The ism in journalism - Marx and the 'free' people's press versus corporate media
Pacific Media Centre
27 October, 2012
ANALYSIS: The potential and promise of socialism against the neoliberal order needs an agency which can evoke the alternative in freshly minted terms that capture the popular imagination.
So why is the free press contraindicative in socialism? That may be begging the question because what is commonly understood to be the free press is, in the socialist scheme, the bourgeois press on the other side of the class divide which is not free of the dictates of the market, the whims of the advertising and the caprice of the capital that drives it.
The free press of the socialist imagination is more liberating than liberalist in which, as Lenin put it, “all opinions of all citizens must be freely published”. The evolved socialised press would have its printing presses, newsprint, advertising, all equitably provided by the state, and be a touchstone of the post-revolutionary order.
In the realpolitik of the socialist project, however, the press did not quite proceed beyond the transitional “propagandist, agitator and organiser” function that Lenin set for it in the waging of war communism. In the ensuing nomenklatura order of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a lead newspaper or news agency (like Pravda and Tass) set the agenda and corralled the news to be purveyed on a given day, subserving the interests of the state and the party.
It was a command performance which lulled the political leadership into self-approbation even if the intended readership did not necessarily buy into it. Amartya Sen has drawn attention to the damning effects of such information blight and to why democracies, because the free press sounds an early warning alarm the moment the symptoms appear, are able to keep man-made famines at bay, whereas the socialist media and bureaucracy are so mutually parasitic that they either cannot or will not see the signs of a gathering storm until it is too late.
This vestigial media mentality would, one would imagine, be demolished as it runs headlong into a blindingly high-visibility, high-velocity information society. But then, it is as diehard as it is anachronistic.
Russia sans socialism and buttressed by the right to information guaranteed by the Constitution of 1993 and the specific Law on the Mass Media before that (1991) is not a better or safer place for journalists.
An elaborate state apparatus dealing with the media continues to work overtime to withhold rather than provide information and cut journalists off from the corridors of power. On the other hand, contemporary socialist parties in, and aspiring to, power in different parts of the world with innovative pro-people programmes that contest the overweening power of neoliberalism and finance capital continue to be somewhat reticent or backward in their appreciation of the merits of independent journalism.
This, then, becomes their Achilles heel which their capitalist detractors target with some success.
The Indian Left too seems at a juncture where it needs to recalibrate and extend its inner-party democracy to give its media organs—print and television—better and freer play so that they become an authoritative, credible source of information not only for their readers and viewers, but for the party functionaries themselves at various levels and for the lay, plural press.
In West Bengal, the party media got it very wrong in the recent Assembly elections, which the Left Front lost after an uninterrupted 34-year run in power. The bullishness of this media up until all votes were cast was understandable enough as a probable strategy not to affect the morale of those yet to cast their ballots.
But to persist in the prediction of a clear win, constituency by constituency, even when counting was well under way, and when the rest of the media were saying just the opposite, seemed to be creating an illusion of a self-fulfilling prophecy which of course came crashing down once the results were in.
Nor was any of this dissemblance. A vicious cycle of hopeful rather than realistic feedback from the party cells at the grass-roots level funnelled through the media and back into the party organisation and ranks of the party faithful seemed to have spiralled into the false build-up and expectation.
An independent and critically distanced investigation by the media of, or friendly to, the party could perhaps have cut this loop and helped them save face even if not the election.
Kerala has recently been through a tumultuous phase, with some flashpoints, in the interface between the Left, particularly the leading party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the dominant Malayalam media.
The secretary of the party in the state has been in combative mode against what he sees as a campaign unleashed by a media “syndicate” to discredit the Left, with echoes of the so-called liberation struggle (Vimochana Samaram) of 1958-59 against the first-ever elected communist Ministry of E.M.S. Namboodiripad, in which the bourgeois press was complicit.
In this effort, however, the party has not been able to leverage its own media either to counter such tendentious coverage or to effectively publicise the substantial achievements of the Ministry and government it led in the state between 2006 and 2011.
Marx and journalistic praxis
While socialist journalism in the information age cannot obviously take after the corporate media in what it sets out to do, it needs to emerge from behind the apron strings of the party confidently into the public sphere to make a difference. This means stepping out of the backyard of the party—out of a tentative, self-conscious, censorious mindset—and striking a swathe through the media clutter.
Indeed, this, at its best, is a return to Marx, whose celebration of journalism and journalistic freedoms is as categorical as it is fervent.
Both as editor of the Sudenten Zeitung and the Neue Sudenten Zeitung in Prussia in the 1840s and later as a London-based correspondent of the New York Tribune through the 1850s, apart from his contribution to many other journals, Marx exemplified journalistic praxis in his conceptual exploration of the freedoms of expression and their deployment in his incisive columns and multi-part articles on developments across the world.
It was through journalism that he earned a living, his remuneration per column (he wrote over 350 for the Tribune alone through the decade of 1850-60) being five pounds, the highest paid by the paper to any contributor.
As one of his biographers, Francis Wheen, notes in his foreword to the compilation Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx, “Even if he had done nothing else, Marx would deserve to be remembered as one of the great 19th century journalists.”
Marx’s ruminations on the freedom of the press are a philosophical tour de force which endow journalism with its intrinsic higher purpose and distinctive rationale.
The immediate context was censorship by the Prussian state, against which he inveighed with passion and logic in article after article in the Sudenten Zeitung in 1842, although in vain because he had to shut down the paper and flee to France the following year. But a holistic theory of the press and its destiny to be free was already taking shape beyond the polemical contestation of the censorship provisions in German Rhineland, and it was further forged when he returned to Cologne in 1848 as editor of the Neue Sudenten Zeitung after some uncertain years spent in other parts of Europe.
As part of his insightful study Communication is Freedom: Karl Marx on Press Freedom and Censorship, the late media scholar Hanna Hardt, who taught at the Universities of Iowa and Ljubljana, renders into English the strains of thought developed by Marx during his two editorial stints in Germany. They read like a string of prescient aphorisms.
The press, for Marx, implies freedom ipso facto, for it “is a realisation of human freedom. Where there is a press, there is also press freedom.” There is a passionate personal investment in that freedom: “one must have loved freedom of the press like beauty to be able to defend it. I feel that the existence of whatever I really love is necessary and needed, and without it my own being is not fulfilled, satisfied, nor complete.”
Marx’s case for the freedom of the press is unqualified and absolute.
“The free press,” he says, “remains good even when its products are bad, because these products are deviations from the nature of the free press.”
On the other hand, “the censored press remains bad even when its products are good, because these products are only good insofar as they represent the free press within the censored press, and insofar as it is not in their character to be products of a censored press”.
Thus censorship is a no-no because it goes against the natural grain of the press. It becomes the business of laws governing the press to keep the state of freedom intact. In a clinching, morally imbued comparison, he argues that censorship, even if it is the law, cannot be legal, in the same spirit that slavery even as law is illegal.
Censorship, in fact, defeats the very public purpose it sets out to serve: “Since people must consider uncensored publications as lawless, they will get used to considering lawlessness as free, freedom as lawless, and lawfulness as unfreedom. Thus censorship kills the public spirit.”
Marx anticipates, by well over a century and a half, a variation of the Amartya Sen theme, mentioned earlier, of the free press serving an early-warning function. In a regime of press censorship, notes Marx, the government “hears only its own voice, knows that it hears only its own voice and is yet fixed on the delusion to hear the voice of the people and demands from the people to fall for the trick”.
There may be, as Hanna Hardt and other scholars have pointed out, a breeziness of 19th century liberalism in some of Marx’s early take on freedom of the press; more so in his omnibus formulation that “freedom remains freedom, whether it expresses itself in printers’ ink, a parcel of land, consciousness, or in a political meeting”.
But we find, at the same time, a clear distinction being sought to be drawn between the freedom of the market and the free press. Marx is clear that “the first freedom of the press is not to be a business… when the press exists as a business it is not an interest of writers, but of printers and booksellers”.
He posits the clear alternative of a people’s press ( Volkspresse) against the bourgeois press. Marx’s humanistic and non-alienating embrace of, and prescription for, journalism are a far cry from its dismal reified construct in subsequent socialist practice.
That aberration and failure to realise a free press which enriches, and is enriched by, socialism must partly explain why this aspect of the man, as media thinker and practitioner par excellence, is marginalised in the corpus of Marxist historiography.
Partly again, it is a victim of the Althusserian epistemological demarcation between the early and the later Marx, with 1845 as the dividing line. This partition of Marxist intellectual patrimony is, however, being increasingly challenged as, among other things, arbitrarily privileging his determinism over his humanism. In any case Marx’s journalistic persona and preoccupation reach across the divide, and well into the 1860s.
His articles for New York Tribune mirrored, both methodologically and substantively, his and Engels’ work on The Communist Manifesto and large tracts of Das Kapital, although stylistically they are seen as more of a piece with The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
Today more than ever before, the representational and make-believe power of the formal media are game changing—propping up fatuous financial markets against the real economy, fixing and fine-tuning market sentiment and reducing readers and viewers into ersatz consumers.
The potential and promise of socialism against the neoliberal order needs an agency which can evoke the alternative in freshly minted terms that capture the popular imagination.
Online chatterati or twitterati or a listless social media can at best supplement, not substitute, this grand task. If old camp shibboleths are shed, the free press and journalism which are essentially and ultimately pro-people, and which have been rendered passé in the business-of-the-media model now obtaining, could be the harbingers of this transformation.
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