Marx and the radical critique of difference – Larry Ray – Engage Journal Issue 3 – September 2006

There is a long-running debate over Marx’s essay On the Jewish Question (1844). Was this a piece of rabid antisemitism or an ironic destruction of Bauer’s critique combined with a defence of Jewish emancipation? Robert Fine presents a good defence of the latter view. An appreciation of Marx’s use of irony is essential to understanding especially his early ‘Hegelian’ works in which the method of immanent critique – of arguing through but subverting the categories of ones opponents – was widely used. I agree with Fine that neither Marx nor Engels had any truck with organized political antisemitism and condemned it unreservedly. I also agree that some of the most apparently blatantly antisemitic passages in On the Jewish Question can be read ironically, although I would also suggest that they are polyvalent and can be read in different ways on different levels (see below). Further, Marx’s wording of his critique of Bauer is clumsy and to say the least is open to misinterpretation. He does appear to accept aspects of the then widespread antisemitic caricature of Jews as inveterate moneylenders and hucksters along with the use of the term Judentum as a metaphor for commerce – so throughout the essay the term is invested with double meaning – referring to Judaism both as a religion and grubby financial dealing. There are points in the discourse where Marx makes it explicit that he does not dissent from Bauer’s stereotypical characterisation of Jews as Geldmenschen.

These views were not confined to the Jewish Question. In The German Ideology Marx says ‘The attitude of the bourgeois to the institutions of his regime is like that of the Jew to the law; he evades them whenever it is possible to do so in each individual case, but he wants everyone else to observe them’. There are similar references in Revolution and Counter-Revolution (1852) and elsewhere, notably in correspondence, Marx frequently uses the term ‘Jew’ as a term of abuse. For example ‘The little Jew Braun hasn’t written to me since my manuscript’ arrived (Marx to Engels 25/2/1859) or again ‘The Jewish nigger Lassalle …this parvenu flaunted his money bags’ (Marx to Engels 30/7/1862). Now, in Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (1977) Hal Draper argues that racial abuse and the economic stereotype of Jews were in widespread use across the German and French political spectrum at the time, so Marx was no more guilty of this than anyone else. He warns against historians ‘who project themselves back into history as undercover agents of the Anti-Defamation League’. The real issue of the time, he says, was whether one was for or against the political emancipation of the Jews and Marx was clearly in favour.

One may feel that the theorist who penetrated the illusion of the commodity form should also have seen beyond crude racial stereotypes. But nevertheless – was Marx supportive of Jewish emancipation? Well, yes and no. There actually isn’t an extensive discussion of Jews in On the Jewish Question and Marx’s main purpose is to use Bauer’s arguments as a foil for developing the distinction between political emancipation (equality of rights within a constitutional state) and social or human emancipation that would entail the abolition of differences of rank, birth and occupation and indeed between civil society and the state itself. Equal participation in popular sovereignty, he argues, still allows differences of property, education and profession to exert their particular influence. Yet Marx seems unaware of or uninterested in social stratification within the Jewish community and the considerable cultural and economic differences between Central European and the Ostjudentum of the shtetl. Rather he refers to Jews as a uniform entity. An entity indeed that would become ‘impossible’ when trade – the reason for its existence – was eliminated. Thus in response to Bauer’s insistence that Jews must emancipate themselves from Judaism in order to be accorded rights, Marx says:

Wir sagen ihnen vielmehr: Weil ihr politisch emanzipiert werden könnt, ohne euch vollständig und widerspruchslos vom Judentum loszusagen, darum ist die politische Emanzipation selbst nicht die menschliche Emanzipation.

That is, it is the fact that Jews can be emancipated politically without contradicting (widerspruchslos) their Jewishness that is precisely the reason why political emancipation is not identical with human emancipation. While this can be read as supporting Jewish emancipation this is also limited to rights within the bourgeois-legal state that in due course will give way to full social emancipation. Here Marx’s position is essentially an assimilationist one in which there is no room within emancipated humanity for Jews as a separate ethnic or cultural identity. In Prussia there was a strong bourgeois-liberal movement pressing for Jewish rights that argued that civil emancipation was necessary in order to solve the Jewish question by dissolving Jewry as a recognizable entity into the general pool of Germanness and thus eventually eliminating it. And this is precisely what Marx advocates by different means – a society where both cultural as well as economic difference is eliminated.

This stance is very revealing of a strand of left thinking that has been unable to address forms of oppression not directly linked to class – issues that came to a head in the 1890s as the Second International attempted to deal with the Woman Question and the growth of nationalist movements (including Zionism) and in many ways continued to dog Marxism throughout the following century. Fine rightly argues that the way forward is to develop a cosmopolitan radicalism that addresses all forms of antisemitism. But as Habermas has argued (though not in the most accessible ways), cosmopolitanism also presupposes a constitutional rights-based state that guarantees cultural rights that are universally shared. That is, the kind of state and complex civil society in other words that Marx set out to debunk in On the Jewish Question.

Larry Ray, Professor of Sociology, University of Kent

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