(Your Voice in a World where Zionism, Steel, and Fire have
turned Justice Mute)

Naji Alloush

Marxism and the Jewish Question

Translated from the Arabic by Muhammad Abu Nasr

Marx and the Jewish Question

<< Preface

Marx's study On the Jewish Question(1) is important for two reasons:

First: It is important because it is a part of the Marxist legacy and is therefore a Marxist position on the Jewish question.

Second: It is important because of the manner in which the Jewish question is presented.

What was Marx's position on the Jewish question? How did he present the question?

Marx's manner of presenting the Jewish question and discussing it defines his position on it. He refuses to consider the Jewish question as merely a religious question and he demonstrates the error of Bruno Bauer who posed the issue in just that way. Marx shows that Bauer only sees the question from one angle.(2) But Marx refuses to stop there. He goes further, not satisfied that "the Jew should renounce Judaism, and that mankind in general should renounce religion," for there to be civic emancipation, or that "the political abolition of religion [should be regarded] as the abolition of religion as such."(3)

Marx begins his treatment of the issue by saying: "It was by no means sufficient to investigate: Who is to emancipate? Who is to be emancipated? Criticism had to investigate a third point. It had to inquire: What kind of emancipation is in question? What conditions follow from the very nature of the emancipation that is demanded?"(4)

The issue then, in Marx's view, is not a Christian and a Jewish question, nor is it a question of which of them will liberate the other - as Bauer had presented it. It is, rather, an issue of the nature of emancipation itself.

The Jewish question is not presented in an absolute way. Rather, "the Jewish question acquires a different form depending on the state in which the Jew lives. In Germany, where there is no political state, no state as such, the Jewish question is a purely theological one."(5) "In France, a constitutional state, the Jewish question is a question of constitutionalism, the question of the incompleteness of political emancipation. Since the semblance of a state religion is retained here, although in a meaningless and self-contradictory formula, that of a religion of the majority, the relation of the Jew to the state retains the semblance of a religious, theological opposition.

"Only in the North American states - at least in some of them - does the Jewish question lose its theological significance and become a really secular question."(6)

The Jewish question does not go beyond being a theological question except when the state goes beyond being a theological state and becomes a political state in actuality.(7) This transformation, that Marx calls political emancipation, is where "the state as a state emancipates itself from religion by emancipating itself from the state religion."(8) But the political emancipation of the Jew or the Christian does not mean the liberation of man, because the emancipation of the state from religion does not mean the emancipation of man from religion. When man is emancipated from religion in the sense of the abolition of the state religion, this political emancipation from religion leaves religion in existence, although not a privileged religion.(9) In such a situation, man is not freed from religion, he receives religious freedom.(10)

This "political emancipation" takes place when the state is transformed from a theological state - an incomplete form of the state - into a political state, that is into a bourgeois state.

This political emancipation means "the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and, on the other hand, to a citizen, a juridical person,"(11) whose rights are in contradiction to his reality.

This political emancipation attains the ideal form of the state, but at the same time it attains the material form of society. When it transforms man into a "member of civil society" it makes him "an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community."(12) In other words, it makes him a Jew.

From this premise, Marx drew this conclusion: "Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew."(13) He carried on in search of that "particular social element [that] has to be overcome in order to abolish Judaism."(14)

Marx posed the following question for himself: "What is the secular basis of Judaism?" And he answered, "Practical need, self-interest." Marx quickly concludes, "Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time."(15)

Judaism, then, is not separate from society. It is an essential part of it. "Judaism continues to exist not in spite of history, but owing to history."(16) "The Jew is perpetually created by civil society from its own entrails."(17) "Judaism reaches its highest point with the perfection of civil society."(18)

In Marx's view, the essence of Judaism is nothing but "huckstering and its preconditions." It is this huckstering that makes money into a god "in the face of which no other god may exist." "Money is the jealous god of Israel." "The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew." Yet this god has not remained a Jewish god. "The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world."(19) On that basis, "the chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general."(20)

Marx's solution to the problem is clear: "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 humanised, 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."(21)

Marx here affirms incontrovertibly that the emancipation of the Jew is dependent upon the abolition of capitalist society, and that this emancipation is not an emancipation of the Jew, but rather an emancipation of mankind. Although Marx wrote this study in the year 1844, there is nothing in his later writings to indicate that he ever changed his attitude on the question.

Marx lived through a time of various Jewish activities that aimed at a renaissance of the Jewish [cultural] legacy, as well as at gathering the Jews in Palestine. Despite that, he did not see the Jewish activities as a national movement. Although he supported the national movements in Ireland and Poland, although he supported German national unification and Italian national unification,(22) he saw in Judaism only a "chimerical" nationality.

Marx's study tells us two important things:

First: the Jewish question is not a national question. It must be treated in accordance with the conditions that surround it. It is different in Germany from what it is in France. That, in turn is different from the Jewish question in certain states of North America.

Second: this question has developed from a theological question in the era of feudalism to a political question in the age of the rise of the bourgeoisie. Its solution depends on a solution of the bourgeois system, that is, on the elimination of that system. The destruction of the bourgeois system will not bring about the particular liberation of the Jews, but the liberation of society from Judaism.

Marx chose the opposite approach to that of Bauer. Bauer saw the Jewish problem in the Jews' religion; Marx saw the Jewish problem in their reality. We do not believe that Marx was wrong in focusing on reality, on the social base. But this does not contradict the fact that the reality of the Jew has not been separate from his religion, historically - since the Exodus and until today. If the economic, social, and political reality is the beginning point of the Jewish idea in general - if it is the basis upon which it grew and thrived - the Jewish religion, which is a product of the Jewish reality, took part in defining their place and their relationships with their neighbors in Palestine and in the diaspora, from the time that Jericho was occupied by Joshua to the time when Jericho was occupied by Dayan.

Marx did not assign sufficient importance to superstructure, although it is very clear that no Jew could exist today were it not for the Jewish religion.(23) Why does the Russian Jew, the German Jew, or the French Jew who does not know Hebrew, or even Yiddish, and who only knows the language of his country and who follows only the traditions of his country consider himself a Jew? Why does he fervently support the Zionist movement and the Zionist Entity? Naturally, the secret must lie in his religion too - that ancient superstructure.

But that does not mean that Marx's proposition that "Judaism continues to exist not in spite of history, but owing to history" is wrong. It is precisely correct, in fact, for religions have not remained in spite of history, and Judaism is one of them.

The experience of fifty years of socialist construction in the Soviet Union has not been enough to liberate a large part of the Soviet Jews from their Judaism.

But this fact does not totally negate Marx's presentation of the matter. It merely indicates the importance of the superstructure and of its transformation into an objective reality that does not automatically disappear with the conditions that produced it. For it to vanish, efforts, education, and time are needed.


(1) Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, in Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Collected Works, New York: International Publishers, 1975, vol. 3, 146-174. Naji Alloush referred to the following Arabic edition: al-Mas`alah al-Yahudiyah [The Jewish Question], Muhammad `Itani, tr., Beirut: Maktabat al-Ma`arif, 1952.

(2) Marx, Engels, Collected Works, p. 149.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid., 150.

(6) Ibid., 150.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid., 151-152.

(9) Ibid., 159.

(10) Ibid., 167.

(11) Ibid., 168.

(12) Ibid., 164.

(13) Ibid., 169.

(14) Ibid., 169.

(15) Ibid., 170.

(16) Ibid., 171.

(17) Ibid.

(18) Ibid., 173.

(19) Ibid., 172.

(20) Ibid.

(21) Ibid., 174.

(22) Ilyas Murqus, al-Marksiyah wa-al-Sharq [Marxism and the East], Beirut: Dar al-Tali`ah, 1968, 105-141.

(23) Engels explained this excessive concern with the economic base in a letter he wrote to Joseph Bloch in 1890, in which he said, "Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis--vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other factors involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to applying the theory in practice, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible." Engels emphasized this fact more than once. (See the text of the letter in Marx, Engels Selected Correspondence, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975. 396., and Ilyas Murqus, al-Marksiyah wa-al-Sharq [Marxism and the East], Beirut: Dar al-Tali`ah, 1968, 57-58.)

>> Lenin and the Jewish Question