Marx’s “On ‘The Jewish Question'”

Over at Crooked Timber, Corey Robin has a very short post suggesting that “Islam is the 21st Century’s Jewish Question,” which has attracted a long and perhaps predictably heated comments thread. Some of the more agitated commenters at CT apparently think that such comparisons are inherently dishonest or immoral.  To me, it seems obvious that, however you weigh the similarities and differences in this particular case, the historical experience of anti-semitism is an important reference point for thinking about the way various Others are regarded today.

I don’t want to relitigate that comment thread here — except, again, to say that I don’t see anything unreasonable or offensive about the comparison Corey is making. No, the reason I’m writing this is that Corey’s mention of it reminded me of what a brilliant and profound, and profoundly misunderstood, essay Marx’s “On ‘The Jewish Question'” is.

The essay is a response to Bruno Bauer – note the additional quote marks in the title. Bauer in turn is responding to various demands for emancipation of Germany’s Jews from the legal restrictions they were subject to. Bauer has two objections. First, he says, there are no citizens in Germany, only different classes of subjects with their own distinct privileges and assigned roles. Jews have one set, Christians have another, but no one is free. Second, even if freedom were possible in Germany, Jews could only become citizens if they were willing to limit their Jewisness to private life — no special accomodations for religious observance, no maintaining their own institutions. “The Jew must retreat behind the citizen.”

Marx replies: All that is true as far as it goes. But that only shows the limitations of the liberal conception of freedom. It is true, as Bauer says, that political emancipation requires the Jews (like everyone else) to make their religion a purely private matter, but all that shows is how far short political emancipation falls of human emancipation.

Human emancipation would recognize that we exist only in relation to myriad other people, and in these relationships we are conscious, moral, rational beings, making choices about our collective lives. Political emancipation, by contrast, isolates our conscious collective life in the political sphere, leaving us disconnected egoists in our private life.

Where the political state has attained its true development, man … leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers. … In his most immediate reality, in civil society, man is a secular being. Here, where he regards himself as a real individual, and is so regarded by others, he is a fictitious phenomenon. In the state, on the other hand, where man is regarded as a species-being, he is the imaginary member of an illusory sovereignty, is deprived of his real individual life and endowed with an unreal universality.

Political emancipation allows people to participate in collective decision-making but only on condition that they give up or deny any concrete, organic identity or connections they have beyond abstract citizenship. While in private life people are free to be really ourselves, but disconnected from the society we continue to depend on, we experience this freedom as being “the plaything of alien powers.”

This connects directly back to the Jewish Question: Judaism is the kind of community or collective identity that people must give up to become citizens in the liberal state. Or rather, pretend to give up:

Man, as the adherent of a particular religion, finds himself in conflict with his citizenship and with other men as members of the community. This conflict reduces itself to the secular division between the political state and civil society. For man as a bourgeois, “life in the state” is “only a semblance or a temporary exception to the essential and the rule.” Of course, the bourgeois, like the Jew, remains only sophistically in the sphere of political life, just as the citoyen only sophistically remains a Jew or a bourgeois. But, this sophistry is not personal. It is the sophistry of the political state itself. The difference between the merchant and the citizen, between the day-laborer and the citizen, between the landowner and the citizen, between the merchant and the citizen, between the living individual and the citizen. The contradiction in which the religious man finds himself with the political man is the same contradiction in which the bourgeois finds himself with the citoyen, and the member of civil society with his political lion’s skin.

While liberal political life is organized on the principle of reasoned debate between disinterested equals, it is not actually the case that inequality and particular interests disappear. One important thing to note in this passage: Here, as elsewhere, Jewishness is only one of various examples of a particular identity. Which should make clear: This is an essay about the limits of political freedom in the liberal state, not an essay about Jews. It’s an essay about “The Jewish Question,” not about the Jewish Question.

So: Under the bourgeois state (of which Marx already recognizes the northern US as offering the purest example) religion goes from being the most public question, to the most private. “Religion … is no longer the essence of community, but … the expression of man’s separation from his community … It is only the abstract avowal of specific perversity, private whimsy, and arbitrariness.” It is, in short, just a matter of taste.

In the private sphere we are all just automatic pleasure-and-pain machines; our capacity for moral and rational action is limited to the political sphere. Just look at the distinction the French Revolution made between the “rights of the citizen” and the “rights of man”:

The rights of man, … as distinct from the rights of the citizen, are nothing but the rights of a member of civil society, the rights of egoistic man, separated from other men and from the community. … It is the question of the liberty of man as an isolated monad. … The rights of man appear as “natural” rights because conscious activity is concentrated on the political act. … Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and on the other, to a citizen, a juridical person.

Economics, perhaps even more than other social sciences, has taken this distinction and made it doctrine. A core methodological assumption of economics is that private choices are purely arbitrary, they are given natural facts. We can’t discuss them, debate them, subject them to reason: De gustibus non est disputandum. In private life, we are animals or not even, we are mechanical objects. Where economics poses a choice, it is invariably: What should the State do?

There is a more direct connection with economics, too. While individuals in civil society are conceived of as monads, they do still relate to each other, through the medium of property. Marx:

The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property …, the right to enjoy one’s property … without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty … makes every man see in other men not the realization of his own freedom, but the barrier to it.

Social life, to take another tack, is a series of hugely complicated coordination problems. When these problems are solved through norms or tradition, or through rational debate, we experience their resolution as freedom. We see ourselves doing what is right, because it is right. When they are solved by markets or other forms of coercion, we experience unfreedom. One person decides and the rest of us comply.

At the start of the essay, Marx poses the question: “Does the standpoint of political emancipation give the right to demand from the Jew the abolition of Judaism?” Here towards the end, it’s clear that Marx’s answer is, No. A democratic politics that allows us to act as rational beings only by denying our particular identities is no true democracy. And a private life that allows us our individuality only as arbitrary personal tastes, and in which have no organic ties or moral duties to anyone else, offers no true freedom. Marx does hope and expect that Judaism, like all religions, will eventually disappear. But that’s only possible once the separation of political life and civil society has been transcended. We will be able to dispense with religion only once we are able to act as moral agents in our daily lives. Or as he says:

Only when the real, individual man reabsorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his own powers and, consequently, no longer separates power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.

6 thoughts on “Marx’s “On ‘The Jewish Question'””

  1. Is “liberalism” the right term for the emancipationist foil Marx was battling here, as opposed to “nationalism?” Because as you’ve glossed it his critique bears no resemblance to actual liberal polities.

    What do you—or Marx—mean by the privatization of Judaism that would allegedly flow from emancipation? No synagogues? No Jewish charities, or hospitals, or schools? While Jewish schools, in particular, might well be suppressed under a nationalist concept of emancipation, all these institutions of public, collective Jewish culture and identity flourish in liberal states.

    Liberalism is flagrantly compatible with, indeed nurturing of, strong (though voluntary) communal ties that exist independently of the state and deeply color and enrich the citizen’s self-conception and social life. Religions, ethnic organizations, political clubs, cultural groups, charities, hobbyist groups, gay bars, the list goes on. The notion that the liberal citizen is a rootless egoist who acknowledges no organic bonds with others outside his abstract participation in the state is the opposite of the truth.

    “When [social] problems are solved through norms or tradition, or through rational debate, we experience their resolution as freedom. We see ourselves doing what is right, because it is right. When they are solved by markets or other forms of coercion, we experience unfreedom. One person decides and the rest of us comply.”

    What can you mean here? Are you saying that social problem-solving through “norms or traditions”—like, say, Jim Crow?—is as supportive of freedom as rational debate? How is a market a form of coercion that’s equivalent, in your formulation, to an absolute dictatorship?

    The caricature of liberal civil society as a realm of mechanistic zero-sum competition devoid of reason and ethics also rings false. In reality, civil society under liberalism resounds with rationalistic and moralistic debate about collective life. You’ll even be harangued about the moral implications of the telephone company you choose.

    Ironically, the polities that evolved from the Marxian tradition actually did hew to this caricature. In Communist countries every organic social bond was considered deeply suspect if it was not under the control of the state, and often targeted for destruction.

    I’ll admit that Marx’s writings here are, as usual, too opaque for me to fully understand. But if your interpretation of him is correct, it once again shows how obtuse Marx was as a sociologist.

    1. @Will Boisvert
      Because of this blog post, I just reread Marx's essay.

      You are misreading Marx here (I assume you didn't read Marx's essay in its entirety).
      Marx says that the liberal state is different from the feudal "non-state", because the liberal state splits two different spheres, the public sphere, where citiziens are notionally all the same, and the private sphere, where each person acts as it pleases (hence "egoistically").
      Religion is part of the private sphere, and thank to this there is "freedom of religion", and religion is truer to its spiritual calling, whereas in the feudal non-state religion and private matters in general are mixed with "politics".

      So in the liberal state (such as Marx's North America and most democracies today) certainly Jews should be free to set up synagogues and religious schools, since religion is supposed to be a private (i.e., non statal) matter.
      Marx clearly says that this is much better than feudal non-states and than semi-liberal states (such as his own "Christian" Germany, where Jews didn't have political rights because Christianism was the state enforced religion).

      Then Marx, who is an atheist, goes on and says that, in a future utopian world, religion will naturally disappear, because religion is only the projection of unfulfilled needs in the real world. But, since in Marx's opinion Judaism is the projection of usury and hucksterism (some antisemite stereotypes here, huh), Judaism will only disappear when usury and hucksterism disappear from the real world. The antisemitism is partially limited from the fact that, according to Marx, Christians of his times are the same of Jews (are "practical jews").
      But this anyway is going to happen in an undisclosed future utopian world whre the human need for religion will disappear by itself, not because of statal imposition.

    2. Thanks for that clarification, Random.

      But what about the OP’s larger interpretation of Marx’s essay?

      According to the OP, the implication of Marx’s analysis of civil society under liberalism is that it must be anomic and purely egotistical and devoid of communal ties; a realm where social life is conceived as the mindless interaction of monads acting on the pleasure-pain principle; unable to recognize and effectuate any rational or moral dimension to collective life except as enacted, to a superficial degree, by the state.

      Is that a fair characterization of liberal society and ideology?

    3. Well it is true that, in many realms, we use an individualistic fiction:

      – In economics, we assume a certain degree of egoistic individualism as "rationality" (this is a bit crude, but I think most people assume this);

      – In politics, we assume that voters are atomistic and come to vote with their opinions already formed (this creates a lot of problems with the concept of "media dominance", like Berlusconi here in Italy: is the fact that a lot of people vote for him a consequence of their true opinions or did B. just brainwash them through TV? is there difference?);

      – Juridically, guilt is supposed to be personal, not by groups, and so on.

      However, this doesn't mean that liberal society is rerally formed by atomistic individuals, just that it perceives itself this way.

      Incidentially, since you are IMHO weighting "liberal" society VS "soviet" society, here is an account from the same essay of societties that become liberal:

      "Of course, in periods when the political state as such is born violently out of civil society, when political liberation is the form in which men strive to achieve their liberation, the state can and must go as far as the abolition of religion, the destruction of religion. But it can do so only in the same way that it proceeds to the abolition of private property, to the maximum, to confiscation, to progressive taxation, just as it goes as far as the abolition of life, the guillotine. At times of special self-confidence, political life seeks to suppress its prerequisite, civil society and the elements composing this society, and to constitute itself as the real species-life of man, devoid of contradictions. But, it can achieve this only by coming into violent contradiction with its own conditions of life, only by declaring the revolution to be permanent, and, therefore, the political drama necessarily ends with the re-establishment of religion, private property, and all elements of civil society, just as war ends with peace."

      Isn't this a description of the USSR?

  2. I suppose it is a bit late to post a comment on this post, however:

    I had a rethink about Marx's argument about "individualism" because of this comment of John Holbo on a post of his own:
    "[…] I guess I just meant: people will mostly only be induced to moral improvement by considerations about honor. Yet the impulse to honor is anti-egalitarian. Honor is a jealous virtue. So moral revolutions in favor of egalitarianism are a bit odd, by nature. This isn’t exactly a paradox, but it’s not exactly a comfortable state of affairs. […]"

    My question is: what is this "honor" that is supposed to be "anti-egalitarian"?
    I think that, since we humans are social animals, we have a "social identity" that depends on what other people think of us, that is also very important to our self perception, and this is "honor".
    The reason that honor is anti-egalitarian is that social identities are relative. For example, I would like to be sexy (which is a rorm of "honor"); while apparently this is a personal charachteristic, in reality this means that I would like to be sexier than other males: what I really want is an high place in a hierarchy, which implies that I want a low place for others.
    For this reason, honor is anti-egalitarian.

    Because of a long train trip last week I began to read "The Autumn of the Middle Ages" by Huizinga.

    Huizinga says that "honor" and chivalry were so culturally important for the people of the renaissance that it blinded them to their own world, so that where we see already the seeds of the modern world, they still were thinking politics in terms of the king's bravado and courtesy.

    Since honor has a lot to do with self perception, it also has a lot to do with religion (at least from the point of view of an atheist like me), because religion tells a story about every believer that puts that person in direct relationship to the center of the universe, and so gives to that person a lot of honor (although in a fictitious way).

    So I think we could sketch a "history of the moral world" according to Marx's "On 'the jewish question'" like this:

    1- there is a crappy situation in antiquity;
    2- Christianism creates a moral world where everyone is equal, at least morally, in the fictitious world of religion, however in this feudal world religious practices are mixed with civil life so that in reality this creates a strongly unequal moral world, where "honor" is only the prerogative of the aristocracy;
    3- liberalism destroys the feudal world, by creating a legal world where everyone is formally equal, every citizien has the same "honor". However this equality is still quite fictitous because "citiziens" in their private life compete fircely for honor, for example in the economic realm, but also by creating churches where they (but not necessariously people who believe in other churches) have a relationship with the center of the universe. In other words the fight for honor, that was eliminated in the formal world of law, becames even fiercer in the private world.
    4- in the future, perfect world of tomorrow… what happens? people stop to treat each other as "means", which basically means that everyone has a lot of "honor"; in pratice honor becomes egalitarian stuff.

    Though this is even more utopian than JW's formulation, since apparently anti-egalitarianism is the core of honor…

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