The muckraking Marx

March 9, 2011

The owners of the Rheinische Zeitung hired a "devil of a revolutionary" as editor.

IN 1841, things were looking good for Karl Marx. After completing his dissertation in philosophy, his mentor, the radical critic and philosopher Bruno Bauer, prepared Marx's way to land a prestigious academic appointment. Only 23 years old and widely recognized as a rising intellectual star, Marx shot to the top of the most influential liberal circles in Germany.

As I noted in my column on Georg Friedrich Hegel, although his philosophy stressed conflict and contradiction as the motor force of change, Hegel made his peace with the Prussian monarchy in the years before he died in 1831, stating "the real is rational and the rational is real."

But the "Young Hegelians" of the 1830s and early 1840s (more on this in the next article) rejected Hegel's political fatalism and launched increasingly strident attacks on bureaucratic privilege and organized religion.

In 1840, a young prince, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, ascended to the German throne, promising reform. Bauer echoed the optimism of this "Yes we can" moment, writing, "a dawn of hope is reflected in everyone's countenance."

Columnist: Todd Chretien

Todd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review and to Socialist Worker on the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.

Yet within a year, the new king promoted Hegel's partner-turned-rival, the idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling, to "root out the dragon-seed of Hegelianism," laying the basis for a purge within German universities. In the spring of 1842, the authorities removed Bauer from his academic post, thereby depriving Marx of any chance to enter teaching, unless he renounced radical politics.

Instead, Marx turned to journalism, editing a paper that quickly gained a national reputation for attracting "all the young, fresh, free-thinking...revolutionary talent that Prussia and Germany possessed," as one biographer put it. However, the Rheinische Zeitung (which means Rhineland Newspaper in English) was hardly a communist publication; the masthead proclaimed, "For Politics, Commerce and Industry."

In fact, the Rheinische Zeitung was financed by the Rhineland's capitalist class, mainly based in the rapidly expanding textiles industry, which made the region one of the most economically advanced in all of mainland Europe. This development was made possible by the Napoleonic French occupation of the southwest of Germany from 1806 to 1814, which had temporarily broken the political stranglehold of the agrarian-based feudal lords (junkers in German) who dominated the rest of country.

Why would capitalists hire Marx? In brief, as an oppositional move against the junkers, they hoped to harness the energy of the radical youth to push for economic reforms that would benefit their own interests--a protective tariff, for instance--within the monarchical set-up. In order to do so, they lent timid support to broader reforms, such as free speech and more democratic power for the toothless provincial legislatures, as against royal authority.

This was a classic marriage of convenience if ever there was one. "Although a devil of a revolutionary, Dr. Marx is one of the most penetrating minds I know," wrote a prosperous attorney in support of hiring Marx.


BEGINNING IN the spring of 1842, Marx penned a series of articles for the Rheinische Zeitung that established him as one of the country's leading muckraking journalists.

One of his first articles, "On the Freedom of the Press," analyzes the debates within the provincial assembly--elected and composed solely of landowners and wealthy merchants and their handpicked representatives--on a new censorship law proposed by the king. Marx condemns the conservatives who defended their right to private property, but opposed the right to free speech, writing:

Whenever a particular freedom is put in question, freedom in general is put in question. Whenever a form of freedom is rejected, freedom in general is rejected...Freedom remains freedom whether it finds expression in printer's ink, in property, in the conscience or in a political assembly.

On the one hand, this forthright defense of civil liberties under conditions of the repressive Prussian monarchy put Marx squarely on the extreme left wing of German democrats. On the other hand, Marx included "freedom... in property" in his list of different expressions.

This was not simply because he had to please the Rheinische Zeitung's backers. Rather, Marx did not yet necessarily see anything wrong with private property. He believed, as Hegel did, that inequality in wealth was a given, and that it was the state's job to moderate, but not eliminate, this inequality in one way or another. It was the philosopher's job--or the journalist's--to correct the state's failings through criticism, thus requiring a free press.

In reality, up to this point in Marx's career, he cared very little about economic inequality. Instead, he accepted, as Hegel did, the divisions in society as natural. Personally and professionally, he operated within a group of intellectuals whose primary concern was their own right to think, write and say what they wanted.

This tendency is clearly reflected in Marx's early newspaper articles, which are filled with allusions to Greek mythology and classic German literature, as well as untranslated quotations in French. Clearly, Marx was not writing for common laborers, but for the radical intelligentsia and liberal Rhineland middle class, which limited his audience to just 3,500 subscribers, even at the height of the Rheinische Zeitung's popularity.

However, as he put it some years later in the Preface to Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx soon found himself:

in the embarrassing position of having to discuss what is known as material interests. The deliberations of the Rhine Province Assembly on the thefts of firewood and the division of landed property...the condition of the Mosel peasantry and finally the debates on free trade and protective tariffs caused me in the first instance to turn my attention to economic questions.

Poking fun at his own early ignorance of the economic reality faced by the bulk of the population, Marx began to understand the power of wealth in society, and to develop a sympathy with the poor and oppressed.


AS MARX grew increasingly frustrated with the timidity of the small capitalist class' support for free speech and other democratic rights, he began to see that the politicians' policy positions were connected with their economic class interests.

In the summer of 1842, landowners sought to introduce a bill to outlaw the customary right of peasants to collect fallen timber for firewood. This was a time-honored tradition that--for the impoverished peasantry--often meant the difference between life and death during the harsh German winters.

The debates were a revelation for Marx. Last week, I referred readers of this column to Marx's article Debates on the Thefts of Wood, where he wrote, "We have come down to the ground level." Marx argues that there is no "abstract" debate about what is right and wrong based on general principles--instead, there is a class basis for every argument. "The practical forest owner argues as follows: This legal definition is good insofar as it is useful to me, for what is useful to me is good," he wrote.

In the face of the landowners' support for laws in their own interest, Marx spoke on behalf of the poor:

We unpractical people, however, demand for the poor, [for the] politically and socially propertyless many what the learned and would-be learned servility of so-called historians has discovered to be the true philosopher's stone for turning every sordid claim into the pure gold of right. We demand for the poor a customary right, and indeed one which is not of a local character but is a customary right of the poor in all countries. We go still further and maintain that a customary right by its very nature can only be a right of this lowest, propertyless and elemental class.

For the first time, Marx saw his role as not only participating in ideological debates, but taking sides in a concrete fight between classes. That is, he became a partisan, an advocate on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. His conception of the "customary right of the poor in all countries," even seemed to bring into question the legitimacy of private property itself!

This constituted a sharp break with Marx's prior emphasis on purely philosophical debates and then highly idealized discussions of politics and civil society, as in the debates on the censorship law. He was one of the first of his generation of radical intellectuals to understand the need to connect political criticism to a concrete mass base among the population.

However, as Michael Lowy rightly notes in his book The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx:

Marx sees in the poverty of the peasants its passive side only: their distress, their needs, their suffering. One can account for this attitude by his neo-Hegelian beginnings ("active spirit" against "passive matter"), but one must also emphasize that the actual object of Marx's attention in these articles as peasant poverty, which was and remained throughout the 19th century essentially passive, and not workers' poverty, the active side of which was already making itself felt, at least in France and Britain. It is notable that the world "proletariat" appears in none of Marx's articles in Rheinische Zeitung. (Lowy, 30)

In other words, Marx still saw philosophy as the motor force of history ("active spirit"), even if he now believed that those ideas should be employed on behalf of the poor ("passive matter"). He continued to believe that intellectuals--and if they were driven out of the universities, then as journalists and critics--would, through the power of their arguments, change the world.

Marx saw no alternative to this dichotomy between the passive and active side of political struggle because, at least at this point in history, the Rhineland peasants were not protesting and demanding their rights. They were simply victimized and needed a champion. Further, Lowy points out that the working class in Germany, even the workers in the relatively advanced Rhineland region, had not yet shown their "active side"--that is, their ability to resist.

Though Marx held to this position that was obviously elitist from the point of view of the masses, still, one can only imagine what many of his newspaper's financial patrons would have thought. Certainly, some must have begun to question the wisdom of hiring this "devil of a revolutionary" in the first place.

The Prussian censors stepped in to relieve their distress, muzzling Marx and his circle of leftist journalists. They ordered the paper closed by March 1843. Once again, Marx had a choice. He could silence his pen, or find someplace where he could speak his mind. This time, that meant exile. "I can do nothing more in Germany," Marx wrote in a letter to fellow-radical Arnold Ruge in January 1843. "Here one makes a counterfeit of oneself."

Marx moved on to Paris, a newlywed and newly unemployed. Once there, he set down to work to settle accounts with Hegel and his own Young Hegelian roots, formed a lifelong partnership with Fredrick Engels and became acquainted with the most radical working-class movement in the world. These developments will form the basis of my next few columns.


For further reading, read chapter one of Michael Lowy's The Theory of Revolution in the Young Karl Marx and chapter one of David McLellan's Karl Marx: His Life and Thought.

Next time, we'll start with Marx turning Hegel on his head. Read the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. It's the essay where Marx says religion is the "opium of the people" and that only a "class with radical chains" can emancipate society. It's just 13 pages and is well-worth the read.

Recent articles

Tuesday, August 14th

Monday, August 13th

Friday, August 10th

Thursday, August 9th

Wednesday, August 8th

Tuesday, August 7th

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives