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Marx and Monotheism

 
 
 
 

No. 406: Saturday, May 28, 2011

This Chronicle is the second part of the talk delivered at the 5th annual GA Summer Conference at High Point NC.

Whether or not you appreciate the Barber analogy discussed in Chronicle 405, you are likely to be thinking of a substantive objection. The Jews may be in some sense defined by the discovery/invention of monotheism figured in the scene with Moses on Mount Horeb, but there is much more to Judaism, well before it was called Judaism, than that. Beyond the "tribal" nature of the revelation to Moses, with its explicit affirmation of election ("my own people") in the context of preparing the Exodus, there is the Law. Whatever its source, the Torah is a guide to life whose hundreds of commandments throughout almost all of Jewish history defined both what it meant to be a Jew and how the Jews were seen by the peoples in whose domains they lived. The paradox of Jewish firstness that is the originary kernel of the Jewish Question was never forgotten, but it was experienced within a context of particularity that throughout most of Jewish history allowed others to forget the naked abstraction with which Hebrew religion began. "The Jew" was throughout the ages someone whose particularities of dress, dietary restrictions, and Sabbath and other customs differentiated him, often quite sharply, from the non-Jews that came into contact with him. Hence we may speak of two "essences" of Judaism: a punctual, transhistorical, generative essence and a worldly, historical, empirically visible essence—a quintessence and an essence, if you like.

Traditional Christian antisemitism defines the Jews by a transhistorical essence of its own design, the event of the crucifixion that qualifies the Jews as "Christ-killers." The heart of this accusation, if we strip away its bloody aspect, is that the election of the Jews is abolished after their rejection and persecution of Christ. From the elect they have become the accursed, and their empirical differences from Christians in customs and dress are signs of this fall from grace. The firstness that marks the Jews’ relationship with the One God, their primacy with respect to monotheism, is invalidated by their blindness to the further revelation of God’s being in Jesus; they are no longer first.

These preliminaries having been established, I would like to turn to my main point, which is to establish the historical distinction between the "old" and "new" Jewish Question, or the old and new antisemitism. Here, first, is my thesis in anthropological terms: the crucial difference between the "old" Jewish Question of the Middle Ages, directly associated with Jewish difference in the broad areas of daily life which in traditional society are bound up with religious practices, and the "new" Jewish Question of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for which the "racial" term antisemitism itself was formulated, is precisely the reduction of Jewish difference from the empirical differences of the Law to its transhistorical, originary quintessence of abstract firstness.

To situate this thesis in historico-empirical terms, I would claim that we can define a specific moment at which this transformation took place, with such clarity that I very much doubt anything comparable occurred elsewhere. That moment is the thought-interval between Bruno Bauer’s pamphlet on The Jewish Question (Die Judenfrage) in 1843 and Karl Marx’s infinitely more famous critical commentary on Bauer published the following year as Zur Judenfrage, and which I would call the founding manifesto of the modern Jewish Question. This association of the Jewish Question, which would of course be the chief preoccupation of one of the two major "totalitarian" revolutionary movements of the 20th century, with Marx, the ideological founder of the other, still more important such movement—one in which, as Yuri Slezkine points out in The Jewish Century, two generations of Russian Jews were deeply involved—goes far to demonstrate the centrality of firstness and the resentment it arouses to Western and human history.

Much ink has been spilled over the question of whether Marx, or even Bauer, is "really" antisemitic. Bauer is no medieval Christian attacking the Jews as having rejected Christ; he is a "Left-Hegelian" atheist who criticizes the religious principles of Christianity as well as Judaism, and who ultimately sees religion and modern liberalism as incompatible principles of social organization. Bauer remains nevertheless representative of the "old" antisemitism in that he defines the Jews by their religious particularity: their adherence to the Law, whose archaic, sacrificial nature he emphasizes (he makes similar if more mitigated criticisms of Christian ritual), and their separateness as a community from the Christian world within which the sciences and arts of modernity have emerged. (That this critique sounds ludicrous in the world of Einstein and Freud and Proust only illustrates the considerable difference between the old and the new Jewish Question.) Indeed, Bauer excoriates the Jews for hypocrisy whenever, as with the Sanhedrin convened by Napoleon in 1807, they attempt to downplay the specificity of their Law and its incompatibility with the laws of modern states. For Bauer, the "modern Jew" who is no longer concerned to obey his religious laws and who expresses loyalty to the modern state is not really a Jew at all. If Bauer takes an adversarial stance toward the "emancipation of the Jews," it is because he takes seriously the traditional idea that they constitute a separate community. Thus his discussion of Jewish emancipation in France insists on the fact that even in the absence of an established religion, because the majority of French people are Christian, Sunday is the weekly day of rest; "emancipated" Jews who want to celebrate their own Sabbath on Saturday must suffer the disadvantage of taking a second day off. This is a critique of the hypocrisy of the "secular" state more than of the Jewish minority, but Bauer’s point is that for a Jew to obtain emancipation in such a state, he must renounce the specificity of his Judaism and therefore be no longer truly a Jew.

Bauer’s critique of the Jew in Christian and post-Christian society emphasizes the incompatibility of traditional Judaism with the modern nation-state. His insistence that Christians and other groups are no more emancipated than Jews in non-democratic states, and that in these states "human rights" are really sets of privileges specific to one or another social group (such as the nobility), is by way of introducing his critique of the Jews as a people that hypocritically demands both to be recognized as participating in society on an equal basis and at the same time to be allowed to retain its traditional parochial customs. We can say in mitigation of the charge of anti-Jewish prejudice that problems of this sort still occupy us in advanced Western countries today, for example in recent legislation in France limiting Muslim dress. The chief point to retain is that what Bauer sees as the Jewish Question is a direct descendent of the problem posed by the Jews in premodern times—they are an alien community with alien laws incompatible with those of the larger society, and their loyalty to their own community outweighs that to the nation as a whole.

As if to insist on the status of the Bauer-Marx exchange as the watershed between the old and the new antisemitisms, Marx’s own essay is itself divided into two parts. In the first part he abolishes the old Jewish Question. Reaching the end of it, the reader can have no idea of the reflections that will follow and in which Marx founds the new Jewish Question—not on a racial basis, the idea of a "Semitic" race being never more than a pretext modeled on colonialist racial ideas that itself offers no explanation—but on the Jews’ alleged "structural" affinity with the market system.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Marx begins by criticizing Bauer for failing to define with sufficient sharpness the difference between bourgeois and citoyen in politically emancipated, democratic society, a difference in terms of which, he insists, the Jew is fundamentally the same as the Christian. Thus whereas Bauer had affirmed that even in a nominally secular, "politically emancipated" state such as France, Jews were still forced to accept an alien Sabbath, Marx dismisses France as an only partially emancipated country and uses instead the United States as his example of a government that gives no political value whatsoever to any specific religion, and where, presumably—although he cites no data, considering the problem in abstracto—Jews are treated in exactly the same way as any of the multitude of Christian sects that make up the majority. (There is no mention of "Sunday laws.") Marx’s point is that in a true democracy, the individual bourgeois who exercises his right to religious practice is wholly independent of the citizen whose political privileges give him the power to guarantee it, as they guarantee the bourgeois’ other personal activities and the private property which allows him to engage in them. Only in one passage do we see a hint of the radical Marx, who (ironically?) expresses surprise that the French revolutionaries, even when the need to protect the Republic led them to abolish such individual liberties as freedom of the press, inevitably expressed their purpose in safeguarding the Republican state as being to permit the exercise of individual freedom rather than (as in future "Marxist" states) the other way around, the freedoms of individuals, such as they are, existing in Marx’s eyes only for the benefit of the collectivity.

To sum up, then, Marx takes Bauer to task for remaining focused on the Jews as a "tribal" minority, whose archaic religious particularity, embodied in sacrificial and otherwise irrational laws, is contrasted to the relatively less obtrusive and more enlightened modes of the Christian majority. However secularist Bauer claims to be, his discussion of the Jews remains dominated by the traditional concept of supersessionism: the Christian religion and its socio-political manifestations remain the "fulfillment" of the Jewish religion, a stage that the Jews will have to pass through before, as Bauer hopes, participating in the common enterprise of abolishing religion altogether. To this, Marx opposes the model of a politically emancipated world where all religions are equivalently practices of individual bourgeois, practices to which the political sphere is indifferent. Hence the implicit conclusion of the first part is that modern democracy on the American model abolishes the grounds for the old antisemitism and for any discrimination against Jews, who are as free to practice their religion as Christians.

The second, crucial part of Marx’s polemic is a response to a briefer essay of Bauer’s, entitled "Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen, frei zu werden" [The Capacity of Today’s Jews and Christians to Become Free], published in a collection of Swiss essays in 1843, the same year as his pamphlet on the Jewish Question. Marx begins in a similar manner, by criticizing Bauer’s old-antisemitic insistence on the religious difference between Jews and Christians. In this pamphlet Bauer had claimed that Christians needed only to free themselves from Christianity to be free, whereas Jews had to "complete" their religion first by a "conversion" to "Christianity in dissolution" [aufgelösten Christentum]. One can say in Bauer’s defense that Christianity as a "religion of the heart" is the ultimate source of the European modernity that led to the Enlightenment, and that "in dissolution" as an institutionalized religion, its morality detaches itself from religious practices. In this context, it is understandable that Bauer would valorize the difference between Christians and Jews, whose communal or "tribal" existence and attachment to their Law was not so easily susceptible to this transformation.

But a couple of pages later, after stating that he wishes to "get rid of the theological conception of the question," Marx abruptly introduces a new element, which he calls "the special position [besondern Stellung] of Judaism in the modern subjugated world" [geknechteten, enslaved, Knecht being the second term in Hegel’s famous "master-slave" (Herr-Knecht) dialectic]. The idea of a special position comes as a surprise after Marx’s insistence in the first part that the religious particularities of the Jews were not decisive. To dramatize a bit, we may say that the expression special position marks the exact point of transition between the old and the new Jewish Question, the old and new antisemitism-generatingspecial position of the Jews. Besonderen Stellung is only a few syllables away from the Nazis’ Sonderbehandlung=extermination.

It is to substantiate this claim that Marx offers his description of the Jew in the terms that will define the Jewish Question for the era of market society, that will turn the old Jew-hatred into modern antisemitism and lead ultimately to the paroxysm of the Holocaust. Whether or not Marx’s essay is the first systematic manifestation of these ideas (which will a few years later generate the first book-length work of modern antisemitism, Toussenel’s 1847Les juifs rois de l’époque), it is certainly the most incisive, and given Marx’s later influence and the quality of his thought, the most important.

Let us consider the real worldly Jews, not the Sabbath Jews, as Bauer does, but the everyday [i.e., weekday] Jews.

We will not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but we will look for the secret of religion in the real Jew.

What is the worldly basis of Judaism? Practical need, egoism.

What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Huckstering [der Schacher]. What is his worldly God? Money.

Very well. Emancipation from huckstering and from money, and therefore from practical, real Judaism would be the self-emancipation of our epoch.

. . .

The emancipation of the Jews in its last significance is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism. [emphasis in text]

The final sentence is repeated almost verbatim as the last sentence of the essay: "The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism."

Marx in this period was still a "utopian" socialist, indeed, more a utopian than a socialist. Until recently, and still today in many academic circles, his professed aim of abolishing "practical Judaism" aka "capitalism" has been considered a noble one, even if in recent decades the possibility of carrying it out in the near future seems less clear. So long as "socialism" remains for many a reasonable goal for bourgeois society, the monstrosity of Marx’s aim itself, in contrast with the antisemitic form of its expression, is not remarked. Marx’s critique of the Jews is that their religion embodies in fantastic, other-worldly form the alienation of market society, where all things are reduced to commodities and sold for money—ideas that will be expressed more powerfully a few years later in the Communist Manifesto. The Jewish Question is the occasion rather than the burden of the message. It is only when we take seriously not merely the failure but the impossibility of socialism’s utopian aim of abolishing "alienation" and permitting, as Marx puts it, not limited political emancipation but true human emancipation that its real perniciousness becomes clear. To abolish money and "huckstering," which is to say, market exchange, is tantamount to abolishing the universal human mediation of representation and therefore humanity itself. Put in their most radical terms, which are those Generative Anthropologists should use, Marx’s satiric reflections on the Jews as "worshipers" of money, that is, representation-based exchange among humans, entail that the Jews are the archetype of humanity, and conversely that "emancipation from Judaism" is the extirpation from humanity of its own essence.

Since Marx makes Judaism a virtual synonym of capitalism and claims that in practical terms, all Christians have become Jews, one might claim that his words imply rather the abolition of the Jewish Question than its reinforcement. But instead they display for all to see the familiar paradox of firstness. All the Christians have become Jews—but the Jews were already Jews, and this, one imagines, confers on them a secret advantage. All other things being equal, as they sometimes are, being a Jew in a world of Christians-become-Jews, or in Slezkine’s language, a "Mercurian" in a world of Apollonians-become-Mercurians, indeed confers a certain advantage, one made all too visible by the success of the Jews in the world of finance, and later, in those of the sciences and arts that had previously been closed to them.

What Marx never bothers to mention, and indeed, what no one ever mentions, since it’s both too obvious and seemingly unformulable, is that the firstness he ascribes to the German Jews of the early 19th century is fully analogous to that of the Hebrew discoverers of monotheism. They are the inventors, or at any rate the successful adopters of an innovation that will eventually drive its competitors from the field. Of course the Jews didn’t invent money, whereas they did apparently "invent" monotheism. But their success with the abstraction of money, which reduces all value to a single "nameless" measure, parallels their discovery of the now universally accepted advantages of the One God—one might say, is a not insignificant corollary of it. There is One God because the human sacred is essentially the same everywhere, having derived along with our species from a unique originary event, and because as members of different societies meet, they can to a minimal degree come to an agreement about the transcendental nature of God—an agreement GA would like to further extend and minimalize. Money too dissolves all secondary differences in the universal interest of exchange. Yet Marx’s Jew who embodies the "spirit of capitalism" is, unlike Weber’s Protestant, the object of a particular hatred for the seeming originarity of this embodiment.

The first time everyone became a Jew, they called themselves Christians; the second time, Muslims; in both cases "everyone" persecuted the Jews for having become Jews first. In the modern world, everyone uses money and no new systems of belief are required, but the Jew is perceived as having been first with money too. The modern inability to create new religions as systems of exclusion only makes the persecution more ruthless. What Marx calls in his conclusion the emancipation of the world from Judaism is a program that in the following century Stalin and Hitler were to take very seriously, in different but finally convergent ways. The modern face of the Jewish Question, the reduction of its traditional formulation in terms of differences in Law and custom to the simple, paradoxical essence of firstness—where like the Barber one differs historically but not ontologically and therefore differs all the more irrevocably ontologically—has not yet finished playing itself out in the modern world. In Muslim countries today, the Jewish Question is the locus of modernity itself: firstness is the ferociously resented attribute of the whole modern exchange system. One needn’t go along with the increasingly apocalyptic pronouncements of Mark Steyn to be concerned for the fate of modern civilization itself when it becomes, as today, increasingly identified with the accursed firstness of the Jews.

 
 

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
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