Karl Marx’ essay ‘On the Jewish Question’ is elaborate, insightful and addresses a pressing issue in 19th century Germany. First published in his collection of early philosophical writings, the essay considers Jewish emancipation in the realm of politics and civil society. The essay is partly a polemic to Bruno Bauer’s proposal to the Jewish Question. Marx’ primary concern is political-economy and not emancipation on the basis of religion. He has objections to Bauer’s proposal on two grounds. First, it is impossible for people to forsake their religion for gaining equal political rights. Second, even if this nominal equality is won, it won’t translate into meaningful social emancipation. (Marx, p.7) Marx cites the example of the failure of universal electoral franchise in alleviating socio-economic disparity in American society. This is so because granting equality to ‘citizens’ of the state does not lead to equality at the level of ‘species-beings’. (Marx, p.9) One of the main reasons for this situation is the capitalist economic model which alienates people from one another. For as long this alienation exists, real human emancipation for any community is not possible – Jewish or otherwise. (Marx, p.10) Thus Marx is successfully able to expose Bauer’s proposal as lacking in merit.
What struck me most about the essay is Marx’ foresight. Writing at a time when capitalism was taking root as the dominant economic model, Marx was able to envision its implications in interpersonal relations and society at large. His essay is able to articulate how the Jewish Question is more generally applicable to the entire human community. It is unfortunate that Marx’ early warnings of capitalism went unheeded, for today we are witnessing all the fears he forecast. The lynchpin of global finance capitalism today is the neo-liberal economic program. The unmitigated flight of capital across national borders has undermined sovereignty and weakened democracy in many developing countries. Just as Jews cannot enjoy real equality as long as individual social alienation is prominent, many nations are unable to express their democratic credibility in the face of trying to please foreign investors.
Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, Early Philosophical Writings, pp.1-26.