Free and Open Source from a Marxist Perspective

October 10, 2017 - 3 minutes

Some common misunderstandings

A lot of people believe that free software is a “communist” movement, and that it’s ideals are communist in nature. This is not true of either the free software, or open source camps. From a Marxist perspective the free software movement is a bourgeois movement. I make this claim, not because I don’t support free software (I do), but because the bourgeoisie are the leading class in the free software movement.

This can be explained with some anecdotal assertions (given this is just a blog post). Here are free software organizations who take in their biggest donations from multi national corporations:

This is to just name a few. Many if not all major technology related companies have Github profiles, and regularly contribute to free software.

Why would they do this?

The answer to that question could be answered in a lot of ways. The way I will explain it is that the way Microsoft monetizes windows, is not compatible at all with free software. Where Google primarily runs software as a service, they rely on the popularity of their servers, rather than their software itself. In this way Google can free a lot of it’s technologies and use it as ammunition against Microsoft, which is incapable of freeing Windows. Essentially they are trying to gain developer market share and are using free software as a means to an end. Google and others have done a good job at using free software as a way to undermine the monopoly Microsoft once had, and by extension blocked Microsoft from entering any new markets (such as mobiles).

It’s a big reason Microsoft suddenly “fell in love” with open source, they are finally realizing that free software is their only way of promoting their platform to a younger generation of developers who primarily use free and open source tools. Visual Studio Code is a pure example of this (even though they sleazily try to get you agree to a nasty EULA).

How should Marxists react to this?

We should support free software. Just because it is a bourgeois movement does not mean we cannot support it. There are some bourgeois movements such as the LGBT, modern feminism, and Black Lives Matter who really offer the left no real way forward, and in a lot of cases harm society. Free software is positive in spirit, and will be very useful to a revolutionary collective. With movements led by the bourgeoisie we as workers sometimes get some rewards for going with them, an example could be that when the capitalists overthrew feudalism, they organized us into nations and we ceased to be tied to the soil. Nations as an institution are very progressive, even to this day when fighting against global capitalism; so it is a gift the bourgeoisie gave to us, another example would be civil society. Things like nationality, civil society, and free software will all be invaluable developments that came out of capitalism that will be needed when it’s overthrown. So we should (as marxists) give free software our support.

I myself am fine with using tools made for these reasons, I am typing this blog on a KDE desktop (Google is the biggest backer), and on Code-OSS, a Microsoft product under the MIT license. And this blog is generated by a software called Jekyll, a product by Github. I use many other applications such as Chromium as well. I welcome their contributions, like I welcome previous bourgeois contributions to the liberation of workers.