A number of readers have asked what is the approach of 21centurymanifesto to the current controversy over the Marxist Internet Archive publication of work by Marx and Engels wover which Lawrence & Wishart claim copyright, and tits bid to tell the Marxist Internet Archive to remove online copies of their editions of Marx and Engels Collective Works.

We haven’t worked one out yet.

Comments are invited.


Lawrence & Wishart statement on the Collected Works of Marx and Engels

Over the last couple of days Lawrence & Wishart has been subject to campaign of online abuse because we have asked for our copyright on the scholarly edition of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels to be respected. The panic being spread to the effect that L&W is ‘claiming copyright’ for the entirety of Marx and Engels’ output is baseless, slanderous and largely motivated by political sectarianism from groups and individuals who have never been friendly to L&W.

We are currently negotiating an agreement with a distributor that will offer a digital version of the Collected Works to university libraries worldwide. This will have the effect of maintaining a public presence of the Works, 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.

Many translations of works of Marx are now out of copyright – for example the Aveling translation of Capital, a number of translations of the Communist Manifesto. These are widely available both online and in print, including in public libraries. Our copyright edition of the Collected Works, however, is a scholarly library edition of fifty volumes, which resulted from work carried out over a period of more than thirty years. Income from our copyright on this scholarly work contributes to our continuing publication programme. Infringement of this copyright has the effect of depriving a small radical publisher of the funds it needs to remain in existence.

The copyrighted material in question does not include the most widely-consulted editions on the Marxist Internet Archive or anywhere else. Much of this edition comprises less well known works which have only been translated and published in recent years – as well as a number of volumes of correspondence. These works are not some ancient birthright of the radical left, as has been implied by many of our critics.

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. Today it survives on a shoestring, while continuing to develop and support new critical political work by publishing a wide range of books and journals. 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.

We note that it is entirely normal for other radical publishers to defend their copyrights and would ask our critics why they think this is somehow more acceptable than our actions in defending ours.

Ultimately, in asking L&W to surrender copyrights in this particular edition of the works of Marx & Engels, MIA 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.


28/04/14 – Response to Marxists Internet Archive statement

We have made very little money from sales of the Collected Works, and certainly have not recouped their costs, which were immense. The work that went into producing them involved years of documentary research, collating and organising, the commissioning of hundreds of translations, and academic work on references and context.

We now do have an opportunity to recover some of the costs, which is why we are asking MIA to respect our copyright – as we have done on a number of occasions in the past. We fully acknowledge the role that the MIA has played in compiling out of copyright Marx and Engels works and we urge others to visit their site to explore the wide collection that is, and will continue to be, available there.

There are very few radical publishers left in the world today – that is because it is incredibly difficult to keep them afloat. As a small radical publishers ourselves, we are of course familiar with the complexity and difficulty of publishing in the digital age. The debate over MECW is a proxy for what L&W have been continuously grappling with for the last two decades: how to run a sustainable radical publishing company in this new context. We would ask people to remember that we are just fellow human beings doing our best to make a contribution in difficult circumstances.

On behalf of the staff and editorial board at L&W



4 thoughts on “Who owns Marx and Engels?

  1. Tricky one Nick.

    In the early days of Fidel’s Cuba I always liked his approach to copyright vis-a-vis his US neighbours. “We’ll re-print anything we want to from US books, magazines and papers for free.” said Fidel, “in return they can reprint anything they want from Grandma”.

    I tended to take the same line editing the oft admired YCL magazine Challenge.


  2. Except … that is not what they are doing, Pierre.

    This is a copyright on a collation and translation of a collection of Marx’s works.

    It’s an interesting case. Marx for instance made money from printing his works and journalism (though as we know, not always very successfully on that monetary front). Marx was supported by Engels, a true son of the capitalist class in economic terms.

    I have severe problems with copyright and the way that it is used in this society. I have what would be called by many, very extreme views on music copyright. The Creative Commons movement is a great thing and I am a firm supporter and contributer to free software (see fsf.org).

    L&W in this case … maybe they have a point. Anyone else could go out and do thins work and release it, and the major (truly world changing) works of Marx and Engels are all widely and freely published.

    Maybe I should give L&W a “free pass” on this one. It’s not like they are res

    However, I can’t help but wonder that the world has changed. Information strives to be free and changes in technology are changing the relationships that people have with the reproduction of electronic bits.

    L&W are frustrated by these changes, make a few decent points, but are hitting also out and pulling a few punches in their press releases. The stuff about consumer society, that these technological changes are somehow the invention of capitalist society, made to defeat small publishers … well, it’s just silly.

    Where they do have a point is in the fact that the publishing world online is dominated by a small number of truly capitalist players. These are able to sink millions upon millions of whatever currency to try to makke their business models work. They connive with with administrators and politicians, with advertisers and the naivety of consmers to dominate the web as they have done in the older publishing mediums.

    In the end, the MIA ought to give up on this one and let L&W go on their way, just out of courtesy. It won’t have a major impact upon the library and to be honest, I think that L&W are correct that this is politics by other means for many who have no real interest in or understanding of the “cultural commons” and are just using this as a proxy to attack old enemies.

    What we need on the left is a proper debate about the nature of changes in information technology, the world wide web and internet, changes in the economic models for media control and the role of software in all of this.

    That’s what we sorely need, and that’s what we aren’t getting from this spat.

  3. Although we at the Zimbabwe Communist League encouraged people to sign the petition giving the short time period, we also published the Lawrence and Wishart statement. This is a case not for rigid positions, but rather for comradely discussion and understanding.

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