On Freedom of the Press

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On The Freedom of the Press is an early series of articles Karl Marx wrote for the Rheinische Zeitung defending press freedom against attacks from the Sixth Rhine Province Assembly and the Prussian government.


May 5: Prussian Censorship

May 8: Opponents of a Free Press

Karl Marx begins this article by drawing attention to the class position of the opponents of a free press, and ends it by returning to this topic. He goes over a number of poor arguments presented by voices of the "princely estate" in recent debates on the subject, and shows that they betray their class interests.

They argue that restriction must be good because there already is restriction, telling us that at some point there was good reason for this (...for the princely estate, who set these rules). They argue that British press freedom was a product of historic circumstance, Marx points out that this historic circumstance involved a struggle for press freedom. They argue that press freedom must be bad for failing to fix national debt in the Netherlands, Marx points out the irrelevance of press freedom to this issue, and names examples where censorship can be said to have caused national debt. Most significantly, Marx argues that what the nobility perceives as a vulgarisation of public discourse is in fact nothing but the liberation of the national spirit, something the princely estate naturally takes issue with.

May 10: On the Assembly of the Estates

May 12: As a privilege of particular individuals or a privilege of the human mind?

May 15: Censorship

While earlier articles deal with press freedom on principled grounds, this article attacks it on the ground that it is inefficient in achieving its aims and in fact counterproductive. Marx urges us to not think of press freedom as a law, but merely as a police measure.

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.

So censorship doesn't prevent arbitrariness of mass opinion, it causes it.

May 19: Freedom in General

See also


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