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The limits of radical publishing

Publishing house Lawrence & Wishart’s demand that the Marxists Internet Archive remove its digitised copy of the Marx-Engels Collected Works exposes all the contradictions of ‘radical publishing’ in the internet era

En Liang Khong
22 May 2014

wikimedia commons/Emmenn. Creative commons.

With the recent publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, many have been lining up to declare that we are all Marxists now. But the great theorist of capital ran up against a mightier opponent a few weeks ago: the publishing industry itself.

The volunteer-run Marxists Internet Archive, under accusations of copyright infringement and the threat of legal action, was forced into the mass deletion of the vast body of its texts. These writings were transcribed from the 50-volume Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW), originating from the radical book publishers Lawrence & Wishart, once the publishing arm of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The publishing house holds co-ownership of the rights to this only complete English translation of Marx-Engels texts.

The irony of declaring Marx private property was not lost on anyone involved. A petition duly appeared at Change.org, revolting against the idea that these foundational writings be subjected to copyright law: “the MECW have become an essential part of the shared knowledge and resources of the international workers’ movement.”

In turn the publisher immediately went on the defensive, claiming that it had been “subject to a campaign of online abuse” and arguing that its very ability to remain in business depended on its stake in the MECW.

The case of Lawrence & Wishart only further widens the contradictions of ‘radical publishing’ within the full-scale acceleration of internet-reading. The empowerment at hand in this change in the recording and sharing of information may be a cliché, but it is also true. And the clash between information that wants to be free and the restrictions of our economic system is a deep reflection of how the critical conflict in society is not confined to economics: it is a battle over ‘intellectual property rights’.

Lawrence & Wishart are far from being the only radical publishers angry at the era of freeloading. Sebastian Budgen, sometime occupant at the radical publishers Verso and New Left Review, once complained: “before the internet people had to actually go to the photocopying shop. Now they don’t even have to do that and they are outraged when they can’t download the stuff for free.”

In fairness to the hypocrisy of the radical publishers – a small, always struggling, and often downright unprofitable world - it must be conceded that they stand within a far wider structural crisis within the publishing industry. The hard truth is that the form taken by radical publishers is, like it or not, inextricably bound up with the history of capitalism. The daily operations of radical publishing houses are necessarily inconsistent with the ideology of what they publish. In this sense, Lawrence & Wishart’s decision to invoke copyright is unsurprising, and of course ruthlessly aligned with all legal notions of property. 

But at the heart of all this is an ongoing battle between those trying to monopolize information and those who want it to be free. The open-source logics of our century have long been pointing towards a radical questioning of basic economic gospel.

And what did Marx say? In his 1858 ‘Fragment on Machines’, he reflected on the outcome of automation. As machines became new reservoirs for a ‘general intellect’, they drew out a fundamental reevaluation of the system of wages and profits, and the conflicts between power, information, and an open commonwealth of knowledge.

Lawrence and Wishart maintain that a digital version of the MECW for university libraries, “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 attitude is perfectly aligned with a fossilized Marxism, one resigned to the reading lists of university communists and the general professionalization of intellectual activity.

But as the construction of copyright and the possession of intellectual property look increasingly hazy, and violations of the info-hierarchy surge, radical publishers must understand that they are no longer the gatekeepers to resources of critical dissent.

Radical publishing, from the start, was a project that, whatever its intentions, was bound up in a publishing industry that has always upheld the status quo. But now this publishing industry is experiencing the full trauma of the internet, which increasingly makes it difficult to see how the book market will continue in its current existence.

Instead of a bloodless debate over copyright, we must look to how the destruction of old business models and the overturning of the political economy of publishing could point towards a better future.

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