Karl Marx: On the Jewish Question

Political Emancipation & Alienation

The central question Karl Marx aims to resolve in his text “On the Jewish Question” is what he calls “the secular conflict” between the church and state.

In particular, Marx aims to resolve whether political emancipation is possible under the state. But before we get into that … here’s a statue of Marx!

The state alienates us from our true nature. — Marx

Throughout most of Christendom, Jews were heavily persecuted, as you probably know. They were not granted the natural rights that Enlightenment philosophes spoke of. Marx is writing in this historical context. Religious freedom and pluralism became dominant discussions at this period and Marx thought that many analysts were misjudging the crux of the problem.

Freedom for Religious Minorities

Marx starts this analysis by exploring what type of freedom is necessary for religious minorities in society. Obviously, some freedoms restrict the liberties of others.

As John Stuart Mill argued, we must establish whether giving freedom to some can cause harm to others. Marx is asking a slightly different question in this text about the nature of political freedom, however.

Marx asks, should the German Jew first seek emancipation as a German or as a Jew? In other words, should the Jew “give up his religious prejudice”? The “decomposition” of man into “Jew” and “citizen” directly helps in this process of emancipation because citizens are viewed as individuals rather than units.

Despite this valuable demarcation, the secular conflict is still far from resolved in the text.

The Hegelian theorist, Bruno Bauer, claimed that in order to solve the Jewish question, we need to first rid ourselves of organized religion in general to achieve a “civic emancipation.” Therefore, Bauer argues that political emancipation comes by abolishing religion from society.

Freedom from Religious Minorities?

For Marx, Bauer wrongly assumes that only a religious state has an alienating nature; Marx argues instead that even a secular state is by its very nature alienating.

Marx importantly clarifies that the Jewish question ‒ and the answer to it ‒ depends on the geographical location we are in. In Germany, the question is purely theological because “there is no political state”; in France, the question is constitutional because of France’s “religion of the majority”; and in North America, the question becomes an analysis of secularism.

In these distinctions, Marx is touching on a Hegelian notion, namely that it is “the state” that brings “universality of thought.” In fact, Marx believes that by being members of society, we inadvertently deprive ourselves of a “real individual life” in exchange for an “unreal universality.”

The secular conflict, or “the Jewish question,” therefore, cannot be resolved, as Bauer would have us, simply by separating church from state. For Marx, the problem is much deeper.

It is a question of the natural way the state alienates us from our true nature.

In “On the Jewish Question,” Marx argues that the secular state is not key to political emancipation. He asks us to question whether the state can provide true emancipation at all.

Moving forward from this text, my question would be what Marx imagines under a perfectly balanced separation of church and state and whether secularism is important for flourishing democracies in modern society?

This short blog post is a part of my brief series on political philosophy! I cover thinkers from Locke and Rousseau to Marx, Hegel, and even Bernie Sanders. You can check out some previous posts here if you are interested:

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