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Karl Marx: Radical Antisemitism

This is a guest Post by Michael Ezra

In a review of the recently published book, Antisemitic Myths: A Historical and Contemporary Anthology, edited by Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer, David Hirsh has argued that it is a “standard misreading” of Marx to say that “Marx was an antisemite.” With this, he concurs with Robert Fine, who attempted to “explode the myth” of Marx’s antisemitism. As far as Professor Fine is concerned, those who believe this “myth” have an “inability” to read Marx or comprehend Marx’s “ironic style” of writing.

What truth is there in this argument? Marx’s essay, On the Jewish Question, originally published in 1844 contains the following:

What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.…. Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities…. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange…. The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.

Marx argues that, “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism. Larry Ray explains, “Marx’s position is essentially an assimilationist one in which there is no room within emancipated humanity for Jews as a separate ethnic or cultural identity.” Dennis Fischman puts it, “Jews, Marx seems to be saying, can only become free when, as Jews, they no longer exist.”

The British journalist and historian Paul Johnson has argued that “The second part of Marx’s essay is almost a classic anti-Semitic tract, based upon a fantasied Jewish archetype and a conspiracy to corrupt the world.” The American historian, Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that it cannot be denied that in his essay On the Jewish Question, Marx expressed views that “were part of the classic repertoire of anti-Semitism.” And so it goes on. Noted expert on antisemitism, Robert Wistrich, declared, (Soviet Jewish Affairs, 4:1, 1974) “the net result of Marx’s essay [On The Jewish Question] is to reinforce a traditional anti-Jewish stereotype – the identification of the Jews with money-making – in the sharpest possible manner.” In his book, Political Discourse in Exile: Karl Marx and the Jewish Question , Dennis Fischman comments that in the second section of his essay, “Marx seems fairly to bristle with anti-Jewish sentiments.” Even the anti-Zionist Joel Kovel, whose political views I normally have no time for, has said:

By anti-Semitism I mean the denial of the right of the Jew to autonomous existence, i.e., to freely determine his/her own being as Jew. Anti-Semitism therefore entails an attitude of hostility to the Jew as Jew. This is an act of violence, addressed to an essential property of humanity: the assertion of an identity, which may be understood as a socially shared structuring of subjectivity. To attack the free assumption of identity is to undermine the social foundation of the self. Judged by these criteria, OJQ [On the Jewish Question] is without any question an anti-Semitic tract – significantly, only in its second part, “Die Fähigkeit.” No attempt to read these pages as a play on words can conceal the hostility which infuses them, and is precisely directed against the identity of the Jew.

In fact, so commonly held is the view that Marx was an anti-Semite that in 1964, Shlomo Avineri, a leading commentator on Marx, stated (“Marx and Jewish Emancipation,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 1964) “That Karl Marx was an inveterate antisemite is today considered a commonplace which is hardly ever questioned.” Despite the opinions of numerous commentators, for Professor Fine, Marx’s stated views are not anti-Semitic but “witty” and “ironic.” In On the Jewish Question, Marx discusses the “practical domination of Judaism over the Christian world.” I am not sure whether this is “witty” or “ironic.” Perhaps Professor Fine would like to explain. Marx’s essay also contains accusations against the Jewish religion which Marx says has “Contempt for theory, art, history, and for man as an end in himself.” Witty? Ironic? I think not.

To the credit of Professor Fine, he does not exonerate the left: “modern, political anti-Semitism is a creature of the left as well as the right” but what he does seem to do is disassociate left antisemitism from Marx.

Ulrike Meinhof of the Marxist Red Army Faction posed the question “How was Auschwitz possible, what was anti-Semitism?” and stated the opinion that “Auschwitz means that six million Jews were murdered and carted on to the rubbish dumps of Europe for being that which was maintained of them—Money-Jews.” As far as she was concerned, hatred of Jews was actually the hatred of capitalism and hence the murder of the Israeli Olympic team, at 1972 Munich Olympics, was not only justified but something that could be praised. Whilst Meinhof’s explanation is perverse, it seems to me that such an interpretation can be explained if one’s understanding of how Marxists should view Jews is obtained from Marx’s own essay,On the Jewish Question.

When considering Marx and his views towards Jews, one must go further than his infamous essay, his correspondence also needs to be considered. Marx used the Bambergers to borrow money but showed contempt for them. In a derogatory fashion he referred to the father and son as “Jew Bamberger” or “little Jew Bamberger.” Similarly, Spielmann, whose name appears frequently in correspondence between Marx and Engels was referred to as “Jew Spielmann.” When on holiday in Ramsgate in 1879, Marx reported to Engels that the resort contained “many Jews and fleas.” In an earlier letter to Engels, Marx referred to Ferdinand Lassalle as a “Jewish nigger.” Professor Fine has not discussed this but I do not see such comments as “witty” or “ironic,” they are simply racist.

If they are not ignoring such expressions, apologists for Marx will even try and whitewash them. In a 1942 Soviet English language publication of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, such terminology could not be ignored and the following note (cited by Diane Paul, “‘In the Interests of Civilization’: Marxist Views of Race and Culture in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 1981) was included:

With reference to the use of the word “nigger” which occurs in this book: Marx used the word while living in England, in the last century. The word does not have the same connotation as it has now in the U.S. and should be read as “Negro” whenever it occurs in the text.

The excuse seems to be along the lines of: “Yes, a racist term is used, but pretend that a non racist term was used instead.” It is a simply ludicrous excuse and it exposes the depths to which apologists of Marx will sink.

It was in his article, “The Russian Loan,” published in the New-York Daily Tribune on January 4, 1856, that the grotesque antisemitism of Karl Marx’s writing was on full display:

Thus we find every tyrant backed by a Jew, as is every pope by a Jesuit. In truth, the cravings of oppressors would be hopeless, and the practicability of war out of the question, if there were not an army of Jesuits to smother thought and a handful of Jews to ransack pockets.

… the real work is done by the Jews, and can only be done by them, as they monopolize the machinery of the loanmongering mysteries by concentrating their energies upon the barter trade in securities… Here and there and everywhere that a little capital courts investment, there is ever one of these little Jews ready to make a little suggestion or place a little bit of a loan. The smartest highwayman in the Abruzzi is not better posted up about the locale of the hard cash in a traveler’s valise or pocket than those Jews about any loose capital in the hands of a trader… The language spoken smells strongly of Babel, and the perfume which otherwise pervades the place is by no means of a choice kind.

… Thus do these loans, which are a curse to the people, a ruin to the holders, and a danger to the governments, become a blessing to the houses of the children of Judah. This Jew organization of loan-mongers is as dangerous to the people as the aristocratic organization of landowners… The fortunes amassed by these loan-mongers are immense, but the wrongs and sufferings thus entailed on the people and the encouragement thus afforded to their oppressors still remain to be told.

… The fact that 1855 years ago Christ drove the Jewish moneychangers out of the temple, and that the moneychangers of our age enlisted on the side of tyranny happen again chiefly to be Jews, is perhaps no more than a historical coincidence. The loan-mongering Jews of Europe do only on a larger and more obnoxious scale what many others do on one smaller and less significant. But it is only because the Jews are so strong that it is timely and expedient to expose and stigmatize their organization.

A Marxist website has provided a list of articles written by Karl Marx between 1852 and 1861 for the New York Daily Tribune. It does not surprise me that “The Russian Loan” does not appear on this list. When apologists for Marx’s antisemitism run out of explanations, they simply ignore his words.