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Andre Shapiro's latest offering reflects on Karl Marx's opinions on the Jewish Question and highlights the relevance and value of Marx's views today.
Almost four decades ago Prof. Shlomo Avineri published an article on Marx's
attitude to the Jewish question. The article opened with the following sentence:
“That Karl Marx was an inveterate antisemite is today considered a commonplace
which is hardly ever questioned” (S. Avineri, Journal of the History of Ideas,
1964: 445-450). This sentence has appeared as an epigraph to many articles on
Marx's anti-Semitic attitude published since then, whose authors tended to miss
or ignore its deliberately careful formulation and Avineri's fine analysis
outlined in the article. This is not a one-off incident.
There is a trend amongst Jewish thinkers to rummage around in the rich sources of Marx's expressions against people of Jewish origin with whom he circulated, and to hold this record up as the background against which Marx's attitude towards the Jewish question is interpreted. Speaking loosely, there is a sense in which these findings about Marx's life are relevant and important (as they would be important about any intellectual), for one can hardly expect a clear-cut distinction between a person's professional and personal life. Such an idea gains strength especially when the life and opinions of such a rebellious person as Marx are considered. In this sense, the details of a person's private life do enrich the inquiry. But, if it becomes the only research tool for the interpretation of the person's writings, it loses its value. It gives too much free space to the interpreter's speculations and, depending on his intentions and talents, he may prove equally well whatever he wants. In the case of Marx, those who adopted this approach, seem to have taken revenge on a traitor and a lost cause, and have failed to penetrate the depth of Marx's arguments and his intellectual contribution to the problem in question.
In point of fact, just as Marx was once widely read, today he is widely discredited. His works are difficult, overburdened with details and clumsy. It is far from trivial to say that they were once in fashion, for his is not apparently the kind of work which we could treat as fashionable. And if in the non-distant past some read Marx out of obligation and others out of curiosity, today, after the collapse of the “The Empire of Evil” that was seen as the working instantiation of Marx's ideal, for most people the best place for Marx's books is in the library. To put a familiar common opinion into the mouth of an anonymous critic: “Marx's theory is wrong, for the attempts to realize it in practice, however misconceived they had been, resulted in all those and even much harder mischief than the doctrine in question was originally intended to eradicate on the way to human happiness.”
The author of this article will not take a stand on Marx's anti-Semitism. Neither will he discuss whether the common attitude towards him is right or justified. This work rather purports (1) to draw the reader's attention to the article “On the Jewish Question” and to explain its main theses; (2) to point out some interesting connections between Marx's argumentation regarding Jewish Emancipation and a cluster of popular opinions regarding the desirable nature of Israeli society today.
Marx's article “On the Jewish Question” was written in 1843, at a time
when the political struggle for the acquisition of civic rights by Jews in their
respective countries was already well-advanced. The Jewish Question was no
longer merely a question of economics, namely, whether Jews should be granted
civic rights in exchange for their contribution to the commonwealth of a
country. Neither was it a marginal or circumstantial issue of theoretical nature
as it appears in John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. Starting in Europe
with the French Revolution, the attainment of civic rights became the target of
a protracted struggle and a turning point in Jewish history. After more than a
century of heated discussions on Jews and their condition, a host of different
notions was displaced by the famous term “Jewish Emancipation”, thus closing
the long history of refinement and conceptual formation of the issue. Thus, in
Marx's time “Jewish Emancipation” was already well-established currency in
the discourse on the condition of Jews in Europe.
It is in this context Marx's opinions about the Jewish Question are perplexing. Isaiah Berlin addresses Marx's account in the following vein:
“It is a dull and shallow composition, but it shows Marx in a typical mood: he was determined that the sarcasms and insults, to which some of the notable Jews of his generation, were all their lives a target, so far as he could effect it, never be used to plague him. Consequently he decided to kill the Jewish problem once and for all so far as he was concerned, declaring it to be an unreal subject, invented as a screen for other more pressing questions: a problem which offered no special difficulty, but arose from the general social chaos which demanded to be put in order (Karl Marx, p. 82)”
I agree with this verdict, and in what follows I will articulate and explain
in what sense Marx killed the Jewish problem.
Marx's article was originally intended to counter the claims made by Bruno Bauer - another prominent German thinker of Jewish origin. Bauer stated that Jews could never be emancipated, because of what he called “Jewish narrowness”, in other words, their commitment to the Jewish faith, which is incompatible with the universal aspect of human emancipation. By that he meant that Jews could never be granted the rights of citizens, since they are incapable of playing any political game except their own. Neither can they possibly be granted the rights of man, for to gain them Jews must, just like other sections of society, play the same game to achieve the same goal, i.e., human emancipation. Bauer thought that the acquisition of the rights of citizens and the rights of man are interdependent (to gain the latter it is first necessary to gain rights as an equal player), and he claimed that this was the main factor that made Jewish emancipation impossible. Emancipation requires that Jews, as well any other possible target population, admit (1) their universality, i.e., that they have the same human nature as other nations, and (2) the irrelevance of their religion to their aspirations for political emancipation.
Bauer thought that neither of these requirements could be satisfied in the case of the Jews, because they contradict the core beliefs imposed by Jewish religious teachings and everyday Jewish life conducted in accordance with them. Jews would never abandon the tenet of being the chosen people and drop their messianic expectations. Nor would they abandon Judaism as a system of law, and this was precisely the reason, Bauer thought, for the impossibility of liberating the Jews. “No one in Germany is politically emancipated. We are not free ourselves. How shall we liberate you? You Jews are egoists when you claim a special emancipation for yourselves as Jews.” Since Jews would never find a common denominator with non-Jews given the teachings of their history and the meanings of the core concepts held by them, they could never be emancipated. They would never accept Bauer's position that in the struggle for general freedom the wholesale elimination of religion from the political sphere and the removal of religious practices from the public sphere to that of private rights are required.
In Marx's response two separate arguments are discerned. Namely, there is a counter-argument against Bauer's view and against those who spoke about the Jews' corrupted nature, which prevented them from being equal and fair players in the political contract. Regarding Bauer, Marx's dictum is this:
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