Pathfinder Inc

Jose G. Perez jg_perez at
Fri Nov 10 19:03:11 MST 2000


Just to avoid confusion, "Pathfinder" as such isn't involved in commercial
printing, it isn't a print shop, it is a publishing house, the two kinds of
enterprises are quite distinct and different, just as running a grocery
store, for example, is quite a different proposition from being a farmer.

The SWP's print shop used to be called photocomp, but whether it still
operates under that name I do not know, as photocomposition is a dying
technology. I assume your real point is that the SWP could use what you
assume to be substantial revenue from its printing operations to sell books
more cheaply.

I went over this supposition in great detail in a previous post, which can
be found at the following URL:

The main points I make are:

1. It is extremely doubtful the SWP is realizing substantial, genuinely free
cash flow from the print shop on the scale it once might have (once you have
factored in capital costs).

a) Printing today is orders-of-magnitude less labor intensive today than 30
years ago, when the shop was set up; the big advantage of the SWP's shop was
always lower labor costs and a highly motivated work force.

b) Running a capital-intensive business like printing has become is an
entirely different proposition than running a labor intensive one. It is
very easy to lose the advantage of low labor costs in this kind of business
by using less efficient equipment, or making less efficient use of the same
equipment, as others in the same industry.

c) The proposition that a small left wing group's print shop can be run as
effectively and efficiently as enterprises that are completely focused on
printing activity seems doubtful to me.

d) The niche market which the SWP print shop had for a while, fast
turn-around printing for financial firms, is today much smaller or
nonexistent. SEC and similar filings are now done online; the spread of
computers, laser printers, copy shops like Kinko's and much better high
volume photocopiers have undermined the margins for what remains of this
kind of

e) Similar things can be said about other printing niches the SWP shop might

f) The do-or-die capital campaign carried out by the SWP in 1998-1999 to
upgrade the shop to direct-to-plate technology indicates that the shop had
fallen victim to these economic trends. It had become decapitalized. Among
other things that were said publicly or between the lines is that the shop
had lost the capacity to attract much commercial work.

2) The original reasons the SWP had for setting up the print shop seem
mostly to have gone away.

a) For at least 25 years there haven't been the kinds of upsurges that the
SWP hoped to intervene more effectively in by having the capacity to issue
large volumes of literature, extra issues of the Militant, etc.

b) Printed material is no longer the best way to respond to such situations;
the internet is the only way that revolutionaries can hope to answer
bourgeois lies, etc., in close to real time in the United States today.

c) At any rate, the skeleton of an organization that remains in the SWP
largely makes the issue moot, as it has perhaps one fifth of the members it
had at its peak in the 70s.

d) Control over the quality and costs of publications now is centered
overwhelming in the editorial and "desktop publishing" departments. Print
shops today handle only printing, all the extremely labor intensive
pre-press operations that were common 20 years ago have disappeared from
print shops.

e) The actual cost of printing a book (or anything else), now that virtually
all the pre-press costs have been separated out, is extremely low, and the
incentive for maintaining your own printing operation, even if you can do
things somewhat cheaper, is relatively small.

f) Online distribution of internal party bulletins is much, much cheaper
than printing the material and shipping paper all over the world. There
might also be security advantages for comrades who live under repressive
regimes, provided intelligent use is made of available technologies. There
are also collateral benefits such as much less bookkeeping, fewer
distribution hassles, faster turn around, etc.

3. The only good reason I can see for the SWP to keep its print shop open
is, simply, that it is there, and that to rebuild such a shop in the future
would require tremendous efforts. Thus, for a group that hopes to rebound
substantially in membership and influence within a few years --which the SWP
clearly does-- it makes at least some sense to keep such a shop in operation
even if, for now, it's really more trouble than it is worth.

Now, for the rest of your polemic.

>>Moreover, David notes pathfinder prices are copmparable to university
publishing houses.  But these houses are notoriously expensive, because the
people who buy these books are academics (who are much better off than
factory workers) and students who have to fork out large amounts of money
because they are prescribed texts and so on.<<

Your zeal to prove the SWP's prices are "outrageous" leads you to engage in
the most vulgar sort of bourgeois economic impressionism. You think
academic-type book prices are high BECAUSE the people who buy these books
can afford to pay more.

Is it really necessary to remind you that the price of commodities, on
average, is determined by the amount of socially necessary labor time it
takes to produce them? Has the government of New Zealand passed a measure
repealing the law of value for academic publishers?

I went through some effort in a previous post to demonstrate with objective
evidence that anyone could verify for themselves that, insofar as
one can tell these things, SWP books are priced similarly to comparable
books from other houses, i.e., that they are being sold (roughly, these
things do not operate with mathematical precision) at their value. I did
this in response to your assertions that the SWP was ripping people off with
(in essence) monopolistic prices. And I did this even though really, since
you were the one making the charge, it was up to you to present evidence to
back it up. See:

Now, instead of admitting you were wrong, your factional and sectarian
attitude towards the SWP leads you instead to move the goal posts.
Pathfinder charging what would generally be considered the going price for
the kinds of books it publishes is no longer good enough; now you insist it
is under a moral obligation to sell its books below their value:

>>Perhaps Jose can explain the precedent for this in the workers' movement?
When did left groups, let alone those with substantial funds from Wall
Street business operations, ever price their books at the same level as
university publishing houses and top-flight commercial publishers?<<

First, to deal with the smaller matter. As I've already explained TWICE, the
high-margin financial printing niche the SWP's print shop occupied for a
while is well on the way to completely disappearing. When comrades insist on
relating annecdotes from a few years ago, they reveal their unfamiliarity
both with the pace of technological change and how it has affected the
financial and printing industry as well as the SWP's activities over the
past few years, which reflected the negative impact on printshop revenues
from this shift (making necessary the capital campaign).

People aren't, of course, under any obligation to follow this kind of thing,
I do more than most because my "day job" for nearly a decade has focused on
science, technology and financial journalism. But when people start posting
on these matters, they should make an effort to become better informed,
especially in today's world when such a wealth of information is available
on the Internet.

Thus you rhetorical question, "When did left groups, let alone those with
substantial funds from Wall Street business operations, ever price their
books at the same level as university publishing houses and top-flight
commercial publishers?" falls entirely wide of the mark. Pathfinder, at any
rate, has been doing exactly that for some 30 years that I've been familiar
with it, and as I demonstrated the prices charged by Monthly Review Press,
Ocean Press, and others are similar to Pathfinder's for similar books. Some
comrades believe Pathfinder went overboard in the early 80s and overpriced
their books, and that may well have been the case. One of the problems
bourgeois economists have long noted in countries with a paper currency is
the buildup of an inflationary psychology among economic actors after having
gotten "burned" by accelerating inflation over several years.

I should add that your formulation about "Wall Street business operations"
is precisely the kind of remark that makes it easy-as-pie for the SWP's
leaders to obscure from their members and supporters the real dispute about
Pathfinder Press's policies, their attempt to yank from the Internet through
the implicit threat of ruinously expensive lawsuits a number of  Trotsky and
Cannon articles that the comrades who posted them believe to be in the
public domain. Taken out of the context of your post, it can easily be
twisted to make it seem as if you're saying that the SWP is engaged in
financial speculation in the stock market. That can be used as a red herring
to divert attention away from what should be the real subject of discussion,
which is how the distribution of revolutionary literature and therefore
Pathfinder can BENEFIT from using the Internet in a similar way to how the
SWP had used the Militant countless times, making available articles and
excerpts from Trotsky's works to promote the books.

But as for the substance of the matter, even if it were true that the SWP
was realizing some significant income from the print shop through outside
work (over and above all their expenses, including due provision for capital
costs), your position that the SWP is under a moral obligation to use that
income to subsidize book prices does not make any sense.

Why should they do that instead of, for example, using the money for their
presidential campaign, or to print a larger paper than would otherwise be
possible for them, or to pay for trips to book fairs in Iran, Cuba and other
places? I realize that these alternative uses of the money would not benefit
you or the other Pathfinder critics personally, but apart from that, I can
see no reason why it is wrong for the SWP to prioritize other projects
instead of the one you prefer.

Nor does the fact that the money has been generated by the comrades through
the donation of their labor time to the print shop (for that is really what
is going on) make it different in principle from other ways their comrades
might donate material resources to the organization, whether it be a regular
weekly sustainer from their paychecks or a lump-sum contribution from some
sort of bonus, settlement, or inheritance, or even a winning lottery ticket.

>>Jose's vision of the Barnesites doing the workers movement a big favour by
riding in on their white chargers and rescuing Marx and Lenin works is a
romantic fiction as well.<<

I do not know on what basis you make this assertion. We've had on this list
a detailed accounting of what actually happened from people who were in or
around the SWP at the time. I have no reason to disbelieve them; everything
they say makes perfect sense, is coherent with what was going on in Russia
at the time, with the political motives the SWP would have for doing this
kind of thing, including their tremendous emphasis on "revolutionary
continuity" and the importance of books and so on in guaranteeing that. One
or another detail that's been offered may be apocryphal, that's inevitable
in this kind of situation unless the SWP leadership or one of the handful of
comrades directly involved chooses to publish a detailed account, but the
main outlines seem clear enough. This was not a normal commercial operation,
where you send a telex and arrange for some sort of letter of credit to
order the books and a couple of months later they show up dockside in New
York. It was instead a rescue operation in which a team of comrades had to
travel thousands of miles and remain in Russia for some time to complete the
transaction, physically take posession of the stock, prepare it for shipping
themselves, etc. It sounds like an inherently costly operation.

You, on the other hand, have nothing more to offer than the bald assertion
that it is "romantic fiction" without even the barest hint of evidence,
unless by "evidence" one means the annecdote you relate in the following

>>As Mac Stainsby - who has no axe whatever to
grind against the Barnesites - pointed out, he was faced with a hugely
inflated price for one of these books in the Vancouver Pathfinder shop on
the basis that they were "collector's items".  Perhaps Jose could outline
for us the history of the concept 'collectors' items' in the workers'

The "hugely inflated" price --US$50-- was "hugely inflated" only in relation
to the remainder-bin price the CPs normally charged for this material. The
CPs, as we know, got the books for nothing or next-to-nothing from their
comrades in the Soviet Union, East Germany, etc., and it represented a legal
way through which the CPs who held state power could subsidize those abroad.
I have absolutely nothing against the workers states having made this
material available at extremely subsidized prices in thousands or millions
of copies, and I am glad the CPs decided to make it available at a very low
retail price.

But a price of $50 is hardly an outrage for a hard-bound specialized book. I
have had the opportunity on many occassions as a translator to bemoan this
fact, but a fact it is.

For example, some prices of bilingual dictionaries I have collected over the
past decade:

Diccionario de Electrónica                      $49.99

Dictionary of Business (paper)                $40.00

Diccionario de Arquitectura
Construcción y Obras Públicas (paper)   $49.99

Diccionario de Informatica                      $65.00

Diccionario de Términos Jurídicos           $69.95

Diccionario para Ingenieros                    $95.00

Diccionario de Terminos Médicos          $55.00

Those last two, by the way, are "classics," the Robb Engineering dictionary
was the 1979 25th printing of the 1955 original, and was re-stickered at
least three times, raising the price from $57.95 to $95.00 as it aged on the
shelves of the bookstore where I finally got it four or five years ago. The
Torres medical dictionary was a fifth Spanish edition in 1986, the original
came out in 1957 and there had been countless printings of each of the
editions. Each was, as of the late 1980s, the definitive work in its field.

In Atlanta there is a bookstore catering to the medical profession called
Majors Scientific Books. If there is a similar store in your town, I urge
you to visit it, translate the prices to US dollars, and then tell us the

The comparison between the prices the CP bookstores may have been able to
charge and those Pathfinder charged, even if for the same volume, are
basically dishonest. The CP's stock was obtained at preferential terms under
entirely different circumstances, in an entirely different world situation,
even if the two volumes were in nearby Vancouver bookstores at the same

As for the offhand remark of the person staffing the Vancouver bookstore
that Lenin's works were now more expensive as they were essentially
"collector's items," it proves absolutely nothing, except perhaps that this
individual did not think through their remark.

Now, if you were able to show that Pathfinder's costs in acquiring that
stock in fact had been, say $3 a volume, all told, including the expense of
the rescue mission, I would join you in denouncing a $50 list price (which
means a $25-$30 wholesale price), especially since there is no cheaper
paperback edition available. Absent that, Pathfinder's decision to price
them similarly to the hardback editions of  Trotsky books does not, on its
face, seem outrageous, knowing that they had to take extraordinary and very
expensive measures to acquire the stock.

*   *   *

>>Lastly, I want to repeat something that I said several times on the apst
newsgroup several years ago.  It is a mistake to regard the Barnbesite
operation as political, in the sense we understand the word 'political',
let alone Marxist.

>>It is a capitalist book-selling operation, not a political current.  Some
mad book publishers concentrate on books on rare bird species, others on
extra-terrestrials.  The Barnesites, because their origins were in a
political current (the US SWP, which, effectively, they destroyed, while
keeping the brand name), their books are on political subjects.  But this
is just an accident of history.<<

Now on to your assertion that the SWP isn't part of the worker's movement.

Just who died and left you God? Gerry Healy? Where do you get off deciding
that a group that traces its direct lineage back to Eugene Debs's Socialist
Party and the IWW is no longer part of the workers movement? The SWP has a
much stronger claim on being part of the workers movement than just about
every other Trotskyist sect out there. Your stuff about how they're just a
printing and publishing business is infantile, sectarian nonsense,
reflecting your lack of judgement and objectivity whenever the subject of
the SWP comes up as well as your lack if knowlege about how real for-profit
enterprises operate.

>>The fact that someone like Adam Levenstein, the web-master of the YS
web-page, recently left them, *largely because they are primarily
book-sellers* rather than political activists, is a confirmation of my
view.  Jose, however, just ignores stuff like the Levenstein letter (and
all the other people who have made similar points) and instead prefers the
warm glow of nostalgia about this cynical and dishonest Barnes cabal.<<

I never met WebMaster Lenenstein. Never even heard of him.

However, that you find "confirmation" of your view in his having left the
group for what your own description reveals to be clearly a political
difference over its priorities is beyond me.

Your counterposition of "book selling" to "political activism" is not a new
one. It's the same anarchist garbage people have been throwing at various
Marxist currents since the days of the International Working Men's
Association, and it hasn't improved with age.

You "forget" that Marx and Engels's entire lifetime of political activity
consisted largely of propaganda work through printed media. In fact, as soon
as a revolution broke out in Germany in 1848, the FIRST thing they did was
to dissolve their party, the Communist League. The second thing they did was
to set up a newspaper. And even when the German social-democracy emerged as
a mass workers party, they took no steps to remove themselves from England
and throw themselves into practical, "party building" work. Yes, they
consulted with the party leadership on various issues, but by and large,
they continued doing what they had been doing all along, writing articles,
pamphlets and books.

The issue is not one of  "nostalgia" but of  objectivity, level-headedness,
and political maturity. You do not want to take on "the Barnesites"
politically, you just want to dismiss them with gossip, half-baked
"characterizations" and jokes about Monty Python. The problem is, it will
not work. The SWP is a political organization, like it or not, and their
arguments and positions have to be taken on on that basis.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Philip Ferguson" <plf13 at>
To: <marxism at>
Sent: Tuesday, November 07, 2000 4:25 PM
Subject: Re: Pathfinder Inc

David Walters writes:

>Pathfinder started commercial printing decades ago. I don't know when. The
>80% figure mentioned here is something I've heard about as well, from two
>seperate former Pathfinder Print shop volunteers who left the SWP in the
>past decade. In fact, much of this is for Wall Street financial companies.

Yes indeed.  And given the fact that they have this substantial source of
income, their prices are outrageous.


Let go, Jose.  It's time to let go. . .


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