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Jewish People: Marx on the Jewish Question

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Author: Andrei Shapiro

Jewish People:
Marx on the Jewish Question

Andre Shapiro's latest offering reflects on Karl Marx's opinions on the Jewish Question and highlights the relevance and value of Marx's views today.

Almost four decades ago Prof. Shlomo Avineri published an article on Marx's attitude to the Jewish question. The article opened with the following sentence: “That Karl Marx was an inveterate antisemite is today considered a commonplace which is hardly ever questioned” (S. Avineri, Journal of the History of Ideas, 1964: 445-450). This sentence has appeared as an epigraph to many articles on Marx's anti-Semitic attitude published since then, whose authors tended to miss or ignore its deliberately careful formulation and Avineri's fine analysis outlined in the article. This is not a one-off incident.
There is a trend amongst Jewish thinkers to rummage around in the rich sources of Marx's expressions against people of Jewish origin with whom he circulated, and to hold this record up as the background against which Marx's attitude towards the Jewish question is interpreted. Speaking loosely, there is a sense in which these findings about Marx's life are relevant and important (as they would be important about any intellectual), for one can hardly expect a clear-cut distinction between a person's professional and personal life. Such an idea gains strength especially when the life and opinions of such a rebellious person as Marx are considered. In this sense, the details of a person's private life do enrich the inquiry. But, if it becomes the only research tool for the interpretation of the person's writings, it loses its value. It gives too much free space to the interpreter's speculations and, depending on his intentions and talents, he may prove equally well whatever he wants. In the case of Marx, those who adopted this approach, seem to have taken revenge on a traitor and a lost cause, and have failed to penetrate the depth of Marx's arguments and his intellectual contribution to the problem in question.
In point of fact, just as Marx was once widely read, today he is widely discredited. His works are difficult, overburdened with details and clumsy. It is far from trivial to say that they were once in fashion, for his is not apparently the kind of work which we could treat as fashionable. And if in the non-distant past some read Marx out of obligation and others out of curiosity, today, after the collapse of the “The Empire of Evil” that was seen as the working instantiation of Marx's ideal, for most people the best place for Marx's books is in the library. To put a familiar common opinion into the mouth of an anonymous critic: “Marx's theory is wrong, for the attempts to realize it in practice, however misconceived they had been, resulted in all those and even much harder mischief than the doctrine in question was originally intended to eradicate on the way to human happiness.”
The author of this article will not take a stand on Marx's anti-Semitism. Neither will he discuss whether the common attitude towards him is right or justified. This work rather purports (1) to draw the reader's attention to the article “On the Jewish Question” and to explain its main theses; (2) to point out some interesting connections between Marx's argumentation regarding Jewish Emancipation and a cluster of popular opinions regarding the desirable nature of Israeli society today.

Marx's article “On the Jewish Question” was written in 1843, at a time when the political struggle for the acquisition of civic rights by Jews in their respective countries was already well-advanced. The Jewish Question was no longer merely a question of economics, namely, whether Jews should be granted civic rights in exchange for their contribution to the commonwealth of a country. Neither was it a marginal or circumstantial issue of theoretical nature as it appears in John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. Starting in Europe with the French Revolution, the attainment of civic rights became the target of a protracted struggle and a turning point in Jewish history. After more than a century of heated discussions on Jews and their condition, a host of different notions was displaced by the famous term “Jewish Emancipation”, thus closing the long history of refinement and conceptual formation of the issue. Thus, in Marx's time “Jewish Emancipation” was already well-established currency in the discourse on the condition of Jews in Europe.
It is in this context Marx's opinions about the Jewish Question are perplexing. Isaiah Berlin addresses Marx's account in the following vein:

“It is a dull and shallow composition, but it shows Marx in a typical mood: he was determined that the sarcasms and insults, to which some of the notable Jews of his generation, were all their lives a target, so far as he could effect it, never be used to plague him. Consequently he decided to kill the Jewish problem once and for all so far as he was concerned, declaring it to be an unreal subject, invented as a screen for other more pressing questions: a problem which offered no special difficulty, but arose from the general social chaos which demanded to be put in order (Karl Marx, p. 82)”

I agree with this verdict, and in what follows I will articulate and explain in what sense Marx killed the Jewish problem.
Marx's article was originally intended to counter the claims made by Bruno Bauer - another prominent German thinker of Jewish origin. Bauer stated that Jews could never be emancipated, because of what he called “Jewish narrowness”, in other words, their commitment to the Jewish faith, which is incompatible with the universal aspect of human emancipation. By that he meant that Jews could never be granted the rights of citizens, since they are incapable of playing any political game except their own. Neither can they possibly be granted the rights of man, for to gain them Jews must, just like other sections of society, play the same game to achieve the same goal, i.e., human emancipation. Bauer thought that the acquisition of the rights of citizens and the rights of man are interdependent (to gain the latter it is first necessary to gain rights as an equal player), and he claimed that this was the main factor that made Jewish emancipation impossible. Emancipation requires that Jews, as well any other possible target population, admit (1) their universality, i.e., that they have the same human nature as other nations, and (2) the irrelevance of their religion to their aspirations for political emancipation.
Bauer thought that neither of these requirements could be satisfied in the case of the Jews, because they contradict the core beliefs imposed by Jewish religious teachings and everyday Jewish life conducted in accordance with them. Jews would never abandon the tenet of being the chosen people and drop their messianic expectations. Nor would they abandon Judaism as a system of law, and this was precisely the reason, Bauer thought, for the impossibility of liberating the Jews. “No one in Germany is politically emancipated. We are not free ourselves. How shall we liberate you? You Jews are egoists when you claim a special emancipation for yourselves as Jews.” Since Jews would never find a common denominator with non-Jews given the teachings of their history and the meanings of the core concepts held by them, they could never be emancipated. They would never accept Bauer's position that in the struggle for general freedom the wholesale elimination of religion from the political sphere and the removal of religious practices from the public sphere to that of private rights are required.
In Marx's response two separate arguments are discerned. Namely, there is a counter-argument against Bauer's view and against those who spoke about the Jews' corrupted nature, which prevented them from being equal and fair players in the political contract. Regarding Bauer, Marx's dictum is this:

“It is by no means sufficient to ask: Who should emancipate and who should be emancipated? Criticism has to be concerned with a third question. It must ask: What kind of emancipation is involved and what are the underlying conditions? Criticism of political emancipation itself is primarily the final critique of the Jewish question and its true resolution into the 'universal question of the age'.” (pp. 220-221)

“Bauer asks the Jews: Have you the right to demand political emancipation from your standpoint? We ask on the contrary: Has the standpoint of political emancipation the right to demand from the Jews the abolishment of Judaism and from man the abolishment of religion?” (p. 221)

There are two separate counter-arguments advanced by Marx against Bauer's position. The first claims that the existence of religion is not incompatible with the full development of the state, and that the criteria for the acquisition of civic rights in a truly political state should not include any demands regarding one's religion. Marx takes the case of North America to buttress this point, and claims that the order of things in the political realm is far from necessary and fixed, as Bauer assumes. As Marx puts it, in those states of America where the Jewish question ceases to be treated theologically the state is foreign to all faiths and the question of political rights is no longer treated as a privilege granted to a minority group either by the good will of a monarch or by a decision of a majority defined by its commitment to a religion.
The second counter-argument deals with the general issue of human emancipation: it explains “what it is like to be humanly emancipated” and shows how human emancipation is connected to political emancipation. Starting from the bottom line of Marx's resolution of the Jewish question, his immediate message to the Jews is this:

“We thus do not say with Bauer to the Jews: You cannot be politically emancipated without emancipating yourselves from Judaism. Rather we tell them: Because you can be emancipated politically without completely and fully renouncing Judaism, political emancipation by itself is not human emancipation. If you Jews want to be politically emancipated without emancipating yourselves humanly, the incompleteness and contradiction lies not only in you but in the essence and category of political emancipation” (p. 232)

Soon, we will explain what these two types of emancipation are, and what sort of contradiction that precludes the political emancipation of the Jews Marx was talking about. According to Marx's argument, because Bauer's demand has been proved to be logically untenable, political emancipation as the receiving of political rights does not require the renunciation of one's religious creed. This right can be exercised equally well with the others, for they make sense and can be realized only within a society.
However, the matter of the freedom of creed does not stand alone in Marx's thinking. The emptiness of his seemingly favorable approach becomes evident when Marx claims that the political elevation of man above religion shares all the defects and advantages of any political elevation: the commitment to religion should be eliminated as a relevant factor for entering into the political realm and making claims for rights, just as private property had been discarded as a factor according to which persons could enter the political realm (ibid., p. 224). The consequences of this comparison should not be overlooked. To compare the right to private property to the right of the freedom of creed, one must be either extremely ignorant or bold in the same degree. In what sense is the right to the freedom of creed similar to the former? The first right is of an essentially social nature and in many senses one's creed seems to be truly decisive in respect to one's self-identification and belonging to an encompassing group. For example, being a Jew, whatever quarrels this question might trigger, remains a question of cultural origin, and whatever differentiation one may discover within the Jewish people there is still a wide common denominator which distinguishes it from other peoples and gathers them into one group.
What could be more dissimilar to it than the right to private property, which is only contingent and does not seem to importantly define one's cultural identity? Right now we are close to the answer to the question we set out to explore. Marx treated both rights equally, claiming that they are both politically irrelevant to human emancipation. And so he killed the Jewish question by neutralizing the very content of the right of the freedom of creed and ignoring its importance in shaping the different identities of different groups in civil society. Any final doubts about the accuracy of this diagnosis fade away when the issue of human emancipation is considered.
The rights of man, according to Marx, are those interests which stem from the very human condition, which, at the most fundamental level, is the same for everyone. The rights of man are only the rights of a member of civil society, that is, of egoistic man separated from other men and from the community. On the most fundamental level man is as a monad withdrawn to himself, who has the right to equality, liberty, security and property, while the goal of all political association is the preservation of these rights, which are natural and imprescriptible. These sketchy considerations are sufficient for understanding what Isaiah Berlin meant in saying that Marx decided to kill the Jewish question. What he meant was that Marx neutralized the Jewish question by making it a universal question: not the questions of Jews per se, but rather the question of general human and political conditions. Everything which had somehow to do with the question of Jewish identity was of no interest for Marx, or at least, not in the spectrum of factors to be taken into account.

Let me now explain in what sense Marx's account of the Jewish question is relevant today. I shall start from the suggestive and obvious - the historical point of view. Given that Marx's ideas lie at the heart of the left-wing movement as such and socialism in general, one may assume that they might somehow find an expression in their ideology, rhetoric and actions. Many aspects in the history of the founding and running of the state of Israel point in this direction. Two examples: firstly, the very idea of kibbutz – liberation through collective work, abolishment of private property, and an attempt to overcome the natural alienation of man within a collective framework. Second, the very conception of the melting pot as integration and the forming of a collective identity, which proved to be unsuccessful in Israel in respect to Sefardi Jews (for its being in essence insensitive to different cultural identities), but the effects of which are still very tangible. However, I will not discuss these heavy issues here. I merely refer to them as the most natural and straightforward loci of the implementation of Marx's ideas in the recent past.
What I do want to point out is the connection between the familiar views about the desirable character of Israel as a normal, democratic, liberal, Western, constitutional state and Marx's discussion of the Jewish question. To recall, what lies at the heart of his solution is the equalization and universalization of all men at the expense of ignoring their different identifications with different groups, and their different identities thus acquired. The cost of this proposal should not be underestimated, for speaking in Marx's parlance, the shape of one's identity is largely independent of one's will, and is therefore natural and imprescriptible. I claim that this is the same problem that lies at the heart of contemporary left-wing movements that hold on to the dream referred to above. This dream can only come true if the state “will be foreign to all faiths” and will treat everyone according to the unique criteria of social justice, which, again should not take the matter of faith and cultural identity into account. It is in this sense that Israel will become the state of all its citizens, with a unique constitution, and the removal of what has always been treated as the dictate of religion from the public sphere to the sphere of private right.
I am not going to extend the modest goal I have set myself to achieve here. Namely, I will not discuss whether the view just mentioned is totally wrong, for the spectrum of issues and problems to be dealt with extends the limits of this composition. I suggest that the reader to reflect upon it. If I have succeeded in pointing out the relevance and value of Marx's views today, and showing that the claim about his anti-Semitism has far reaching consequences, I shall be satisfied.

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