “independent radical” publisher and “direct legatee of the Communist/Eurocommunist tradition” is coming under fire from fellow travelers who frequent the Marxists Internet Archive for having the gall to assert its copyright on an edition of Marx and Engels’ Collected Works.

The former publisher of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Lawrence & Wishart, recently “asked for its copyright on the scholarly edition of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels to be respected,” necessitating that the Marxists Internet Archive take down some of Marx and Engels’ writings from its website.

Engels and Marx. (Image Source: Marxists.org)

Engels and Marx. (Image Source: Marxists.org)

This move sparked outrage on the left, with one individual posting a petition at change.org demanding that the publisher “take back this nasty, capitalistic decision and let the collected works remain a collective source of knowledge. No Copyright for Marx Engels Collected Works!”

In the preamble to the petition, which currently has 4,812 signatories, its author castigates Lawrence & Wishart for being “a private publishing house…which loves to position itself as a ‘radical company,’” and argues:

“You cannot privatize their writings — they are the collective property of the people they wrote for. Privatization of Marx and Engels’ writings is like getting a trademark for the words ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’.

Say NO to the copyright law for the founders of scientific socialism. Let’s protest against Lawrence & Wishart for this ironic monopoly.”

Lawrence & Wishart however have fought back, writing an impassioned response to their detractors, the most entertaining parts of which are excerpted below [emphasis ours]:

“Our critics’ rhetorically loaded descriptions of L&W as a ‘private publishing house’ and of our actions as ‘capitalistic’ betray a complete lack of understanding of L&W’s historic role in British radical publishing, of its organisational status, and, indeed, of Marx’s concept of the capitalist mode of production. L&W is not a capitalist organisation engaged in profit-seeking or capital accumulation. It is a direct legatee of the Communist/Eurocommunist tradition in the UK, having been at one time the publishing house of the Communist Party of Great Britain…It makes no profits other than those required to pay a small wage to its overstretched staff, investing the vast majority of its returns in radical publishing projects, including an extensive and costly (to L&W) programme of free e-books. Without L&W and the work which its employees have invested over many years, the full collected works of Marx and Engels in English would not exist. Without the income derived its copyright in these works, L&W would not exist.

Ultimately, in asking L&W to surrender copyrights in this particular edition of the works of Marx & Engels, MIA [Marxists Internet Archive] and their supporters are asking that L&W, one of the few remaining independent radical publishers in the UK, should commit institutional suicide. At the same time they are reproducing the norms and expectations not of the socialist and communist traditions, but of 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 data-mining revenues and through their far greater institutional weight compared to small independent publishers.

We would suggest that if online activists wish to attack targets in the publishing industry who truly do derive huge profits from the exploitation of their workers and from catalogues filled with radical political thought, then there are far more appropriate targets for them to direct their anger towards than a tiny British publishing-house with no shareholders and a small, ill-paid staff.

The publisher, in a move to mollify its newfound opponents, also notes that in order to maintain “a public presence of the [Collected] Works,” it is:

“negotiating an agreement with a distributor that will offer a digital version of the Collected Works to university libraries worldwide….[keeping the materials in] the public sphere of the academic library, paid for by public funds. This is a model of commons that reimburses publishers, authors and translators for the work that has gone into creating a book or series of books.”

But the proprietors of the Marxists Internet Archive are not sold on this argument, writing in their own response to the Lawrence & Wishart firestorm:

“the restrictive and cost-prohibitive published versions of these works prevent those who would benefit most from using them from any access whatsoever. Putting them online at a university-only setting only ghettoizes them to the elite with access to such an institution. Which is not “public” by any means.”

Further [emphasis theirs]:

“It is true that L&W is in the tradition of other communist & leftist publishing houses. That tradition, by and large, provided inexpensive, shortened versions in pocket-book form of the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. This particular tradition went by the wayside a long time ago. Though we commend L&W for publishing in free e-book format (as does the MIA) the point was to distribute to workers and youth the works in question, not to restrict their use by higher and higher prices and taking away an easy access to them. The point of any communist publishing house, which the MIA lives up to, is to assure the widest distribution of these works, not, again, to restrict them. That is the opposite of communist publishing.”

Stay tuned for more on this story.

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