Freedom of the press and the working class

January 29, 2015

In 1938, Leon Trotsky wrote an editorial article for the first issue of the Mexican Marxist magazine Clave that took up the question of socialists' attitude toward freedom of the press, in the context of a campaign by Mexican unions against the reactionary press. This text is republished from the Marxists Internet Archive.

A CAMPAIGN against the reactionary press is developing in Mexico. The campaign is directed by the CTM (Confederation of Mexican Workers) leaders or, more precisely, by Mr. Lombardo Toledano personally. The object is to "curb" reactionary press, either by submitting it to censorship, or by banning it completely. The trade unions have entered the path of war. Decidedly incurable democrats, corrupted by their experiences with a completely Stalinized Moscow, headed by "friends" of the GPU, have greeted this campaign, which can only be described as suicidal. In fact it is not difficult to see that, even if this campaign would triumph and bring concrete results to the liking of Lombardo Toledano, the ultimate consequences will fall back on the working class.

Theory, as well as historic experience, testify that any restriction to democracy in bourgeois society, is eventually directed against the proletariat, just as taxes eventually fall on the shoulders of the proletariat. Bourgeois democracy is usable by the proletariat only insofar as it opens the way for the development of the class struggle. Consequently, any workers "leader" who arms the bourgeois state with special means to control public opinion in general, and the press in particular, is a traitor. In the last analysis, the accentuation of class struggle will force bourgeois of all shades, to conclude a pact: to accept special legislation, and every kind of restrictive measures, and measures of "democratic" censorship against the working class. Those who have not yet realized this, should leave the ranks of the working class.

Marxist Classics

"But sometimes"--will object certain "friends" of the Soviet Union--"the dictatorship of the proletariat is obliged to resort to exceptional measures, especially against the reactionary press"

To this we reply: First, this objection equates a workers' state with a bourgeois state. Although Mexico is a semi-colonial country, it is at the same time a bourgeois state, definitely not a workers' state. But even from the point of view of the interests of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the interdiction or censorship of bourgeois papers is not at all a matter of "program" or "principle", nor an ideal situation.

Once victorious, the proletariat may find itself forced, for a period of time, to take special measures against the bourgeoisie, if the bourgeoisie adopts an attitude of open revolt against the workers' state. In this case, restrictions to the freedom of the press go hand in hand with all other measures used in preparation for a civil war. When forced to use artillery and aviation against the enemy we will obviously not tolerate this same enemy maintaining his own centers of information and propaganda inside the camp of the armed proletariat. Nevertheless, even in this case, if exceptional measures are prolonged long enough to create a permanent situation, then they carry the danger of going out of control and, giving a political monopoly to the workers' bureaucracy, becoming a source of its degeneration.

We have before us a living example of such a dynamic, with the hated suppression of the freedom of expression and of the press in the Soviet Union. And this has nothing to do with the interests of the dictatorship of the proletariat. On the contrary, it helps protect the interests of the new caste in power against the attacks of the workers' and peasants' opposition. This highly Bonapartist Moscow bureaucracy is currently aped by Messrs. Lombardo Toledano and co. who confuse their personal careers with the interests of socialism.

THE REAL tasks of the workers' state do not consist in policing public opinion, but in freeing it from the yoke of capital. This can only be done by placing the means of production--which includes the production of information--in the hands of society in its entirety. Once this essential step towards socialism has been taken, all currents of opinion which have not taken arms against the dictatorship of the proletariat must be able to express themselves freely. It is the duty of the workers' state to put in their hands, to all according to their numeric importance, the technical means necessary for this, printing presses, paper, means of transportation. One of the principal causes of the degeneration of the state machine is the monopolization of the press by the Stalinist bureaucracy which risks to transform all the gains of the October revolution to a pile of ruins.

If we had to search for examples of the nefarious influence of the Comintern on workers' movements of various countries, the actual campaign led by Lombardo Toledano would furnish one of the worst. Essentially, Toledano and his doctrinary companions try to introduce into a bourgeois democratic system methods and means which, under certain circumstances, might be inevitable under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Moreover, they don't in fact borrow these methods from the dictatorship of the proletariat, but from its Bonapartist usurpers. In other words, they infect an already sick bourgeois democracy with the virus of the decadent bureaucracy.

The anemic democracy of Mexico is facing a constant, mortal, daily danger from two directions: First from the foreign imperialism and, second, from the agents of reaction in the interior of the country, who control the high volume publications. But only those blind or simpleminded could think that the workers and peasants could be freed from reactionary ideas by the banning of reactionary press. In fact, it is only the greatest freedom of expression that can create favorable conditions for the advance of the revolutionary movement in the working class.

It is essential to wage an unrelenting battle against the reactionary press. But the workers cannot leave a task they have to fulfill themselves through their own organizations and their own press, to the repressive fist of the bourgeois state. Today the government may seem well disposed towards workers' organizations. Tomorrow it may fall, and it inevitably will, into the hands of the most reactionary elements of the bourgeoisie. In this case the existing repressive laws will be used against the workers. Only adventurists who think of nothing but the moment's needs can fail to guard themselves against such a danger.

THE MOST efficient way to fight the bourgeois press is for the workers' press to develop. Of course, yellow papers like El Popular, are unable to undertake such a task. Such papers have no place among the workers' press, the revolutionary press, or even the bourgeois press of good reputation. El Popular serves the personal ambitions of Mr. Toledano, who himself is in fact in the service of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Its methods: lies, calumnies, witch hunts, are methods à la Toledano. His paper has neither program nor ideas. It is evident that such a sheet can never strike a resonant chord in the working class, nor win them over from the bourgeois press.

So we arrive at the inevitable conclusion that the struggle between the bourgeois press starts with the eviction of the degenerate leaders from workers' organizations and in particular from the liberation of the workers' press from the tutelage of Toledano and other bourgeois careerists. The Mexican proletariat needs a honest press to express its needs, defend its interests, broaden its horizon and pave the way for the socialist revolution in Mexico. This is what CLAVE intends to do. So, we start by declaring an unrelenting war against the Bonapartist pretensions of Toledano. In this effort, we hope for the support of all advanced workers, as well as Marxists and authentic democrats.

First published in Clave, October 1938. Published online at Marxists Internet Archive.

Further Reading

From the archives