Karl Marx’s controversial 1844 essay “On the Jewish Question” raises (for some) troubling questions about antisemitism yet also contains insights into capitalism’s exploitative nature. The essay’s problematic stereotypes reflect outdated 19th-century prejudices, but Marx’s critique of commodification and alienation still resonates.
Was Karl Marx an antisemite? His 1844 essay “On the Jewish Question” raises that troubling possibility. Marx critiques Bruno Bauer’s ideas on Jewish emancipation using egregious stereotypes depicting Jews as obsessed with money. Does this reflect fundamental prejudice? Or should we dig deeper to extract progressive insights from Marx’s ‘flawed’ work?
Marx’s Essay in Context
Marx’s controversial essay weighed in on the heated 19th-century debates over “the Jewish question,” that is, the proper status and treatment of Jews in European societies. This thorny issue for the time touched on the civil, legal, national, and political rights of Jews as a minority, especially as they gained greater equality. In many ways, it echoed broader “national questions” about minorities, but with the twist of spanning social, religious, and national realms.
The term “Jewish question” emerged in the 1750s amid British debates on Jewish emancipation and naturalisation. However, it was in 19th-century Germany and other parts of Europe the Jewish question became a lightning rod, tied to the contested process of granting Jews acceptance and integration.
At its core, the tense debate raged over whether the “problem” of Jewish integration stemmed more (or wholly) from continued antisemitism or simply the presence of Jewish communities. Marx’s essay stepped right into the fray of these heated disputes over Jewish belonging and ongoing prejudice.
While Marx certainly relied on inflammatory stereotypes, some interpret “On the Jewish Question” as a controversial response to antisemitic elements within Bruno Bauer’s own writings. Bauer had argued for Jewish emancipation, but only on the condition that they abandon their religion and fully assimilate. Marx took issue with Bauer’s view, arguing that Bauer’s expectation that Jews must abandon their religion to be emancipated effectively imposed Christian dominance over Jewish identity.
Given this context, Marx employed provocative rhetoric not to directly attack Jews, but to highlight the hypocrisy in Bauer’s view of selective emancipation for Jews. As Bauer weaponised tropes about Judaism as incompatible with participation in the state, Marx co-opted those stereotypes to expose the absurdity of Bauer demanding Jews renounce their identity. Though flawed in execution, Marx may have aimed to unveil antisemitism by using its own twisted logic – not necessarily write an antisemitic screed. This view adds nuance, though the essay remains controversial.
Reckoning with rhetoric in “The Jewish Question”
One can also make the case that, despite its inflammatory rhetoric, “On the Jewish Question” is aimed not at scapegoating Jews but at understanding capitalism’s origins. Marx adopts the unfortunate shorthand of “Judaism” to represent the bourgeois Protestant mentality of his time. But his goal was the emancipation of all humanity from exploitation and alienation. Those who defend Marx seek to recover his wider critique of capitalism, arguing that even flawed texts can spur social progress.
Marx promotes problematic stereotypes, wrongly conflating Judaism with capitalism and greed. As he declares:
“Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.”
With this inflammatory rhetoric, Marx directly associates the Jewish religion with the worship of money and finance, failing to recognise diversity within Judaism beyond this offensive trope. At the same time, Marx’s portrayal of Judaism mirrors his broader critique of the Protestant work ethic—the view that hard work, discipline, and frugality are virtuous, while idleness and leisure are sinful. As he states:
“Christianity sprang from Judaism. It has merged again in Judaism…Christianity abolished in theory the religion of the Jew, but the Jew is practically the Christian, and the Christian has again become practically a Jew.”
Here, Marx suggests Christianity and Judaism share an inner “practical Jewish spirit” of materialism and profit-seeking, despite outward theological differences. Furthermore, Marx declares:
“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.”
This directly associates Judaism with obsession over money and self-interest, which Marx connects to the Protestant capitalist mindset. By similarly equating Christianity with capitalist obsession using such rhetoric, Marx spreads demeaning stereotypes about both faiths.
Nevertheless, Marx’s essay offers insights that are still relevant for contemporary society. His linking of religion and money foreshadowed today’s unholy alliance between God and profit, found in the prosperity gospel. Marx denigrates the “rights of man” as atomistic individualism permeating liberal thought. And he details the commodification of human relations, connecting directly to concerns over an increasingly materialist ethos.
Enduring insights amidst inflammatory language
None of his insights absolve Marx of relying on prejudiced stereotypes. However, dismissing the essay outright fails to engage his substantive arguments. Problematic texts can still hold emancipatory potential alongside oppressive assumptions—although whether Marx’s essay deserves redemption remains an open debate needing a fuller examination.
Ironically, some have recently used Marx’s controversial work as a cudgel against progressive advocates for Palestinian rights. Critics of Israel’s occupation and settlements are frequently accused of antisemitism. Marx’s problematic statements in “On the Jewish Question” provide convenient ammunition to discredit Marxists questioning Israeli policies.
By seizing on Marx’s inflammatory rhetoric, pro-Israel advocates aim to divert attention from substantive human rights issues, suggesting any critique reflects bigotry against Jews. But simple charges of antisemitism often obscure complex realities. Much as Marx took “The Jewish Question” head-on, activists now seek Palestinian liberation while combating the far right and the threat of antisemitism and islamophobia.
The “Jewish Question” provocatively confronts us with contradictions within the project of liberating humanity from oppression. Such liberation does not take place among frictionless abstractions, but within a history where even exploitation and marginalisation are varied and layered phenomena with qualitative dimensions. Besides any insights it holds, even its disturbing rhetoric reminds us that critics of injustice may harbour blind spots. And Marx’s penetrating critique of societal atomization does still resonate; we should avoid discarding his contributions wholesale.
Marx’s essay epitomises how social justice movements often advance despite hypocrisies and contradictions. Redeeming the emancipatory vision while rejecting oppressive biases requires engaging this complex dialectic. Synthesising these views allows for scrutinising the text’s problems while affirming its radical spirit.
Marx’s portrayal of Judaism unfortunately echoes wider contradictions within Enlightenment philosophy. Enlightenment thinkers pioneered lofty ideals of universal equality and human rights. However, they often harboured deep prejudices against marginalised groups.
For example, Voltaire crudely depicting Jews as surpassing “all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct and in barbarism. You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny”. To Kant who thought “Jews had immutable traits that made them inferior to Christians”. Although they valued elevated principles, these thinkers nevertheless normalised bigoted tropes. Marx’s writing on this occasion carried on this problematic tradition, failing to grasp how such inflammatory language could enable future persecution.
In many ways, Marx’s essay epitomises the complex dialectic within Enlightenment progress. “On the Jewish Question” champions human emancipation while at the same time exhibiting repugnant biases, much like the Enlightenment itself. Marx pursues the liberation of humanity while simultaneously relying on noxious anti-Jewish stereotypes also found across Enlightenment literature.
So Marx thus embodied the Enlightenment’s central contradiction—espousing universal equality while harbouring prejudiced assumptions. His essay represents a microcosm of the Enlightenment’s professed ideals, existing side by side with ingrained and dehumanising assumptions. Ultimately, Marx’s legacy, like that of the Enlightenment, must be critically examined. Carefully situating Marx within the Enlightenment tradition, as a critic attempting to rescue the project from itself, we illuminate how even progressive movements paradoxically advance, despite inherent hypocrisies and contradictions.
Marx’s lifelong philosophy and actions reveal a humanist commitment to Jewish emancipation. When weighed against this single controversial youthful work, Marx exhibited a consistent pattern of supportive relationships with Jewish thinkers and public stands against bigotry. His enduring record pushes back against charges of personal antisemitism, despite the inflammatory content of that early essay.
The complex dialectic of enlightened progress
Prejudiced 19th-century tropes depicting Jewish greed and conspiracy traced back through Christian theology normalised antisemitism. While racial pseudoscience had not emerged, rhetoric was rising about Jewish “foreignness” and disloyalty, laying the groundwork for future violent antisemitism. The Holocaust represented the horrifying culmination of centuries of persecution of Jews in Europe. Marx wrote amidst these norms, failing to grasp the dangerous implications of such tropes.
Marx correctly situated Jewish emancipation within a universal human emancipation—a reminder that Palestinian freedom should be part of collective liberation from oppression. In discarding Marx’s stereotypes while upholding his radical spirit, we gain a perspective for navigating dilemmas of privilege and solidarity politics. The task ahead remains to eliminate racism against Jews and Palestinians and every marginalised group, without – today –compromising principled criticism of Israeli state policies.
If applied judiciously, a Marxist critique may illuminate pathways for reconciling a stance of anti-oppression within the contexts of power and domination that frame every liberatory struggle.
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