Karl Marx
On Freedom of the Press

[On the Assembly of the Estates]

The speaker from the knightly estate, to whom we now come, wages his polemic not against the peoples, but against persons. He questions human freedom in freedom of the press, and law in the law of the press. Before dealing with the actual question of freedom of the press, he takes up the question of unabridged and daily publication of the Assembly debates. We shall follow him step by step.

"The first of the proposals for publication of our proceedings suffices." "Let it be in the hands of the Provincial Assembly to make a wise use of the permission granted."

That is precisely the punctum quaestionis. [A] The province believes that the Provincial Assembly will be under its control only when the publication of the debates is no longer left to the arbitrary decision of the Assembly in its wisdom, but has become a legal necessity. We should have to call the new concession a new step backwards if it had to be interpreted in such a way that publication depends on an arbitrary decision by the Assembly of the Estates.

Privileges of the estates are in no way rights of the province. On the contrary, the rights of the province cease when they become privileges of the estates. Thus the estates of the Middle Ages appropriated for themselves all the country's constitutional rights and turned them into privileges against the country.

The citizen does not want to have anything to do with right as a privilege. Can he regard it as a right if new privileged persons are added to the old ones?

In this way, the rights of the Provincial Assembly are no longer rights of the province, but rights against the province, and the Assembly itself would be the greatest wrong against the province but with the mystical significance of being supposed to embody its greatest right.

How greatly the speaker from the knightly estate is imbued with this medieval conception of the Assembly, how unreservedly he upholds the privilege of the estate against the rights of the province, will be seen from the continuation of his speech.

"The extension of this permission" (for publication of the debates) "could only result from inner conviction, but not from external influences."

A surprising turn of phrase! The influence of the province on its Assembly is characterised as something external to which the conviction of the Assembly of the Estates is contrasted as a delicate inner feeling whose highly sensitive nature calls out to the province: Noli me tangere! [B] This plaintive rhetoric about "inner conviction" in contrast to the rude, external, unauthorised north wind of "public conviction" is the more noteworthy since the purpose of the proposal was precisely to make the inner conviction of the Assembly of the Estates external. Here too, of course, there is an inconsistency. Where it seems to the speaker more convenient, in church controversies, he appeals to the province.

"We," continues the speaker, "would let it" (publication) "take place where we consider this expedient, and would restrict it where an extension would appear to us purposeless or even harmful."

We will do what we like. Sic volo, sic jubeo, stat pro ratione voluntas. [C] It is truly the language of a ruler, which naturally has a pathetic flavour when coming from a modern baron.

Who are we? The estates. The publication of the debates is intended for the province and not for the estates, but the speaker teaches us to know better. Publication of the debates also is a privilege of the Assembly of the Estates, which has the right, if it thinks fit, to have its wisdom echoed by the many voices of the press.

The speaker knows only the province of the estates, not the estates of the province. The Assembly of the Estates has a province to which the privilege of its activity extends, but the province has no estates through which it could itself be active. Of course, the province has the right, under prescribed conditions, to create these gods for itself, but as soon as they are created, it must, like a fetish worshipper, forget that these gods are its own handiwork.

In this connection there is no telling, inter alia, why a monarchy without a Provincial Assembly is not of more value than a monarchy with a Provincial Assembly, for if the Assembly does not represent the will of the province, we have more confidence in the public intelligence of the government than in the private intelligence of landed property.

We are confronted here with the peculiar spectacle, due perhaps to the nature of the Provincial Assembly, of the province having to fight not so much through its representatives as against them. According to the speaker, the Assembly does not regard the general rights of the province as the Assembly's only privileges, for in that case the daily unabridged publication of the Assembly proceedings would be a new right of the Assembly, because it would be a new right of the province; on the contrary, according to the speaker, the province must regard the privileges of the Assembly of the Estates as the province's only rights; and why not also the privileges of some class of officials and of the nobility or the clergy!

Indeed, our speaker declares quite openly that the privileges of the Assembly of the Estates decrease in proportion as the rights of the province increase.

"Just as it seems to him desirable that here in the Assembly there should be freedom of discussion and that an over-anxious weighing of words should be avoided, it seems to him equally necessary, in order to maintain this freedom of expression and this frankness of speech, that our words at the time should be judged only by those for whom they are intended."

Precisely because freedom of discussion, the speaker concludes, is desirable in our Assembly — and what freedoms would we not find desirable where we are concerned? — precisely for that reason freedom of discussion is not desirable in the province. Because it is desirable that we speak frankly, it is still more desirable to keep the province in thrall to secrecy. Our words are not intended for the province.

One must acknowledge the tact with which the speaker has perceived that by unabridged publication of its debates the Assembly would become a right of the province instead of a privilege of the Assembly of the Estates, that the Assembly, having become an immediate object of the public spirit, would have to decide to be a personification of the latter, and that, having been put in the light of the general consciousness, it would have to renounce its particular nature in favour of the general one.

But whereas the knightly speaker mistakenly regards personal privileges and individual freedoms vis-à-vis the nation and the government as general rights, and thereby unquestionably and pertinently expresses the exclusive spirit of his estate, on the other hand he interprets the spirit of the province in an absolutely wrong way by likewise transforming its general demands into personal desires.

Thus the speaker seems to impute to the province a personally passionate curiosity as regards our words (i.e., those of prominent persons in the Assembly of the Estates).

We assure him that the province is by no means curious about "the words" of the representatives of the estates as individuals, and only "such" words can they rightly call "their" words. On the contrary, the province demands that the words of the representatives of the estates should be converted into the publicly audible voice of the country.

The question is whether the province should be conscious of being represented or not! Should a new mystery of representation be added to the mystery of government? In the government, too, the people is represented. Hence a new representation of the people through the estates is quite meaningless unless its specific character is precisely that in this case matters are not dealt with on behalf of the province but, on the contrary, the province itself deals with them; that the province is not represented in it but rather represents itself. A representation which is divorced from the consciousness of those whom it represents is no representation. What I do not know, I do not worry about. It is a senseless contradiction that the functioning of the state, which primarily expresses the self-activity of the individual provinces, takes place without their formal co-operation, without their joint knowledge; it is a senseless contradiction that my self-activity should consist of acts unknown to me and done by another.

A publication of the Assembly proceedings that depends on the arbitrary ruling of the Assembly of the Estates, however, is worse than none at all, for if the Assembly tells me not what it is in reality, but what it wants to seem to be in my eyes, I shall take it for what it gives itself out to be, for mere semblance, and things are bad when semblance has a legal existence.

Indeed, can even daily, unabridged publication by printing be rightly called unabridged and public? Is there no abridgement in substituting the written for the spoken word, graphic systems for persons, action on paper for real action? Or does publicity consist only in a real matter being reported to the public, and not rather in its being reported to the real public, i.e., not to an imaginary reading public, but to the living and actually present public?

Nothing is more contradictory than that the highest public activity of the province is secret, that in private lawsuits the doors of the court are open to the province, but that in its own lawsuit the province has to remain outside.

In its true consistent meaning, therefore, unabridged publication of the Assembly proceedings can only be full publicity for the activity of the Assembly.

Our speaker, however, proceeds to regard the Assembly as a kind of club.

"From many years' acquaintance, a good personal understanding has developed among most of us in spite of the most diverse views on various matters, a relationship which is inherited by newcomers.

"Precisely for that reason we are most of all able to appreciate the value of our words, and do so the more frankly as we allow ourselves to be less subject to external influences, which could only be useful if they came to us in the form of well-meaning counsel, but not in the form of a dogmatic judgment, of praise or blame, seeking to influence our personality through public opinion."

The Herr Speaker appeals to our feelings.

We are so intimate together, we discuss things so openly, we weigh the value of our words so exactly; are we to allow our attitude, which is so patriarchal, so distinguished, so convenient, to be changed by the judgment of the province, which perhaps attaches less value to our words?

God help us! The Assembly cannot bear the light of day. We feel more at ease in the darkness of private life. If the whole province has sufficient confidence to entrust its rights to single individuals, it is obvious that these individuals are condescending enough to accept the confidence of the province, but it would be really extravagant to demand that they should repay like for like and trustingly surrender themselves, their achievements, their personalities, to the judgment of the province, which has already pronounced a significant judgment on them. In any case, it is more important that the personality of the representatives of the estates should not be endangered by the province than that the interests of the province should not be endangered by the representatives of the estates.

We want to be both fair and very gracious. It is true that we — and we are a sort of government — permit no dogmatic judgment, no praise or blame, no influence of public opinion on our persona sacrosancta, but we do allow well-meaning counsel, not in the abstract sense that it means well for the country, but in the fuller-sounding sense that it expresses a passionate tenderness for the members of the estates, a specially high opinion of their excellence.

True, one might think that if publicity is harmful to good understanding among us, then the latter must be harmful to publicity. However this sophistry forgets that the Provincial Assembly is the Assembly of the Estates and not the Assembly of the Province. And who could resist the most convincing of all arguments? If, in accordance with the constitution, the province appoints estates to represent its general intelligence, it thereby totally renounces all its own judgment and understanding, which are now solely incorporated in the chosen representatives. just as the legend has it that great inventors were put to death or, what is no legend, that they were buried alive in fortresses as soon as they had imparted their secret to the ruler, so the political reason of the province always falls on its own sword as soon as it has made its great invention of the Assembly, but of course to rise again like the phoenix for the next elections.

After these obtrusively emotional descriptions of the dangers threatening the personalities of the estates from outside, i.e., from the province, through publication of the proceedings, the speaker closes this diatribe with the guiding thought that we have traced through his speech up to now.

"Parliamentary freedom," a very fine-sounding expression, "is in its first period of development. It must gain by protection and care that internal force and independence which are absolutely necessary before it can be exposed without detriment to external storms."

Once again the old fatal antithesis of the Assembly as something internal and the province as something external.

In any case, we have long been of the opinion that parliamentary freedom is at the beginning of its beginning, and the above speech has convinced us afresh that the primitiae studiorum in politicis [D] have still not been completed. But by that we by no means imply — and the above speech once again confirms our opinion — that the Assembly should be given a still longer time in which to continue its independent ossification in opposition to the province. Perhaps by parliamentary freedom the speaker understands the freedom of the old French parliaments. According to his own admission, a many years' acquaintance prevails among the Assembly of the Estates, its spirit is even transmitted as a hereditary disease to the homines novi, yet the time has still not come for publicity? The Twelfth Assembly may give the same reply as the Sixth, only with the more emphatic expression that it is too independent to allow itself to be deprived of the aristocratic privilege of secret proceedings.

Of course, the development of parliamentary freedom in the old French sense, independence from public opinion, and the stagnation of the caste spirit, advance most thoroughly through isolation, but to warn against precisely this development cannot be premature. A truly political assembly flourishes only under the great protection of the public spirit, just as living things flourish only in the open air. Only "exotic" plants, which have been transferred to a climate that is foreign to them, require the protection and care of a greenhouse. Does the speaker regard the Assembly as an "exotic" plant in the free, serene climate of the Rhine Province?

In view of the fact that our speaker from the knightly estate expounded with almost comic seriousness, with almost melancholy dignity and almost religious pathos, the thesis of the lofty wisdom of the Assembly of the Estates, as also of its medieval freedom and independence, the uninitiated will be surprised to see him sink in the question of the freedom of the press from the lofty wisdom of the Provincial Assembly to the general lack of wisdom of the human race, from the independence and freedom of the privileged social estates he had extolled only just before to the fundamental lack of freedom and independence of human nature. We are not surprised to encounter here one of the present-day numerous champions of the Christian-knightly, modern feudal principle, in short the romantic principle.

These gentlemen, because they want to regard freedom not as the natural gift of the universal sunlight of reason, but as the supernatural gift of a specially favourable constellation of the stars, because they regard freedom as merely an individual property of certain persons and social estates, are in consequence compelled to include universal reason and universal freedom among the bad ideas and phantoms of "logically constructed systems". In order to save the special freedoms of privilege, they proscribe the universal freedom of human nature. Since, however, the bad brood of the nineteenth century, and the very consciousness of the modern knights that has been infected by this century, cannot comprehend what is in itself incomprehensible, because devoid of idea, namely, how internal, essential, universal determinations prove to be linked with certain human individuals by external, fortuitous, particular features, without being connected with the human essence, with reason in general, and therefore common to all individuals — because of this they necessarily have recourse to the miraculous and the mystical. Further, because the real position of these gentlemen in the modern state does not at all correspond to the notion they have of that position, because they live in a world beyond the real one, and because therefore imagination is their head and heart, being dissatisfied with their practical activity, they necessarily have recourse to theory, but to the theory of the other world, to religion, which in their hands, however, is given a polemical bitterness impregnated with political tendencies and becomes more or less consciously only a holy cloak for very secular, but at the same time fantastic desires.

Thus we shall find that to practical demands our speaker counterposes a mystical religious theory of the imagination, to real theories — a pettily clever, pragmatically cunning wisdom of experience drawn from the most superficial practice, to the human understanding-superhuman holiness, and to the real holiness of ideas-the arbitrariness and disbelief characterising a base point of view. The more aristocratic, more nonchalant, and therefore more sober, language of the speaker from the princely estate is superseded here by emotional affectation and fantastically extravagant unction, which previously withdrew much more into the background before the feeling of privilege.

"The less it is possible to deny that the press nowadays is a political power, the more erroneous seems to him the equally widespread view that truth and light will emerge from the struggle between the good and the bad press and can be expected to become more widely and effectively disseminated. Man, individually and in the mass, is always one and the same. He is by his nature imperfect and immature and needs education as long as his development continues, and it ceases only with his death. The art of education, however, does not consist in punishing prohibited actions, but in furthering good influences and keeping away evil ones. It is, however, inseparable from this human imperfection that the siren song of evil has a powerful effect on the masses and opposes the simple and sober voice of truth as an obstacle which, even if not absolute, is in any case difficult to overcome. The bad press appeals only to men's passions; no means are too bad for it when it is a question of attaining its aim by arousing passions — that aim being the greatest possible dissemination of bad principles and the greatest possible furtherance of bad frames of mind; it has at its disposal all the advantages of that most dangerous of all offensives, for which there are objectively no restrictions of right and subjectively no laws of morality or even of external decency. On the other hand, the good press is always confined to the defensive. For the most part its effect can only be that of defending, restraining and consolidating, without being able to boast of any significant progress in enemy territory. It is good fortune enough if external obstacles do not render this still more difficult".

We have given this passage in full in order not to weaken its possible emotional impression on the reader.

The speaker has put himself à la hauteur des principes. [E] In order to combat freedom of the press, the thesis of the permanent immaturity of the human race has to be defended. It is sheer tautology to assert that if absence of freedom is men's essence, freedom is contrary to his essence. Malicious sceptics could be daring enough not to take the speaker at his word.

If the immaturity of the human race is the mystical ground for opposing freedom of the press, then the censorship at any rate is a highly reasonable means against the maturity of the human race.

What undergoes development is imperfect. Development ends only with death. Hence it would be truly consistent to kill man in order to free him from this state of imperfection. That at least is what the speaker concludes in order to kill freedom of the press. In his view, true education consists in keeping a person wrapped up in a cradle throughout his life, for as soon as he learns to walk, he learns also to fall, and only by falling does he learn to walk. But if we all remain in swaddling-clothes, who is to wrap us in them? If we all remain in the cradle, who is to rock us? If we are all prisoners, who is to be prison warder?

Man, individually and in the mass, is imperfect by nature. De principiis non est disputandum. [F] Granted! What follows from that? The arguments of our speaker are imperfect, governments are imperfect, assemblies are imperfect, freedom of the press is imperfect, every sphere of human existence is imperfect. Hence if one of these spheres ought not to exist because of this imperfection, none of them has the right to exist, man in general has no right to exist.

Given man's fundamental imperfection — let us assume it is true — then we know in advance that all human institutions are imperfect. There is no need to touch on that further, it does not speak for them or against them, it is not their specific character, it is not their distinctive mark.

Amid all these imperfections, why should precisely the free press be perfect? Why does an imperfect provincial estate demand a perfect press?

The imperfect requires education. Is not education also human and therefore imperfect? Does not education itself also require education?

If then, by its very existence, everything human is imperfect, ought we therefore to lump everything together, have the same respect for everything, good and evil, truth and falsehood? The true conclusion must be that as in looking at a picture I have to leave the spot from which I see only blots of colour but not colours, irregularly intersecting lines but not a drawing, similarly I must abandon the point of view which shows me the world and human relations only in their most external appearance, and recognise that this point of view is unsuitable for judging the value of things; for how could I judge, distinguish things, from a point of view which admits only the one flat idea about the whole universe that everything in it is imperfect? This point of view itself is the most imperfect of all the imperfections it sees around it. We must therefore take the essence of the inner idea as the measure to evaluate the existence of things. Then we shall less allow ourselves to be led astray by a one-sided and trivial experience, since in such cases the result is indeed that all experience ceases, all judgment is abolished, all cows are black.

Rheinische Zeitung, No. 130, Supplement, May 10 1842


Chapter 4: [As a privilege of particular individuals or a privilege of the human mind?]



[A] The crux of the question.

[B] Touch me not!

[C] Thus I wish it, thus I order it; the will takes the place of reason (Juvenal Satires, vi, 223).

[D] Primary studies in politics.

[E] On the level of his principles.

[F] There can be no dispute about principles.