[Marxism] Cyber-libertarianism and the digital deletion of the left

Clay Claiborne clayclai at gmail.com
Tue Dec 31 21:28:01 MST 2013

On Tue, Dec 31, 2013 at 5:02 PM, h0ost <host at mailoo.org> wrote:

> Politically-speaking, "Open Source" and "Free Software" have nothing in
> common.  "Free Software" is associated with left-leaning politics, as
> highlighted by people like Egben Moglen (author of the Dot-Communist
> Manifesto, among other things) and Richard Stallman, programmer-wizard
> behind the GNU set of libraries and tools, which make Linux possible.

I believe RMS would disagree with you. Here is what he said in the link
provided in the article:

> The two terms describe almost the same category of software, but they
> stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a
> development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free
> software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, essential
> respect for the users' freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source
> considers issues in terms of how to make software “better”—in a practical
> sense only. It says that nonfree software is an inferior solution to the
> practical problem at hand. Most discussion of “open source” pays no
> attention to right and wrong, only to popularity and success; here's a typical
> example<http://www.linuxinsider.com/story/Open-Source-Is-Woven-Into-the-Latest-Hottest-Trends-78937.html>
> .
> For the free software movement, however, nonfree software is a social
> problem, and the solution is to stop using it and move to free software.
> “Free software.” “Open source.” If it's the same software (or nearly so<http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-open-overlap.html>),
> does it matter which name you use? Yes, because different words convey
> different ideas. While a free program by any other name would give you the
> same freedom today, establishing freedom in a lasting way depends above all
> on teaching people to value freedom. If you want to help do this, it is
> essential to speak of “free software.”
> We in the free software movement don't think of the open source camp as an
> enemy; the enemy is proprietary (nonfree) software. But we want people to
> know we stand for freedom, so we do not accept being mislabeled as open
> source supporters.
> Practical Differences between Free Software and Open Source
> In practice, open source stands for criteria a little weaker than those of
> free software. As far as we know, all existing free software would qualify
> as open source. Nearly all open source software is free software, but there
> are exceptions. First, some open source licenses are too restrictive, so
> they do not qualify as free licenses. Fortunately, few programs use those
> licenses.
This is Richard's view.

I consider both Richard M Stallman and Eric S Raymond friends for almost
two decades and I was very much involved in the debate within the free
software movement that led to the creation of the term "Open Source."
AFAIK, I was the only open Marxist involved in that debate and I was amazed
how much these struggles, the tactic and grouping that formed up,
paralleled so many struggles I've seen on the Left.

In Leftist terms, I considered and still consider RMS's position an
ultra-left one. He was mainly interested in what he consider the "purity"
of free software. He was not willing to make any concessions others thought
necessary to make Linux the success it is now, I believe that had his line
succeeded GNU would have remained an interesting hacker/university project,
but probably not even an OS.

It became an OS because Linus Torvalds, who I have known since 1996, did
something the GNU people never seemed to get to, he wrote the one piece of
software that is needed to turn a bunch of utilities, file systems and
programming tool into an operating system, the kernel. He wrote the first
version in '91 when he was a grad student and he called it FreeX and
invited any and all to contribute to its development, but since he lacked a
server to expose it to the world he had a friend put it on his. The friend
didn't like the name freeX so he change the directory name to Linux and the
name stuck.

You might as well say the masses picked the name but RMS felt cheated and
has campaigned since then to have it called GNU/Linux. He argued that was
more politically correct but people call things what they will and most
computer people don't like names any longer than they have to be so it
continued to be called Linux and RMS has continued to be the lone voice
complaining about that.

In the late '90's, Linux had developed technically to the point where we
had a non-proprietary OS that could began to go head to head with
proprietary software. All agreed that "the enemy is proprietary (nonfree)
software" and the question arose - do we want to beat nonfree software [M$]
in the real world, meaning the market place, or do we want to have
something "pure" for the hackers.

Much more important than the debate around the name was the debate around
our willingness to make concessions to nonfree software, in effect
concessions to capitalism, that we felt would be necessary to win that
struggle. This matter really came to a head around the question of device

Up to that point we had always written our own open source drivers but
there were limitations. Without help from the hardware makers, it was a
question of reverse engineering and that wasn't always efficient,
particularly at the rate at which new hardware was coming. And while we
were able convinced some hardware makers to open source their drivers [and
aside here on the important difference between "free software" and "open
source." Most drivers were already "free software" in the sense that the
hardware makers didn't generally charge for them, they came with the
hardware or alternately you could download them for free, even without the
hardware. The issue for the Linux community was not the price but would
they make the source code open.]

Many companies wouldn't because the felt, correctly, that many of the
secrets of their hardware would be revealed in open source drivers, so that
created a dilemma. Unless Linux could be made to work with say the newer
NVidia cards, it would have a very limited utility in the real world and
could never go head to head with MS Windows or any non-free software. So
the question arose, should we make a way that hardware companies could keep
there secrets and still write drivers that work with Linux, to "taint" the
kernel in Linux terms.

I looked at this as very much parallel to the concessions any socialist
revolution must make to capitalism if it is to survive and grow strong
enough to defeat capitalism and voted yes. RMS, the purist, took what I
consider to be an "ultra-left" position. As he expresses it "For the free
software movement, however, nonfree software is a social problem, and the
solution is to stop using it and move to free software." The reason I
consider that an ultra-left position because it simply isn't practical for
most people in the real world. Take for example my film Vietnam American
Holocaust. Even though my production company is named Linux Beach
Productions and much of the work was done on Linux, the basic editing was
done with Adobe Première on MS Windows because OSS has failed as yet to
produce an inexpensive video editor that is up to the task. If I followed
the RMS line, I wouldn't have been able to produce that film.

Back to the question of drivers. The decision that was made was that we
would allow non-free device drivers to taint the kernel, although the user
would be warned. RMS oppose this and had he prevailed, GNU/Linux would have
remained of interest to computer scientists and hackers, it would have been
used with the carefully tailored hardware it could work with but it
couldn't now be in the position of mounting a real world challenge to
non-free software. This is how the "purist" ultra-left position serves the
right. I'm glad my side won.

RMS and the GNU people had 8 years to write a kernel and turn their
collection of utilities and libraries into an OS without the involvement of
Linus, then the issue of the name [beating a dead horse] would never had
come up. Why didn't they? There's a story behind this too and it has a lot
to do with a desire to have one's work have an impact on the real world
outside of MIT computer labs or not. Ulra-leftism again IMHO.

All this and I haven't gotten to the name controversy, but it is late.

I will say this, in trying to promote Linux in the real world -  something
I was very much involved in - my Linux On A Disk product was design to make
Linux accessible to people that weren't at RMS's level, and it was designed
to allow you to put Linux on your computer without first abandoning
Windows. I don't think RMS would approve. It gave many, including IBM and
HP their first taste of Linux, the term "free software" was not understood
by the market the way RMS understands it. It was understood that it didn't
cost any money. MS Internet Explorer has always been "free software" but
this wasn't from Microsoft so Linux "free software" was understood to cost
nothing and also often believed to worth less because it was free. Yes
"Open Source" was proposed as a marketing tool which took away the term
"free" which was generally understood in $$ terms and replaced it with
something much more essential to the movement - the fact that the source
code was available for modification, and not just inspection as RMS says,
and those modifications had to be returned to the code base.

I guess my main point is if RMS had his way, we wouldn't be discussing
Linux or GNU/Linux. There wouldn't be a Google and much on the Internet as
we know it wouldn't exist. It would be dominated by non-free software and
still be something like AOL, and yes maybe by now the GNU people around RMS
would have cobble together a kernel but it would remain a university
project of interest to hackers and computer science majors and certainly
would be making the contributions to progressive social movements that it

Anyway, more later.

 Written on a Linux box...Ubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS to be precise.

Something else to add, you may not be aware of how much the corporate
adoption of Linux was push from below, by the worker at companies like
Motorola, HP and IBM. There is a whole saga to be told about this.

Clay Claiborne, Director
Vietnam: American Holocaust <http://VietnamAmericanHolocaust.com>
Linux Beach Productions
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 581-1536

Read my blogs at the Linux Beach <http://claysbeach.blogspot.com/>

More information about the Marxism mailing list