Marx’s “On the Jewish Question”

Karl Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question,” at the face of it, seems like a typical anti-Semitic piece of writing where Marx decried the god of the Jews as the idol of mammon.  However, the essay is of political importance as it details several noticeable things about Marx’s political thought.  First is his assertion that democracy is the bastard child of Christianity—emerging out of the missionizing ethos of Christianity and subsequently overtaking it.  Christianity, Marx’s argues, is the seed that was necessary for democracy to take shape.  Second, in dealing with the Jews specifically, Marx’s political universalism is on display—for the Jews to be liberated “politically” (or emancipated politically) still keeps them marked as Jews rather than human (in the universal sense).  Lastly, the secular state’s preeminence of social and religious distinctions and particularity is also on full display.  That is the secular state—in favoring no religions—eliminates religious identity and helps the cause of universal human emancipation.

Particular or Universal Emancipation?

Marx opens his famous essay with the question and answer, “The German Jews desire emancipation. What kind of emancipation do they desire? Civic, political emancipation.”  Except for the most illiterate of readers, such as Jonah Goldberg, Marx’s essay is not a prototypical anti-Semitic rant.  Rather, Marx is exploring the question of emancipation from political and particularist criticism.  According to Marx, the Jewish want for political emancipation is a dead-end, a bridge to nowhere, a path that if taken will not lead to the end that the Jews seek.

Why is this?

The Jews are a steadfastly particularist people.  Emancipation, Marx argues, is not a concern for particular people but a universal cause of all oppressed peoples wherever they are.  To focus on strictly Jewish emancipation is to miss the cause of universal emancipation.

Marx, as all philosophers know, is not a social pluralist (like Aristotle, the Catholic or Jewish traditions, Burke, Maistre, or the conservative tradition).  Rather, Marx is a universalist.  Marx upends the tradition universal-particular distinction in social philosophy where a universal human nature but distinct peoples and classes are eliminated precisely because of Marx’s monistic metaphysical foundations.

Particular emancipation is a bridge to nowhere because the Jews have their disprivileged status precisely on account of the particularity.  The Jews are second class because they are Jews.  If the Jews were conceived of as human, and all other persons were regarded as human, then the emancipation of the “Jews” would not be the emancipation of the Jews as Jews, but the Jews as humans.  Thus, their humanness takes precedence over their particular identity.  Marx, contra much of the ignorant discussion of neo-Marxism today, is not an identitarian (unless you construe his proletariat-capitalist dialectic and distinction as identity-based politics).

Furthermore, Marx does not see the Jewish cause for emancipation as Jewish but as the concern for all humans.  This is why the Jews must abandon their particularity in favor of universality.  The hope and dreams of the Jews can only be realized when they shed their Jewishness.  This is not because their Jewishness is evil or marked for eternal cursing because of their role in condemning Christ as some strict Christian interpretations had fostered.  The reason for why the Jews need to shed their Jewishness is because the Jews are humans like everyone else—if the Jews continue to place their Jewishness (particularity) before the humanity they will forever be regarded in a negative and second-class light by the powers that be.

Even if the Jews were to achieve their civic, or political, emancipation, and be granted the conventional rights of the state that they claim citizenship to, the Jews will still be marked out as Jews.  As Marx writes:

Therefore, we do not say to the Jews, as Bauer does: You cannot be emancipated politically without emancipating yourselves radically from Judaism. On the contrary, we tell them: Because you can be emancipated politically without renouncing Judaism completely and incontrovertibly, political emancipation itself is not human emancipation. If you Jews want to be emancipated politically, without emancipating yourselves humanly, the half-hearted approach and contradiction is not in you alone, it is inherent in the nature and category of political emancipation.

In the end the concern for emancipation is not the concern of particular peoples or groups but the cause of all humans.  The Jews, as the particular case study of the nineteenth century, in Marx’s eyes, are taking a flawed approach for their political emancipation instead of their human emancipation.  Only human emancipation can save the Jews.  If the Jews achieve political emancipation as Jews, then they have still failed to achieve their human emancipation as humans.  In some sense Marx foresaw the Holocaust if the Jews chose the route of political emancipation as Jews instead of human emancipation as human equals in whatever country they called home.

Missionizing Democracies: Democracy as the Child of Christianity

Another one of the concurrent themes throughout the essay is the relationship of Christianity to modern democracy and how modern democracy is, essentially, the product not of the Enlightenment or the ancient seed of Athens but the proto-egalitarian and missionizing spirit of Christianity.  The reason as to why democracy is the outgrowth of Christianity is because Marx attributes the rise of democracy to the concept of the sovereign man.  The sovereign man is a unique anthropological attribute of the Abrahamic tradition.  Pagan man, in his Germanic, Greek, or Roman form, was but the plaything of the gods—the puppet of the gods—who, although a man and could be destined for greatness (such as Achilles), could not escape his fate decreed by the gods over him.

Likewise, the Mesopotamian creation myths have man created as the indentured servants of the gods.  Marduk, after slaying Tiamat, creates man from the sand of the earth and mixes into it the blood of Tiamat and creates new class of toiling humans to serve the gods.  By contrast, in the Book of Genesis, man is created in the image of God, given a free will, and given dominion over the earth.  Man is sovereign in a world created by God.  God may have created the world but he endowed man with free will, detached him from those fatalistic strings affirmed in Mesopotamian and Western pre-Christian paganism, and gave him dominion over the earth but not dominion over other men.

As such, the ethos of the sovereign man is distinctly Christian (or Abrahamic), and Marx identifies the spirit of democracy as the expansion of the idea of the sovereign man writ large.  Per Marx:

Political democracy is Christian since in it man, not merely one man but everyman, ranks as sovereign, as the highest being, but it is man in his uncivilized, unsocial form, man in his fortuitous existence, man just as he is, man as he has been corrupted by the whole organization of our society, who has lost himself, been alienated, and handed over to the rule of inhuman conditions and elements – in short, man who is not yet a real species-being. That which is a creation of fantasy, a dream, a postulate of Christianity, i.e., the sovereignty of man – but man as an alien being different from the real man – becomes, in democracy, tangible reality, present existence, and secular principle.

But Marx does not celebrate this historical phenomenon.  First, Marx is an economic and materialistic determinist, meaning he denies free will and with it the “fantasy dream” of the sovereign man.  Second, he sees in this fantastical dream of “secular” democracy a dangerous war-like and missionizing zeal that will lead to these democratic states to embark on secular missionary endeavors to spread democracy since democracy (the principle of the sovereign man) is the new gospel.

Secularization, for Marx, is not that people stop believing in God as most ignorant “secularists” proclaim.  Rather, secularization – as most sociologists and philosophers argue – is the temporalization and materialization of Christian (or broadly religious) precepts and principles into political life.  For instance, the drive to egalitarianism and the dream of a material utopia has long been seen as a secularization of the Christian idea of the New Jerusalem and Heavenly afterlife.  That perfect state of being where happiness blossoms, which Christianity reserves only for the hereafter, becomes “secularized” in utopian political idealism.  As Marx explains with the relationship of the sovereign man from Christianity becoming “secularized” into the doctrines of political democracy, the sovereign man—which is an anthropological claim of Christianity that needs no political or civil creed because it is ingrained in human nature according to Christian anthropology—takes on a political creed and becomes the new gospel, the new revelation, to proclaim and spread worldwide.  Instead of Christianity proclaiming Jesus, the “post-Christian” states (which were inculcated in the Christian anthropology of the sovereign man) replace Jesus with the new creed of the sovereign individual and begin to baptize the nations and teach them the ways of the sovereign man.  Others go as far as to argue that the temporalization of the Christian idea of spiritual progress (movement toward union with God and arrival in Heaven) is the basis of the idea of historical progress (see Karl Löwith’s Meaning in History).

According to Marx, Christianity comes into its own when it sheds its own particularity (e.g. its Christianity) and becomes a secular and universal “religion” or state.  This is because the anthropology of Christianity—in Marx’s reading—is implicitly universalistic.  Therefore, when Christianity achieves success its followers no longer consider themselves Christian and simply see and understand themselves as humans.  (This is a view Marx takes from the theological writings of Hegel.)  Therefore, the ultimate product of Christianity is the secular state which makes no distinctions between religious peoples and understands all of its citizens as equally human.  And this is the conundrum that the Jews find themselves in.  The historic animosity between Christians and Jews is not forgotten in the Christian origins of the democratic and secular state.  And insofar that the Jews seek their emancipation from a nominally “secular” state which does not take into religious particularity, the Jewish call for emancipation on the grounds of their particularity fails to allow the Jews to realize that their oppressed predicament is precisely because of their Jewishness.

The Secular State and Universalism

As such, Marx argues that the Jews are engaged in a contradictory political activism since the secular state is universal in character and outlook but the Jewish clamoring for political emancipation on behalf of their Jewishness refuses to accept their universality.  “The consummation of the Christian state is the state which acknowledges itself as a state and disregards the religion of its members.”  But by insisting identification with a particular religion the Jews fight against the secular state’s disregarding of the religion of its members.

Marx, moreover, is an enemy of confessional states because of confessional statism’s allegiance and acceptance of particularity.  It privileges a particular group of people over others instead of treating all members as equals on account of their humanity rather than tribal religious identities.  The secular state is a great achievement insofar that it pushes us one step closer to human emancipation.  But, as Marx says, “The emancipation of the state from religion is not the emancipation of the real man from religion.”  What does he mean by this?

Unlike Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris and other imbecile New Atheists, Marx is well aware of the religious roots of modern states.  This is something he, again, inherits from Hegel and is commonly known in the academic discipline of political theology.  What Marx means when he says that a state’s emancipation from religion does not entail the real man’s emancipation from religion is that even though the state may have embraced a universalism in shedding the religious seed it grew from (specifically Christianity in the case of secular democracy), people have not done the same.  The secularization and universalization of the state is not the secularization and universalization of man.  Case and point is, again, the Jew.  The Jew, who lives in the modern secular democratic state, still conceives of himself in his religious heritage and therefore particularizes himself against the homogenizing and universalizing movement of the secular state.  Thus, particular peoples come into conflict with universalist states.

Man must be emancipated from religion because religion is a cause and source of particular and identitarian conflict and strife.  It is not because “religion is ignorant or stupid,” as New Atheists like to claim.  It is because difference and particularity leads to conflict and conflict is bad and ought to be avoided.  The conclusion to the notion that difference causes conflict is that sameness ends conflict.  Thus, to be emancipated from religion and to embrace one’s “same” humanity is the end to conflict and the achievement of true emancipation under an egalitarian society.  In other words, there can be no distinctions and differences in a society that truly promotes and favors emancipation and equality.

In the end, as Marx states, “All emancipation is a reduction of the human world and relationships to man himself.”  That is, only when we reduce our particularity away into a universality can emancipation truly come into its own.  As it relates specifically to the Jews, the Jews have to shed their Jewishness in order to become “man” in the universal sense.  Only then can their emancipation be consummated.


While the essay “On the Jewish Question” concerns itself with the Jewish cause of emancipation the essay deals with so much more and is a canonical essay in political philosophy.  One can easily see why.  In discussing the Jews Marx is engaged in a discussion of universalism vs. pluralism, and he sides in favor of universalism instead pluralism.  Pluralism really means difference and not sameness.  When those who preach pluralism say “what’s the difference between us” they are not really pluralists but universalists who see all people as the same instead of different.  Furthermore, Marx is engaged in his own ruminations on political theology in identifying the anthropology of the sovereign man in Abrahamic religion (specifically Christianity) as the seed of democracy insofar that democracy is the attempt to achieve the political manifestation of the sovereign man writ large in political life rather than remaining in its origo of anthropological human nature.  Moreover, Marx’s assertion that Jewish emancipation is only possible through human emancipation entails the reduction of particular peoples into universal man.  For the Jews, or any oppressed group of people, to be emancipated into equality and liberty, they must shed their distinct identity which is the cause of their oppression in the first place.  One wonders if many “Marxists” who proclaim distinctive identarian politics are really Marxist or have ever bothered reading, let alone understanding, their namesake hero.

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