the young Marx on press freedom – part 1
[Note: This is the first in a series. Links to subsequent entries follow this post.]
In 1842, the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhenish Newspaper / RZ) employed a 24 year old Karl Marx. In May, when he first appeared as a contributor, the RZ was an outlet for the pro-democratic, Liberal bourgeoisie of the Rhineland opposed to the authoritarian Prussian state. After Marx was promoted to an editor position in October, he pushed the paper in a more radically democratic direction, lending support to revolutionary and socialist ideas.
Heavy state censure marked Marx’s tenure and included the prohibition of his own work. Despite Marx’s resignation, the Prussian government ultimately shut down the RZ on March 31 of 1843. Given this context, it makes sense that much of Marx’s writing during that time concerned the Freedom of the Press.
Marx’s first article for the RZ, published on May 5, 1842, was entitled “Prussian Censorship” and written in response to a series of articles that ran in the official government paper Preussische Allgemeine Staats-Zeitung (Prussian General State Gazette). The articles editorialized that State censorship is necessary “in order to enlighten the public concerning the true intentions of the Government.” I don’t follow many of the references, but it’s clear that Marx thoroughly lambastes the PASZ position. It’s the last quarter of the article that most interests me, however.
Marx declares his intention to review the proceedings of the Sixth Rhine Province Assembly, which had met from May 23 to July 25, 1841 in Düsseldorf. Provincial assemblies had been introduced in Prussia in 1823, and they brought together representatives of three “estates” – the aristocratic, town, and rural. The election system skewed toward landowners, meaning the aristocrats of Rhine Province held 278 of the 584 parliamentary votes, the towns estate 182, and the rural estate 124. With a 2/3 majority required to pass a resolution, the Assemblies were hardly democratic – even after discounting the fact that land ownership, among other conditions, was a requirement for membership in the estates. That mattered little, in any case, since:
The competency of the assemblies was restricted to questions of local economy and administration. They also had the right to express their desires on government bills submitted for discussion. They were largely powerless (“advisory”) however, could only summoned by the Prussian government, and then they were held in secret. [sic] (Marxists Internet Archive)
The Sixth Rhine Province Assembly, however, was the first to be held under the newly crowned King Wilhelm IV, who had pledged to convoke the Assemblies every two years and lift the veil of secrecy. He made good on the latter pledge with the Royal edict of April 30, 1841 that authorized the publication of the Assembly’s proceedings. Over a year later, Marx wrote:
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.
This is a crucial clue to understanding Marx’s attitude toward the press. Marx defines “public facts” as information made available to the press. Furthermore, he identifies press review as the ontological basis for open government.
Marx concludes the article by suggesting that the Assembly’s defenders of press freedom were clearly at a disadvantage, since they had never experienced true freedom of the press and could therefore only argue from their heads, not their hearts:
Goethe once said that the painter succeeds only with a type of feminine beauty which he has loved in at least one living being. 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 full, 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.
It’s clear, in other words, that Marx felt as if none of the representatives were arguing for a robust set of truly democratic press freedoms. His reference to the necessity for public access to State information is an indication of where his dissatisfaction lay. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, it remains a relevant point today.