11 September, 2003

On The Jewish Question: But What Exactly Is The Jewish Question?

The following is an assigned essay which was completed for a grade. Unfortunately, some formatting has been lost in the transition to LJ.

Eric J. Herboso
11 September, 2003

On The Jewish Question: But What Exactly Is The Jewish Question?

In Karl Marx’s essay entitled On The Jewish Question, Marx explores the question of how to emancipate the Jew. But he doesn’t accept the idea that for the Jew to have religious freedom in a Christian state is true emancipation, since having that religion legally established by the state would not allow the emancipation to be of a “true” kind. Nor does he accept that the Jew may be politically emancipated, since no one in Germany is politically free. (Why this is so is not made clear by Marx, though Marx probably presupposed that anyone reading his essay would at least understand the state of the state at the time.) In fact, Marx refuses to admit of any kind of emancipation as truly being free, unlike the person to whom he is responding, Bruno Bauer (Die Judenfrage, “Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen frei zu werden”).

So what exactly is it that the Jewish question of emancipation is in regard to? Marx restates Bauer’s idea that religious opposition is made impossible by “abolishing religion” (Marx 28). Marx’s wording isn’t always quite clear (probably due to the translation from German), but what is clear is the idea that “the state which presupposes religion is not yet a true or actual state” (29). Therefore, the Jewish question becomes: “what kind of emancipation is involved” (30)? Having reached the appropriate question, however, still has yet to resolve the answer. Marx continues on, attempting to determine how to answer this “Die Judenfrage”.

Marx denies the idea of political emancipation being anything more than a tool with which to ultimately give individual emancipation. He says that “[i]t is not…the final form of human emancipation, but it is the final form…within the framework of the…social order” (35). He even shows why this is so: “it is because [the Jew] can be emancipated politically, without renouncing Judaism completely and absolutely, that political emancipation itself is not human emancipation.” It would help if Marx defined some of his terms a bit better, but the logic here is good enough to show the main distinction between that of Marx’s “species-life” and “species-being”. The existence of the “species-being” requires that “the privilege of faith is a universal right of man” (41). Unfortunately, this distinction becomes much more blurry when Marx quotes the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on liberty, security, and property. Is Marx saying that a “species-being” requires these rights in order to exist? One would think so, especially when Marx observes that the rights of man should always come before the state: “the citizen is declared to be the servant of egoistic ‘man’ ” (43); this observation is most obvious in Marx’s criticism of the Constitution of 1793, which states that “ ‘the freedom of the Press should not be permitted when it endangers public liberty’ ” (44): since we are giving the public liberty in order to achieve individual liberty (apart from the state, or citizen, or species-life, depending upon your choice of jargon), then that same individual liberty (of which freedom of the press is a part) must trump over the public liberty whenever they happen to clash. But does Marx say that the constitution should be better worded? On this, he is unclear; he calls the situation an optical illusion and a problem, but in what way exactly is it an illusion?

But despite the ambiguity here, Marx makes it clear that political emancipation is not the emancipation that the Jewish question is asking about. Rather, it must be human emancipation. At least, that’s what Marx seems to be saying. But then he goes into section two.

Marx begins the second section with quoting Bauer’s views on the very capacity of Jews to be free. But Marx does not stop with Bauer’s ideas of the Jew requiring Christianity in order to be truly free; no, rather he goes on to talk about the so-called “real Jew”, of whose religion is supposedly nothing more than that of money itself.

It need not be said that this view is either totally and completely wrong, or else the Jew of the German world must be completely and utterly different from the Jew of today. But despite this, Marx goes on to say things that seem to make little to no sense at all, and the reason for these statements to be included in his argument is equally unclear:

“The Jews have emancipated themselves in so far as the Christians have become Jews” (49). Is he saying that Christians have become more interested in money? If so, what does this have to do with Jews at all?
“The monotheism of the Jews is…, in reality, a polytheism of the numerous needs of man…. The god of practical need and self-interest is money” (50). Is Marx seriously saying that the God of the Jews is money? Literally?
“Judaism attains its apogee with the perfection of civil society; but civil society only reaches perfection in the Christian world” (51). One wonders as to whether this quote of Marx’s should even be commented upon or not.

But truly, the most strange statement of all is that of Marx’s concluding sentence: “The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism” (52). What Marx is saying right here may be construed from his earlier stated sentiments, but the logical conclusion of this point is still very far from clear.

Tucker, Robert C. “On The Jewish Question”, The Marx-Engels Reader. Au. Karl Marx.
W. W. Norton & Company.: New York/London, 1978

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