Was Marx an anti-Semite?

"World Without Jews" is not a call for the extermination of Jews, as the title might imply, but rather Marx's analysis of why most Jews were not interested in the working class movement of his day. He wanted Jews to cease identifying themselves as Jews first and foremost and instead adopt a more universalist outlook, which would aid their participation in the workers' movement. Marx saw Judaism, the religion, as a barrier to developing class consciousness, so he saw a "world without Jews" as the only way the European working classes would be able to unite. It is important to keep in mind that the translators of this work into English have largely been of the "Jews Against Communism" variety, and so the anti-Judaic tone of the work is not necessarily due to Marx alone. The fact that Jews are taught to identify themselves as a race, instead of merely as co-religionists, was what Marx was decrying in this pamphlet, not the fact that there are Jews at all. Marx's contempt for religion in general is well known, and as a Jew by birth (although his family converted to Christianity) he had an insider's perspective on the problems that identifying oneself as a Jew presented to the working class movement at the time that he wanted to share with non-Jews.

The language might seem excessively harsh to us today, but the book was a polemic, and must be viewed within its historical context.

(posted to the Marxism list by Maya O'Connor)


Marx's "On the Jewish Question" was written within the context of a debate between Marx and fellow Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer over the politics of Jewish emancipation. This essay is among Marx's "pre-Marxist" writings since he wrote it before becoming a communist. Bauer took the position that the achievement of Jewish emancipation in Prussia could not occur until Jews had renounced their identity as a separate people. And Bauer also argued that it was not possible to grant emancipation to the Jews when Christians themselves were not free. (The emancipation of the Jews in France during the French Revolution indeed did involve the formal renunciation by the Jewish community there of being any sort of a separate people from the French nation). Marx criticized Bauer's stance, citing among other things the experience of the United States whose Bill of Rights and many of its state constitutions (Marx as I recall cited the New Hampshire state constitution) had established separation between church and state of state neutrality between religious faiths. In other words Marx argued that the political emancipation of the Jews in Prussia would not require that the Jews give up their identity as a separate group or people. However, Marx then drew a distinction between political emancipation and human emancipation. Political emancipation for Marx meant the achieving of political rights under the bourgeois state.

Marx by no means disparaged this but this sort of emancipation was insufficient since these sort of rights were linked to egoism and private property. The sort of liberty that was possible under the bourgeois state was not to be equated with a genuine human emancipation which in his view required the transcendence of what he at the time called commercial society. For Marx whereas the achievement of political emancipation required that Jews be granted equal civil rights with Gentiles, human emancipation required the abolition of the distinction between Jews and Gentiles as a social distinction which was rooted in commercial society (what he later called capitalism). In this discussion Marx was influenced by the critiques of religion that had been developed by fellow Young Hegelians like D.F. Strauss, Bruno Bauer, and Ludwig Feuerbach. But Marx went beyond them by his attempt to unveil the material roots of religion and of religious distinctions as a social phenomena. In particular Marx drew upon the work of his friend Moses Hess mwho in 1843 had rejected what he called the "theological consciousness" of the Young Hegelians and called for a social analysis of the human condition.

Marx in "On the Jewish Question" went to provide such a social analysis focusing on the material roots for the existence of a Jewish minority within Christian Europe. For Marx this material basis lied within the fact that Jews were disproportiantely concentrated in trade and commerce which gave them real economic and political power out of proportion to their actual numbers. This economic power made it possible for the Jews to press the demand for civil equality and to infiltrate their social and commercial values into civil society. The state in turn was dependent upon the Jews for its own financial integrity and so it required that the Jews perform their functions within the world of commerce. Thus civil society in Marx's view provided the material basis for the existence of the Jews as a separate group or caste which needed them as traders, huckster, and moneylenders. Therefore, the Jews would not diappear until either they abandoned their roles as traders and hucksters or the state itself liberated itself from the need for commercialism.

Much has been made of the Marx's intemperate language in this essay which had often been taken as anti-Semitic. And there is no doubt that his language lends itself to such an interpretation. On the other hand much if his argumentation is ironical in character. While he excorciated the Jews for their hucksterism and greed, he also wrote about the 'Judaizing' of Christian society and of Christians. And in doing so Marx in fact turned many of the favorite anti-Semitic stereotypes that Chrsitians had of Jews against them since by the 19th century, hucksterism was as much a characteristic of Gentiles as it was of Jews.

(posted to the Marxism list by Jim Farmelant)