Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Anti-Semitism – Robert Fine – Engage Journal Issue 2 – May 2006

Let us explode the myth that Karl Marx was in some sense anti-Semitic in his critique of capitalism. The myth arises in part out of the inability of a very diverse array of commentators to read Marx in the original, in part out of a deafness to the uses of the ironic style in Marx’s writings, and especially out of the presupposition of an intimate association between revolutionary socialism and anti-Semitism. From his earliest writings Marx sought to develop a radical critique of all existing conditions which distinguished itself from other forms of radicalism by its complete and explicit rejection of any anti-Semitic coloration.

There were to be sure, strong anti-Semitic currents on the European left in Marx’s time, but Marx defined himself and his own radicalism in opposition to such currents. In the latter half of the nineteenth century the ‘left’, if we can call it thus, was a battle ground on which anti-Semitic and anti-anti-Semitic currents battled with one another right up until the Dreyfus case in France. The position of Marx was one which clearly and distinctly had no truck with anti-Semitism in any form and his particular supplement was to show that anti-Semitism was a symptom of deep political problems within what might broadly be called the communist or anti-capitalist movement. On the whole, Marx did not see anti-Semitism as a motivating force on the left but rather as a sign of other political and intellectual deficiencies.

Marx’s 1843 essay On the Jewish Question was an important and early case in point. In this essay Marx’s aim was to defend the right of Jews to full civil and political emancipation (that is, to equal civil and political rights) alongside all other German citizens. The target of Marx’s critique was one of the mainstays of the young Hegelian movement, a well-known radical by the name of Bruno Bauer. In the previous year Bauer had written a text calledThe Jewish Question, in which he argued that Jews had to give up their Judaism if they were to become worthy of equal rights. His core argument was this: that as long as Jews remain Jewish, they are too consumed by Jewish self-interest and communalism to be worthy of full citizenship. In effect, Bauer was calling for opposition to the nascent movement for Jewish emancipation in Germany. His long essay was replete with anti-Semitic themes: if Jews were ill-treated in the Christian world, they provoked this mistreatment by their obstinacy; Jews were not hated because they were misunderstood since true understanding ought to lead to hatred; Jews had lost interest in the progress of man and concentrated entirely on personal advantage; Jews had evolved no moral principle from their suffering; and so forth.

Marx affirmed the claim of Jews to full civil and political rights regardless of whether or not they choose to remain Jewish. While Marx was a critic of all religions and religious sects, including Judaism, he affirmed the right of everyone to practice religion freely without state privilege or discrimination. There was no reason to make an exception of the Jews. There could be no freedom from religion without the freedom to be a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Moslem, etc. while at the same time being a full citizen of the state. While Bauer echoed the generally prejudicial representation of the Jew as ‘merchant’ and ‘moneyman’, Marx’s riposte was that in the modern world ‘money has become a world power and the practical spirit of the Jews has become the practical spirit of the Christian peoples’. In other words, why pick on the Jews? If the practical spirit of Judaism is moneymaking, as Bauer suggests, this hardly distinguishes Jews from the great array of non-Jewish entrepreneurs, merchants and bankers who have risen to ascendancy in contemporary society. The idea that the Jew is fundamentally more rooted in money making than the Christian is as wrong-headed as the idea that the Jew is less eligible for civil and political rights. Historically, it is true that many Jews played a significant role as ‘middlemen’ – between landowners and tenants, state and tax payers, capital and consumers – and that a few Jews (like the Rothschild family) played a significant role as international bankers; but Marx insisted that this progressive role played by Jews in the development of capitalism was coming to an end and the practical spirit of money-making was as general as the growth of nation states, national banks and national capital.

The quotations from the second part of Marx’s critique of Bauer, which have so shocked those who read Marx as an anti-Semite, are clearly instances of Marx’s ironising about Bauer’s basically anti-Semitic claims. It might be worth quoting one of the most offending passages:

Let us consider the real secular Jew – not the Sabbath Jew, as Bauer does, but the everyday Jew… What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling. What is his secular God? Money. Well then! Emancipation from haggling and from money, i.e. from practical, real Judaism, would be the same as the self-emancipation of our age. An organisation of society that abolished the basis upon which haggling exists, i.e. the possibility of haggling, would have made the Jew impossible… The emancipation of the Jews is, in the last analysis, the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.

What Marx is doing in this passage is tearing apart Bauer’s argument for why Jews should not be given full civil and political rights. He is doing this in the form of an immanent, witty and deeply ironic critique of the notion that there is a special relationship between Jews and the commodification of social life. In other words, if we take Bauer at his word and identify Jews with haggling, money, self-interest, etc., even so his argument falls apart. One of the comments Bauer made was that the Jew, ‘who is merely tolerated in Vienna, determines the fate of the whole (Austro-Hungarian) empire through the financial power he possesses’, and that the Jew ‘who can be without rights in the smallest of the German states, decides the fate of Europe’. Marx responded to this early instance of rank conspiracy thinking thus: ‘the Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish way not only by acquiring financial power but also because through him and apart from him money has become the practical spirit of the Christian peoples’. Interestingly, he cites Thomas Hamilton’s Men and Manner in America to the effect that, for ‘the pious and politically free’ inhabitant of New England ‘Mammon is his idol … the world is nothing but a Stock Exchange and he is convinced that his sole vocation here on earth is to get richer than his neighbours’. In North America, Marx adds, the society par excellence of political freedom, ‘the very proclamation of the Gospel, Christian teaching, has become a commercial object… The bankrupt businessman is just as likely to go into evangelising as the successful evangelist into business.’ So much for the image of the Jew as huckster. If money is the jealous god of Israel before whom no other god may stand, as Bauer maintained, this god of the Jews has become the god of the world. Christianity overcame Bauer’s ‘real Judaism’, that is money-making, only in appearance. What it had on offer was only the ‘sublime thought of Judaism’.

There is no reason to think, as most commentators claim (including Julius Carlebach in his wonderfully erudite book Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Judaism), that Marx for a moment accepted the ‘real Jew’ of Bauer’s anti-Semitic imagination to be empirically well grounded or an authentic image of Jews and Judaism. The line of attack Marx adopts is not to contrast Bauer’s crude stereotype of the Jews to the actual situation of Jews in Germany. Moses Hess, an influential figure for Marx, had already exposed Bauer’s ‘total ignorance’ of present-day Judaism and argued that his condemnation of Jews as ‘narrow-minded ‘ and ‘separatist’ knows nothing of the patriotism of emancipated Jews in Holland, France and Belgium or of the interest of German Jews in the land that offers them protection. What Marx did was far more challenging than this affirmation of Jewish loyalty and high-mindedness. It was to reveal that Bauer has no inkling of the nature of modern democracy.

Marx rooted the origins of Bauer’s radical anti-Semitism in his incapacity to understand the nature of modern civil and political society. Bauer blames the Jew for the ‘Judaism’ of civil society, that is, for the fact that self-interest and money are the principles of civil society. Bauer declares the Jew unworthy of civil and political rights because of the ‘Judaism’ of his loyalties, that is, for putting Jewish self-interest and money first. The political emancipation of the Jew means the emancipation of the state from all religion – i.e. the abolition of all religious qualifications for participation in public life – even if the overwhelming majority of Jews remain strictly Jewish. Legal equality for Jews does not of course abolish social inequalities between Jews and Christians, but it declares Judaism a non-political distinction. It is not only the Jew who leads a double life as Jew and citizen, Sabbath Jew and everyday German. Today everyone leads a double life: one in the political community and one in civil society, one in heaven and one on earth, as Marx put it. Division is the principle of modern society. If the civil rights of Jews guarantee their right of withdrawal from the larger community, there is not one of the rights of man that ‘goes beyond egoistic man … an individual withdrawn into himself’. Political emancipation is not the last word in human emancipation, but Marx is unequivocal that the political emancipation of Jews would be a great step forward: ‘we do not tell the Jews that they cannot be emancipated politically without emancipating themselves from Judaism, which is what Bauer tells them.’

The French revolution had provided the first example of the complete emancipation of Jews in Europe. When the question of Jewish emancipation re-emerged in Germany in the 1840s, after a long period of German national reaction, political lines were not at all neatly drawn. There were some Catholic conservatives who supported Jewish emancipation and some apparent ‘leftists’, people like Bruno Bauer, who actively opposed it. Bauer even seems to have favoured shipping out Jews to ‘the land of Canaan’ on the grounds that the Jewish religion does not allow a people to be free and that Jews would otherwise form a nation within the nation. It is perhaps none too surprising that Bauer did not stay long on the left and later seemed to embrace a kind of scientific racism when he described Jews as ‘white Negroes’ whose racial characteristics made conversion to Christianity virtually impossible (Carlebach p.147). Marx, however, took Bauer’s radicalism at face value and criticised it on its own terms.

Marx never eschewed his repudiation of the ‘socialism of fools’. Indeed, I would say that the critique of anti-Semitism was absolutely central to his understanding and definition of socialism. A reading of Hal Draper’s four volumeKarl Marx’s Theory of Revolution reveals that together with Engels, Marx campaigned against anti-Semitic prejudices rife among the French Comptean Positivists (some of whom, like Alfred Naquet, were Jewish), protagonists of ‘feudal socialism’ (such as Thomas Carlyle and Feargus O’Connor), anarchists (such as Bakunin and Guillaume), as well as the explicitly racist anti-Semitism of Adolf Stöcker’s Christian socialism in Germany and then the Drumont movement in France. Bakunin is an interesting case in point. He came to embrace a radical, pan-Slavist ideology in which he advanced a virulent version of the myth of Jewish conspiracy to control the world. In his Study on the German Jews he wrote:

The Jewish sect constitutes a veritable power in Europe. It reigns despotically in commerce and banking, and it has invaded three-quarters of German journalism and a very considerable part of the journalism of other countries. Then woe to him who makes the mistake of displeasing it!’ (quoted in Draper p. 293).

In his letters to the Bologna section of the International he pursued the same theme in stronger language:

This whole Jewish world, which constitutes a single exploitative sect, a sort of bloodsucker people, a collective parasite, voracious, organised in itself, not only across the frontiers of states but even across all the differences of political opinion – this world is presently, at least in great part, at the disposal of Marx on the one hand and of the Rothschilds on the other… Jewish solidarity, that powerful solidarity that has maintained itself through all history, united them… In all countries the people detest the Jews. They detest them so much every popular revolution is accompanied by a massacre of Jews: a natural consequence… (quoted in Draper 296)

What is equally little known is how central the confrontation with anti-Semitism was to the critiques of Proudhon and Dühring which Marx and Engels also elaborated.

The anti-Semitism of the Left that Marx confronted was not a marginal detail nor was it limited to his in-fighting with Bakunin and others over leadership of the Communist International. What was at stake was something far more fateful. In all cases what was at issue, according to Marx, was not only the Jewish question as such, nor indeed the anti-Semitic motivations of the individuals concerned (to the best of my knowledge Bruno Bauer and Bakunin always denied being motivated by anti-Semitism), but rather the link between anti-Semitism and the development of thoroughly reactionary forms of anti-capitalism: ‘anti-Semitism serves only reactionary ends under a speciously socialistic cover’, Marx wrote, ‘with that we can have nothing to do’ (Draper 193). As Hannah Arendt correctly saw in her extended commentary on the Jewish question, the rise of anti-Semitism was one of the key elements in determining the origins of totalitarianism (‘Anti-Semitism’, first part of The Origins of Totalitarianism).

I don’t want to draw any direct connection between Marx’s battles with left-wing anti-Semitism in his time and the battles with anti-Semitism which go on in our own times. Much has changed since the radical thinkers of the nineteenth century confronted tradition on the one side and the emergence of a thoroughly modern barbarism on the other. Not least there has been the advent of totalitarianism, the fact of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. However, I would wish to draw the following loose connections. First, modern, political anti-Semitism is a creature of the left as well as the right. We should abandon any fond hope that the universalism of the left inures it to anti-Semitic temptations. Second, there is a strong tradition of anti-Semitism on the Left. Indeed, the most intelligent and radical currents of left (including Marx) have placed the battle against anti-Semitism at the centre of their political thinking. Third, the significance of anti-Semitism on the Left lies not only in what was known as the Jewish question as such, but in helping to sow the seeds of totalitarian thinking and practice in anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist circles. And finally, there is a deep and enduring connection between the reconstruction of socialism as an enlightened, cosmopolitan radicalism and the overcoming of anti-Semitism in all its shapes and forms.

Robert Fine is chair of the Sociology Department at Warwick University and convenor of the MA in Social and Political Thought. He teaches graduate modules on Social Theory and Politics, Sociology of the Holocaust and Critical and Deconstructive Social Theory, and an undergraduate module on the Sociology of the Modern State. His books include Democracy and the Rule of Law (republished in 2002), Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt (2001), Being Stalked (1997), Beyond Apartheid: Labour and Liberation in South Africa (1991), He has co-edited Social Theory after the Holocaust (2000), People, Nation and State (1999), Policing the Miners’ Strike(1985), and Capitalism and the Rule of Law (Hutchinson 1989). He is currently engaged in research on cosmopolitan social theory and has an ESRC-funded project on humanitarian military intervention.

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