John Gross

Bauer had argued that as long as Prussia was a Christian state, it was both selfish and illogical of Prussian Jews to demand full civil rights; what they ought to be doing instead was agitating for the abolition of religion in general, so that everybody could be emancipated. Marx, for his part, saw the question in social and economic terms, which cut across religious categories. He had no objection to Jewish emancipation as such, so long as one recognised that it was mere political emancipation, the right to enjoy unrestricted access to bourgeois society, as opposed to true emancipation—emancipation from bourgeois society. In other respects, however, he and Bauer were at one. He accepted Bauer's hostile characterisation of the Jews without demur, and extended it by applying the concept of Judaisation. A few sentences, excerpted from different points in the essay, will convey the gist of his argument: 'Money is the jealous god of Israel, beside which no other god may exist.' 'The god of the Jews has been secularised and become the god of this world.' The Jews have emancipated themselves in so far as the Christians have become Jews.' 'In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.'

The most surprising thing about On the Jewish Question is that anyone should ever have taken it for a piece of serious social analysis. In his introduction to the volume in which the first English translation appeared (1963), the translator, T. B. Bottomore, comments that 'the cast of Marx's mind was fundamentally scientific.' If so, it is a fact which would be hard to gather from the essay itself. On the contrary, its dogmatic assertions and unsubstantiated generalisations are unscientific to the last degree. So is its manifest bias. Under the guise of discovering historical laws, Marx was simply fashioning a new version of the old myth equating Jews with usury; and his tone was often correspondingly vicious. He could write, for example, that Judaism had been preserved 'not in spite of history, but by history'—that 'it is from its own entrails that civil society ceaselessly engenders the Jew.' Marx's pose of objectivity is a measure of how deep his hatred of his Jewish origins ran. He had to keep himself right out of the picture: he could never have permitted himself anything like Lassalle's sardonic admission that 'I hate Jews and I hate journalists; unfortunately I am both.' And though some of his views in this area had been anticipated by Borne and Heine, there were major differences. Heine's negative judgments were tempered by affection, regret, irony, a desire to examine the evidence. Borne, while he was moving towards a 'Marxist' position, had a far more generous sense of the concrete human issues involved. And both men were writers, who did not claim to do more than follow the dictates of personal feeling and inspiration. Neither of them set up as a law-giver—or a scientist.

This is not to say that Marx himself did not have powerful literary gifts, or that he was not steeped in imaginative literature. One of the authors he knew best was Shakespeare, and one of the Shakespeare plays that meant the most to him was The Merchant of Venice—or rather that part of it which concerned Shylock. Only Timon of Athens came more pat to his purpose, with its superb denunciations of the omnipotence of money (the 'common whore of mankind,' the 'yellow slave' that can 'knit and break religions').

Very early in his career, in 1842, Marx wrote a series of articles for the Rheinische Zeitung about a bill making it a crime to gather firewood from forests (an immemorial right of the peasants). To demonstrate the inhumanity of the proposal, and the perversion of justice which it involved, he quoted at length from the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice. As S.S. Prawer observes, 'the implied identification of Gentile, feudal landowners with Shylock the Jew no doubt gave Marx, and readers attuned to him, a malicious species of pleasure.'

Most of Marx's other references to Shylock follow a similar pattern. In an essay on Hegel's Philosophy of Right, published at the same time as On the Jewish Question, he drew on the (not very obvious) parallel with the moneylender to denounce the conservativism of the Historical school of law associated with the jurist Karl von Savigny: 'A Shylock, but a servile Shylock, it swears upon its bond, its historical, Christian-Germanic bond, for every pound of flesh cut from the hearts of the people.' In Das Kapital, he referred to British landowners as 'aristocratic Shylocks.' During the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War he wrote of 'the Prussian Shylock, there with his bond, completing the ruin of France by demanding a huge indemnity and interest on the unpaid instalments. In all these cases, the comparison was meant to be demeaning: it was aimed at social pretensions—pretensions to be any better than the despised Jew—as well as economic and political practice.'

Elsewhere, discussing the idea of financial confidence, Marx commented that 'the person who exhibits such confidence equates—like Shylock!—a "good" man with a man who can pay.' And there is one passage in Das Kapital, as Prawer has pointed out, where 'capital itself takes on the likeness and speaks with the very voice of Shylock.' Marx reminds his readers that, having discovered that there was nothing in the Factory Act of 1844 compelling them to do so, British factory-owners refused to give child labourers any kind of rest-period or break for food:
Workmen and factory-inspectors protested on hygienic and moral grounds, but Capital answered:
My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my bond.
Later on, rubbing in the reference, he quotes from the play a second time ('Ay, his heart; so says the bond') and talks of the owners' 'Shylock-like clinging' to the law. There is one thing that all Marx's invocations of Shylock have in common. None of them refers specifically to Jews; there is no equivalent among them to Heine's dubbing James de Rothschild 'M. de Shylock.' But it would be wrong to suppose that Marx was held back in this respect by considerations of delicacy. If anything, the Shylock-references serve to amplify the thesis of On the Jewish Question. Western society has been thoroughly Judaised. Shylock is everywhere—running banks, factories, landed estates; making money wherever there is money to be made.

Not all apologists for Marx are embarrassed by On the Jewish Question but those who are generally emphasise that he was still very young when he wrote it (only twenty-five), that he had not yet worked out his fundamental ideas, and that he appears to have lost interest in theorising about Jews after the mid-1840s. As against these undoubted truths, three points ought to be borne in mind. First, he never repudiated On the Jewish Question, either directly or obliquely. Second, he indulged in a good deal of obnoxious anti-Semitic abuse in his correspondence, and he was not far behind in some of his journalism. Third, in all his voluminous writings there is nothing to counterbalance his antipathies—'not a single expression of concern', as Robert Wistrich has noted, 'at the plight of persecuted and oppressed Jews anywhere.'

It remains true that by the late 1840s he had transferred the main thrust of his animus from Shylock to Shylock's pupils, from the Jew to the Christjude. But that should hardly afford us much consolation. The ugliest feature of On the Jewish Question, in retrospect, is that it provides the groundwork for Marx's later thought. The mature Marx went after bigger game: where it was once only Jews that had to be eliminated, it was now the bourgeoisie. But the attitudes he displayed are already fully apparent in the early essay—the arrogance, the brutal contempt, the determination to put human beings through a metaphysical mincing-machine. We can already say of its author, in words once used of him by Golo Mann, that 'such a man cannot better the world.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.