Deciding what aspect of Marxism to consider in the 200th year after Karl Marx’s  birth (5th May 1818) was made considerably easier when some comments, purportedly by a ‘Jewish leader’ about ‘why black people are economically behind’ and what can be done to make them rich, arrived in my inbox.

It immediately reminded me of the controversy that surrounded some statements Marx made in his 1844 ‘On the Jewish Question’. Basically, the advice of this supposed Jewish leader is the commonplace one of black people uniting and working together and focusing upon capital accumulation rather than consumption.  It has not missed me that such suggestions are usually too a historical to be of any practical use, and given all that is taking place today in Israel, this specific one fails to properly assess its downside if applied in an ethnically diverse place such as Guyana. Furthermore, I am not so naive as to not realise that the entire story of this Jewish leader might be fictitious but is being utilised because it is widely believed that Jews live in a semi-closed community that favours accumulation and are generally rich.

Therefore, the story is being deployed as a kind of ‘dog whistle’ to help to shore up a largely African-supported coalition government under severe pressure from its own constituency for underperformance. In the above mentioned work, Marx sought to root the German Jewish problem and its overcoming in the concrete conditions of Jewish life rather than in Judaism as such and perhaps it is a methodology worthy of consideration. 

Briefly, in 1843, one of the young Hegelians (followers of the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel of whom Marx was one) Bruno Bauer wrote ‘The Jewish Question’ in which he argued that the Jews would gain the civil and religious rights and equality i.e. the political liberation, they desired as soon as ‘Jew and Christian recognize that their respective religions are no more than different stages in the development of the human mind, different snake skins cast off by history’, and abandon religion altogether.  Of course, given the multifaceted nature of religious belief, this kind of formulation appears to be putting off the political emancipation of the Jews to some distant point in never-never land.

In ‘On the Jewish Question’, Marx took issue with Bauer’s position by claiming that contemporary capitalist society is made up of the state and civil society,  the former being political life and the latter the site of practical living, day to day existence. ‘The perfect political state is, by its nature, man’s species-life, as opposed to his material life. All the preconditions of this egoistic life continue to exist in civil society outside the sphere of the state.’ This perfect political state claims to be neutral in most respects and religious freedom exists precisely in such a state which expresses no religious preferences: where Christians, Jews etc, are free to practice their religion without hindrance. Therefore, Jews like Christians can have their civic and religious rights without the need to abolish religion. In fact, however, this perfect political state is always in the control of some class and human, as distinct from political emancipation will be accomplished ‘[o]nly when … in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, … man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power.’ 

In his ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’ of the same year (1844), Marx gives us a bird’s eye view of why this self-emancipation is necessary and what it looks like. He tells us that what differentiates and makes man the freest of animals is his capacity to free himself and be conscious of freeing himself from his surroundings and his own activities, both of which he is able to dispose of. Anything that prevents him from freely doing so obstructs his freedom, and the problem with the capitalist organisation of society is that it restricts human freedom in numerous ways. For example, capitalist commodity production for exchange rather than for the fulfillment of human needs takes away man’s control over his labour, the product thereof and his relationship with other producers and society. True, in any society, man cannot be totally free because he must systematically with others perform some labour to be able to support himself and society. Nonetheless, these tasks must be kept to the minimum and must be performed under conditions most conducive to his having maximum freedom. The contradiction within capitalism – between the capitalist, owning, controlling the means of production and accumulating money and wealth – and the labourers – those actual making of the product for little more than the means to stay alive – will lead inevitably to the demise of capitalism.

Marx then proceeds to characterise Jews in a way similar to that of our ‘Jewish leader’. According to him, Jews were not only financing industry on a substantial scale but their money was behind every contemporary tyrant and war and thus Judaism has a special position in relation to human enslavement. ‘Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew – not the Sabbath Jew, as Bauer does, but the everyday Jew. 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. What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time for money has become the god of all mankind!’

It is not difficult to see that the Feuerbachian (Ludwig Feuerbach; another young Hegelian: ‘The Essence of Christianity’, 1841) notion that ‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man’ was responsible for Marx locating Judaism in Jewish everyday life. Maybe more than today, in Marx’s time Jews were thought to be wealthy and also living in a closed society and Judaism does place some emphasis on the proper use of money. Nonetheless, while Marx may be accused of mischaracterizing the Jewish condition, all he is saying is that if Jewish wealth is the problem, it cannot be gotten rid of in the perfect capitalist political state for their culture gives them an advantage therein. However, it is one thing to say that as society develops and social life becomes more scientific and secure the belief in a supreme being and religion will gradually be extinguished, and quite another (and wrongly in my view) to claim, as Marx appears to have done, that the entire content of any given religion is rooted in the accumulation of wealth and that once the need for accumulation no longer exists, religion will disappear!  Thus, while Bauer did not properly distinguish between human and political liberation, Marx underestimated the multidimensional nature and thus the power of religion. 

Whatever one may think of the possibility, practicality or correctness of Marx’s proposals, here we have a seminal conceptualization of complete, earthly, universal human emancipation.  He sought to find solutions to our condition not as Bauer did in the relinquishing or holding more firmly to our idealizations but in the concrete expressions of day-to-day living. The result is a vision of all mankind, not one part of it, democratically organizing all its power and working in concert to improve life conditions and expand freedom. Rather than encouraging ethnic separation and the accumulation of money, at this stage in our development the better and more humane option would be to support the creation of a system in which political power – social power – can be equitably utilised in the interest of all.