Into the Entrails of Capitalism (Marx the Huckster, Imagination, & The Jewish Question)

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It’s a day after May Day, and I’ve been posting all week about liberalism, and my good friend G., the good Marxist, makes mention of “On the Jewish Question.” I cringe a bit, and say something stupid, and I realize of course that it’s been years since I looked at the damn thing. So let’s step aside from the question of anti-Semitism, take a deep breath, and remember that, yes of course, Marx, against Bruno Bauer, supported the political emancipation of the Jews. He did so by posing the emancipation of the Jews and other forms of political emancipation as the first dialectical condition for a more fundamental human emancipation, the reconciliation of human alienation and the formation of true human “species being.” In a completely developed political society, which is how Marx understood the United States, religion does not disappear after its dis-establishment. But the flourishing of religion in the United States, especially of Christianity, highlights what Marx thought was the limit of political emancipation and liberal civil society. The Jew therefore need not, according to Marx, renounce Judaism to qualify for civil citizenship, as per Bauer, who had posited the abolition of all religion and of Judaism, in particular, as the prior condition of political emancipation. Instead, Marx posits these abolitions, including and especially the abolition of “Judaism,” as the end-telos of the more consummate form of human emancipation, the resolution of human conflict and alienation, a form of human being “[complete] and free from contradiction.”

So how to read “On the Jewish Question,” especially if you are disinclined to avert your eye from the anti-Semitism? If one felt beholden to Marx in any way, one could opt for apologetics. This would entail a focus on the first part of the essay where Marx delineates the limited form of political emancipation in a liberal state and civil society, and then try to repress the nasty bits about Judaism –not the Jews, but Judaism– that come out in the second part of the essay; or claim that the second part has nothing to do with the analytic in the first part. Not beholden to Marx and more so to “Judaism,” I’ll recommend reading it this way instead. Don’t read the essay from start to finish. Instead, go first, to the gutter-sniping at the end of the essay in order then to reassess the more clinical and critical writing in the first part of the essay. Because maybe what’s “false” about “liberalism” in the first part of the essay is made clear by what’s “true” about “Judaism” in the second part.

Again, the critique by Marx of the political emancipation secured by the liberal state and civil society is compared in contrast to the more consummate form of human emancipation. By that emancipation Marx means “the emancipation of the state from Judaism, from Christianity, from religion in general.” But actually, we learn, it hangs upon the emancipation of the state and society from Judaism in particular, because by Judaism, of course, Marx meant not just the limits of bourgeois civil society, but the very worst component elements –money, huckstering, and egoism.

So let’s actually stay in the toilet with Marx and confirm a few ugly truths. About what he writes about the Christianity and the Christian state I’ll let others decide. But about Judaism, maybe he was on to something when he writes, “The monotheism of the Jew, therefore, is in reality the polytheism of the many needs, a polytheism which makes even the lavatory an object of divine law. Practical need, egoism, is the principle of civil society, and as such appears in pure form as soon as civil society has fully given birth to the political state. The god of practical need and self-interest is money.” Because how can you look past practical need? Except that no, the God of practical need is not money. The God of practical need, in Judaism as in Christianity, is the God to whom one cries with a broken, mawkish heart. And yet, one might want to consider that the true service of God requires the kind of material support provided by moneychangers, whose work Jesus in the Temple sought to overturn. Liberal Christianity is said to be otherworldly, while Judaism remains stuck in a more material condition. As Marx knew well enough to say, and even a cursory familiarity with Talmud would confirm, Judaism remains stuck in the lavatory.

Then, maybe Marx was a Platonist after all. In a pronounced form, you see it in his excoriation of the imagination, which he relates to Judaism. Because if the romantic Marx rejected the imagination it is because of the old dividing line between nature and the image, as instantiated by “Judaism.” 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” Let’s agree that this is not true, but stop for a moment and reconsider that the power of Judaism, like any cultural formation, including the liberal state and society, rests precisely upon the power of the imagination. So too does Marx’s own political theory, but about this he seems not to have noticed. The imagination of Marx rests on the manly image of “the real, vital air of society” dissipating religion like a “thin haze.”

How do you identify a chimera? Does it stand any more in the “Jewish” view of nature, or in the ultimate fantasy of Marxist discourse, that notion that one day the human creature will overcome alienation, the conflict between individual existence and “species existence.” The fancy of Marx is that “Once society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism – huckstering and its preconditions – the Jew will have become impossible, because his consciousness no longer has an object, because the subjective basis of Judaism, practical need, has been humanized, and because the conflict between man’s individual-sensuous existence and his species-existence has been abolished. The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.” But what if subjective need is impossible to humanize? Can these conflicts be abolished, and at what human price?

Now let’s entertain the possibility that “there is no way to “emancipate society from “Judaism,” or from money, or from the imagination. The truth, then, would be that there is no way to resolve these conflicts and contradictions, like the disjoint between “life in the political community, in which [man] considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers.”

What that would mean is that there is no way out of Plato’s Cave, in this case, the world of the liberal state and civil society, no alternative other than to play with and to be played by “alien powers,” to invent and reinvent oneself in civil society as “a fictitious phenomenon” and to construct oneself in the state as “the imaginary member of an illusory sovereignty.” Marx argues that in such a condition, “man” is “deprived of his real individual life and endowed with an unreal universality,” without having realized that any universal is always unreal, axiomatically, and that would include the ideal of human species-being, fully emancipated from real individual life and practical need.

Against Marx, it  might actually turn out not to be the case that “[m]an, as the adherent of a particular religion, finds himself in conflict with his citizenship and with other men as members of the community.” For my part, I would rather “[remain] only sophistically,” like a Jew and bourgeois, in contradictions between “the relation between the political state and its preconditions, whether these are 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.” The alternative is what? Can one ever resolve in a satisfactory way these unresolvable antinomies that constitute human condition? And if you can’t, then you have to take a stance within the limits of the political state and civil society.

If this is the case, then as to religion, perhaps it makes more sense to do otherwise than Marx and embrace religion as “the spirit of civil society, of the sphere of egoism,” not as the principle of bellum omnium contra omnes,” which I don’t think it is, but for what it might really be — “no longer [as] the essence of community, but the essence of difference,” “specific perversity, private whimsy, and arbitrariness,” and “endless fragmentation.” That is my kind of religion, the perverse kind that I want, boxed in and separated off from the power of the state and public law. This, however, is to assume against Marx, that this kind of bourgeois religion is never just “the form of a purely individual affair” while also to claim, again against Marx, that the separation in liberal society between “public man” and “private man” is never as absolute as claimed by him.

That’s what I’d like to be, “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 areal  i.e., the sovereignty of man – but man as an alien being different from the real man.” Definitely, I don’t want to be a “species man” or even a “real man,” like Marx. Like the “religious man,” I’d rather  “[revel] in the wealth of…contradictions and… diversity.” Or if not to revel, than to work through these contradictions with the patience and circumspection of a cautious liberal, perhaps even as a fighting liberal.

Is this to countenance injustice? Not necessarily. Marx loads the deck against liberalism. On the one hand, according to Marx, “liberty,” presumably in a liberal state and society, is “the right to do everything that harms no one else.” On the other hand, he then goes on to claim that “in liberal state and society, the right to property is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself.” I don’t see how one can square these two assertions. If the liberal notion of liberty is “the right to do everything that harms no one else,” then the protected right to property cannot be absolute in a genuinely liberal state and society, not when it is exercised “without regard to other men, independently of society,” as the right of pure self-interest. Dropping the first assertion, Marx imagines the liberal individual as ever “withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community.” It’s my own view that liberal individuals are more socially adjusted than that. Just look at Moses Mendelssohn, my favorite liberal of all times!

Is this a youthful essay, not representative of scientific Marxism, intemperate in its conceptualizing? It would depend on how much the scientific Marx actually gets past the romantic, Platonizing Marx. Maybe not far at all, or not far enough. I’ll leave this to those who know Marx better than I do. But on a close read, Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question” is an awful essay, not because of the gutter anti-Semitism, but because of the communism. It’s also a great essay, one that leaves unasked whether or not, historically, Marx was the far greater huckster of them all. One man’s vision of emancipated humanity (without contradictions) is already another person’s nightmare.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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