Monday, September 22, 2014


In the months after The Times of London and Lord Palmerston appeared the topic of The Times and its political function came up regularly in Marx’s journalism. Most often it was no more than a passing mention, but two articles substantially supplement the analysis discussed in part 1. Both articles comment on potential British military intervention in the Americas. In an article about the Trent Affair, a diplomatic confrontation between Britain and the U.S., that was published in the Viennese paper Die Presse in December of 1861, Marx returns explicitly to the question of how to read the London press in light of its political connections. This article extends the analysis of these connections beyond The Times to include ten more London papers.  In the other article, written for the Daily Tribune in November of 1861, Marx discusses at length the press coverage of the British government’s plans for military intervention in Mexico. This article illustrates at length and in detail both Palmerston’s strategic use of the press to prepare public opinion and the editor’s “cooking” of the news.

The Opinion of the Newspapers and the Opinion of the People is the last of the articles in which Marx reported  the Trent Affair for Viennese readers. Earlier articles had discussed the legal intricacies of the case. This final article uses the diplomatic contentions as a springboard to discuss in detail the emoluments and access Palmerston used to exercise control over coverage of foreign affairs. In passing, we should note that the opening sentence “Continental politicians, who imagine that in the London press they possess a thermometer of the temper of the English people, inevitably draw false conclusions at the present moment” addresses another dimension of the political function of the press. Just as foreign affairs reporting in the press creates public opinion as a factor in British politics, these representations of public opinion are aimed at the policy makers of foreign governments. As the product of Palmerston’s covert arrangements the reports purposefully mislead both audiences. 

The remainder of the opening describes how public opinion and editorial positions shifted in opposite directions over the course of the Trent Affair. When the American seizure of the Confederate emissaries first became news, the public called for war. As the full implications of the issues were discussed, public support for war dwindled. The press followed the opposite track. Initially the press urged moderation. After a time it did an about face and enthusiastically supported war. Marx correlates the position of the press with the development of Palmerston’s policy. As long as the government’s lawyers could not find a legal grounds for war, the press remained moderate. When the government finally had developed a legal pretext for war, the press endorsed war.

The rest of the article explains how it was that the press synchronized its positions with the government and why it adopted positions at odds with the views of its readers. The explanation involves no complex theory. Today in fact it feels like a familiar argument, although I suspect it was unprecedented at the time. Marx simply works through a list of ten daily papers and identifies the source of their position. Not surprisingly, he begins with The Times. This time he introduces the editor Bob Lowe by name and points out he holds a “kind of” position in the Cabinet. Although out of place, at this point Marx also mentions the very popular conservative satirical weekly Punch, which was promoted by The Times. In his Cabinet post, Lowe had in turn secured a remunerative post for Punch’s editor. The first two papers were secured for Palmerston through emoluments.

 The next paper, the Morning Post, was partly owned by Palmerston. Marx notes too that the other owners belonged to society. The odd combination of society news and foreign policy reporting underlines the significance of ownership for content. The third daily paper, the Morning Advertiser adopted its pro-war stance after Palmerston began to invite its editor to his social gatherings. In addition, the noble patron of the guild which owned the paper was Palmerston’s son-in-law. The final example of direct control is not connected to Palmerston. Agents of the Confederacy purchased the Morning Chronicle so ownership likewise determined the coverage. The sensationalizing tabloid the Daily Telegraph was noted for its notorious rabble-rousing support of Palmerston, but Marx does not explain the connection.

 The list now moves on to pro-war papers of a different kind.  Three papers received direct subsidies from Cabinet ministries. The Globe supported the war because it was subsidized by the Whigs, the party to which Palmerston belonged.  The Morning Herald and Evening Standard had been subsidized by the Tories who preceded Palmerston in office.  These papers agitated for war out of hostility to the U.S. and in hopes a war will bring down the Cabinet, after which a new government would restore their subsidies. The list closes with a pair of papers which oppose the war as a matter of principle, both being committed to the positions of politicians other than Palmerston.

After discussing the dailies, Marx briefly treats five weekly papers. Two exemplify the war-supporting majority of these papers. One is paid by the ministries, while the other advocates war simply to display “esprit.”  Marx defines this quality more specifically as, “a cynical elevation above ‘humanitarian’ prejudices.” In other words, a provocative attitude is one of the use values sold by the paper. At the last, Marx mentions the three weeklies that oppose the calls for war, but passes over their motives in silence.

This description of the affiliations and motivations of the pro-war coverage in the London press goes beyond the mechanisms of manipulation presented in the first article. It begins with the award of government posts and the provision of social access mentioned there. But the roster of connections expands to include out-right ownership, family relationships and government subsidies. At the same time, the potential motives also include political principles and even what we might today call pure branding.

The Intervention in Mexico, the second article, discusses in extensive and careful detail six weeks of the coverage delivered by two London papers on the plan for joint British, French and Spanish military intervention in the Mexican Republic. The examination of “one of the most monstrous enterprises ever chronicled in the annals of international history” begins with the respective roles of The London Morning Post and The London Times in introducing Palmerston’s plans to the public, as well as the responses of the French and Spanish governments through their own press. The article then contrasts the positions on intervention taken by the Times in September and November.  After these contradictory reasonings have been dissected, the second half of the article addresses the crucial question about the intervention raised by these incoherent inconsistencies, “What, then, is its real aim and purpose?”

The London Morning Post and The London Times practice a division of labor. The analysis of their collaboration deepens the description of Palmerston’s management of the press. As we have just seen, Palmerston was a part owner of the Morning Post and his ownership accounted for its publication of reports on foreign affairs. Accordingly, Marx calls the paper “Palmerston’s private Moniteur,” that is his equivalent of the French government’s official paper. The Morning Post published in detail the first public account of the agreement among Britain, France and Spain to intervene in Mexico. The French government denied this report through its press. The Times then responded with a report that the French had indeed agreed to the intervention. The Spanish government then clarified through its press that it was planning a unilateral intervention. Finally, The Times followed with a report that the U.S. would join the intervention, a claim promptly denied by the American press.

Marx deduces from this sequence of reports and denials that the plan is undoubtedly an English creation, and demonstrates one of his protocols for reading the press in this kind of situation. In the same issue of The Times that publicized the three powers’ final agreement on intervention in early November, a second article appeared that approved of a recent French military intervention in Switzerland. This recognition signals a diplomatic quid pro quo. Palmerston has given France a free hand for intervention on the continent in return for French collaboration in the Mexican adventure. It is not the content of the reports per se but their juxtaposition that conveys this message. Beyond the mere content of foreign policy reports, their placement in the papers has a political function and inferable meaning.

Marx draws an analogous but more complex inference from a comparison of the reports in The Post and The Times. In its first report, The Post maintained that the goal of the expedition was to collect debts owed by the Mexican government. Because the government no longer exercised effective power, it was necessary to take military measures to occupy port cities and claim customs revenues.  The Times in its subsequent first report dismissed the significance of the debt, and instead maintained that the intervention would encourage the Mexican government in its efforts to restore order and end the brigandage that victimized British subjects. Marx notes the contradiction between the respective assumptions that there is no effective government and that there is a government capable of action.

Marx points out that the Times own reasoning contradicts itself as well, “To be sure! The oddest means ever hit upon for the consolidation of a Government consists in the seizure of its territory and the sequestration of its revenue.” In Palmerston’s designs, these initial press voices were subsequently joined by “minor ministerial oracles,” officials, spokesmen and sources, in the task of “systematically belaboring him [that is, the public] in the same contradictory style for four weeks, until public opinion had at last become sufficiently trained to the idea of a joint intervention in Mexico, although kept in deliberate ignorance of the aim and purpose of that intervention.”  The volume of the reports and the contradictions within and among what are known to be well-informed sources deflect discussion from the intervention itself to the spurious discussion of its motives, while at the same time concealing the real considerations behind it. The orchestrated pattern of disagreement and debate executes a calculated tactic.

These four weeks of preparation ended when the official French press announced that an agreement had been reached. The French papers announced that the Mexican ports would be seized, if the Mexican government did not then cooperate troops would move inland and occupy Mexico City, and “a strong government would be imported into the Republic.” We might note that the latter two points had never figured in the initial reports in London. In November after the governments have officially committed themselves to intervention, The Times speaks to the issue again. Marx underlines the absolute incongruity of its response,  

Everybody ignorant of its connection with Palmerston, and the original introduction in its columns of his scheme, would be induced to consider the to-day’s leader of The Times as the most cutting and merciless satire on the whole adventure. It sets out by stating that “the expedition is a very remarkable one” [later on it says a curious one].

Three States are combining to coerce a fourth into good behavior, not so much by way of war as by authoritative interference in behalf of order.”

Authoritative interference in behalf of order! This is literally the Holy Alliance slang, and sounds very remarkable indeed on the part of England, glorying in the non-intervention principle! And why is “the way of war, and of declaration of war, and all other behests of international law,” supplanted by “an authoritative interference in behalf of order?” Because, says The Times, there “exists no Government in Mexico.” And what is the professed aim of the expedition? “To address demands to the constituted authorities at Mexico.”

Absurdly contradictory in its assumptions and ludicrous its euphemisms, the only way to find a coherent intention in this report is to understand it, as Marx supposes a substantial part of the public already does, as an expression of Palmerston’s designs.

Marx singles out a final decisive contradiction. The Times still claims that satisfaction of debts and protection of foreign nationals are the goal of the intervention, but then concedes that the measures to be taken far exceed what is needed to achieve those ends. From this disproportion between the military means and the ostensible goals, Marx concludes that the purported goals “have nothing at all to do with the present joint intervention in Mexico” and this discrepancy compels him to ask what is really going on.

Turning to the seond argument, Marx reiterates that The Times also disavows the significance of the debt for the intervention. Marx rephrases his question in sarcastic distress at the complete lack of sense on the surface of this subterfuge. “What, then, in all the world is its real or pretended aim?” His answer begins by picking apart the second putative goal of the intervention “an authoritative interference in behalf of order."  The Times has expressed only one reservation about the intervention, namely that the European “order-mongers,” as Marx calls them, would not be able to agree on what Mexican faction to install in the government, “The only point on which there may possibly be a difference between ourselves and our allies, regards the government of the Republic. England will be content to see it remain in the hands of the liberal party which is now in power.” Marx examines this reservation carefully and shows that in fact it assumes that there is a functioning government that has begun to restore order. From these assumptions he draws the conclusion obvious to all involved, that the intervention will “instead of extinguishing, restore anarchy to its full bloom.”

Once “ in behalf of Order,’ is substracted from the rationale, there remains only “interference.” The Civil War momentarily prevents the U.S. from actively resisting intervention, and Palmerston hopes to take advantage of this obstacle to American resistance to overturn the Monroe Doctrine and establish the right of the European powers to use force in the pursuit of their interests in the Americas. In conjunction with his pursuit of the right of intervention Palmerston is strategic expanding of his monopoly over the exercise of that right. He has launched his adventure while Parliament is recessed.  Palmerston is again employing the same tactics of false representations and disregard of Parliament’s power that he has used on previous occasions to initiate wars. He aims to reinforce those precedents for his prerogative to order interventions without the approval of Parliament. Marx describes Palmerston’s ultimate goal in sweeping terms, “With the control over foreign wars, Parliament will lose all control over the national exchequer, and Parliamentary government turn to a mere farce.”
Marx’s reading of the London press on the intervention in Mexico assumes that these press accounts cannot be taken at face value. They furnish evidence of foreign policy, but they do not reliably describe the motives or content of policy. Press reporting functions as an instrument in complex political designs. The press reports are intended by the place and sequence of their publication and by their putatively authentic accounts to render the ultimate intervention plausible while concealing its actual motives and goals. A careful reading can retrieve even from deceptive press reports some of the suppositions about the state of affairs that do underlie the unspoken goals. No matter how careful the reading of logic and publication, however, only informed reference to the history of governments and of politicians allows Marx to construe the policy that wields these reports as instruments to attain public assent to “monstrous enterprises.”


When we read what Marx had to say about public opinion and foreign policy, even after a hundred and fifty years his arguments evoke a sense of recognition and familiarity.  This affinity of his analyses with our own experiences with politics and the press easily furnishes reason enough to read and discuss these articles today. Beyond the resonance of these insights, the articles provide a pertinent example for communist analysis and criticism of the media.  They do not provide a theory of public opinion. We cannot even extract a definitive model of communist media analysis from them. History does no allow us that luxury.
At the very least, though, Marx’s analyses do demonstrate three themes essential to our media analyses: how the accumulation of capital and the capitalist organization of the media establish the technical and social basis for the collaboration of state and media; how this collaboration results not just from the social relations and political institutions particular to a historical moment but from particular individuals acting within those relations and institutions; and how editorial management employs specific techniques to manipulate representations of foreign affairs in order to manufacture public opinion.
Because the accumulation of capital has advanced fantastically, because the technologies produced by that accumulation have proliferated, and because the social relations and political institutions in the U.S. today differ greatly from 1860s England, contemporary media criticism on these lines will necessarily look different from Marx’s criticism of The Times. But Marx made fundamental points about these processes that retain their force. The ruling class and their political executives pursue “monstrous enterprises.” When they organize these enterprises, they employ covert and collusive means. Important among their collusions are the combinations of report-producers and  politicians who manage the media and manufacture public opinion.
Today these points have become harder to convey, in no small part because the “opinion-mongers,” in order to protect themselves, have through their opinion-commodities attempted to immunize their audiences against these very arguments. The mere fact that Marx argued in this way does not make these arguments more plausible or persuasive. Marx's analysis and criticism of the London press in his day does demonstrate that these arguments fall solidly within the scope of a materialist critique of the media. Our challenge is to find the audience for them and communicate persuasive arguments in which we connect concretely the opinion-mongers to the order-mongers and their reports to their enterprises.


  1. Anonymous6:52 PM

    #Oppornpixie was not about misogyny. It was about ethics in journalism.

  2. What an interesting article! I'm glad i finally found what i was looking for.