Karl Marx
On Freedom of the Press


We have shown how the press law expresses a right and the censorship law a wrong. The censorship itself, however, admits that it is not an end in itself, that it is not something good in and for itself, that its basis therefore is the principle: "The end justifies the means." But an end which requires unjustified means is no justifiable end, and could not the press also adopt the principle and boast: "The end justifies the means"?

The censorship law, therefore, is not a law, it is a police measure; but it is a bad police measure, for it does not achieve what it intends, and it does not intend what it achieves.

If the censorship law wants to prevent freedom as something objectionable, the result is precisely the opposite. In a country of censorship, every forbidden piece of printed matter, i.e., printed without being censored, is an event. It is considered a martyr, and there is no martyr without a halo and without believers. It is regarded as an exception, and if freedom can never cease to be of value to mankind, so much the more valuable is an exception to the general lack of freedom. Every mystery has its attraction. Where public opinion is a mystery to itself, it is won over from the outset by every piece of writing that formally breaks through the mystical barriers. The censorship makes every forbidden work, whether good or bad, into an extraordinary document, whereas freedom of the press deprives every written work of an externally imposing effect.

If the censorship is honest in its intention, it would like to prevent arbitrariness, but it makes arbitrariness into a law. No danger that it can avert is greater than itself. The mortal danger for every being lies in losing itself. Hence lack of freedom is the real mortal danger for mankind. For the time being, leaving aside the moral consequences, bear in mind that you cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences. You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns! And what do you lose with a free press?

The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people's soul, the embodiment of a people's faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world, the embodied culture that transforms material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealises their crude material form. It is a people's frank confession to itself, and the redeeming power of confession is well known. It is the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself, and self-examination is the first condition of wisdom. It is the spirit of the state, which can be delivered into every cottage, cheaper than coal gas. It is all-sided, ubiquitous, omniscient. It is the ideal world which always wells up out of the real world and flows back into it with ever greater spiritual riches and renews its soul.

In the course of our exposal we have shown that censorship and press law are as different as arbitrariness and freedom, as formal law and actual law. But what holds good of the essence, holds good also of the appearance. What rightly holds good of both, holds good also of their application. Just as a press law is different from a censorship law, so the judge's attitude to the press differs from the attitude of the censor.

Of course, our speaker, whose eyes are fixed on the heavens, sees the earth far below him as a contemptible heap of dust, so that he has nothing to say about any flowers except that they are dusty. Here too, therefore, he sees only two measures which are equally arbitrary in their application, for arbitrariness is acting according to individual discretion, and the latter, he says, is inseparable from spiritual things, etc., etc. If the understanding of spiritual things is individual, how can one spiritual view be more right than another, the opinion of the censor more right than the opinion of the author? But we understand the speaker. It is notable that he goes out of his way to describe both censorship and press law as being without right in their application, in order to prove the right of the censorship, for since he knows everything in the world is imperfect, the only question for him is whether arbitrariness should be on the side of the people or on the side of the government.

His mysticism turns into the licence of putting law and arbitrariness on the same level and seeing only a formal difference where moral and legal opposites are concerned, for his polemic is directed not against the press law, but against law in general. Or is there any law which is necessarily such that in every single case it must be applied as the legislator intended and all arbitrariness absolutely excluded? Incredible audacity is needed to call such a meaningless task the philosopher's stone, since it could only be put forward by the most extreme ignorance. The law is universal. The case which has to be settled in accordance with the law is a particular case. To include the particular in the universal involves a judgment. The judgment is problematic. The law requires also a judge. If laws applied themselves, courts would be superfluous.

But everything human is imperfect! Therefore, edite, bibite! [A] Why do you want judges, since judges are human? Why do you want laws, since laws can only be executed by human beings, and all human operations are imperfect? Submit yourselves then to the goodwill of your superiors! Rhenish justice, like that of Turkey, is imperfect! Therefore, edite, bibite!

What a difference there is between a judge and a censor!

The censor has no law but his superiors. The judge has no superiors but the law. The judge, however, has the duty of interpreting the law, as he understands it after conscientious examination, in order to apply it in a particular case. The censor's duty is to understand the law as officially interpreted for him in a particular case. The independent judge belongs neither to me nor to the government. The dependent censor is himself a government organ. In the case of the judge, there is involved at most the unreliability of an individual intellect, in the case of the censor the unreliability of an individual character. The judge has a definite press offence put before him; confronting the censor is the spirit of the press. The judge judges my act according to a definite law; the censor not only punishes the crime, he makes it. If I am brought before the court, I am accused of disobeying an existing law, and for a law to be violated it must indeed exist. Where there is no press law there is no law which can be violated by the press. The censorship does not accuse me of violating an existing law. It condemns my opinion because it is not the opinion of the censor and his superiors. My openly performed act, which is willing to submit itself to the world and its judgment, to the state and its law, has sentence passed on it by a hidden, purely negative power, which cannot give itself the form of law, which shuns the light of day, and which is not bound by any general principles.

A censorship law is an impossibility because it seeks to punish not offences but opinions, because it cannot be anything but a formula for the censor, because no state has the courage to put in general legal terms what it can carry out in practice through the agency of the censor. For that reason, too, the operation of the censorship is entrusted not to the courts but to the police.

Even if censorship were in fact the same thing as justice, in the first place this would remain a fact without being a necessity. But, further, freedom includes not only what my life is, but equally how I live, not only that I do what is free, but also that I do it freely. Otherwise what difference would there be between an architect and a beaver except that the beaver would be an architect with fur and the architect a beaver without fur?

Our speaker returns superfluously once again to the effects of freedom of the press in the countries where it actually exists. Since we have already dwelt on this subject at length, we shall here only touch further on the French press. Apart from the fact that the defects of the French press are the defects of the French nation, we find that the evil is not where the speaker looks for it. The French press is not too free; it is not free enough. It is true that it is not subject to a spiritual censorship, but it is subject to a material censorship, in the shape of high money sureties. It operates materially precisely because it is taken out of its proper sphere and drawn into the sphere of large trade speculations. Moreover, large trade speculations are a matter for large towns. Hence the French press is concentrated at few points, and if a material force has a demoniac effect when concentrated at few points, why should this not apply to a spiritual force also?

If, however, you are bent on judging freedom of the press not by its idea, but by its historical existence, why do you not look for it where it historically exists? Naturalists seek by experiment to reproduce a natural phenomenon in its purest conditions. You do not need to make any experiments. You find the natural phenomenon of freedom of the press in North America in its purest, most natural form. But if there are great historical foundations for freedom of the press in North America, those foundations are still greater in Germany. The literature of a people, and the intellectual culture bound up with it, are indeed not only the direct historical foundations of the press, but are the latter's history itself. And what people in the world can boast of these most immediate historical foundations for freedom of the press more than the German people can?

But, our speaker again breaks in, woe to Germany's morals if its press were to become free, for freedom of the press produces "an inner demoralization, which seeks to undermine faith in man's higher purpose and thereby the basis of true civilisation".

It is the censored press that has a demoralizing effect. Inseparable from it is the most powerful vice, hypocrisy, and from this, its basic vice, come all its other defects, which lack even the rudiments of virtue, and its vice of passivity, loathsome even from the aesthetic point of view. The government hears only its own voice, it knows that it hears only its own voice, yet it harbours the illusion that it hears the voice of the people, and it demands that the people, too, should itself harbour this illusion. For its part, therefore, the people sinks partly into political superstition, partly into political disbelief, or, completely turning away from political life, becomes a rabble of private individuals.

Since the press daily praises the government-inspired creations in the way that God spoke of His Creations only on the Sixth day: "And, behold, it was very good", and since, however, one day necessarily contradicts the other, the press lies continually and has to deny even any consciousness of lying, and must cast off all shame.

Since the nation is forced to regard free writings as unlawful, it becomes accustomed to regard what is unlawful as free, freedom as unlawful and what is lawful as unfree. In this way censorship kills the state spirit.

But our speaker is afraid of freedom of the press owing to his concern for "private persons". He overlooks that censorship is a permanent attack on the rights of private persons, and still more on ideas. He grows passionate about the danger to individual persons, and ought we not to grow passionate about the danger threatening society as a whole?

We cannot draw a sharper distinction between his view and ours than by contrasting his definitions of "bad frames of mind" to ours.

A bad frame of mind, he says, is "pride, which recognises no authority in church and state". And ought we not to regard as a bad frame of mind the refusal to recognise the authority of reason and law?

"It is envy which preaches abolition of everything that the rabble calls aristocracy."

But we say, it is envy which wants to abolish the eternal aristocracy of human nature, freedom, an aristocracy about which even the rabble can have no doubt.

"It is the malicious gloating which delights in personalities, whether lies or truth, and imperiously demands publicity so that no scandal of private life will remain hidden."

It is the malicious gloating which extracts tittle-tattle and personalities from the great life of the peoples, ignores historical reason and serves up to the public only the scandals of history; being quite incapable of judging the essence of a matter, it fastens on single aspects of a phenomenon and on individuals, and imperiously demands mystery so that every blot on public life will remain hidden.

"It is the impurity of the heart and imagination which is titillated by obscene pictures."

It is the impurity of the heart and imagination which is titillated by obscene pictures of the omnipotence of evil and the impotence of good, it is the imagination which takes pride in sin, it is the impure heart which conceals its secular arrogance in mystical images.

"It is despair of one's own salvation which seeks to stifle the voice of conscience by denial of God."

It is despair of one's own salvation which makes personal weaknesses into weaknesses of mankind, in order to rid one's own conscience of them; it is despair of the salvation of mankind which prevents mankind from obeying its innate natural laws and preaches the necessity of immaturity; it is hypocrisy which shelters behind God without believing in His reality and in the omnipotence of the good; it is self-seeking which puts personal salvation above the salvation of all.

These people doubt mankind in general but canonise individuals. They draw a horrifying picture of human nature and at the same time demand that we should bow down before the holy image of certain privileged individuals. We know that man singly is weak, but we know also that the whole is strong.

Finally, the speaker recalled the words proclaimed from the branches of the tree of knowledge for whose fruits we negotiate today as then:

"Ye shall not surely die, in the day that ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil."

Although we doubt that the speaker has eaten of the tree of knowledge, and that we (the Rhine Province Assembly of the Estates) then negotiated with the devil, about which at least Genesis tells us nothing, nevertheless we concur with the view of the speaker and merely remind him that the devil did not lie to us then, for God himself says: "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil."

We can reasonably let the speaker's own words be the epilogue to this speech:

"Writing and speaking are mechanical accomplishments."

However much our readers may be tired of these "mechanical accomplishments", we must, for the sake of completeness, let the urban estate, after the princely and knightly estates, also give vent to its feelings against freedom of the press. We are faced here with the opposition of the bourgeois, not of the citoyen.

The speaker from the urban estate believes that he joins Sieyès in making the philistine remark:

"Freedom of the press is a fine thing, so long as bad persons do not meddle in it." "Against that no proven remedy has yet been found", etc., etc.

The point of view which calls freedom of the press a thing deserves praise at least on account of its naively. This speaker can be reproached with anything at all, but not with lack of sobriety or excess of imagination.

So freedom of the press is a fine thing, and something which embellishes the sweet customary mode of life, a pleasant, worthy thing. But there are also bad persons, who misuse speech to tell lies, the brain to plot, the hands to steal, the feet to desert. Speech and thought, hands and feet would be fine things — good speech, pleasant thought, skilful hands, most excellent feet — if only there were no bad persons to misuse them! No remedy against that has yet been found.

"Sympathy for the constitution and freedom of the press must necessarily be weakened when it is seen that they are bound up with eternally changeable conditions in that country" (France) "and with an alarming uncertainty about the future.

When for the first time the discovery in the science of the universe was made that the earth is a mobile perpetuum, many a phlegmatic German must have taken a tight hold of his nightcap and sighed over the eternally changeable conditions of his Fatherland, and an alarming uncertainty about the future must have made him dislike a house that turned upside down at every moment.

Rheinische Zeitung, No. 135, Supplement, May 15 1842


Chapter 6: [Freedom in General]



[A] Eat, drink! (Words from a German student song).