Resource for the movement

The awkward birth of the Marxist Internet Archive has, fortunately, coincided with a drying up of print editions of the classics, here is how it started and what it plans for the future

Since I know that the Weekly Worker is widely read by people of other tendencies trying to find out what all the different groups are doing, I am delighted to take this opportunity to tell everyone something about the work on the Marxist Internet Archive.

With the collapse of the Stalinist states in 1989-1991 and the drying up of cheap editions of the Marxist classics - which happened to coincide with the start of the internet - small groups of people, largely in the United States and often from a Trotskyist or Maoist background to begin with, commenced putting up ‘classical’ texts on the web, often on their political group or party’s site. The reliability and the accuracy of these texts were and are no greater and no less than the printed sources from which they came, though inevitably there were typos and errors in copying via optical character recognition (OCR), which proofreading did not detect.

The work involved was considerable, as it meant the copying of texts to put them in digital form and, to begin with, this was largely copy-typing, as OCR technology was in its infancy. In 1993 Martha Gimenez, using the resources of Colorado University One group, and the university computers for their website, started putting up the main Marxist texts, and, under the aegis of the Progressive Sociology Network, created the Marx-Engels Virtual Library. Gradually, by a process of accretion, other sites - those belonging to small Marxist groups and individuals of that persuasion - gave their ‘classical’ material in digital form, for it made sense to have one place where all the such texts could be found without unnecessary duplication of effort, leaving their own sites to concentrate on current material and their views on present issues.

After a variety of difficulties and arguments over the scope of the enterprise and whether the site should be restricted to Marx, Engels, De Leon, Trotsky and a few others (see their history at http://www.marxists.org/admin/intro/index.htm), the Marxist Internet Archive got its present structure, name and constitution in 1998, and made contact with the Gutenberg project, which gave it a link. The plan was eventually to put all the collected works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky on the web, to make them available to all, but the scope of the project has widened somewhat to include many other radical authors, with the proviso that they must be dead. All material, unless otherwise stated, is in the public domain and can be copied.

By the end of the year 2003 there were over two gigabytes of material on www.marxists.org, including growing quantities of non-English material in 30-odd languages. We publish our statistics, which show that there has been a considerable growth of activity, particular since September 11 2001. By March 2002, there were 2,700,000 pages downloaded during the month - up from just over one million in September 2001 and 860,000 in August of that year. In September 2003, 4,148,235 pages were downloaded. But all these figures are made publicly available and can be found on the website.

It is less clear precisely what sort of people are actually accessing the site. I would like to be able to assure comrades that all these hits and page downloads came from dedicated revolutionaries all over the world, but I fear the majority come from students desperately trying to finish or even start that already overdue essay. The fact that so many are looking at Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is, though, no bad thing. And the availability of this material in English - now the world language - is of great potential importance to those in the less developed world.

A couple of years ago the English language part of the site divided up its material into Marxist writers and a reference section, in which the writings of those considered important to the history of Marxism were placed, including Stalin and Mao Zedong - since most of those in the MIA collective would not consider the latter two to be Marxists. This open and liberal approach to new material was so successful that a Maoist group in Germany, once large but now in sharp decline, who had placed all the works of the ‘chairman’ in German on their own website offered them to the MIA and closed down themselves.

Another striking example is the fairly full list of the works of James Connolly, carefully transcribed from dusty newspaper articles in obscure libraries - often by members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party in their less homicidal moments for their tiny-circulation printed journal in Cork. The IRSP was happy to have them OCR-ed for the MIA and they are an excellent source for Connolly and all those interested in Irish and radical history. Only the Bordigists (who have quite a large collection of Amadeo Bordiga’s works online) and some of the very smallest and more lobotomised Stalinist and Trotskyist groups still refuse cooperation, but we hope that they will come round in time, simply in order to give their work greater circulation.

Every year the MIA produces an updated CD-rom (three disks or a DVD were needed in 2002) containing all its material. Though more or less at cost, the total sales are few - about two-three thousand or so - but they are often bought by westerners and sent as a gift to individuals in the third world or in countries with repressive regimes, where they are invaluable. It is much easier to remain discreet over the contents of a CD-rom (on which the label of the latest ‘beat ’em up’ can be put) than a library of collected works. A number of mirror sites have been set up in different parts of the world and in different jurisdictions too. Again all these details are on the site. Recently the project consolidated its legal position as a US non-profit entity.

All, however, has not been plain sailing. The first threat to the site came in 1995, when Fortune magazine, running an article on the internet which was then in its infancy, remarked in an aside that even the Marxists had taken to the web and were putting up their texts on the University of Colorado’s computers. The governing council of the university, composed of Republican businessmen and learning of this for the first time, were shocked at this assault on American freedom and all that they held dear and ordered the removal of the offending material. This was duly done, but the news spread rapidly through the hacker community who, though certainly not Marxist (their predominant politics could perhaps be characterised as techno-anarchist), were outraged at this open political censorship.

Almost immediately a violent assault was made by thousands of hackers against the university’s servers which promptly went down, were recovered and were attacked again and again and repeatedly went down. After a fortnight of chaos the governing body capitulated and the material was reinstated, though last year it has been closed as a mirror site. After a period with a commercial host, we now use a US non-profit site, for which its supporters pay - the cost of storage has fallen immensely and continues to fall with technical advances - though the mirror sites are generally academic ones.

Other threats derive from the copyright laws. Much material is out of copyright, but the translations of the works written more than 75 years ago could be an issue. Every attempt is made to use material out of copyright, but both the status of the article and the law is often obscure. An article may have been published by a group or company that has long since disappeared; likewise the translators may be dead or difficult to find. Similarly, there are disputes over who owns the copyright of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Collected works. The obscurity arises from many changes in copyright internationally, which have not so far been tested in the courts.

However, though American law is very harsh with copyright violators, to get damages it has to be shown that there was financial loss and this is rather difficult with, for example, the works of Lenin. If there is no money in it, lawyers are disinclined to sue on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis. In any case, like rights of way, the longer that a publication has been in the public domain without being challenged, the weaker the case for damages becomes.

Indeed the only threat of legal action for violation of copyright to the MIA came from a tiny ex-Trotskyist sect, the American Socialist Workers Party, which has the copyright to much of the master’s collected works. The SWP challenged eight articles with a letter from the principal firm of Wall Street intellectual property lawyers - they had no right to two of them anyway and an alternative translation of another was swiftly found. Of that more could be said but we have not given up hope - we never give up hope - of eventually getting the SWP’s cooperation and enhancing the circulation of Pathfinder’s printed works. At any rate the capitalists have never threatened to sue or to monopolise the information - only other lefties.

Another more minor problem is the very large number of typographical errors in Marx, Engels and Lenin. The MIA would very much appreciate those who notice such errors notifying us of them through the procedure recommended on the website.

The future of this modest enterprise seems assured in the medium run, short of the installation of very repressive regimes throughout the western world or, perhaps less likely, a revolutionary upsurge, which would make the information on the site valuable - millions would want to access it and might be prepared to pay for the privilege. That might lead to a buy-out of the collective by a profit maximiser and thus a restriction on access. Rather more conceivable would be a very serious falling out within the collective that manages the site - and there have been political tensions over the importance and emphasis on the site of the work of Mao Zedong and Castro, but, as long as the value of having such a useful ‘one-stop’ site is seen and rationality prevails, compromise seems possible.

The fall in the price of storage of material seems to be happening much faster than the rate at which works can be transcribed on the most optimistic predictions, so there will be little problem as far as the cost of storage of the archive is concerned. However, problems are arising, as the use of the site is growing rapidly and in the much longer term it is possible that the financial burden to those running the site may become too great. The problem is the cost of the ‘pipes’ into the site rather than the storage of data. The collective probably believes that if demand did rise enormously so would contributions from a variety of ‘Bollinger Bolsheviks’ and so an increase in demand would generate an increase in donations.

Meanwhile future technologies will make the texts easier to read on-screen and the electronic reading devices more portable. That will further strengthen long-term prospects. The whole thing can be thought of as a subset of the Gutenberg Project. Indeed the Gutenberg Project leaders are aware of the site and respect its work.

Our most urgent political need at the moment is for someone to run our Arabic site - they must be literate in both Arabic and computers - and also Arabic speakers who are prepared to put Marx, Engels and Lenin in digital form, using the already existing translations from the Moscow Languages Publishing House. We have made progress on the Farsi site, which is starting to grow, but the comrades there would always appreciate more Farsi texts - again already existing ones by Marx, Engels and Lenin. Translations are much more of an effort, but those too we would like - however, let us pick the low-hanging fruit first. The Farsi comrades tell me, right now we need Trotsky and Luxemburg material more than anything. So if you know anyone who would like to transcribe, or, even better, translate articles, then it would be a great help to the site.

Among non-English material, I would particularly recommend people to have a look at the excellent French site, largely due to the very hard work of a Lambertist, an ex-Lambertist and a member of Lutte Ouvrière. This is a fine example of cooperation in the interests of the French-speaking working class as a whole. I believe many non-English speakers from the CP and pro-Chinese Marxist traditions would be prepared to help us to make the work of Marx, Engels and Lenin available to all in their own languages.

My own personal duties on the site have been largely confined to getting the works of the Second International into digital form. We now have excellent collections in English of the works of Kautsky, Bernstein and William Morris, and have made a start on Bebel, Bax, Lafargue, etc. Many of these, including Eleanor Marx, have no published bibliographies and I am trying to do one for Bax by trawling through copies of papers in the Colindale newspaper library (picking up the odd Lafargue, etc, while doing so) and would encourage others to do likewise with other authors.

Finally I would appeal to anyone who might be dropping out of activity to consider proofreading or copying texts to send to us. And if you know any old Iranian or Arab lefties who have a computer, feel isolated and therefore able to do nothing, but also feel guilty because of that, urge them to contact us to do something, even if it is just a pamphlet or one chapter of Capital.

Any queries or, more important, offers of help to me at tcrawford@revhist.datanet.co.uk.