Marx, Lenin, Hegel, and Goethe on genius and freedom of the press

Mikhail Lifshitz
The Philosophy of Art
of Karl Marx

It is interesting to compare Marx’s “Debates on the Freedom of the Press” (1843)[1] with Lenin’s “Party Organization and Party Literature” (1905),[2] in which he speaks of creating a free press, “free not only in the police sense of the word, but free from capital as well — free from careerism; free, above all, from anarchic bourgeois individualism.” As opposed to the “mercenary commercial bourgeois press,” and the “deluded (or hypocritically delusive) dependence” of the bourgeois writer “upon the money bags, upon bribery, upon patronage,” Lenin set up the principle of party literature. While Marx’s articles in the Rheinische Zeitung were on an incomparably lower level of political understanding, there can be no doubt that even in 1842 Marx directed his criticism against not only police censorship but also against freedom of the press in the bourgeois sense.[3] And he also showed, even at this early stage, some signs of the doctrine of party literature.

From the point of view of Marx’s political beliefs in 1842, the struggle for party literature coincided with criticism of feudal-bureaucratic censorship. And herein lies the great difference between Lenin’s conception of “party” and that of the young Marx. Lenin held that the destruction of feudal censorship was a problem of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, whereas party literature is a weapon of the proletariat in its struggle against anarchic bourgeois literary relations. No doubt the two problems are not separated by a Chinese wall; one grows out of the other. Nevertheless, they are different and within certain limits even opposed. To confuse the democratic ideal of a free press with the problem of saving it from the freedom of a “literary trade” was characteristic of young Marx as a revolutionary democrat.

48055a Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels en la imprenta de la Rheinische Zeitung, Colonia - Museo Marx & Engels, Moscú ✆ E. Chapiro © Ñángara Marx1

The censor was his principal opponent. Obeying the dictates of the government, the censor attempted to eradicate every trace of party struggle in literature, prohibiting even the use of party slogans. Already in his first article on freedom of the press, “Comments on the latest Prussian Censorship Instruction” (1842), Marx unmasked the duplicity of the Prussian government which, while suppressing all party struggle, actually came out as “one party against another.” The censor’s instructions contained some “aesthetic criticism.” The writer was expected to use a “serious and modest” style. As a matter of fact, however, any crudeness of style could be forgiven provided the content was acceptable to the government. “Thus the censor must sometimes judge the content by the form, sometimes the form by the content. First content ceased to serve as a criterion for censorship; and then in turn form vanished.”[4]

The censor’s aesthetics imposed on the writer mediocrity on principle. “The truth is universal. It does not belong to me but to everybody. It possesses me, I do not possess it. My possession is the form which constitutes my spiritual individuality. Le style, c’est l’homme. And how! The law permits me to write, but on condition that I write in a style not my own!”[5] The only legitimate style, according to the royal censorship regulations, was one of vague monotony, a grey official style. “Voltaire said: Tous les genres sont bons, excepté le genre ennuyeux [Every style is good, except the boring style]. Here the genre ennuyeux is the only one permitted.”[6] There is a resemblance between genius and mediocrity. The former is modest, the latter pale. But the modesty of the genius does not mean a renunciation of clarity, conviction, power of expression. “The essence of the spirit is always the truth itself,” wrote Marx. “And what do you interpret as its essence? Modesty. Only a rogue is modest, says Goethe; it is your wish to transform the spirit into such a rogue? Or would you not prefer modesty to be that modesty of genius of which Schiller speaks? Well, then, first transform all your citizens, and above all your censors, into geniuses. In which case the modesty of genius will not, like the language of cultured men, consist in speaking with the accent and employing the dialect which is proper to him; it will consist in forgetting modesty and immodesty, and getting to the bottom of things.”[7]

Marx als Prometheus, 1843

In this connection Marx’s views were not unlike those of Goethe and Hegel on the “one-sidedness” of genius.[8] Genius, they thought, is marked not by a spineless neutrality to all things, but rather by its definite attitude, its one-sidedness. According to Hegel, the artistic renaissances of the past were bound up with the undeveloped state of social relations, with the artist’s dependence upon a solid structure of social life, upon definite contents and traditional forms. Hegel regarded the dissolution of this original definiteness as necessary and progressive. But together with progress and the realization of freedom comes also artistic decadence. “When the spirit attains a consciously adequate and high form, and becomes a free and pure spirit, art becomes superfluous.”[9] The contemporary “free” painter (the art of bourgeois society Hegel calls “free art”) is deprived of any engrossing content. His reactions are all automatic, and he knows but a cold devotion to epochs and styles. Everything attracts him, and nothing in particular. “Free art” becomes a world of stylizations, paraphrases, individual cleverness, and originality.

Young Marx’s views have much in common with this doctrine of Hegel’s. Among Marx’s marginal notes on Grund’s book we find the following passage:

It has been observed that great men appear in surprising numbers at certain periods which are invariably characterized by the efflorescence of art. Whatever the outstanding traits of this efflorescence, its influence upon men is undeniable; it fills them with its vivifying force. When this one-sidedness of culture is spent, mediocrity follows.[10]

As we already know, from his entire career in the Rheinische Zeitung, for example, Marx did not believe that creative art is irretrievably lost with the past.

On the contrary, he showed artists the way out of the crisis which overwhelms art in a society where “self-interest” predominates. This way out Marx saw in the identification of the artist’s individuality with a definite political principle, in the open and vigorously stressed “accent and dialect” of a political party. It was with this idea in mind that he attacked the vagueness of romanticism, its flirtations with primitive poetry and modern mysticism, the middle ages and the Orient.


It would not be correct, however, to identify this viewpoint on the part of Marx with the Hegelian doctrine of the “self-limitation” of genius. ‘The man who will do something great,” wrote Hegel, “must learn, as Goethe says, to limit himself. The man who on the contrary would do everything really would do nothing, and fails.”[11] True enough, Hegel criticized the romantics for their aesthetic polytheism, their excessive versatility, their lack of self-limitation. But these ideas Marx interpreted in an entirely different way. “Self-limitation,” as Hegel conceived it, had nothing to do with a revolutionary party and its political principles permeating the creative work of the artist or poet. Quite the contrary, self-limitation must take place within the confines of bourgeois society. In revolution Hegel saw only negative freedom brought about by some “faction” which, if victorious, becomes another government. Such change, according to Hegel, is only a transitory step towards a better-organized constitutional state, in which every person is a particle in the scheme of the division of labor. Consequently Hegel, contrary to his original plan, justified the “free art” of bourgeois society in that the artist, after confining himself to a definite theme, must devote himself to its traditional interpretation. Thus bourgeois society, on the very day after the revolution, sought to adopt the “continuity” and “certainty” of the old social forms which it had fought as a destructive force. And this was what Hegel had in mind in demanding that the artist becomes conscious of his “individuality and definite position,” and perform his share of work under the protection of a well-organized governmental police.

“Certainty,” in the Hegelian sense of the word, by no means conflicts with the “free art” of bourgeois society, and provides no escape from its false liberty. Only partisanship in art, partisanship in the sense indicated by Marx and Lenin, can give the modern artist that precision and concentration of will, that creative “one-sidedness” which is essential to genuine art. The beginnings of this doctrine can be found in the creed of young Marx in the period of the Rheinische Zeitung.

Lenin-640x360 LeninLeggePravda


[1] Debatten über Pressfreiheit (Debates on the Freedom of the Press), MEGA, I, I/1, pp. 179-229.
[2] V I Lenin, Collected Works, X, Moscow 1962, pp. 44-49.
[3] “Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction,” in Easton and Guddat (eds.), op cit. (footnote 6), pp. 67-92.
[4] Ibid., p. 90.
[5] Ibid., p. 71.
[6] Ibid., p. 73.
[7] Ibid., pp. 72-73.
[8] “Limitation” of aim and work is a recurrent theme in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre. “Many-sidedness prepares, properly speaking, only the element in which the one-sided can act…The best thing is to restrict oneself.” (Part I, Ch IV), and “To be acquainted with and to exercise one thing rightly gives higher training than mere halfness in a hundred sorts of things” (Part I, Ch XIII). Cf Part II. Ch XII. and the poem Natur und Kunst. For one-sidedness in Hegel see footnote 10 below.
[9] G W F Hegel. The Philosophy of History, New York 1956.
[10] Marginal note in Grund. p. 25 — ML.
[11] G W F Hegel, Logic, translated by William Wallace, London 1931, p. 145.

5 thoughts on “Marx, Lenin, Hegel, and Goethe on genius and freedom of the press

  1. Ross, why do you keep pretending that humanity has anything useful or illuminating to learn from that mystical idiot, Hegel? After all, Marx abandoned this Hermetic Bumbler, root-and-branch, by the time he came to write Das Kapital, as I have demonstrated several times at this site.

  2. Pingback: Capitalism and bourgeoisie: The sorcerer’s apprentice | The Charnel-House

  3. Pingback: Marx, Lenin, Hegel, and Goethe on genius and freedom of the press |

  4. Pingback: Free speech on and off campus: In defense of George Ciccariello-Maher | The Charnel-House

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