Around the turn of 1843 and 1844, Marx wrote two essays, which it seems to me articulate in contrasting ways themes, or attack problems, to which he would return throughout his life. I have in mind “On the Jewish Question” and “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction.” In both ‘critique’ is mobilized in the service of ‘emancipation,’ although especially the latter is very much up for definition. Obviously, generations of very smart and well read people have looked at these texts and thought about what they mean for Marxism in general. After I’ve had my look, I’m going to be very interested in what other people have to say. But for the moment, here is my own naïve reading.
“On the Jewish Question” is a disagreement with Bruno Bauer. Bauer, says Marx, argues that Jewish emancipation will come only when the Jews have ceased to be Jewish, so that they can participate in the universal project of political emancipation. Marx begins by criticizing Bauer’s notion of political emancipation. He does some very interesting things here, ultimately arguing that what is really at stake is human emancipation, which is quite a different project. In the colorful second part of the essay, we get his full answer: since the essence of Jewishness is the essence of modern egotistical material relations, that is the economy, and the economy is that against which human emancipation must struggle, what must really happen is that society must be liberated from the Jews (or at least Jewishness).
“A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” on the other hand, is about Germany. It contains the famous assertions of Germany’s backwardness, of how the German contribution to politics is in its philosophy. At issue here is German emancipation. Whereas in France, every group feels that it is universal, in Germany, no class is able to do so properly. What is needed, then, is a class the suffering of which is universal, so that when it comes to power, even if it acts only for itself, it acts for all. This is the proletariat.
Much about these essays is surprising. What surprises me most is the specificities that they suggest lie at the origin of Marx’s categories. Could it really be that it was only after encountering the French utopians themselves later in the 1840s that Marx came to think of a genuinely total system? The distance between the German need for the proletariat in 1844 and its world historical role in the Manifesto of 1847—this is striking. Perhaps although Marx is dealing with Germany, really he means the whole world, although it seems as though France is for him a very different situation—or perhaps the point is just that France will approach the proletarian revolution in decorous and beautifully balanced stages, while Germany must have only it or nothing at all? And then, of course, there is the Jew. Now, on one level, I recognize that Marx is standing here with a long tradition in European historiography and social thought that saw (and for some, still sees) ‘the Jews’ as a modernizing force. Jewish ideals, or Jewish economic practices, Jewish social reality—somehow, Jews were a force for political and economic development, the development of individual freedoms and rights. Especially toward the end of the 19th century, this was a major philosemitic argument. Yet, it is not hard to see how ‘force for political liberalism and modernization’ could be goose-stepped into ‘rootless cosmopolitan agitator.’ So there is Marx (and there is also Nietzsche, you might say). Marx does not yet use the word ‘capital,’ he does not yet seem to have the concept. How seriously are we to take his identification of the acquisitive haggling egoism of the marketplace—and therefore economic modernity—with, as he says, the everyday reality of Jewish life?
In another context, it would be worth walking with some care through Marx’s arguments in “On the Jewish Question,” but for the moment, I only want to cite the last sentences of the first part, what comes just after Marx cites Rousseau on how the founding of a new ‘people’s institution’ is really to change human nature,
All emancipation is reduction of the human world and of relationships to man himself.
Political emancipation is the reduction of man on the one hand to the member of civil society, the egoistic, independent individual, and on the other to the citizen, the moral person.
On when real, individual man resumes the abstract citizen into himself and as an individual man has become a species-being in his empirical life, his individual work and his individual relationships, only when man has recognized and organized his forces propres as social forces so that social force is no longer separated from him in the form of political force, only then will human emancipation be completed.
These passages are from the Penguin Early Writings (p 234). I’m not sure that the translation is perfect (compare). For instance, the word ‘reduction’ is used to render both, in the first sentence, the German ‘Zurückführung’ and in the second sentence the German ‘Reduktion.’ One might also question rendering ‘Kraft’ as ‘force.’ Then, although I don’t want to make too much of this, in the third sentence the English ‘recognized’—a word sure to make one’s ears prick up in these contexts—is used for ‘erkannt.’ The Hegelian word, I think, is ‘anerkennen.’ Enough with the pedantic stuff. The main point is that for Marx, at this moment, emancipation is the end of the political. Or, what is not perhaps the same thing, emancipation is complete when man no longer apprehends social forces in ‘der Gestalt der politischen Kraft.’ Politics is a form of alienation just like religion, and emancipation is its destruction.
Back to the Jews. Marx finally poses the question thus: “what specific social element must be overcome in order to abolish Judaism? For the capacity of the present-day Jew for emancipation is the relation of Judaism to the emancipation of the present-day world. This relation flows inevitably from the special position of Judaism in the enslaved world of today.” The question should not be taken theologically, but practically, “the secular basis of Judaism” is “Practical need, self-interest.” Thus the “secular cult of the Jew” becomes “Haggling. What is his secular God? Money” (236). Giving the best possible reading to this, and perhaps being overgenerous, one might read this as saying that ‘the Jew’ is a collective identity forced on a group of people who have been historically made dependent upon exclusively economic capacities—that is, in the feudal world, they were excluded from the politico-social relations that gave structure to society, relations which, incidentally, Marx analyzes in criticist terms in “Contribution…” The point here is that Marx
Recognize[ses] in Judaism the presence of a universal and contemporary anti-social element whose historical evolution – eagerly nurtured by the Jews in its harmful aspects – has arrived at its present peak, a peak at which it will inevitably disintegrate.
The emancipation of the Jews is, in the last analysis, the emancipation of mankind from Judaism. (237)
The contradiction between the practical political power of the Jew and his political rights is the contradiction between politics and financial power in general. Ideally speaking the former is superior to the latter, but in actual fact it is in thrall to it. (238)
Which is to say that although the Jews are nominally at a disadvantage, discriminated against by political power in various ways, in possession of fewer rights—in fact, their power through money is enormous. Reading all of this just after Nietzsche is enlightening. I do not believe that, for instance, historically, the idea of France or ‘frenchness’ has anything like this kind of relation to the idea of ‘the Jew.’ I will look later at Sartre’s essay. One can almost give a good reading (although, to bring in an important rhetorical device of Marx’s, the stench is too great to be mistaken) to the following, “Civil society ceaselessly begets the Jew from its own entrails” (238). And then,
Money is the jealous god of Israel before whom no other god may stand. Money debases all the gods of mankind and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal and self-constituted value of all things. It has therefore deprived the entire world – both the world of man and of nature – of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and existence; this alien essence dominates him and he worships it.
The god of the Jews has been secularized and become the god of the world. Exchange is the true god of the Jew. His god is nothing more than illusory exchange (239).
Marx reads the history of theological Judaism as the Jesuitical (!) justification of self-interest. So we get what, in another context, might be an interesting idea, “the religion of practical need could not by its very nature find its completion in theory but only in practice, precisely because its truth is practice” (240). And so it follows that the Judaism would never really fall out of practice, “since the real essence of the Jew is universally realized and secularized in civil society, civil society could not convince the Jew of the unreality of his religious essence, which is nothing more than the ideal expression of practical need” (241). All of which is why, in the end, in what I take to be a radicalization of Bauer’s thesis, the social (as opposed to political) emancipation of the Jews is equal to “the emancipation of society from Judaism” (241).
Germany, in its actually existing state, is beneath criticism. Marx’s language is very powerful here. In trying to think about what ‘critique’ might mean in general, and specifically now, it seems to me reasonable to compare the situation today to the relation in which Marx claimed that it stood to the actual political reality of Germany in 1844, “But war on conditions in Germany! By all means! They are below the level of history, they are beneath all criticism, but they remain an object of criticism, in the same way as the criminal who is beneath the level of humanity remains an object for the executioner…Criticism is no longer an end in itself, but simply a means. The essential force that moves it is indignation and its essential task is denunciation” (246). Critique, it seems to me, finding that denunciation and indignation got boring, has moved back to suggesting that it can generate change by being its own end. That is, critique wants to make revolution and posits itself as the empty destroying revolutionary force—that which, when it takes power, is fully universal because purely negative. If there are those who feel that this is basically a capitulation to capital…The reversal, or stopping-up, of the practice of enlightenment is also of interest: “the important thing is not to permit the German a single moment of self-deception or resignation. The actual burden must be made even more burdensome by creating an awareness of it. The humiliation must be increased by making it public” (247).
At this point, Marx’s discussion of revolution is remarkably voluntaristic. He says, “if one class is to be the class of liberation per excellence, then another class must be the class of overt oppression” (254). In France, it was and to some extent remains the nobility and the clergy who stood as oppressors. No class in Germany has the moral energy to fill this role; also lacking is a class with the “breadth of spirit… [the] genius which can raise material force to the level of political power, that revolutionary boldness,” that would allow it to claim the universal for itself. Rather, in a striking phrase that must excite literary critics to no end, and perhaps made Lukacs feel that his preparations had all been worth it, “the relationship of the different spheres of German society is therefore epic rather than dramatic” (255).
The comparison is to France. There, “it is enough to be something for one to want to be everything.” Here, Marx sees France going through, modeling, a series of political revolutions and partial emancipations, whereas, for Germany, there can be only one. He says,
In France partial emancipation is the basis of universal emancipation. In Germany universal emancipation is the conditio sine qua non of any partial emancipation [what about the Jews?]. In France it is the reality, in Germany the impossibility, of emancipation in stages that must give birth to complete freedom. In France each class of the people is a political idealist and experiences itself first and foremost not as a particular class but as the representative of social needs in general. The role of emancipator therefore passes in a dramatic movement from one class of the French people to the next, until it finally reaches that class which no longer realizes social freedom by assuming certain conditions external to man and yet created by human society, but rather by organizing all the [pgbrk] conditions of human existence on the basis of social freedom. In Germany, however, where practical life is as devoid of intellect as intellectual life is of practical activity, no class of civil society has the need and the capacity for universal emancipation unless under the compulsion of its immediate situation, of material necessity and of its chains themselves.
So where is the positive possibility of German emancipation?
This is our answer. In the formation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere which has a universal character because of its universal suffering and which lays claim to no particular right because the wrong it suffers is not a particular wrong but wrong in general; a sphere of society which can no longer lay claim to a historical title, but merely to a human one, which does not stand in one-sided opposition to the consequences but in all-sided opposition to the premises of the German political system; and finally a sphere which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from – and therefore emancipating – all the other spheres of society, which is, in a word, the total loss of humanity and which can therefore redeem itself only through the total redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society as a particular class is the proletariat. (255-6)
To sum up what it seems to me has so far happened. The vision of Marxist revolution as we have come to recognize it—inevitable, catastrophic, redemptive, carried by a universal class forced into action by their own radical dispossession—as it would be articulated in the Manifesto and elsewhere, originally applied to Germany in contrast to France. The revolution was to take place in Germany. The universal condition that, ultimately, strips the proletariat of its humanity and therefore renders it capable of redeeming humanity in general through revolution—is the spirit of Jewishness. Is it not the case, then, that the entire movement of Marx’s thought begins with the drama of German and Jew? And further, that for him the drama concludes when the German eliminates the Jew?