In his famous book, The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaks of a function to praise Stalin where everyone got up and started clapping after the tribute was read out. The clapping went on, as no one wanted to be the first to stop. No one dared, as the secret police was watching to see who would quit first. This was their way of identifying who the independent-minded people were. Finally, after more than 10 minutes of unceasing applause, the director of the factory where the function was being organised stopped clapping and sat down. As if on cue, the entire congregation stopped clapping and sat down. Solzhenitsyn goes on to say that the director was arrested that same night.
While Solzhenitsyn has been dismissed by supporters of the Soviet Union as a Western agent, this account seems believable because there are so many other, more objective, records of the lack of freedom of thought and expression in the Soviet Union and other communist states.
There is a famous photograph of Lenin from 1920, where he stands on a wooden platform addressing the soldiers going to fight for the Bolsheviks in the civil war. Next to him stands Trotsky, the leader of the Red Army. But you will not be able to see Trotsky in the photos circulated by the USSR, since Trotsky’s photos were airbrushed on orders of Stalin. Generations of Soviet children, and other communists who read Soviet publications, saw this doctored photo of Lenin without Trotsky to accompany him. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, among others, were members of the Bolshevik Politbureau along with Lenin at the time of the Russian Revolution. As each of them fell foul of Stalin, they were assassinated by kangaroo courts and once murdered, the photographic and other written records of their contribution to the Russian Revolution was summarily airbrushed away from History. Other than the unparalleled book-burning of the Nazis, the Soviet erasure of history remains, perhaps, the single largest such exercise in thought control in human history.
Stalin may have been the pioneer in this unglorious chapter of socialist legacy, but unfortunately he was not the last of the communist leaders to have distorted history so deliberately. There is an equally famous photo from China where the “gang of four” were airbrushed away after they fell out of favour. It was not merely the distortion of history to fit their current political needs, but the almost complete absence of freedom of thought and expression in communist societies which so rankles everyone. There was no free press, nor independent political parties, trade unions, or women’s organisations in communist countries. This has led to an understandable equation of communism with totalitarianism and lack of freedom. In fact, so deep has this association become that one often finds supporters of communism defend this lack of freedom by counter posing, “But the people had food, shelter and clothing!” As if this Faustian bargain of exchanging freedom for social equity and economic security is necessary for communism to prosper.
But this is not what communism or Marxism is about!
Marxism, and its political programme called communism, is about maximising human freedom, of unchaining the potential of human beings which is crushed under the burdens of economic deprivation and social discrimination. Marx’s critique of bourgeois society was precisely that the political freedoms it enshrines remain hollow without a complimentary unshackling of human productive powers and creativity.
In his essays on press freedom, written as far back as 1842, Marx argues, “Freedom includes not only what my life is, but equally how I live, not only that I do what is free, but also that I do it freely.” It may sound strange to those whose introduction and understanding of Marxism and communism come from the experience of the once-existing socialist states like the former USSR and present day China, but Marx himself was very clear that “…lack of freedom is the real mortal danger for mankind.” This is precisely why I would argue that as long as this Faustian bargain of exchanging freedom for material security remains a central feature of communist societies, they would continue to fail.
Significantly for our times, when tyrants, irrespective of ideology, try to coerce and censor the press into becoming their propaganda tool, Marx defends the free press as a founding pillar of human freedom. He writes, “The essence of the free press is the characterful, rational, moral essence of freedom. The character of the censored press is the characterless monster of unfreedom; it is a civilised monster, a perfumed abortion.” Further he adds, “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.”
A journalist for much of his life, Marx well-anticipated the argument of those who want to censor the press and deny its freedom in the name of protecting public morality, political stability or social harmony. He accepted that a free press was liable to “abuse” its freedoms, but he was clear that, “The free press remains good even when it produces bad products, for the latter are deviations from the essential nature of the free press.” On the contrary, “The censored press remains bad even when it turns out good products, for these products are good only insofar as they represent the free press within the censored press, and insofar as it is not in their character to be products of the censored press.”
But Marx’s opposition to censorship and denial of freedom is not merely premised on moral and philosophical principles; he argues that even as a practical policy of state, denial of freedom is fated to failure. “If the censorship law wants to prevent freedom as something objectionable, the result is precisely the opposite. In a country of censorship, every forbidden piece of printed matter, i.e. printed without being censored, is an event. It is considered a martyr, and there is no martyr without a halo and without believers.” Thus censorship and thought control make every forbidden work, whether good or bad, into “haloed martyrs” and thus provide them with public support.
Solzhenitsyn’s writings, by this logic, become heroic by the very act of writing outside the control of the censor. The act of declaring his personal freedom gives Solzhenitsyn’s work a certain gravity, which otherwise it may not have acquired if it had been produced in the context of general freedom and a free press. A free press, along with general political freedoms, provides the citizen with the scope for criticism and public scrutiny, which, Marx argues, is “true censorship”. Free criticism and public scrutiny is “the tribunal which freedom of the press gives to itself”, since it operates with the “sharp knife of reason” and not with “the blunt scissors of arbitrariness”.
This was no flash in the pan writing of Marx. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels declare that in a communist society, “in place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
It leaves one quite perplexed how people and movements, which claim an almost literal affiliation to the words of Karl Marx could deviate so radically from his own ideas and positions. Unless the key to this mystery is found, unless we, who claim affiliation to the ideas and ideals of Marxism and communism, are able to break this Faustian bargain with the characterless monster of unfreedom, it would be difficult to rescue Marxism and the communist movement from the dustbin of history.
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A slightly different version of this article was published in my column in The Post on 4 April, 2007.