Karl Marx
On Freedom of the Press

[Prussian Censorship]

Rheinische Zeitung
No. 125, Supplement
May 5 1842

The very first article by Marx in this newspaper was about the freedom of the press debates in the Rhineland province of Prussia. It appeared in issue No. 125, on May 5, 1842 — Marx's 24th birthday.

All these articles were signed: "By a Rhinelander." They received a very positive response in the progressive German community. Manager of the Rheinische Zeitung told Marx: "Your articles on freedom of the press are extremely good.... Meyen wrote that the Rheinische Zeitung had eclipsed the Deutsche Jahrbucher... that everyone in Berlin was overjoyed by it." The Deutsche Jahrbucher itself wrote of them: "Nothing more profound and more substantial has been said or could have been said on freedom of the press and in defence of it."

To the amazement of all writing and reading Germany the Preussische Staats-Zeitung one fine Berlin spring morning published its self-confession. [A] Of course, it chose an elegant, diplomatic, not exactly amusing, form for its confession. It gave itself the appearance of wanting to hold up the mirror for its sisters to recognise themselves; it spoke mysteriously only about other Prussian newspapers, while it was really speaking about the Prussian newspaper par excellence, itself.

This fact allows of many different explanations. Caesar spoke about himself in the third person. Why should the Preussische Staats-Zeitung, in speaking about third persons, not mean itself? Children, when speaking about themselves, are in the habit of saying not "I", but "George", etc. Why should not the Preussische Staats-Zeitung be allowed to use for its "I" the Vossische, [B] Spenersche, [C] or some other saint's name?

The new censorship instruction had appeared. Our newspapers believed they had to adopt the outward appearance and conventional forms of freedom. The Preussische Staats-Zeitung, too, was compelled to awake and have some kind of liberal — or at least independent — ideas.

The first essential condition for freedom, however, is self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is an impossibility without self-confession.

Hence one should firmly keep in mind that the Preussische Staats-Zeitung has written self-confessions; one should never forget that we see here the first awakening to self-consciousness of a semi-official press-child, and then all riddles will be solved. One will be convinced that the Preussische Staats-Zeitung "utters with composure many a great word", and will only remain undecided whether one should admire more the composure of its greatness or the greatness of its composure.

Hardly had the censorship instruction appeared, hardly had the Staats-Zeitung recovered from this blow, before it came out with the question: "What use has the greater freedom from censorship been to you Prussian newspapers?"

Obviously, what it means to say by this is: What use have the many years of strict observance of the censorship been to me? What have I become, in spite of the most scrupulous and thoroughgoing supervision and tutelage? And what should now become of me? I have not learnt to walk and a sensation-loving public is expecting entrechats from one who has a dislocated hip-joint. So will it be for you, too, my sisters! Let us confess our weaknesses to the Prussian people, but let us be diplomatic in our confession. We shall not tell them outright that we are uninteresting for their newspapers.

We shall tell them that if the Prussian newspapers are uninteresting for the Prussian people, the Prussian state is uninteresting for the newspapers.

The bold question of the Staats-Zeitung and the still bolder answer are mere preludes to its awakening, dream-like allusions in the text to the role that it will perform. It is awakening to consciousness, it is speaking its mind. Listen to Epimenides!

It is well known that the first theoretical activity of the mind limit still wavers between sensuous perception and thinking is counting. Counting is the first free theoretical mental act of the child. Let us count, the Preussische Staats-Zeitung calls to its sisters. Statistics is the premier political science! I know a man's head when I know how many hairs grow on it.

Do as you would be done by. And how could one better us and especially me, the Preussische Staats-Zeitung, than statistically! Statistics will not merely prove that I appear as often as any French or English newspaper, but also that I am less read than any newspaper in the civilised world. Discount the officials who half-heartedly have to be interested in me, subtract the public places which must have a semi-official organ, and who reads me, I ask, who? Calculate what I cost; calculate the income I receive, and you will admit that it is not a profitable business to utter great words with composure. See how cogent statistics are, how counting makes more far-reaching mental operations superfluous! Therefore count! Numerical tables instruct the public without exciting their emotions.

And the Staats-Zeitung with the importance it attaches to statistics not only puts itself on a par with the Chinese and with the universal statistician Pythagoras! [D] It shows that it has been influenced by the great natural philosopher of recent times, [E] who wanted to represent the differences between animals, etc., by a series of numbers.

Thus the Preussische Staats-Zeitung is not without modern philosophical foundations, in spite of its apparent positivism. [F]

The Staats-Zeitung is many-sided. It does not stop at number, temporal magnitude. It carries the recognition of the quantitative principle further and proclaims the justification of spatial magnitude. Space is the first thing whose magnitude impresses the child. It is the first magnitude which the child encounters in the world. Hence the child holds a big man to be a great man, and in the same childish way the Staats-Zeitung informs us that thick books are incomparably better than thin ones, and much more so than single leaflets or newspapers, which produce only one printed sheet daily.

You Germans can only express yourselves at great length! Write really voluminous books on the organisation of the state, books of solid learning, which no one reads except the Herr Author and the Herr Reviewer, but bear in mind that your newspapers are not books. Think how many printed sheets go to make a solid work of three volumes! Therefore do not seek the spirit of our day or time in newspapers, which offer you statistical tables, but seek it in books, whose size guarantees their solidity.

Bear in mind, you good children, that it is a matter here of "learned" things. Study in the school of thick books and you will quickly get to love us newspapers on account of our flimsy format, our gentlemanly lightness, which is truly refreshing after the thick books.

Of course! Of course! Our time has no longer that real taste for size that we admire in the Middle Ages. Look at our paltry little pietistic tracts, look at our philosophical systems in small octavo, and then cast your eyes on the twenty gigantic folios of Duns Scotus. You do not need to read the books; their exciting aspect suffices to touch your heart and strike your senses, something like a Gothic cathedral. These primitive gigantic works materially affect the mind; it feels oppressed under their mass, and the feeling of oppression is the beginning of awe. You do not master the books, they master you. You are an unimportant appendage to them, and in the same way, in the view of the Preussische Staats-Zeitung, the people should be an unimportant appendage of their political literature.

Thus the Staats-Zeitung, although its language is quite modern, is not without historical foundations belonging to the sterling period of the Middle Ages.

If, however, the theoretical thinking of the child is quantitative, its judgment, like its practical thought, is primarily practical and sensuous. The sensuous quality of the child is the first link that connects it with the world. The practical organs of senses, primarily the nose and mouth, are the first organs by means of which it judges the world. Hence the childish Preussische Staats-Zeitung judges the value of newspapers, and therefore its own value, by means of its nose. If a Greek thinker [G] held that dry souls were the best, [H] the Staats-Zeitung holds that "pleasant-smelling" newspapers are "good" newspapers. It cannot praise too highly the "literary fragrance" of the Augsburg Allgemeine and the journal des Débats. Rare, praiseworthy naivety! Great Pompey, greatest of all!

After allowing us, therefore, a deep insight into the state of its soul by means of a number of separate praiseworthy utterances, the Staats-Zeitung sums up its view of the state in a profound reflection, the crux of which is the great discovery:

"that in Prussia the state administration and the whole organisation of the state are remote from the political spirit, and therefore cannot be of political interest either to the people or to the newspapers".

In the opinion of the Preussische Staats-Zeitung, therefore, in Prussia the state administration has no political spirit, or the political spirit has no state administration. How crude of the Staats-Zeitung to assert what the bitterest opponent could not express more brutally, namely, that the real life of the state is without any political spirit, and that the political spirit does not live in the real state!

But we ought not to forget the childish-sensuous standpoint of the Preussische Staats-Zeitung. It tells us that in regard to railways one should think only of rails and ways, in regard to trade contracts only of sugar and coffee, and in regard to leather factories only of leather. The child, of course, does not go beyond sensuous perception, it sees a thing only in isolation, and the invisible nerve threads which link the particular with the universal, which in the state as everywhere make the material parts into soul-possessing members of the spiritual whole, are for the child non-existent.

The child believes that the sun revolves around the earth; that the universal revolves around the particular. Hence the child does not believe in the spirit, but it believes in spectres.

Thus the Preussische Staats-Zeitung regards the political spirit as a French spectre; and it thinks it exorcises the spectre if it throws leather, sugar, bayonets and numbers at it.

However, our reader will interrupt us, we wanted to discuss the "Rhine Province Assembly proceedings" and instead we are being presented with the "innocent angel", that senile child of the press, the Preussische Staats-Zeitung, and a repetition of the old-time lullabies with which it again and again tries to lull itself and its sisters into wholesome hibernation.

But does not Schiller say:

"But what the sage's reason fails to see
A childish nature grasps in all simplicity." [I]

The Preussische Staats-Zeitung "in all simplicity" has reminded us that we in Prussia, no less than in England, have assemblies of the estates, whose proceedings the daily press would indeed be allowed to discuss, if it could; for the Staats-Zeitung in its great, classical self-consciousness takes the view that what the Prussian newspapers lack is not permission but ability. We concede it the latter as its special privilege, while at the same time, without further explanation of its ability, we take the liberty of actually implementing the idea it had in all simplicity.

The publication of the Assembly proceedings will only become a reality when they are treated as "public facts", i.e., as subject-matter for the press. The last Rhine Province Assembly is the one with which we are most immediately concerned.

We begin with its "Debates on Freedom of the Press" and must remark as a preliminary that, while we sometimes give our own positive view of this question as a participant, in later articles we shall follow and present the course of the proceedings more as a historical spectator.

The nature of the proceedings themselves determines this difference in the method of presentation. For in all the other debates we find that the various opinions of the Assembly representatives are on about the same level. In the question of the press, on the other hand, the opponents of a free press have a considerable advantage. Apart from the catchwords and commonplaces which fill the air, we find among these opponents of press freedom a pathological emotion, a passionate partisanship, which gives them a real, not an imaginary, attitude to the press, whereas the defenders of the press in this Assembly have on the whole no real relation to what they are defending. They have never come to know freedom of the press as a vital need. For them it is a matter of the head, in which the heart plays no part. For them it is an "exotic" plant, to which they are attached by mere "sentiment". Hence it happens that all too general, vague arguments are put forward to counter the especially "weighty" grounds of the opponents, and the most narrow-minded idea is held to be important as long as it is not demolished.

Goethe once said that the painter succeeds only with a type of feminine beauty which he has loved in at least one living being. [J] Freedom of the press, too, has its beauty — if not exactly a feminine one — which one must have loved to be able to defend it. If I truly love something, I feel that its existence is essential, that it is something which I need, without which my nature can have no fall, satisfied, complete existence. The above-mentioned defenders of freedom of the press seem to enjoy a complete existence even in the absence of any freedom of the press.


Chapter 2: [Opponents of a Free Press]



[A] The reference is to the article "Die inlandische Presse u. die inlandische Statistik", published in the Allgemeine Preussische Staats-Zeitung No. 86, March 26, 1842. Marx cited mainly from this article, and also from two other articles, "Die Wirkung der Zensur-Verfügung vom 24. Dezember 1841" and "Die Besprechung inlandischer Angelegenheiten," published in the same newspaper in Nos. 75 and 78, March 16 and 19, 1842, respectively

[B] Vossische Zeitung--the name given after its owner to the daily Königlich privilegirte Berlinsche Zeitung von Staats- und gelehrten Sachen.

[C] Spenerche Zeitung--the name given after its publisher to the Berlinische Nachrichten von Staats- und gelehrten Sachen which was a semi-official government organ at the beginning of the 1840s.

[D] Marx ironically compares Prussian officialdom's enthusiasm for statistics with the ancient philosophical systems which assigned a special importance to signs and numbers. He hints in particular at the ancient Chinese "I Ching" writings, of which Confucius was considered in the nineteenth century to be one of the first commentators. According to the philosophical conception laid down in them, ku signs, which were formed from various combinations of three continuous or broken lines, symbolised things and natural phenomena.

When calling Pythagoras the "universal statistician" Marx had in mind the ancient Greek philosophers' conceptions of number as the essence of all things.

[E] Lorenz Oken

[F] The reference is to positive philosophy.

[G] Heraclitus

[H] By this Marx meant Heraclitus' maxim: The dry soul is the wisest and the best.

[I] F. Schiller, Die Worte des Glaubens

[J] J. Goethe, Verschiedenes über Kunst. Kapitel 2.