Marx on the 'Jewish question': anti-Semitic or a cogent critique of liberalism

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Favourite maxim: Nothing human is alien to me

Favourite motto: De omnibus dubitandum -- Everything should be doubted -- Karl Marx[1]

By Michael Cooke

July 2, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- These two dictums are never truer when one confronts the negative commentaries on a relatively obscure and early piece of writing of Karl Marx’s entitled “On the Jewish question”, published in 1844.[2] Critics have highlighted statements like:

What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is the worldly god? Money.[3]

Later on in his polemic he bluntly states:

Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist.[4]

If this is not bad enough, in his private letters and conversations he called the charismatic Social Democratic leader Ferdinand Lassalle[5] a Jewish Negro (in fairness Marx, given his liking for Shakespeare, was affectionately known among his friends and family given his dark skin as the Moor). This led critics like Silberberg to assert that there is an anti-Semitic cancer at the heart of socialism in which Marx plays a pivotal role.[6] These crude descriptions and caricatures certainly jar modern sensibilities attuned to the historical awareness of the Jewish Holocaust and the disastrous consequences of racial stereotyping. Do these statements make Marx a self-hating Jew and in doing so in some way diminish his critique of capitalism? Before I can answer the question (being a dutiful Marxist), I need to look briefly (very briefly) at the diminishing importance of religion among a certain section of intellectuals and political thinkers in Europe at the time, the political context of the polemic and the point Marx wanted to make and then tentatively come to a position. In doing this I will also look at the tenor and language of the intellectual debate at the time Marx made his comments.

By the dawn of the 17th century a new sensibility was entering Western discourse: it was more secular and rational in language and outlook. god, for many of the scientists, philosophers, social critics, merchants and capitalists, was gradually being pushed to the outskirts of public discourse and into the realm of the private, and for many progressive people becoming gradually irrelevant. Karen Armstrong points out in her judicious and exhaustive biography of god that the Jews of Europe were also being influenced by these new ideas. One of the more significant thinkers was Barach Spinoza (1632-77) who had become discontented with the study of the Torah and was more attracted to the free thinkers of the era. He began to look at the Bible more critically, especially the historical conceptions of god, which he began to see as “a tissue of meaningless mysteries”. He much preferred to acquire knowledge of god by scientific means. By this he meant that god was inherent and immanent in all things material. Armstrong: “To speak of god’s activity in the world was simply a way of describing the mathematical and causal principles of existence. It was the absolute denial of transcendence.”[7]

Gradually the idea of a “diminished” god and his rituals became less relevant, and individualism, rationality and liberalism became more important in the lives of the middle-class in Europe. Marx’s father Heinrich was convinced of the power of reason to not only explain but also improve the world. He was closely connected with the Rhineland liberal movement. He did not, like his son, disbelieve in the efficacy of a god, but his god was the god of Newton, Locke and Leibnitz [8] not the deity of the Torah or one revealed in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Accordingly Marx was brought up in a totally secular household. The main difference between father and son was that even though Marx[9] admired the achievements of capitalism and saw it as a profound advance on feudalism, he became over time its greatest critic.

In Marx’s lifetime the most significant change was the ascendancy of capitalism and the Western imperialist spread of it across the globe. Hobsbawn: “The great revolution of 1789-1848 was the triumph not of ‘industry’ as such, but of capitalist industry; not of liberty and equality in general but of middle class or ‘bourgeois’ liberal society…”[10] It was this development and the accompanying insights, polemics and social activism of Marx himself that make, in my opinion, his ideas and life so important to us in the 21st century.

“On the Jewish question” is daunting not only because of emphatic way it is written but also because Marx does not explain in any detail the background to the article, why he wishes to make the points he does and why he has singled out a relatively obscure Hegelian, Bruno Bauer, for a political shellacking. Bruno Bauer (1809-1882) was in the early part of his career a well-known intellectual magpie. He was erudite in philosophy, history and theology and was a leading member of the Left Hegelians.[11] He saw religion as form of alienation. He argued that it conducted an irrational discourse on the deficiencies of life on Earth while sanctioning and promoting its own particular and sectional interests. Bauer rejected liberalism because it made freedom and property indivisible. He also criticised socialism because of its lack of appreciation of individuality.

What provoked Marx’s ire was that Bauer was opposed to a petition being circulated at the time asking for rights for the Jewish community similar to those enjoyed by their Christian brethren and sisters in the Prussian state. Marx had already signed the petition and had publically supported its aims. Bauer, however, criticised the state for defending the privileges of the elite and the use they made of religion in perpetuating this. He also criticised the petitioners, Jews and gentiles alike, for claiming freedom based on their religious identity. He went on to argue that their political and social freedom requires the forfeiting of all ties with the past. As a precondition of equality, Jews and Christians must renounce their religious allegiances. First, however, Jews must convert to Christianity, as the followers of Jesus, especially the Protestants, were superior to the followers of Yahweh.[12] (After these pronouncements it was not surprising that his career as public intellectual declined.) It was these ideas that Marx was attacking in his polemic, and in doing so he also critiqued liberalism.

Marx is sceptical of Bauer’s contention that a secular state would be inimical to religion. Bauer profoundly misunderstands how a secular state actually functions and the social and economic relations that lie within it. In a secular state, Marx argues, humans are not freed from religion, they receive religious freedom: “He was not freed from property, he received freedom to own property. He was not freed from the egoism of business, he received freedom to engage in busines.”[13]

As proof he looks at writings of Rousseau, the constitution of the United States of America and various other charters, and shows through these that the right to religious freedom is part and parcel of liberal political culture:

Incompatibility between religion and the rights of man is to such a degree absent from the concept of the rights of man that, on the contrary, a man’s right to be religious, in any way he chooses to practice his own particular religion, is expressly included among the rights of man. The privilege of faith is the universal right of man.

The one caveat on religious liberty (or any other right for that matter) is not having the right to harm others. [14] Marx applauds this advance in political freedom but noted its limitation, for in Marxian lexigraphy the rights perpetuated in these documents do not go beyond the needs of “egotistic” person who is separated from his or her community.

A bourgeois secular state dissolves civil society into “independent individuals” whose relations depend on their legal status and the law. This was a sharp break and an intellectual and political advance from feudal times, when a person’s status and relationship was based on “privilege”. A person in a liberal secular society is not a real sensuous being but an abstraction, an “artificial man”. As Marx puts it, “the real man is recognised only in the shape of the egoistic individual, the true man is recognised only in the shape of the abstract citizen”.[15]

This conflict between the political state and civil society is similar to that between the merchant and a citizen, a day-labourer and a citizen:

This secular conflict, to which the Jewish question ultimately reduces itself, the relation between the political state and its preconditions, whether these material elements, such as private property etc., or spiritual elements, such as culture or religion, the conflict between the general interest and private interest, the schism between the political state and civil society – these secular antitheses Bauer allows to persist, whereas he conducts a polemic against religious expression.[16]

Marx goes on to contend that most people’s freedom is constrained by economic inequality, a theme on which he would later elaborate in great and sometimes mind-numbing detail. Bauer fails to distinguish between political emancipation and human emancipation. A modern liberal secular state does not require the renunciation of religion; only complete human emancipation would secure the disappearance of religion. Until then liberal political emancipation reduces a human being to an “egoistic, independent individual” with rights granted by the laws of the land. I assume Marx means that the social conditions that diminish the need for religion will not be encountered in a liberal capitalist state where problems of social inequity and justice are not being solved for the majority of the population.

In Marx’s terminology:

Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being 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.[17]

In the second part of the paper Marx addresses Bauer’s thesis that the Jews should first renounce their faith, as it arises from a more “primitive” impulse than Christianity. In refuting this Marx argues that Bauer’s interpretation of Judaism is false, as the religious life of the Jews is a reflection of their economic life. Thus Judaism will not disappear any time soon, being integral to capitalism. He goes on to argue that both Christians and Jews need to emancipate themselves from “practical Judaism”. The case put by Marx is contorted and convoluted, with Judaism being equated with hucksterism and other religious stereotypes in a way that jars on a modern reader and has invited the ire of critics of Marxism and socialism. [18]

Can we equate Marx’s crude use of these stereotypes with the rantings of Hitler and his ilk? I would argue no, for (ironically) it gives Marx the transcendence attributed to him by both his critics and fervent followers. On one side you have Marxist scholars poring with a Talmudic intensity over every word and utterance of the master and pronouncing on his infallibility; on the other side are those who attribute to Marx every sin, horror and terror of the 20th century. Both sides are wrong. Marx was not the messiah but a fallible human being who happened to be an outstanding economist, social critic, journalist and historian.[19]

The first thing I had to do was to work out exactly what Marx was saying. Marx was just 26 years old when he wrote it; he had just finished his doctorate and was still immersed in the writing style of Hegel and his various disciples. He was developing a style of his own which would find its perfect rhetorical vehicle in the Communist Manifesto written a few years later;[20] but here we find thesis, anti-thesis, random quotes and no background information on the writers and ideas being discussed. No wonder the reader latches on what she or he understands best in our identity-saturated age of racial stereotyping. This is an unfair reading of the text.

Marx was not a self-hating Jew. He was using the language of the day. As Hal Draper pointed out in painstaking detail, Marx, in making Jews and Judaism synonymous with huckstering and usury, was borrowing the language of Moses Hess, one of the founders of Zionism,[21] in an article published around the same time as that of Marx. It was entitled “On the monetary system”. Hess described society at the time as a “huckster world” and like Marx peppered his text with stereotypes. This reflects the fact that the archetype of the huckstering Jew was accepted to some extent by radical Jewish commentators (including Lassalle and Heine[22]), especially with regard to rich Jews like the Rothschilds. In addition, the “liberal bourgeois” movement that was pushing for Jewish rights argued that Jews needed to assimilate into the wider society – an argument heard not only in the Rhineland and in other areas of Germany, but in France as well.

Judentum, the German word for Judaism, had the derivative meaning of commerce, a meaning which was uppermost in Marx’s mind.[23] As Draper points out:

The real issue of the time had nothing to do with the use of language about Judaism based on the universally accepted economic-Jew stereotype. The real Jewish question was: For or against the political emancipation of the Jews? For and against equal rights for Jews?[24]

In his public pronouncements and deeds Marx showed he was fully supportive of Jewish rights. Marx did not favour Jewish emancipation merely so that Jewish and Christian capitalists could compete on a level playing field, but saw it as a step towards the emancipation of all. Perhaps that is why he has angered liberal critics, whereas Hess and company have not. What they never point out is that Marx says a great deal about men and never mentions women. This is a glaring omission.

One of the more disconcerting things in modern political life is the self-censorship exercised by many critics when discussing the imperialist and apartheid policy of the Israeli state. When they do, right-wing Zionists label them as anti-Semitic and Holocaust deniers, thus smothering any legitimate concerns these critics might have. Such right-wing ideologues have only a limited and distorted view of the history of their country and religion, and display even less knowledge about their neighbours. This is not just limited to Zionism and the Levant; it occurs across the globe because of the income disparity between nations and within nations and the huge global movements of capital (freely and usually tax free) and labour (restricted and forced to move “illegally”):

Being “Danish” or “Italian”, “American” or “European” won’t just be an identity; it will be a rebuff and reproof to those whom it excludes. The state, far from disappearing, may be about to come into its own: the privileges of citizenship, the protection of card holding residency rights, will be wielded as political trumps. Intolerant demagogues in established democracies will demand ‘tests’ - of knowledge, of language, of attitude – to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch or ‘identity’. They are already doing so.[25]

This is what Marx was warning us about in “On the Jewish question” – the limits of liberal democracy. If individuals are estranged from one another and their community and there is inequality, the rights granted are fragile and in the end offer no real protection when the system begins to falter. In reading the text one can see the lineaments of the materialist conceptions of history being worked and argued out.[26] It is also important in another respect. Neoliberalism has engendered a backlash which, in the absence of an organised left, has led to the rise of fundamentalism of an ethnic and religious kind. This has led to a number of distinguished social critics, philosophers and scientists of a liberal bent, known as the New Atheists,[27] debunking these beliefs through reason and the use of scientific evidence. What they fail to take into account are the complex, contradictory and deep-rooted reasons why people believe in a higher being. Marx argues that, unless one can deal with the harsh social and economic reality, religion will not disappear but thrive and mutate.

What Marx underestimated was the depth of the religious impulse. Women and men have been gazing at the heavens, chanting, meditating, composing music for their gods, painting and sculpting their attributes with consummate skill and writing about them for tens of thousands of years. Non-belief as an intellectual and political movement is a mere 200 to 300 years old. There will probably always be religious belief, but the irrationality, intolerance and violence that have always accompanied religion might be quietened if we lived in a world which was more economically and socially just. That is the heart of Marx’s argument, and sadly it resonates more now than when Marx first made it.

[Michael Cooke is a retired public servant and trade union activist. He has a strong interest in South Asian politics and culture. He has penned when the occasion demanded a number of articles and film and book reviews.]


Armstrong, Karen (1993). A History of god From Abraham to the Present: The 4000-Year Quest For god. Heinemann.

Bruno Bauer – retrieved:

Draper, Hal (1977). Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, volume 1: State and Bureaucracy. Monthly Review Press.

Hobsbawn, E.J. (1973). The Age of Revolution. Cardinal.

Judt, Tony (2010). The Memory Chalet. Penguin.

Marx, Karl. “On the Jewish question” (1844), published originally in Deutsch-Franzosiche Jahrbücher. Retrieved:

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1976). The German Ideology. Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1970). Manifesto of the Communist Party. Foreign Languages Press Peking.

McLellan, David (1977). Karl Marx His life and Thought. Harper Colophon Books.

Nicholaievsky, Boris and Maenchen-Helfen, Otto (1976). Karl Marx: man and fighter. Pelican.

Traverso, Enzo, translated by Gibbons, Bernard (1990). The Marxists and the Jewish Question – The History of A Debate, 1843-1943. Humanities Press, New Jersey

Wheen, Francis (1999). Karl Marx. Fourth Estate.


[1] Confessions in Wheen, Francis (1999), Karl Marx, Fourth Estate, p. 388.

[2] Marx, Karl, “On the Jewish question” (1844), published originally in Deutsch-Franzosiche Jahrucher. Retrieved:

[3] Op. cit: Marx, Karl, “On the Jewish question”, p. 20.

[4] Ibid: Marx, p. 22.

[5] Ferdinand, Lassalle, 1825-1864. He took part in the failed 1848 revolutions and was jailed for six months for his efforts. It was during this period he got to know Marx. He also helped Marx financially. They differed in how change could be engendered. Unlike Marx, Lassalle advocated state intervention and social reform, not revolution. It was this aspect of Bismarck’s political agenda that he admired. He was one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party in Germany.

[6] Nicholaievsky, Boris and Maenchen-Helfen, Otto (1976), Karl Marx: man and fighter, Pelican, p. 409.

[7] Armstrong, Karen (1993), A History of god From Abraham to the Present: The 4000-Year Quest For god, Heinemann, p. 359.

[8] McLellan, David (1977), Karl Marx: His life and Thought, Harper Colophon Books, pp. 6-8.

[9] Marx was greatly influenced by the convoluted, obtuse and idealistic musing of Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel brought the deity down to Earth and “idealised” it in the form of the Prussian state. Hegel’s disciple Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-82) argued that the idea of a perfect god was estranging man from his environment. Marx was scornful of these “idealised” meditations/musing of reality because to understand society we have to take man as a living sensuous being in a material universe. All this and more can be perused dear reader if you have the intellectual stamina in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ The German Ideology, Progress Publishers (1976).

[10] Hobsbawn, E.J. (1973), The Age of Revolution, Cardinal, p.13.

[11] Op cit: see Marx’s view of them in The German Ideology, in particular Saint Bruno pp. 106-127.

[12] Bruno Bauer – Retrieved:

[13] Ibid: Marx, p. 18.

[14] Ibid: Marx, p. 14.

[15] Ibid: Marx, p.18.

[16] Ibid: Marx, p. 18.

[17] Ibid: Marx, p. 19.

[18] Ibid: Marx, pp. 19-24.

[19] Op. cit: Wheen, Francis (1999), Karl Marx, Fourth Estate.

[20] Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1970) Manifesto of the Communist Party. Foreign Languages Press Peking. The simplicity and the clarity of the writing of the Manifesto echoes still, unlike the muffled and convoluted tone of “On the Jewish question” written just four years earlier.

[21] Moses Hess (1812-75) -- Jewish philosopher, socialist and founder of Labour Zionism. He worked with Marx as a correspondent for the liberal Rhienische Zeitung. Hess, it seems, turned Engels towards communism. After the failure of the 1848 revolutions and after witnessing the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany, he came to the melancholy conclusion that Germans would not tolerate any other nationalities in their realm. He argued against assimilation and called for a Jewish Socialist Commonwealth in Palestine.

[22] Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) was one of the most significant German poets of the 19th century. He was also a journalist, essayist and literary critic. He is best known outside Germany for his early lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of Lieder (art songs) by composers such as Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Heine's later verse and prose is distinguished by its satirical wit and irony. His radical political views led to many of his works being banned by German authorities. Heine spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris.

[23] Draper, Hal (1977), Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, volume 1: State and Bureaucracy, Monthly Review Press, pp. 591-608. Retrieved: Marxists’ Internet Archive.

[24] Op. cit: Draper, Hal (1977), Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, p. 603.

[25] Judt, Tony (2010), The Memory Chalet. Penguin Press, p. 208.

[26] Enzo Traverso argues rather mechanically that Marx at the time of writing “On the Jewish question” was an immature theoretician, as he had not yet made the proletariat the major locus of change and saw commerce and its circulation as fundamental to capitalism not production. See Traverso, Enzo, translated by Gibbons, Bernard (1990), The Marxists and the Jewish Question – The History of A Debate 1843-1943, Humanities Press, New Jersey p. 20.

[27] The two most famous being: the late not much lamented, self-proclaimed contrarian Christopher Hitchens and distinguished scholar and scientist Richard Dawkins.