Thursday, June 3, 2010

"On the Jewish Question"

Karl Marx, 1843

I. Bruno Bauer, Die Judenfrage
The essay begins by explicating a recent work by Bruno Bauer as a foil for Marx’s own point. The Jews, the piece begins, seek “civic, political emancipation.” Bauer dismisses that request as impossible and misguided. The Jews cannot be politically emancipated because no one in Germany is politically emancipated. It is egotistical to seek religious emancipation without first working to emancipate all of mankind. Thus, they should accept their particular oppression as symptomatic of a larger problem.

Alternately, though, Bauer continues, if the request is to be placed on equal footing with Christian subjects, the Jews should recognize that the Christian state has no motivation to accede to that request. First, because Germans should feel no desire to liberate the Jews, if the Jews do not make any effort to help the Germans in their quest for their own emancipation. And second, because if he simply wants equal privileges within the framework of the Christian State, he has to acknowledge that the Christian state is actively hostile to the Jew. In making that request, he is asking the Christian state to give up its religious prejudices, without the Jew agreeing to give up its prejudices in turn. The Jew is isolating himself from the Christian state, asking for the privilege to place his particularity above the universality of the state.

Since the antagonism between the Christian state and the Jew is a religious one, Bauer argues that the only solution is to abolish religion altogether. The struggle for him is between religious prejudice and political emancipation. To quote Marx, “Bauer demands, on the one hand, that the Jew should renounce Judaism, and in general that man should renounce religion, in order to be emancipated as a citizen. On the other hand, he considers, and this follows logically, that the political abolition of religion is the abolition of all religion. The state which presupposes religion is not yet a true or actual state” (29).

Here is Marx’s major critique of Bauer. “We see his error in the fact that he subjects only the Christian state and not ‘the state as such’ to criticism, that he does not examine the relation between political emancipation and human emancipation.....We ask the converse question: from the standpoint of political emancipation can the Jew be required to abolish Judaism, or man be asked to abolish religion?” (30).

Marx wants to make the argument that political emancipation from religion only means that the state affirms itself as a state, distinct from religion in general. This, however, does not mean abolishing the existence of specific religions. The universality of the political state here presupposes these specific distinctions, if only to negate them; the state is universal only insofar as it opposes religion, private property, social rank, class, etc. Bauer’s mistake is to focus on religion as if it were the main source of inequality, and not as if it were symptomatic of the broader limitations of the state. Political emancipation is much narrower than human emancipation. It divides man into a private and public person, and merely displaces specific inequalities from the realm of the state to civil society.

However, because the universality of the political state presupposes these specifics, such as property and religion, its efforts to abolish them means to “set itself in violent contradiction with its own conditions of existence, by declaring a permanent revolution” (36). All such revolutions inevitably end with the restoration of these elements of civil society.

He then goes on to argue that the “perfected Christian state” is not the one which proclaims Christianity as its basis. Rather, it is the atheistic state, the politically emancipated state. The atheistic state realizes the limitations of political emancipation, or “perfected politics” through the persistence of religion in the civil sphere; the so-called Christian state uses religion to bolster its authority, as a means of “imperfect politics.”

Essentially, the “so-called Christian state” is impossible. Here Marx references to the bible passages which propound a notion of Christianity which the state could not conform to without dissolving itself. The so-called Christian state can only survive by hypocritically separating the spirit and letter of the bible; this, however, is a fundamentally irreligious act.

Instead, Marx argues that the secular state is the true Christian state, insofar as it expresses the “human basis” of Christianity. The citizen of the secular state treats political life - which is remote from his individual existence - as the true life. Man is sovereign, but only man as alienated, finite, and not yet a “real species-being.” Democracy presupposes something like a fallen man, alienated from his true self.

This becomes clearer with Marx’s discussion of human rights. Bauer argues that the Jew should not enjoy the rights of man, because such rights are a recent creation, gained by those who struggled against the accident of birth. As someone who refuses to give up the particular, the Jew has no claim on human rights. Marx calls him out on this, pointing out that one of the fundamental rights of man is freedom of religious practice. He then goes on to point out that the rights of man presuppose an understanding of the individual as an isolated monad, free to be as egotistic and self-absorbed as he likes, provided he does not infringe on the rights of others. This is exactly what the Jew wants to enjoy; thus, there is no reason to deny him this, working within the logic of the system.

However, from there Marx critiques this notion of liberty which sees the individual member of civil society as distinct from political life, and as elevated above political life. He briefly points out that, although in theory the universal/political is subordinated to the particular/civil, certain assumptions, such as the assertion that free speech can be limited if it poses a threat to the commonwealth, show this relation to be theoretical, rather than practical. Nonetheless, the important question for Marx is why we should emphasize the rhetoric of the particular above the universal, or civil above the political. He blames this on feudalism, which, by making individual relations political, paradoxically gave the illusion that political relations were the private affairs of the princes. The turn to the separation between civil and political life was a reaction.

Ultimately, though, the goal should be to overcome this alienation and make it so that the particular individual embodies the universal, that the distinction between political and civil citizen is overcome.

2. Bruno Bauer “Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen frei zu werden” OR, the really anti-semitic part

Because Bauer insists on seeing Judaism as merely a crude criticism of Christianity, and reducing the Jew entirely to his idealized, abstract essence - rather than his practical essence - he sees Jewish emancipation requiring a philosophico-theological act. Namely, the Jew must give up Judaism and then begin the critique of Christianity. The Jew, in essence, is one step further removed from emancipation than the Christian. Bauer’s entire approach, according to Marx, is a secularized version of the old argument about which religion saves. Only now, rather than seeking spiritual salvation, people must seek political emancipation. Once the Christian gives up his religion, the Jew is no longer and antagonistic force, according the Bauer. Rather, the Jew becomes a point of indifference, and the question of whether he can ever be emancipated assumes the character of abstract, theoretical interest.

Contra Bauer, Marx argues that one needs to bracket the idealized essence of Judaism and look instead to the practical essence: “practical need, self-interest... huckstering... money” (48). Marx deploys a series of anti-Semitic stereotypes in order to critique civil society as he sees it. The basic argument is that Bauer is wrong to think that Judaism becomes irrelevant at the moment the Christian gives up his religion. Rather, just as the political state is a secularized version of the human essence of Christianity, so too is the civil state the secularized version of the practical, human basis of Judaism. So not only is Judaism still relevant, it has been validated as higher than the political/universal/Christian through the emphasis on selfish practical need in civil society. The two are in a symbiotic relationship, with Christianity as “the sublime thought of Judaism” and Judaism as “the vulgar practical application of Christianity” (52). The only way to really emancipate the Jew, then, and with him, all of mankind, is to abolish the practical essence of Judaism: “huckstering.” “The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism” (52).

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