by John Higgins, Business Day
Free press needed to shatter the state’s ‘arrogant illusion’
With this striking image — “a people’s statute book is its bible of freedom” — a young journalist reminded the public of the threat to democracy posed by new censorship laws introduced in 19th- century Germany.
Against him stood politicians, who argued that the new censorship mechanisms — described of course as intended to improve press freedom — were “a lesser evil than the excesses of the press”; others who “repudiated freedom of the press as tactless, indiscreet speech”; and still others who, though personally “disposed in favour of freedom of the press”, couldn’t allow themselves to demonstrate public support for it on account of their “feelings of dependence” on the government of the day.
The main problem with censorship, the journalist argued, is that it makes critical thinking on social issues “a monopoly of the government”. Without press freedom, “state reason” becomes the only basis for the understanding of the social and economic moment; the “government’s understanding” alone then sets the terms and conditions for public debate. “The essence of the censorship in general,” argued our young author, “is based on the arrogant imaginary idea that the state has of its officials.”
According to the author, press freedom is essential to puncturing this arrogant illusion by making the actual workings of the state — its successes and failings — accessible to the public. Only through such openness can a society enjoy the benefits of the full public debate that is democracy in action.
A free press is a central institution in the creation and maintenance of a deliberative democracy, the democratic space in which “rulers and ruled alike have the opportunity of criticising their principles and demands, no longer in a relation of subordination, but on terms of equality as citizens”.
The press, wrote our young journalist, is “the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul”; it provides the truly public space in which social and political struggles can be articulated and debated, and with a consequently much better chance of their being understood and resolved. Without a free press, there is little hope of meeting the challenges set by difficult and changing economic circumstances, or developing the active democracy necessary to counter the deep structures of disempowerment left by the authoritarian and corrupt former regime.
Such arguments still constitute the classic grounds for the defence of press freedom, particularly so in relation to the reporting of government action and policy.
Who was it that put these arguments forward in the face of the new government’s censorship measures in 1840s Germany? It was none other than Karl Marx.
Marx is not usually thought of as one of the great defenders of a free press, whether by those for, against, or now merely indifferent to the dogmas associated with Orthodox Marxism. Yet there can be no doubt that the young Marx’s passionate defence of press freedom in the Germany of his day can be considered as the real starting point of his career as a critical thinker and political activist, one never afraid to speak the truth to power and to use the press to do so.
Indeed, if we cast aside the Cold War spectacles that focus us on the strangely inert and restricted figure of Marx as the “founder of Marxism”, there emerges the much more lively and contradictory figure of Marx as one of the 19th century’s greatest journalists and public intellectuals. Gifted with a sharp and satiric pen, spurred on by an insatiable curiosity for the facts, endowed with a formidable analytic and intellectual resources and fired by a desire to speak for the working classes and to see the establishment of a better society, Marx was the very model of a public intellectual. For Marx, a free press, and the public space of debate it enabled, was an indispensable component of the democratic society to come.
Though Orthodox or Canonical Marxism frames Marx as, above all, the author of works such as Capital and (with Friedrich Engels) The Communist Manifesto, these works had — at least in his own lifetime — little effect beyond his immediate circle. In terms of public recognition and visibility, Marx was better known to the world as a radical journalist. His constantly provocative writings tirelessly articulated a case for the working classes, criticised the received ideas of the economic and political understanding of the day, and fearlessly satirised and excoriated the most powerful politicians and financiers of his time. Issues of censorship remained close to his heart throughout his life.
Marx’s very first publication was, in fact, an article on the new censorship laws of 1841. Commissioned for a German journal, which proved too scared of the new laws to publish it, it appeared only a year later in the radical Swiss journal, Anekdota. In his first job as contributor and then editor for the Rhenish Gazette, he wrote six articles specifically on press freedom. Under his editorship, the newspaper’s circulation almost quadrupled, from 885 in 1841 to 3500 by March 1843, when official censorship closed the paper down, despite his strategic withdrawal as editor in January of that year.
“It is impossible for me to write under Prussian censorship or to live in the Prussian atmosphere … the very air here turns one into a serf”, he wrote to Arnold Ruge, his friend and soon to be collaborator on a new journal, the German-French Yearbook (1843). This they started after leaving Germany for Paris in the autumn of 1843. It lasted for only one double issue, but by no means exhausted Marx’s journalistic endeavours. With the uprisings of 1848, he returned to Germany to start the New Rhenish Gazette, although this was suppressed less than a year later and Marx was expelled from Germany in May 1849. Between 1852 and 1862, he contributed about 350 articles to the New York Daily Tribune, one of the great newspapers of its time, as well as writing for papers such as Die Presse and The People’s Paper.
Indeed, the moment of Marx’s greatest public visibility was as the author of a famous pamphlet on the Paris Commune of 1870, The Civil War in France. The first English edition of 3000 copies was sold out within two weeks, and two further reprints sold out in the next two months. Now known as the “Red Doctor”, Marx achieved the acme of journalistic success: from writing about the news, he became the news, and was interviewed as a public figure by several British and US newspapers. To any objective observer, Marx in his time was most visible as an activist journalist; public intellectual number one.
What might Marx have made of the government’s moves to institute the Protection of Information Bill in SA today?
Very likely he would have brought to bear the insight that powered both his journalism and the profound research into historical and theoretical understanding that do, in fact, make the great contradictory and unfinished project of Capital his key work for later generations. This was the simple recognition that “private interest cannot bear the light of public knowledge and debate”.
Today, as in 1841, he might well have remarked that “government hears only its own voice, it knows that it hears only its own voice, yet it harbours the illusion that it hears the voice of the people, and it demands that the people, too, should itself harbour this illusion”. For Marx, as for us, the task of a free press is to constantly shatter that illusion.
– Higgins is Andrew W Mellon Professor in Archives and Public Culture at the University of Cape Town. His study of Marx will be published by Routledge next year.