"The issue is not “freedom of the press’ but the exploiters’ sacrosanct ownership of the printing presses and stocks of newsprint they have seized! why should we workers and peasants recognise that sacred right?"
ON FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
In early April, setting out the Bolsheviks’ attitude to the question of whether the Constituent Assembly should be convened, I wrote:
“Yes, and as soon as possible. But there is only one way to assure its convocation and success, and that is by increasing the number and strength of the Soviets and organising and arming the working-class masses. This is the only guarantee” (Political Parties in Russia and the Tasks of the Proletariat, Cheap Library of Zhizn i Znaniye, Book III, pp. 9 and 29).
Five months have passed since then and these words have been proved correct by several delays in and postponements of the convocation through the fault of the Cadets. And they have been well borne out by the Kornilov affair.
Now, in connection with the calling of the Democratic Conference on September 12, I should like to dwell on another aspect of the matter.
Both the Menshevik Rabochaya Gazeta and Dyelo Naroda have deplored the fact that very little is being done for campaigning among the peasants to enlighten this real mass of the Russian people, their real majority. Everyone realises and admits that the success of the Constituent Assembly depends on the enlightenment of the peasants, but ridiculously little is being done about it. The peasants are being deceived, fooled and intimidated by the utterly deceitful and counter-revolutionary bourgeois and “yellow” press, in comparison with which the press of the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries (not to speak of the Bolsheviks) is very, very weak.
Why is that so?
Because the ruling S.R. and Menshevik parties are weak, hesitant and inactive, because, disagreeing that all power should be taken over by the Soviets, they leave the peasants in ignorance and solitude, a prey to the capitalists, to their press and their propaganda.
While boastfully calling our revolution great and shouting to the right and left high-sounding, bombastic phrases about “revolutionary democracy”, the Mensheviks and S.R.s in effect leave Russia in.the conditions of a most ordinary, most petty-bourgeois revolution which, having overthrown the tsar, leaves everything else unchanged and does nothing, absolutely nothing, effective to enlighten the peasants politically and to end the peasants’ ignorance, that last (and strongest) bulwark, the bulwark of the exploiters and oppressors of the people.
This is the time to recall that. It is now, with the Democratic Conference before us, two months ahead of the “appointed” convocation of the Constituent Assembly (to be further postponed), that we must show how easily matters could be put right, how much could be done for the political education of the peasants, if only—if only our “revolutionary democrats” in inverted commas were really revolutionary, i.e., capable of acting in a revolutionary way, and really democratic, i.e., reckoning with the will and interests of the majority of the people, and not of the capitalist minority, which continues to hold power (the Kerensky government) and with which, either directly or indirectly, in a new or old form, the S.R.s and Mensheviks are still eager to compromise.
The capitalists (followed, either from stupidity or from inertia, by many S.R.s and Mensheviks) call “freedom of the press” a situation in which censorship has been abolished and all parties freely publish all kinds of papers.
In reality it is not freedom of the press, but freedom for the rich, for the bourgeoisie, to deceive the oppressed and exploited mass of the people.
Indeed, take, say, the Petrograd and Moscow newspapers. You will see at once that it is the bourgeois papers—Rech, Birzherka, Novoye Vrernya, Russkoye Slovo, and so on, and so forth (for there are a great many papers of this sort)—that have by far the largest circulation. What makes for this prevalence? Not at all the will of the majority, for the elections have shown that in both capitals the majority (a gigantic majority, too) favours the democrats, i.e., the S.R.s, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. These three parties command from three-quarters to four-fifths of the votes, while the circulation of the newspapers they publish is certainly less than a quarter, or even less than one-fifth, that of the whole bourgeois press (which, as we know and see now, supported the Kornilov affair directly and indirectly).
Why is that so?
Everyone knows very well why. Because the publication of a newspaper is a big and profitable capitalist undertaking in which the rich invest millions upon millions of rubles. “Freedom of the press” in bourgeois society means freedom for the rich systematically, unremittingly, daily, in millions of copies, to deceive, corrupt and fool the exploited and oppressed mass of the people, the poor.
This is the simple, generally known, obvious truth which everyone sees and realises but which “almost everyone” “bashfully” passes over in silence, timidly evades.
The question is whether and how this crying evil can be fought.
First of all, there is a very simple, good and lawful means which I pointed out in Pravda long ago, which it is particularly opportune to recall now, before September 12, and which workers should always bear in mind, for they will hardly be able to do without it when they have won political power.
That means is a state monopoly on private press advertising.
Look at Russkoye Slovo, Novoye Vremya, Birzhevka, Rech, etc.—you will see a multitude of private advertisements, which yield a tremendous income, in fact the principal income, to their capitalist publishers. This is how bourgeois papers hold sway, how they get rich, and how they deal in poison for the people all over the world.
In Europe there are newspapers which have a circulation as large as one-third the number of inhabitants of the town (for instance, 12,000 copies in a town with a population of 40,000) and are delivered free to every home, and yet yield their owners a sizable income. These papers live by advertisements paid by private people, while the free delivery of the paper to every home ensures the best circulation of the advertisements.
Then why cannot democrats who call themselves revolutionary carry out a measure like declaring private press advertising a state monopoly, or banning advertisements anywhere outside the newspapers published by the Soviets in the provincial towns and cities and by the central Soviet in Petrograd for the whole of Russia? Why must “revolutionary” democrats tolerate such a thing as the enrichment, through private advertising, of rich men, Kornilov backers, and spreaders of lies and slander against the Soviets?
Such a measure would be absolutely just. It would greatly benefit both those who published private advertisements and the whole people, particularly the most oppressed and ignorant class, the peasants, who would be able to have Soviet papers, with supplements for the peasants, at a very low price or even free of charge.
Why not do that? Only because private property and hereditary rights (to profits from advertising) are sacred to the capitalist gentlemen. But how can anyone calling himself a revolutionary democrat in the twentieth century, in the second Russian revolution, recognise such rights as “sacred”?!
Some may say it would mean infringing freedom of the press.
That is not true. It would mean extending and restoring freedom of the press, for freedom of the press means that all opinions of all citizens may be freely published.
What do we have now? Now, the rich alone have this monopoly, and also the big parties. Yet if large Soviet newspapers were to be published, with all advertisements, it would be perfectly feasible to guarantee the expression of their opinion to a much greater number of citizens—say to every group having collected a certain number of signatures. Freedom of the press would in practice become much more democratic, would become incomparably more complete as a result.
But some may ask: where would we get printing presses and newsprint?
There we have it!!! The issue is not “freedom of the press’ but the exploiters’ sacrosanct ownership of the printing presses and stocks of newsprint they have seized!
Just why should we workers and peasants recognise that sacred right? How is that “right” to publish false information better than the “right” to own serfs?
Why is it that in war-time all sorts of requisitioning—of houses, flats, vehicles, horses, grain and metals—are allowed and practised everywhere, while the requisitioning of printing presses and newsprint is impermissible?
The workers and peasants may in fact be deceived for a while if such measures are made out to be unjust or hard to realise, but the truth will win through in the end.
State power in the shape of the Soviets takes all the printing presses and all the newsprint and distributes them equitably: the state should come first—in the interests of the majority of the people, the majority of the poor, particularly the majority of the peasants, who for centuries have been tormented, crushed and stultified by the landowners and capitalists.
The big parties should come second—say, those that have polled one or two hundred thousand votes in both capitals.
The smaller parties should come third, and then any group of citizens which has a certain number of members or has collected a certain number of signatures.
This is the distribution of newsprint and printing presses that would be just and, with the Soviets in power, could be effected easily enough.
Then, two months before the Constituent Assembly, we could really help the peasants by ensuring the delivery to every village of half a dozen pamphlets (or newspaper issues, or special supplements) in millions of copies from every big party.
That would truly be a "revolutionary democratic" preparation for the elections to the Constituent Assembly; it would be aid to the countryside on the part of the advanced workers and soldiers; it would be state aid to the people’s enlightenment, and not to their stultification and deception; it would be real freedom of the press for all, and not for the rich. It would be a break with that accursed, slavish past which compels us to suffer the usurpation by the rich of the great cause of informing and teaching the peasants.
 See present edition, Vol. 24, p. 99.—Ed.
 Russkoye Slovo (The Russian Word)—a daily newspaper published in Moscow from 1895 (the first, trial, issue appeared in 1894) by I. D. Sytin. Nominally non-partisan, it upheld the interests of the Russian bourgeoisie from a moderately liberal point of view. In 1917 it fully supported the bourgeois Provisional Government and campaigned against Lenin and the Bolshevik Party.
The paper was closed down in November 1917 for carrying slanderous anti-Soviet reports. From January 1918 on, it was published for a period under the titles of Novoye Slovo and Nashe Slovo. It was suppressed altogether in July 1918.
Source: Marxist Internet Archive.