Race, History, and Karl Marx’s Jewish Questions

Karl Marx’s writings on Jewish affairs pose something of a conundrum. He was of Jewish origins – he was registered Jewish at birth and had a number of rabbinical ancestors but his father, Heinrich Marx, converted the family to Lutheranism to protect his career as a lawyer in the post-Napoleonic Rhineland – and yet he seemed to display acutely negative views of Jews. Discussions of Marx’s attitudes towards Jews usually take his (in)famous 1843 essay On the Jewish Question [Zur Judenfrage] as their starting point.[1]  Initially published in the only ever issue of the abortive Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher [Franco-German yearbook], On the Jewish Question was an extended review of The Jewish Question and ‘Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Chrsiten, frei zu werden’ [The Capacity of Present-day Jews and Christians to Become Free], contemporaneous works by Marx’s former mentor Bruno Bauer. It remains an important text for understanding the early development of Marx’s philosophy, notwithstanding its problematic assertions about Jewish “huckstering”.

Bauer’s original work had argued that Jewish emancipation could only come about when Jews abandoned their particularist religion and instead absorbed themselves into the universalism of a secular state. Marx takes issue with this argument for a number of subtly expressed reasons. He argues that Bauer’s vision of Jewish emancipation is merely a variant of a restricted political emancipation. Bauer’s political emancipation, Marx claims, operates “within the framework of the prevailing social order”. Thus the Jewish emancipation offered by Bauer will be frustrated by the broader limitations of the social order; “real, practical emancipation” can only occur via a revolutionary dismantling of that prevailing social order.

Franco German YearbookThe Franco-German Yearbook (1844)

Moving beyond a mere review of Bauer’s work, though, Marx hones in on another aspect of Jewish emancipation: the need to liberate the world from Judentum, a word meaning both Jewishness/Judaism and commerce/capitalism in nineteenth century German. Indeed, Marx makes much of this dual meaning of Judentum and for many readers of On the Jewish Question, herein lies the rub of his antisemitism. His analysis is built on a foundational assumption that Jewishness and capitalism are coterminous concepts. The essay is certainly not innocent of such charges, but it also moves beyond such narrow notions of “Jewish” capitalism.

Marx’s essay places a major emphasis on the notion of historical movement and the static place of particularistic Jews within the dynamic movement of human history:

“He [the Jew] considers it his right to separate himself from the rest of humanity; as a matter of principle he takes no part in the historical movement and looks to a future which has nothing in common with the future of mankind as a whole. He regards himself as a member of the Jewish people, and the Jewish people as the chosen people.”

If the “future of mankind” would be socialist, as Marx certainly believed, then it makes sense that Jews, a supposedly capitalist people, see no place for themselves in the socialist future. Jewishness/capitalism is a stage in a grander historical development, a “time” that will be superseded in a linear process of historical development.

Marx advances from this to a series of assertions about individualism, selfishness and egoism: traits he associates with both Jews and capitalists. Private property and the bourgeois social order, for instance, is defined by egoism: “None of the supposed rights of man” offered by bourgeois capitalism, “go beyond the egoistic man, man as he is, as a member of civil society; that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice.” Jewishness is defined in similar terms of private interest, selfishness and egoism: “What is the profane basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly cult of the Jews? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money.”

For Marx, the selfish spirit of capitalism is an essentially Jewish spirit, since he sees both as built on egoism, individualism, and a disdain for universal emancipation. This leads Marx to his notorious claim that “It is from its own entrails that civil society ceaselessly engenders the Jew”. In other words, Capitalism is productive of nothing but excrement and ceaselessly produces and reproduces an execrable existence. And so, despite his linear vision of historical development, Marx ultimately resorts to a circular vision of Jewishness as proto-capitalism and Christianity/Europe as the perfected form of capitalism, and thus the fuller expression of the Jewish/capitalist spirit: “Christianity issued from Judaism. It has now been re-absorbed into Judaism.”

Young MarxThe Young Marx

As Marx sees it, capitalism/Judentum has remade the world in its own image: we are all capitalists/Jews now. But he expands on this to say that capitalism is more than just Jewishness: “The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only by acquiring the power of money, but also because money has become, through him and also apart from him, a world power, while the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves in so far as the Christians have become Jews.” The Jewish spirit, Marx is here asserting, is a capitalist spirit, but it is capitalism itself that is the perfected form of this spirit. And this “time” of selfish egoism, of capitalism, would not last long. With the projected abolition of Capitalism, Jewishness also would cease to exist. He talks of Jewishness as “a universal antisocial element of the present time”, but one that will “necessarily begin to disintegrate.” In other words, Jews have been active agents in the historical development of capitalism, the bearers of its spirit of selfishness and egoism, but capitalism is now set to “disintegrate” and with it Jews as a people apart will also disintegrate. As Marx concludes his essay: “The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.” Capitalism, Jewish particularism, and indeed religion in general, would all cease to exist in Marx’s perfected future.

Assertions of capitalism as a Jewish social order, and the notion that this said something about time and historical development, surfaced elsewhere in Marx’s writings. The first volume of Capital is replete with such claims. Here, Marx talks of Hebrew as being “the language of commodities” and says that “all commodities” as the capitalist knows, are “in faith and truth” representations of “money” and thus “inwardly circumcised Jews”. He labels Jews an anachronistic trading nation, “ancient social organisms of production”, who continue to exist in “the pores of [backward] Polish society.” In a reference to Jewish mysticism, he dismisses the multitude of names used for different monies as “cabalistic signs” that distract us from money’s real social meaning. English judges whose rulings legitimate capitalism are practicing a “Talmudic sagacity” while political-economists who carry out the same legitimating function are “Pharisees.” Capitalists who seek to evade legislation aimed at ending child labour are engaging in a “Shylock-clinging to the letter of the law”. And summing up the very ideology of capitalism: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!”[2] Again and again, in Capital, Marx presents capitalist praxis with a Jewish vocabulary.

For those who are already hostile to Marx or the project of socialism, all this is grist to their Right-leaning mill. The conservative legal pundit Alan Dershowitz, for example, presents Marx’s writings on Jewish affairs as the original sin of the Left: “The hard-left attack against Jewish nationalism began with Karl Marx, who, though himself of Jewish origin, was a classic anti-Semite.” Dershowitz goes on to label Marx a conspiracy theorist and an ideological forebear of Adolf Hitler.[3] Marxists have conversely sought to defend Marx from such frenetic charges of Jew-hatred. In his famous discussion of the Message of the Non-Jewish Jew, the Polish Troskyist Isaac Deutscher sidestepped the question of antisemitism and instead praised Marx’s analysis “in his youthful and famous Zur Judenfrage…. his unreserved rejection of Jewry”:

“I think that Marx went to the very heart of the matter when he said that… Judaism was essentially a theoretical epitome of market relationships and the faith of the merchant; and that Christian Europe, as it developed from feudalism to capitalism, became Jewish in a sense. Marx saw Christ as the “theorizing Jew,” the Jew as a “practical Christian” and, therefore, the “practical” bourgeois Christian as a “Jew.” Since he treated Judaism as the religious reflection of the bourgeois way of thought, he saw bourgeois Europe as becoming assimilated to Jewry.”[4]

Isaac DeutscherIsaac Deutscher (1907-1967)

More recently, David Harvey, whilst admitting that “It is indeed perfectly true that these kinds of [antisemitic] phrases crop up periodically” has pointed out that the historical context in which Marx wrote was one in which anti-Jewish feeling was rife and also suggests that Marx may have had another, far less prejudiced goal: “to take all the opprobrium that was typically cast on Jews and to say that it really should be assigned to the capitalist as a capitalist.”[5] Interpretations swing between condemnation and apologetic explanation.

Two recent works, however, move beyond this view. Jay Geller’s philological examination of Marx’s phraseology seeks to understand how his view of Jewish materiality was linked to his view that social alienation was caused by that materiality. [6] David Nirenberg has similarly shown how Marx’s vision of a world emancipated from Judentum intersected with his vision of a world that has moved beyond private property and egoism and instead embraced a new, selfless form of social relations.[7] In other words, both Geller and Nirenberg are interested less in the moralizing question of whether he was or was not an antisemite and more the intellectual and political work that anti-Jewish rhetoric did for Marx.

The Other Jewish Question

This insight, that Marx’s racialized discourse actually did important intellectual work for him, could be applied to much of his work. Essentialized views of Irish, Scottish and Indian “races”, for example, regularly featured in his discussions of Primitive Accumulation – the systematic privatization of previously communal land and the move from feudalism to capitalism. In all three cases of Ireland, Scotland and India, Marx argued that Primitive Accumulation had destroyed communal property-relations supposedly existing since “time immemorial”. In all three cases, an ancient social form had been rapidly erased by the dynamism of industrial capitalism.

That global industrial capitalism had shown itself capable of destroying ancient social forms reinforced Marx’s arguments about the power of capitalism to remake the world after its own image and the power “with which it batters down all Chinese walls”[8]. There is a discursive strategy at work here. Marx accepts the contemporary racist stereotype that “Asiatic societies” or the Celtic Fringe are defined by their “unchangeableness”[9]. But this unchanging nature is also in striking contrast with the dynamism of capitalism, the one social form that ultimately proved able to destroy these seemingly rigid societies. The stereotype of ancient Asiatic unchangeableness is a counterfoil that sharpens his vision of rapid and revolutionary change under industrial capitalism.  Marx was, after all, making a geographical and historical argument and the diversity of the world is at the heart of this argument. He understands the world in terms of where certain places and people, certain races, fit into the hierarchies of a global capitalist system. And the end point of this global history of primitive accumulation, is an integrated system of global capitalism, assimilating all the races of the world: “the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime… but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.”[10] Race (antisemitism included) is therefore not a sidebar of Marx’s analysis, it is actually a category at the heart of his understanding of capitalism as a world-system. How Marx understood the Irish, the Scottish, or the Indians was bound up with how he understood the workings of capitalism. In the same vein, how Marx thought about Jews and Jewishness was of a piece with how he understood long term historical development and a projected future transition of socialism.

[1] ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1843). In Robert C. Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978) 50. All quotes from On the Jewish Question are from this version.

[2] Karl Marx. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol I: The Process of Production of Capital (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1954) 59, 83, 103, 264, 280, 273, 440, 558.

[3] The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2008) 99.

[4] Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968).

Also available here:


[5] David Harvey. A Companion to Marx’s Capital (London: Verso, 2010) 91

[6] The Other Jewish Question: Identifying the Jew and Making Sense of Modernity (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011) 169-211.

[7] Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013) 430-439.

[8] Marx & Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848/1888) 84.

[9] Marx ‘Capital Vol. I’ (1887) 338-339.

[10] Marx ‘Capital Vol. I’ (1887) 714.


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