Marx and Soviet Reality. Daniel Norman (1955)

XI: Marx on Freedom

It would be an error to think that Rosa Luxemburg’s opinions on freedom in general, and on freedom of the press in particular, resulted from the influence on her of liberal or anarchist writings. Never was she nearer to Marx, who in his struggle against Prussian censorship – how lenient a regime when compared with the Soviet Russian – wrote some of the most admirable passages on freedom.

Indeed it was Marx who defined freedom as ‘the eternal aristocracy of human nature’ and considered the ‘lack of freedom the real danger of death for man’ (MEGA, 1, 1/1). It was also Marx who wrote: ‘Not a single man fights against freedom; he fights at the very most against other people’s freedom. Every kind of freedom has thus always existed, sometimes as a particular privilege, sometimes as a general right.’ Moreover, ‘only what is a realisation of freedom can be humanly good’, said Marx. And it is ‘the generic nature of the whole intellectual existence, thus equally of the press’.

According to Marx:

... a free press is the eye, always and everywhere wide open, of the people’s spirit, the expression of the confidence a people has in itself, the eloquent bond which connects the individual to the state and to the world... the shortcomings of a nation are equally the shortcomings of its press... [and]... it is precisely the freedom of the press that allows it to go beyond the narrow-mindedness of national particularism.

The Soviet press which has taken these shortcomings to the extreme, is certainly the best example.

On the other hand, Marx considered:

... the censored press... a bad press [which]... remains bad, even when giving good products... [while] a free press remains good even when giving bad products... [for] a eunuch will always be an incomplete man, even if he has got a good voice. Nature remains good, even when giving birth to monsters... [Thus] the characteristic of the censored press is that it is a flabby caricature without liberty, a civilised monster, a horror even though sprinkled with rose-water.

Where censorship of the press exists, says Marx, ‘the writers are, so to speak, the secretaries of the censor. When the secretary does not express the master’s opinion, the latter crosses out the lucubration. It is the censor who edits the press...’ Who better than the Soviet writers under Stalin and his successors to confirm how right Marx was? Unfortunately they will never do it, for they are of those who ‘carry their chains with decency’, as Marx would have said.

Refusing to admit ‘the old device of the Jesuits [and of the Bolsheviks] that the good end sanctifies the bad means’, Marx would not accept any form of censorship in any circumstances, for it is ‘a precautionary measure taken by the police against freedom... and a bad police measure at that’.

Where there is no freedom of the press, he wrote – and to this also Soviet reality bears witness:

... the government hears only its own voice; it knows that it hears only its own voice and thus establishes itself in the illusion of hearing the voice of the nation, and demands from the people that they share the same illusion.

And where can a better description – which is also an indictment of the Soviet press – be found than in this passage by Marx:

Boasting every day of everything created through the will of the government... [this] press is constantly lying, since one day necessarily contradicts the other. And it reaches the point of not even being aware of its lies and losing all shame.

These people doubt of mankind in general, but canonise certain individuals. They sketch a repugnant picture of human nature but at the same time demand that we should fall on our knees before the holy images of a few privileged beings...

Naturally Lenin and Trotsky knew this as well as did Rosa Luxemburg. Indeed it was Lenin who, in 1903, wrote that ‘the shameful Russian inquisition... will not disappear until freedom of assembly, of speech, and of the press is introduced’ (The Autocracy Tottering). Yet he did his best to perpetuate this ‘Russian Inquisition’. For, already in 1918, he was the prisoner of the consequences of his Blanquist putsch and of Russian reality, and such is the ‘irony of history’ that ‘as is usual when doctrinaires come to the helm’ he did ‘the opposite of what the doctrines of their school prescribed’ (Engels’ introduction to the 1891 edition of Marx’s Civil War in France).

A collection of the articles quoted above, and other similar ones written by him, would make an interesting and instructive pamphlet called, say, Marx and the Press. It might even be expected that such a booklet would have been published by Marx’s ‘faithful’ heirs in ‘Marxist’ Russia in hundreds of millions of copies, as Stalin’s pamphlets are. But no such collection has ever been made. Moreover, it can be safely asserted that the new rulers of the USSR will also avoid it, for fear the Russians should turn and say to them, as the Spartiates Sperhias and Bulis said to the Persian Satrap – quoted by Marx in the conclusion of his series of articles on freedom of the press:

You know what it means to be a slave; as for freedom, you have never tasted it, and you do not know if it is sweet or not. For if you had had any experience of it, you would advise us to fight for it not only with lances, but even with axes.