Marx, Engels and private property

TANYA THOMAS | Updated on April 30, 2014

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A little oxymoronic, right?

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels — 19th Century German thinkers, founding fathers of Marxist theory, authors of The Communist Manifesto, champions of the working class and capitalism’s all-round bogeymen — have run into a bit of difficulty with intellectual property.

But they’ve been dead for years!

Obviously, not Marx and Engels themselves. It has to do with who controls the copyright over their literary legacy, Marx and Engels Collected Works (MECW). Lawrence & Wishart (L&W), self-described as ‘independent radical publishers’ based in London with links to Britain’s Communist Party, wants the Marxist Internet Archive to stop offering the MECW for free on their Website.

If this was written in the 19th Century, isn’t the MECW already in the public domain?

Improvements to a work that publishers introduce come rightly under their copyright. L&W translated the collection from the original German to English and own the rights to their English edition.

So how did the Marxist Internet Archive get hold of it in the first place?

Apparently, almost a decade ago, Lawrence & Wishart gave the Marxist Internet Archive permission to publish the first 10 volumes (of total 50) of the MECW for free online. L&W now apparently want to offer their own price-tagged digital version and have revoked the old permission and want the Website to take down the material. Otherwise, it would be copyright breach.

A little hypocritical, isn’t it?

It’s the perception that matters. The Archive (marxists.org) is a not-for-profit that hosts a repository of multilingual Left writing, available for free to anybody with an Internet connection.

And it’s easy to cast L&W as greedy capitalists...

L&W are defending their “scholarly edition” of the collection, saying they are not a capitalist organisation seeking profits, but a tiny British publisher of radical political thought “with no shareholders and an ill-paid staff.”

That’s unfortunate for them! Even Marx would be unhappy about the ill-paid staff.

The comic effect, however, is in the timing. L&W wants the collection taken down by April 30, just in time for May Day.

So closet Marxists have nowhere to go for their free reading?

The majority of Marx-Engels’ theories are still widely available online. However, as a sign of solidarity with the Website, there have been calls online over the past month for users to download their copies of the MECW before the April 30 deadline. Additionally, a Change.org petition to L&W to stop the takedown found over 4,000 supporters.

Don’t the Reds believe that private property itself is theft?

Something like that. Leaves you wondering who’s really doing the thievery here, huh? But April was a cruel month for the intellectual Left in general. Last month, the city of Turin announced the conversion of the old home of Antonio Gramsci, 20th Century Marxist writer and co-founder of the Italian Communist Party, into a luxury hotel.

Not at all a symbol of cultural hegemony by the bourgeoisie

Italian intellectuals are fighting back, petitioning Turin’s mayor to at least convince the hotel owners to not name it Hotel Gramsci. The Guardian quotes art historian Tomaso Montanari saying such a commemoration would be akin to “dedicating a shooting range in Delhi to Gandhi.”

I wonder what would Marx say about all this?

“Workers of the world, unite. You’re losing a lot more than just your chains this time!”

Published on April 30, 2014

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