On the Jewish Question



Commentary on Karl Marx's book

when you wrote On the Jewish Question Marx was not yet twenty-six. Shortly before, initiating the “settlement of accounts with his philosophical conscience”, he had undertaken a sharp criticism of the Philosophy of law, of Hegel. Shortly afterwards, in Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right he finds the “class with radical chains”, the proletariat, which marks his adherence to socialism.

On the Jewish Question it must therefore be understood in view of this moment in Marx's intellectual and political development. Moreover, a central moment, which, in general terms, coincides with his short period in Paris. In it, he edits, together with Arnold Ruge, the only number of Franco-German Annals, magazine in which it appears On the Jewish question, a Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right and an article that catches your eye, Outline for a critique of political economy, by Friedrich Engels.

The book is about two articles by Bruno Bauer and not directly about the Jewish question. The essay is divided into two practically independent parts. In the first, already with the polemical style that will mark him, Marx makes a detailed critique of Bauer's theses; in the second, he seeks, at a time when he is beginning to develop the materialist conception of history, to understand “not the Saturday Jew, object of Bauer's consideration, but the everyday Jew”.

The problem of his former companion “Young Hegelian” would be precisely that of remaining trapped in a purely religious conception of the political emancipation of the Jews. In other words, by criticizing the claim of Jewish political emancipation, he turns a secular issue into a religious one, suggesting that the problem still lies with religion.

The mistake would be to believe that Jews, in order to emancipate themselves politically, should free themselves from Judaism. Political emancipation would, on the contrary, make it possible for men, be they Jews, Protestants, Catholics, etc. profess whatever religion they wanted. In other words, the liberation of the State from religion would not be synonymous with the liberation of man from religion, political emancipation in no way corresponding to human emancipation.

In an opposite orientation, Marx seeks to show that the State, by not identifying itself with those who profess a particular religion or with those who are property owners, would precisely seek to guarantee, beyond particular elements, its universality. From then on, man's generic life would seem to take place in the space of the State, his private life subsisting in civil society.

Consequently, there would be a split between man as a citizen, a generic being active in the political community, who would aim at the general interest, and the bourgeois, a private individual, a member of civil society who would seek to fulfill his private interest.

Bauer would also be wrong in considering that men, in order to have access to human rights, should free themselves from religion. However, this would not be what is found by examining the Declarations of the Rights of Man of the American Revolution and the French Revolution. In particular, it is common in French documents to make a distinction between “man's rights” and “citizen's rights”.

However, none of the rights of man – equality, liberty, security and property – would go beyond man as a bourgeois, selfish member of civil society. The rights of the citizen, in turn, would be understood as simple means for the realization of human rights.

According to Marx, it is significant that “the member of civil society is called a man, simply a man”, while the citizen, the political man, is the abstract, “artificial” man, man as a person. allegorical, moral”. That is, if the political man, citizen, would not have a true existence, the selfish man, member of civil society, would be identified with the natural man.

For Marx, the preservation of human rights, present in civil society, would be the raison d'être of the State. In a formulation that will continue to be central in the rest of his work, he considers that instead of putting an end to the contradictions of civil society, as Hegel believed, the State would exist as an instrument for maintaining these contradictions, that is, politics would not solve the problems of civil society, but how it would reflect them.

In this sense, in the same way that Ludwig Feuerbach noted the existence of religious alienation – in which men project their potentialities onto a supposedly superior entity, God – there would be a kind of political alienation, in which it is believed that the constitutive particularities of civil society would be overcome in the universality of the State.

In this reference, it is possible to consider that Marx is initiating, in On the Jewish question, the critique of the inverted appearances of bourgeois society. Shortly afterwards, we Economic-philosophical manuscripts, begins to carry out the critique of the alienation of work. It continues to have similar motivation to the analysis carried out in The capital about “commodity fetishism”, where relations between people and the products of their work appear as “reified relations between people and social relations between things”.

But if Marx's critique of human rights draws attention primarily to their ideological character – the false appearance of equality, freedom, security and property that obscures the contradictions of civil society – it fails to perceive the emancipatory potential of these rights. Or rather, that more than reflecting the conditions of civil society, they can also enter into tension with bourgeois society and press for its transformation. In this sense, in addition to civil rights, which Marx knew, political and social rights were created, under pressure from the labor and feminist movement, which today are under attack...

*Bernardo Ricupero He is a professor in the Department of Political Science at USP. Author, among other books, of Romanticism and the idea of ​​nation in Brazil (WMF Martins Fontes)

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 5, August 2009.


Karl Marx. On the Jewish Question. Translation: Nélio Schneider. São Paulo, Boitempo, 140 pages.

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