On the Jewish Question

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"On the Jewish Question" is one of Marx's most controversial works, as towards the end of it he introduced seemingly antisemitic language regarding the Jewish population. It is of course important to remember when making a study of Marxism that the possible antisemitism of Marx's essay is by no means necessarily a reflection of Marxist beliefs, as he analyzes the Jews outside of the historical materialist outlook, simply within his prejudice.[citation needed] However, "On the Jewish Question" is still an important document in Marxist literature, as Marx uses the "Jewish Question" of Germany (that is, the extension of rights to German Jews, not the extermination of Jews as in Hitler's "Jewish Question" about a century later) in order to present a larger debate about the difference between "political emancipation" and "human emancipation."

The essay is written as a critique of his fellow Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer's essay, "The Jewish Question", in which Bauer criticizes the Jewish struggle for political emancipation by arguing that the Jews care only for their own freedom, rather than the freedom of gentiles, as they argue their case for emancipation while all Germans are under the collective oppression of Prussian absolutism. As he says, "Why should the German be interested in the liberation of the Jew, if the Jew is not interested in the liberation of the German." He also notes that Prussia, enforcing a state church of Christianity, hence being a Christian State, it would be impossible for the state to grant the Jew emancipation, except "the Christian state can behave towards the Jew only in the way characteristic of the Christian state – that is, by granting privileges, by permitting the separation of the Jew from the other subjects, but making him feel the pressure of all the other separate spheres of society, and feel it all the more intensely because he is in religious opposition to the dominant religion."

Marx responds to Bauer's analysis by pointing out that "only the criticism of political emancipation itself would have been the conclusive criticism of the Jewish question and its real merging in the general question of time." Marx writes how Bauer never brings the question to this level of complexity, and at many points simply criticizes the Jew as a person, rather than his actual emancipation. The central error is that Bauer "subjects to criticism only the 'Christian state', and not the 'state as such,' that he does not investigate the relation of political emancipation to human emancipation." Marx argues against Bauer's position that the renouncement of non-state religion is necessary for any group to achieve political emancipation (specifically referring to the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen"), citing observations of the secular government of the United States, which, while its inhabitants and even much of the government maintains its religiosity, political freedom is available to all regardless of religious denomination.

However, Marx also uses the opportunity to argue that political emancipation is only a form of emancipation, and total, complete human emancipation could come "Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being (a term from Feuerbach's philosophy, meaning the point a human capable of shaping his or her own nature independent of other forces) in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished." In other words, only when man could shape his own will, personality, and existence only to what he as a human being is capable of. Marx also outlines how a man's true freedom is often determined by economic factors rather than simply political ones, which would form part of the basis of his critique of capitalism in the future.

Therefore, the first section of his work is essentially a critique of both Bauer's narrow minded, anti-theistic view of freedom, as well as a stage for Marx's own critique of liberalism on the grounds that the "Rights of Man", even when applied to their fullest extent, do not fully guarantee freedom.

The second section of his work is where Marx's antisemitism kicks in, as it is where Marx challenges Bauer's view of Judaism, which Bauer argues is a primitive stage of Christianity, and having "at the end of his work on the Jewish Question, had conceived Judaism only as a crude religious criticism of Christianity, and therefore saw in it 'merely' a religious, it could be foreseen that the emancipation of the Jews, too, would be transformed into a philosophical-theological act." Marx writes that Judaism does not need to be viewed so complexly, as it is simply the spiritual expression of "Practical need and self-interest." Marx then launches into a prejudiced description of European Jewry, in which he regards them as hucksters and that "practical Judaism", which to him was greed and self-interest, was the backbone of capitalist society, and that therefore, "the social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism."

Unfortunately, the first section's significance in Marxism is often overshadowed by the latter's antisemitism. It is important to note however, that labeling Marx specifically as antisemitic would be anachronistic, as antisemitic views were common at the time, and the term antisemitism had not even come into use so as to label a negative mode of thought. A good article on the subject is Hal Draper's "Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype."[1]

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