Taking Marx away

April 28, 2014

A British company is attempting to get works by Marx and Engels removed from the Marxists Internet Archive, writes Scott McLemee in an article for Crooked Timber.

THE MARXISTS Internet Archive is a vast and growing resource, run entirely by donated labor, and as poly-lingual as circumstances permit. (Do they have Trotsky in Tagalog? Indeed they do.)

Recently, a notice appeared in the Archive's Facebook group, and also on its home page, saying that Lawrence & Wishart's lawyers are demanding the removal of material from the Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW): "Accordingly, from 30th April 2014, no material from MECW is available from marxists.org. English translations of Marx and Engels from other sources will continue to be available."

Responding to Lawrence & Wishart's demand in a suitable manner would require someone with Marx's or Engels's knack for invective and scatology, and I'm not even going to try. But the idea that most of their work is going to be removed from the website on May Day is just grotesque.

Chances are the archive volunteers never contacted the press before putting the material up because they assumed, reasonably enough, that an edition prepared largely if not entirely with the support of old-fashioned, Soviet-era Moscow gold was not anybody's private intellectual property--that the works of Marx and Engels now belong to the commons. They just want people to be able to read Marx and Engels.

The Marxists Internet Archive at marxists.org
The Marxists Internet Archive at marxists.org

Somehow it has not occurred to Lawrence & Wishart that, by enlarging the pool of people aware of and reading the Collected Works, the archive is actually expanding the audience (and potential market) for Lawrence & Wishart's books, including the somewhat pricey MECW volumes themselves, available only in hardback at $25-50 per volume.

I'm stressing the bottom line here, given that the press's decision is rational only on the narrowest conception of it. But a piece of synchronicity involving another Crooked Timber author underscores just how much the left can learn from, of all things, the sectarian right.

About the time the Marxists Internet Archive announced that it would be taking down all the MECW material, Corey Robin and I both, by coincidence, were availing ourselves of radically underpriced materials from the enemy's publishing apparatus. He'd received an order containing dirt-cheap copies of Bastiat from the Liberty Fund, while a day earlier, I had downloaded free digital editions of the major Austrian School books on theory of value and the socialist-calculation debate from the Mises Institute website. There's more to neoliberal hegemony than loss-leader pricing, but as ideological combatants those people know what they're doing.

What you can do

Sign an online petition asking Lawrence & Wishart to take back its decision to demand the removal of works by Marx and Engels from the Marxists Internet Archive.

Contact Lawrence & Wishart directly by e-mailing Managing Editor Sally Davison; Finance Director Avis Greenaway; and Promotions Director Katharine Harris. Convey your opinion by phone by calling Lawrence & Wishart's offices in London at 44 020 8533 2506.

Lawrence & Wishart is now a private publishing company, but it claims historical connections with Britain's Communist Party. If it still considers itself a socialist institution, its treatment of the Archive is uncomradely at best, and arguably much worse--while if the press is now purely a capitalist enterprise, its behavior is merely stupid. I hope some of you will get in touch with the press to say that, or something else appropriate.

First published at Crooked Timber.

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