Karl Marx: ‘A free press must be free to question everything’
Karl Marx argues that a free press isn’t free when it is forced to conform to the morality of the day.
So the respectable newspapers of the English bourgeoisie assure their twenty-first century readers that I ‘hated a free press’. This is indeed ‘news’ to me. Perhaps these educated wiseacres will soon discover that the scoundrel Marx was also an implacable anti-communist!
The suggestion that ‘Marxism’ is the enemy of press freedom brings to mind my response when some French socialists used my name to describe their fools’ politics: in that case, I only know that I am not a ‘Marxist’.
If my expert modern critics had remembered the wisdom of the old gods, that it is generally advisable to read an author before ridiculing him, they could have learned that, far from an object of hatred, freedom of the press was my first love. More than 170 years ago, a young shaver named Marx made his name in the German press by defending press freedom tooth and nail against Prussian state censorship. My essays, On Freedom of the Press are, I believe, not yet banned in Britain and available to be read on the ‘web’, whatever that may be.
I wrote then, with the florid passion of youth, that ‘The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world… It is a people’s frank confession to itself, and the redeeming power of confession is well known… It is all-sided, ubiquitous, omniscient. It is the ideal world which always wells up out of the real world and flows back into it with ever greater spiritual riches and renews its soul.’ These were sentiments that my older and more world-weary self still held to, albeit perhaps expressed in more prosaic terms.
Several lifetimes later, as I am awakened like a Red Rip Van Winkle, the case being advanced for restricting (which is what they mean by ‘regulating’) press freedom in Britain in 2014 has some strangely familiar echoes. In my youth, we fought not only against the brute force of state censorship, but also against those who claimed to support a free press yet insisted it must conform to the narrow-minded morality of the day. A free press must be free to disagree with and question everything, I wrote, ‘to make directly for the truth without looking right or left’ and without being told that it must ‘speak in the prescribed form’.
How could the press be free, I demanded, if freedom was redefined to mean the freedom to conform to the mainstream, so that ‘Grey on grey is the sole colour of freedom, the authorised one’? As for those who would pick and choose which publications were ‘deserving’ of press freedom, I reminded them that ‘you cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences. You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns!’
We stood for a free press, not merely as a matter of petty partisanship, but as an indivisible liberty, a principle to be defended for all. Hence we not only opposed censorship of the workers’ and radical press, but would also have ‘made objections no less earnestly’ to bans on the reactionary, monarchist and anti-Semitic press. Freedom of the press is neutered and rendered impotent ‘as soon as its existence is made dependent on its opinions’.
Some old songs, then, might sound much the same. Yet inevitably, or at least dialectically, things change. The most astonishing historical development is that, where once promiscuous arguments against a free press were spread about by monarchists, policemen and state bureaucrats, now they appear to be the preserve of those who call themselves left-wing or liberal. It is these ‘liberals’ who ardently demand that the British press must submit to a political system of regulation imposed with the force of the Crown, the Privy Council and all the undemocratic rubbish of the Middle Ages. To be radical, it appears, now means to be royalist! Or perhaps the language has simply been rewritten since the times when I advocated ‘real liberalism’ in support of greater freedom, not less.
If I were not already long deceased, it would challenge my will to live to see young student radicals now enforcing a policy of ‘No Platform’ in an attempt to ban opinions they dislike – as if, like bad stage magicians, they could make an idea disappear by operating a trap door. These policies are supposed to ‘protect’ students – but only as a blanket might protect a baby from the big bad world. And, as I pointed out to those who offered similarly pathetic arguments in my day: ‘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?’
Some of a ‘modern’ and cynical frame of mind might suggest that the appearance of this article raises serious questions about the correctness of my materialist disbelief in reincarnation. Be that as it may. What is surely true, however, is that the faith this old German placed in the importance of press freedom has stood the test of time, and should be brought back to life by a new generation. After all, if beards have come back into fashion…
As told to Mick Hume.