A reply to Pathfinder's critics

Jose G. Perez jg_perez at SPAMbellsouth.net
Sun Oct 29 22:00:11 MST 2000


    A few members of this list have written answering my posts about
the accusations they and their friends have leveled against Pathfinder
Press as profiteers, running a capitalist business, etc. I've also received
three or four emails privately raising points than tend in that direction,
although not as extreme.

    In the case of those who posted to the list, I've challenged them to
back up their accusations with FACTS, and have been answered by
anecdotes like, gee, Pathfinder's books sure are more expensive at the
campus bookstore in New Zealand, and wow, the guy who sells the Militant in
Scotland is trying to get a quid, the sparts only charge 50p. And,
Pathfinder sells Lenin at a markup of "several hundred percent."

    I will readily concede that patrons of a campus bookshop in New Zealand
as well as the legions of avid Militant readers in the heath could well be
victims of price-gouging. Nevertheless, to try to lay responsibility for
these prices on the fifth floor of 410 West Street in Manhattan is a
stretch. Especially when, on the basis of a careful comparison, anyone (with
Internet access) anywhere in the world can verify for themselves that the
prices being charged by Pathfinder for the different kinds of books it
publishes are entirely normal in the United States for those kinds of books.

    Pathfinder's critics have not undertaken the substantiation of their
charges with the necessary seriousness. They have leveled grave charges of
profiteering, of monopolization and price gouging against the SWP, of having
set up Pathfinder as a capitalist business, which can only mean a business
designed to generate profits. Thinly veiled behind these charges is the idea
that the SWP's leaders are living high off the hog at the expense of the SWP
membership and the Left in general, and, indeed, some other people have
emailed me privately to this effect.

    I will remind people that the SWP from the mid-1970s through the
mid-1980s was involved in a major lawsuit against the U.S. government in
which it had to make available, among other things, the financial records of
the party and institutions associated with it, such as Pathfinder.

    The government was just as convinced as some of the SWP's critics on the
Left are today that the group was, in fact, some sort of racket operated for
the personal benefit of a handful of top leaders, and so these records were
gone over with a fine-toothed comb by government lawyers and accountants who
were fairly desperate as the case was going badly for them.

    The most significant "abuse" --which they introduced into evidence with
quite a flourish during the actual trial-- was that SWP National Secretary
Jack Barnes had once charged something like a Teddy Bear which he bought for
some young relative to a movement credit card. The government's attempt to
cast aspersions on the SWP's handling of its finances fell quite on its face
when the SWP introduced documentation showing that Jack had paid back to the
party the exact amount charged for the Teddy Bear, or whatever it was.

    Indeed, the SWP COULD place the government in the dock BECAUSE the
party leadership and ranks knew that they did not live in a glass house in
this regard, there was not the slightest question about the scrupulous
handling of party finances, as well as the party's painstaking efforts NOT
to run afoul of bourgeois legality, which involved everything from taxes to
the SWP's relations with revolutionaries in other countries and the FI.

    Moreover, I was in fairly close contact with the leaders of the SWP
during that period, including the central leaders who remain at the party's
helm today. I visited the apartments of various of these comrades countless
times, everyone from old-timers like Joe and Reba Hansen, George Novack and
Evelyn Reed, to the new layer of leaders that arose in the 1960s.

    Neither in their clothes, lifestyles, nor any material possessions that
I
ever saw, did any SWP leaders betray even the slightest indication of living
beyond their visible means, never mind accumulating wealth. So when people
who have been in or around the SWP in recent years tell me that in this
regard, the SWP is quite the same as it has always been, I tend to believe
them.

    And the stories one is told to demonstrate that things are not what they
seem are exceptionally thin. So-and-so spotted this one at the opera. That
couple was seen having a fine meal and several drinks at the Oberlin Inn.

    I've been challenged to provide facts and figures proving that
Pathfinder's prices are not exceptionally high. This is, in itself, an
extraordinary demand: the prosecution presents the charge, ADMITS IT HAS NOT
A SHRED OF EVIDENCE, apart from vague, impressionistic accounts of what some
bookstore half a world away charges, and then demands that those arguing on
the other side prove the falsity of the charge for which NO EVIDENCE has
been presented. One critic even has the clever idea of demanding that the
SWP open its books, as if somehow the fact that five ultralefts spread over
three continents are REAL SUSPICIOUS is plenty to negate the right to
privacy in political association.

    What such an outlandish methodology reveals is the dead-end factionalism
of these critics of the SWP. Every Ahab has their Great White, and for these
comrades, Jack Barnes is it.

    As everyone on the Marxism List knows I'm not a huge fan of the current
SWP leadership or political line, and indeed, for some reason, the SWP
leaders saw fit to deliver a several-thousand-word blast against me in the
Militant just a few months ago (complete with outrageous distortions of what
I had written and quotations fabricated by taking parts of different
sentences and gluing them together to make it seem like I had written them
when, in  fact, what I had said was quite different). [See
http://www.themilitant.com/2000/6420/642058.html "Two conflicting class
views: Did U.S. win the Cold War? Have computers made capitalism stable? Are
workers doing OK?" by Steve Clark.]

    But this method of political combat by gossip and  insinuation
which some comrades have unfortunately turned to in criticizing the SWP is
absolutely dead wrong. It is a curse, and it must be combatted. Absent clear
and convincing evidence to the contrary, such charges against comrades who
have given decades to the revolutionary movement must not be tolerated or
given seeming legitimacy by going unchallenged. They must be clearly and
unambiguously repudiated in the most categorical fashion.

    And I would add that we have a special obligation to do so towards those
comrades with whom we have wide-ranging political differences and have
exchanged sharply-worded polemics; to do otherwise is to legitimize the
methods introduced into the workers movement by Stalinism, which Trotsky,
precisely for this sort of modus operandi, quite justly characterized as the
syphyllis of the workers movement.

    We should also be objective in assessing the activities of various
groups. The SWP's efforts in publishing and keeping in print scores of
Trotsky and other titles is a SERVICE and a CONTRIBUTION to the
revolutionary movement.

    Could they do it better? Undoubtedly. Could they figure out some
creative ways to make the material much more widely available, and more
cheaply? Probably. Are they doing the best job they know how to do? I doubt
it.

    But I think the stance of any revolutionary towards other
revolutionaries is to recognize that they are doing, if not the best they
know, at least the best they can (as Jim Cannon said). And to the extent
that we see opportunities that they do not, that may not be a criticism of
them, but of US, who have proven incapable of transmitting to the comrades
our own insights.

    I think the attitude of the MIA as explained by David Walters is
exemplary. They are seeking to engage the SWP comrades in a dialogue about
the best ways to take advantage of the new possibilities inherent in current
technology to achieve the common goal we share with the comrades who belong
to the SWP, which is to make these works as widely available as possible.
That he has not yet succeeded is hardly surprising: the SWP is an
extraordinarily shut-in group in many ways, and the entire left (such as it
is) --not just the SWP-- has been rather behind the curve in using the
Internet.

    For example, it was only a year ago that the Militant got a web site,
and it is still just a weekly "dump" of the edition printed Thursday
afternoons, which it then takes them ANOTHER 2-3 days to get posted!
Although  the design changes introduced a few months ago improved the site,
their practice of dumping the entire text of the lead article on the home
page, instead of using the home page as a "cover" page to stress the most
politically important things and try to draw viewers into the site is really
primitive. And they've not yet seen their way clear to linking current
articles to previous ones on the same subject, or to other sites with more
material. I keep expecting www.themilitant.com to show up on "web pages that
suck." (www.webpagesthatsuck.com)

    I think it will take time before a lot of the things I argued for in my
first post on Pathfinder's attack on the MIA begin to sink in at SWP
headquarters, and even if I were a gambler, I would not bet that they will
sink in before the group falls apart. But increasingly the Trotsky writings
ARE going to find their way onto the Internet, if the music monopolies have
been unable to stop MP3 file sharing with all their cops and courts and
lawyers, certainly Pathfinder isn't going to be more successful is using
bourgeois legality to defend an increasingly outmoded intellectual property
regime.

    The irony, of course, is that for the time being the defacto relaxation
of copyright is likely to benefit publishers if they are clever enough to
use it. MP3 file sharing is driving increased sales of CD's (CNN's
technology correspondent Rick Lockridge did a very interesting story where
he went to a record store in Athens, Georgia, which is a university town,
and the owner told him young people were coming in to buy all sorts of CD's,
including fairly obscure ones, from groups they had found out about and
gotten to like through Napster), and placing Trotsky online will push sales
of his books. In the medium term, as technology improves, stereo systems
incorporate MP3 decoders and memory to hold the files, etc., record
companies are likely to wind up as road kill on the infobahn, but there is
nothing anyone can do to stop that, I don't believe, just as all the monks
who produced illustrated manuscripts were put out of business by Gutenberg,
and a lot of the printing crafts by computer technology. And once a reading
tablet of some sort gets perfected, the same thing will happen to book
publishers, at least as we know them today.

    That said, let me tell my fellow ultraleft comrades, for I am ALSO an
ultraleft at heart, that you have to be JUST AS lost in space about REAL
BUSINESSES as I believe the SWP is about various political issues to swallow
this poppycock about Pathfinder being a profit-making operation. Any REAL
bourgeois publisher would have PULPED most of the Trotsky and Cannon books
long ago. Economically, they are not worth keeping in storage, never mind in
print.

    A bourgeois publisher would have pulped them to write them off as
losses. By reducing their tax liability they increase net profits. The SWP's
willingness to keep these books in storage so that they can sell, in many
cases, a few dozen copies a year, is absolutely convincing evidence to
anyone who understands the first thing about business administration and
finances that we are not dealing here with an enterprise motivated by making
profits, indeed from THAT angle it appears incompetent, it doesn't take the
most obvious measure to restore profitability, which is, quite simply, to
monetize existing stocks at whatever price they'll bring, write off the
losses, and move on.

    Indeed, one of the critics is so lost in space that he even questions
why Pathfinder would charge current prices for books printed in the 1970s!
As if the dollar weren't worth today maybe one-third what it was worth then!
As if Pathfinder didn't have to meet expenses at year 2000 price levels and
didn't have to print books today to replenish its stock at today's price
levels!

    Another writes, "Pathfinder only have to operate in a capitalist
environment if they are operating as capitalist venture."

    Stalin was such a piker! Socialism in one country, hell, we demand of
the SWP not just socialism, but full-fledged communism, and not in one
country, but in one building! And just a few blocks from Wall Street at
that!

    It does not take the powerful economic insight of a Karl Marx or even
the somewhat less penetrating gaze of the average street vendor to realize
that Pathfinder, the SWP, and everyone else in the United States have little
choice about operating in a capitalist economic environment, as that is the
ONLY economic environment that actually EXISTS in this country, the socalled
"primitive" communism of Native Americans having been rubbed out by the
white man quite some time ago.

    In the SWP's political fantasies they may well inhabit a world where the
socialist revolution has not been overturned and capitalism re-established
in Russia. The Soviet Union may live on in Jack Barnes's political
fantasyland, but when it comes to buying paper and ink, Pathfinder can't go
running to the people's commissariat of printing supplies of the East German
Workers State because in the REAL world, it no longer exists. They have to
buy real paper with real money from real capitalists in the real United
States.

    Sure, the SWP COULD, if it wanted to, sell the entire Pathfinder stock
for next to nothing. And then what? How does it prepare MORE books?
Would there be enough to reprint the books it has sold out?

    The fact is that Pathfinder's prices for the different kinds of books it
publishes are totally and completely NORMAL, entirely unexceptional, as
everyone can easily verify for themselves by visiting Amazon.com on the
Internet.

    Quality paperbacks that have relatively good sales and broad appeal sell
for roughly $10-$20, these are things like the books by Malcom and Che. If
you do a search by publisher for South End Press or Monthly Review, most of
whose books are roughly comparable to that part of Pathfinder's line, you'll
see they, too, charge pretty much the same.

Following are some for Pathfinder books:
Bolivian Diary (Che)                    $17.56
Che Talks to Young People         $13.45
Making History: Interviews
    with 4 Cuban Generals           $14.35
By Any Means Necessary
    (Malcolm X)                            $14.35
My Life (Trotsky)                        $21.56
The Revolution Betrayed             $18.95

Following are some Monthly Review books:
Open Veins of Latin America    $18.00
Marx's Ecology                          $18.00
Powers of Desire                        $22.00
Last Resorts                              $19.00
Korea, Division, Reunification
   and US Foreign Policy            $18.00

Following are some Ocean Press books:
After Moruroa                            $19.95
The Bay of Pigs and the VIA       $15.25
Capitalism in Crisis (Fidel)         $17.95
Che Guevara Reader                   $17.56
Che in Africa (Congo Diary)       $17.95
Che: A Memoir (Fidel)                $13.45

Following are some South End Press books:
Detroit, I do Mind Dying            $16.20
50 Years In Enough: the Case
    Against The World Bank
    and the IMF                            $16.00
African Americans at the
    Crossroads                            $17.60

    Those are all prices they are actually selling for at Amazon.com.
Pathfinder's prices are absolutely NORMAL.

    Most of the books by Cannon and Trotsky have a narrower audience, with
one or another exception, and they are priced in the $25-$40 range in
paperback. Because their narrow, specialized appeal makes their sales volume
very low, it is crazy to price them on the same scale as a Malcolm or Che
book page-for-page, because you have fewer books over which to spread the
pre-press costs, and in addition to the costs of printing them, you have the
additional cost of storing them for many years until they are sold. (A
capitalist business would also impute to them a "cost" which is the interest
on however much capital is tied up in those books, and quite rightly, too,
from a capitalist point of view. Under such a calculation a book printed in
1970 would have to have a wholesale price, in real terms, adjusted for
inflation, three or more times its 1970 wholesale price, yet one MORE proof,
if any were needed, that Pathfinder isn't being run as a for-profit
business).

    Pathfinder's offerings in this segment, and that is probably the biggest
category in its catalogue, are priced similarly to other specialized,
narrow-appeal "quality paperback" format books. But no one has to take my
word for it, anyone can go for themselves to Amazon, do a search for various
books, and compare prices. But you have to find comparable items, like
specialized books on computing or other specialized subjects with high
editorial costs and small audiences. It's simply not valid to compare, say,
the collection of Trotsky Writings on Spain with For Whom the Bell Tolls,
although they both deal with generally the same place and time period.

    Other movement publishers that have not benefited from very close
relations with a government-sponsored publishing operations have not tried
something as editorially ambitious as Pathfinder did with the writings from
Trotsky's last exile. And of course something like International Publishers,
which ostensibly put out the English-Language edition of Marx and Engels's
Collected Works, bore relatively little if any of the expense involved, as
these were borne by state publishing houses in East Germany, and quite
rightly, I might add.

    So price comparisons to other left wing publishers are simply not valid
for that
part of Pathfinder's catalogue, which I suspect is the one generating the
complaints. None of them that I am aware of has tried to put and keep in
print anything like what Pathfinder has attempted, the entire corpus of
Trotsky's writings in his last exile, in top-quality editions that are well
translated, thoroughly indexed, and choc-a-bloc full of footnotes and other
aids to people unfamiliar with those times so they can understand what he
was talking about. Putting together the efforts of everyone involved, years
of work went into preparing each one of those volumes.

    For any conventional bourgeois publisher, probably even the best-selling
Pathfinder book of today would be considered an unmitigated catastrophe, and
something like the Trotsky Writings series would be --frankly-- suicidal.
The head of an imprint that commissioned such a series wouldn't just be
fired, he'd probably be pulped along with the books.

    It is entirely responsible and appropriate for Pathfinder to price those
books at a high enough level that makes it possible for them to keep them in
print indefinitely and produce more. No, it is NOT the only possible policy,
but I believe it is an entirely rational and defensible one.

    A strategy of lowballing prices to maximize current sales for those
kinds of books is possible.  But if succesful, current stocks would soon be
gone and it would more difficult to replenish them, and especially to
prepare more books. And most likely, for much of this material you're simply
not going to be selling much more than you are today, the number of people
who would like to own the complete Pathfinder collection of Trotsky books is
very small, and, I suspect, has grown smaller over the years. Yes it is
expensive, and, yes, relatively less privileged workers in the advanced
capitalist countries would have to scrimp and save to buy such books.

    By and large, what other publishers have put out by Trotsky have been
the few obvious volumes: 1905, the History of the Russian Revolution, My
Life, the Revolution Betrayed. New Park put out a few more, notably his
writings and speeches at the head of the red army, but I guess they're out
of business, as Amazon reports everything they've published as out of print.

    Comparing the prices of the few more popular books like the History of
the Russian Revolution or Revolution Betrayed to something like one of the
1930s writings series, is an apples-to-oranges, thoughtless comparison. The
market for those two different kinds of books and the economics of
publishing and keeping them in print are quite different.

    But on an apple-to apple comparison, Pathfinder is clearly NOT GUILTY.
One more example, the 1300-page, three-volumes-in-one History of the Russian
Revolution Pluto Press edition is 20 pounds at Amazon in the UK, the U.S.
Pathfinder edition is just under $29 at the American Amazon. At current
exchange rates, 20 pounds IS 29 dollars, so in the only case where I was
able to make a DIRECT comparison of price levels between evil, price-gouging
capitalist Pathfinder and noble, serve-the-people-body-and-soul Pluto Press,
the actual difference between these two diametricaly opposed policies was
nil.

    What this shows, I suspect, is that the price of commodities in a
capitalist society is determined by the amount of socially necessary labor
time it takes, on average, to produce them. Those responsible for pricing
the Pathfinder and Pluto editions probably looked at the segment of the book
market where that title belongs and came up with pretty much the same price,
because that is a price that (roughly, on average) corresponds to the
economic value of that kind of book in the English-language book market,
which is, of course, increasingly one world market, as my ability to sit
down and in a few minutes make such transatlantic price comparisons
demonstrates. (Take cheer Philip Ferguson and other victims of price-gouging
by New Zealand campus bookstores and/or Pathfinder distributors! Their
ability to do that is rapidly being undermined.)

    As for Pathfinder having bought out a huge stock of Lenin material and
marked it up several hundred percent, I have been unable to find any
information on line about this. Amazon lists most of Lenin's stuff as being
out of print.

    Separately, another comrade has written me privately, raising among
other things why Pathfinder didn't publish in a lower-quality format. It is
a fair question that deserves a fair answer.

    First, when people in the book business talk about a "quality" or
"trade" paperbacks they are taking mostly about the size of a book, either
8-1/2 or 9 inches tall, 5-6 inches across. The other major paperback format
is the mass-market
paperback, 2-3 inches shorter and 4 or 5 inches across. Quality paperbacks
are similar in size to hardbacks, and for big publishers in the past (I'm
not sure whether this practice continues) often the quality paperback
edition is simply a new printing from the same negatives as the hardback.

    Quality paperbacks tend to be printed in higher-quality paper than that
used for mass market books, but not always. Pathfinder does use very
high-quality, white paper.

    The reason for Pathfinder not to go to a mass market format for most of
its books is this: although essentially it produces paperback-type books, it
also offers the very same book, from the very same plates and press run, in
a hard-bound version.

    In theory this is a "library edition" and if the paperback costs $20,
the "library binding," although it adds only a couple of dollars to the
cost,  doubles or triples the price. Libraries prefer the hardbound
versions, especially of books that are to be used for research, and
Pathfinder is wise to oblige them, for by making a hardbound edition, it
gets tons more money. In the 1970s some libraries even ordered directly from
Pathfinder, which means it got, say, the full retail of $50 for a book,
instead of the wholesale paperback price of $12 (60% of a $20 book) [I'm
using today's price levels, obviously].

    Are the libraries being "ripped off"? I don't think so. The Trotsky
works are essential to a serious research collection on the history of
Communism, the first half of the 20th Century, etc. These are very good,
"editorially intensive" editions especially suitable for research, and if
Pathfinder weren't publishing them, at least some of these would be put out
by some academic publisher at a much higher price.

    Given the very small press runs of Pathfinder books, trying to do two
completely separate editions, a mass market for the comrades, and a library
edition, would be much more expensive. Even changing paper and doing two
press runs is simply not worth it, you save a few pennies per book for a
thousand copies, big deal, you've probably lost more in all the fooling
around with the presses this would require, the extra scrap generated, etc.

    And as it has turned out, the decsion to use the white paper proved to
be wiser than anyone suspected, because it doesn't turn yellow with age. And
some of these books being sold were printed 25 or more years ago.

    What makes the books so high in price is their very low volume of sales,
because up to the point when you actually start printing, all the costs are
the same, whether you print 500 copies or 50,000 copies. Today much of the
pre-press preparation has been streamlined by computer technology, as well
as the editorial work, but getting "legacy" books ready for modern printing
is still very expensive and labor intensive, especially ones with footnotes,
maps, indices and so on like the Pathfinder Trotsky books.

    Comrade Kurl Lohtzky writes as someone with experience in the  book
trade and says that based on some chart of printing costs in Germany,
Pathfinder's prices indicate press runs of as few as 300 copies.

    Unfortunately, Lohtzky's analysis of the Pathfinder Catalogue if
deficient: "calculated as 'normal books', Pathfinder has already high
prices," but of course, Pathfinder's list is mostly not "normal books," but
rather, highly specialized books with a very narrow niche audience. The same
kind of economic factors that lead to such high prices for scientific,
technical, etc., literature, makes Pathfinder's "specialty" books expensive
also (although not nearly as much as prices charged by some other
publishers, e.g., Elsevier).

    The comparison of Pathfinder to other "militant publishing houses" is
misleading unless you understand that other movement presses by and large do
not have a large collection of such inherently expensive books, or if they
do, the cost for producing them was borne by a state-subsidized publisher.
For the more widely sold material, the prices are, as I believe I have
demonstrated, quite comparable.

    Now to take up some other points. One comrade argued that it was the
duty of the SWP to provide this kind of educational material free or at
extremely low cost. If the SWP had very large resources, I could see perhaps
at least an element of merit in the argument, but the SWP is a group of
300-400 people, and I do not see how this can be reasonably demanded of
them.

    Mike Alewitz suggests that Pathfinder is no longer publishing many new
books, and therefore the income stream from the old books is being diverted
elsewhere. It is, of course, impossible to know whether or not this is true,
but it does not seem obvious to me that this is the case. In the last couple
of years they have put out three or four Cuba books. In the 70s Pathfinder
didn't publish more than six or eight new books a year, I don't believe, and
given that the SWP is now roughly one-fourth or one fifth the size it was
then, it doesn't seem, at first glance, as if Pathfinder has been
disproportionately cut back. They are, in addition, making a big effort to
put into digital form ready for printing their entire back list. Although
the bulk of the work is being done by volunteers (ex members), some portion
of necessity has to be done by Pathfinder's regular staff.

    From there Mike argues that this must mean that the print shop
associated with the SWP and Pathfinder is doing a lot of highly profitable
outside jobs, since there is so little internal work available. The subject
of the print shop is really a different one from the one of Pathfinder as a
publisher, whether they print inhouse or outside, I believe the same
underlying economic factors will determine their book pricing.

    So I propose to take up the whole issue of the print shop in a separate
post.

José






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