Marxism and journalism

Posted: 25 May 2016 in Uncategorized
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The appointment in England of Noreena Hertz as ITV’s economics editor has raised the issue of whether or not a Marxist (which she has been accused of but denies she is) can do an effective and fair job in reporting the news.

I certainly don’t see why not. Nor does Chris Dillow:

First, some of us Marxists – unlike many of our opponents – are not spittle-flecked fanatics. Instead, our Marxism arises from a cool-headed scepticism about whether capitalism really can maximally advance living standards and real freedom for all. Such scepticism is a virtue in any proper journalist. And it’s surely a vast improvement on the churnalism and unthinking deference to the rich and powerful that passes for most of journalism today.

Secondly, we Marxists know that we are in a minority, so we know which of our opinions aren’t mainstream. This makes us much more aware of potential biases in our own thinking, and so able to slough them off when necessary. By contrast, “mainstream” reporters might be more prone to groupthink and so pass off their own opinions as impartial fact.

I’ve made much the same argument in teaching economics. In both cases, Marxists are forced into the position of knowing both the mainstream stuff and the Marxian critique, which those firmly ensconced within mainstream thought simply aren’t equipped to handle. It isn’t impartiality but it is a kind of openness to alternative perspectives.

And then, of course, there’s the example of Marx himself, who served as a journalist—both to earn a living and to disseminate his analysis of the world—for much of his life, most famously for Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune.

This is from an interview with Jim Ledbetter, who edited Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx:

Q: Can you talk a little about Marx’s approach to journalism?

A: The dispatches that Marx published don’t greatly resemble most of what gets published as journalism today, and in many respects they don’t greatly resemble what was published as Anglo-American journalism in the 19th century, either.

That is to say: they contain essentially nothing that would today be called”reporting”: no first-hand accounts of events, large or small; no interviews with sources, official or otherwise. They are critical essays constructed, as so much of Marx’s work was, out of the research materials available to him in the British Library.

This isn’t to say that Marx’s dispatches were not timely. Indeed, he was quite fastidious about making his pieces as up-to-date as possible, including last-minute tidbits he got from personal correspondence or that day’s newspaper (which seems quaintly ironic today, given that the articles traveled by steamship to New York , and thus would typically be published some 10-15 days after they were written).

But the basic Marx approach to his New York Tribune column was to take an event that was in the news — an election, an uprising, the second Opium War, the outbreak of the American Civil War — and sift through it until he could boil it down to some fundamental questions of politics or economics. And then on those questions he would make his judgment. In this sense, Marx’s journalism does resemble some of the writing that is published today in journals of opinion, and it’s not hard to see a direct line between Marx’s journalistic writing and the kind of tendentious writing on public affairs that characterized much political journalism (especially in Europe) in the twentieth century.

A good example is Marx’s 14 October 1861 article on the British cotton trade, in which he analyses the specific effects of the rise in prices of raw cotton on British textile factories and the more general role of the British empire in the rise of capitalist industry in England:

The consumption of Indian cotton is rapidly growing, and with a further rise in prices, the Indian supply will come forward at increasing ratios; but still it remains impossible to change, at a few months’ notice, all the conditions of production and turn the current of commerce. England pays now, in fact, the penalty for her protracted misrule of that vast Indian empire. The two main obstacles she has now to grapple with in her attempts at supplanting American cotton by Indian cotton, is the want of means of communication and transport throughout India, and the miserable state of the Indian peasant, disabling him from improving favorable circumstances. Both these difficulties the English have themselves to thank for. English modern industry, in general, relied upon two pivots equally monstrous. The one was the potato as the only means of feeding Ireland and a great part of the English working class. This pivot was swept away by the potato disease and the subsequent Irish catastrophe. A larger basis for the reproduction and maintenance of the toiling millions had then to be adopted. The second pivot of English industry was the slave-grown cotton of the United States. The present American crisis forces them to enlarge their field of supply and emancipate cotton from slave-breeding and slave-consuming oligarchies. As long as the English cotton manufactures depended on slave-grown cotton, it could be truthfully asserted that they rested on a twofold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the black men on the other side of the Atlantic.

Now, that’s the kind of honest, serious, and critical economic journalism one would be hard to find these days on either side of the Atlantic.

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