Marx—The Assimilated Jew

It is ironic that Marx, in particular, is frequently paraded as an example of the way Jews should assimilate. John Nolan in his letter to Socialist Challenge writes that:

"We will be happy to persuade people to 'assimilate' along the road that Marx and Trotsky took away from their Jewish traditions towards the socialist revolution".

It is significant that John Nolan counterposes the 'Jewish tradition' and 'socialist revolution'. It is as though Jewish revolutionaries and Jewish revolutionary organisations spring out of nowhere. Moreover Marx himself is a most disreputable example of where assimilation leads. He is a classic case of the self-hating Jew who has internalised his own oppression—albeit at a generation removed as Marx's father actually converted to Christianity. This is not to make the reactionary claim that Marxism as a philosophy is anti-semitic, rather it is to show that as an individual he had assimilated anti-semitism—the clearest example of which comes from his essay On the Jewish Question. This includes the following observations:

"What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling".
"What is his secular god? Money".
"Exchange is the true god of the Jew".
"The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant".
"The emancipation of the Jew is, in the last analysis, the emancipation of mankind from Judaism".

Various apologies have been given for this diatribe. One is that the essay in question was actually written in favour of Jewish emancipation. However, as such, it was based on the worst form of liberal tolerance, as Marx obviously hated everything Jewish. Secondly, it is argued that Marx was not referring to any actual Jewish community but, in common with the language of his time, used 'Judaism' in an abstract sense to equate it with capitalist exchange values. For instance Nathan Weinstock has written that:

"Marx uses Judaism as an abstract category and does not seem to refer to any actual Jewish communities" (see Appendix to Zionism the False Messiah).

However, even if Marx was using the term abstractly, then his language would be no less anti-semitic. Besides, Marx equated Jews and capitalism in very concrete, not abstract, imagery. Thus in the same essay he says of a Jew "When he travels it is as if he carried his shop and his office on his back and spoke of nothing but interest and profit". Quite contrary to Nathan Weinstock, Isaac Deutscher tries to justify this article on the grounds that Marx, far from writing abstractly, was simply making "a factual statement about the Jews' particular function in Christian society" (see 'Who is a Jew?' in the collected essays The Non-Jewish Jew).

Apart from On the Jewish Question, Marx made countless other anti-semitic remarks in his writings. In his Theses on Feuerbach, he says that the German philosopher did not grasp the significance of revolutionary activity because practice is conceived by him "Only in its dirty-Jewish manifestations". Furthermore, in a personal letter to Engels, he gave a description of Ferdinand Lassalle, a contemporary socialist, which managed to combine both anti-semitism and anti-black racism. He wrote:

"I see clearly that he is descended, as the shape of his head and hair indicate, from the negroes who were joined to the Jews at the time of the exodus from Egypt (unless it was his mother or paternal grandmother who mated with a negro). But his mixture of Judaism and Germanism with a negro substance as a base was bound to yield a most curious product. The importunity of the man is also negroid" (Quoted by Silbemer in an article on Marx in Historia Judaica 1949).

Paradoxically, Lassalle himself fits into the category of the assimilated Jewish socialist who eventually renounced everything in the Jewish heritage.

In what must be one of the most extraordinary love letters in human history he wrote to Sophie Sonstev:

"I do not like the Jews at all. I even detest them in general ... During the past centuries of slavery these men acquired the characteristics of slaves and this is why I am unfavourably disposed towards them".

Elsewhere he wrote that "There are two classes of men I cannot bear, men of letters and Jews—and unfortunately I belong to both" (Silberner's article on Lassalle in the 1952-53 Hebrew Union College Annual). The epithet 'self-hating Jew' is an unpleasant one, but it is difficult to avoid its use in the case of both Marx and Lassalle. Neither are great advertisements for a liberated identity.

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© 1984 Steve Cohen, edited and produced by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan.
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