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the young Marx on press freedom – part 2

November 26, 2010

[Note: This is the second in a series. You may want to read part 1, which provides context, before continuing. Links to subsequent entries follow this post.]

The Rhine Province (red) within the Kingdom of Prussia (blue).

Karl Marx’s second article for the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhenish Newspaper / RZ) appeared three days after his first, on May 8, 1842. Entitled “Opponents of a Free Press“, the article continued Marx’s review of the proceedings of the previous year’s Rhine Province Assembly. Marx’s concern with press freedom resulted from his involvement with the oppositional Young Hegelians, as well as his budding career as a journalist.

He begins by noting that the Assembly’s debate on press freedom serves as a microcosm for it’s behavior in general:

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?

Here is the beginning of a class analysis that views whole strata of the population (the estates) as coherent entities, each participating in social debates as a unified interlocutor with a single voice. The speaker is never just “the individual”. For the remainder of the article, Marx occupies himself with the argument advanced by the aristocratic, or “princely”, estate.

The aristocrats purported “that freedom of the press and censorship are both evils” of which censorship was the lesser. This conviction was so strongly held in Germany, they claimed, “that the Federation too, issued laws on the subject, which Prussia joined in approving and observing”. Marx paraphrases their “diplomatic” argument as follows:

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.

Marx recognizes this appeal to Tradition as the 19th century Conservative position par excellence: “Yes, views change and develop, but society must guide that development by appealing to Tradition.” The RZ, of course, was a Liberal newspaper. I’m not sure to what degree the radical Socialist perspective even existed as a coherent ideology at that point. (I’m employing Wallerstein’s delineation of the three ideologies to emerge in the nineteenth century, alongside the social sciences and the social movements, as a product of the capitalist world-system.)

The aristocrats’ next move rivals the best of Orwellian doublespeak, as they declare State censorship to have protected the press from the vulgar excesses of a freedom, which would have acted as “shackles … on our true and nobler spiritual development”. Marx responds:

But what an illogical paradox to regard the censorship as a basis for improving our press! … The spiritual development of Germany has gone forward not owing to, but in spite of, the censorship.

He then goes on to insist that “in the period of strict observance of censorship from 1819 to 1830” the bottom fell out of Germany’s cultural output:

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…. 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 aristocrats’ final line of argument is to point to the ills of other nation-states that had instituted some form of press freedom. That Marx quickly disposes of this illogic is not surprising. The nature of his retorts, however, provides some insight into his developing views. The aristocrats dismiss press freedom in Holland as “unable to save the country from an oppressive national debt” and responsible for “bring[ing] about a revolution which resulted in the loss of half the country.” Marx dismisses the first barb for the absurdity that it is:

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…. 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.

In response to the second accusation, that the free press incited revolution, Marx first points out that a free press is not a unified whole, but a multiplicity of voices. So which press – the reactionaries, the progressive, or some other – is responsible for the revolution? The more crucial point, however, is that it is nonsensical to view the press as causative in relation to revolution:

… 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?

The press in other words, is part and parcel of the revolutionary process. Marx’s characterization of the press as “the freest manifestation of the spirit in our day” is surely a reflection of his continuing entanglement with the Young Hegelians, but reveals the avante garde status that Marx accorded the press in relation to progress and revolution. Marx’s commitment to this belief is manifest in his labor as a journalist and editor.

Marx takes especial offense to the aristocratic attack against Switzerland, where press freedom had supposedly engendered a barbaric, irrational public sphere. Here is a quote from the aristocrats:

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!

Marx quickly points out the “Germano-centrism” of the argument:

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.

This is an interesting passage. Marx first appeals to the autonomy of the Swiss press, noting that it represents the Swiss people’s particular point of view and theirs only. This is a relativistic argument, however, and Marx seems to recognize the danger of this formulation: It potentially supports the entrenchment of national identities based on Tradition. That’s a Conservative argument that Marx didn’t want to make, so he tacked on a testament to the Swiss press’ “transcendence” of national “particularism” as a result of its freedom. Marx offers no evidence in support of this “proof”, however. He seems to want to have it both ways – national presses are inviolable expressions of the people’s sovereignty, yet they are also organs of progress that transcend the particularities of nations toward some perfect state of social expression. (Again, the teleological touch of the Young Hegelians.)

Marx’s identification of a free press with the people is clear:

What, therefore, was the accusation the speaker leveled 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…. [the speaker] 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.

What’s striking is the willingness with which Marx accepts the nation as the natural boundary of the public sphere and the free press as a national press. As Benedict Anderson made clear some 140 years later, this remained one of Marxism’s blind spots. Marx seems to have not fully grasped that national presses, even where free from censorship, were not a tool to amplify the popular voice. Rather, they shaped the popular into the national voice of an “imaginary community” that was always already in the service of the capitalist world-system.

Continue reading “the young Marx on press freedom”: part 3


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