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] Continue reading

El Lissitzky’s Soviet pavilion at the Pressa exhibition in Cologne, 1928

The revolution on display

El Lissitzky was one of the great masters of Soviet avant-garde art and architecture. Besides Malevich, Tatlin, and Rodchenko, Lissitzky is probably the most famous Russian modernist from this period. He was certainly the most internationally renowned. Part of the reason for this was his numerous expeditions abroad, throughout Western Europe, usually sent there by the USSR’s Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatolii Lunacharskii.

International constructivism followed him, as he met and worked closely with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, J.J.P. Oud, Mart Stam, and a host of others. Journals, too: VeshchGABC.

El Lissitzky, The Constructor (self-portrait, 1925)

El Lissitzky, The Constructor (self-portrait, 1925)

After 1926, Lissitzky began to design pavilions for the Soviet Union for international exhibitions. Konstantin Mel’nikov’s striking pavilion from the 1925 Paris Expo set a very high standard for formal dynamism and innovative use of materials. Many looked to the Soviets to continue to lead the way. (De Stijl impresario Theo van Doesburg was only impressed by Mel’nikov’s building and one other at the 1925 show). Lissitzky’s crowning achievement as far as exhibition displays went was the 1928 “Pressa” exhibition in Cologne. “Pressa” was meant to showcase the journalistic culture of the various countries that participated.

What follows are a number of rare images from that show. Some of them are extremely high resolution. A few translated passages of reviews in the German and British press are also included along with some of Lissitzky’s own remarks.

With Lissitzky, all the possibilities of a new exhibition technique were explored: in place of a tedious succession of framework, containing dull statistics, he produced a new purely visual design of the exhibition space and its contents, by the use of glass, mirrors, celluloid, nickel, and other materials; by contrasting these newfangled materials with wood, lacquer, textiles and photographs; by the use of natural objects instead of pictures…by bringing a dynamic element into the exhibition by means of continuous films, illuminated and intermittent letters and a number of rotating models. The room thus became a sort of stage on which the visitor himself seemed to be one of the players. The novelty and vitality of the exhibition did not fail: this was proved by the fact that this section attracted by far the largest number of visitors, and had at times to be closed owing to overcrowding.

Jan Tschichold, “Display that has
dynamic force: Exhibition rooms by
Lissitzky,” Commercial Art (1931)

A trip to the individual displays, and around the pavilion as a whole, will give the viewer an idea of the tremendous results achieved during ten years of Soviet activity.

— Die Welt am Abend
Berlin (5/25/1928)

The Soviet pavilion at the “Pressa” exhibition is a towering achievement, unique in its imaginative content, and unparalleled in its power of illustrative effect.

— Freiheit


Katalog des Sowjet-Pavillons auf der Internationalen Presse-Ausstellung Köln 1928, pgs 3-5Katalog des Sowjet-Pavillons auf der Internationalen Presse-Ausstellung Köln 1928, pgs 6-8Katalog des Sowjet-Pavillons auf der Internationalen Presse-Ausstellung Köln 1928, pgs 9-11

My most important work as an artist began in 1926: the design of exhibition rooms. That year I was asked by the committee of the International Art Exhibition in Dresden to create the room of non-objective [Suprematist] art and was sent there by “Voks” [the commissariat/embassy that works with countries abroad]. After an educational trip — the new architecture in Holland being the subject — I returned to Moscow in the autumn.

El Lissitzky (1932) Continue reading