December 4, 2008

But what about seditious misunderstanding?

In March 1872 a heavy tome of political economy, written in German, landed on the desk of the tsarist censor. Its author was well known for his socialist theories and all his previous books had been banned. The publishers had no right to expect a different fate for this new work. It was an uncompromising critique of the modern factory system and, although the censorship laws had been liberalized in 1865, there was still a clear ban on any work expounding "the harmful doctrines of socialism or communism," or rousing "enmity between one class and another."

The new laws were strict enough to ban such dangerous books as Spinoza's Ethics, Hobbes's Leviathan, Voltaire's Philosophy of History and Lecky's History of European Morals. And yet this German magnum opus -- 674 pages of dense statistical analysis -- was deemed much too difficult and abstruse to be seditious.

"It is possible to state with certainty," concluded the first of the two censors, "that very few people in Russia will read it, and even fewer will understand it." Moreover, added the second, since the author attacked the British factory system, his critique was not applicable to Russia, where the "capitalist exploitation" of which he spoke had never been experienced. Neither censor thought it necessary to prevent the publication of this "strictly scientific work."

Thus Marx's Capital was launched in Russia.

-- Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. (Reparagraphed for internet standards, though somewhat spoiling the punch line.)

... Sadly, the second censor was a better reader of Marx than were Lenin and Trotsky.