Censorship During Marx’s Lifetime

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On October 15, 1842, the young Marx took over editorship of the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung. It had been the liberal democratic publication of a group of young merchants, bankers, and industrialists. Under his editorship, it began printing fierce criticisms of German governments. After Marx’s year as editor, the paper was suppressed and Marx himself had to go to Paris. In 1845 he contributed articles to the Paris based radical magazine Vorwarts. After pressure from the Prussian foreign office, this publication was outlawed and Marx was expelled from France.

Along with Frederick Engels, Marx was commissioned by the Communist League, a small organization of German revolutionaries, to write The Communist Manifesto. Completed in early 1848, this was to become one of the most widely read political pamphlets in world history—as well as one of the most-often suppressed tracts in history. It was, for example, outlawed in many German states upon its appearance; it was later banned from Prussia by Otto von Bismarck, and was prohibited from Nazi Germany by Adolf Hitler.

With the outbreak of revolutions throughout Europe in 1848, Marx returned to Germany and assumed editorship of the renamed Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which called itself “an organ of democracy.” The paper called for tax resistance and advocated armed self-defense against Prussian emperor Frederick William. In response, the government suppressed the publication and tried Marx for treason. Though acquitted by a jury, he was expelled from the country.

While spending most of the remainder of his life in England, Marx continued to expand on his early ideas. Although he faced almost no censorship in his adopted homeland, his writings were frequently censored abroad. For example, in his native Germany, Bismarck pressured the parliament to prohibit socialist literature and activity in 1878. Marx’s work then became available there only through the socialist underground. In czarist Russia, The Communist Manifesto and most of Marx’s other writings were prohibited. Oddly, however, the censors allowed his massive work The Capital to enter uncut—on the grounds that the huge book was too complex to be of any practical political danger.

In addition to direct government suppression, Marx’s work was often subject to self-censorship by fearful European social democrats. Since many of his ideas and political proposals ran the risk of bringing government repression down on those who distributed them, many editions of his work were edited to remove provocative passages. In Prussia, for example, where calls for a republic could be easily interpreted as insults to the kaiser, the German Social Democratic Party issued Marx’s work in carefully prepared editions that could pass government censors.

Even when his works were not suppressed, Marx found that they often were not readily available. Plagued by financial problems throughout his life, Marx had difficulty funding his writing work. Once his works were published, they often met with what he saw as a conspiracy of silence. His first volume of The Capital, for example, was so little noticed that his collaborator, Engels, wrote a number of positive reviews under pseudonyms to generate publicity.

Censorship After Marx’s Death

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Marx’s death in 1883 did nothing to reduce the hostility many governments felt toward his work. His writings were later banned in Fascist Italy and burned in Nazi Germany. Many right-wing governments in Eastern Europe, such as that of Romania, followed suit during World War I. Access to his writings was severely limited in Spain from 1939 until the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the 1970’s. After Joseph Stalin established his dictatorship in the Soviet Union, Marx’s unpublished writings were often purchased and kept from publication if their contents were seen as deviating from the...

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Soviet Union’s current Communist Party policies. Even outside of Europe, Marx’s writings were often regarded as threatening. In 1929 the Chinese government sent armies into the countryside to fight communist insurgents and prevented, whenever possible, the reading ofThe Communist Manifesto and The Capital.

During the Red Scare period of the early 1950’s in the United States, Marx’s writings were attacked as subversive. Many book stores refused to carry his books. Trustees of the Boston Public Library, under attack by the Boston Post, came within one vote of removing his works from their shelves. Professors who assigned The Communist Manifesto or others of Marx’s writings to their classes, were often attacked as communists, and some lost their teaching positions. Suspected subversives called before government investigatory committees were often asked if they had read Marx; affirmative answers were seen as admissions of disloyalty to the United States.

In numerous other countries, Marx’s books were associated with subversion and suffered various degrees of censorship. Marx was banned in Indonesia after a 1965 military coup liquidated the nation’s Communist Party. Likewise, in Greece when a military junta took power in 1967, the writings of Marx were outlawed. Throughout Latin America right-wing military regimes frequently outlawed The Communist Manifesto and others of Marx’s writings as subversive. For example, after a coup assassinated the popularly elected socialist president Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, the leaders of the Chilean military junta proscribed Marx’s works for “sake of the public good.”

When not banned outright, Marx’s writings have often been heavily edited—often by hostile editors who sought to discredit his work. Many editions of his writings have been published with antagonistic introductions written to demonstrate Marx’s errors or prejudices. For example, one volume of excerpts of his writings on religion was issued with the provocative title, A World Without Jews, in order to portray Marx—who was himself of Jewish ancestry—as anti- Semitic. At times, anticommunist regimes have even issued books and pamphlets containing completely fictitious passages attributed to Marx.

Working-Class Morality

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The vehemence with which Marx rejected the idea of universal ethical principles was accompanied by an equally disdainful attitude toward the more extreme forms of moral relativism. Since history, he argued, inevitably moved to materially “higher” and thus more potentially liberating stages, the ethical values of the ruling class of any historical period were inherently superior—in a developmental sense—to those of the ruling group that preceded it. Thus, the ethics of the bourgeoisie were “objectively” more progressive than those of the aristocracy and the slave-owning class before it, and those of the working class were the most liberating of all. Indeed, of all the classes that had appeared throughout history, the working class alone possessed a truly revolutionary morality. This was because its demands for human equality, an equitable distribution of property, and economic as well as political democracy grew directly out of its own material needs. It was this profoundly moral vision of the working class as a social carrier for a genuinely liberated society—even more than the purportedly scientific character of his historical analysis—that would account for much of Marx’s influence after his death.

Historical Materialism

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At the center of Marx’s system lies his philosophy of dialectical materialism. His views on historical evolution, economics, society, and theory of ethics all grow directly out of his materialist conception of the world. For Marx, it was not ideas that were the primary determinants of history, but material—particularly economic—facts. In the social world, in particular, the consciousness of human beings was determined by the conditions of their material existence and by the values and norms associated with the prevailing mode of economic production of the time.

All of history, Marx believed, moved through six distinct historical stages: primitive communism, the ancient slave state, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and, ultimately, communism. At each stage in the process of historical development, the economic system created within it two antagonistic social classes, whose struggle for control of the productive property of the society was continuous and was reflected in their political and ethical ideas. In this struggle, the views of the dominant class—under feudalism, the landowning aristocracy, and under capitalism, the industrial bourgeoisie—tended to predominate. As Marx put it in German Ideology (1846): “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

Thus, for Marx, all ethical ideals—no matter how cleverly disguised—were class based and had their origin in the conflicts generated by the underlying social and economic system. They were, in a real sense, ideological weapons used by the dominant and contending classes in their struggle for political hegemony, and thus were an ineluctable part of the class struggle itself. That struggle, Marx believed, was always resolved by revolution, and it unfolded naturally according to historical laws that were independent of the individual’s will.

Rejection of Moral Absolutism

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The materialist foundations of Marx’s philosophy led logically to a categorical rejection of abstract moral idealism. To Marx, universal ethical principles such as those proposed by Immanuel Kant or by the Christian church were pure historical fictions. All ethical perspectives, he contended, were influenced by material interests and rooted in the economic conditions of a specific time and place. Abstract moral concepts such as “liberty,” “equality,” and “justice” were, in his view, illusions. Each social class tended to define such concepts in terms of its own historical experience, seeking to shape them in order to satisfy its ongoing material needs.

During the capitalist stage of development, for example, the bourgeoisie, the primary purchaser of labor in the society, and the working class, the seller of labor, naturally came to see such concepts as “liberty” and “equality” differently. This difference in perspective was not based on abstract moral reasoning, but on contrasting positions of the classes in the productive process and the underlying economic relations of the age. In presenting their material demands, both classes made claims to absolute moral authority. No common moral ground in the class struggle existed, and the ultimate arbiter was always physical force.

Marx’s belief that all morality was class morality took on a particular poignancy with regard to religion. The Church, he argued, like the state, was an institution that was dominated by the ruling class of any historical period. Therefore, it tended to espouse moral values that strengthened that class’s political and social position. Specifically, the Church’s promotion of the ideal of personal humility, scriptures against violence, and concentration on the afterlife were designed to teach the worker to be submissive to authority and to look to the next world for the ultimate reward. Religion, as Marx put it acidly, was “the opium of the people,” and its destruction was an important step toward freeing the working class from the intellectual domination of the bourgeoisie.


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Arnold, N. Scott. Marx’s Radical Critique of Capitalist Society: A Reconstruction and Critical Evaluation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Arnold provides a careful and detailed account of Marx’s analysis of capitalism.

Berlin, Isaiah. Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A prominent twentieth century interpreter offers a helpful study of Marx.

Carver, Terrell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Essays explain and criticize a wide variety of themes, problems, and methodological issues in Marx’s philosophy.

Curtis, Michael, ed. Marxism: The Inner Dialogues. 2d ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1997. Significant essays explore various interpretations of Marx’s contributions to political, economic, and philosophical life.

Eagleton, Terry. Marx. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Fischer, Ernst. How to Read Karl Marx. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996. Updates ways in which Marx may be interpreted and understood.

McLellan, David. Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. A reliable critical biography of Marx by a prominent scholar.

Rader, Melvin. Marx’s Interpretation of History. 1979. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Evaluates the varied and at times competing interpretations of history that can be found in Marxist scholarship as well as in the philosophy of Marx itself.

Rosenthal, John. The Myth of Dialectics: Reinterpreting the Marx-Hegel Relation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. An effort to reappraise the important relationship between Hegel and Marx.

Smith, Cyril. Marx at the Millennium. Chicago: Pluto Press, 1996. Takes stock of the contributions and implications of Marx’s philosophy as the twentieth century draws to a close.

Suchting, W. A. Marx: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 1983. A good critical biography of Marx presented chronologically and by topic.

Wheen, Francis. Karl Marx: A Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. A biography of the German political thinker and founder of modern communism that provides a view of the personal life of this influential, controversial individual. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.