Karl Marx
On Freedom of the Press

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

From the standpoint of the idea, it is self-evident that freedom of the press has a justification quite different from that of censorship because it is itself an embodiment of the idea, an embodiment of freedom, a positive good, whereas censorship is an embodiment of unfreedom, the polemic of a world outlook of semblance against the world outlook of essence; it has a merely negative nature.

No! No! No! our speaker breaks in. I do not find fault with the semblance, but with the essence. Freedom is the wicked feature of freedom of the press. Freedom creates the possibility of evil. Therefore freedom is evil.

Evil freedom!

"He has stabbed her in the dark forest
And sunk the body in the depths of the Rhine! [A]


"This time I must talk to you,
Lord and master, hear me calmly!" [B]

But does not freedom of the press exist in the land of censorship? The press in general is a realisation of human freedom. Consequently, where is a press there is freedom of the press.

True, in the land of censorship the state has no freedom of the press, but one organ of the state has it, viz., the government. Apart from the fact that official government documents enjoy perfect freedom of the press, does not the censor exercise daily an unconditional freedom of the press, if not directly, then indirectly?

Writers are, as it were, his secretaries. When the secretary does not express the opinion of his chief, the latter strikes out the botch. Hence the censorship makes the press.

The censor's deletions are for the press what the straight lines — kus — of the Chinese are for their thought. The censor's kus are the categories of literature, and it is well known that the categories are the typical souls of the whole content.

Freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents implement it while combating its reality; they want to appropriate for, themselves as a most precious ornament what they have rejected as an ornament of human nature.

No man combats freedom; at most he combats the freedom of others. Hence every kind of freedom has always existed, only at one time as a special privilege, at another as a universal right.

The question has now for the first time been given a consistent meaning. It is not a question whether freedom of the press ought to exist, for it always exists. The question is whether freedom of the press is a privilege of particular individuals or whether it is a privilege of the human mind. The question is whether a right of one side ought to be a wrong for the other side. The question is whether "freedom of the mind" has more right than "freedom against the mind".

If, however, the "free press" and "freedom of the press" as the realisation of "universal freedom" are to be rejected, then this applies still more to censorship and the censored press as the realisation of a special freedom, for how can the species be good if the genus is bad? If the speaker were consistent he would have to reject not the free press, but the press as a whole. According to him, the press would only be good if it were not a product of freedom, i.e., not a human product. Hence in general only animals or gods would have the right to a press.

Or ought we perhaps — the speaker dare not say it outright — to suppose divine inspiration of the government and of the speaker himself?

If a private person boasts of divine inspiration, there is only one speaker in our society who can refute him officially, viz., the psychiatrist.

English history, however, has sufficiently well demonstrated how the assertion of divine inspiration from above gives rise to the counter-assertion of divine inspiration from below; Charles I went to the scaffold as the result of divine inspiration from below.

True, our speaker from the knightly estate proceeds, as we shall hear later, to describe censorship and freedom of the press, the censored press and the free press, as two evils, but he does not go so far as to admit that the press in general is an evil.

On the contrary! He divides the entire press into "good" and bad".

About the bad press, we are told something incredible: that its aim is badness and the greatest possible dissemination of badness. We pass over the fact that the speaker has too much confidence in our credulity when he demands that we should take his word for it and believe in badness as a profession. We merely remind him of the axiom that everything human is imperfect. Will not, therefore, the bad press also be imperfectly bad, and therefore good, and the good press imperfectly good, and therefore bad?

The speaker, however, shows us the reverse side. He asserts that the bad press is better than the good press, for it is always on the offensive, whereas the good press is on the defensive. But he has himself told us that man's development ends only with his death. Of course, he has not told us much by that, he has said nothing but that life ends with death. But if human life is development and the good press is always on the defensive, acting only by "defending, restraining and consolidating" itself, does it not thereby continually oppose development, and therefore life? Hence either this good defensive press is bad, or development is the bad thing. In view of this, the speaker's previous assertion, too, that the aim of the "bad press is the greatest possible dissemination of bad principles and the greatest possible furtherance of bad frames of mind" loses its mystical incredibility in a rational interpretation: the bad feature of the bad press lies in the greatest possible dissemination of principles and the greatest possible furtherance of a frame of mind.

The relation of the good press to the bad press becomes still stranger when the speaker assures us that the good press is impotent and the bad press omnipotent, for the former is without effect on the people, whereas the latter has an irresistible effect. For the speaker, the good press and the impotent press are identical. Does he want to say, therefore, that what is good is impotent or that what is impotent is good?

He contrasts the sober voice of the good press to the siren song of the bad press. But surely a sober voice allows of the best and most effective singing. The speaker seems to be acquainted only with the sensuous heat of passion, but not with the hot passion of truth, not with the victory-assured enthusiasm of reason, not the irresistible ardour of moral powers.

Under the frames of mind of the bad press he includes "pride, which recognises no authority in church and state", "envy", which preaches abolition of the aristocracy, and other things, which we shall deal with later. For the time being, let us be satisfied with the question: Whence does the speaker know that this isolated element is the good? If the universal powers of life are bad and we have heard that the bad is omnipotent, that it is what influences the masses, what or who has still any right to claim to be good? The arrogant assertion is this: my individuality is the good, those few individuals who are in accord with my individuality are the good, and the wicked, bad press refuses to recognise it. The bad press!

If at the beginning the speaker turned his attack on freedom of the press into an attack on freedom in general, here he turns it into an attack on the good. His fear of the bad is seen to be a fear of the good. Hence he founds censorship on a recognition of the bad and a refusal to recognise the good. Do I not despise a man to whom I say in advance: your opponent is bound to be victorious in the struggle, because, although you yourself are a very sober fellow and a very good neighbour, you are a very poor hero; because, although you bear consecrated arms, you do not know how to use them; because, although you and I, both of us, are perfectly convinced of your perfection, the world will never share this conviction; because, although things are all right as regards your intention, they are in a bad way as regards your energy?

Although the speaker's distinction between the good press and the bad press makes any further refutation superfluous, since this distinction becomes entangled in its own contradictions, nevertheless we must not lose sight of the main thing, namely, that the speaker has formulated the question quite incorrectly and has based himself on what he had to prove.

If one wants to speak of two kinds of press, the distinction between them must be drawn from the nature of the press itself, not from considerations lying outside it. The censored press or the free press, one of these two must be the good or the bad press. The debate turns precisely on whether the censored press or the free press is good or bad, i.e., whether it is in the nature of the press to have a free or unfree existence. To make the bad press a refutation of the free press is to maintain that the free press is bad and the censored press good, which is precisely what had to be proved.

Base frames of mind, personal intrigues, infamies, occur alike in the censored and the free press. Therefore the generic difference between them is not that they produce individual products of this or that kind; flowers grow also in swamps. We are concerned here with the essence, the inner character, which distinguishes the censored from the free press.

A free press that is bad does not correspond to its essence. The censored press with its hypocrisy, its lack of character, its eunuch's language, its dog-like tail-wagging, merely realises the inner conditions of its essential nature.

The censored press remains bad even when it turns out good products, for these products are good only insofar as they represent the free press within the censored press, and insofar as it is not in their character to be products of the censored press. The free press remains good even when it produces bad products, for the latter are deviations from the essential nature of the free press. A eunuch remains a bad human being even when he has a good voice. Nature remains good even when she produces monstrosities.

The essence of the free press is the characterful, rational, moral essence of freedom. The character of the censored press is the characterless monster of unfreedom; it is a civilised monster, a perfumed abortion.

Or does it still need to be proved that freedom of the press is in accord with the essence of the press, whereas censorship contradicts it? Is it not self-evident that external barriers to a spiritual life are not part of the inner nature of this life, that they deny this life and do not affirm it?

In order really to justify censorship, the speaker would have had to prove that censorship is part of the essence of freedom of the press; instead he proves that freedom is not part of man's essence. He rejects the whole genus in order to obtain one good species, for is not freedom after all the generic essence of all spiritual existence, and therefore of the press as well? In order to abolish the possibility of evil, he abolishes the possibility of good and realises evil, for only that which is a realisation of freedom can be humanly good.

We shall therefore continue to regard the censored press as a bad press so long as it has not been proved to us that censorship arises from the very essence of freedom of the press.

But even supposing that censorship and the nature of the press come into being together, although no animal, let alone an intelligent being, comes into the world in chains, what follows from that? That freedom of the press, as it exists from the official viewpoint, that is, the censorship, also needs censorship. And who is to censor the governmental press, if not the popular press?

True, another speaker thinks that the evil of censorship would be removed by being tripled, by the local censorship being put under provincial censorship, and the latter in its turn under Berlin censorship, freedom of the press being made one-sided, and the censorship many-sided. So many roundabout ways merely to live! Who is to censor the Berlin censorship? Let us therefore return to our speaker.

At the very beginning, he informed us that no light would emerge from the struggle between the good and the bad press. But, we may now ask, does he not want to make this useless struggle permanent? According to his own statement, is not the struggle itself between the censorship and the press a struggle between the good and the bad press?

Censorship does not abolish the struggle, it makes it one-sided, it converts an open struggle into a hidden one, it converts a struggle over principles into a struggle of principle without power against power without principle. The true censorship, based on the very essence of freedom of the press, is criticism. This is the tribunal which freedom of the press gives rise to of itself. Censorship is criticism as a monopoly of the government. But does not criticism lose its rational character if it is not open but secret, if it is not theoretical but practical, if it is not above parties but itself a party, if it operates not with the sharp knife of reason but with the blunt scissors of arbitrariness, if it only exercises criticism but will not submit to it, if it disavows itself during its realisation, and, finally, if it is so uncritical as to mistake an individual person for universal wisdom, peremptory orders for rational statements, ink spots for patches of sunlight, the crooked deletions of the censor for mathematical constructions, and crude force for decisive arguments?

During our exposal, we have shown how the fantastic, unctuous, soft-hearted mysticism of the speaker turns into the hard-hearted-ness of pettifogging mental pragmatism and into the narrowmindedness of an unprincipled empirical calculation. In his arguments on the relation between the censorship law and the press law, between preventive and repressive measures, he spares us this trouble by proceeding himself to make a conscious application of his mysticism.

"Preventive or repressive measures, censorship or press law, this alone is the question at issue, in which connection it would not be inexpedient to examine somewhat more closely the dangers which have to be removed on one side or the other. Whereas censorship seeks to prevent what is evil, the press law seeks by punishment to guard against its repetition. Like all human institutions, both are imperfect, but the question here is which is the less so. Since it is a matter of purely spiritual things, one problem — indeed the most important for both of them — can never be solved. That is the problem of finding a form which expresses the intention of the legislator so clearly and definitely that right and wrong seem to be sharply separated and all arbitrariness removed. But what is arbitrariness except acting according to individual discretion? And how are the effects of individual discretion to be removed where purely spiritual things are concerned? To find the guiding line, so sharply drawn that inherent in it is the necessity of having to be applied in every single case in the meaning intended by the legislator, that is the philosopher's stone, which has not been discovered so far and is hardly likely to be. Hence arbitrariness, if by that one understands acting according to individual discretion, is inseparable both from censorship and from the press law. Therefore we have to consider both in their necessary imperfection and its consequences. If the censorship suppresses much that is good, the press law will not be capable of preventing much that is bad. Truth, however, cannot be suppressed for long. The more obstacles are put in its way, the more keenly it pursues its goal, and the more resoundingly it achieves it. But the bad word, like Greek fire, cannot be stopped after it has left the ballista, and is incalculable in its effects, because for it nothing is holy, and it is inextinguishable because it finds nourishment and means of propagation in human hearts."

The speaker is not fortunate in his comparisons. He is overcome with a poetic exultation as soon as he begins to describe the omnipotence of the bad. We have already heard how the voice of the good has an impotent, because sober, sound when pitted against the siren song of evil. Now evil even becomes Greek fire, whereas the speaker has nothing at all with which to compare truth, and if we were to put his "sober" words into a comparison, truth would be at best a flint, which scatters sparks the more brightly the more it is struck. A fine argument for slave traders — to bring out the Negro's human nature by flogging, an excellent maxim for the legislator — to issue repressive laws against truth so that it will the more keenly pursue its goal. The speaker seems to have respect for truth only when it becomes primitive and spontaneous and is manifested tangibly. The more barriers you put in the way of truth, the more vigorous is the truth you obtain! Up with the barriers!

But let us allow the sirens to sing!

The speaker's mystical "theory of imperfection" has at last borne its earthly fruits; it has thrown its moonstones at us; let us examine the moonstones!

Everything is imperfect. The censorship is imperfect, the press law is imperfect. That determines their essence. There is nothing more to say about the correctness of their idea, nothing remains for us to do except, from the standpoint of the very lowest empiricism, to find out by calculating probabilities on which side the most dangers lie. It is purely a difference of time whether measures are taken to prevent the evil itself by means of censorship or repetition of the evil by means of the press law.

One sees how the speaker, by the empty phrase about "human imperfection", manages to evade the essential, internal, characteristic difference between censorship and press law and transforms the controversy from a question of principle into a fairground dispute as to whether more bruised noses result from the censorship or from the press law.

If, however, a contrast is drawn between the press law and the censorship law, it is, in the first place, not a question of their consequences, but of their basis, not of their individual application, but of their legitimacy in general. Montesquieu has already taught us that despotism is more convenient to apply than legality and Machiavelli asserts that for princes the bad has better consequences than the good. Therefore, if we do not want to confirm the old Jesuitical maxim that a good end — and we doubt even the goodness of the end — justifies bad means, we have above all to investigate whether censorship by its essence is a good means.

The speaker is right in calling the censorship law a preventive measure, it is a precautionary measure of the police against freedom, but he is wrong in calling the press law a repressive measure. It is the rule of freedom itself which makes itself the yardstick of its own exceptions. The censorship measure is not a law. The press law is not a measure.

In the press law, freedom punishes. In the censorship law, freedom is punished. The censorship law is a law of suspicion against freedom. The press law is a vote of confidence which freedom gives itself. The press law punishes the abuse of freedom. The censorship law punishes freedom as an abuse. It treats freedom as a criminal, or is it not regarded in every sphere as a degrading punishment to be under police supervision? The censorship law has only the form of a law. The press law is a real law.

The press law is a real law because it is the positive existence of freedom. It regards freedom as the normal state of the press, the press as the mode of existence of freedom, and hence only comes into conflict with a press offence as an exception that contravenes its own rules and therefore annuls itself. Freedom of the press asserts itself as a press law, against attacks on freedom of the press itself, i.e., against press offences. The press law declares freedom to be inherent in the nature of the criminal. Hence what he has done against freedom he has done against himself and this self-injury appears to him as a punishment in which he sees a recognition of his freedom.

The press law, therefore, is far from being a repressive measure against freedom of the press, a mere means of preventing the repetition of a crime through fear of punishment. On the contrary, the absence of press legislation must be regarded as an exclusion of freedom of the press from the sphere of legal freedom, for legally recognised freedom exists in the state as law. Laws are in no way repressive measures against freedom, any more than the law of gravity is a repressive measure against motion, because while, as the law of gravitation, it governs the eternal motions of the celestial bodies, as the law of falling it kills me if I violate it and want to dance in the air. Laws are rather the positive, clear, universal norms in which freedom has acquired an impersonal, theoretical existence independent of the arbitrariness of the individual. A statute-book is a people's bible of freedom.

Therefore the press law is the legal recognition of freedom of the press. It constitutes right, because it is the positive existence of freedom. It must therefore exist, even if it is never put into application, as in North America, whereas censorship, like slavery, can never become lawful, even if it exists a thousand times over as a law.

There are no actual preventive laws. Law prevents only as a command. It only becomes effective law when it is infringed, for it is true law only when in it the unconscious natural law of freedom has become conscious state law. Where the law is real law, i.e., a form of existence of freedom, it is the real existence of freedom for man. Laws therefore, cannot prevent a man's actions, for they are indeed the inner laws of life of his action itself, the conscious reflections of his life. Hence law withdraws into the background in the face of man's life as a life of freedom, and only when his actual behaviour has shown that he has ceased to obey the natural law of freedom does law in the form of state law compel him to be free, just as the laws of physics confront me as something alien only when my life has ceased to be the life of these laws, when it has been struck by illness. Hence a preventive law is a meaningless contradiction.

A preventive law, therefore, has within it no measure, no rational rule, for a rational rule can only result from the nature of a thing, in this instance of freedom. It is without measure, for if prevention of freedom is to be effective, it must be as all-embracing as its object, i.e., unlimited. A preventive law is therefore the contradiction of an unlimited limitation, and the boundary where it ceases is fixed not by necessity, but by the fortuitousness of arbitrariness, as the censorship daily demonstrates ad oculos. [C]

The human body is mortal by nature. Hence illnesses are inevitable. Why does a man only go to the doctor when he is ill, and not when he is well? Because not only the illness, but even the doctor is an evil. Under constant medical tutelage, life would be regarded as an evil and the human body as an object for treatment by medical institutions. Is not death more desirable than life that is a mere preventive measure against death? Does not life involve also free movement? What is any illness except life that is hampered in its freedom? A perpetual physician would be an illness in which one would not even have the prospect of dying, but only of living. Let life die; death must not live. Has not the spirit more right than the body? Of course, this right has often been interpreted to mean that for minds capable of free motion physical freedom of movement is even harmful and therefore they are to be deprived of it. The starting point of the censorship is that illness is the normal state, or that the normal state, freedom, is to be regarded as an illness. The censorship continually assures the press that it, the press, is ill; and even if the latter furnishes the best proofs of its bodily health, it has to allow itself to be treated. But the censorship is not even a learned physician who applies different internal remedies according to the illness. It is a country surgeon who knows only a single mechanical panacea for everything, the scissors. It is not even a surgeon who aims at restoring my health, it is a surgical aesthete who considers superfluous everything about my body that displeases him, and removes whatever he finds repugnant; it is a quack who drives back a rash so that it is not seen, without caring in the least whether it then affects more sensitive internal parts.

You think it wrong to put birds in cages. Is not the cage a preventive measure against birds of prey, bullets and storms? You think it barbaric to blind nightingales, but it does not seem to you meaningless at all barbaric to put out the eyes of the press with the sharp pens of the censorship. You regard it as despotic to cut a free person's hair against his will, but the censorship daily cuts into the flesh of thinking people and allows only bodies without hearts, submissive bodies which show no reaction, to pass as healthy!

Rheinische Zeitung
No. 132, Supplement
May 12 1842


Chapter 5: [Censorship]



[A] L. Uhland, Die Rache (paraphrased).

[B] J. Goethe, Der Zauberlehrling.

[C] Before one's eyes.