On the Jewish Question

On the Jewish Question

On the Jewish Question is a work by Karl Marx, written in 1843, and first published in Paris in 1844 under the German title Zur Judenfrage in the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher. It was one of Marx's first attempts to deal with categories that would later be called the materialist conception of history.

The essay criticizes two studies[1][2] by fellow Young Hegelian, Bruno Bauer on the attempt by Jews to achieve political emancipation in Prussia. Bauer argued that Jews can achieve political emancipation only if they relinquish their particular religious consciousness, since political emancipation requires a secular state, which he assumes does not leave any "space" for social identities such as religion. According to Bauer, such religious demands are incompatible with the idea of the "Rights of Man." True political emancipation, for Bauer, requires the abolition of religion.

Marx uses Bauer's essay as an occasion for his own analysis of liberal rights. Marx argues that Bauer is mistaken in his assumption that in a "secular state" religion will no longer play a prominent role in social life, and, as an example refers to the pervasiveness of religion in the United States, which, unlike Prussia, had no state religion. In Marx's analysis, the "secular state" is not opposed to religion, but rather actually presupposes it. The removal of religious or property qualifications for citizens does not mean the abolition of religion or property, but only introduces a way of regarding individuals in abstraction from them.[3] On this note Marx moves beyond the question of religious freedom to his real concern with Bauer's analysis of "political emancipation." Marx concludes that while individuals can be 'spiritually' and 'politically' free in a secular state, they can still be bound to material constraints on freedom by economic inequality, an assumption that would later form the basis of his critiques of capitalism.

Some commentators regard On the Jewish Question, and in particular its second section, which addresses Bauer's work "The Capacity of Present-day Jews and Christians to Become Free", as anti-semitic.[4]


Political and human emancipation

In Marx's view, Bauer fails to distinguish between political emancipation and human emancipation. As noted above, political emancipation in a modern state does not require the Jews (or, for that matter, the Christians) to renounce religion; only complete human emancipation would involve the disappearance of religion, but that is not yet possible "within the hitherto existing world order".

In the second part of the essay, Marx disputes Bauer's "theological" analysis of Judaism and its relation to Christianity. Bauer has stated that the renouncing of religion would be especially difficult for Jews, since Judaism is, in his view, a primitive stage in the development of Christianity. Hence, to achieve freedom by renouncing religion, the Christians would have to surmount only one stage, whereas the Jews would need to surmount two. In response to this, Marx argues that the Jewish religion need not be attached the significance it has in Bauer's analysis, because it is only a spiritual reflection of Jewish economic life. This is the starting point of a complex and somewhat metaphorical argument which draws on the stereotype of the Jew as a financially apt "huckster" and posits a special connection between Judaism as a religion and the economy of contemporary bourgeois society. Thus, the Jewish religion does not need to disappear in society, as Bauer argues, because is actually a natural part of it. Having thus figuratively equated "practical Judaism" and "huckstering", Marx concludes that "the Christians have become Jews"; and, ultimately, it is mankind (both Christians and Jews[5]) that needs to emancipate itself from ("practical") Judaism. [6] Quotes from this part of the essay are frequently cited as proof of Marx' antisemitism. For analyses, see the Interpretations section.

Publications by Marx related to the essay

Zur Judenfrage was first published by Marx and Arnold Ruge in February 1844 in the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher, a journal which ran only one issue. From December 1843 to October 1844, Bruno Bauer published the monthly Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (General Literary Gazette) in Charlottenburg (now Berlin). In it, he responded to the critique of his own essays on the Jewish question by Marx and others. Then, in 1845, Friedrich Engels and Marx published a polemic critique of the Young Hegelians titled The Holy Family. In parts[7] of the book, Marx again presented his views dissenting from Bauer's on the Jewish question and on political and human emancipation.

A French translation appeared 1850 in Paris in Hermann Ewerbeck's book Qu'est-ce que la bible d'après la nouvelle philosophie allemande?.

In 1879, historian Heinrich von Treitschke published an article Unsere Aussichten (Our Prospects), in which he demanded that the Jews should assimilate to German culture, and described Jewish immigrants as a danger for Germany. This article would stir a controversy, to which the newspaper Sozialdemokrat, edited by Eduard Bernstein, reacted by republishing almost the entire second part of Zur Judenfrage in June and July 1881.

The whole essay was republished in October 1890 in the Berliner Volksblatt, then edited by Wilhelm Liebknecht.[8]

In 1926, a translation by H. J. Stenning into English language with the title On the Jewish Question appeared in a collection of essays by Marx.[9]

A translation of Zur Judenfrage was published together with other articles of Marx in 1959 under the title "A World Without Jews".[10] The editor Dagobert D. Runes intended to show Marx's alleged anti-Semitism.[11] This edition has been criticized because the reader is not told that its title is not from Marx, and for distortions in the text.[12]

A manuscript of the essay has not been transmitted.[8]


Hyam Maccoby has argued that "On the Jewish Question" is an example of what he considers to be Marx's "early anti-Semitism." According to Maccoby, Marx argues in the essay that the modern commercialized world is the triumph of Judaism, a pseudo-religion whose god is money. Maccoby has suggested that Marx was embarrassed by his Jewish background and used the Jews as a "yardstick of evil." Maccoby writes that in later years, Marx limited what he considers to be antipathy towards Jews to private letters and conversations because of strong public identification with anti-Semitism by his political enemies both on the left (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin) and on the right (aristocracy and the Church).[13] Bernard Lewis has described "On the Jewish Question" as "one of the classics of anti-Semitic propaganda."[14] According to several scholars, for Marx Jews were the embodiment of capitalism and the representation of all its evils.[15]

Abram Leon in his book The Jewish Question (published 1946)[16] examines Jewish history from a materialist outlook. According to Leon, Marx's essay states that one “must not start with religion in order to explain Jewish history; on the contrary: the preservation of the Jewish religion or nationality can be explained only by the 'real Jew', that is to say, by the Jew in his economic and social role”.

Isaac Deutscher (1959)[17] compares Marx with Elisha ben Abuyah, Baruch Spinoza, Heinrich Heine, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and Sigmund Freud, all of whom he thinks of as heretics who transcend Jewry, and yet still belong to a Jewish tradition. According to Deutscher, Marx's “idea of socialism and of the classless and stateless society” expressed in the essay is as universal as Spinoza's ethics and God.

Shlomo Avineri (1964),[18] while regarding Marx' antisemitism as a well-known fact, points out that Marx's philosophical criticism of Judaism has often overshadowed his forceful support for Jewish emancipation as an immediate political goal. Avineri notes that in Bauer's debates with a number of Jewish contemporary polemicists, Marx entirely endorsed the views of the Jewish writers against Bauer.[18] In a letter to Arnold Ruge, written March 1843,[19] Marx writes that he intended to support a petition of the Jews to the Provincial Assembly. He explains that with the fact that while he dislikes Judaism as a religion, he also remains unconvinced by Bauer's view (that the Jews shouldn't be emancipated before they abandon Judaism, see above).

In his book For Marx (1965), Louis Althusser claims that “in On the Jewish Question, Hegel’s Philosophy of the State, etc., and even usually in The Holy Family (...) Marx was merely applying the theory of alienation, that is, Feuerbach’s theory of ‘human nature’, to politics and the concrete activity of man, before extending it (in large part) to political economy in the Manuscripts”.[20] He opposes a tendency according to which “Capital is no longer read as On the Jewish Question, On the Jewish Question is read as Capital”.[21] For Althusser, the essay “is a profoundly ‘ideological’ text”, “committed to the struggle for Communism”, but without being Marxist; “so it cannot, theoretically, be identified with the later texts which were to define historical materialism”.[22]

David McLellan, however, has argued that "On the Jewish Question" must be understood in terms of Marx's debates with Bruno Bauer over the nature of political emancipation in Germany. According to McLellan, Marx used the word "Judentum" in its colloquial sense of "commerce" to argue that Germans suffer, and must be emancipated from, capitalism. The second half of Marx's essay, McLellan concludes, should be read as "an extended pun at Bauer’s expense."[23]

Hal Draper (1977)[24] observed that the language of Part II of On the Jewish Question followed the view of the Jews’ role given in Jewish socialist Moses Hess' essay On the Money System.

Stephen Greenblatt (1978)[25] compares the essay with Christopher Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta. According to Greenblatt, “[b]oth writers hope to focus attention upon activity that is seen as at once alien and yet central to the life of the community and to direct against that activity the anti-Semitic feeling of the audience”. Greenblatt is attributing Marx a “sharp, even hysterical, denial of his religious background”.

Yoav Peled (1992)[26] sees Marx "shifting the debate over Jewish emancipation from the plane of theology ... to the plane of sociology", thereby circumventing one of Bauer's main arguments. In Peled's view, "this was less than a satisfactory response to Bauer, but it enabled Marx to present a powerful case for emancipation while, at the same time, launching his critique of economic alienation". He concludes that "the philosophical advances made by Marx in On the Jewish Question were necessitated by, and integrally related to, his commitment to Jewish emancipation".

Others argue that On the Jewish Question is primarily a critique of liberal rights, rather than a criticism of Judaism, and that apparently anti-Semitic passages such as "Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist." should be read in that context.[27]

For sociologist Robert Fine (2006)[28] Bauer's essay “echoed the generally prejudicial representation of the Jew as ‘merchant’ and ‘moneyman’”, whereas “Marx’s aim was to defend the right of Jews to full civil and political emancipation (that is, to equal civil and political rights) alongside all other German citizens”. Fine argues that “(t)he line of attack Marx adopts is not to contrast Bauer’s crude stereotype of the Jews to the actual situation of Jews in Germany”, but “to reveal that Bauer has no inkling of the nature of modern democracy”.

While sociologist Larry Ray in his reply (2006)[29] acknowledges Fine's reading of the essay as an ironic defence of Jewish emancipation, he points out the polyvalence of Marx's language. Ray translates a sentence of Zur Judenfrage and interprets it as an assimilationist position “in which there is no room within emancipated humanity for Jews as a separate ethnic or cultural identity”, and which advocates “a society where both cultural as well as economic difference is eliminated”. Here Ray sees Marx in a “strand of left thinking that has been unable to address forms of oppression not directly linked to class”.

The political-scientist Professor Iain Hamphsher-Monk wrote in his textbook: "This work [On The Jewish Question] has been cited as evidence for Marx's supposed anti-semitism, but only the most superficial reading of it could sustain such an interpretation."[30] Also, McLellan and Francis Wheen argue readers should interpret On the Jewish Question in the deeper context of Marx's debates with Bruno Bauer, author of The Jewish Question, about Jewish emancipation in Germany. Francis Wheen says: "Those critics, who see this as a foretaste of 'Mein Kampf', overlook one, essential point: in spite of the clumsy phraseology and crude stereotyping, the essay was actually written as a defense of the Jews. It was a retort to Bruno Bauer, who had argued that Jews should not be granted full civic rights and freedoms unless they were baptised as Christians".[31] According to McLellan, Marx used the word Judentum colloquially, as meaning commerce, arguing that Germans must be emancipated from the capitalist mode of production not Judaism or Jews in particular. McLellan concludes that readers should interpret the essay's second half as an extended pun at Bauer's expense.[32] Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, regards application of the term "antisemitism" to Marx as an anachronism—because when Marx wrote On the Jewish Question, virtually all major philosophers had expressed similar views, and the word "antisemitism" had not yet been coined, let alone developed a racial component, and little awareness existed of the depths of European prejudice against Jews. Marx thus simply expressed the commonplace thinking of his era, according to Sacks.[33]

Reference to Müntzer

In part II of the essay, Marx refers to Thomas Müntzer:

The view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature; in the Jewish religion, nature exists, it is true, but it exists only in imagination. It is in this sense that [in a 1524 pamphlet] Thomas Münzer declares it intolerable

that all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free.[34]

In his Apology, in large parts an attack on Martin Luther, Müntzer says:

Look ye! Our sovereign and rulers are at the bottom of all usury, thievery, and robbery; they take all created things into possession. The fish in the water, birds in the air, the products of the soil – all must be theirs (Isaiah v.)[35]

The appreciation of Müntzer’s position has been interpreted as a sympathetic view of Marx towards animals.[36]

See also

Further reading

  • Louis Althusser, For Marx, first published in 1965 as Pour Marx by François Maspero, S.A., Paris. In English in 1969 by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press
  • Karl Marx: Zur Judenfrage, first published in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher 1844. English translation used as a reference for quotations in this article: On The Jewish Question
  • Andrew Vincent, "Marx and Law", Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter, 1993), pp. 371–397.


  1. ^ Bruno Bauer: Die Judenfrage (The Jewish Question)Braunschweig 1843
  2. ^ Bruno Bauer: “Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen, frei zu werden″ (“The Capacity of Present-day Jews and Christians to Become Free″), in: Einundzwanzig Bogen aus der Schweiz, edited by Georg Herwegh, Zürich and Winterthur, 1843, pp. 56-71.
  3. ^ Marx 1844:

    [T]he political annulment of private property not only fails to abolish private property but even presupposes it. The state abolishes, in its own way, distinctions of birth, social rank, education, occupation, when it declares that birth, social rank, education, occupation, are non-political distinctions, when it proclaims, without regard to these distinctions, that every member of the nation is an equal participant in national sovereignty, when it treats all elements of the real life of the nation from the standpoint of the state. Nevertheless, the state allows private property, education, occupation, to act in their way – i.e., as private property, as education, as occupation, and to exert the influence of their special nature. Far from abolishing these real distinctions, the state only exists on the presupposition of their existence; it feels itself to be a political state and asserts its universality only in opposition to these elements of its being.

  4. ^ Lewis, Bernard (1999). Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. p. 112. ISBN 0-393-31839-7, Flannery, Edward H. (2004). The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism. Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press. pp. p. 168. ISBN 0-8091-2702-4., According to Joshua Muravchik, political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, Marx's aspiration for "the emancipation of society from Judaism" because "the practical Jewish spirit" of "huckstering" had taken over the Christian nations is not that far from the Nazi program's twenty-four point: "combat[ing] the Jewish-materialist spirit within us and without us" in order "that our nation can […] achieve permanent health." See Muravchik, Joshua (2003). Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism. San Francisco: Encounter Books. pp. 164. ISBN 1-893554-45-7.
  5. ^ Marx 1844:

    On the other hand, if the Jew recognizes that his practical nature is futile and works to abolish it, he extricates himself from his previous development and works for human emancipation as such and turns against the supreme practical expression of human self-estrangement.

  6. ^ Marx 1844:

    The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews.


    In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.

  7. ^ Engels, Marx: The Holy Family 1845, Chapter VI, The Jewish Question No. 1, No. 2, No. 3
  8. ^ a b Marx-Engels Gesammtausgabe (MEGA), Volume II, apparatus, pp. 648 (German) Dietz, Berlin 1982
  9. ^ Karl Marx Selected Essays, tanslated by H. J. Stenning (Leonard Parsons, London and New York 1926), p. 40-97
  10. ^ A World Without Jews, review in: The Western Socialist, Vol. 27 - No. 212, No. 1, 1960, pages 5-7
  11. ^ Marx and Anti-Semitism, discussion in: The Western Socialist, Vol. 27 - No. 214, No. 3, 1960, pages 11, 19-21
  12. ^ Draper 1977, Note 1
  13. ^ Hyam Maccoby. Antisemitism and Modernity: Innovation and Continuity. Routledge. (2006). ISBN 0-415-31173-X p. 64-66
  14. ^ Bernard Lewis. Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. (1999). W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31839-7 p.112
  15. ^ Edward H. Flannery. The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism. Paulist Press. (2004). ISBN 0-8091-4324-0 p. 168, Marvin Perry, Frederick M. Schweitzer. Antisemitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present. Palgrave Macmillan. (2005). ISBN 1-4039-6893-4 p. 154-157
  16. ^ Leon 1950, Chapter One, Premises
  17. ^ Isaac Deutscher: Message of the Non-Jewish Jew in American Socialist 1958
  18. ^ a b Avineri, Shlomo (1964). "Marx and Jewish Emancipation". Journal of the History of Ideas (University of Pennsylvania Press) 25 (3): 445–50. doi:10.2307/2707911. JSTOR 2707911. 
  19. ^ “(...) I have just been visited by the chief of the Jewish community here, who has asked me for a petition for the Jews to the Provincial Assembly, and I am willing to do it. However much I dislike the Jewish faith, Bauer's view seems to me too abstract. The thing is to make as many breaches as possible in the Christian state and to smuggle in as much as we can of what is rational. At least, it must be attempted--and the embitterment grows with every petition that is rejected with protestations”, postscript of a Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge in Dresden, written: Cologne, March 13, 1843
  20. ^ Althusser 1965, Part One: Feuerbach’s ‘Philosophical Manifestoes’, first published in La Nouvelle Critique, December 1960.
  21. ^ Althusser 1965, Part Two: On the Young Marx: Theoretical Questions, first appeared in La Pensée, March–April 1961
  22. ^ Althusser 1965, Part Five: ‘The 1844 Manuscripts’, first appeared in La Pensée, February 1963.
  23. ^ David McLellan: Marx before Marxism (1970), pp.141-142
  24. ^ Draper 1977
  25. ^ Stephen J. Greenblatt: Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism, in: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Winter, 1978), pp. 291-307; Excerpt
  26. ^ Y. Peled: From theology to sociology: Bruno Bauer and Karl Marx on the question of Jewish emancipation, in: History of Political Thought, Volume 13, Number 3, 1992, pp. 463-485(23); Abstract
  27. ^ Brown, Wendy (1995). "Rights and Identity in Late Modernity: Revisiting the 'Jewish Question'". In Sarat, Austin; Kearns, Thomas. Identities, Politics, and Rights. University of Michigan Press. pp. 85–130 
  28. ^ Robert Fine: Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Anti-Semitism in: Engage Journal 2, May 2006
  29. ^ Larry Ray: Marx and the Radical Critique of difference in: Engage Journal 3, September 2006
  30. ^ Iain Hampsher-Monk, A History of Modern Political Thought (1992), Blackwell Publishing, p. 496
  31. ^ Wheen, F., Karl Marx, p. 56
  32. ^ McLellan 1980, p.142
  33. ^ Sacks, Jonathan (1997). The Politics of Hope. London: Jonathan Cape. pp. 98–108. ISBN 9780224043298. 
  34. ^ Marx 1844
  35. ^ Thomas Müntzer: Hoch verursachte Schutzrede, or Apology, 1524, Alstedter, English translation cited from Karl Kautsky: Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation, 1897, Chapter 4, VIII. Münzer’s Preparations for the Insurrection
  36. ^ In Lawrence Wilde: ‘The creatures, too, must become free’: Marx and the Animal/Human Distinction in: Capital & Class 72, Autumn 2000

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