MECW statement (archived)

Update - 02/05/14

We have been surprised at the recent online response to our efforts to consolidate distribution for the Collected Works of Marx Engels – though of course we are very pleased that so many people are so interested in the work. Because of the strength of feeling, we are considering what we can do to meet the desire for greater access, and will make a further statement when we have decided a course of action.

Original statement - 25/04/14

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 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.

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

  • 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