On the Jewish Question

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"On the Jewish Question" is a response by Karl Marx to then-current debates over the Jewish question. Marx wrote the piece in 1843, and it was first published in Paris in 1844 under the German title "Zur Judenfrage" in the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher.

The essay criticizes two studies[1][2] by Marx's fellow Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer on the attempt by Jews to achieve political emancipation in Prussia. Bauer argued that Jews could achieve political emancipation only by relinquishing their particular religious consciousness since political emancipation requires a secular state, which he assumes does not leave any "space" for social identities such as religion. According to Bauer, such religious demands are incompatible with the idea of the "Rights of Man". True political emancipation, for Bauer, requires the abolition of religion.

Marx uses Bauer's essay as an occasion for his own analysis of liberal rights, arguing that Bauer is mistaken in his assumption that in a "secular state" religion will no longer play a prominent role in social life, and giving as an example the pervasiveness of religion in the United States, which, unlike Prussia, had no state religion. In Marx's analysis, the "secular state" is not opposed to religion, but rather actually presupposes it. The removal of religious or property qualifications for citizens does not mean the abolition of religion or property, but only introduces a way of regarding individuals in abstraction from them.[3]

On this note Marx moves beyond the question of religious freedom to his real concern with Bauer's analysis of "political emancipation". Marx concludes that while individuals can be "spiritually" and "politically" free in a secular state, they can still be bound to material constraints on freedom by economic inequality, an assumption that would later form the basis of his critiques of capitalism.

A number of scholars and commentators regard "On the Jewish Question", and in particular its second section, which addresses Bauer's work "The Capacity of Present-day Jews and Christians to Become Free", as antisemitic; however, a number of others disagree.[4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11]

Synopsis of content[edit]

In Marx's view, Bauer fails to distinguish between political emancipation and human emancipation. As noted above, political emancipation in a modern state does not require Jews (or Christians) to renounce religion; only complete human emancipation would involve the disappearance of religion, but that is not yet possible "within the hitherto existing world order".

In the second part of the essay, Marx disputes Bauer's "theological" analysis of Judaism and its relation to Christianity. Bauer states that the renouncing of religion would be especially difficult for Jews. In Bauer's view, Judaism was a primitive stage in the development of Christianity. Hence, to achieve freedom by renouncing religion, Christians would have to surmount only one stage, whereas Jews would need to surmount two.

In response to this, Marx argues that the Jewish religion does not have the significance Bauer's analysis attributes, because it is merely a spiritual reflection of Jewish economic life. This is the starting point of a complex and somewhat metaphorical argument that draws on the stereotype of "the Jew" as a financially apt "huckster" and posits a special connection between Judaism as a religion and the economy of contemporary bourgeois society. Thus, the Jewish religion does not need to disappear in society, as Bauer argues, because it is actually a natural part of it. Having thus figuratively equated "practical Judaism" with "huckstering and money", Marx concludes, that "the Christians have become Jews"; and, ultimately, it is mankind (both Christians and Jews) that needs to emancipate itself from ("practical") Judaism.[12]

History of publication[edit]

"Zur Judenfrage" was first published by Marx and Arnold Ruge in February 1844 in the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher, a journal which ran only one issue.[13] From December 1843 to October 1844, Bruno Bauer published the monthly Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (General Literary Gazette) in Charlottenburg (now Berlin). In it, he responded to the critique of his own essays on the Jewish question by Marx and others. Then, in 1845, Friedrich Engels and Marx published a polemic critique of the Young Hegelians titled The Holy Family. In parts of the book, Marx again presented his views dissenting from Bauer's on the Jewish question and on political and human emancipation.[14]

A French translation appeared 1850 in Paris in Hermann Ewerbeck's book Qu'est-ce que la bible d'après la nouvelle philosophie allemande? (What is the Bible according to the new German philosophy?).

In 1879, historian Heinrich von Treitschke published an article "Unsere Aussichten" ("Our Prospects"), in which he demanded that the Jews should assimilate into German culture, and described Jewish immigrants as a danger for Germany. This article stirred up controversy, to which the newspaper Sozialdemokrat, edited by Eduard Bernstein, reacted by republishing almost the entire second part of "Zur Judenfrage" in June and July 1881.

The entire essay was republished yet again in October 1890 in the Berliner Volksblatt, then edited by Wilhelm Liebknecht.[15]

In 1926, an English translation by H. J. Stenning, with the title "On the Jewish Question", appeared in a collection of essays by Marx.[16]

Another English translation of "Zur Judenfrage" was published (along with other articles written by Marx) in 1959, and titled, A World Without Jews.[17] The editor, Dagobert D. Runes, intended to demonstrate Marx's alleged antisemitism.[18] This edition was criticized[according to whom?] because the reader is not informed that the title has been altered from Marx's original title, and for other distortions in the text.[19]


Marx as antisemite[edit]

In his 1984 article "Marxism vs. the Jews" for Commentary, English journalist Paul Johnson references the second part of Marx's essay as evidence of Marx's antisemitism:[4][20]

Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew – not the Sabbath Jew, as Bauer does, but the everyday Jew. Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew. What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money[...] An organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, would make the Jew impossible[...] The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews[...] Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities[...] The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange[...] The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.

Antisemitism scholar Robert Wistrich stated "the net result of Marx's essay is to reinforce a traditional anti-Jewish stereotype – the identification of the Jews with money-making – in the sharpest possible manner".[21] Bernard Lewis described "On the Jewish Question" as "one of the classics of antisemitic propaganda".[6]

Hal Draper (1977)[22] observed that the language of Part II of "On the Jewish Question" followed the view of the Jews' role given in Jewish socialist Moses Hess's essay "On the Money System". According to Edward Flannery, Marx considered Jews to be enthusiastic capitalists.[7]

Hyam Maccoby argued that "On the Jewish Question" is an example of what he considers to be Marx's "early antisemitism". According to Maccoby, Marx argues in the essay that the modern commercialized world is the triumph of Judaism, a pseudo-religion whose god is money. Maccoby suggested that Marx was embarrassed by his Jewish background and used Jews as a "yardstick of evil". Maccoby writes that in later years, Marx limited what he considers to be antipathy towards Jews to private letters and conversations because of strong public identification with antisemitism by his political enemies both on the left (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin) and on the right (aristocracy and the Church).[23]

For sociologist Robert Fine (2006) Bauer's essay "echoed the generally prejudicial representation of the Jew as 'merchant' and 'moneyman'", whereas "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". Fine argues that "[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", but "to reveal that Bauer has no inkling of the nature of modern democracy".[24] Sociologist Larry Ray in his reply (2006) to Fine acknowledges Fine's reading of the essay as an ironic defense of Jewish emancipation. He points out the ambiguity of Marx's language. Ray translates a sentence of "Zur Judenfrage" and interprets it as an assimilationist position "in which there is no room within emancipated humanity for Jews as a separate ethnic or cultural identity", and which advocates "a society where both cultural as well as economic difference is eliminated". Here Ray sees Marx in a "strand of left thinking that has been unable to address forms of oppression not directly linked to class".[25]

Other interpretations[edit]

In Abram Leon's 1946 book The Jewish Question, Leon examines Jewish history from a materialist perspective. According to Leon, Marx's essay uses the framing that one "must not start with religion in order to explain Jewish history; on the contrary: the preservation of the Jewish religion or nationality can be explained only by the 'real Jew', that is to say, by the Jew in his economic and social role".[26]

Isaac Deutscher (1959)[27] compares Marx with Elisha ben Abuyah, Baruch Spinoza, Heinrich Heine, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and Sigmund Freud, all of whom he thinks of as heretics who repudiate Jewry, yet still belong to a Jewish tradition. According to Deutscher, Marx's "idea of socialism and of the classless and stateless society" expressed in the essay is as universal as Spinoza's "Ethics and God". By framing his revolutionary economic and political project as a liberation of the world from Judaism, Marx expressed a "messianic desire" that was itself "quite Christian," according to David Nirenberg.[28]

Shlomo Avineri (1964), while regarding Marx's antisemitism as a well-known fact, points out that Marx's philosophical criticism of Judaism has often overshadowed his forceful support for Jewish emancipation as an immediate political goal.[29] Avineri notes that in Bauer's debates with a number of Jewish contemporary polemicists, Marx entirely endorsed the views of the Jewish writers against Bauer.[29] In a letter to Arnold Ruge, written March 1843, Marx writes that he intended to support a petition of the Jews to the Provincial Assembly. He explains that while he dislikes Judaism as a religion, he also remains unconvinced by Bauer's view (that Jews should not be emancipated unless they abandon Judaism). However, he also clarifies in the letter that his support of the petition is merely tactical, to further his efforts at weakening the Christian state.[30]

David Nirenberg sees Marx as having used antijudaism as a theoretical framework for making sense of the world and critically engaging with it.[31]

In his 1965 book For Marx, Louis Althusser say that "in On the Jewish Question, Hegel's Philosophy of the State, etc., and even usually in The Holy Family that "... Marx was merely applying the theory of alienation, that is, Feuerbach's theory of 'human nature', to politics and the concrete activity of man, before extending it (in large part) to political economy in the Manuscripts".[32] He opposes a tendency according to which "Capital is no longer read as 'On the Jewish Question', 'On the Jewish Question' is read as 'Capital'".[33] For Althusser, the essay "is a profoundly "ideological text", "committed to the struggle for Communism", but without being Marxist; "so it cannot, theoretically, be identified with the later texts which were to define historical materialism".[34]

David McLellan argued that "On the Jewish Question" must be understood in terms of Marx's debates with Bruno Bauer over the nature of political emancipation in Germany. According to McLellan, Marx used the word "Judentum" in its colloquial sense of "commerce" to argue that Germans suffer, and must be emancipated from, capitalism. The second half of Marx's essay, McLellan concludes, should be read as "an extended pun at Bauer's expense".[9]

Stephen Greenblatt (1978)[35] compares the essay with Christopher Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta. According to Greenblatt, "[b]oth writers hope to focus attention upon activity that is seen as at once alien and yet central to the life of the community and to direct against that activity the antisemitic feeling of the audience". Greenblatt attributes to Marx a "sharp, even hysterical, denial of his religious background".

Feminist Wendy Brown argues that "On the Jewish Question" is primarily a critique of liberal rights, rather than a criticism of Judaism, and that apparently antisemitic passages such as "Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist" should be read in that context.[11]

Yoav Peled (1992)[36] sees Marx "shifting the debate over Jewish emancipation from the plane of theology... to the plane of sociology", thereby circumventing one of Bauer's main arguments. In Peled's view, "this was less than a satisfactory response to Bauer, but it enabled Marx to present a powerful case for emancipation while, at the same time, launching his critique of economic alienation". He concludes that "the philosophical advances made by Marx in 'On the Jewish Question' were necessitated by, and integrally related to, his commitment to Jewish emancipation".

Francis Wheen says: "Those critics, who see this as a foretaste of 'Mein Kampf', overlook one, essential point: in spite of the clumsy phraseology and crude stereotyping, the essay was actually written as a defense of the Jews. It was a retort to Bruno Bauer, who had argued that Jews should not be granted full civic rights and freedoms unless they were baptised as Christians". Although he claimed to be an atheist, Bruno Bauer viewed Judaism as an inferior religion.[37]

Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, regards application of the term "antisemitism" to Marx as an anachronism because when Marx wrote "On the Jewish Question", virtually all major European philosophers expressed similar views, and the word "antisemitism" had not yet been coined, let alone developed a racial component. Sacks says that little awareness existed of the depths of European prejudice against Jews. Marx thus simply expressed the commonplace thinking of his era, according to Sacks.[10]

The political-scientist Professor Iain Hamphsher-Monk wrote in his textbook: "This work ["On The Jewish Question"] has been cited as evidence for Marx's supposed antisemitism, but only the most superficial reading of it could sustain such an interpretation."[38]

Hal Draper (1977)[39] observed that the language of Part II of "On the Jewish Question" followed the view of the Jews' role given in Jewish socialist Moses Hess' essay "On the Money System".

Reference to Müntzer[edit]

In part II of the essay, Marx refers to Thomas Müntzer:

The view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature; in the Jewish religion, nature exists, it is true, but it exists only in imagination. It is in this sense that [in a 1524 pamphlet] Thomas Münzer declares it intolerable "that all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free."[20]

In his Apology, in large part an attack on Martin Luther, Müntzer says:

Look ye! Our sovereign and rulers are at the bottom of all usury, thievery, and robbery; they take all created things into possession. The fish in the water, birds in the air, the products of the soil – all must be theirs (Isaiah v.)[40]

The appreciation of Müntzer's position has been interpreted as a sympathetic view of Marx towards animals.[41] It is also possible that Müntzer was referring to the temerity of sovereign rulers who would take even that which God had created (for all of mankind and the world) as their very own. Müntzer was a theologian after all, and was quoting from the same Biblical passage in the Book of Isaiah that would similarly resonate for an observant Jew, which Marx was not.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bruno Bauer, Die Judenfrage(The Jewish Question), Braunschweig 1843
  2. ^ Bruno Bauer: "Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen, frei zu werden" ("The Capacity of Present-day Jews and Christians to Become Free"), in: Einundzwanzig Bogen aus der Schweiz, edited by Georg Herwegh, Zürich and Winterthur, 1843, pp. 56–71.
  3. ^ Marx 1844:

    [T]he political annulment of private property not only fails to abolish private property but even presupposes it. The state abolishes, in its own way, distinctions of birth, social rank, education, occupation, when it declares that birth, social rank, education, occupation, are non-political distinctions, when it proclaims, without regard to these distinctions, that every member of the nation is an equal participant in national sovereignty, when it treats all elements of the real life of the nation from the standpoint of the state. Nevertheless, the state allows private property, education, occupation, to act in their way – i.e., as private property, as education, as occupation, and to exert the influence of their special nature. Far from abolishing these real distinctions, the state only exists on the presupposition of their existence; it feels itself to be a political state and asserts its universality only in opposition to these elements of its being.

  4. ^ a b Johnson, Paul (April 1, 1984). "Marxism vs. the Jews". Commentary Magazine.
  5. ^ Muravchik, Joshua (2003). Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism. San Francisco: Encounter Books. p. 164. ISBN 1-893554-45-7.
  6. ^ a b Bernard Lewis. Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. (1999). W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31839-7 p. 112
  7. ^ a b Edward H. Flannery. The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism. Paulist Press. (2004). ISBN 0-8091-4324-0 p. 168
  8. ^ Marvin Perry, Frederick M. Schweitzer. Antisemitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present. Palgrave Macmillan. (2005). ISBN 1-4039-6893-4 pp. 154–157
  9. ^ a b David McLellan: Marx before Marxism (1970), pp. 141–142
  10. ^ a b Sacks, Jonathan (1997). The Politics of Hope. London: Jonathan Cape. pp. 98–108. ISBN 978-0-224-04329-8.
  11. ^ a b Brown, Wendy (1995). "Rights and Identity in Late Modernity: Revisiting the 'Jewish Question'". In Sarat, Austin; Kearns, Thomas (eds.). Identities, Politics, and Rights. University of Michigan Press. pp. 85–130.
  12. ^ Marx 1844: "On the other hand, if the Jew recognizes that his practical nature is futile and works to abolish it, he extricates himself from his previous development and works for human emancipation as such and turns against the supreme practical expression of human self-estrangement."
  13. ^ Ruge, Arnold; Marx, Karl, eds. (1981). Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher. Leipzig: Reclam.
  14. ^ Engels, Marx: The Holy Family 1845, Chapter VI, The Jewish Question No. 1, No. 2, No. 3
  15. ^ Marx-Engels Gesammtausgabe (MEGA), Volume II, apparatus, p. 648 (German) Dietz, Berlin 1982
  16. ^ Karl Marx Selected Essays, translated by H. J. Stenning (Leonard Parsons, London and New York 1926), pp. 40–97
  17. ^ "Review of A World Without Jews". The Western Socialist. Canada. 27 (212): 5–7. 1960.
  18. ^ "Discussion: Marx and Anti-Semitism". World Socialist. Canada. 27 (214): 11, 19–21. 1960.
  19. ^ Draper 1977, Note 1
  20. ^ a b Marx 1844
  21. ^ R. Wistrich in Soviet Jewish Affairs Journal, 4:1, 1974
  22. ^ Draper 1977
  23. ^ Hyam Maccoby. Antisemitism and Modernity: Innovation and Continuity. Routledge. (2006). ISBN 0-415-31173-X pp. 64–66
  24. ^ Robert Fine: Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Anti-Semitism Archived 2012-02-05 at the Wayback Machine in: Engage Journal 2, May 2006
  25. ^ Larry Ray: Marx and the Radical Critique of Difference Archived 2008-06-01 at the Wayback Machine in: Engage Journal 3, September 2006
  26. ^ Leon 1950, Chapter One, Premises
  27. ^ Isaac Deutscher: Message of the Non-Jewish Jew in American Socialist 1958
  28. ^ Nirenberg 2013, p. 4.
  29. ^ a b Avineri, Shlomo (1964). "Marx and Jewish Emancipation". Journal of the History of Ideas. University of Pennsylvania Press. 25 (3): 445–450. doi:10.2307/2707911. JSTOR 2707911.
  30. ^ "I have just been visited by the chief of the Jewish community here, who has asked me for a petition for the Jews to the Provincial Assembly, and I am willing to do it. However much I dislike the Jewish faith, Bauer's view seems to me too abstract. The thing is to make as many breaches as possible in the Christian state and to smuggle in as much as we can of what is rational. At least, it must be attempted—and the embitterment grows with every petition that is rejected with protestations." Postscript of a Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge in Dresden, written: Cologne, March 13, 1843
  31. ^ Nirenberg, David (2013). Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 423–459. ISBN 978-0-393-34791-3.
  32. ^ Althusser 1965, Part One: Feuerbach's 'Philosophical Manifestoes', first published in La Nouvelle Critique, December 1960.
  33. ^ Althusser 1965, Part Two: On the Young Marx: Theoretical Questions, first appeared in La Pensée, March–April 1961
  34. ^ Althusser 1965, Part Five: "The 1844 Manuscripts", first published in La Pensée, February 1963.
  35. ^ Stephen J. Greenblatt: Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism, in: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Winter, 1978), pp. 291–307; Excerpt Archived 2007-08-12 at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ Y. Peled: From theology to sociology: Bruno Bauer and Karl Marx on the question of Jewish emancipation, in: History of Political Thought, Volume 13, Number 3, 1992, pp. 463–485(23); Abstract
  37. ^ Francis Wheen (2001). Karl Marx: A Life. W.W. Norton & Company. p. 56. ISBN 978-0393321579. Retrieved 10 March 2014.
  38. ^ Iain Hampsher-Monk, A History of Modern Political Thought (1992), Blackwell Publishing, p. 496
  39. ^ Draper 1977
  40. ^ Thomas Müntzer: Hoch verursachte Schutzrede, or Apology, 1524, Alstedter, English translation cited from Karl Kautsky: Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation, 1897, Chapter 4, VIII. Münzer's Preparations for the Insurrection
  41. ^ In Lawrence Wilde: 'The creatures, too, must become free': Marx and the Animal/Human Distinction in: Capital & Class 72, Autumn 2000
Further reading

External links[edit]