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).

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[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.


Private Property and Adam Ferguson’s Civic Masculinity

On the 18 December 1745, at the height of the Second Jacobite Rebellion, the First Highland Regiment, under the command of Lord John Murray, were treated to a sermon by their chaplain. Addressing them in their native Scots Gaelic, their reverend urged them to live up to strong Christian ideals, to protect the Hanoverian state, and to strive to embody a militarised vision of civic British masculinity.

Adam FergusonAdam Ferguson (1723-1816)

The chaplain was a young Adam Ferguson, a leading savant of the Scottish Enlightenment, but one whose work has not remained as well known as contemporaries like Adam Smith or David Hume. His sermon was published as a pamphlet the following year with the unwieldy title of A Sermon Preached in the Ersh Language to His Majesty’s First Highland Regiment of Foot, Commanded by Lord John Murray, at their Cantonment at Camberwell, on the 18th Day of December, 1745. Being appointed as a Solemn Fast. By the Reverend Mr. Adam Ferguson, Chaplain to the said Regiment; And Translated by him into English, for the Use of a Lady of Quality in Scotland, at whose Desire it is now published.[1]

A Sermon Preached in the Ersh Language

In the printed English-language version of the sermon, Ferguson’s social reformist admonishments are built around a recurring Biblical quote: “Be of good Courage, and let us play the Men for our People, and for the Cities of God.” (II Samuel, 10:12). It is not entirely clear, though, what exact terminology Ferguson used in the original Gaelic [or Ersh]. Ferguson was a fluent Scots Gaelic speaker, but had no literacy in the language (when the fraudulent James MacPherson began to show his supposedly ancient Gaelic manuscripts around Edinburgh in the early 1760s, Ferguson was intrigued but later admitted his inability to read them).[2] Even then, there were no proper Scots Gaelic translations of the Bible until as late as 1801. Prior to this, vernacular evangelisers had recourse to a Classical Irish translation, where II Samuel 10:12 reads as follows: Bíodh meisneach mhaith agad, agus foillsighearn sinn féin ar bhfearuibh ar son ar bpobail, agus ar son chairthreach ar Ndé [“Let there be a good courage on you, and we ourselves will exhibit as men for the cause of our community and for the cause of the cities of our God”].[3] The gendered performativity in which Ferguson engaged is less explicit in the original Hebrew of Samuel: chezek u-nitchezek b’ad amanu u-b’ad ari eliahnu [“Be strong and let us both be strong, for the sake of our people and for the sake of the cities of our God”].

In any case, the quote used in the printed translation, taken from the King James Bible, carries a suggestion of consciously adopted and performative masculinity (“let us play the Men”) and resonates throughout the pamphlet. And an overtly expressed notion of a performative civic masculinity was certainly foregrounded in Ferguson’s political theology, whether his original sermon drew on the King James Vesion or on an impromptu Gaelic translation. For Ferguson, it is “the Duty of every Man to defend his country when in Danger”. The present circumstances, of the 1745 uprising, provided an important moment for inculcating this masculine ideal. Not only did the threat to the Hanoverian order require men “to be active in its Defence”, but the crisis was a useful opportunity for social reform: “It is from this Consideration that at particular Times, but more especially in Times of general Distress, the National Authority is interposed to admonish every Congregation and Society of Men to humble themselves before God in a solemn and open manner, that he may avert his deserved Judgements from us, and bless our Resolutions towards a better Conduct for the future.” The British military, with its discipline and engaged masculinity, was a model for the wider social order favoured by Ferguson.

In the early sections of the pamphlet, the antithesis of this social order, the Jacobites, remain faceless and nameless. Talking of how proper male behaviour will “draw down the Blessing of God upon your Country, and contribute to its Peace and good Order’” he also mentions how such ordered behaviour will protect society from “the Assaults of its [unnamed] Enemies”. Ferguson’s recurring Biblical trope also does important work here, placing the Jacobites on the wrong side of a divinely ordained history. Where the British state is a reborn Israel, the Jacobites become ungodly Moabites or Ammonites; their political objectives thus do not need to be discussed, since they stem from inherent evil and a willful desire for disorder.

As he progresses, however, Ferguson becomes less circumspect about the Jacobites and this allows him to more fully sketch out his own idealised social order. Describing civic society as natural and ordained by God – “Society, under the Regulation of Laws and Government, is the State for which Providence has calculated our natures” – Ferguson presents patriotism as “the most manly virtue” and thus civic society is a natural fraternal order. And it is here that private property enters the argument. Though men have a natural tendency towards living in a society, it is nonetheless the case that “Laws are necessary to secure of Persons and Properties, to protect the Weak and restrain the Violent.” Since the State protects property, it also behoves all citizens/property-owners to fund the cost of the State: “we can no longer hesitate in drawing our Conclusion, that each Member is bound, both on account of his own and the publick Welfare, to maintain that League from which he derives so many blessings” and harmony is a necessary component of this social order.

Having established what the proper social order should be, Ferguson proceeds to identify the contemporary state which best exemplifies this ideal. Unsurprisingly it is the British state fighting the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Highlands. As well as being a place where “Every man may openly profess his Sentiments”, Britain is also a society built on economic liberty and with the proper defence of private property. It is precisely this divinely ordained early capitalist society that the Pretender and his Catholic followers seek to destroy: “What can we expect in our civil or religious Concerns from a Popish King, but the Subversion of our Liberty, and the intire [sic] Corruption of our Religion… Ignorance and Superstition again resume their Tyranny in these Lands, and we and our Posterity bend to the unnatural Dominion of Priests and Churchmen.” Digging further, Ferguson identifies the ways in which a Catholic king would threaten British men’s masculinity. British men now live “under the best Government”, one that protects the property-ownership that makes them free men. Conversely, under Charlie, they would have a king “who has a Right to command Us, our Persons, and Estates.” Their status as free men, with sovereignty, private land ownership and political subjectivity, would be undermined: “Are we then, by Birth, the Property of a Man? and may we be bought and sold like the Beasts of the Field.” Jacobite rule would move them from being men to the status of degraded slaves.

An Essay on the History of Civil Society

The short pamphlet contains, in embryo, many of the themes and ideas Ferguson would later develop in his more famous work, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767); militarism, a fear of social disorder, a desire for careful social reform. That the Scottish Enlightenment was heavily invested in social reform has long been recognised. What Adam Ferguson’s obscure 1745 sermon shows is how strong a role masculinity and private property could play in this social transformation.

[1] (London: A. Millar, 1746).

[2] Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2008) 247fn59.

[3] An Biobla Naomhtha (London: The British and Foreign Bible Society, 1817). This edition is a reprint of an earlier translation.