Solidarity 299 reprinted an interesting article from 1917 in which Lenin argued for public control over advertising in the press as a main means to win a “freedom of the press” accessible to the working class and not just to the rich.
Another classic text of Marxism argues against public control over press advertising. Eduard Bernstein’s Ferdinand Lassalle as Social Reformer was written under the direct guidance of Frederick Engels, while Bernstein was still a revolutionary Marxist. It was a key text in making the German Social-Democratic Party in its great days “Marxist” rather than “Lassallean”.
In it Bernstein dissects a demand made by Lassalle that newspapers be banned from printing advertisements. “Then the press would cease to be a lucrative business speculation, and only such men [and women] would write for the newspapers as were fighting for the well-being and intellectual interests of the people”.
Bernstein retorts that “the absence of advertisements” in the French press (because of special taxes) made it easier for the authoritarian government of the Second Empire (1852-70) “to corrupt the press to its own ends”, whereas the wider range of newspaper revenues through advertising in Britain had allowed the British press to become more critical.
Lassalle’s botched half-measure towards democratic social control over the means of communication would make things worse, not better.
Was Lenin wrong? Or Bernstein? Neither, I think. Lenin was talking about control over press advertising by a government based on workers’ councils (soviets). Lassalle’s agitation referred to control over press advertising and income by a German government which was a monarchical despotism with only thin democratic coverings.
In evaluating any slogan as Marxists, we have to look not only to the literal content, but at who is being called on to carry out the slogan, and how.