Vol. XLII No. 22 June 03, 2018

Into the Political Movement

THE possibilities for a secure career had worsened drastically. Friedrich Wilhelm IV had come to the throne in Prussia in 1840. The Prussian bourgeoisie reiterated its demands, particularly the one for a decisive share of political power, especially in the administration of the State in law-making. When the King rejected these demands, the economically leading section of the industrialists—the bankers and the merchants, with the Rhinelanders in the forefront—went over to the liberal opposition and put itself at the head of the popular movement. A new wave of anti-feudal opposition developed. The more the mass of the people were stirred into action and strengthened the bourgeoisie’s aspirations in the following years, the deeper the crisis into which the feudal system in Germany sank. The climax was the revolution of 1848-49.

On the threshold of these stormy decades, however, the feudal forces, and especially the Prussian government, were confident of their power, and concentrated on doing everything to crush the ever-rising liberal and democratic opposition. Just as in politics, so too in the field of ideology, feudal reaction struck out ruthlessly. Progressive newspapers were banned, and the censorship was sharpened in general. The government also began to hound the Young Hegelians, the most consistent of whom openly opposed the Prussian state, from the universities and editorial offices.

In this situation, Marx saw a question-mark over his idea of a lecturer’s post in the Bonn University.


Through the struggle between the growing anti-feudal movement and the reactionary Prussian state, Marx was more and more driven towards what had become the most important field of battle between reaction and progress: that of the political publicist. Experiences taught him increasingly that criticism of the Prussian State in the field of philosophy was not enough. It was the duty of philosophers to take part directly and immediately in the political struggle. When the opportunity to do so presented itself, he seized it with energy and determination.

At the beginning of 1942, the Prussian king had issued a regulation on censorship which seemed to make the muzzling of the press milder. But Marx analysed the true content of this government decree in an article, “Remarks on the newest Prussian censorship Regulation.” With ruthless logic and cutting sarcasm he showed that the seeming easing of the censorship was in fact designed to sharpen what was already a most arbitrary form of suppression and exposed the new order as a hideous deformity born out of fear, stupidity, arrogance and hypocrisy. “The only genuine cure for the censorship would be its abolition”. He signed the article with the pseudonym, “From a Rhinelander.” This was a challenge on behalf of the democrats of the Rhineland to east of the Elba.

As Marx feared, the censor censored his censure. Arnold Ruge could bring it out only in a collection of essays in Switzerland in 1843. The book was banned in Prussia as soon as it was published. It showed how perfectly on target Marx’s analysis of the Prussian censorship was.

With this article, Marx moved directly into the political struggle, taking for the first time a public position against reaction. This first article already revealed him clearly as a revolutionary democrat who was concerned with changing the reactionary environment from the ground up, and not merely reforming it.


More important for his future development than his studies in philosophy and the history of art during those months were his coming to know the philosophic view of Ludwig Feuerbach and at the same time being drawn even deeper into the political movement of the Rhinelanders.

What fascinated Marx in Feuerbach’s “The Essence of Christianity” was that a philosopher had appeared who not only leveled sharp criticism at the religious ideology of the feudal class, and not only developed certain aspects of Hegelian philosophy in a critical manner, but every religion, as well as all of the Hegelian idealism, was thrown overboard as incompatible with the real essence of the world and with the dignity of man.

Feuerbach put forward philosophical materialism to replace them. Neither the world nor man, he declared, need a God or the “Absolute idea”. Man exists only thanks to nature and is a product of its development. Nature, being—that is primary and exists independently of man and his consciousness. There is nothing outside of man, not even a God. Religion is a product of human beings. It was not God who created man, but man who created God after his own human image.

These conceptions of Feuerbach broke the spell of Hegelian Idealism. Marx’s critical insight, however, began to detect the weaknesses in Feuerbach’s teaching also, especially his weakness in seeing man only as a biological, but not as a social being. This prevented Feuerbach from applying materialism to human society and its history. This understanding, however, was only gradually maturing in Marx himself. For the time being, the daily political battle made such heavy demands on him that his settling of accounts with the Feuerbach philosophy took second place.


The rising bourgeoisie in the Prussian Rhine province had founded the Rheinische Zeitung fur Politik, Handel und Gewerbe (Rhine newspaper for politics, trade and commerce) in Cologne at the beginning of 1842 with the aim of defending the economic and political interest of Rhineland’s trade and commerce. A few of the Rhineland big bourgeoisie sympathised with the young Hegelians and their leading representatives were asked to join in the launching and direction of the paper.

Marx, from the autumn of 1841 onwards, helped promote the founding of the paper with advice and assistance, and suggested his old friend, Rutenberg, as chief editor. Along with Rutenberg, many other young Hegelians became permanent collaborators of the paper, so that the purely economic problems of the Rhine big bourgeoisie were more and more pushed into the background and political questions took the centre of the stage. Thanks to Marx who gave the paper this direction, it, in a short time, developed into the leading organ of the bourgeois opposition in Germany.

Marx began writing articles for the Rheinische Zeitung, and as part of an ambitious plan, he wanted to subject the debates in the provincial Landtag (parliament) to critical analysis in a number of articles. The aim was to convincingly demonstrate to the readers, using the proceedings in the parliament of the most advanced Prussian province as an example, how frighteningly remote the development in Germany was from a modern bourgeois society.

The first series of articles dealt with the Landtag’s debate on the freedom of the press. Marx vehemently championed the freedom of the press as one of central demands of the liberal and democratic movement. Against those who, with their shopkeepers’ mentality, wanted to degrade the press to a business he declared: “The writer, it is true, must earn a living to be able to exist and to write, but he should not have to exist and to write in order to earn a living…The first freedom of the press is to be free of commerce.”

Marx also came to the significant conclusion that the differences of opinion among the Landtag representatives, in respect to the bourgeois-democratic demands arose out of the varying social interests; on the other hand, however over and above these differences, they had a common interest, as landowners, in perpetuating the existing order with the least possible change.

With this article, Marx made his debut as the representative the Left wing of the opposition movement.


Form the spring of 1842 on, Marx exerted an ever stronger influence on the editors of the paper through his articles, letters and verbal advice. His aim was to join philosophy ever more intimately to the political reality, and scorned abstract, pseudo-radical criticism. “True theory must be developed and made clear within the concrete circumstances and on the basis of the existing situation,” he wrote to the publisher of the paper. These were important ideas on the road to joining theory with practice.

In mid-October 1842, the shareholders of the paper made Marx the editor and he immediately moved to Cologne, a centre of the economic life of Rhineland. From the first movement on, he set the course for his small collective of editors with his knowledge, his political perspective and his energy, and became, in fact, the moving spirit of the paper. Only 24 years old, he thus stood at the head of the foremost organ of the progressive German bourgeoisie. A new stage began in the personal life of Marx and the development of the paper.

When an organ of the liberal big bourgeoisie attacked Rheinische Zeitung as Prussian communists, Marx answered the denunciation with a sharp article, but, at the same time, honestly confessed that his knowledge of French socialism and communism was still inadequate. He drew the necessary consequences. He assembled and studied the works of well-known socialist theoreticians, the  most significant of whom were the Frenchmen Charles Fourier and Claude-Henri de Saint Simon, about whom he had heard from von Westphalen when still a schoolboy, and also the Englishman, Robert Owen.

These socialist thinkers ruthlessly criticised the abuses and deformities of the capitalist society, and drew up plans for a harmonious human order of the future, free from exploitation and oppression. But their theories lacked an objective scientific basis. They appealed to the pity and understanding of the rulers and owners, and did not recognise the power which the proletariat itself possessed. Thus their teachings were infused with a deep humanism, but remained fantasies, wishful dreams of an ideal human society.

Not satisfied with the reading of socialist publications, Marx sought an exchange of opinions, and participated in a discussion on socialism that a group of Cologne intellectuals sponsored.


As yet, Marx remained a revolutionary democrat. He was still dominated by the conception, in the Hegelian sense, that the solution of social questions depended on the transformation of the State, the aim of which had to be reasonable reorganisation of society. But this view began to recede as, step by step, he came to the conviction that the State had neither the reasonable character nor decisive role in historical development that Hegel had attributed to it. Marx was also driven to these thoughts and new views by his pre-occupation now with economic and social questions, as well as by his daily experiences with the Prussian State and its bureaucracy.

The first article Marx wrote on a social question was in the fall of 1842, when continuing his analysis of the Landtag proceedings with a series of articles on “the Debates about the Wood Thieves’ Law.” The Landtag of landowners, and therefore also owners of forests, had discussed a draft law directed against the stealing of wood as well as hunting and pasture violations, all of which had increased as a result of the growing poverty of the peasants.

Marx took up the role of lawyer for the poor, and indignantly denounced the brutal measures of the landowners against “the poor masses who were without political or social rights.” He identified himself whole heartedly with the impoverished classes, whose existence “till now has been merely a habit of society, and who have not yet found a suitable place in the conscious organisation of the State.”

His criticism was still based on legal and moral grounds, but new tones began to enter it ever more frequently. They showed that Marx, in his investigations, more and more perceived the presence of class interests in bourgeois society, and also the significance of the proletariat in that society.


At the beginning of 1843, social questions became Marx’s concern when, in a series of articles he investigated the situation among the peasants of the Moselle district, owners of tiny vineyards. He carried out an on-the-spot study in the Moselle Valley and accused the Prussian bureaucracy of ruining the peasants without conscience.

He came to remarkable conclusions in this article; “In the investigation of State conditions one is too easily tempted to overlook the objective nature of the situation and to explain everything on the basis of the will of the persons involved. There are, however, situations with determine the actions of private persons as well as of individual officials, and are as independent of them as breathing.”

This meant – no matter how much the Hegelian terminology was retained – that the legal situation in the State could no longer be seen in the “Absolute Idea” or in reasonableness, but in the concrete social circumstances.

Life forced Marx daily to take sides. He did so on behalf of social progress, the legitimate demands of the bourgeoisie. But he took sides no less for the destitute working people, for their democratic rights, and their demands of amelioration of their social needs. Thus Marx developed himself into a consistent revolutionary democrat.