Marx and Lenin on press freedom

Author: 
Labor Action, 7 December 1953

Marx analysed the problem of a free press thoroughly in two long essays which are to be found in the first volume of the collected edition of his works.

For Marx “the right to think and speak the truth” was an elementary human right and freedom of the press — as he said — merely “human freedom in practice”. Marx recognized that human freedom is made up of a complex of interdependent freedoms.

“Each form of freedom”, he said, “postulates the other in the same way as one limb of the body postulates another. Whenever one particular freedom is threatened, freedom itself is threatened. Freedom is always freedom, whether it is expressed in printers’ ink or in terms of land and possessions, in terms of conscience or in a political meeting”.

Without freedom of speech a nation is subject to an authoritarian regime — the slave not only of economic and social tyranny but of a tyranny of the spirit.

Marx regarded freedom of the press as an indispensable premise for the people’s collaboration in shaping its own fate, as an essential instrument for deciding its own destiny. With a passion such as is extremely rare in his works he described the free press as “the watchful eye of the people, the living expression of the people’s trust in itself, the vocal link which unites the individual with the State and the world, the incorporation of culture which, by a process of refinement, makes material struggles intellectual and gives ideal expression to their coarse, crude strength”.

Without freedom of the press, he wrote, he could not fulfill himself. Discussing the debate on freedom of the press in the Rhenish Landtag, he deplored the cool attitude of those liberal deputies for whom freedom of the press is “only an affair of the head in which the heart plays no part”.

He recalled Goethe’s saying that a painter succeeds only with those types of feminine beauty which he has at least loved in some living person.

“Freedom of the press, too, is a kind of beauty”, Marx stated, “which one must have loved to be able to defend. It is something which I love truly, whose existence I feel to be essential, to be necessary to me so that without it I cannot live at peace, or live a full life”.

And he closed his essay on the conditions of the press in Prussia with the words: “Those periods in which one can think as one wishes and say what one thinks enjoy great good fortune”.

The summary of Marx, above, was given in Labor Action of 7 December 1953, quoting a speech by the secretary, Julius Braunthal, at the third International Socialist Press Conference, with representatives from socialist parties in various countries..

Labor Action commented: “For socialists, the denial of freedom of speech is the blackest treason against the tradition of socialism; the enslavement of the free word is a fundamental mark of the counter-revolutionary nature of [Stalinist] Russia’s political system — a system which justifies itself by an appeal to Marxism.”

Braunthal continued: “And now let me quote what Marx thought of the press in authoritarian states — the kind of press which we know so well from Russia and the East Zone of Germany.

‘Hypocrisy, that vice of vices, is inseparable from it’, he wrote. ‘From this basic vice all its other sins derive. . . .

‘The government hears nothing but its own voice. It knows that it hears nothing but its own voice and yet persists in the illusion that it is hearing the voice of the people and demands that the people should submit to the same illusion’.

[Without a free press] people fall either into political superstition, or political scepticism, or else they take no further part in the life of the State and become a disorderly mass of individuals. Meanwhile — although it was only on the sixth day that God himself said of his creation: ‘And behold it was good’ — the press makes a daily boast of what the government has willed into existence; but since, of necessity, one day contradicts the next, the press lies continuously and must deny all knowledge of the lie and stifle its shame.”


Vladimir Ilyich Lenin discussed another dimension of this question. He wrote:

“Freedom of the press” is another of the principal slogans of “pure democracy”. And here, too, the workers know — and socialists everywhere have admitted it millions of times — that this freedom is a deception while the best printing presses and the biggest stocks of paper are appropriated by the capitalists and while capitalist rule over the press remains, a rule that is manifested throughout the world all the more strikingly, sharply, and cynically, the more democracy and the republican system are developed, as in America for example.

“The first thing to do to win real equality and genuine democracy for the working people, for the workers and peasants, is to deprive capital of the possibility of hiring writers, buying up publishing houses, and hiring newspapers. And to do that the capitalists and exploiters have to be overthrown and their resistance suppressed.

“The capitalists have always used the term ‘freedom’ to mean freedom for the rich to get richer and for the workers to starve to death.

“In capitalist usage, freedom of the press means freedom of the rich to bribe the press, freedom to use their wealth to shape and fabricate so-called public opinion.

“In this respect. too, the defenders of ‘pure democracy’ prove to be defenders of an utterly foul and venal system that gives the rich control over the mass media. They prove to be deceivers of the people who, with the aid of plausible, fine-sounding, but thoroughly false phrases, divert them from the concrete historical task of liberating the press from capitalist enslavement.

“Genuine freedom and equality will be embodied in the system which the communists are building and in which there will be no opportunity for amassing wealth at the expense of others, no objective opportunities for putting the press under the direct or indirect power of money, and no impediments in the way of any working man (or groups of working men, in any numbers) for enjoying and practising equal rights in the use of public printing presses and public stocks of paper.”