Karl Marx
On Freedom of the Press

[Freedom in General]

Freedom of the press is as little responsible for the "changeable conditions" as the astronomer's telescope is for the unceasing motion of the universe. Evil astronomy! What a fine time that was when the earth, like a respectable townsman, still sat in the centre of the universe, calmly smoked its clay pipe, and did not even have to put on the light for itself, since the sun, moon and stars like so many obedient night lamps and "fine things" revolved around it.

"He who never destroys what he has built, ever stands
On this terrestrial world, which itself never stands still,"
says Hariri, who is no Frenchman by birth, but an Arab." [A]

The estate of the speaker finds expression very definitely in the thought:

"The true, honest patriot is unable to suppress his feeling that constitution and freedom of the press exist not for the welfare of the people, but to satisfy the ambition of individuals and for the domination of parties."

It is well known that a certain kind of psychology explains big things by means of small causes and, correctly sensing that everything for which man struggles is a matter of his interest, arrives at the incorrect opinion that there are only "petty" interests, only the interests of a stereotyped self-seeking. Further, it is well known that this kind of psychology and knowledge of mankind is to be found particularly in towns, where moreover it is considered the sign of a clever mind to see through the world and perceive that behind the passing clouds of ideas and facts there are quite small, envious, intriguing manikins, who pull the strings setting everything in motion. However, it is equally well known that if one looks too closely into a glass, one bumps one's own head, and hence these clever people's knowledge of mankind and the universe is primarily a mystified bump of their own heads.

Half-heartedness and indecision are also characteristic of the speaker's estate.

"His feeling of independence inclines him to favour freedom of the press" (in the sense of the mover of the motion), "but he must listen to the voice of reason and experience."

If the speaker had said in conclusion that while his reason disposed him in favour of freedom of the press his feeling of dependence set him against it, his speech would have been a perfect genre picture of urban reaction.

"He who has a tongue and does not speak,
Who has a sword and does not fight,
What is he indeed but a wretched wight?"

We come now to the defenders of press freedom and begin with the main motion. We pass over the more general material, which is aptly and well expressed in the introductory words of the motion, in order at once to stress the peculiar and characteristic standpoint of this speech.

The mover of the motion desires that freedom of the press should not be excluded from the general freedom to carry on a trade, a state of things that still prevails, and by which the inner contradiction appears as a classical example of inconsistency.

"The work of arms and legs is free, but that of the brain is under tutelage. Of cleverer brains no doubt? God forbid, that does not come into question as far as the censors are concerned. To him whom God gives an official post, He gives also understandingly!"

The first thing that strikes one is to see freedom of the press included under freedom of trade. However, we cannot simply reject the speaker's view. Rembrandt painted the Madonna as a Dutch peasant woman; why should our speaker not depict freedom in a form which is dear and familiar to him?

No more can we deny that the speaker's point of view has a certain relative truth. If the press itself is regarded merely as a trade, then, as a trade carried on by means of the brain, it deserves greater freedom than a trade carried on by means of arms and legs. The emancipation of arms and legs only becomes humanly significant through the emancipation of the brain, for it is well known that arms and legs become human arms and legs only because of the head which they serve.

Therefore, however peculiar the speaker's point of view may appear at first glance, we must absolutely prefer it to the empty, nebulous and blurry arguments of those German liberals who think freedom is honoured by being placed in the starry firmament of the imagination instead of on the solid ground of reality. It is in part to these exponents of the imagination, these sentimental enthusiasts, who shy away from any contact of their ideal with ordinary reality as a profanation, that we Germans owe the fact that freedom has remained until now a fantasy and sentimentality.

Germans are in general inclined to sentiment and high-flown extravagance, they have a weakness for music of the blue sky. It is therefore gratifying when the great problem of the idea is demonstrated to them from a tough, real standpoint derived from the immediate environment. Germans are by nature most devoted, servile and respectful. Out of sheer respect for ideas they fail to realise them. They make the worship of them into a cult, but they do not cultivate them. Hence the way adopted by the speaker seems suitable for familiarising Germans with his ideas, for showing them that it is not a question here of something inaccessible to them, but of their immediate interests, suitable for translating the language of the gods into that of man.

We know that the Greeks believed that in the Egyptian, Lydian and even Scythian gods they could recognise their Apollo, their Athena, their Zeus, and they disregarded the specific features of the foreign cults as subsidiary. It is no crime, therefore, if the German takes the goddess of freedom of the press, a goddess unknown to him, for one of his familiar goddesses, and accordingly calls it freedom of trade or freedom of property.

Precisely because we are able to acknowledge and appreciate the speaker's point of view, we criticise it the more severely.

"One could very well imagine the continued existence of crafts side by side with freedom of the press, because trade based on brain work could require a higher degree of skill, putting it on the same level as the seven free arts of old; but the continued unfreedom of the press alongside freedom of trade is a sin against the Holy Ghost."

Of course! The lower form of freedom is obviously considered to be without rights if the higher form has no rights. The right of the individual citizen is a folly if the right of the state is not recognised. If freedom in general is rightful, it goes without saying that a particular form of freedom is the more rightful as freedom has achieved in it a finer and better-developed existence. If the polyp [jellyfish] has a right to existence because the life of nature is at least dimly evident in it, how much more so the lion in which life rages and roars?

However correct the conclusion that the existence of a higher form of right can be considered proved by the existence of a lower form, the application is wrong when it makes the lower sphere a measure of the higher and turns its laws, reasonable within their own limits, into caricatures by claiming that they are not laws of their own sphere, but of a higher one. It is as if I wanted to compel a giant to live in the house of a pigmy.

Freedom of trade, freedom of property, of conscience, of the press, of the courts, are all species of one and the same genus, of freedom without any specific name. But it is quite incorrect to forget the difference because of the unity and to go so far as to make a particular species the measure, the standard, the sphere of other species. This is an intolerance on the part of one species of freedom, which is only prepared to tolerate the existence of others if they renounce themselves and declare themselves to be its vassals.

Freedom of trade is precisely freedom of trade and no other freedom because within it the nature of the trade develops unhindered according to the inner rules of its life. Freedom of the courts is freedom of the courts if they follow their own inherent laws of right and not those of some other sphere, such as religion. Every particular sphere of freedom is the freedom of a particular sphere, just as every particular mode of life is the mode of life of a particular nature. How wrong it would be to demand that the lion should adapt himself to the laws of life of the polyp! How false would be my understanding of the interconnection and unity of the bodily organism if I were to conclude: since arms and legs function in their specific way, the eye and ear — organs which take man away from his individuality and make him the mirror and echo of the universe — must have a still greater right to activity, and consequently must be intensified arm-and-leg activity.

As in the universe, each planet, while turning on its own axis, moves only around the sun, so in the system of freedom each of its worlds, while turning on its own axis, revolves only around the central sun of freedom. To make freedom of the press a variety of freedom of trade is a defence that kills it before defending it, for do I not abolish the freedom of a particular character if I demand that it should be free in the manner of a different character? Your freedom is not my freedom, says the press to a trade. As you obey the laws of your sphere, so will I obey the laws of my sphere. To be free in your way is for me identical with being unfree, just as a cabinet-maker would hardly feel pleased if he demanded freedom for his craft and was given as equivalent the freedom of the philosopher.

Let us lay bare the thought of the speaker. What is freedom? He replies: Freedom of trade, which is as if a student, when asked what is freedom, were to reply: It is freedom to be out at night.

With as much right as freedom of the press, one could include every kind of freedom in freedom of trade. The judge practises the trade of law, the preacher that of religion, the father of a family that of bringing up children. But does that express the essence of legal, religious and moral freedom?

One could also put it the other way round and call freedom of trade merely a variety of freedom of the press. Do craftsmen work only with hands and legs and not with the brain as well? Is the language of words the only language of thought? Is not the language of the mechanic through the steam-engine easily perceptible to my ear, is not the language of the bed manufacturer very obvious to my back, that of the cook comprehensible to my stomach? Is it not a contradiction that all these varieties of freedom of the press are permitted, the sole exception being the one that speaks to my intellect through the medium of printer's ink?

In order to defend, and even to understand, the freedom of a particular sphere, I must proceed from its essential character and not its external relations. But is the press true to its character, does it act in accordance with the nobility of its nature, is the press free which degrades itself to the level of a trade? The writer, of course, must earn in order to be able to live and write, but he must by no means live and write to earn.

When Béranger sings:

Je ne vis que pour faire des chansons,
Si vous m'ôtez ma place Monseigneur
Je ferai des chansons pour vivre.

[I live only to compose songs.
If you dismiss me, Monseigneur,
I shall compose songs in order to live.]

This threat contains the ironic admission that the poet deserts his proper sphere when for him poetry becomes a means.

The writer does not at all look on his work as a means. It is an end in itself, it is so little a means for him himself and for others that, if need be, he sacrifices his existence to its existence. He is, in another way, like the preacher of religion who adopts the principle: "Obey God rather than man", including under man himself with his human needs and desires. On the other hand, what if a tailor from whom I had ordered a Parisian frock-coat were to come and bring me a Roman toga on the ground that it was more in keeping with the eternal law of beauty!

The primary freedom of the press lies in not being a trade. The writer who degrades the press into being a material means deserves as punishment for this internal unfreedom the external unfreedom of censorship, or rather his very existence is his punishment.

Of course, the press exists also as a trade, but then it is not the affair of writers, but of printers and booksellers. However, we are concerned here not with the freedom of trade of printers and booksellers, but with freedom of the press.

Indeed, our speaker does not stop at regarding the right to freedom of the press proved because of freedom of trade; he demands that freedom of the press, instead of being subject to its own laws, should be subject to the laws of freedom of trade. He even joins issue with the spokesman of the commission, who defends a higher view of freedom of the press, and he puts forward demands which can only produce a comic effect, for it becomes comic when the laws of a lower sphere are applied to a higher one, just as, conversely, it has a comic effect when children become passionate.

"He speaks of authorised and unauthorised authors. He understands by this that even in the sphere of freedom of trade the exercise of a right that has been granted is always bound up with some condition which is more or less difficult to fulfil, depending on the occupation in question. Obviously, masons, carpenters and master builders have to fulfil conditions from which most other trades are exempt." "His motion concerns a right in particular, not in general."

First of all, who is to grant authority? Kant would not have admitted Fichte's authority as a philosopher, Ptolemy would not have admitted that Copernicus had authority as an astronomer, nor Bernard of Clairvaux Luther's authority as a theologian. Every man of learning regards his critics as "unauthorised authors". Or should the unlearned decide who should have the authority of a man of learning? Obviously the judgment would have to be left to the unauthorised authors, for the authorised cannot be judges in their own case. Or should authority be linked with estate? The cobbler Jakob Böhme was a great philosopher. [B] Many a philosopher of repute is merely a great cobbler.

By the way, when speaking of authorised or unauthorised authors, to be consistent one must not rest content with distinguishing between individual persons, one must divide the press as a trade into various trades and draw up different trade certificates for the different spheres of literary activity. Or ought the authorised writer to be able to write about everything? From the outset, the cobbler has more authority than the lawyer to write about leather. The day-labourer has just as much authority as the theologian to write about whether one should work or not on holidays. If, therefore, authority is linked with special objective conditions, every citizen will be at one and the same time an authorised and an unauthorised writer, authorised in matters concerning his profession, and unauthorised in all others.

Apart from the fact that in this way the world of the press, instead of being a bond uniting the nation, would be a sure means of dividing it, that the difference between the estates would thus be fixed intellectually, and the history of literature would sink to the level of the natural history of the particular intelligent breeds of animals; apart from the disputes over the dividing lines between them and conflicts which could neither be settled nor avoided; apart from the fact that lack of talent and narrow-mindedness would become a law for the press, for the particular can be seen intellectually and freely only in connection with the whole and therefore not in separation from it — apart from all this, since reading is as important as writing, there would have to be authorised and unauthorised readers, a consequence which was drawn in Egypt, where the priests, the authorised authors, were at the same time the sole authorised readers. And it is highly expedient that only the authorised authors should be given authority to buy and read their own works.

What inconsistency If privilege prevails, the government has every right to maintain that it is the sole authorised author as regards what it does or does not do. For if you consider yourself authorised as a citizen to write not only about your particular estate, but about what is most general, viz., the state, should not other mortals, whom you wish to exclude, be authorised as human beings to pass judgment on a very particular matter, viz., your authority and your writings?

The result would be the comical contradiction that the authorised author might write without censorship about the state, but the unauthorised author might write about the authorised author only by permission of the censorship.

Freedom of the press will certainly not be achieved by a crowd of official writers being recruited by you from your ranks. The authorised authors would be the official authors, the struggle between censorship and freedom of the press would be converted into a struggle between authorised and unauthorised writers.

Hence a member of the fourth estate correctly replies to this:

"If some restriction on the press must still exist, let it be equal for all parties, that is, that in this respect no one class of citizens is allowed more rights than another".

The censorship holds us all in subjection, just as under a despotic regime all are equal, if not in value, then in absence of value; that kind of freedom of the press seeks to introduce oligarchy in the sphere of intellectual life. The censorship declares that an author is at most inconvenient, unsuitable within the bounds of its realm. That kind of freedom of the press claims to anticipate world history, to know in advance the voice of the people, which hitherto has been the sole judge as to which writer has "authority" and which is "without authority". Whereas Solon did not venture to judge a man until after his life was over, after his death, this view presumes to judge a writer even before his birth.

The press is the most general way by which individuals can communicate their intellectual being. It knows no respect for persons, but only respect for intelligence. Do you want ability for intellectual communication to be determined officially by special external signs? What I cannot be for others, I am not and cannot be for myself. If I am not allowed to be a spiritual force for others, then I have no right to be a spiritual force for myself; and do you want to give certain individuals the privilege of being spiritual forces? just as everyone learns to read and write, so everyone must have the right to read and write.

For whom, then, is the division of writers into "authorised" and "unauthorised" intended? Obviously not for the truly authorised, for they can make their influence felt without that. Is it therefore for the "unauthorised" who want to protect themselves and impress others by means of an external privilege?

Moreover, this palliative does not even make a press law unnecessary, for, as a speaker from the peasant estate remarks:

"Cannot a privileged person, too, exceed his authority and be liable to punishment? Therefore, in any case, a press law would be necessary, with the result that one would encounter the same difficulties as with a general law on the press."

If the German looks back on his history, he will find one of the main reasons for his slow political development, as also for the wretched state of literature prior to Lessing, in the existence of "authorised writers". The learned men by profession, guild or privilege, the doctors and others, the colourless university writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their stiff pigtails and their distinguished pedantry and their petty hair-splitting dissertations, interposed themselves between the people and the mind, between life and science, between freedom and mankind. It was the unauthorised writers who created our literature. Gottsched and Lessing-there you have the choice between an "authorised" and "unauthorised" writer!

In general, we have no liking for "freedom" that only holds good in the plural. England is a proof on a big historical scale how dangerous for "freedom" is the restricted horizon of "freedoms".

"Ce mot des libertés," says Voltaire, "des privilèges, suppose I'assujettissement. Des libertés sont des exemptions de la servitude générale." [C]

Further, if our speaker wants to exclude anonymous and pseudonymous writers from freedom of the press and subject them to censorship, we would point out that in the press it is not the name that matters, but that, where a press law is in force, the publisher, and through him the anonymous and pseudonymous writer as well, is liable to prosecution in the courts. Moreover, when Adam gave names to all the animals in paradise, he forgot to give names to the German newspaper correspondents, and they will remain nameless in saecula saeculorum. [D]

Whereas the mover of the motion sought to impose restrictions on persons, the subjects of the press, other estates want to restrict the objective material of the press, the scope of its operation and existence. The result is a soulless bargaining and haggling as to how much freedom freedom of the press ought to have.

One estate wants to limit the press to discussing the material, intellectual and religious state of affairs in the Rhine Province; another wants the publication of "local newspapers", whose title indicates their restricted content; a third even wants free expression of opinion to be allowed in one newspaper only in each province!!!

All these attempts remind one of the gymnastics teacher who suggested that the best way to teach how to jump was to take the pupil to a big ditch and show him by means of a cotton thread how far he ought to jump across the ditch. Of course, the pupil had first to practise jumping and would not be allowed to clear the whole ditch on the first day, but from time to time the thread would be moved farther away. Unfortunately, during his first lesson the pupil fell into the ditch, and he has been lying there ever since. The teacher was a German and the pupil's name was "freedom".

According to the average normal type, therefore, the defenders of freedom of the press in the Sixth Rhine Province Assembly differ from their opponents not as regards content, but in their trend. The narrow-mindedness of a particular estate opposes the press in one case, and defends it in another; some want the government alone to have privileges, others want them to be shared among more persons; some want a full censorship, others a half censorship; some want three-eighths freedom of the press, others none at all. God save me from my friends!

Completely at variance with the general spirit of the Assembly, however, are the speeches of the commission's spokesman and those of some members of the peasant estate.

Among other things, the spokesman declared:

"In the life of peoples, as in that of individuals, it happens that the fetters of a too long tutelage become intolerable, that there is an urge for independence, and that everyone wants to be responsible himself for his actions. Thereupon the censorship has outlived its time; where it still exists it will be regarded as a hateful constraint which prohibits what is openly said from being written."

Write as you speak, and speak as you write, our primary schoolteachers taught us. Later what we are told is: say what has been prescribed for you, and write what you repeat after others.

"Whenever the inevitable progress of time causes a new, important interest to develop and gives rise to a new need, for which no adequate provision is contained in the existing legislation, new laws are necessary to regulate this new state of society. Precisely such a case confronts us here."

That is the truly historical view in contrast to the illusory one which kills the reason of history in order subsequently to honour its bones as historical relics.

"Of course, the problem" (of a press code) "may not be quite easy to solve; the first attempt that is made will perhaps remain very incomplete But all states will owe a debt of gratitude to the legislator who is the first to take up this matter, and under a king like ours, it is perhaps the Prussian government that is destined to have the honour to precede other countries along this path, which alone can lead to the goal."

Our whole exposal has shown how isolated this courageous, dignified and resolute view was in the Assembly. This was also abundantly pointed out to the spokesman of the commission by the chairman himself. Finally, it was expressed also by a member of the peasant estate in an ill-humoured but excellent speech:

"The speakers have gone round and round the question before us like a cat round hot porridge." "The human spirit must develop freely in accordance with its inherent laws and be allowed to communicate its achievements, otherwise a clear, vitalising stream will become a pestiferous swamp. If any nation is suitable for freedom of the press it is surely the calm, good-natured German nation, which stands more in need of being roused from its torpor than of the strait jacket of censorship. For it not to be allowed freely to communicate its thoughts and feelings to its fellow men very much resembles the North American system of solitary confinement for criminals, which when rigidly enforced often leads to madness. From one who is not permitted to find fault, praise also is valueless; in absence of expression it is like a Chinese picture in which shade is lacking. Let us not find ourselves put in the same company as this enervated nation!"

If we now look back on the press debates as a whole, we cannot overcome the dreary and uneasy impression produced by an assembly of representatives of the Rhine Province who wavered only between the deliberate obduracy of privilege and the natural impotence of a half-hearted liberalism. Above all, we cannot help noting with displeasure the almost entire absence of general and broad points of view, as also the negligent superficiality with which the question of a free press was debated and disposed of. Once more, therefore, we ask ourselves whether the press was a matter too remote from the Assembly of the Estates, and with which they had too little real contact, for them to be able to defend freedom of the press with the thorough and serious interest that was required?

Freedom of the press presented its petition to the estates with the most subtle captatio benevolentiae. [E]

At the very beginning of the Assembly session, a debate arose in which the chairman pointed out that the printing of the Assembly proceedings, like all other writings, was subject to censorship, but that in this case he took the place of the censor.

On this one point, did not the question of freedom of the press coincide with that of freedom of the Assembly? The conflict here is the more interesting because the Assembly in its own person was given proof how the absence of freedom of the press makes all other freedoms illusory. One form of freedom governs another just as one limb of the body does another. Whenever a particular freedom is put in question, freedom in general is put in question.

Whenever one form of freedom is rejected, freedom in general is rejected and henceforth can have only a semblance of existence, since the sphere in which absence of freedom is dominant becomes a matter of pure chance. Absence of freedom is the rule and freedom an exception, a fortuitous and arbitrary occurrence. There can, therefore, be nothing wronger than to think that when it is a question of a particular form of existence of freedom, it is a particular question. It is the general question within a particular sphere. Freedom remains freedom whether it finds expression in printer's ink, in property, in the conscience, or in a political assembly. But the loyal friend of freedom whose sense of honour would be offended by the mere fact that he had to vote on the question whether freedom was to be or not to be — this friend becomes perplexed when confronted with the peculiar material form in which freedom appears. He fails to recognise the genus in the species; because of the press, he forgets about freedom, he believes he is judging something whose essence is alien to him, and he condemns his own essence. Thus the Sixth Rhine Province Assembly condemned itself by passing sentence on freedom of the press.

The highly sage, practical bureaucrats who secretly and unjustifiably think of themselves in the way that Pericles openly and rightly boasted of himself: "I am a man who is the equal of anyone both in knowing the needs of the state and in the art of expounding them" [F] — these hereditary leaseholders of political intelligence will shrug their shoulders and remark with oracular good breeding that the defenders of freedom of the press are wasting their efforts, for a mild censorship is better than a harsh freedom of the press. We reply to them with the words of the Spartans Sperthias and Bulis to the Persian satrap Hydarnes:

"Hydames, you have not equally weighed each side in your advice to us. For you have tried the one which you advise, the other has remained untried by you. You know what it means to be a slave, but you have never yet tried freedom, to know whether it is sweet or not. For if you had tried it, you would have advised us to fight for it, not merely with spears, but also with axes." [G]

Rheinische Zeitung
No. 139, Supplement
May 19 1842


[The End]


[A] Marx cites these and the following lines of Hariri's poem from Friedrich Ruckert's Die Verwandlungen des Abu Seid von Serug, oder die Makamen des Hariri, Stuttgan, 1826.

[B] Cf. H. Heine, Die romantische Schule, II, 3.

[C] "This word of the liberties, of the privileges, suppose subjection. Liberties are exemptions from general servitude."

[D] For ever and ever.

[E] Attempt to arouse goodwill.

[F] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Vol I, Book 2, 60.

[G] Herodot, Historiae, Vol II, Book 7, 135.