A kerfuffle is haunting the Marxist internet—a kerfuffle about copyright.

The Marxist Internet Archive, a website that hosts a number of translations of the works of Marx and Engels online, free for the use of scholars and basement-dwelling crypto-socialists alike, recently received a copyright notice sent by a small publishing house in London called Lawrence and Wishart. Lawrence and Wishart, which also publishes things called Anarchist Studies and Twentieth Century Communism, demanded that the site remove any material from the Marx-Engels Collected Works. By May Day, no less.

The house has apparently long been associated with the British Communist Party. But now that they are capitalists like everyone else, some very articulate knives are out for them. Per Scott McLemee, a writer at the intellectual blog Crooked Timber, who identifies on Twitter as "essayist, critic, luftmensch" (emphasis mine):


Responding to L&W'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...

If Lawrence & Wishart 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.

May Day, for the uninitiated, is also International Workers' Day.

Writers from Salon to Ars Technica have been competing to see who could find the Marx quote most directly applicable to the situation. I personally like this one:


The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

Arguably, Lawrence & Wishart is adding "scholars and assorted other Marxist hangers-on" to that list.

Confronted with all of this, the publisher posted a frustrated reply to their site yesterday, written in the kind of narcissism-of-small-differences code that will be familiar to anyone who spent hours in college investing in a Public Interest Research Group:

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.

Rhetorically, that bit of the press release is a giant mistake. It might tempt some people to try and figure out what kind of shady political sectarian forces this radical publisher feels are at work here, but those are exactly the kind of people it's not worth talking to.

The house eventually comes around to sounding more reasonable when it says it's only enforcing copyright in an attempt to stay afloat at a time when demand for radical Marxist texts is not at an all-time high:

L&W is not a capitalist organisation engaged in profit-seeking or capital accumulation... 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.

And that's where the rub is. Yes, it is a little strange that over a hundred years after the death of Marx there's someone still claiming copyright in his works. (Though to be precise, it's someone claiming copyright in the translation, which involves independent, later work done by a worker, somewhere.) Yes, in an ideal world all information and scholarship would be free. And yes, there is lots of fun rhetoric to stare at in this ongoing conversation.

But it is, indeed, kind of hard out here for small presses nowadays. Nobody wants to pay for anything, translations of Marx or otherwise. And it was never a rip-roaring market to begin with. Even if Lawrence and Wishart "wins" this small battle, their war was lost long ago. And I'm not talking about the class struggle, either.

Should you feel otherwise, though, there is, as seems to be standard operating procedure nowadays, a change.org petition you can sign to pressure Lawrence and Wishart to give up.

[Image via Wikipedia.]