Marxism on the web

Issue: 105
Posted: 9 January 05

Martin Empson

Over the last decade the Marxists Internet Archive has become the most comprehensive online collection of left wing texts. Martin Empson spoke to some of the volunteers behind the project about their aims and methods.

Tell us how the Marxists Internet Archive (MIA) came about. How does a diverse group of people from different left wing traditions work together?

David Walters: Readers of this journal should look at the site to see the official history of the MIA.1 Since around 1993 an early internet pioneer whose internet name was Zodiac had launched some Marxist texts on pre-web servers such as the old Gopher sites and other text-based internet servers. By 1995, when I came on board, Zodiac had launched the fully-fledged Marx Engels Internet Archive (MEIA). But then Zodiac decided to shut down the MEIA and move on to other activities.

Juan Fajardo: He was under a lot of pressure both politically and personally. Around that time leading American politicians were trying to push left wing political sites off the net.

David Walters: Many of us who volunteered on the MEIA had previously decided to launch the Encyclopedia of Trotskyists On-line (now part of the MIA). Since this core group existed around the ETOL, about five of us decided to launch what became the MIA in order to save the work done previously on the MEIA. Since then it?s grown to over 30 languages and dozens of volunteers. Additionally, it’s no longer a one-person operation, but decides questions related to the MIA democratically.

The MIA has a fantastic variety of material. Can you give our readers some idea of the scope and quantity of the work you have collected?

Andy Blunden: The MIA has 38 language sections from Arabic to Urdu to Vietnamese, but 1,500 MB of the total of 2,500 Mb of data is in English and some language sections are very small. There are works by 430 writers. More significantly, there are 103 writers represented in the English language Marxist Writers Archive. The largest archives are the English language Lenin archive (3,900 documents), Marx-Engels archive (3,260 documents) and the Trotsky archive (1,264 documents). In addition to writers? archives there are historical documents from communist and labour history, and a glossary of biographies and Marxist terms in the MIA Encyclopedia of Marxism. Much of our material is scanned from old Progress Publishers books, but we also have new translations and transcriptions from original books and leaflets, some more than a century old. Currently we?re getting about 450,000 hits (individual documents consulted) per day.

Brian Basgen: Our subjects range from art to women. In the subject archive there is a section for beginners and students, introducing a range of material in easy to swallow doses. We have reading guides in the Marx/Engels library to challenge readers on their critical thinking/reading skills. Lastly, since Marxist texts are often heavily dependent on complex terms, we try to link such words to our encyclopedia.

Ted Crawford: My work has meant that we will shortly have an unparalleled selection of Rosa Luxemburg in English, since I have negotiated with a number of publishers to put her material online.

I have also concentrated with Einde O?Callaghan on getting up pre-1917 Marxists?so I am trying to build up a complete bibliography of Belfort Bax who has been written out of the movement for his attitude to women and his capitulation to imperialism in the First World War. And yet earlier he did splendid stuff on imperialism, religion, etc, and is often very worthwhile and, more to the point, he was very influential on many of the best British Marxists of the time.

I have selected material from the early Trotskyist movement?CLR James’s early writings, Felix Morrow and a great many others and I hope to get up indexes of important journals like New International.

We are after all a sort of library, available to everyone in the world. English is now, whether we like it or not, the world language. As a result we get thank you letters from minor towns in Bolivia or South India, where people would never have had the opportunity of getting hold of this sort of stuff before.

Einde O?Callaghan: The non-English archives are of growing importance. I look after the German section and in cooperation with other German-language archives I?m trying to ensure that a similar range of materials is available in German. I think it?s important that materials by half-forgotten revolutionaries (Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek, Paul Levi), as well as forerunners, collaborators and contemporaries of Marx (Thomas M?ntzer, Wilhelm Weitling, Wilhelm Wolff, Ferdinand Lassalle) should be made available to a new generation of socialists.

I also see the growing number of archives in various Asian languages as very important. I?m particularly pleased we?re able to make the writings of non-Stalinist Marxists such as Trotsky or Chen Duxiu available in Chinese. But our expansion into various languages from the Indian subcontinent, Arabic and Farsi is also very important.

Andy Blunden: The Urdu section is now growing rapidly, including a first translation of Das Kapital in progress, using a public domain word processor format. We have made contact with Hindi and Tamil speakers, and we are dealing with the technical problems with these scripts. We have the Communist Manifesto in Bengali so far.

Recently, we had a big breakthrough in South Africa, with a whole archive of African Marxism contributed by a member of the Communist Party and the prospect of the union COSATU hosting an MIA mirror.

Mitch Abidor: I work primarily on translation of French texts. We now have archives of documents relating to the Haitian struggle for independence, Algeria?s war of liberation, and the history of revolution in Quebec. I?m also putting together translations from the Italian on the period after the overthrow of fascism and from the Portuguese on the 1974 revolution?great events whose stories should be told in their original form by their original players.

The vast bulk of your material is from authors who clearly stand in the Marxist tradition, Lenin, Trotsky or more recently Tony Cliff and Duncan Hallas; yet you also include works by writers as diverse as Chomsky, Darwin and Fukuyama, as well as people like Mao and Stalin. Can you explain this?

Andy Blunden: The function of the Reference Archive is to provide archival materials which are relevant to an understanding of Marxism and are not claimed as Marxist. The MIA has to take care to keep the focus on its core role as a Marxist archive, but there are several categories of texts that are not only important for an understanding of Marxism, but are uniquely provided by the MIA.

Firstly, there are the writings of Stalinists, anarchists, reformists and so on. We have the most comprehensive archives of Stalin and Mao, as well as Bakunin and many others. So much Marxist literature is engaged in polemics with political opponents that we believe it is impossible to fully understand Marxism without access to their writings?especially those who also claimed the mantle of Marxism. How can we understand the development of the First International without Bakunin, the Fourth International without Stalin?

Secondly, there are the writings of pre-Marx revolutionaries. The heroic efforts of those who went before, on whose shoulders Marx stood, are not only essential to an understanding of Marxism, but are of intrinsic interest to anyone who desires the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism – August Blanqui, Robert Owen, Gerard Winstanley and so forth.

Thirdly, the MIA hosts the Hegel-by-HyperText archive, containing a more comprehensive collection of Hegel?s writings in English translation than any publisher, electronic or hard copy. Hegel is the philosophical predecessor of Marx, and we have Lenin?s word for it that Marx cannot be understood without first understanding Hegel.

Fourthly, we have the Value of Knowledge archive, which contains mostly short excerpts from famous works of philosophy from Galileo to Slavoj Zizek. The purpose of this archive is to allow Marxists who do not wish to abandon politics and struggle for a lifetime in academia to follow the whole development of bourgeois ideology for the purpose of critique. For similar reasons we have an archive of political economy, which includes for example, the works which Marx subjected to critique in his time. This allows readers of Marx to refer to what Marx is talking about. Likewise, Ludwig Feuerbach and Proudhon, who were famously the subject of critique by Marx, are well represented.

Finally, we have a small selection of classics from ancient dialecticians and some significant natural scientists.

Brian Basgen: Sun tzu and Lao tzu exemplify non-scientific approaches to dialectics, which are a useful tool in developing a complete understanding of dialectics.

Mike Bessler: The Mao and Stalin Reference Archives are among some of our most frequently visited archives. We have enjoyed amicable working relationships with Maoist and Stalinist groups and individuals.

Juan Fajardo: The Spanish section is a prime example of what a respectful attitude and approach to all the material we archive can do towards creating a space that is valued and aided by people and groups of diverse stripes, from the International Center of Orthodox Trotskyism to the Shining Path.

Given the nature of the material in the archive, often it is taken from small circulation publications, or internal documents. How does the archive ensure accuracy?

Ted Crawford: This is difficult. I know that the material I have put in digital form has many errors and typos. Too much proof reading and one is slowed down; there is a balance to be struck. We rely on our readers for the corrections. On the more important point of political prejudice and censorship, we have to rely on the honesty and scholarly honour of the contributors. We have a rule that if we have accepted an individual as an author, eg Bax, we cannot refuse to put up articles or books that he/she wrote that we disagree with. However, someone has to do the work and I am blowed if I am going to toil through ?The Fraud of Feminism? by Bax for the MIA. So there is certainly selection which arises from the political preferences of the volunteers. If you think there is some vitally important out of copyright thinker that we have ignored, ?Come over into Macedonia, and help us? (Acts 26.9, for accuracy?s sake). You do not need to be a techie; you only need to be on the web sending us the texts in digital form.

Einde O?Callaghan: To ensure that we remain true to the original texts we try to give publication details and sources for all the documents in the archive. This allows others to compare the texts with the originals in the same way that giving sources in academic articles allows readers to go back to the sources.

In the case of translations we usually use the standard translations of the books and articles we publish. Where possible we also give the source in the original language. As we build the non-English sections of the archive we try to include more and more of the documents included in the English section in their original languages or in translation into other languages. This enables people to check the accuracy of translations.

We rely on our readers to point out any discrepancies they may notice between texts we use and the original versions. We also rely on our readers to point out what they feel to be inaccurate translations. We are aware that certain traditional English translations of a number of classical works, particularly those published by non-Stalinist groups in the 1930s, are inadequate (eg translations of some of the works of Rosa Luxemburg) but these translations have a status of their own in the history of the socialist movement, although at some stage we would like to publish improved translations.

We feel that if we were deliberately to publish inaccurate documents this would ruin our reputation as an accurate source of materials. This alone is reason for us to be scrupulously accurate insofar as this is possible.

Our volunteers and administrators have one main qualification?they are all activists in the socialist movement and have an interest in conveying the socialist message accurately.

Do you have any further projects?

Mike Bessler: Each year the MIA compiles a CD version of the archive for global distribution. Although we do encourage financial donations in exchange for copies of the CD archive, the majority of these CD sets are distributed for free to individuals and organisations in parts of the world in which internet access is restricted due to censorship or user fees. For countries in which postal service is disrupted due to government interference or domestic upheaval, the MIA encourages individuals and groups to act as ?domestic distributors? with permission to copy and distribute the CDs within their respective countries. This method of distribution has improved access to Marxist resources in several South Asian countries. In the future we hope to compile a DVD version of the archive.

How can our readers help the project? I know for instance that the MIA is always in need of help with translations?and of course financial support, but what else can our readers do? If someone has some material they think you would find useful, what should they do?

Andy Blunden: The best way to contribute to the MIA is to build an archive: pick a writer who you have an interest in, scan in their works and send us the texts. Always check with us first though, because we may already have it, or there may be a good reason?such as copyright?why we don?t! Translations are always useful provided you are a competent translator, especially for the smaller language sections. Readers can also help by reporting errors or systematically proofing documents for us. Otherwise, just email us at mia-admins@marxists.org and we?ll assign you a task.

Einde O?Callaghan: We always welcome new volunteers. We help people to learn the skills of HTML mark-up (the main language in which online documents are written). Once you?ve got started you have wide-ranging autonomy?the only restrictions are concerned with placement of writers. When a new writer is added for the first time we have to reach a consensus about whether we regard the writer as a Marxist or not. In this respect we tend to be fairly inclusive, but the discussions about some of the people associated with the Communist Parties in the 1930s can sometimes become quite heated.

How do you think the internet has changed things for socialists and activists?

David Walters: This question, while simple, requires a very broad answer. The internet has allowed socialists to reach, and be reached by, millions of people hitherto denied access to socialist literature or organisations due to either geography or money. Studying Marxism, and access to all of Marxist literature, formerly reserved to those who had access to libraries or the local socialist bookstore, is no longer restricted. This is especially true for students of Marxism and socialist activists in developing countries where such literature may not exist at all. Now, with the proliferation of internet cafes, and the internet in even the most undeveloped countries, even some of the poorest and most oppressed people in the world have a better chance to organise and learn about socialism.

Andy Blunden: The internet is a part of the changes that have taken place in recent decades, changes which have destroyed mass movements, shattered people?s lives and distanced people from one another, at the same time as bringing people closer together and providing people with information.

In a way, the MIA Collective is an archetype of the kind of relationships that thrive in this environment: we all hold very different views, but we are collaborating on a specific common project; this project guides us on how to get on with one another; no one pushes their own barrow; we just do the work in our own way within a common framework.

David Walters: There is also a bad trend with the internet: the reliance on, and substitution of, the internet and ?internet organising? for actual organising at the point of production. There are now socialists and Marxists whose entire existence is a virtual one. But it?s our ability to mobilise the working class in the streets, not online, that will determine the future of socialism. Being online is a tool, but only a tool, to this end.

Brian Basgen: At any given moment today, we have around 40 active volunteers throughout the world, contributing material for over 300 authors in more than 30 different languages. Every one of these volunteers has an equal voice and vote. We believe that neither the prohibition incurred by any cost nor any right of intellectual ownership should restrict Marxist education. We believe in transparency and democracy, that we need to be the future we want to see. We hope you enjoy and benefit from our efforts, and for those who enjoy education and publication, we hope you will consider joining us.

NOTES

1: http://marxists.org/admin/intro/ history/index.htm