What Karl Marx discovered in the woods

3 March 2022
Ben Hillier

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 received a doctorate in his early 20s for a dissertation on the ancient Greeks. He wanted to secure a university position in his native Prussia through a good friend and mentor, Bruno Bauer. Both were part of a radical philosophical scene that had bloomed in Berlin and other cities. But when Bauer had his teaching licence revoked by the authorities in 1842, the young Marx’s path to academia was blocked as well.

The Prussian authorities’ haste to rid themselves of a couple of radical intellectual thorns seems to have made Marx only pricklier and more oriented to political questions. He began writing for local papers and soon moved to Cologne, in the Prussian Rhineland, becoming editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, a paper financed by liberal capitalists in the region. “Since every true philosophy is the intellectual quintessence of its time, the time must come when philosophy ... comes into contact and interaction with the real world”, he declared in an early article.

By today’s standards, Marx was less a journalist and more a long-winded commentator or essayist. His first journalistic piece (not published until 1843) was a comment on the Prussian censor, which takes up more than twenty pages in his collected works. Another on freedom of the press, which was his first for the Rheinische Zeitung, goes on for nearly 50 pages. Marx’s most consequential work at this time was a series of interventions, beginning in October 1842, about the Rhineland Assembly’s debates on a secret bill tabled in response to landowners’ complaints about peasants collecting fallen timber from their properties. The assembly designated this customary right a crime.

Marx’s coverage of the debate highlights the increasing conflict between the old and the new in the era into which he was born. The Holy Roman Empire had dissolved only in 1806, just twelve years before Karl’s birth in the Rhineland town of Trier. His childhood was spent in the period known as the restoration—when Europe’s conservative monarchies pushed back the tide of radical change initiated by the French Revolution. The peasantry remained overwhelmingly the most numerous of social classes, yet the rise of capitalism was creating 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 primarily a result of categories set at birth, and where privilege, private laws, granted specific, chartered rights to individual orders, social groups or inhabitants of particular provinces or of certain towns”, historian Jonathan Sperber writes in his book Revolutionary Europe, 1780-1850. “The French Revolution destroyed this state of affairs, and by the Napoleonic era [1799-1815] we can see a different order emerging, a civil society of property owners. There, individuals were equal under the law, and this law guaranteed, above all, the rights of owners of property to use and dispose of their property as they pleased.”

It sounds straightforward. But there were many problems raised by the transition. The wood theft laws, which Marx spent a great deal of energy on, posed a seemingly narrow question: who owns the twigs on the ground? Yet the issue, among others relating to land access for hunting and gathering, had for several decades generated widespread grievances among peasants.

The law on wood theft was a battleground between the old society of private orders and the new public realm of the market economy. In the old society, every “order”—whether peasantry, nobility, clergy or some suborder—had its own privileges (the word has Latin roots meaning private laws) and conditions of membership that applied only to that particular group of people. The new era of rising capitalist relations promised that everyone would receive equal treatment as citizens of the state, rather than be subjects of an order. Yet the new laws favoured one group over another.

Karl was definitively not a “Marxist” at this point. Much of his reasoning is legal, confined to notions of justice and the nature of law. His outlook was heavily influenced by the philosopher Georg Hegel. Yet the passion that motivated the young revolutionary until his death is unmistakable in these writings. The landowners, for example, are castigated for being self-interested, rather than seeing things from the vantage point of the peasants:

“The petty, wooden, mean and selfish soul of interest sees only one point, the point in which it is wounded, like a coarse person who regards a passer-by as the most infamous, vilest creature under the sun because this unfortunate creature has trodden on his corns. He makes his corns the basis for his views and judgement, he makes the one point where the passer-by comes into contact with him into the only point where the very nature of this man comes into contact with the world ... Just as you must not judge people by your corns, you must not see them through the eyes of your private interest.”

There are glimmers of future arguments Marx would make. For example, while locating the concept of “rights” in private property, he insists that non-owners of property nevertheless have special rights to the use of public property, which he describes as the “alms of nature”. There is here no economic analysis, which the later political economist would become famous for. But Marx makes a distinction between living wood, dead wood felled by labour, 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 tree’s owner, having detached itself naturally.

A more important assertion is that the act of gathering fallen wood, labouring for it, endows those dispossessed of private property with the “occupational right” to obtain it. By criminalising the wood collectors, the legislators are “making the right of human beings give way to that of young trees”. Some years later, Marx developed this reasoning into a sophisticated theory of commodity fetishism, which grounds his entire critique of the capitalist economy.

Perhaps borrowing from the anarchist Proudhon, with whom he was quite impressed at this time, Marx also suggests that criminalising the collection of wood logically leads, rather absurdly, to the conclusion that all property is theft. Collecting fallen wood is certainly an infringement of sorts because something is being taken. But if it is a crime, then infringement on any property is a crime, which means that possessing property is criminal full stop. “By my private ownership do I not exclude every other person from this ownership? Do I not thereby violate his right of ownership?”, he asks.

It is one of Marx’s great strengths that he brings to bear both ethical and rational dimensions to his discussion of justice. So you feel both his moral indignation and the whip of his chains of logic in dealing with 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 converting crime itself into a legal act. You have wiped out the boundary between them, but you err if you believe that you have done so only to your advantage”, he writes, in another instance highlighting the lawmakers’ inept reasoning. “The people sees the punishment, but it does not see the crime, and because it sees punishment where there is no crime, it will see no crime where there is punishment. By applying the category of theft where it ought not to be applied, you have also exonerated it where this category ought to be applied.”

This was not simply to point out the stupidity of the assembly. The young Marx here is reproaching it—he fervently believed that freedom existed only in universal law, which is expressed through the state. Yet those tasked with legislating freedom were acting not in the interests of all, but, as noted in his comment about the “mean and selfish soul”, in the narrow sectional interests of landowners. They wanted both the privileges bequeathed by the society of orders and the riches emerging from the new civil society.

Marx takes the side of the lower classes, which were being stripped of their customary rights and privileges while being pushed further into poverty by the new society. He thought the situation not only scandalous, but dangerous. The lawmakers risked destroying the legitimacy of the state, the most important institution of progress; they were creating a state of illegitimacy:

“The customary rights of the aristocracy conflict by their content with the form of universal law. They cannot be given the form of law because they are formations of lawlessness. The fact that their content is contrary to the form of law—universality and necessity—proves that they are customary wrongs and cannot be asserted in opposition to the law, but as such opposition they must be abolished.”

These arguments gesture towards Marx’s later vision of the dispossessed inheriting the earth, in the form of the working class—those with no property but producing all economic value—abolishing private property entirely. While that argument is a long way from these 1842 interventions (he doesn’t mention the working class at all in these articles), the logic is there in embryo: private interest, if it cannot be contained, must be done away with entirely.

Reflecting seventeen years later, Marx commented that his editorship of the Rheinische Zeitung forced him to take seriously “what is known as material interests” and “caused me in the first instance to turn my attention to economic questions”. Wood theft wasn’t the only issue that occasioned this turn, but it was the first that came to his studied attention.

After resigning his editorial position 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 began a lifelong endeavour to explain how the capitalist economy works. From the student of law and then potential academic, Marx’s experience as a campaigning newspaper editor was crucial in his development into the leading activist and theorist of the European revolutionary movement, which exploded just after the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848.

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