Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion - Gareth Stedman Jones (2016)

Chapter 4. Rebuilding the Polis: Reason Takes On the Christian State

Cover your heaven, Zeus,

With foggy clouds

And try yourself, like a boy

Who beheads thistles,

On oak trees and mountain-tops.

You must still leave

my earth to me,

And my hut, which you did not build,

And my stove

Whose glow

You envy me.

I know no poorer creatures

Under the sun, than you, Gods!

You barely sustain your Majesty

From sacrificial offerings

And exhalated prayers

And would wither, were

Not children and beggars

Hopeful fools.

When I was a child,

And did not know where from or to,

I turned my wandering eyes towards

The sun, as if beyond there were

An ear to hear my lament,

A heart like mine

To take pity on the afflicted

         From J. W. Goethe, ‘Prometheus’ (1772–4)


In the five years following his father’s death, Karl’s relations with his family, particularly with his mother, grew steadily worse. When in Trier, Karl felt more at ease in the household of his future father-in-law, Ludwig von Westphalen, than in his own family home. But most of his time was spent outside Trier, in Berlin, Bonn or Cologne.

Heinrich’s death on 10 May 1838 strained relations between the Marx and Westphalen families. Jenny had been attached to Heinrich, but had little rapport with Henriette. Six weeks after Heinrich’s death, Jenny was still distraught when she wrote, ‘the whole future is so dark, no friendly image smiles back at me’. Jenny recalled to Karl an afternoon she had spent with his father in the family’s vineyard at Kürenz a year earlier. ‘We talked for two or three hours over the most important matters in life, our noblest and holiest concerns, religion and love … He spoke to me with a love, with a warmth, a passion, of which only so rich a temperament as his own was capable. My heart reciprocated this love, this love which I have for him, which will last forever … He spoke much about the alarming condition of little Eduard’ (Karl’s younger brother, who had died on 14 December 1837) and of ‘his own bodily weakness … His cough was very bad that day.’ Later ‘I picked for him a little bunch of strawberries … He became more cheerful, yes even witty and coquettish’, mischievously fantasizing that Jenny was the wife of a high judicial official and to be addressed as ‘Frau President’. Jenny included in her letter to Karl a lock of Heinrich’s hair.1

There is little to indicate how Henriette bore the loss of her husband. Only one letter from her to Karl has survived. It was written over two years after her loss and is badly damaged. Yet what remains suggests the extent of her continuing distress compounded by a sense of being deserted. The letter began: ‘You will be able to judge how many painful and bitter tears I have cried about your total renunciation of everything that was of value and dear to you, when you remember our earlier domestic circumstances – which contained extraordinary care and an unstinting motherly love.’ She felt snubbed and discarded by the Westphalens. ‘Six weeks after your beloved father was taken from us, from the Westphalen family, no friendship, no consolation came to us from that side. It was as if they had never seen us before … Jenny came once in four or five weeks and then instead of giving us consolation, she just complained and moaned.’ There had evidently been a dispute, perhaps about the settlement of Heinrich’s estate, though it is not really clear what was involved; and it appears that the Westphalens blamed her for mishandling it. ‘All the pride and vanity of the Westphalens were offended … now I had to take the blame for not having presented affairs properly.’ When she, the girls and Hermann (Karl’s brother) went to offer condolences on the occasion of a Westphalen family bereavement, Hermann was not made welcome and ‘Jenny behaved in a distant way.’ Henriette felt threatened by what she believed to be their wish to dissolve the match. ‘They only see in me a weak mother and doubt my feelings.’ Only with great effort had she remained patient, so as not to break Karl’s heart or say a harsh word to Jenny. If only Karl had done more to help. ‘You will never make the moral sacrifice for your family which we all made for you.’ She urged him once again to take into account ‘what you consider you owe to your brothers and sisters, but that which we all tolerated and suffered, you can never repay’. As for the Westphalens, she urged Karl to remember that however much ‘one recognises in a young woman whom one loves, the most beautiful and elevated virtues’, every family ‘has an essential character, which remains the same despite all circumstances’. In the case of the Westphalens, it meant one of the most exalted standards: ‘no juste milieu for them – either one is transported into the heavenly sphere, or one must accept the abyss’.2

Family relations clearly survived the tensions created by this very long engagement. The chance survival of a letter from Karl’s sister Sophie in March 1841 shows the family expecting a visit from Karl before he joined Bruno Bauer in Bonn in July, and their provision of ‘whatever is necessary for your departure or other expenses’. But his relative detachment from the family remained, and is evident in Sophie’s closing remark: ‘if I had a truly loving brother, I would have very much liked to tell [him] about my own circumstances, but as it is, it is also good’.3

The family no doubt found Karl’s career choices incomprehensible. Not only had he rejected the chance of a legal career or a position in government service, but as a doctoral student in philosophy he had chosen to work with one of the most notorious Young Hegelians in his department, a department hostile both to Bauer and to himself. Bauer, his new friend and mentor, understood the problem and suggested in March 1841, ‘if only I could be in Trier to explain things to your family … I believe that the small-town mentality is also contributing something to these complications.’ But that summer he was too busy finishing off his own Synoptics to make a trip to Trier. Bauer also understood the importance of completing the doctorate without provoking unnecessary confrontation. ‘You must also remember that you will also increase the financial woes for your Betrothed if you make your path to the lectern more difficult for yourself because of a popular éclat. You will have hardship enough afterwards in any case.’ He urged Karl to leave Berlin within the next month. ‘Shut yourself off, reassure your Betrothed, and make peace with your family.’4

Karl himself seems to have avoided the family home as much as was possible. In Trier, he was both cut off from the literary world and far away from the camaraderie of his Berlin companions. In January 1841, he got to know Eduard Meyen and the literary circle around the Athenäum, to which he contributed a poem. When he finally left the city, friends clearly missed his company. Köppen wrote in June 1841 that he was melancholy after a week’s separation from Karl, and had now taken to walking with Meyen as his new Schönheitsfreund (beautiful friend). At least, he claimed, he was pleased that he could think for himself again, and no longer regard himself as a ‘mutton-head’.5 Bauer also bemoaned the fact that he would never again laugh as he had with Karl walking the streets of Berlin.6

The final breakdown in family relations occurred in the summer of 1842. From the beginning of that year, Karl had been staying with the Westphalens, while Ludwig von Westphalen – to whom he dedicated his dissertation – lay dying. His death on 3 March coincided with the dismissal of Bauer and the end of any chance of academic employment, and so the question of Karl’s career came up again. But this time it was complicated by another death in the Westphalen family, that of Christiane Heubel, who had for many years lived with them.7 It seems clear that Karl pressed his mother to grant him his share of the inheritance and that she refused. The only account written at the time comes in a letter from Karl to Arnold Ruge on 9 July. Ruge had been pressing him for articles he had been promising since the spring. Karl replied that ‘from April to the present day I have been able to work for a total of perhaps only four weeks at most, and that not without interruption. I had to spend six weeks in Trier in connection with another death. The rest of the time was split up and poisoned by the most unpleasant family controversies. My family laid obstacles in my way, which, despite the prosperity of the family, put me for the moment in very serious straits.’8 He repeated this point to Ruge at the beginning of 1843: ‘as I wrote to you once before, I have fallen out with my family and, as long as my mother is alive, I have no right to my property’.9 Karl’s mother handed over the handling of her financial affairs first to her sons-in-law, Robert Schmalhausen, a solicitor in Maastricht married to Sophie, and Jacob Conradi, a hydraulic engineer married to Emilie, and later to her brother-in-law, Lion Philips, in Zaltbommel.10

Karl and his mother seem to have been equally strong-willed and unwilling to compromise. The few later comments by Karl about his mother were made between gritted teeth. He grudgingly admitted that she possessed an independent mind. After a trip to Trier in 1861, during which Henriette had paid off some of his old IOUs, he observed to Lassalle, ‘incidentally the old woman also intrigued me by her exceedingly subtle esprit and unshakable equanimity’.11 At his nastiest, he simply wished her dead.12

None of Karl’s letters to Jenny have survived, but from what she wrote to him we can gain an insight into the texture of their relationship. There can be no doubt that during these years theirs was a sustained and passionate love affair. In 1839, she wrote:

Oh my darling, how you looked at me the first time like that and then quickly looked away, and then looked at me again, and I did the same, until at last we looked at each other for quite a long time and very deeply, and could no longer look away … Often things occur to me that you have said to me or asked me about, and then I am carried away by indescribably marvellous sensations. And Karl, when you kissed me, and pressed me to you and held me fast, and I could no longer breathe for fear and trembling … If you only knew, dear Karl, what a peculiar feeling I have, I really cannot describe it to you.13

Sometimes these feelings were expressed in a language of self-abasement. In 1841, she declared, ‘dearest Karl, please say, will I yet become wholly yours? … Oh Karl I am so bad, and nothing is good about me any more except my love for you, that love, however, above all else is big and strong and eternal.’14

From these letters, Karl emerges as a would-be poet, dramatist or philosopher; he played the romantic lover to the hilt, furiously jealous about imagined rivals or any departure from feelings of exclusive devotion. In 1838, Jenny had to explain that her love for Edgar was that of a sister and a friend and that it did not impinge upon her feelings for Karl.15 In 1839, Jenny tortured herself with the fear that ‘for my sake you could become embroiled in a quarrel and then in a duel’. But perhaps to disarm him she fantasized a scenario along the lines of Jane Eyre’s conquest of Mr Rochester, in which she was not entirely unhappy. ‘I vividly imagined that you had lost your right hand, and Karl, I was in a state of rapture, of bliss because of that. You see, sweetheart, I thought that in that case I could really become quite indispensable to you; you would then always keep me with you and love me. I also thought that then I could write down all your dear, heavenly ideas and be really useful to you.’16

But such passion was always accompanied by an undertow of realism and an anxiety, which had already been noticed by Karl’s father. Jenny was not altogether reassured by the ‘beautiful, touching, passionate love, the indescribably beautiful things you say about it, the inspiring creations of your imagination’. She was concerned about the permanence of such love. ‘That is why I am not so wholly thankful for, so wholly enchanted by your love, as it really deserves. That is why’, she continued, ‘I often remind you of external matters, of life and reality, instead of clinging wholly, as you can do so well, to the world of love, to absorption in it and to a higher, dearer, spiritual unity with you, and in it forgetting everything else, finding solace and happiness in that alone.’17

As the letters reveal, Jenny also had worries of her own. Not only was she fully engaged in nursing her sick father, Ludwig, but she also had to worry about the financial fecklessness of her brother, Edgar, and to shield her mother, Caroline, from the mess he was in. In 1841, she wrote that she had ‘deliberately kept silent about the disordered state of Edgar’s finances’, but now could no longer do so, particularly since her own outgoings had increased so much. In addition, ‘my mother has again begun to reproach me, since she warns me again about everything’. Caroline had insisted that Edgar collect her from Cologne ‘simply to comply with outer and inner decorum, since I on the other hand could not otherwise visit you in Bonn’.18

Jenny felt increasingly bored and restless in the parental home and away from the excitements of Berlin or Cologne. In 1839, she wrote, ‘if only I knew of a book which I could understand properly, and which could divert me a little’. She asked Karl to recommend a book, ‘a bit learned so that I do not understand everything, but still manage to understand something as if through a fog, a bit such as not everyone likes to read; and also no fairy tales, and no poetry, I can’t bear it. I think it would do me a lot of good if I exercised my mind a bit.’19 In 1841, she was studying Greek, and longed to meet ‘the synopticist’ (Bruno Bauer).20 The long years of engagement amid so much sickness, family tensions, financial anxiety and uncertainty about the future were taking their toll. Marriage could not come too soon. ‘Tomorrow’, she wrote, her father, who issued orders without pause, was going to be moved from the bed to a chair. ‘If I were not lying here so miserably, I would soon be packing my bag. Everything is ready. Frocks and collars and bonnets are in beautiful order and only the wearer is not in the right condition.’21


Between 1839 and 1841, while Karl was preparing his dissertation, Bruno Bauer was his closest friend and mentor. Bauer was becoming famous through his radical biblical criticism and his uncompromisingly secular reading of Hegel’s philosophy (see below, here ff.). At the time Karl became acquainted with him, he was a Privatdozent, an untenured lecturer, in the Theology Faculty of Berlin University. Karl had attended Bauer’s lectures on the Book of Isaiah in 1836 and got to know him through his friend Adolf Rutenberg, Bauer’s brother-in-law. In the summer semester of 1839, Bauer’s lectures were the only ones Karl ever attended. While he remained in Berlin, Karl saw Bauer frequently in the Doctors’ Club, where he was a leading light, and often also at the Bauer family home in Charlottenburg.

The first public sign of Bauer’s move away from the position of Accommodation came in 1839, when he criticized ‘the short-sighted theological apologetics’ of his former ally, the leader of Christian Evangelical fundamentalism, Hengstenberg. Bauer’s aim was to separate the spirit of Christianity from the dogmatic form it had assumed in the ethos of the Prussian Restoration state. Hengstenberg had gained increasing influence at court, and it is possible that Altenstein and Schulze as the last active and rationalist representatives in government of Prussia’s ‘Reform Era’ had encouraged Bauer to make an attack. But such a move was also an acknowledgement of their increasing weakness. For, despite his move to Bonn, Bauer remained an unpaid and financially desperate Privatdozent, who, as Schulze admitted, had no prospects of promotion. In the winter semester of 1839, Altenstein, the Minister of Education, transferred Bauer to Bonn University to protect him from the controversy he had begun to provoke.

In 1841, after completing and submitting his dissertation in April, Karl spent two months back in Trier and then in early July followed Bauer to Bonn in the hope that Bauer might help him to acquire an academic position. In the first three months of 1842, he spent most of his time in Trier, where Jenny’s father, Ludwig von Westphalen, was now terminally ill, but he also enlarged the dissertation, which he had originally submitted at Jena, with the aim of getting it printed and acquiring his Habilitation (his post-doctoral qualification) at Bonn. In March 1842, Bauer lost his post at Bonn and returned to Berlin soon after. Karl remained in Bonn somewhat longer, but eventually moved to Cologne, where he became involved in the newly founded newspaper the Rheinische Zeitung.

Behind these bare facts lay an increasingly dramatic sequence of events: the death both of Altenstein and of the old king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, followed by the spiralling confrontation between Bauer’s ever more radical ‘criticism’ and the new and increasingly infuriated leaders of the Prussian ‘Christian state’. This was a process in which Karl appears to have been an enthusiastic participant, but also one that annihilated his chances for academic employment.

Bauer’s first letters to Karl after his arrival in Bonn in 1839 read like those of a supportive doctoral supervisor and friend. In December, he referred to Karl’s ‘logical investigations’ and Köppen’s worry that this might lead to sophistry. He went on to advise him on Hegel’s unsatisfactory treatment of the transition from being to essence in The Science of Logic, while at the same time urging him first to get the dissertation finished. Through Karl, Bauer sent his greetings to Köppen and Rutenberg in Berlin and bemoaned the lack of anything in Bonn comparable to ‘our club’ with its constant flow of intelligent conversation. Colleagues in Bonn assembled at nine o’clock at the Casino or the ‘Professors’ Club at the Trier Hof, but only to exchange jokes and gossip; and at 11 p.m. everyone departed.’ Despondently, Bauer noted that ‘everything is wholly philistine’. In spring 1840, he urged Karl to get past his hesitations and ‘the mere farce this examination is’, only wishing that he could be there to discuss it.22

As the time for the submission of the doctoral dissertation approached, Bauer urged Karl in several letters not to provoke the examiner pointlessly. He should not, for example, include a provocative motto from Aeschylus on the frontispiece, nor include anything beyond philosophical discussion. ‘Within that form you can indeed say all which lies within such mottos. Only not now! Once you are on the podium, and have developed a philosophical position, you can indeed say what you wish.’23 With the help of Bruno Bauer’s brother, Edgar, on 6 April, Karl dispatched his dissertation to the Philosophy Faculty of Jena, and on 15 April was sent his doctoral diploma.24 Karl had requested the Dean of the Philosophy Faculty to act as quickly as possible in his case. But the remarkable speed with which the dissertation was examined was due to the help of an academic friend at Jena, Professor Oskar Wolff, who had provided precise instructions about the necessary documentation to accompany the dissertation.

The closeness of Karl’s to Bauer’s outlook during this period is attested by the foreword to his dissertation, in which Karl declared his hatred of ‘all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity’.25 ‘Self-consciousness’ was the central term in Bauer’s reading of Hegel. It did not refer to immediate or particular awareness, but to what Bauer called ‘singularity’, or the process by which the particular elevated itself to the universal. In this way, the self became the bearer of reason or the dialectical unity of the universal and particular. The individual, possessed of singularity, had acquired those attributes which Hegel attributed to ‘Absolute Spirit’. What Bauer called the progress of infinite self-consciousness now signified the progress of an external historical reality, which subjects recognized as their own accomplishment.

Bauer’s notion of ‘self-consciousness’ formed part of his ambition to remove any residue of the existence of the transcendent from Hegel’s philosophy. This was the loophole by which conservative Hegelians could persuade themselves that Hegel still reserved a place for a transcendent God. Orthodox Hegelians had maintained that religion and philosophy were identical; what one depicted in narratives and picture painting, the other articulated in concepts. Absolute Spirit in philosophy was therefore the equivalent of the Christian God. But in Bauer God was found exclusively in human consciousness; God was nothing more than self-consciousness actively knowing itself. By attacking any idea of Spirit as a power independent of rational spirits, Bauer had designated ‘human self-consciousness as the highest divinity’.

Bruno Bauer, the son of a porcelain-painter at the royal court, had enrolled in Berlin University in 1828. He became Hegel’s star pupil, and wrote a prize essay extending Hegel’s arguments about aesthetics. As a result of this association, he had incurred the enmity of Schleiermacher, the theologian, and his supporters.26 In 1834, he became a Privatdozent in the Berlin Theology Faculty and in 1836 editor of an orthodox Hegelian journal, The Journal for Speculative Theology. He was also chosen by Hegel’s philosophical executors to edit Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, together with one of the most respected followers of Hegel, Philip Marheineke, a champion of the idea that a rational Accommodation could be found between philosophy and religion. At this early stage, Bauer’s work was noteworthy because of the zeal with which he argued that every detail of the biblical letter could be established as historically true in a speculative sense according to Hegel’s understanding of history. The goal of biblical exegesis, he argued, was to demonstrate ‘the unity of the Idea in the separation of its moments as it is described in the Old Testament, and then its unmediated unity in the New Testament’. As Bauer himself recalled in 1840, ‘like the immortal gods, the disciples lived with patriarchal calm in the kingdom of the Idea that their master had left behind as his inheritance’.27 But the publication of Strauss’s Life of Jesus in 1835, together with equivalent historical criticism of the Old Testament by Wilhelm Vatke, had rudely shaken this speculative approach to religious truth. Hegel and Marheineke did not consider questions of historical criticism relevant to the question of the relationship between religion and philosophy. But now, in the aftermath of Strauss’s book, this question became a burning issue.

Mainstream Hegelians looked to Bauer to provide a convincing answer to Strauss. This began with an unsuccessful attempt to demonstrate that the Gospels were not a collection of messianic myths, but rather multifaceted articulations of the ‘Absolute Idea’. From there, Bauer constructed an alternative account of the historical status of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular, in relation to the development of self-consciousness. In 1838 in The Religion of the Old Testament, he presented the Old Testament account of the will of God as legal subordination to the will of another. This was to be superseded by the New Testament Gospel picture of universal immanence and the identity of human and divine. But by 1840 criticism, originally applied to the Old Testament, was extended to Christianity as a whole. Between 1841 and 1843, Bauer’s attack was sharpened still further. Indeed, the polemical assault upon the credentials of Christianity in The Trumpet of the Last Judgement against Hegel the Atheist and Anti-Christ and Christianity Exposed was savage in a way not found in the works of Strauss or Feuerbach. Bauer wholly dismantled the edifice of religious belief. As he put it in 1841, ‘Realized self-consciousness is that play in which the Ego is doubled as in a mirror, and which, after holding its image for thousands of years to be God, discovers the picture in the mirror to be itself … Religion takes that mirror image for God, philosophy casts off the illusion and shows man that no one stands behind the mirror.’28

Bauer had objected from the outset to Strauss’s presentations of the Gospels as the product of the Jewish community and its tradition of messianic myths and prophesies. Bauer argued that Strauss’s ‘community’ was just another name for the pantheist conception of ‘substance’ or ‘being’, which derived from Spinoza. Such an approach invoked a ‘Universal’ which was allegedly effective immediately without showing how it operated, how it was taken up or how it was internalized in the individual self-consciousness. Only individuals, Bauer argued, could give such a ‘tradition’ shape and form. Strauss’s ‘tradition’ dissolved such individuals into an amorphous whole. As a matter of history as well, Bauer took issue with Strauss. Christianity was not grounded in the substance of mythology and tradition, of Jewish apocalyptic expectation or of the Old Testament God of Spinoza. Christianity was a response to the new universal conditions of the Roman Empire following the disappearance of the polis. It marked ‘the death of nature’ and beginning of self-consciousness.

The loss of any realistic prospect of academic employment helps to explain the increasing radicalism of Bauer’s religious criticism after 1839.29 This was signalled by the appearance of his Critique of the Gospel of John in May 1840, followed by three volumes of The Critique of the Synoptic Gospels, published in 1841 and 1842. The Critique of the Gospel of John highlighted the opposition between free self-consciousness and the religious principle. It argued that Christianity had been a necessity at one stage in the development of the human spirit, but also that that stage had now reached its term. The Gospel of John was taken as a demonstration of the ‘positivity’ of Christian dogma; it was a literary construction which invented dramatic incidents as pretexts for dogmatic pronouncements, and confused defence of the particular with the necessary manifestation of the universal. It was a Gospel in which Christ’s pronouncements were confusingly mixed with expressions of the consciousness of later members of the religious community.

In the Critique of the Gospel of John, it was still implied that while John’s was a literary invention, the first three ‘Synoptic’ Gospels might contain the original words of Christ. But in the Critique of the Synoptic Gospels, the attempt to undermine the pretensions of dogmatic Christianity went further. In the first two volumes, the claim that the Synoptic Gospels directly cited Christ’s utterances was generally withdrawn as Bauer attempted to demonstrate that the incidents described were the products of religious consciousness rather than factual reports. He also stressed the extent to which reported events contradicted both nature and history. The Gospel of John, it was suggested, represented a further stage of reflection upon this religious consciousness, which converted the sayings found in the Synoptics into dogmatic form. Finally, in the third Synoptic volume, published in early 1842, Bauer argued not only that the Gospel of John was a literary artefact, but that so also were the Synoptic Gospels. Bauer finally disposed of the ambiguity still found in Strauss, where the mythic expectations of the Jewish people were aligned with the shadowy figure of a certain Jesus. In Volume 3, the supposed historical existence of Christ was presented as part of a fictional history of Jewish self-consciousness, and even the conception of the Messiah was depicted as a literary invention.30

Bauer’s scholarly interventions launched the outbreak of open hostilities in a conflict that had been gathering momentum ever since the publication of Strauss’s Life of Jesus and the battle between the state and the Catholics of Cologne. Under the old king, while Altenstein was still responsible for universities, tensions remained somewhat muffled. But in 1841, in the eyes of left Hegelians at least, and perhaps also of the circle around the new king, the open struggle between ‘free self-consciousness’ and the ‘Christian state’ began to acquire epic proportions. The ‘Christian state’ was no figment of left Hegelian imagination. The new king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, was a Romantic conservative, a product of the religious awakening of the 1810s and 1820s, was firmly convinced of his divine right as a monarch and strongly believed in the necessity of rejuvenating a positive form of Christianity. Unlike his father’s, his vision of Christianity was ecumenical, in line with the sentimental medievalism cultivated by the later Romantics. He allowed dissident Lutherans to break away from his father’s United Evangelical church and was keen to patch up the quarrel with the Rhineland Catholics. He even married a Catholic and was an enthusiastic promoter of the gothic renovation of Cologne Cathedral.31

Some of Friedrich Wilhelm’s first actions led some radicals to naively hope for the beginning of a new era. Bruno’s brother, Edgar, wrote on 13 June 1840 that ‘most people cherish the highest expectations of the government, the king will hold himself above the parties’.32 The new king expressed approval of representative bodies and scepticism about bureaucracy; he released some long-standing political prisoners, supported aspects of cultural nationalism, and for a time in 1842 relaxed censorship. But none of these actions were straightforward. He quickly drew back from any commitment to political representation; he forbade the publication of Arnold Ruge’s Hallische Jahrbücher in Prussia and put pressure on the Saxon government to ban it under its revised title, Deutsche Jahrbücher. He also forced the closure of the Athenäum, the tiny cultural journal of the Berlin Doctors’ Club. The king’s initial authorization of the appearance of the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842 was the result of a mistaken impression of its likely character. The vision behind these initiatives was not that of nineteenth-century liberalism built upon a free press and competing political parties, but of a king who listened to the voices of his subjects and acted for their welfare. Friedrich Wilhelm’s belief was in a hierarchy of corporations and estates, and he even played with the idea of reconstituting the Jews as a separate estate until warned off the idea by horrified officials. Not surprisingly, rationalism and free thought – let alone the heresies of Hegel – had no place in his kingdom.

Meanwhile in Berlin, just as Stahl had succeeded Eduard Gans as Professor of Law, Friedrich Schelling was invited by the new king to take up the Chair in Philosophy once occupied by Hegel. In November 1841, Schelling delivered his first lecture, to a crowded auditorium which included the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, the young Engels and the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Schelling’s task was ‘to remove the dragon’s seed of Hegelianism’ and to propagate his ‘Philosophy of Revelation’. The new Minister of Education, Health and Religious Affairs was Johann Eichhorn, one of the architects of the Zollverein (the Prussian customs union) and once an ally of the Prussian liberal reformer Freiherr vom Stein. But it soon became clear that he regarded radical Hegelianism as a dangerous phenomenon and was happy to implement the king’s conservative cultural policy.33 In August 1841, Eichhorn sent out the first volume of the Synoptic Gospels to six theology faculties in a consultation over whether Bauer’s licentia docendi – his ‘licence to teach’ – should be revoked for denying the divine inspiration of the Gospels. But before they decided, the government received reports of a banquet and a ‘serenade’ in Berlin organized without prior permission, and held at the Wallburgschen wine tavern by the Doctors’ Club on 28 September 1841, in honour of the South German liberal editor of the Staats-Lexikon, Carl Welcker, a professor at Freiburg and a political activist in Baden. At this banquet, Bauer made a speech extolling his own radical reading of Hegel’s vision of the state. Not only did it go far beyond the constitutionalist and reformist position of the South German liberals, but it also implied revolutionary opposition to the government. Welcker himself was ‘very shocked’, but the king was outraged, and demanded that participants at this event, especially Bauer and Rutenberg, should be denied access to Berlin and excluded from all official posts.34


Bauer’s letters to Karl suggest that radical Hegelians were equally set upon what they confidently imagined to be a world-transforming confrontation. On 11 December 1839, he wrote, ‘from my experience of Berlin, the university here and especially the Theological Faculty, Prussia is intent upon coming forward through another Battle of Jena’. In the spring of 1840, he advised Karl to make sure that he was ‘alert to the moment’. The times were becoming ‘more terrible’ and ‘more beautiful’. Political issues might be larger elsewhere, but those ‘issues which concern the whole of life, are nowhere as richly and variously intertwined as in Prussia’. Everywhere, he saw ‘the emergence of the starkest contradictions, and the futile Chinese police system, seeking to cover them up, which has only served to strengthen them’. Finally, he asserted, ‘there is philosophy, which emancipates itself precisely in the context of this Chinese repression and will lead the struggle, while the state in its delusion lets control slip out of its hands’. A few weeks later in Bonn, after delivering a public lecture, in which he delighted in dashing local academic expectations that ‘a Hegelian must always travel with a spear in hand’, experience of ‘this nice little bit of the world here’ had convinced him of something, which he had not been able to admit to himself in Berlin: ‘everything must be toppled … The catastrophe will be terrible … I might almost be inclined to say, it will become greater and more horrendous than the crisis which accompanied the entry of Christianity into the world.’ In the spring of 1841, as Karl prepared to submit his dissertation, Bauer was keen ‘to get the Gospels off my back in order to be able to start up other things’. He thought that ‘the moment of decision inasmuch as it will express itself in an external rupture’ was ‘coming ever closer’ and ‘who can say how government will behave at that point’.35

For that reason, Bauer urged Karl not to abandon the cause of philosophy. The Hallische Jahrbücher had become tedious. It was clear that ‘the terrorism of true theory must clear the field’ and this meant that a new journal had to come into being. ‘In the summer we must already get the material together’, so that the journal could be published in Michaelmas.36 ‘It would be nonsense to devote yourself to a practical career. Theory is now the strongest form of practical activity, and we still cannot predict in how large a sense it will be practical.’37 Talk about the new plan lasted between March and December 1841. The new journal would be entitled The Archives of Atheism.38

Unlike his brother, Edgar, Bauer had never expressed any confidence in the intentions of the new king; and even before the new reign he had expressed distrust of the Prussian government on account of its ambivalence on the question of Rhineland Catholics. As the letters to Karl revealed, even before the summer of 1841 Bauer was anticipating that an epic conflict between religion and free self-consciousness would be unleashed by his criticism, and that the lines of battle should be stated as clearly as possible. Thus, some months before the Welcker affair and the government reaction to the Synoptic Gospels, Bauer had begun to spell out the radicalism of his political and religious position in as clear a form as censorship would allow. He put his reading of Hegel as a radical into the mouth of a supposedly outraged Pietist preacher, who denounced Hegel as an atheist and a Jacobin; hence the mockingly misleading title, The Trumpet of the Last Judgement against Hegel the Atheist and Antichrist. Karl fully shared the position outlined in this pamphlet, and planned to contribute a ‘treatise on Christian art’ in the follow-up volume of The Trumpet.

The intended journal never came into existence, probably because of the difficulty of finding contributors and circumventing the new censorship regulations, issued on 24 December 1841. The Trumpet, however, was published in October 1841, and it was meant to be provocative. In the opinion of the pseudo-pastor, the ideas of the ‘old’ Hegelians, of the ‘positive philosophers’ or of the followers of Schleiermacher, all of whom in different ways attempted to reconcile religion and philosophy, must be exposed. The Christian message was safe only in the hands of evangelical fundamentalists like Hengstenberg, the author of The Trumpet thundered on: ‘away with this rage of reconciliation, with this sentimental slop, with this slimy and lying secularism’.39

Even the opponents of Hegel had not realized ‘the profound atheism at the ground of this system’. Hegel appears to present ‘World Spirit’ as ‘an actual power guiding history to certain ends’. But ‘World Spirit’ was nothing but a form of words to describe the point at which self-consciousness entered the world, but was not as yet aware of its nature – the period between the inception of Christianity and the Enlightenment. But now ‘a new epoch has arisen in the world … God is dead for philosophy, and only the self as self-consciousness lives, creates, acts and is everything.’40 In Bauer’s vision of history, the Hegelian identity of being and thought was retained, but no longer as a result which had already been attained, as it had been described in Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right of 1821. This identity was now presented as an endless upward movement, whose momentum was located in the activity of rational subjects faced with irrational or ‘positive’ institutions.

In Bauer’s reading, historical development was divided between three moments. First there was the time of the ancients – ‘the moment of substantiality’, in which thought was not distinguished from being and remained subordinate to it. Here, individuals were subordinate to community; their relationship to it was that of substance to accident. Individuals were not yet understood as possessing free subjectivity. The second moment, that of religious consciousness – pre-eminently Christianity – was one in which the ‘universality’ of the subject was recognized and distinguished from ‘substance’. This subjectivity was not located in humanity, but in an alien and otherworldly domain. In the alienated world of religious consciousness, mankind perceived its own deeds as those of another. Man posited a transcendent God and abased himself before it. This was ‘the moment of the Unhappy Consciousness’. In the third historical moment, that of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, free self-consciousness was enabled to grasp its own universality, to remove the previous otherness of World Spirit, and to perceive its world as its own creation. Particular and universal were located within each citizen; nothing transcendent remained. ‘The moment of Absolute Spirit’ denoted a situation in which what had been perceived as transcendent being was now seen to consist of the individual rational subjects who composed it.41

Recent history was a period in which the development of the free self-consciousness that had emerged during the Enlightenment and the French Revolution was interrupted and halted by the Restoration governments, which had come into existence after 1815. The political task therefore was to provoke a resumption of the epoch of revolution. The Trumpet made frequent references to the Jacobins. They were saluted for their ruthless critique of all existing relations and for their refusal to compromise. Hegel became an apologist for Robespierre: ‘his theory is praxis … it is the revolution itself’. Furthermore, Hegel’s students – the Young Hegelians – were not real Germans. They were not to be heard singing patriotic songs during the Rhine crisis of 1840. ‘They revile everything German’, they are ‘French revolutionaries’.42

Bauer’s subterfuge worked for only two months. In December, the Trumpet’s true authorship was exposed. The new law concerning censorship impinged directly upon projects such as The Archives of Atheism, and quickly halted the circulation of the Trumpet. These actions provoked Karl’s first venture into political journalism, ‘Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction’, an analysis of the intention behind the legislation.

Karl contrasted the new measure with the legislation of 1819. Unlike the old law that had sought to check ‘all that is contrary to the general principles of religion’, the new decree specifically mentioned Christianity. In 1819, according to Karl, a ‘rationalism still prevailed, which understood by religion in general the so-called religion of reason’. In the old censorship law, one of the aims was also to ‘oppose fanatical transference of religious articles of faith into politics and the confusion of ideas resulting therefrom’. But now ‘the confusion of the political with the Christian-religious principle has indeed become official doctrine’.43 Karl had originally sent the piece to Arnold Ruge for publication in his Dresden-based Deutsche Jahrbücher. But Ruge told him that the Prussian government would certainly censor the article and published it in the Swiss-based Anekdota instead.44

As for the fate of the second volume of the Trumpet, in January 1842 Bauer wrote to Karl informing him that he had completed his contribution to it. In the light of the ban, he changed the title to Hegel’s Teaching on Religion and Art from the Standpoint of a Believer. Karl continued to work on his part of the text throughout the winter of 1841–2 and filled one of his notebooks with readings relevant to it. But on 5 March he wrote to Ruge stating that the revival of censorship in Saxony (and Prussia) would make it ‘quite impossible to print my “Treatise on Christian Art” which should have appeared as the second part of the Trumpet’. He hoped that a version of it could be published in the Anekdota, to be published in Zurich, and therefore beyond the reach of German censors.45 On 27 April, he wrote to Ruge that his essay was almost book length, but that because of ‘all kinds of external muddles, it has been almost impossible for me to work’.46

The manuscript on Christian art has not survived, but its general argument can be inferred from Karl’s previous aesthetic passions, from the argument in the Trumpet, and from the works consulted in his notebook.47 It seems that Karl’s identification with Weimar classicism remained undiminished. It had already been evident during his years at the Trier Gymnasium, where the headmaster, Wyttenbach, had propagated it. Even the reactionary Herr Loers must have been redeemed in Karl’s eyes by his knowledge about and enthusiasm for Ovid. For some years later at Berlin, Karl continued to spend his spare time translating Ovid’s Tristia.48 During his time in Bonn in 1835–6, his continuing interest in classical culture and literature was testified by his attendance at Welcker’s lectures on Greek and Latin mythology, Eduard d’Alton on art history, and Augustus Schlegel on Homer and Propertius. Much later, in 1857, he still marvelled at ‘Greek art and epic poetry … Why should not the historical childhood of humanity, where it attained its most beautiful form, exert an eternal charm as a stage which will never recur?’49

Classical Greece had been an inspiration for the Jacobins, just as it had been for the builders of the Brandenburg Gate under Frederick the Great. In the Trumpet, Bauer claimed that Hegel was ‘a great friend of the Greek religion and of the Greeks in general’. The reason for that was that Greek religion was ‘basically no religion at all’. Greek religion was a religion of ‘beauty, of art, of freedom, of humanity’, in contrast to revealed religion, which was ‘the celebration of servile egoism’. Greek religion was ‘the religion of humanity’.50 This was nearer to the poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller’s association between aesthetic and political freedom than to Hegel, who had accepted much of the neo-classical celebration of Greece and Greek art following on from Winckelmann51, but thought that the Greek achievement was limited by its confinement to the physical world. For Hegel it had been the emergence of ‘Spirit’, embodied in the development of Christianity, which had liberated civilization from its bondage to nature.52

The claim that Greek religion was not a religion at all was an important one, as it allowed one to argue that religion was an imported, ‘oriental’ phenomenon.53 The foundation of Greek life was unity with nature. According to one of the sources cited in Marx’s notebook, C. F. von Rumohr, the Greek gods were ‘pulsations of nature’.54 By contrast, the gods of other pagan peoples were ugly and fierce, designed to instil fear. Nor was there any beauty in the God of the Old Testament; it was a God of ‘bare practicality, rapacity and crudity’. This God like other oriental gods possessed a predatory attitude towards nature and the propensity to combat it as a form of demonstrating its power: Karl was especially impressed by de Brosses’s treatise of 1760, which identified religion with fetishism. In the religions of West Africa and Ancient Egypt, according to de Brosses, man-made objects were endowed with supernatural power. Their ugliness was intentional; de Brosses cited a grotesque representation of Hercules from Boeotia.55

The prospect of censorship was probably the main reason why Karl finally decided not to publish his treatise, which would have argued the fundamental continuity between Christianity and the repellent features of pagan religions. Christian art in the post-classical period reproduced the aesthetics of Asiatic barbarism. Citations from art historians and archaeologists, like Grund and Böttiger, originally inspired by Gibbon, focused on the continuity between the grotesque features of fetish gods and the distorted bodily forms found in Christian art.56 According to Grund, gothic statues of saints were ‘small in appearance, lean and angular in shape, awkward and unnatural in pose, they were below any real artistry, just as man their creator was below himself’. While in classical art form and artistry were essential, Christian architecture sought exaggeration and loftiness, and yet it was ‘lost in barbaric pomp and countless details’. Man was made passive, while material things were endowed with the qualities of man himself.57

From Karl’s analysis it could first have been inferred that the Christian release of ‘Spirit’ from the bonds of nature had not marked a major advance in human history, since it was based not upon science but upon the magical and the miraculous. Secondly, the intention of the ‘Treatise’ would have been to intervene in the battle over art, pursued by radicals ever since the politicization of the role of the artist by the Saint-Simonians in France. According to the Saint-Simonian mission at the beginning of the 1830s, artists were to become the ‘avant-garde’ prophets of the new ‘religion of Saint-Simon’, Evangelists of a new age of sensualism and ‘the rehabilitation of the flesh’. Heinrich Heine in his exile in Paris and for a time an admirer of the Saint-Simonians had celebrated this coming age in his History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany of 1834. He challenged Hegel’s identification of modernity with the spiritual by glorifying the sensualism of Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting of Liberty Leading the People by describing her as ‘a Venus of the Streets’.58 During his time as a would-be poet, Karl had been inspired by Heine’s observation that ‘the chaste monks have tied an apron around the Venus of antiquity’.59 This point was of immediate political relevance since Friedrich Wilhelm IV was an enthusiastic patron and supporter of what became known as the ‘Nazarene’ school, a modern art which sought to revive the religious art of medieval Germany.

On 20 March 1842, Karl wrote to Ruge that the article ‘On Christian Art’, now retitled ‘On Religion and Art, with Special Reference to Christian Art’, would have to be ‘entirely redone’, since he was dropping the biblical tone of the Trumpet and now wished to add an epilogue on the Romantics.60 That was virtually the last mention of the project. The joint campaign inaugurated by Bauer and Karl in the spring of 1841, intended to include an atheist journal and successive volumes of the Trumpet, was brought to a definitive end by the final dismissal from Bonn University of Bauer in March 1842. Bauer announced his intention to head back to Berlin and ‘conduct proceedings against the Prussian Government’. Karl’s future brother-in-law and ‘aristocrat comme il faut’, Ferdinand von Westphalen, told Karl that such a course of action would make people in Berlin ‘particularly vexed’.61 Before they parted company, Bauer and Karl ‘rented a pair of asses’ to ride through the city. ‘Bonn society was astonished. We shouted with joy, the asses brayed.’62


With the definitive dismissal of Bruno Bauer, Karl lost all hope of academic employment. Like a growing number of educated but unemployed young men in Vormärz Germany, however, he had an alternative: he could turn to journalism. Despite censorship, this was an occupation in which opportunities for employment were increasing; and for Karl himself a particular opportunity had opened up in the Rhineland, the prospect of writing for a new liberal newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung, which was to begin publication early in 1842.

The Prussian government desired the establishment of a moderate pro-Prussian newspaper in the Rhineland because of a concern about the loyalty of its Catholic population. In the neighbouring Low Countries, a Catholic revolt against a Protestant state in 1830 had brought about the secession of Belgium from Holland. The growth of ultramontanism, which placed papal authority above that of secular monarchs, and the imprisonment of the Archbishop of Cologne by the Prussian authorities for denying the law over the question of mixed marriages had led to a pamphlet war, in which the undertow of anti-Prussian sentiment was clearly perceptible. According to a later account, ‘the Catholics of the Rhine province, awakened from their slumber, rallied with unexpected ardour to the support of their chief pastor’.63 The Catholic and ultramontane case was powerfully put in Athanasius, the work of the prominent former Rhineland radical Joseph Görres, ominously likened to O’Connell, the great agitator for the Catholic emancipation of Ireland.64 The situation was made worse by the fact that opinion in the Rhineland was largely shaped by the Catholic Kölnische Zeitung, the leading newspaper of the Rhineland province with over 8,000 subscribers. Government officials were worried that during ‘the Cologne troubles’ – the conflict between the government and the Catholic archbishop – the stance of the Kölnische Zeitung had been unreliable.65 In 1841, they had therefore attempted to establish a rival Protestant and pro-Prussian newspaper, the Rheinische Allgemeine Zeitung.

The failure of this short-lived project enabled a group of leading industrialists, lawyers and writers from Cologne to take over the project of establishing a newspaper in the second half of 1841. The group had originally come together earlier in the year to discuss the need for industrial development and economic reform. As a result of its Protestant and pro-Prussian position, the group won official approval and the appeal to take up shares in the new enterprise was a great success.

Prominent members of this group included Ludolf Camphausen (1803–90), a pioneer of railway development and briefly Prime Minister of Prussia in 1848, and Gustav Mevissen (1815–99), the founder of the Darmstädter Bank, a pioneer of German credit institutions, and a prominent member of the 1848 Frankfurt National Assembly. Their interest was both economic and political, for it was clear that further economic expansion depended upon reform of the state on the basis of representative institutions and equality before the law. Furthermore, although the chief shareholders were Cologne industrialists, the leading role in shaping the paper’s policy on the Board of Management was taken by activist members of Cologne’s educated and propertied intelligentsia. Particularly prominent within this group were Georg Jung and Dagobert Oppenheim. Both men were related to important banking houses in the city, but also attracted to the intellectual and political radicalism of the Young Hegelians. Lastly, there was Moses Hess, born in Bonn of a modest Jewish merchant family, a pioneer socialist writer and a leading participant in the formulation of editorial policy.

Karl first encountered this group while on his way from Trier to Bonn around July 1841 at the moment at which they had first conceived the project of establishing a daily newspaper in the Rhineland. He made a strong impression upon them, particularly upon Jung, Oppenheim and Hess. Jung described him as a ‘quite desperate revolutionary’ who possessed ‘one of the acutest minds’ he had come across, while Hess described him as his ‘idol’ and ranked him alongside major thinkers of the Enlightenment. As a result, he was invited to participate in the paper, when it was launched in January 1842.

With a great deal of current interest in the expansion of the Zollverein, the Prussian-dominated German customs union, and its impact upon the protection of the developing industries of the province, the group’s first choice of editor was the celebrated advocate of a state-based and protectionist economic development Friedrich List.66 But List was too ill to take up the position and recommended instead one of his followers, Dr Gustav Höfken, whose main preoccupations were not the protection of local industries, but German unity and the expansion of the Zollverein. This choice did not satisfy leading members of the Board, and on 18 January, after a short period of service, Höfken resigned. Under the influence of Moses Hess, a new editor was chosen from the Young Hegelians in Berlin, Karl’s friend Adolf Rutenberg.

A provincial daily newspaper edited by Bruno Bauer’s brother-in-law and organizer of the Welcker banquet, assisted by a group of Young Hegelians and socialists, was not what the government had had in mind. The king was furious and pressed for the paper to be banned, but other ministers were divided – including Bodelschwingh, the Oberpräsident of the province, and the Culture Minister, Eichhorn – and thought that the peremptory banning of the paper, so soon after its birth, would be seen as arbitrary and cause dissatisfaction among businessmen. According to Eichhorn, the destructive teachings of Ruge’s Deutsche Jahrbücher had made little impact in the Rhineland; he therefore doubted whether ‘the extravagances’ of the Young Hegelians would have any effect. He was more concerned about the Catholic threat. Throughout the fifteen months of the paper’s existence, argument went on between officials on whether it would be better to ban the paper or whether stricter censorship would suffice.67

Karl’s first contribution to the paper appeared on 5 May 1842, following the confirmation of Bauer’s dismissal. Not surprisingly, a strong continuity was evident between his preoccupations during his time with Bruno Bauer and the issues he intended to address on the paper. In a letter to Arnold Ruge on 27 April 1842, he promised to send four articles for the Deutsche Jahrbücher, on ‘Religious Art’, ‘The Romantics’, the ‘Philosophical Manifesto of the Historical School of Law’ and ‘Positive Philosophy’.68 In fact, only the essay on the Historical School of Law appeared. Yet his continuing engagement with these other and – as he thought – interconnected themes are evident in his writings for the Rheinische Zeitung.

Like other Young Hegelians – Ruge, Bauer, Köppen and Feuerbach – Karl progressed towards a more explicit commitment to a republican position during 1842. Referring to his intended essay on Hegel’s political philosophy, Karl wrote to Ruge on 5 March, ‘the central point is the struggle against constitutional monarchy as a hybrid which from beginning to end contradicts and abolishes itself’. But he also noted that the term Res Publica was quite untranslatable into German. In his contributions to the Rheinische Zeitung, therefore, he contrasted the ‘Christian state’ to the ‘true state’, ‘rational state’ or, sometimes, just ‘the state’.69

An attack upon ‘the Christian state’ meant a critique of its theoretical underpinnings. These included the ‘positive’ philosophy of Schelling, the political theory of Stahl, the dismissal of reason as found in the ‘Historical School’, and the defence of religious censorship in the Catholic Kölnische Zeitung, the Rheinische Zeitung’s main local rival. To explain how these ideas found expression in political practice, Karl wrote lengthy critical articles on the proceedings of the Rhine Province Estates Assembly, dissecting what he perceived as its self-serving reasoning and its defence of private interests. He covered its debates on the freedom of the press, on the publication of its proceedings, and on new and harsher laws concerning thefts of dead wood.70

To describe these writings as journalism is somewhat misleading. Nearly all the articles were long, some exceedingly so – both accounts of the proceedings of the Estates were between forty and fifty pages long. They were not forms of investigative reporting aimed at uncovering the existence of concealed facts, and were almost exclusively concerned with the principle of press freedom, ‘an embodiment of the idea’, in contrast to censorship, ‘the world outlook of semblance’.71 Engels later claimed that Karl’s awareness of the importance of economic facts first resulted from an investigation into the condition of the wine-growing peasants of the Moselle. But the Rheinische Zeitung article focused not upon the condition of the peasants, but upon the way in which censorship had undermined the claim of government officials to possess a superior insight into the plight of the governed. In short, Karl’s articles can best be understood as exercises in applied philosophy. The conflict between the immanent and the transcendent, which from the mid-1830s had first pitted the Young Hegelians against the Prussian state in the sphere of religion and metaphysics, was now being played out in the realm of politics and history. Or, as Karl put it, philosophy had now come into ‘contact and interaction with the real world of its day’. This would mean that ‘philosophy has become worldly and the world has become philosophical’.72

Pre-1848 Prussia was a complex amalgam of feudal, absolutist, liberal and individualist features. Despite the continuity represented by its ruling house and the large manorial estates found in its eastern provinces, Prussia under Friedrich Wilhelm IV bore little relation to its essentially Eastern European and rationalist eighteenth-century forebear. It was a polity radically transformed by military defeat, restructured in the ‘Reform Era’, and then much enlarged in the non-Protestant west as a result of the post-revolutionary settlement of 1815. It combined feudal and absolutist features – lack of equality before the law and a hierarchical estate system – with vigorous economic expansion underpinned by the erosion of patrimonial relations in the countryside, the growth of a free market in land and migration to the towns; in the towns themselves, the partial opening up of occupations, the removal of guild privileges and the liberalization of the labour market.73 For all its emphasis upon the restoration of traditional Christianity, the Prussian government of Friedrich Wilhelm IV in the 1840s made no attempt to reverse the process of economic change, introduced during the ‘Reform Era’. The enlargement of the Zollverein and the extension of the free market remained central to its ambitions; the distress of the Moselle wine growers was one by-product of this government strategy.74

The anti-rationalist ethos of the regime was also far from traditional. Secular society in the arguments of feudal apologists, like von Haller, was akin to the state of nature.75 In this way, authority and hierarchy could accommodate forms of activity that were aggressively competitive and individualist. In contrast to the views of rationalists and Hegelians, there was no bridge from logic to reality, since being or reality preceded thought. The creation of the universe was not an act governed by reason; it was solely a product of God’s will. Stahl applied this reasoning to the monarch, who was no more bounded by the constitution than was God by his creation. By the same token, the rights of private proprietors were likened to the pre-social rights of individuals, and deemed as absolute as the monarch’s over the state. The resulting state was an aggregation of transcendent authorities, while those beneath, the people, were merely a ‘rabble of individuals’.76

In such a polity, claims made by the regime’s supporters for the state or the nation as a political community were kept to the minimum. Man was an isolated and non-social being, and freedom was an individual property rather than a universal attribute. The inhabitants of this state were tied together by their commitment to the Christian faith. But there was no collective dimension to salvation; personal salvation was an individual matter. Confronted by the threat of revolution, which had once more re-emerged in 1830, and irreligion in its wake, the ‘Christian state’ required new ways to shape and control opinion. For this reason, as Karl argued, censorship had been redefined in such a way that the rationalism once embraced during the ‘Reform Era’ was now penalized as a threat to religion.77

In the Rheinische Zeitung articles, Karl retained the historical periodization which he and Bauer had employed in The Trumpet. In the golden age of Greece, ‘art and rhetoric supplanted religion’. Similarly, in both Greece and Rome, the true religion of the ancients had been ‘the cult of “their nationality”, of their “state” ’.78 Conversely, in the centuries following the fall of the ancients, the people had been dominated by Christianity, feudalism and Romanticism. It was an epoch in which man was subordinated to an ‘animal law’. Such a principle was paramount within the knightly estate, which was an embodiment of the ‘modern feudal principle, in short the Romantic principle’. In their feudal conception of freedom as a special privilege belonging to certain groups and persons, it was believed that the privileges of the estates were ‘in no way rights of the province’.79 This was also true of the Assembly of Estates as a whole, which identified the law with the representation of particular interests.80

Karl continued to identify Christianity not only with feudalism, but also with fetishism. In the light of Bauer’s dismissal and Ruge’s conflict with von Rochow, the Prussian Minister of the Interior, Karl wrote to Ruge that although it was remarkable that ‘the degradation of the people to the level of animals has become for the government an article of faith and principle’, this did not contradict ‘religiosity’. ‘For the deification of animals is probably the most consistent form of religion, and perhaps it will soon be necessary to speak of religious zoology instead of religious anthropology.’81

The same thought was developed in Karl’s account of the ‘Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood’. Having attacked ‘the so-called customs of the privileged classes’ as ‘customs contrary to the law’, he went on to argue that:

their origin dates to the period in which human history was part of natural history, and in which according to Egyptian legend, all Gods concealed themselves in the shape of animals. Humans appeared to fall into definite species of animals, which were connected not by equality, but by inequality, an inequality fixed by laws … whereas human law is the mode of existence of freedom, this animal law is the mode of existence of un-freedom. Feudalism in the broadest sense is the spiritual animal kingdom, the world of divided mankind.82

Equally guilty of fetishism were ‘those writers of fantasy’ who were responsible for enthroning ‘the immoral, irrational and soulless abstraction of a particular material object and a particular consciousness which is slavishly subordinated to this object’. This ‘abject materialism’ was the result of the belief that the legislator ‘should think only of wood and forest and solve each material problem in a non-political way, i.e., without any connection with the whole of the reason and morality of the state’.83

This framework also enabled Karl to settle his differences with the Historical School of Law. The occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of the doctorate of its founder, Gustav Hugo.84 Like the Young Hegelians, Hugo also claimed that his thought was inspired by Kant. But the Kant celebrated by Hugo was not the idealist, but the thinker who was sceptical about the limits of reason. ‘He was a sceptic as regards the necessary essence of things.’ All that mattered was ‘the positive’, the factual, and Hugo had taken pleasure in demonstrating that no rational necessity was inherent in positive institutions like property, the state constitution or marriage. By the same token, it was also possible to justify slavery. The slave might receive a better education and the lot of the slave might be preferable to that of the prisoner of war or the convict. If claims for reason could not be substantiated, then ‘the sole juristic distinguishing feature of man is his animal nature … Only what is animal seems to his reason to be indubitable.’85 Karl likened what he called Hugo’s ‘frivolity’ to that of the ‘courtiers’ and ‘roués’ of the Ancien Régime. This conservative and empiricist emphasis on ‘the positive’ in history and law had thereafter been followed in the work of Haller, Stahl and Leo.86


Karl’s criticism in the Rheinische Zeitung was based upon the juxtaposition between ‘the Christian state’ and the ‘rational’ state. In contrast to the ‘Christian state’, which was ‘not a free association of moral human beings, but an association of believers’, philosophy demanded that ‘the state should be a state of human nature’, and this meant freedom, since ‘freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents implement it while combating its reality’. ‘The true “public” education carried out by the state’ lay in ‘the rational and public existence of the state; the state itself educates its members by making them its members, by converting the aims of the individual into general aims, crude instinct into moral inclination, natural independence into spiritual freedom, by the individual finding his good in the life of the whole, and the whole in the frame of mind of the individual.’87 Freedom existed in the state as law, for laws were ‘the positive, clear, universal norms in which freedom has acquired an impersonal, theoretical existence independent of the arbitrariness of the individual’. A ‘statute law’ was ‘a people’s Bible of freedom’ and it was defended by ‘the free press’.88

Although the Rheinische Zeitung advertised itself as a liberal newspaper, the ‘rational state’ invoked by Karl was quite distinct from that of constitutional liberalism. It was really an update of the Greek polis, which he and Bruno Bauer had lauded in the Trumpet. Atheism and republicanism went hand in hand. This was a republicanism which employed Hegel’s notion of the forward movement and collective rationality of Spirit to restate the political vision embodied in Rousseau’s conception of the general will. Recent philosophy, according to Karl, proceeded from ‘the idea of the whole’. It looked on the state ‘as the great organism, in which legal, moral and political freedom must be realised, and in which the individual citizen in obeying the laws of the state only obeys the natural laws of his own reason, of human reason’.89

These articles made little or no reference to parliamentary representation, the division of powers, or the rights of the individual. Clearly, representation was unacceptable in the local case of provincial estates, whose purpose was that of representing ‘their particular provincial interests from the standpoint of their particular estate interests’.90 But there was a larger objection to representation. ‘In general, to be represented is something passive; only what is material, spiritless, unable to rely on itself, imperilled, requires to be represented; but no element of the state should be material, spiritless, unable to rely on itself, imperilled.’ Representation could only be conceived as ‘the people’s self-representation’.91 Such an idea did not recognize particular interests. It could only mean the representation of the whole by the whole. ‘In a true state, there is no landed property, no industry, no material thing, which as a crude element of this kind could make a bargain with the state; in it there are only spiritual forces, and only in their state forms of resurrection in their political rebirth, are these natural forces entitled to a voice in the state … The state’, he went on, ‘pervades the whole of nature with spiritual nerves’, and at every point, what was to be apparent was ‘not matter, but form … not the unfree object’ but the ‘free human being’.92

Young Hegelianism had grown out of the battle of ideas following the publication of David Strauss’s Life of Jesus in 1835. By 1842, Karl’s republicanism was one variant of a common position shared by the Bauer brothers, Ruge and Feuerbach. As the Rheinische Zeitung articles testify, it was a political position remote from the arguments of Hegel himself. The main area of contention concerned the distinction, made in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, between the ‘state’ and ‘civil society’. For the effect of this distinction was to exclude the possibility of the direct and democratic participation of the citizenry in the government of the modern state.

Hegel thought one of the most dangerous features of the French Revolution had been the untrammelled rule of a single assembly, such as that of the Convention in 1792–3, which had been based upon the assumption that all (males) were capable of discharging the duties both of man and of citizen. The disturbing association of popular sovereignty with terror proved a strong deterrent to further democratic experimentation in the aftermath of the revolutionary period. This had been evident in Hegel’s conception of politics.

Hegel had first attempted to return to Aristotle’s classical distinction between politics and household. In Aristotle’s Politics, the state had been principally divided into two components, the polis, the public space for the political deliberation of citizens, and the oikos, the family or household, the habitat of women and slaves, the site of the material reproduction of life.93 As Hegel had soon found, however, this classical distinction, at least as Aristotle formulated it, could not be sustained. The material reproduction of life was no longer confined to the household. Not only had slavery disappeared in medieval Europe, but, in addition to agriculture, much of the activity of the modern world was now dependent upon commerce. For this reason, Hegel had revised Aristotle’s conception by introducing a third component, civil society, as a new space which had opened up between the family and the formal constitution of the state.94

Reacting against the democratic assumptions of 1792, Hegel had also attempted to formulate a modern version of Aristotle’s assumption that the exercise of political virtue was dependent upon freedom from material necessity and need.95

In the Philosophy of Right, he attempted to preserve the connection between political virtue and material independence by embodying it in a ‘universal’ class of Beamten: tenured and economically independent civil servants. This was now to be contrasted with the sphere of ‘civil society’, or what he termed ‘the state of necessity’. ‘The creation of civil society’, according to Hegel, belonged to ‘the modern world’; it was what Adam Smith and others had described as ‘commercial’ society. ‘In civil society, each individual is his own end and all else means nothing to him.’ If the state was ‘necessary’ here, it was only because the individual ‘cannot accomplish the full extent of his ends without reference to others; these others are therefore means to the end of the particular person’.

Civil society had come into being when antiquity had ended with the destruction of the Greek polis and of the Roman Republic. Thereafter, with the advent of the Roman Empire, the spread of Christianity, the development of Roman Law and the elaboration of a ‘system of needs’ (Hegel’s term for the structure of commercial society) had each in different ways nurtured the growth of what Hegel called ‘subjective particularity’. This encompassed the unmediated relationship of the individual to God, freedom of individual judgement, subjectivity, the self-interested pursuit of personal goals, individualism. This was a principle to which the ancient polis could assign no legitimate place.

According to Hegel, it was the ability of the modern state to incorporate subjective freedom within a political community that was also its great strength. But this achievement came at a certain cost. In contrast to the direct and immediate relationship between the citizen and the ancient polis, in the modern state members of civil society were only connected to the polity by a complicated system of ‘mediations’ (corporations, estates, etc.). Looked at in the aftermath of the 1830 revolutions, even sympathetic critics like Eduard Gans, Hegel’s closest follower at the University of Berlin, characterized the state described in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right as a form of tutelage. In the eyes of the Young Hegelians, the defect of Hegel’s theory of the state was that the activity of the person was restricted to a role in civil society: to make contracts, to be part of a profession or trade, to enjoy freedom of religious and private life. What was missing was the ability to play a full and participant part as a citizen.

The end of the polis and the decline of the Roman Empire had also been accompanied by the growth of Christianity; and in the eyes of its republican critics from Machiavelli onwards the Christian religion was deeply implicated in, if not wholly responsible for, the genesis of civil society. Christianity detached the notion of a person from that of a citizen. The young Ludwig Feuerbach as a student under Hegel in 1828 argued that the Christian idea of the immortality of the soul originated as a replacement for the ancient idea of the citizen. But already in the eighteenth century Gibbon and Voltaire had highlighted Christianity’s contribution to the decline of ancient political life and the fall of Rome. Rousseau pushed the argument further by blaming the combination of Christianity and commerce for the decline of patriotism, and by attacking Christianity in particular for its otherworldly preoccupations.96

The identification of the Prussian state with Christianity and civil society was common to Bruno Bauer, Arnold Ruge and Karl himself. In Karl’s case, civil society was the Christian idea of the self, the feudal idea of freedom as privilege, and the rule of ‘animal law’, which embodied the competitive struggle associated with the law of nature. But the sharpest attribution of responsibility came from Feuerbach, who argued not only that Christianity fostered individualism, but that it actively prevented the emergence of a communal ethos. For it replaced the primordial species-unity of ‘I and Thou’ by the particular union of each individual with a personal external being: with Christ.

In the 1830s, the long-standing republican attack upon the relationship between Christianity and civic spirit was reinforced by a novel form of pantheistic criticism which came from France and was contained within the ‘New Christianity’ preached by the Saint-Simonians. Orthodox Christianity was criticized for its indifference or hostility towards ‘matter’, the body and productive work. Following the Saint-Simonians, therefore, the republicanism espoused by the Young Hegelians would be not only political, but also social. Production was what related the individual to society. All forms of activity, whether material or spiritual, would take place in the same communal context. In such a republic, civil society would be invigorated by public spirit. According to Ruge, material and spiritual pursuits would converge, and collective activity would replace the desire for private gain. The ‘fellowship of prayer’, as Feuerbach put it, would be replaced by the ‘fellowship of work’. Or, as Karl argued, the activity of spirit was revealed equally in the construction of railways as in the political deliberations of the people.

In sum, the republican platform shared by the Young Hegelians of 1842 already possessed a distinctive social dimension provoked by the need to overcome the division between state and civil society delineated by Hegel. In Karl’s case, therefore, the aim was not to discover a different way of combining civil society with the rational state, but to devise a state in which this distinction had disappeared.


The battle between the king’s ministers and officials carried on throughout the rest of 1842. In March, von Rochow, the Minister of the Interior, had wanted the paper closed down, but Bodelschwingh thought more strenuous censorship would be sufficient, while Eichhorn continued to think the ultramontane threat was the greater. Von Rochow thought the paper dangerous because it was spreading French liberal ideas, and the king shared his view. When von Rochow was removed from his post, the new Minister of the Interior, Arnim Boitzenberg, received no serious complaints about the paper until the end of July. In November, the king was enraged again by the publication in the Rheinische Zeitung of a leaked draft of a new divorce law, and demanded to know its source. Arnim Boitzenberg was unwilling to create a martyr or to give the impression that this extreme draft was an accurate indication of forthcoming legislation. A compromise was therefore reached. The newspaper would have to get rid of its ostensible editor, Rutenberg, and to put forward an editorial position which could be compatible with the current law.

A reply was drafted by Karl in the name of the proprietor, Renard. It was an adroit and cleverly framed document, making skilful use of existing legislation together with royal and ministerial pronouncements.97 He argued that the Rheinische Zeitung supported Prussian leadership in Germany, pushed for the expansion of the Zollverein, advocated German rather than French liberalism, and promoted North German ‘science’ over French and South German ‘frivolity’. The newspaper would in future steer clear of religious issues, would moderate its tone and would accept the dismissal of Rutenberg.

The position of the paper remained precarious, and worsened again around the end of the year. Publications sympathetic to Young Hegelian positions were banned, including Ruge’s Deutsche Jahrbücher, Buhl’s journal in Berlin and the Saxon Leipziger Allgemeine Zeitung. Finally, on 23 January, the government announced that the paper must cease publication on 1 April 1843.

The ban was not popular among provincial officials because it would increase tension between the Prussian state and the local population. Wilhelm von Saint-Paul, a civil servant from Berlin, was therefore dispatched to oversee censorship during the remaining months. Earlier on, the paper had not made much impact upon the lower middle classes in the province – artisans, small merchants, shopkeepers and peasants. By October and November, there had been a significant increase in circulation from 885 to 1,880 copies. Furthermore, once the impending ban on the paper became known, the paper benefited from a wave of sympathy as a victim of arbitrary power, and by the end of January 1843 subscriptions had mounted to 3,400. At the same time, Jung and Oppenheim organized an effective petitioning campaign in major cities throughout the Rhineland to demand the lifting of the ban.

The increasing success of the paper was also due to the more coherent strategy of the new editor. Karl joined the editorial collective on 15 October, and quickly became known as the driving force behind its policy. It was he who had originally brought in his Berlin friend Rutenberg as editor. In July, he had admitted to Ruge that Rutenberg was ‘a weight on my conscience’, was ‘absolutely incapable’ and, sooner or later, would be ‘shown the door’.98

As a result of Rutenberg’s weakness and poor judgement, cronies from Berlin – Meyen, Köppen, Buhl and others – treated the paper as their ‘docile organ’ and spared no effort to interject anti-Christian polemic into the most inappropriate items. As Karl confessed to Ruge on 30 November, ‘I have allowed myself to throw out as many articles as the censor’ since ‘Meyen and Co. sent us heaps of scribblings pregnant with revolutionising the world and empty of ideas, written in a slovenly style and seasoned with a little atheism and communism’.99 Fortunately, the government had not realized that Rutenberg ‘was not a danger to anyone but the Rheinische Zeitung and himself’, and had demanded his removal.

As editor of the newspaper, Karl’s best qualities and abilities came to the fore. His assumption was that ‘the Rheinische Zeitung should not be guided by its contributors, but that, on the contrary, it should guide them’.100 Secondly, as a Rhinelander, he had a clearer conception of the paper’s likely constituency. He realized that in an overwhelmingly Catholic province, crude exercises in anti-Christian polemic would be counter-productive, and much feeling in the Rhineland, whether Catholic or Protestant, was not sectarian. On the other hand, defence of the liberties of the province against Prussian government interference was likely to receive widespread support. In his article on ‘Thefts of Wood’, Karl concluded that ‘the sense of right and legality is the most important provincial characteristic of the Rhinelander’.101 Therefore any political position must be developed from the local and the concrete. Writing to Oppenheim about Edgar Bauer’s attack upon ‘half-hearted liberalism’ or the ‘juste milieu’ – a position with which Karl himself in principle agreed – he argued that ‘quite general theoretical arguments about the state political system are more suitable for purely scientific organs than for newspapers’, and that ‘newspapers only begin to be the appropriate arena for such questions when these have become questions of the real state, practical questions’. The use of abstract and general arguments against the state was not only likely to result in the intensification of censorship, but also to ‘arouse the resentment of many, indeed the majority, of the free-thinking practical people who have undertaken the laborious task of winning freedom step by step, within the constitutional framework’.102

Karl first expressed his irritation with the contributions from Berlin in July 1842. He wrote to Ruge, asking for details on the so-called ‘Free’, a new grouping of his Berlin friends. To declare for emancipation was honest, he argued, but to shout it out as propaganda would irritate the ‘philistine’ and only provoke more censorship. Dr Hermes, ‘the mouthpiece of philistinism’ and leader-writer in the Catholic Kölnische Zeitung, would ‘probably saddle him with the “Free” ’. He was relieved that Bauer was in Berlin and wouldn’t ‘allow any stupidities to be committed’.103

But Bruno Bauer doesn’t seem to have exercised a restraining influence, and at the end of November matters came to a head. On a visit to Berlin, Georg Herwegh, the radical and formerly exiled poet, had been mocked by the ‘Free’ for his radical pretensions. He was attacked, in particular, for meeting with the king and for making an opportunistic marriage. Incensed by this reception, he wrote to the Rheinische Zeitung, complaining that ‘the revolutionary Romanticism’ of the ‘Free’ and ‘this second-rate aping of French clubs’ were compromising ‘our cause and our party’.104 Karl shared Herwegh’s attitude and accused Eduard Meyen, one of the leaders of the Berlin group, of holding opinions which were ‘licentious’ and ‘sansculotte-like’.105 Ruge also visited Berlin to plead with Bruno Bauer to break with the ‘Free’ and adopt no other stance than that of an ‘objective scholar’.106 In turn, Bauer claimed that he could not abandon Meyen, Buhl, Köppen and Stirner. A few days later, he also wrote to Karl complaining about the misrepresentations and factual inaccuracies of Herwegh’s claims, and attacked Karl for accepting Herwegh’s position. But he ended on a more conciliatory note: ‘I would rather write to you about things which are more pleasant and nearer to us.’107

1842 had been a disenchanting year for Bauer. In the previous year, his reputation among radical Young Hegelians had been at its peak. The two volumes of the Synoptics had pushed biblical criticism way beyond Strauss. Furthermore, his direct criticisms of Strauss’s attempt to qualify the implications of The Life of Jesus had been strongly supported by Arnold Ruge in the Deutsche Jahrbücher even though this had led to Strauss’s withdrawal, and the defection of moderate subscribers to the journal.108 In his preface to the Deutsche Jahrbücher in July 1841, Ruge had also supported Bauer’s claim that the movement of self-consciousness was identical with that of history itself. This was why Bauer sometimes imagined himself as the new Socrates come to break up the Christian world. Ruge had also endorsed as a transition from theory to practice Bauer’s confidence in the power of ‘criticism’ to dissolve all merely ‘positive’ phenomena.

Bauer maintained this confidence up to his final dismissal. In March 1842 he had declared that a new epoch was beginning, while Karl added approvingly that ‘philosophy speaks intelligibly with the state wisdom of these over-assured scoundrels’.109 But once the summer passed, and Karl became more deeply involved in the Rheinische Zeitung, a distance developed between him and his former companions in Berlin. These had rallied round Bauer after his return to the city and used all journalistic means to publicize his arguments – especially, of course, in the Rheinische Zeitung, edited by Rutenberg, Bauer’s brother-in-law.

There was no cosmic crisis of the kind anticipated by Bauer, or comically described among the Berlin Young Hegelians in a mock epic poem written by Friedrich Engels and Bruno Bauer’s brother, Edgar.110 Furthermore, while the general population of Brandenburg-Prussia remained unaffected by Young Hegelian religious criticism, that of the Catholic Rhineland was likely to be infuriated.

For the most part, the differences between Karl and Bruno Bauer in the course of 1842 were tactical and situational. How was philosophy to address the nation outside the enclaves of radical academia or Berlin bohemia? But as the fruitlessness of Bauer’s atheist challenge became increasingly apparent in the course of the year, the position of Karl, Ruge and other Young Hegelians on the centrality of the religious question underwent a basic shift. In response to the complaints of Eduard Meyen in Berlin, at the end of November 1842, Karl wrote to Ruge, ‘I asked that religion should be criticised in the framework of criticism of political conditions rather than that political conditions should be criticised in the framework of religion, since this was more in accord with the nature of a newspaper and the educational level of the reading public.’ But this now also signalled a more fundamental change of position. ‘For religion is without content; it owes its being not to heaven, but to earth; and with the abolition of distorted reality, of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself.’111

In the last few months of its existence, the Rheinische Zeitung – with apparently nothing more to lose – became bolder. In response to anger provoked by the impending suppression of the newspaper, Arnim toyed with the idea of allowing some of the anti-Christian writing to be published uncensored as a way of alienating the Rhineland readership. The Prussian official Wilhelm von Saint-Paul, who reported to Berlin that Karl was the doctrinal middle point and theoretical inspiration of the paper, also speculated whether the newspaper might continue in a more moderate form if he departed. But the government remained adamant, not least because of pressure from Nicholas I, the Russian czar and brother-in-law of Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who had been outraged by a polemical article denouncing the alliance between the two countries.112

On 2 March 1843, Saint-Paul reported that in the present circumstances Karl had decided to give up his connection with the Rheinische Zeitung and to leave Prussia; and on 16 March Karl definitively resigned. The government came to think that it had over-estimated the dangers of the paper, given how little its abstract idealism influenced practical demands. Furthermore, given Karl’s ‘ultra-democratic’ opinions, Saint-Paul wondered whether a moderate paper might take its place after his departure; others on the paper were instinctively radical, but were not so adept at connecting it up with the ‘Ruge–Marx–Bauer’ doctrine. But nothing came of it. As for the Catholic threat – the original reason for encouraging the establishment of the paper in the first place – Saint-Paul was able to establish good relations with Dr Hermes, the main leader-writer on the Kölnische Zeitung, and therefore to establish a friendlier treatment of the Berlin government in the future.113

Karl wrote to Ruge informing him about the banning of the Rheinische Zeitung and about his own resignation at the end of January 1843: ‘It is a bad thing to have to perform menial duties even for the sake of freedom; to fight with pinpricks, instead of with clubs. I have become tired of hypocrisy, stupidity, gross arbitrariness, and of our bowing and scraping, dodging and hair-splitting over words. Consequently, the government has given me back my freedom.’ He added, ‘I can do nothing more in Germany.’114