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Karl Marx as a Young Journalist

By Rolf Hosfeld


Excerpted by Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography by Rolf Hosfeld, Translated from the German by Bernard Heise

Karl Marx was born May 5, 1818. As a young man he was a journalist and an editor for Rheinische Zeitung, a liberal-socialist newspaper published in Germany. The paper was previously edited by Adolf Friedrich Rutenberg, who favored opinionated feuilletons, before Marx replaced him and gained recognition for his practical, evidence-based approach.

Moses Hess was the first communist Karl Marx personally encountered. Both were from the Rhineland, came from bourgeois families, and were under the influence of Hegel’s philosophy. Marx made an “impos­ing impression” on Hess upon their first acquaintance in Septem­ber 1841. After their initial encounter Hess had the sense of having met the “greatest, perhaps the only real philosopher now living,” one who would soonHess was referring here to the lecture halls of Bonn Univer­sity“draw upon him the eyes of Germany.”

At this point, the perspectives of socialism and liberalism were still very similar. In contrast to Friedrich Wilhelm’s Christian state, liberalism and socialism stood philosophically on the ground of immanentism—happiness on earth. Bound more to Kant’s ideas in East Prussia, and in the West more to the traditions of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period, liberalism was essentially a postrevolutionary movement, just as Hegel’s philosophy was a postrevolutionary philosophy of the French Revolution. At first glance, it must come as a surprise that even people from the upper bourgeois cir­cles around the Rheinische Zeitung therefore felt close to the radical in­tellectuals of the Hegelian school. Included among their fundamental demands were the rights to freedom of opinion and the press, whereas conservatives advocated the view that there could only be freedom for the truth as they themselves defined it. The liberals also demanded actual representative bodies, understanding them in the decidedly Hegelian sense as institutions of realized reason. Standing behind all of the parties was basically a metapolitical philosophy, a secularized theology.

Marx’s first article in the Rheinische Zeitung appeared on May 5, 1842. Remarkable in a time of argumentative feuilletons, it reported well-researched, concrete details. Citing individual speakers and imparting a view of the narrow interests of the different estates, it concluded by persuading readers that a censorship law was not a law but rather a police mea­sure, and that in contrast, only a law granting freedom of the press could be a real law because it is the positive existence of freedom. Thus was Hegelian legal philosophy applied to concrete daily events, and on this issue the Rhenish liberals around Mevissen and Camphau­sen were largely of one mind. They could feel themselves under­stood even in Marx’s sharp polemic against the historical school of law, for in reality its target was the king himself, whom Marx was accusing of representing the right of arbitrary power.


Marx was twenty-eight years old when he was appointed editor in chief of the Rheinische Zeitung. Mevissen described him as “domineering, impetuous, pas­sionate” and “full of boundless self-confidence,” but also “deeply ear­nest and learned.” “I will destroy you,” he once hissed at Heinzen on the occasion of a controversy about the Prussian bu­reaucracy. But Marx’s dispute with the legacy of former editor Rutenberg also involved objective reasons.

Rutenberg had given his Berlin friends too much free rein. In June in the Rheinische Zeitung, Edgar Bauer, for example, railed against the upper bourgeoi­sie, the exact opposite of those who, like him, wanted radically and critically to push “principles to their extremes.” The rhetoric was not very effective, but articles like this very much displeased the publishers, leading Marx to announce a corrective realignment of editorial policy in a letter to Dagobert Oppenheim. Under no circumstances did he want to challenge the censors with senseless provocations.

“The concrete theory,” he informed Oppenheim, “must be made clear and developed within the concrete conditions and on the basis of the existing state of things.”Briefly put, he wanted jour­nalism that was well-grounded and empirically detailed.


Once the Rheinische Zeitung had departed from the form of the zeitgeist’s argumentative Berlin feuilleton and increasingly turned to questions of the real state, practical questions, and the specific prob­lems of the Rhineland, the newspaper’s circulation noticeably in­creased—from under a thousand copies in October to over 3,500 prior to Christmas in 1842.

While working there, Marx grew familiar with concrete poli­tics. One subject he chose to address was a preindustrial prob­lem that incidentally also preoccupied Mevissen: the hardship of pauperism, which, alongside child labor and poorly paid women’s labor, was widespread. But Marx chiefly provoked irritation by justifying a Mosel correspondent’s report on the misery of the peasants in the Mosel region, caused by the open borders of the German Customs Union. That these matters were even made public was in itself scandalous. As a rule, the censors energetically suppressed reports of social distress.

Thus the modest freedoms of the liberal Cologne press came to an end in the wake of the investigative reports from the Mosel. And this meant the end of Marx’s exclusive weapons of criticism, for the time being.


author photoRolf Hosfeld is the Academic Director of the Potsdam Lepsius House, a Research Center for Genocide Studies, and works as an independent writer. He is the author of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography, from which this is adapted.


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