There is a current debate on Marx and Marxism that is happening across academia, which has drawn my attention.
In the 1960s and beyond, Marx was very popular with socialists (and still is), and a number of Jews became followers of Marx based on the notion that Communism was about community and Jews have always been very community minded. However, recently Marxism has been called into question, not just for its unworkable politics, but also as being anti-Semitism.
In the 1960s Europe was still mourning the losses from Fascism, but Fascism and Communism were not the same thing. Added to this, there was significant evidence to affirm Adolf Hitler’s hatred of Communism, this has been well documented. Nonetheless, Marx, who wrote the Communist Manifesto, is being accused of anti-Semitism.
In the 1960s it was trendy for rebellious youths to call themselves Communists, while many did not understand the tenants of the Communist ideology, many were led by intellectuals who did. It was an attractive proposition for the oppressed, keeping in mind there was little knowledge of the deaths and torture brought about by Eastern Europe’s Communist revolutions or the pogroms. The focus was on what used to be the Soviet Union (USSR), which has since been dismantled.
Importantly, Communism was a real threat to Capitalism across the world, both Australia and America banned Communism and invoked penalties for members of Communist groups that included imprisonment. Needless to say, for those who followed Communism, Karl Marx was the ultimate hero, but his works were voluminous and only read by the dedicated few, the rest just followed the leaders into Communist activism and groups.
Marx was a brilliant economist, philosopher and sociologist, but many of his readers were more interested in his philosophies than Communism as a direct system of government. It was the mass working class who were drawn to Communism and Socialism, which had real and tangible roots in past revolutions.
When populations woke up to the horrors of the Holocaust all forms of Socialism went out of favour. At the same time, the world embarked on a Cold War, so Communism was also off the agenda.
More recently, various leaders of the Socialist left have been closely scrutinized, especially in regard to their possible anti-Semitism. Hence, in today’s political climate all forms of Socialism are regarded as anti-Jewish and today, Marx is being viewed in a very different light, not just as a Communist, but also as an anti-Semite. Added to this, it is being argued that Hitler was very influenced by Karl Marx.
Marx was Jew from a distinguished rabbinical lineage and although he rebelled against Judaism and its traditions, it is hard to imagine Hitler following the ideas of any Jew since he was known for his intense hatred of anything connected to the Jews and Judaism and his campaigns against the Jews were deeply personal. Nonetheless, the connection between Hitler and Marx is being avidly promulgated across the western world.
It is true to say that Marx was a believer in uniformity and he wanted to change the Jewish culture to make it both secular and inclusive, he was not the only Jew pursuing this cause. Jews, by nature were very insular, they had to be after centuries of persecution. Today the context has changed, but Marxist writings on the Jews as anti-social are being reiterated.
In the 1960s the multicultural views held by Marx were not thought to be anti-Semitic. However, today, the Marxist discourse is viewed as a direct attack on Jews and in particular an attack on Israel, despite the fact that Israel did not exist at the time of Marx’s writing.
Importantly, in the 1960s and beyond many Jews were Marxists and Communists. The major imperative in Judaism has always been to heal the world (Tikkun Olam) and it was not unreasonable to suggest that a new form of government was needed at the helm of such a huge task.
Also, it needs to be considered that Marx was responding to the times, and while there were a number of affluent Jews, most Jews were desperately poor and living in shocking conditions with little work or food. Hence, the coming together of Jews and Marxism should not be cause for surprise. With this in mind, it begs the question, what is it that sees Marx categorized as anti-Semitic? Why are we reading Marx so differently today than we did in the 1960s?
There used to be a clear distinction between Communism and Socialism. Today, we hardly hear about Communism, even though there are still Communist governments. In addition, what we understood to be Communism was not truly what Marx envisaged instead Communism was (and is) just another form of state controlled government.
While Communism largely failed, Socialism has managed to hang on to the threads that were always already historically racist. Socialism also bled into Anarchism, particularly in the revival of works by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. 1809-1865.
Proudhon was a French politician and the founder of the mutualist philosophy and he is considered to be one of the Anarchist’s most influential theorists. He became a member of the French Parliament after the Revolution of 1848.
Proudhon was fiercely anti-Semitic, calling not for the end of what Jews represent, but of the Jews as a people. This is the call that is being reiterated today by the Socialists. The royalist group Action Française, and the Jew-hater Charles Maurras, drew inspiration from Proudhon and this is the bitter legacy that has endured,
Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, but he was not the first communist. This title goes to the French Revolutionary Gracchus Babeuf 1796.
Marx is author of a work titled On the Jewish Question, which is the tract that has drawn him into the arena of accused anti-Semites. There is no doubt that Marx ‘s works were anti-religious, he questioned religion, but he was certainly not considered an anti-Semite until recently. There has been a distinct shift, whereby anti-religion (Judaism) is also viewed as being anti-Semitic. This has come about since the establishment of the Jewish State, Israel and crucially most of Israel’s most fervent enemies are either politically Socialist or influenced by Islamic socialist beliefs.
The critique of Marx as an anti-Semite focuses on his book titled On the Jewish Question. It was a response to a short book called The Jewish Question which was written by his revolutionary contemporary Bruno Bauer. Marx held significant influence on politics and culture at a time when the struggle was largely against aristocratic privilege. Jews did not form a part of the aristocratic cohort, but a few had affluent businesses that serviced them.
The dynamics shifted focus after the Second World War following the collapse of socialist idealism and the rise of Liberalism. Much of the debate focused on the Holocaust, then it shifted with post-colonialism to various forms of racism. Marx was known for his writings on Capitalism, but attention was aroused by his little known book On the Jewish Question, which was relegated to the genre of anti-Semitism along with Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, alleged to be a forgery instigated by the Freemasons.
The accusations against Marx have also coincided with Revisionism (an attempt to rewrite history, especially in regard to the Jews and the Holocaust). Claims have arisen to suggest that Marx had a great influence on Adolf Hitler. Socialists around the world have used this claim to shift attention away from the Holocaust and to invoke an anti-Semitism that finds its expression in a homogenized worldview and the ongoing war against the State of Israel. This in turn, has been linked to a war against American and western values. It has galvanized the left and the right into condemnation of the Jews.
The Jews are used to being caught in the middle of left and right politics, but this has served to deepen the racial divide.
It is claimed that Marx’s attitude toward the Jews is discernible in the tendency of his modern followers to accept the various characteristics that Marx ascribed to the Jews in On the Jewish Question as negative and then to overlay those same characteristics onto condemnation of a global free market.
Marx described Jews as possessing an anti-social element, but what Marx meant by this should not be directed only towards the Jews. Generally, Marx viewed the human character as a positive attribute believing that everyone should reach their full potential and he attempted to adopt a free and open society that would have included Jews (but not religion).
The characteristics that Marx attributes to the Jews are basic in the human condition. In order to accomplish his goal of world transformation toward Communism, Marx advised, and rightfully from his point of view, that the human elements he ascribed to the Jews would have to be expunged from all people, not just Jews. He advocated that in order to affect his view of progress, there had to be unity.
This can be read in different ways. Marx did not invent anti-Semitism, the occurrence goes back as far as the events described in the biblical Book of Esther, events which are believed to have occurred around 400 B.C. The Book of Esther is read during the Jewish holiday of Purim. As the story goes, Haman, the chief advisor to Achashverosh, the Emperor of the Persians and the Medes, sought to annihilate the Jewish people because of the action of one Jew, Mordecai, who refused to bow down in his presence. What followed was a plot to annihilate the Jews.
While Marx was not religious or a racist, but his book has been interpreted as a voice for political anti-Semitism in times when racism should be been eradicated simply through intellectual and economic advancement. The most classic statement found in On the Jewish Question, reads as follows:
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.
This is seemingly Jew attacking Jew which is not uncommon. The fact that Marx was a Jew makes the statement self-effacing and we know Marx struggled with his own Judaism. Even when seen as political criticism of the Jews, if anyone has a right to such criticism it is another Jew. Does this make the statement anti-Semitic? The term aniti-Semitic is in itself problematic and offensive because not all Semites are Jews.
On the Jewish Question has been criticized from both the left and the right and Marx has been accused of establishing a distinctly Jewish stereotype, which has left its mark on Jewish society as different, alien and out to corrupt the world. Was this Marx’s intention to single out Jews as the only form of corruption? No.
Marx viewed certain characteristics as obstacles that were standing in the way of progress and clearly, Marx drew heavily on his own background. What Marx gave to empiricism was the ability to draw on personal experience.
Marx called Judaism false consciousness. Freud, also a Jew did roughly the same, but Freud was not labelled an anti-Semite, albeit he was largely against religion.
It has also been argued that Marx’s reference to consciousness resonates with the social version of the Nazi theory, which was that the Jews posed as a biological corrupting element in Germany and the world. Thus, Marx contended, this false consciousness would disintegrate if Judaism were to disappear. In my view, this is a gross misreading of Marx and his intentions.
For me as a past reader of Marx, the Jews had much more in common with Marxism than we are led to believe, which is why so many Jews became followers of the cause. Marx turned reality in a utopian dream and we all had to wake up from the dream. It is true that Marx would have imposed his ideas on the entire world had it been possible, but is this not what the United States are doing today under the guise of democracy?
One might suggest that the desire to conquer any nation is an act of racism. Conquest is inherent with racism, I don’t think singling out Marx as a racist is going to change this. What it does do is undermine the knowledge and insight Marx did give to the world in analysis and learning.