Marx, Murdoch and freedom of the press

“Censorship should be resisted in all its insidious forms. We should be vigilant of the gradual erosion of our freedom to know, to be informed, and make reasoned decisions in our society and in our democracy” – from ‘Smash fascism!’ leaflet, published by the Red Left group, Melbourne, 1970.

If you didn’t blink at the above quote, from the ‘Red Left’ group in 1970, then that’s because the sentiment expressed is precisely what you would expect from a ‘Red Left’ group in 1970. It is what those of us on the left actually believed back then. The quote, however, is not from a leaflet: the ‘Red Left’ group is fictitious. The words are those of Lachlan Murdoch in his 2014 ‘Keith Murdoch Oration’ in Melbourne.

Censoriousness is yet another indicator of the move to the Right in Australia’s political culture. In common with the C19th Prussian ruling class, who wanted to ban publication of anything offensive to religion or morality, in Australia the Labor Party, the Coalition and the Greens have been all for allowing the C21st bourgeois state to decide what is offensive in a publication and what isn’t. And, like the Prussian state, they supported a body to ensure that only ‘proper’ and ‘accurate’ content is published. In Australia, the previous government – with delightful Orwellian sensibility – called this the ‘Public Media Interest Advocate’ (PMIA). After all, the masses – you know, the “motive force of history” – cannot be trusted. Ah, what would they know?! Fortunately, the PMIA was defeated.

When individuals and groups self-identifying as ‘left-wing’ support censoriousness, the notion of a pseudo-left comes into play. Opposition to press freedom has nothing in common with Marxism or a Marxist-influenced Left.

* * *

Fighting censorship

I first intentionally broke the law as a left-wing political activist in the late 1960s, when I was a student at high school. Armed with a bundle of copies of a banned pamphlet, which from memory was called either ‘US War Crimes in Vietnam’ or ‘North Vietnam: an eye-witness account’, I distributed the banned material to those among my fellow students whom I knew, or felt, were thinkers.

The pamphlet had been banned under the Obscene Publications Act (from memory) and I was worried about being caught and facing the embarrassment of arrest for distribution of ‘obscene literature’. To young blokes in their mid-teens, ‘obscene literature’ was something other than images of napalmed women and children.

I wasn’t caught, or punished, but the school principal spoke in generality at the next assembly about the importance of the law and the consequences of breaking it, even in situations where it may seem unjust. I wasn’t – and have never been – an anarchist, so I accepted the need for the law but also felt it was right to break it in this particular circumstance.

A couple of years later at university, I – and other young communists – expected, and DEMANDED, the right to freely distribute the pamphlets, leaflets, and off-set-printed newspapers that we were publishing at frenetic pace.

Within a short period of time, I came to identify with the Maoist rebels in Melbourne, and happily embraced that label. The main thing that appealed to me was the fact that Mao had declared “It is right to rebel!” at a time when Australia’s political leaders were either doing their best to crush dissent or contain it by telling us radicals to ‘use the proper channels for change’. During the Cultural Revolution in China, in the early period, hundreds of new newspapers were being published and expressing divergent and often antagonistic views. ‘Big character posters’ were pasted on walls, criticizing corrupt party officials and exposing bureaucrats who were holding things back.

Freedom to express one’s views means freedom to speak them, and also freedom to publish them. In the flair of our own youth ‘cultural revolution’ back then, I loved the slogans coming out of Paris in 1968. ‘Sous les paves, la plage’ (beneath the paving stones, the beach) is on the masthead of this blog, but I also relished others, including ‘Il est interdit d’interdire’ (It is forbidden to forbid).

Struggle against censorship was a big issue in Australia in the 1960s and the left played an important part in opposing it.

* * *

‘Comrade’ Lachlan Murdoch – “Every citizen a journalist!”

In his oration, Lachlan Murdoch makes some important points. For instance, he understands how the new technologies have a liberating potential in the sense that everyone can be a publisher or a reporter:

“Journalists today file electronically, not just by email but through streaming live images through Skype or Facetime. Pictures taken seconds before can be seen in newsrooms half the world away. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Buzzfeed, Tumblr, Instagram, even Snapchat are used to amplify a story to devastating effect. These are tools available not only to journalists but to everyone with a mobile phone. Every journalist has these tools, yes, but also every soldier, every citizen, every teenager, taxi driver, mum, dad, troll, and yes, terrorist”.

“Every citizen a journalist!” – Sounds like something Mao might have said.

Murdoch jr also takes a very good line on the recent Australian security anti-terror proposals. He says: “Our current government is introducing legislation that includes jailing journalists for up to 10 years if they disclose information that relates to a “special intelligence operation.” This proscription lasts in perpetuity. Forever. Long after an operation is complete. And breaching it has no defined defences, despite such defences being well understood under Australian law”.

He provides important facts about the extent of the new “era of human communication” in which we all live:

“Of the 5 billion mobile phones in use today, 1.8 billion are smart phones, capable of publishing and receiving media. Currently smartphone sales are running at about 400 million units per quarter… Over 2 billion pieces of user-generated content are created every day. There are 277,000 tweets every minute. Ten per cent of the world’s images were recorded in the last six months. In fact, 90 per cent of the world’s digital data has been created in the last two years”.

It must be increasingly difficult being a dictator, trying to control a population. In the old days, they could send in goons to seize printing-presses. But today?

Lachlan Murdoch also points out that “the creation of the internet has not, in itself, made the world a better place. It cannot force any of us to be better human beings. But, through the knowledge it facilitates, the internet can help us to choose to be better. Choice is the nature of freedom. And knowledge is at the very root of free choice. It is also at the very core of our democracy”.

And through that knowledge and that choice, people like myself see the likelihood of a better future, one in which the big media empires will be redundant and ‘melt into air’.

* * *

Karl Marx: the free press as the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul

Karl Marx’s first political activism was prompted by the issue of press censorship by the Prussian ruling class. He was a journalist from the 1840s to the 1860s and, as a supporter of the bourgeois democratic revolutions in Europe, he wrote eloquently about the need for freedom of the press. Marx had been editor of ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ and ‘Neue Rheinische Zeitung’, as well as European correspondent for the ‘New York Tribune’. He wrote nearly 500 articles for the latter.

The context for Marx’s campaign against press censorship was the decision taken by the Prussian cabinet in 1841 to extend the scope of the censorship law by decree. Under the decree, the state could censor anything critical of the “fundamental principles of religion and offensive to morality and good will”. It was long ago but, gee, there is resonance there with attacks on press freedom in the C21st, including in Australia. The term “offensive” certainly leaps out. And Marx responded as any good leftist should: “The censorship law”, he stated, “is not a law, it is a police measure”. And, moreover, “The censorship law is a law of suspicion against freedom”.

In 1843, Marx himself was censored when he wrote an article exposing the poverty among wine-farmers in the Mosel region. The ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ was banned and Marx was threatened with arrest. So, he did what any good revolutionary would do: he quickly married his fiance and fled to Paris.

For Marx, there could be no progress without freedom of the press. Comparing it to a beautiful woman, he declared that it “has its beauty… which one must have loved to be able to defend”. Censorship to Marx was an “illogical paradox” as the Prussian rulers and their ideologues argued that it was necessary in order to improve the quality of the press. Again, this has remarkable resonance with C21st press censorship. That a free press will sometimes produce lots of nonsense and much that is repugnant is true, but as Marx pointed out: “You can’t pluck the rose without its thorns!” How strange that some people and groups claiming to be left-wing today actually seem to believe that the state – the bourgeois state, I hasten to add – should be empowered to remove the thorns for our protection, as though we – the members of society – could not decide what is, or what isn’t, a thorn for ourselves. A Marxist-influenced left opposes press censorship.

Marx spent a fair bit of time fleeing different places but finally settled in London in 1849, one year after publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ which he wrote with Frederick Engels. He died in London in 1883.

Among his rich legacy of revolutionary thought and writing are these words against press censorship; perhaps among the finest ever written on the topic:

“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, the embodied culture that transforms material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealises their crude material form. It is a people’s frank confession to itself, and the redeeming power of confession is well known. It is the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself, and self-examination is the first condition of wisdom. It is the spirit of the state, which can be delivered into every cottage, cheaper than coal gas. 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.” (Censorship, Karl Marx 1842)

__________

Postscript: There is an article at The Drum about this, which argues the Murdoch print media supports the new ‘security laws’: Murdoch’s belated stand.

6 thoughts on “Marx, Murdoch and freedom of the press

  1. Interesting essay once again. For me the problem of course is still the circular definition of Marxism: If it is bad is not Marxism.
    In the non-Marxist states it is the oligarchy of group think and corrupt nobles making censorship. In the Marxist states the censors are government officials.

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  2. Hunter, I’m hoping with this blog to clarify what Marxist-influenced leftists believe and want. The former is easier than the latter, except in generalised terms. I know of no ‘Marxist states’ in the world but I know of a few that describe themselves as ‘socialist’ or ‘peoples republics’. Some have called themselves ‘democratic republics’ and I’m sure you would say that is a very misleading nomenclature. After all, what an individual, or a group, or a government, may call itself is not necessarily what it is. Again, I hope with my blog to explain why leftists should not – do not – support any of the governments currently using any of the above self-descriptors. For just one example, on which I may run a post one day: Cuba.

    I have never regarded Cuba under the Castro brothers as socialist or democratic, including back in the late 1960s when I first had to think about it. Most of the young communists I hung out with also felt that way. The puzzle for me is: why did they change over time and why is it that many (of that very small group) hold up Cuba as some kind of ‘socialist’ model? I’ve benefited from a Maoist background; a rudimentary appreciation of dialectics that enables me to understand that things turn into their opposite.

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  3. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. The challenge I believe you might be facing is that instead of reintroducing what Marxism is, you may be creating something new. The Soviet Union was founded by people well recognized by other informed people of the time as Communists/Marxists. Certainly the split between Stalin and Trotsky could be considered a time of falling away from the pure ideas of Marx, but even then many informed observers of the time did not agree with that, either.
    As to free speech, I think it was the US Constitution that formally put in writing that concept, and that document, with its focus on individual property and civil rights is hard to connect to the roots of Marxism, I think.
    As to what Cuba became, what NK became, yes we can agree that they are terrible failures that have oppressed, imprisoned and killed so many of their people. But just when did they fail?
    China today seems to have thoroughly left Maoism behind. Their transformation into a state that can offer more and more of its people prosperity, education, health, and hope seems to have begun with leaving Maoism. And Mao, especially during the cultural revolution with the dictatorship of the Proletariat, was hardly supporting a free press, if I recall correctly.

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    • Hi Hunter

      In the Soviet Union under Stalin the there an understandable siege mentality. Most of central and eastern Europe was fascist. The Trostkyist opposition was stirring up trouble. Many people were not reconciled to the new regime and would renew the civil war if given a chance. Collectivization went badly. Production had to be geared to war preparation and industrialization rather than immediate consumption.

      It was like a war. No wavering or discontent in the ranks was tolerated. Indeed if there had been democracy and free speech the regime would been defeated. However, it would have been defeated by fascist types not nice democrats.

      Things could have gone better or worse depending on various contingent things. For example, Lenin presumably would have provided better leadership than Stalin.

      Economic development was pretty good by any comparison during the Mao era including his final decade. In the early 1970s industrial growth was good and agriculture was benefiting from among other things ramped up fertilizer production and new rice varieties. The capitalist roaders of course try to deny this and accuse the “gang of four’ of sabotaging production.

      During the Cultural Revolution there was certainly a lot of press freedom of a sort with competing Red Guard newspapers and wall posters everywhere

      Understanding what Mao was trying to do during the Cultural Revolution is a good starting point to understanding the problems of the Bolshevik and derivative revolutions of the last century and how they turned into their opposites while retaining the old trappings. It is only a start though. A lot more needs to be done.

      All these revolutions were revolutions from above – or without – to a considerable extent. Peasants have limited enthusiasm for socialism and an uneducated mass has to rely more on an elite for everything. This was not a strong basis for long term success.

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      • Oh my, where to begin?
        So Trotsky was an enemy of just what?
        Please clarify your position on what Stalin was doing and who he was at war with.
        If the leadership person is what makes the difference, please explain how that makes Marxism scientific.
        As to freedom of press, in the science of Marxism what are the indicators of when to turn press freedom off?
        For starters. I look forward to your reply.
        Thanks,

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      • I concede my comments are far from adequate. The main point is that the Bolshevik regime would not have survived if it hadn’t crushed its opponents and the alternative was a fascist regime that the Germans and Japanese would have pushed into a central Asian rump. Another point: it is difficult to run a semi-feudal society in a modern way.

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