Lenin’s Still Relevant Letter on Freedom of the Press

On August 5, 1921, Vladimir Lenin penned a letter in response to Gavril Myasnikov’s call for the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) to end its censorship of the press. Myasnikov, himself an Old Bolshevik, had written a memo to the Central Committee, and later composed an article entitled Vexed Questions, where he argued for, among other things, “freedom of the press” for everyone, “from monarchists to anarchists.” Moreover, he had even been giving speeches to workers on the subject. Myasnikov strongly believed that freedom of the press would help keep the Russian government in check, and lead to a more authentic Marxist society. Lenin, however, was unimpressed with his fellow communist’s views.

Nine days after Myasnikov wrote Vexed Questions, Lenin replied to him. While the Russian leader begins his letter by calling Myasnikov “comrade,” he takes a somewhat paternal, though at times harsh, tone with the wayward revolutionary. Lenin makes it clear that he rejects “absolutes,” and refuses to take part in the veneration of a notion like “freedom of the press.” In fact, he sees the idea of a free press as being an example of a “formal” freedom as opposed to an “actual” freedom. Lenin is not interested in allowing for freedom of the press because of some sort of abstract ideal, since he believes that its end result will not be freedom at all, but the re-enslavement of the Russian proletariat to the bourgeoisie.

But how could a freedom lead to the oppression of the masses? Lenin writes: “All over the world, wherever there are capitalists, freedom of the press means freedom to buy up newspapers, to buy writers, to bribe, buy and fake ‘public opinion’ for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.” He further tells Myasnikov that the international bourgeoisie are still much stronger than the Communist Party, and that “they will buy a ‘force’ ten times larger than we have, to fight us.” Moreover, Lenin also points to the still somewhat tentative nature of communist rule in Russia by stating that the capitalists have not yet been completely destroyed even within the nation, but were simply “in hiding.” While one could perhaps argue that the communist leader was simply afraid of losing a “propaganda” war, the reality was that his enemies possessed many more resources than him and his party did, and would have certainly done everything in their power to convince the working class to undermine their own interests.

Of course, while one may reject Lenin’s temporary cure for a corrupt press—censorship—his diagnosis of the deadly combination of capitalism and the press is undeniably accurate. As long as there are class divisions, the media will never be truly free, but will instead be subject to the demands of the rich. This is the reality that most of us experience every day.

While we do not have official censorship in the West—although the persecution of Julian Assange calls even that into question—the voices of dissent against capitalism have been consistently drowned out in a sea of newspapers, magazines, TV channels, websites, and so forth, that are owned and operated by extreme wealth. For instance, 90% of the media in the United States is owned by four conglomerates: Disney, AT&T, ViacomCBS, and Comcast. Yet, even much of the mere 10% of the media not owned by them is still overwhelmingly in the hands of the wealthy. The Washington Post, for instance, is owned by Jeff Bezos—the richest person on the planet—who purchased the newspaper seven years ago for $250 million in cash. Sadly, the situation is not much better elsewhere in North America or Europe. It should be no surprise then that all of the mainstream media preaches the same capitalist doctrines: privatization, imperialism, etc. Thus, the media in the West, like in most of the capitalist world, is a class force that is meant to oppress the majority of the people. Moreover, it is consistently triumphant in its mission.

The success of the media in suppressing any resistance to the capitalist order can be seen in the way it moulds public opinion to serve the interests of the powerful. For one, the media continually pits the working classes against each another. This is done at times for the sake of imperialism, such as when working class Westerners are told that their enemies are certain foreign nations or groups, and that they need to support sanctioning, or even bombing, these people. Or it can be more local, such as when individuals are convinced that they lack decent jobs or access to social services because of immigrants.

We also see the media sabotaging socialist politicians or movements—even social democratic ones—from having a chance at making any real progress through electoral politics. For example, recently in the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn, whose policies were strongly geared towards the working class, found himself mercilessly slandered as an “anti-Semite” by the British press during his run for prime minister. The result of this was the election of Boris Johnson: a man who serves only corporate interests. Another recent case, of course, is Bernie Sanders’s failed campaign. Sanders’s policies of Medicare for All, free college, ending US wars, and so forth, would have all benefited the majority of the population. Yet, the media worked with the Democratic Party, like it has done before, and helped turn voters away from Sanders through its portrayal of his leftist policies as “untenable,” and by its personal attacks on him and his supporters. In fact, CNN even compared Sanders to the coronavirus. Of course, the capitalist media succeeded, and the nomination has been essentially handed to Joe Biden—a candidate who has not only vowed to his rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he were elected, but who is also clearly suffering from cognitive impairment. While one may argue that the media is not fully to blame for the recent defeats of socialist politicians like Corbyn and Sanders, it has certainly played the strongest role in it, since the so-called “free press” mostly behaves as the propaganda wing of neoliberal states.

It seems clear that Lenin was right when he told Myasnikov that freedom of the press among capitalists means freedom for them to manipulate public opinion. If this were not the case, our nations would probably not afford us such a “freedom.” Of course, this is not to say that having a free press is bad, and that censorship would benefit society. Obviously, censorship will never serve the masses in the long run, since it will only lead to an elite political class that is able to coverup its failures and misdeeds. But the promotion of censorship was not Lenin’s intention. Instead, his point was that a press within the reach of capitalists will never serve the proletariat, but will always be used to keep the masses in chains.  

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