The Life of Karl Marx: Berfrois Interviews Jonathan Sperber


In Berfrois:

Historians are notoriously reluctant to give yes-or-no answers to any question, and this one is a particularly apt candidate for an ambivalent response. Marx certainly made lots of hostile comments about Jews in his correspondence, whether about his encounters with obscure individuals or in regard to his relations with his pupil and rival Ferdinand Lassalle. In his 1844 essay “On the Jewish Question,” he denounced Judaism as a religion encouraging haggling, greed, obsession with money and a whole host of obnoxious capitalist attitudes. A post-capitalist regime would be, Marx went on, one in which the Jewish religion and Jewish identity would come to an end. Such assertions certainly sound, by today’s standards, distinctly anti-Semitic. From such remarks, many authors have concluded that Marx was a self-hating Jew, that he saw Jews as embodying capitalism and so hated them, making his ideas precursors to both the Nazis’ and the communists’ anti-Semitism.

There is another side to Marx’s attitude, though. In that same essay on the Jewish Question he insisted, in no uncertain terms, on the emancipation of the Jews, that is on their having the same citizenship and civil rights as Gentiles, asserting that such emancipation was a central element in the development of a democratic and republican form of government. Marx’s attitude toward his Jewish ancestry appears in the letters he wrote to his uncle Lion Philips, his mother’s sister’s husband, a person he admired and who was rather a father figure for the adult Marx. In one such letter writing about the development of the higher criticism of the Old Testament, he stated that, “Since…Darwin has proven our common descent form the apes, scarcely any shock whatsoever can shake ‘our pride in our ancestors.’” In another Marx described the Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli, (whom Marx greatly admired, regarding, as the smartest man in British politics) as “our tribal comrade.”