Karl Marx could have been someone else. Like his father Heinrich, Karl studied to be a lawyer, although he was more interested in philosophy and earned a doctorate in his early twenties for a thesis on the ancient Greeks. He wanted to secure an academic position in his native Prussia through a good friend and mentor, Bruno Bauer. Both were part of a radical philosophical scene that had flourished in Berlin and other cities. But when Bauer had his teaching license revoked by the authorities in 1842, the young Marx‘s path to college was also blocked.
The haste of the Prussian authorities to get rid of some radical intellectual spines seems to have only made Marx more prickly and more politically oriented. He began writing for local newspapers and soon moved to Cologne, in the Prussian Rhineland, becoming editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, a newspaper financed by liberal capitalists in the region. “Since all true philosophy is the intellectual quintessence of its time, the time must come when philosophy … comes into contact and interacts with the real world”, he declared in an early article.
By today’s standards, Marx was less of a journalist than a garrulous commentator or essayist. His first major published piece was a commentary on Prussian censorship, which occupies over twenty pages in his complete works. Another on freedom of the press runs to almost 50 pages. Marx’s most important work at this time was a series of interventions, beginning in October 1842, on the debates in the Rhineland Assembly on a secret bill tabled in response to landlord complaints about peasants. picking up fallen wood from their properties. The assembly designated this customary right as a crime.
Marx’s coverage of the debate highlights the growing conflict between the old and the new in the era in which he was born. The Holy Roman Empire had not dissolved until 1806, just twelve years before Karl was born in the Rhine city of Trier. His childhood was spent in the period known as the Restoration, when Europe’s conservative monarchies repelled the wave of sweeping change initiated by the French Revolution. The peasantry remained for the most part the most numerous of the social classes, but the rise of capitalism created new social relations and political conflicts.
“Before 1789, the countries of continental Europe had been examples of a society of orders, a hierarchical social arrangement with access to property, power and influence mainly the result of categories established at birth , and where privileges, private laws, granted rights to individual orders, to social groups, or to inhabitants of certain provinces or cities,” writes historian Jonathan Sperber in his book Revolutionary Europe, 1780-1850. “The French Revolution destroyed this state of affairs, and by the Napoleonic era [1799-1815] we see the emergence of a different order, a civil society of owners. There, individuals were equal before the law, and this law guaranteed, above all, the right of owners to use and dispose of their property as they pleased.
It sounds simple. But many problems have been raised by the transition. The wood theft laws, on which Marx devoted much energy, posed a seemingly narrow question: Who owns the twigs on the ground? However, the question, among other things relating to access to land for hunting and gathering, had for several decades aroused many grievances among the peasants.
The law on timber theft is a battleground between the old society of private orders and the new public sphere of the market economy. In ancient society, each “order” – be it peasantry, nobility, clergy or suborder – had its own privileges (the word has Latin roots meaning private laws) and membership requirements that applied only to that particular group of people. The new era of growing capitalist relations promised that everyone would receive equal treatment as citizens of the state, rather than as subjects of an order. Yet the new laws favored one group over another.
Karl was definitely not a “Marxist” at this point. Much of his reasoning is legal, confined to notions of justice and the nature of law. His vision was strongly influenced by the philosopher Georg Hegel. However, the passion that animated the young revolutionary until his death is unmistakable in these writings. Landowners, for example, are lambasted for being self-interested, rather than seeing things from the peasants’ perspective:
“The petty, woody, petty, selfish soul of self-interest sees only one spot, the spot where it is hurt, like a rude person who regards a passerby as the most infamous, vilest creature under the sun because that unfortunate creature has trodden on his horns. He makes his horns the basis of his views and his judgment, he makes the only point where the passer-by comes in contact with him the only point where the very nature of this man enters in touch with the world… Just as you shouldn’t judge people by your hearts, you shouldn’t see them through the eyes of your private interest.
There are glimmers of future arguments that Marx would make. For example, while locating the concept of “rights” in private property, he insists that non-owners nevertheless have particular rights to the use of public property, which he describes as “the alms of nature “. There is no economic analysis here, for which the later political economist would become famous. But Marx makes a distinction between living wood, dead wood felled by work, and dead, fallen wood. The collection of the latter cannot be theft, he says, because it has ceased to be the property of the tree, or of the owner of the tree, having become detached from it naturally.
A more important claim is that collecting fallen wood, working to recover it, gives those dispossessed of private property the “right of occupancy” to obtain it. By criminalizing wood gatherers, the legislator “makes the right of human beings cede to that of young trees”. A few years later, Marx developed this reasoning into a sophisticated theory of commodity fetishism, which underlies his entire critique of the capitalist economy.
Borrowing perhaps from the anarchist Proudhon, who greatly impressed him at this time, Marx also suggests that the criminalization of wood gathering leads logically, rather absurdly, to the conclusion that all property is theft. Collecting fallen wood is definitely some kind of offense because something is taken. But if it is a crime, then trespassing on property is a crime, which means possession of property is a criminal point. “By my private property, do I not exclude every other person from this property? Am I not thus violating his right of ownership? “, he asks.
It is one of Marx’s great strengths to bring both ethical and rational dimensions to his discussion of justice. We therefore feel both his moral indignation and the whip of his chains of logic in the face of the assembly.
“You will never succeed in making us believe that there is a crime where there is no crime, you will only succeed in making the crime itself a legal act. You have erased the boundary between them, but you are mistaken if you think you have only done so for your benefit,” he wrote, pointing out in another instance the lawmaker’s inept reasoning. “The people see the punishment, but they do not see the crime, and because they see the punishment where there is no crime, they will not see crime where there is punishment. By applying the flight category where it shouldn’t be applied, you’ve also exculpated it where that category should be applied.
It was not simply a question of pointing the finger at the stupidity of the assembly. The young Marx reproaches him here: he fervently believed that freedom existed only in universal law, which is expressed through the State. Yet those charged with legislating freedom did not act in the interests of all, but, as he noted in his commentary on “the wicked and selfish soul”, in the narrow, sectional interests of the landowners. They wanted both the privileges bequeathed by the society of the orders and the riches resulting from the new civil society.
Marx takes the side of the lower classes, who have been stripped of their customary rights and privileges while being pushed further into poverty by the new society. He found the situation not only scandalous, but dangerous. Legislators risked destroying the legitimacy of the state, the most important institution of progress; they created a state of illegitimacy:
“The customary rights of the aristocracy are opposed by their contents as a universal law. They cannot be given the form of law because they are formations of anarchy. The fact that their content is contrary to the form of law — universality and necessity — proves that they are customary wrongs and cannot be affirmed in opposition to the law, but as such opposition they must be abolished.
These arguments point to Marx’s later view of the dispossessed inheriting the land, in the form of the working class – those who have no property but produce all economic value – abolishing private property entirely. Although this argument is far from those interventions of 1842 (it does not mention the working class at all in these articles), the logic is there in germ: private interest, if it cannot be contained, must be suppressed entirely. .
Reflecting seventeen years later, Marx remarked that his writing of the Rheinische Zeitung forced him to take “so-called material interests” seriously and “made me turn my attention first to economic matters”. Wood theft wasn’t the only issue that caused this turn, but it was the first one that caught his attention.
After resigning from his editorial post in 1843, Marx took a decisive turn towards politics, writing A critique of Hegel’s philosophy of law. The following year he wrote the now famous Paris Manuscripts, with which he spent a lifetime explaining how the capitalist economy worked. From a law student and then a would-be academic, Marx’s experience as a campaign newspaper editor was crucial in his evolution to become the leading activist and theoretician of the European revolutionary movement, which exploded just after the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.