I am sure this probably includes a great many colleagues across the Humanities and also scholars of Marx, and Marxian theorists. This is all the more true when Jewishness is reduced to another expression of “whiteness.” But the sudden realization stopped me short that graduate students in a Theories and Methods in Religious Studies know zero about the historical contexts that defined “On the Jewish Question.” A student had the courage to flat out ask about something about which she admitted she didn’t know.
By emancipation, scholars of modern Jewish history and modern Judaism mean, at the very start, Jewish freedom, meaning the freedom to secure political rights and participation in the mainstream society from which they were systemically excluded. In Jewish Studies, emancipation is a stand-in for modernity.
All of what follows is well-known to readers of “On the Jewish Question.” Bruno Bauer had rejected the emancipation of the Jews because of their religion; once the Jews abandoned their particularistic religion, they would be fit and able to integrate into their host country. Marx did not think the real problem had anything to do with religion per se. The problem was social and economic, namely the bourgeois social order itself. Religion was a mere epiphenomenon, with Judaism caricatured as a consummately nasty reflection of capitalism. But this was no reason not to grant “political emancipation” to the Jews, to not allow their participation in bourgeois civil society. Political emancipation was a poor thing, indeed: the form of pure egoism and separation, trading and selling. The Marxian logic is eliminationist. True “human emancipation” would demand a revolutionary change in the economic and social order of things; the abolition of capitalism would “make the Jew impossible;” the “religious consciousness” of the Jew “would be dissipated like a thin haze in the real, vital air of society.”
What many or most non-Jewish readers of Marx do not understand is that behind “On the Jewish Question” was the systemic exclusions suffered by Jews in Europe prior to their emancipation, first in France and then in Germany; and how this constellation drives the argument in the essay. By “systemic” is meant conditions that are “legal,” political”, “social,” and “cultural.”
With Jews “legally” constituted as a separate and non-enfranchised corporate entity, emancipation sought to redress exclusions that were “political,” having to do with citizenship, but also “social-civic,” having to do with restrictions on domicile, education, employment. As Bauer recognized, the political disenfranchisement was not something suffered uniquely by Jews prior to the establishment of political liberal order. But the social exclusions were uniquely suffered by Jews, not as an individuals, but as a separate, legally constituted and excluded pariah class. Undergirding these political and social exclusions was the sheer force of cultural prejudice against all things Jewish, not just Judaism. About this, I would advise students interested in Marx and “On the Jewish Question” to consult social and cultural historians such as Jacob Katz, George Mosse, Paula Hyman, Jay Geller, and Sander Gilman. Herzl’s The Jewish State would also be of some help while adding historical and polemical perspective.
At least not in good faith, the structural problem with “On the Jewish Question” means that one cannot simply isolate one set of strands (the political and social) from the other (the cultural). Against Bauer, the exclusions that Marx sought to address were the political and social ones. Against Christianity, the one social class that still really matters in the west, Marx understood that the most gross thing for Christians to hear is that they were “Jewish” and tainted by “Judaism.” Left unaddressed and actually aggravated by him were the sedimented cultural prejudices about that “taint,” prejudices that legitimate those legal, political, and social exclusions. In addressing the political and the social exclusions and in the name of revolution, Marx, with terrible malice, tapped into and volatized the supporting force of the cultural prejudice, the animus regarding all things Jewish that, in and with Marx, is a potent little thought-strand threaded into the psychic DNA of radical political thought in the modern west.