Issue 2, 2018: Marx from the Margins


Ido de Haan

In the Spring of 1843, the Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer published two articles on “Die Judenfrage”, which were an intervention in a then current debate on the promise and limits of Jewish emancipation, as well as a step in the critique of Hegel’s ideas on the state, religion and civil society (Bauer 1843a; 1843b). Responding to Hegel’s idea that the state had replaced organized religion as the embodiment of ethical life, the Young Hegelians tried to overcome the Hegelian limitation of a sacralized state without an ethically organized civil society. Bauer and his pupil Karl Marx were therefore first of all concerned with a critique of religion. In order to enjoy a truly rational freedom, humanity should reject not only the Christian state, but also the religious prejudices within society. Their aim to propagate these ideas in a new journal, devoted to atheism, came to nothing, and in 1842, shortly after Marx had followed Bauer to the University of Bonn, the latter was dismissed from the university because of his subversive ideas, leaving Marx without a mentor and forcing him out of academia. Marx accepted a position as an editor of the Rheinische Zeitung which made him the pivot of radical thought in Germany. It brought him into conflict with the Prussian censor, but also led to a growing distance from Bauer as a result of the latter’s support to Die Freien. This was a group of radical critics of religion, whose manuscript Marx refused to publish, not only because Marx no longer believed in religion as a subject in its own right, but also because he feared anti-religious tracts would anger the authorities and endanger the Rheinische Zeitung (Rosen 1977, 131-132; Stedman Jones 2011, 564). Marx’s response to Bauer in “Zur Judenfrage”, published in February 1844 in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, confirmed that mentor and pupil had gone different ways, but it also revealed a crucial divide between a cultural and a social-economic critique that remains a festering wound in leftist thought to the present day.

First of all, “Zur Judenfrage” was a highly controversial contribution to the debate on Jewish emancipation. The essay still preoccupies Marx commentators today. Some see it as testimony to the messianic core of the Marxist program. In this vein, Karl Löwith argued that it “is the old Jewish messianism and prophetism – unaltered by two thousand years of economic history from handicraft to large-scale industry – and Jewish insistence on absolute righteousness which explains the idealistic basis of Marx’s materialism” (Löwith 1949, 44). This interpretation was first presented by the French Bernard Lazare, who in L’antisemitisme. Son histoire et ses causes (1894) had argued that Marx was a “talmudiste qui fit de la sociologie […] animé de ce vieux materialisme hébraïque.” (Lazare 1894, 346). As a Jew, he occupied one of the two poles of capitalist society: “À Rothschild correspondent Marx et Lassalle; au combat pour l’argent, le combat contre l’argent, et le cosmopolitisme de l’agioteur devient l’internationalisme prolétarien et révolutionnaire.” (Lazare 1894, 343). Even though Lazare and others after him were right to point out that many Jews were attracted to the socialist movement, there is according to Enzo Traverso, one of the more recent commentators on Marx and the Jewish Question, nothing in Marx’s predominantly Lutheran and liberal cultural background that would justify the assumption of some millenarian Wahlverwandschaft between his program and Jewish eschatology (Traverso 1997, 38-9).

However, the reference of Lazare to two poles of Jewish involvement in capitalism points to another interpretation of Marx’s “Zur Judenfrage”, as a manifestation of leftist antisemitism (and in so far as Marx had adopted this position, a symptom of Jewish self-hate). Especially in the final part of the essay, in which he claimed to reveal “the actual, worldly Jew, not the Sabbath Jew, as Bauer does, but the everyday Jew”, Marx uses classical antisemitic tropes: “What is the worldly religion of the Jews? Huckstering [der Schacher]. What is his worldly god? Money.” (Marx 1843, 169-170). The final sentence of “Zur Judenfrage” sounds positively horrifying: “The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.” (Marx 1843, 174). With this position, Marx fell into step with earlier socialists, like Charles Fourier, who had argued that “the Jew is, so to speak, a traitor by definition” (quoted in Silberner 1946, 248). It had an ominous resonance in the work of later social critics, such as the German Otto Glagau, who in the 1870s blamed the Jews for the collapse of the European stock exchange markets in 1873, and in Deutsches Handwerk und historisches Bürgertum (1879) argued that “die soziale Frage ist die Judenfrage”, calling upon all working men to unite against exploitation and the degradation of human labor, particularly against the hateful domination of “a foreign race” (Volkov 2012, 86). Together with Wilhelm Marr, who had introduced the term ‘antisemitism’ in Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum (1880), Glagau became a central figure in the antisemitic movement of the 1880s, described by the leading German socialist, August Bebel, as “der Sozialismus der dummen Kerls” (Battini 2016, 7).

At first sight, though, Marx appears to sketch a more benign perspective for Jews, at least more promising than Bauer’s outlook. The latter’s essays were a response to the spread of Jewish emancipation decrees in the German lands. After the Austrian Toleration Patent which Emperor Joseph II issued in 1782, and the emancipation of the French Jews in 1791, Jews had received equal citizenship (Staatsbürgerschaft) in the French-occupied Confederation of the Rhine, but also in Prussia (1812), Württemberg (1828), Hessen (1833) and Hannover (1842). Each of these decrees were contested: in 1808, Napoleon issued his so-called Infamous Decree, restricting their rights, no longer on the grounds of religious intolerance, but on the basis of public order, which Jews were said to disturb by their role as money lenders and their apparent nuisance to non-Jewish society. At the Congress of Vienna Jewish emancipation was also a controversial issue, leading to an article in the constitution of the German Confederation of 1815 declaring that its “Federal Assembly will deliberate on how in the most uniform way possible the civic improvement of those confessing the Jewish faith in Germany is to be effected”, yet until an agreement was reached “those confessing this faith will retain the rights already granted to them in the individual federal states” (translation by Vick 2014: 185). The formulation of the article indicates the influence of Christian Wilhelm Dohm’s Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (1781), which gave a strong impetus to Jewish emancipation, yet framed it in terms of their “civil improvement”, suggesting that emancipation could only succeed in combination with a civilizing mission.

Bauer intervenes in this debate with a scathing criticism of the ambition to emancipate the Jews by granting them equal citizenship. While Christianity was able to adapt to the separation of state and church by privatizing religious practices, Jews could only be emancipated by rejecting Judaism altogether. The reason was that Christianity, notably in its Protestant manifestation, was based on faith, which was ultimately private, while the Jewish religion was based on law and therefore irreducibly public: “Der Jude z.B. müßte aufgehört haben, Jude zu sein, wenn er sich durch sein Gesetz nicht verhindern läßt, seine Pflichten gegen den Staat und seine Mitbürger zu erfüllen, also z.B. am Sabbat in die Deputierten­kammer geht und an den öffentlichen Verhandlungen teilnimmt.” (Bauer 1843a, 65). Reminiscent of contemporary arguments against dual nationality and of the suspicion that Muslims in Western Europe would give priority to the Quran over the constitution, Bauer argued that Jewish emancipation is a sham, because Jews would be unable to prefer the state laws over their own Covenant without giving up their Jewishness.

Marx criticized Bauer for presenting a theological argument, differentiating between Jews and Christians, yet failing to reflect on the notion of ‘political emancipation’ as the separation between a public sphere of the state, and a private sphere of civil society. Marx proposed to “break with the theological formulation of the question” (Marx 1843a, 169) and to understand the Jewish question as an expression of the “general question of the time”, namely the relation between political and human emancipation (Marx 1843a, 149; see Peled 1992). Political emancipation, expressed first of all in the separation of Church and State, makes religion an instance of “the spirit of civil society, of the sphere of egoism, of bellum omnium contra omnes. It is no longer the essence of community, but the essence of difference.” (Marx 1843a, 155). Political emancipation is therefore only a halfway-house: the Hegelian ethical state remains incomplete as long as civil society is divided by both privatized religion (already initiated by the Reformation) and by private interest. The “Jewish question” thus revealed the “sophistry of the political state itself”: political emancipation resulted in a bourgeois, dressed in “the political lion’s skin” of the “citoyen” (Marx 1843a, 154). Political emancipation covered the material inequality of civil society, which only could be overcome by a truly human emancipation.

The arguments in “Zur Judenfrage” have often been interpreted as contributions to Marx’s general intellectual development, preparing his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1844) and his Theses on Feuerbach (1845), both written shortly after “Zur Judenfrage”. From that perspective, Marx’s remarks on Jews were merely illustrations of a more general point, or as Marx states: the sophistry of the state is “not personal” (Marx 1843a, 154). However, it seems that more than a simple illustration of a philosophical point is going on in Marx’s poisonous remarks, such as his claim that “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.” (Marx 1843, 170).

Firstly, these qualifications belie the claim that Marx wants to analyze the Jewish question from a social point of view, that is, of the material interests within civil society. As Traverso observes, Marx took a very partial view of the role of Jews in European society, assuming that all were rich merchants, disregarding the millions of poor rural Jews in Eastern Europe. The Ostjuden not only failed to fit the picture Marx drew, but also developed their own brand of “Bundist” socialism, which entertained more messianic elements than Marxism ever did (Traverso 1997, 60-76).

Secondly, the centrality of the Jewish question in Marx’s analysis of the sophistry of the political state draws the attention to a persistent tension in leftist thought between cultural identities and social interests. This has always been a contested issue, from Otto Bauer’s rejection of a “naïve cosmopolitanism” in the socialist movement, drawing attention to “the fact that the workers are also national” (Bauer 2000, 417-420), to Tony Judt’s lament that the leftist movement since the 1960s had abandoned their social responsibility by allowing “’identity’ to colonize public discourse: private identity, sexual identity, cultural identity. From here it was but a short step to the fragmentation of radical politics, its metamorphosis into multiculturalism.” (Judt 2010, 88). The most recent debate around Mark Lilla’s (2017) critique of identity politics as the abandonment of the working classes by the left is only a last instance of a controversy that started with Marx’s “Zur Judenfrage”.

However, Marx’s analysis can also inform us of the pitfalls within this debate. While most, and perhaps in the end also Marx, saw this as an either/or issue, forcing a choice between a theological and a sociological approach, between the politics of class and the politics of identity, in “Zur Judenfrage” Marx still treats the relationship between culture and class on more equal terms. One has to swallow the antisemitic tinge of a remark like “the monotheism of the Jews is therefore in reality the polytheism of the many needs, a polytheism which makes even the lavatory an object of divine law.” (Marx 1843a, 172). But it points to a vision that sees both religious pluralism and social egoism as two instances of the division of civil society. For Marx the failure of political emancipation was its disregard of a privatized civil society, in which both cultural enmities and social inequalities were treated as private matters that only could be solved through competition. In the most charitable reading, Marx’s argument in “Zur Judenfrage” is that in overcoming egoism, both in a cultural and in a social sense, truly human emancipation is possible.



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Ido de Haan

Ido de Haan is professor of political history at Utrecht University. He is currently supervising a research project on the history of neoliberalism in the Netherlands ( Among his publications are books on Dutch political history (Een nieuwe staat. Het begin van het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden, ed. with P. de Hoed and H. te Velde, Prometheus 2013; Het beginsel van leven en wasdom. De constitutie van de Nederlandse politiek, Wereldbibliotheek 2003), on the memory of the Holocaust (Na de ondergang. De herinnering aan de Jodenvervolging in Nederland, SDU 1997) and on the history of political ideology (Zelfbestuur en staatsbeheer. Het politieke debat over burgerschap en rechtsstaat in de twintigste eeuw, AUP 1993; Maakbaarheid. Liberale wortels en hedendaagse kritiek van de maakbare samenleving, ed. with J.W. Duyvendak, AUP 1996). Together with Beatrice de Graaf and Brian Vick he edited Securing Europe after Napoleon, CUP forthcoming).