Marx on the freedom of the press

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Marx was a prolific journalist - but he has been cited by different people as either a Stalinist censor or a liberal defender of the press. Mark L Thomas looks at what Marx said about press freedom

Following the Leveson report into phone hacking the pages of the Daily Telegraph, of all places, recently witnessed a spat over Karl Marx's attitude towards press freedom. The Reverend Peter Mullen declared that those MPs who advocate some form of state regulation of the press stood in the tradition of Marx, who, he tells us, "hated a free press". Rushing to Marx's defence was Brendan O'Neil, the editor of Spiked Online (a right wing libertarian website that likes to pretend its part of the left). O'Neil insisted that, on the contrary, Marx was a fervent champion of press freedom, even if this means tolerating the excesses of the tabloids.

So, which is the real Karl Marx; the Stalinist censor or the liberal defender of the likes of Murdoch? Unsurprisingly, it's neither, though Marx certainly did have some very important things to say about press freedoms. As the crusading editor of the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland News), between October 1842 until it was suppressed in the spring of 1843, Marx at the age of just 24 was responsible for the most radical (and increasingly successful) newspaper in Germany. Inevitably, this meant he repeatedly clashed with the newspaper censors of the Prussian state.

Becoming a communist
This period was a crucial one in Marx's intellectual and political development. As Hal Draper points out it was his experiences on RZ that "transformed him from a radical-democratic liberal, into a revolutionary-democratic communist" as his idealist worldview taken over from the philosopher Hegel clashed against the material realities of the Prussian state and emerging capitalist property relations.

To see how Marx approached the question of press freedom it is necessary to note the historical circumstances Marx confronted. Germany in the early 1840s was a far cry from the economic powerhouse that emerged half a century later. In comparison to Britain and France it was very backward economically and socially. Germany was not even a unified state in this period (this didn't take place until 1871). Rather it was a patchwork of kingdoms and duchies, with Prussia's absolutist monarchy the dominant power.

The Rhineland, Marx's birthplace, was an exception to this overall picture of German backwardness. It was the most industrialised and socially advanced part of Germany. It had also been part of revolutionary France between 1795 and 1815, before Prussia annexed it, and its prosperous bourgeoisie was among the most radical in Germany. It was these wealthy liberal opponents of Prussian absolutism who set up and financed RZ to champion their views.

Defender of press freedom
Marx's defence of press freedom against censorship ranks among the most powerful ever expressed. Censorship, railed Marx, "exercises tutelage over the highest interest of the citizens, their minds... You marvel at the delightful diversity, the inexhaustible riches of nature. You do not ask the rose to smell like a violet; but the richest of all, the mind, is supposed to exist in only a single manner?"

Authoritarian states invariably insist that the people are "not ready" for political freedoms, including a free press. Marx points to the contradiction this leads to; "to fight freedom of the press, one must maintain the thesis of the permanent immaturity of the human race... If the immaturity of the human race is the mystical ground for opposing freedom of the press, then certainly censorship is a most reasonable means of hindering the human race from coming of age."

For advocates of censorship, "true education consists in keeping a person swaddled in a cradle all his life, for as soon as he learns to walk he also learns to fall, and it is only through falling that he learns to walk. But if we all remain children in swaddling-clothes, who is to swaddle us? If we all lie in a cradle, who is to cradle us? If we are all in jail, who is to be the jail warden?"

If historical circumstances dictate that a people are unready to be free, then how has one section of the population, which just happens to be those who rule, somehow been able to escape this fate? And who polices the police?

But does Marx's powerful attack on the censorship of the press by the state place in him the camp of those would say we must simply accept the existing press, warts and all, as the price of freedom? To see why this would be to miss the real point Marx is making, we need to note two things. Firstly, Marx's goal is not simply the freedom of the press for its own sake. He sees it as part of wider fight for democratic freedoms. The "press, in general, is a realisation of human freedom," he writes.

Secondly, Marx, even while he still accepted the necessity of private property during his period as editor of RZ, was already starting to challenge the notion that the freedom of the property-owner is the freedom of all. So he writes scathingly, "to put freedom of the press in a class under freedom of business is to defend it while killing it in the of course of the defense... Your freedom is not my freedom, cries the press to business... is the press free if it degrades itself to a business? To be sure, the writer must make money in order to be able to exist and write, but on no account must he exist and write in order to make money." So for Marx, democratic freedom must not be "degraded" into a tool for promoting the interests of the rising bourgeoisie.

The ever vigilant eye
A free press for Marx must be engaged in uncovering real social, political and economic conditions that exist in order to increase the mass of the population's understanding of their world and their confidence to challenge it, even if he still expresses this in the old idealist language of the philosopher Hegel that he hadn't yet thrown off; "a free press is the ever vigilant eye of the people's spirit, the embodiment of the people's trust in itself... It is the people's outspoken self-confession, whose redeeming power is well known. It is a spiritual mirror, in which a people discover itself."

Freedom, not business
Indeed, Marx pointedly states, "the first freedom of the press is not to be a business." In other words, Marx separates the practice of journalism from the existence of the press as a commercial enterprise. As Hanno Hardt has shrewdly observed, for Marx, "the notion of freedom of the press implies the achievement of freedom of expression; for Marx it is an individual or collective right that governs the relations between journalists...and public and private authorities, including the owners of the press itself."

Hardt draws this telling conclusion, "In this sense, [Marx's] writings on press freedom are also aimed at the emancipation of newsworkers from the ownership of the means of communication, that is from the domination by publishers and stockholders."

Marx did not advocate external state censorship. But nor did he champion the "internal" censorship practised by those who own the media under capitalism and who are able to dictate the underlying assumptions and, where they deem fit, the actual content of the press they own.