Marx on free speech

March 19, 2015 at 7:44 pm (Free Speech, history, Marxism, NUS, posted by JD, students, truth)

Comments on The Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction [39]

Written: between January 15 and February 10, 1842;
First published: in Anekdota zur neuesten deutschen Philosophie und Publicistik, Bd. I, 1843;
Transcribed: in 1998 for by Sally Ryan; what appears below is an extract. The complete article is here. We publish this extract in the hope of educating some young radicals, especially in the student movement, who seem to think it is the role of the “left” to support censorship and that freedom of speech is a right-wing concept.

Karl Marx

“According to this law,” namely, Article II, “the censorship should not prevent serious and modest investigation of truth, nor impose undue constraint on writers, or hinder the book trade from operating freely.”

The investigation of truth which should not be prevented by the censorship is more particularly defined as one which is serious and modest. Both these definitions concern not the content of the investigation, but rather something which lies outside its content. From the outset they draw the investigation away from truth and make it pay attention to an unknown third thing. An investigation which continually has its eyes fixed on this third element, to which the law gives a legitimate capriciousness, will it not lose sight of the truth? Is it not the first duty of the seeker after truth to aim directly at the truth, without looking to the right or left? Will I not forget the essence of the matter, if I am obliged not to forget to state it in the prescribed form?

Truth is as little modest as light, and towards whom should it be so? Towards itself? Verum index sui et falsi. Therefore, towards falsehood?.

If modesty is the characteristic feature of the investigation, then it is a sign that truth is feared rather than falsehood. It is a means of discouragement at every step forward I take. It is the imposition on the investigation of a fear of reaching a result, a means of guarding against the truth.

Further, truth is general, it does not belong to me alone, it belongs to all, it owns me, I do not own it. My property is the form, which is my spiritual individuality. Le style c’est l’homme. Yes, indeed! The law permits me to write, only I must write in a style that is not mine! I may show my spiritual countenance, but I must first set it in the prescribed folds! What man of honour will not blush at this presumption and not prefer to hide his head under the toga? Under the toga at least one has an inkling of a Jupiter’s head. The prescribed folds mean nothing but bonne mine a mauvais jeu.

You admire the delightful variety, the inexhaustible riches of nature. You do not demand that the rose should smell like the violet, but must the greatest riches of all, the spirit, exist in only one variety? I am humorous, but the law bids me write seriously. I am audacious, but the law commands that my style be modest. Grey, all grey, is the sole, the rightful colour of freedom. Every drop of dew on which the sun shines glistens with an inexhaustible play of colours, but the spiritual sun, however many the persons and whatever the objects in which it is refracted, must produce only the official colour! The most essential form of the spirit is cheerfulness, light, but you make shadow the sole manifestation of the spirit; it must be clothed only in black, yet among flowers there are no black ones. The essence of the spirit is always truth itself but what do you make its essence? Modesty. Only the mean wretch is modest, says Goethe, and you want to turn the spirit into such a mean wretch? Or if modesty is to be the modesty of genius of which Schiller speaks, then first of all turn all your citizens and above all your censors into geniuses. But then the modesty of genius does not consist in what educated speech consists in, the absence of accent and dialect, but rather in speaking with the accent of the matter and in the dialect of its essence. It consists in forgetting modesty and immodesty and getting to the heart of the matter. The universal modesty of the mind is reason, that universal liberality of thought which reacts to each thing according to the latter’s essential nature.

Further, if seriousness is not to come under Tristram Shandy’s definition according to which it is a hypocritical behaviour of the body in order to conceal defects of the soul, but signifies seriousness in substance, then the entire prescription falls to the ground. For I treat the ludicrous seriously when I treat it ludicrously, and the most serious immodesty of the mind is to be modest in the face of immodesty.

Serious and modest! What fluctuating, relative concepts! Where does seriousness cease and jocularity begin? Where does modesty cease and immodesty begin? We are dependent on the temperament of the censor. It would be as wrong to prescribe temperament for the censor as to prescribe style for the writer. If you want to be consistent in your aesthetic criticism, then forbid also a too serious and too modest investigation of the truth, for too great seriousness is the most ludicrous thing of all, and too great modesty is the bitterest irony.

Finally, the starting point is a completely perverted and abstract view of truth itself. All objects of the writer’s activity are comprehended in the one general concept “truth”. Even if we leave the, subjective side out of account, viz., that one and the same object is refracted differently as seen by different persons and its different aspects converted into as many different spiritual characters, ought the character of the object to have no influence, not even the slightest, on the investigation? Truth includes not only the result but also the path to it. The investigation of truth must itself be true; true investigation is developed truth, the dispersed elements of which are brought together in the result. And should not the manner of investigation alter according to the object? If the object is a matter for laughter, the manner has to seem serious, if the object is disagreeable, it has to be modest. Thus you violate the right of the object as you do that of the subject. You conceive truth abstractly and turn the spirit into an examining magistrate, who draws up a dry protocol of it.

Or is there no need of this metaphysical twisting? Is truth to be understood as being simply what the government decrees, so that investigation is added as a superfluous, intrusive element, but which for etiquette’s sake is not to be entirely rejected? It almost seems so. For investigation is understood in advance as in contradiction to truth and therefore appears with the suspicious official accompaniment of seriousness and modesty, which of course is fitting for the layman in relation to the priest. The government’s understanding is the only state reason. True, in certain circumstances of time, concessions have to be made to a different understanding and its chatter, but this understanding comes on the scene conscious of the concession and of its own lack of right, modest and submissive, serious and tedious. If Voltaire says: “Tous les genres sont bons, excepte le genre ennuyeux”, in the present case the genre ennuyant becomes the exclusive one, as is already sufficiently proved by the reference to the “proceedings of the Rhine Province Assembly”. Why not rather the good old German curialistic style? You may write freely, but at the same time every word must be a curtsey to the liberal censorship, which allows you to express your equally serious and modest opinions. Indeed, do not lose your feeling of reverence!

The legal emphasis is not on truth but on modesty and seriousness. Hence everything here arouses suspicion: seriousness, modesty and, above all, truth, the indefinite scope of which seems to conceal a very definite but very doubtful kind of truth.

“The censorship,” the instruction states further, “should therefore by no means be implemented in a narrow-minded interpretation going beyond this law.”

By this law is meant in the first place Article II of the 1819 decree, but later the instruction refers to the “spirit” of the censorship decree as a whole. The two provisions are easily combined. Article II is the concentrated spirit of the censorship decree, the further subdivision and more detailed specification of this spirit being found in the other articles. We believe the above-mentioned spirit cannot be better characterised than by the following expressions of it:

Article VII. “The freedom from censorship hitherto accorded the Academy of Sciences and the universities is hereby suspended for five years.”

*10. “The present temporary decision shall remain in force for five years from today. Before the expiry of this term there shall be a thorough investigation in the Bundestag of how the kind of provisions regarding freedom of the press proposed in Article 18 of the Bundesakte could be put into effect, and thereby a definite decision reached on the legitimate limits of freedom of the press in Germany.”

A law which suspends freedom of the press where it has hitherto existed, and makes it superfluous through censorship where it was to be brought into existence, can hardly be called one favourable to the press. Moreover, §10 directly admits that provisionally a censorship law will be introduced instead of the freedom of the press proposed in Article 18 of the Bundesakte and perhaps intended to be put into effect at some time. This quid pro quo at least reveals that the circumstances of the time called for restrictions on the press, and that the decree owes its origin to distrust of the press. This annoyance is even excused by being termed provisional, valid for only five years – unfortunately it has lasted for 22 years.

The very next line of the instruction shows how it becomes involved in a contradiction. On the one hand, it will not have the censorship implemented in any interpretation that goes beyond the decree, and at the same time it prescribes such excess:

“The censor can very well permit a frank discussion also of internal affairs.”

The censor can, but he does not have to, there is no necessity. Even this cautious liberalism very definitely goes not only beyond the spirit but beyond the definite demands of the censorship decree. The old censorship decree, to be exact, Article II cited in the instruction, not only does not permit any frank discussion of Prussian affairs, but not even of Chinese affairs.

“Here,” namely, among violations of the security of the Prussian state and the German Federated States, the instruction comments, “are included all attempts to present in a favourable light parties existing in any country which work for the overthrow of the state system.”

Is this the way a frank discussion of Chinese or Turkish national affairs is permitted? And if even such remote relations endanger the precarious security of the German Federation, how can any word of disapproval about internal affairs fail to do so?

Thus, on the one hand, the instruction goes beyond the spirit of Article II of the censorship decree in the direction of liberalism – an excess whose content will become clear later, but which is already formally suspicious inasmuch as it claims to be the consequence of Article II, of which wisely only the first half is quoted, the censor however being referred at the same time to the article itself. On the other hand, the instruction just as much goes beyond the censorship decree in an illiberal direction and adds new press restrictions to the old ones.

In the above-quoted Article II of the censorship decree it is stated:

“Its aim” (that of the censorship) “is to check all that is contrary to the general principles of religion, irrespective of the opinions and doctrines of individual religious parties and sects permitted in the state.”

In 1819, rationalism still prevailed, which understood by religion in general the so-called religion of reason. This rationalist point of view is also that of the censorship decree, which at any rate is so inconsistent as to adopt the irreligious point of view while its aim is to protect religion. For it is already contrary to the general principles of religion to separate them from the positive content and particular features of religion, since each religion believes itself distinguished from the various other would-be religions by its special nature, and that precisely its particular features make it the true religion. In quoting Article II, the new censorship instruction omits the restrictive additional clause by which individual religious parties and sects are excluded from inviolability, but it does not stop at this and makes the following comment:

“Anything aimed in a frivolous, hostile way against the Christian religion in general, or against a particular article of faith, must not be tolerated.”

The old censorship decree does not mention the Christian religion at all; on the contrary, it distinguishes between religion and all individual religious parties and sects. The new censorship instruction does not only convert religion in general into the Christian religion, but adds further a particular article of faith. A delightful product of our Christianised science! Who will still deny that it has forged new fetters for the press? Religion, it is said, must not be attacked, whether in general or in particular. Or do you perhaps believe that the words frivolous and hostile have made the new fetters into chains of roses? How adroitly it is written: frivolous, hostile! The adjective frivolous appeals to the citizen’s sense of decorum, it is the exoteric word for the world at large, but the adjective hostile is whispered into the censor’s ear, it is the legal interpretation of frivolity. We shall find in this instruction more examples of this subtle tact, which offers the public a subjective word that makes it blush and offers the censor an objective word that makes the author grow pale. In this way even lettres de cachet could be set to music.

And in what a remarkable contradiction the censorship instruction has entangled itself! It is only a half-hearted attack that is frivolous, one which keeps to individual aspects of a phenomenon, without being sufficiently profound and serious to touch the essence of the matter; it is precisely an attack on a merely particular feature as such that is frivolous. If, therefore, an attack on the Christian religion in general is forbidden, it follows that only a frivolous attack on it is permitted. On the other hand, an attack on the general principles of religion, on its essence, on a particular feature insofar as it is a manifestation of the essence, is a hostile attack. Religion can only be attacked in a hostile or a frivolous way, there is no third way. This inconsistency in which the instruction entangles itself is, of course, only a seeming one, for it depends on the semblance that in general some kind of attack on religion is still permitted. But an unbiased glance suffices to realise that this semblance is only a semblance. Religion must not be attacked, whether in a hostile or a frivolous way, whether in general or in particular, therefore not at all.


  1. freespeecher said,

    So, do you think that this man should be given the right of free speech; it cuts two ways. Bishop Williamson on the Holocaust

    • Jim Denham said,


    • Steven Johnston said,'s_law

      It is real!
      Freespeecher are you in UAF/SWP?

    • Glesga Keeping Scotland Free From Loonies said,

      Of course he should have said it although he knows it to be wrong. I am sure many Catholics that supported Adolf are really disappointed that the Nazis did not wipe out the Jews entirely.

  2. jojo said,


  3. Southpawpunch (@Southpawpunch) said,


  4. Steven Johnston said,


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