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From Ten Days that Shook the World (Ch. 11)

Freedom of the Press was a turning point in the Russian Revolution of 1917. 

American journalist John Reed was a correspondent for the New York-based publication, The Masses, and was an eye witness to the Communist Revolution in St. Petersburg and Moscow in the fall of 1917. His vivid account of events was not diminished by his obvious sympathy for the revolution and his book, Ten Days that Shook the World, is a monument of literary journalism. Reed died in Russia in 1920.

By John Reed

On the night of November 17th (1917)  the great hall was packed …  Larin, Bolshevik, declared that the moment of elections to the Constituent Assembly approached, and it was time to do away with “political terrorism.”

“The measures taken against the freedom of the press should be modified. They had their reason during the struggle, but now they have no further excuse. The press should be free, except for appeals to riot and insurrection.”

In a storm of hisses and hoots from his own party, Larin offered the following resolution:

The decree of the Council of People’s Commissars concerning the Press is herewith repealed.

Measures of political repression can only be employed subject to decision of a special tribunal, elected by the Tsay-ee-kah proportionally to the strength of the different parties represented; and this tribunal shall have the right also to reconsider measures of repression already taken.

This was met by a thunder of applause, not only from the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, but also from a part of the Bolsheviki.

Avanessov, for the Leninites, hastily proposed that the question of the Press be postponed until after some compromise between the Socialist parties had been reached. Overwhelmingly voted down.

“The revolution which is now being accomplished,” went on Avanessov, “has not hesitated to attack private property; and it is as private property that we must examine the question of the Press….”

Thereupon he read the official Bolshevik resolution:

The suppression of the bourgeois press was dictated not only by purely military needs in the course of the insurrection, and for the checking of counter-revolutionary action, but it is also necessary as a measure of transition toward the establishment of a new régime with regard to the Press—a régime under which the capitalist owners of printing-presses and of paper cannot be the all-powerful and exclusive manufacturers of public opinion.

We must further proceed to the confiscation of private printing plants and supplies of paper, which should become the property of the Soviets, both in the capital and in the provinces, so that the political parties and groups can make use of the facilities of printing in proportion to the actual strength of the ideas they represent—in other words, proportionally to the number of their constituents.

The reëstablishment of the so-called “freedom of the press,” the simple return of printing presses and paper to the capitalists,—poisoners of the mind of the people—this would be an inadmissible surrender to the will of capital, a giving up of one of the most important conquests of the Revolution; in other words, it would be a measure of unquestionably counter-revolutionary character.

Proceeding from the above, the Tsay-ee-kah categorically rejects all propositions aiming at the reëstablishment of the old régime in the domain of the Press, and unequivocally supports the point of view of the Council of People’s Commissars on this question, against pretentions and ultimatums dictated by petty bourgeois prejudices, or by evident surrender to the interests of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.

The reading of this resolution was interrupted by ironical shouts from the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, and bursts of indignation from the insurgent Bolsheviki. Karelin was on his feet, protesting. “Three weeks ago the Bolsheviki were the most ardent defenders of the freedom of the Press… The arguments in this resolution suggest singularly the point of view of the old Black Hundreds and the censors of the Tsarist régime—for they also talked of ‘poisoners of the mind of the people.’”

Trotzky spoke at length in favour of the resolution. He distinguished between the Press during the civil war, and the Press after the victory. “During civil war the right to use violence belongs only to the oppressed….” (Cries of “Who’s the oppressed now? Cannibal!”).

“The victory over our adversaries is not yet achieved, and the newspapers are arms in their hands. In these conditions, the closing of the newspapers is a legitimate measure of defence….” Then passing to the question of the Press after the victory, Trotzky continued:

“The attitude of Socialists on the question of freedom of the Press should be the same as their attitude toward the freedom of business…. The rule of the democracy which is being established in Russia demands that the domination of the Press by private property must be abolished, just as the domination of industry by private property…. The power of the Soviets should confiscate all printing-plants.” (Cries, “Confiscate the printing-shop of Pravda!”)

“The monopoly of the Press by the bourgeoisie must be abolished. Otherwise it isn’t worth while for us to take the power! Each group of citizens should have access to print shops and paper…. The ownership of print-type and of paper belongs first to the workers and peasants, and only afterwards to the bourgeois parties, which are in a minority…. The passing of the power into the hands of the Soviets will bring about a radical transformation of the essential conditions of existence, and this transformation will necessarily be evident in the Press…. If we are going to nationalise the banks, can we then tolerate the financial journals? The old régime must die; that must be understood once and for all….” Applause and angry cries.

Karelin declared that the Tsay-ee-kah had no right to pass upon this important question, which should be left to a special committee. Again, passionately, he demanded that the Press be free.

Then Lenin, calm, unemotional, his forehead wrinkled, as he spoke slowly, choosing his words; each sentence falling like a hammer-blow. “The civil war is not yet finished; the enemy is still with us; consequently it is impossible to abolish the measures of repression against the Press.

“We Bolsheviki have always said that when we reached a position of power we would close the bourgeois press. To tolerate the bourgeois newspapers would mean to cease being a Socialist. When one makes a Revolution, one cannot mark time; one must always go forward—or go back. He who now talks about the ‘freedom of the Press’ goes backward, and halts our headlong course toward Socialism.

“We have thrown off the yoke of capitalism, just as the first revolution threw off the yoke of Tsarism. If the first revolution had the right to suppress the Monarchist papers, then we have the right to suppress the bourgeois press. It is impossible to separate the question of the freedom of the Press from the other questions of the class struggle. We have promised to close these newspapers, and we shall do it. The immense majority of the people is with us!

“Now that the insurrection is over, we have absolutely no desire to suppress the papers of the other Socialist parties, except inasmuch as they appeal to armed insurrection, or to disobedience to the Soviet Government. However, we shall not permit them, under the pretence of freedom of the Socialist press, to obtain, through the secret support of the bourgeoisie, a monopoly of printing-presses, ink and paper…. These essentials must become the property of the Soviet Government, and be apportioned, first of all, to the Socialist parties in strict proportion to their voting strength….”

Then the vote. The resolution of Larin and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was defeated by 31 to 22; the Lenin motion was carried by 34 to 24. Among the minority were the Bolsheviki Riazanov and Lozovsky, who declared that it was impossible for them to vote against any restriction on the freedom of the Press.

Upon this the Left Socialist Revolutionaries declared they could no longer be responsible for what was being done, and withdrew from the Military Revolutionary Committee and all other positions of executive responsibility.