Karl Marx On Freedom of the Press

[Opponents of a Free Press]

The liberal opposition shows us the level of a political assembly, just as the opposition in general shows the level of development that a society has reached. A time in which it is philosophical audacity to doubt the existence of ghosts, in which it is regarded as a paradox to oppose witch trials, is the time in which ghosts and witch trials are legitimate. A country which, like ancient Athens, regards lickspittles, parasites and flatterers as exceptions to the good sense of the people, as fools among the people, is a country of independence and self-reliance. But a people which, like all peoples of the good old times, claims the right to think and utter the truth only for court-jesters, can only be a people without independence or personality. An assembly of the estates in which the opposition assures us that freedom of the will is inherent in human nature, is at least not an assembly in which freedom of the will prevails. The exception proves the rule. The liberal opposition shows us what the liberal position has become, to what extent freedom is embodied in man.

Therefore, if we have remarked that the defenders of freedom of the press in the Assembly of the Estates are by no means equal to their task, this applies still more to the Provincial Assembly as a whole.

Nevertheless, we begin our account of the Assembly proceedings at this point, not merely out of a special interest in freedom of the press, but equally out of a general interest in the Assembly. For we find the specific estate spirit nowhere more clearly, decisively and fully expressed than in the debates on the press. This holds good especially of the opposition to freedom of the press, just as in general it is in opposition to a general freedom that the spirit of a definite sphere in society, the individual interest of a particular estate and its natural one-sidedness of character are expressed most bluntly and recklessly and, as it were, show their teeth.

The debates provide us with a polemic of the princely social estate against freedom of the press, a polemic of the knightly estate, and a polemic of the urban estate, so that it is not the individual, but the social estate that conducts the polemic. What mirror, therefore, could reflect the inner nature of the Assembly better than the debates on the press?

We begin with the opponents of a free press, and, as is only fair, with a speaker from the princely estate.

We shall not deal with the content of the first part of his speech, to the effect "that freedom of the press and censorship are both evils, etc.", for this theme is more thoroughly expounded by another speaker. But we must not pass over his characteristic method of argument.

"Censorship," he said, "is a lesser evil than excesses on the part of the press." "This conviction has gradually so taken root in our Germany" (the question is: which part of Germany that is) "that the Federation too, issued laws on the subject, which Prussia joined in approving and observing."[A]

The Assembly discusses liberation of the press from its bonds. These bonds themselves, proclaims the speaker, the fetters with which the press is shackled, prove that it is not destined for free activity. Its fettered existence testifies against its essential nature. The laws against freedom of the press are a refutation of freedom of the press.

This is a diplomatic argument against all reform, one which most decisively expresses the classical theory of a certain party. [B]

Every restriction of freedom is a factual, irrefutable proof that at one time those who held power were convinced that freedom must be restricted, and this conviction then serves as a guiding principle for later views.

People were once ordered to believe that the earth did not go round the sun. Was Galileo refuted by this?

Similarly, in our Germany legal sanction was given to the conviction of the empire, which the individual princes shared, that serfdom was a quality inherent in certain human beings, that truth could be made most evident by surgical operation, we mean torture, and that the flames of hell could already be demonstrated to heretics by means of flames on earth.

Was not legal serfdom a factual proof against the rationalist fantasy that the human body was no object for handling and possession? Did not the primitive method of torture refute the false theory that truth could not be extracted by opening veins, that stretching limbs on the rack did not break down the victim's silence, that convulsions were not confessions?

Thus, in the speaker's opinion, the fact of censorship refutes freedom of the press, a statement which has its factual correctness, being a truth of such a factual character that its magnitude can be measured topographically, since beyond certain frontier barriers it ceases to be factual and true.

"Neither in speech nor in writing," we are further instructed, "neither in our Rhine Province nor in Germany as a whole, are any shackles to be seen on our true and nobler spiritual development."

The noble lustre of truth in our press is supposed to be a gift of the censorship.

We shall first of all turn the speaker's previous argument against himself; instead of a rational proof we shall give him an ordinance. In the recent Prussian censorship instruction it is officially made known that the press has hitherto been subjected to excessive restrictions, that it has still to achieve true national content. The speaker can see that convictions in our Germany are liable to change.

But what an illogical paradox to regard the censorship as a basis for improving our press!

The greatest orator of the French revolution, whose voix toujours tonnante [C] still echoes in our day; the lion whose roar one must have heard oneself in order to join with the people in calling out to him: "Well roared, lion!" [D] — Mirabeau — developed his talent in prison. Are prisons on that account schools of eloquence?

If, despite all spiritual toll systems, the German spirit has become capable of large-scale enterprise, it is a truly princely prejudice to think that it is the customs barriers and cordons that have made it so. The spiritual development of Germany has gone forward not owing to, but in spite of, the censorship. If the press under the censorship becomes stunted and wretched, this is put forward as an argument against a free press although it only testifies against an unfree press. If the press, in spite of censorship, retains its characteristic essence, this is put forward in support of censorship although it only testifies in favour of the spirit and not the fetters.

By the way, "true and nobler development" is another question.

In the period of strict observance of censorship from 1819 to 1830 (later, in a large part of Germany although not in "our Germany", the censorship itself came under censorship owing to the circumstances of the time and the unusual convictions which had been formed) our literature experienced its "Abendblatt period", which can be called "true and noble and spiritual and rich in development" with as much right as the editor of the Abendzeitung, named "Winkler", had in humorously adopting the pseudonym "Bright", although we cannot even credit him with the brightness of a bog at midnight. This "backwoodsman" , [E] with the trade name "Bright" is the prototype of the literature of the time, and that Lenten period will convince posterity that if few saints could endure forty days without food, the whole of Germany, which was not even saint-like, managed to live over twenty years without producing or consuming spiritual nourishment. The press had become vile, and one could only hesitate to say whether the lack of understanding exceeded the lack of character, and whether the absence of form exceeded the absence of content, or the reverse. For Germany, criticism would reach its zenith if it could prove that that period never existed. The sole literary field in which at that time the pulse of a living spirit could still be felt, the philosophical field, ceased to speak German, for German had ceased to be the language of thought. The spirit spoke in incomprehensible mysterious words because comprehensible words were no longer allowed to be comprehended.

As far then as the example of Rhenish literature is concerned — and, of course, this example rather closely concerns the Rhine Province Assembly — one could wander through all five administrative districts with Diogenes' lantern and nowhere would one meet "this man". We do not regard this as a defect of the Rhine Province, but rather as a proof of its practical and political good sense. The Rhine Province can produce a "free press", but for an "unfree" one it lacks adroitness and illusions.

The literary period that has just ended, which we could call the "literary period of strict censorship", is therefore clear historical proof that the censorship has undoubtedly influenced the development of the German spirit in a disastrous, irresponsible way, and that therefore it is by no means destined, as the speaker imagined, to be magister bonarum artium. [F] Or should one understand by a "nobler and true press" one which bears its chains with decency?

If the speaker "took the liberty" of recalling "a well-known saying about the little finger and the whole hand", we take the liberty in return of asking whether it does not most befit the dignity of a government to give the spirit of the people not merely one whole hand but both hands whole?

As we have seen, our speaker disposes of the relation between censorship and spiritual development in a carelessly aristocratic, diplomatically sober way. He represents the negative aspect of his social estate still more resolutely in his attack on the historical shaping of freedom of the Press.

As regards freedom of the press among other nations, he says:

"England cannot serve as a measuring-rod, because, it is claimed, centuries ago conditions were historically created there which could not be brought about in any other country by the application of theories, but which had their justification in England's specific conditions."

"In Holland, freedom of the press was unable to save the country from an oppressive national debt and to a very large extent it helped to bring about a revolution which resulted in the loss of half the country."

We shall pass over France, to come back to it later.

"Finally, should it not be possible to find in Switzerland an Eldorado blessed by freedom of the press? Does one not think with disgust of the savage party quarrels carried on in the newspapers there, in which the parties, with a correct sense of their small degree of human dignity, are named after parts of an animal's body, being divided into horn-men and claw-men, and have made themselves despised by all their neighbours on account of their boorish, abusive speeches!"

The English press, he says, is not an argument in favour of freedom of the press in general, because of its historical foundations. The press in England has merit only because it developed historically, not as a press in general, for then, he alleges, it would have had to develop without historical foundations. History therefore has the merit here, and not the press. As if the press, too, were not part of history, as if the English press under Henry VIII, the Catholic Mary, Elizabeth and James did not have to wage a hard and often savage struggle in order to win for the English nation its historical foundations!

And would it not, on the contrary, testify in favour of freedom of the press if the English press, having the greatest freedom from restraint, did not destructively affect the historical foundations? However, the speaker is not consistent.

The English press is no proof in favour of the press in general, because it is English. The Dutch press testifies against the press in general, although it is only Dutch. In the one case all the merits of the press are ascribed to the historical foundations, in the other case all the defects of the historical foundations are ascribed to the press. In the one case the press is not supposed to have had its share also in historical progress, in the other case history is not supposed to have had its share also in the defects of the press. just as the press in England is bound up with the latter's history and specific conditions, so also in Holland and Switzerland.

Is the press supposed to reflect, abolish or develop the historical foundations? The speaker makes each into a matter of reproach for the press.

He blames the Dutch press, because of its historical development. It ought to have prevented the course of history, it ought to have saved Holland from an oppressive national debt! What an unhistorical demand! The Dutch press could not prevent the period of Louis XIV; the Dutch press could not prevent the English navy under Cromwell from rising to the first place in Europe; it could not cast a spell on the ocean which would have saved Holland from the painful role of being the arena of the warring continental powers; it was as little able as all the censors in Germany put together to annul Napoleon's despotic decrees.

But has a free press ever increased national debts? When, under the regency of the Duke of Orleans, the whole of France plunged into Law's financial lunacies, who opposed this fantastic storm and stress period of money speculations except for a few satirists, who of course received not banknotes but notes sending them to the Bastille.

The demand that the press should be the saviour from the national debt, which can be extended to say that it should also pay the debts of individuals, reminds one of that writer who always grumbled at the doctor because, although the latter cured his bodily ailments, he did not at the same time correct the misprints in his writings. Freedom of the press is as little able to promise to make a human being or a nation perfect as the physician. It is itself no perfection. [G] What a trivial way of behaving it is to abuse what is good for being some specific good and not all good at once, for being this particular good and not some other. Of course, if freedom of the press were all in all it would make all other functions of a nation, and the nation itself, superfluous.

The speaker blames the Dutch press for the Belgian revolution.

No one with any historical education will deny that the separation of Belgium from Holland was an incomparably greater historical event than their union. [H]

The press in Holland is said to have brought about the Belgian revolution. Which press? The progressive or the reactionary? It is a question which we can also raise in France; if the speaker blames the clerical Belgian press, which at the same time was democratic, he should also blame the clerical press in France, which at the same time was absolutist. Both helped to overthrow their governments. In France it was not freedom of the press but censorship that made for revolution.

But leaving this out of account, the Belgian revolution appeared at first as a spiritual revolution, as a revolution of the press. The assertion that the press caused the Belgian revolution has no sense beyond that. But is that a matter for blame? Must the revolution at once assume a material form? Strike instead of speaking? The government can materialise a spiritual revolution; a material revolution must first spiritualise the government.

The Belgian revolution is a product of the Belgian spirit. So the press, too, the freest manifestation of the spirit in our day, has its share in the Belgian revolution. The Belgian press would not have been the Belgian press if it had stood aloof from the revolution, but equally the Belgian revolution would not have been Belgian if it had not been at the same time a revolution of the press. The Revolution of a people is total; that is, each sphere carries it out in its own way; why not also the press as the press?

In blaming the Belgian press, therefore, the speaker is blaming Belgium, not the press. It is here that we find the starting point of his historical view of freedom of the press. The popular character of the free press — and it is well known that even the artist does not paint great historical pictures with water-colours — the historical individuality of the free press, which makes it the specific expression of its specific popular spirit, are repugnant to the speaker from the princely estate. He demands instead that the press of the various nations should always be a press holding his views, a press of haute volée [I] and should revolve around certain individuals instead of around the spiritual heavenly bodies, the nations. This demand stands out undisguised in his verdict on the Swiss press.

We permit ourselves a preliminary question. Why did the speaker not recall that the Swiss press through Albrecht von Haller opposed the Voltairean enlightenment? Why does he not bear in mind that even if Switzerland is not exactly an Eldorado, nevertheless it has produced the prophet of the future princely Eldorado, once again a certain Herr von Haller, who in his Restauration der Staatswissenschaften laid the foundation for the "nobler and true" press, for the Berliner politisches Wochenblatt? By their fruits ye shall know them. And what other country in the world could oppose to Switzerland a fruit of this luscious legitimacy?

The speaker finds fault with the Swiss press for adopting the "animal party names" of "horn-men and claw-men", in short because it speaks in the Swiss language and to Swiss people, who live in a certain patriarchal harmony with oxen and cows. The press of this country is the press of precisely this country. There is nothing more to be said about it. At the same time, however, a free press transcends the limitations of a country's particularism, as once again the Swiss press proves.

As regards animal party names in particular, let us remark that religion itself reveres the animal as a symbol of the spiritual. Our speaker, of course, will condemn the Indian press, which has revered with religious fervour Sabala the cow and Hanuman the monkey. He will reproach the Indian press for the Indian religion, just as he does the Swiss press for the Swiss character. But there is a press which he will hardly want to subject to censorship; we refer to the holy press, the Bible. Does this not divide all mankind into the two great parties of sheep and goats? Does not God Himself describe his attitude to the houses of Judah and Israel in the following terms: I shall be to the house of Judah as a moth and to the house of Israel as a maggot. [J] Or, what is more familiar to us laymen, is there not a princely literature which turns all anthropology into zoology? We mean the literature of heraldry. That contains things still more curious than horn-men and claw-men.

What, therefore, was the accusation the speaker levelled against freedom of the press? That the defects of a nation are at the same time the defects of its press, that the press is the ruthless language and manifest image of the historical spirit of the people. Did he prove that the spirit of the German people is an exception to this great natural privilege? He showed that every nation expresses its spirit through its press. Ought not the philosophically educated spirit of the Germans to be entitled to what, according to the speaker's own assertion, is to be found among the animal-fettered Swiss?

Finally, does the speaker think that the national defects of a free press are not just as much national defects of the censors? Are the censors excluded from the historical whole? Are they unaffected by the spirit of a time? Unfortunately, it may be so, but what man of sound mind would not rather pardon sins of the nation and the time in the press than sins against the nation and the time in the censorship?

We remarked in the introduction that the various speakers voice the polemic of their particular estate against freedom of the press. The speaker from the princely estate put forward in the first place diplomatic grounds. He proved that freedom of the press was wrong on the basis of the princely convictions clearly enough expressed in the censorship laws. He considered that the nobler and true development of the German spirit has been created by the restrictions from above. Finally, he waged a polemic against the peoples and with noble dread repudiated freedom of the press as the tactless, indiscreet speech of the people addressed to itself.

Rheinische Zeitung
No. 128, Supplement
May 8 1842


Chapter 3: [On the Assembly of the Estates]



[A] The reference is to the Provisional Federal Act on the Press for the German states adopted on September 20, 1819.

[B] The reference is to the historical school of law--a trend in history and jurisprudence which originated in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century. Its representatives (Gustav Hugo and Friedrich Carl von Savigny) tried to justify the privileges enjoyed by the nobility and the existence of feudal institutions by eternal historical traditions. An assessment of this school is given by Marx in the article "The Philosophical Manifesto of the Historical School of Law".

[C] Ever thundering voice.

[D] W. Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, Scene 1.

[E] In German "Krähwinker", a pun on the man's name.

[F] Teacher of the fine arts.

[G] According to the errata to the Rheinische Zeitung No 130, may 10, 1842, this should read: "It is itself perfection."

[H] By the decision of the Vienna Congress of 1815, Belgium and Holland were incorporated in the single kingdom of the Netherlands, Belgium being actually subordinated to Holland. Belgium became an independent constitutional monarchy after the bourgeois revolution of 1830.

[I] High society.

[J] Hosea 5:12, paraphrased.