Skip to content

the young Marx on press freedom – part 3

January 5, 2011

[Note: This is the third in a series. You may want to read part 1 and/or part 2 before continuing. Links to subsequent entries follow this post.]

The third of Marx’s articles concerning freedom of the press in Prussia, entitled “On the Assembly of the Estates” , was published in the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhenish Newspaper / RZ) on May 10, 1842. As the title indicates, Marx uses this entry to tie his discussion of the free press to a broader interrogation of the legitimacy of the Prussian Provincial Assemblies. His entry point for this interrogation is a speech made by a member of the knightly estate who viewed the royal edict pronounced in April of 1841, which authorized the publication of the Assemblies’ proceedings, as non-binding: “Let it be in the hands of the Provincial Assembly to make a wise use of the permission granted…. The extension of this permission could only result from inner conviction, but not from external influences.” (Marx’s emphasis). The knightly speaker goes on to suggest that the assembly should restrict the publication of its proceedings when that publication is deemed “purposeless or even harmful”.

Marx, of course, offers a different interpretation of the edict:

The province believes that the Provincial Assembly will be under its control only when the publication of the debates is no longer left to the arbitrary decision of the Assembly in its wisdom, but has become a legal necessity. We should have to call the new concession a new step backwards if it had to be interpreted in such a way that publication depends on an arbitrary decision by the Assembly of the Estates.

Marx is driving at the nature of political representation in general. He labels the knightly speaker’s position “medieval”, in that it “upholds the privilege of the estate against the rights of the province”. Once again, Marx is engaging the still coalescing ideological positions that arose, according to Wallerstein, in the 19th century. His attack on the “medieval” conservative position is launched via the medium of a liberal newspaper, though already there are hints of the more radical socialist position that he would, for better or worse, come to define. The liberal position, manifested in the US and French revolutions, viewed political representation as a right of (some of) the people. Marx points out that this conception is entirely absent from the knightly speaker’s framework:

Privileges of the estates are in no way rights of the province. On the contrary, the rights of the province cease when they become privileges of the estates. Thus the estates of the Middle Ages appropriated for themselves all the country’s constitutional rights and turned them into privileges against the country…. the rights of the Provincial Assembly are no longer rights of the province, but rights against the province… The influence of the province on its Assembly is characterised as something external to which the conviction of the Assembly of the Estates is contrasted as a delicate inner feeling…

Further below, Marx adds:

One must acknowledge the tact with which the speaker has perceived that by unabridged publication of its debates the Assembly would become a right of the province instead of a privilege of the Assembly of the Estates, that the Assembly, having become an immediate object of the public spirit, would have to decide to be a personification of the latter, and that, having been put in the light of the general consciousness, it would have to renounce its particular nature in favour of the general one.

Marx is pointing out, in other words, that the knightly speaker ignores entirely the assembly’s duty to represent the people of the province. He makes himself quite explicit on this point:

The Assembly of the Estates has a province to which the privilege of its activity extends, but the province has no estates through which it could itself be active. Of course, the province has the right, under prescribed conditions, to create these gods for itself, but as soon as they are created, it must, like a fetish worshipper, forget that these gods are its own handiwork…. We are confronted here with the peculiar spectacle, due perhaps to the nature of the Provincial Assembly, of the province having to fight not so much through its representatives as against them…. A representation which is divorced from the consciousness of those whom it represents is no representation.

While Marx seems correct in his indictment of the knightly speaker, we should note that he speaks only in broad terms of representation. As a result, he raises more questions than he answers. Nowhere does he suggest how an assembly, once selected (by whatever “prescribed conditions”), might go about personifying the “public spirit”. Why, in fact, does Marx assume that there exists anything like a singular “public spirit” or “general consciousness”? Is not the point of a representative system to adjudicate between the multiple spirits and consciousnesses that exist amongst a heterogeneous public?

To be clear, I am not saying that the Provincial Assembly of Estates as established in Prussia’s Rhine Province in 1842 was adequately enough composed to even begin carrying out this task. As Marx would argue convincingly later that year, the multiple restrictions on membership in any of the three estates, beginning with ownership of land, prohibited anything other than a partial representation of elite interests. Nonetheless, Marx seems to be appealing to a very idealistic model of representation in which the “spirit” of a people – or at least a class of people – can be intuited, articulated, and defended. This foreshadows, of course, his later socio-economic theorization of inter-class struggle, not to mention the (still ongoing) debates over the “proper” form of organization for political-economic decision-making that have hampered the socialist project.

That said, we should remember that Marx was all of 24 years old when he wrote these articles and that his primary focus was on the press, not the organizational structure of a representative democracy. We can hardly fault him for not being more precise regarding the latter issue. In fact, we should rather recognize that the close pairing of these two subjects suggests that Marx accepted, on a fundamental level, that the press plays a vital role in the determination and articulation of the “public spirit”. For example, whereas his series of articles on press freedom (especially the article under consideration here) touches on questions of political representation, his contemporaneous series of brief articles on representation (published in December 1842 under the title “On the Commission of the Estates in Prussia“) touches on issues of press freedom:

The conservative press, which continually reminds us that the view held by the critical press should be rejected as being merely an individual opinion and a distortion of reality, continually forgets that it itself is not the object in question, but only an opinion on that object, and that therefore to combat it is not always to combat that object. Every object that is made a matter for praise or blame in the press becomes a literary object, hence an object for literary discussion. What makes the press the most powerful lever for promoting culture and the intellectual education of the people is precisely the fact that it transforms the material struggle into an ideological struggle, the struggle of flesh and blood into a struggle of minds, the struggle of need, desire, empiricism into a struggle of theory, of reason, of form.

For Marx, the press ensures representation only when it is free, ie. when no outlet is deemed to have an a priori claim to validity. Only when all outlets are treated as participants in an open “struggle” for validity can a society begin to make any claims to having achieved political representation. As Marx says in the article under review here: “A truly political assembly flourishes only under the great protection of the public spirit, just as living things flourish only in the open air.” Here, at least, Marx’s equation of the “public spirit” with “open air” implies that he does not, in fact, view it as monolithic, but always a swirling mass of competing views that, at best, must play themselves out within the untidy space of a free press: “… why should precisely the free press be perfect?” Marx’s answer is that it should not. The imperfect, contested nature of the press is precisely what makes it free.

There are some other interesting points to draw out of this article. The first of these hinges on the knightly speaker’s rationalization for the desire to refrain from publishing the assembly’s proceedings. Marx quotes him at some length:

Just as it seems to him desirable that here in the Assembly there should be freedom of discussion and that an over-anxious weighing of words should be avoided, it seems to him equally necessary, in order to maintain this freedom of expression and this frankness of speech, that our words at the time should be judged only by those for whom they are intended…. From many years’ acquaintance, a good personal understanding has developed among most of us in spite of the most diverse views on various matters, a relationship which is inherited by newcomers. Precisely for that reason we are most of all able to appreciate the value of our words, and do so the more frankly as we allow ourselves to be less subject to external influences, which could only be useful if they came to us in the form of well-meaning counsel, but not in the form of a dogmatic judgment, of praise or blame, seeking to influence our personality through public opinion.

Here, the conservative appeal to tradition is laid bare: Though they affect the province as a whole, the proceedings of the assembly are intended only for those with “a good personal understanding” and only those with such an understanding should judge them. Moreover, the requisite personal understanding can only be acquired upon admittance to the assembly, which, as pointed out above, is restricted to elites. Though patently absurd in the Prussian Assembly’s case (at least to the degree that the assembly was meant to represent the people of the province), such arguments are still advanced today in relation to issues of secrecy. Witness, for example, the ongoing conroversy over the Wikileaks cables, in which the US State Department and its defenders have maintained that disclosure of the secret cables will diminish the effectiveness of its diplomatic corp by limiting its ability to communicate frankly. This line of argument, exemplified in the following extract from an article published by Foreign Policy magazine, echoes that of the knightly speaker quoted above:

[The cables] release will negatively affect the business of diplomacy conducted by America’s foreign-affairs professionals, inhibiting the candor, frank assessments, and policy recommendations that its decision-makers need. An ambassador in the field who is involved in providing the secretary of state and the president with sensitive insights in the course of delicate peace negotiations must have the confidence and trust in the system that what he is reporting in a cable will not be disclosed publicly. And embassies must be able to report candidly on the internal political situation in a given country without fear of unauthorized disclosure harming official state-to-state relations. Self-censorship by U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel will diminish the country’s capacity to engage in foreign affairs immeasurably.

Similar arguments are advanced in favor of lawyer/client or doctor/patient privilege. Context is key, therefore, when balancing what one commentator has called, in reference to Wikileaks, “the irreconcilable values of secrecy and accountability”. In relation to a supposedly democratic representative assembly, arguing over that balance may strike us as quaint, but in the Rhine Province in 1842 the debate took place on the cutting edge of political thought. Perhaps one day we will find the Wikileaks debate just as quaint?

Finally, it’s worth noting a comment that Marx makes, seemingly in passing, regarding the medium vis-à-vis the message:

Indeed, can even daily, unabridged publication by printing be rightly called unabridged and public? Is there no abridgement in substituting the written for the spoken word, graphic systems for persons, action on paper for real action?

I’m not sure exactly what Marx intended here. Certainly there was no other medium available for feasibly conveying the proceedings of the assembling to a mass public, à la CSPAN. I suspect, therefore, that he meant to suggest that the Assembly should be open to reporters who could observe the various speakers and add context to verbatim transcripts. Such issues were hot topics at the time. For instance, the question of journalistic access to and verbatim reporting of congressional proceedings had long been the subject of considerable debate in the US and remained so in Marx’s time.  Nonetheless, we should recognize that the phrasing of Marx’s questions invite philosophical considerations that would not be foreign to 20th century luminaries like Marshall McLuhan or Jacques Derrida.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: