Marx’s “On the Jewish Question”


You can find a link to a version of Marx’s essay here.  As I mentioned at the end of class today, the crucial thing to keep in mind, as you’re reading this essay, is that Marx is not really writing about (or all that interested in) the “Jewish Question” as such.  Rather, he is using the debates about the Jewish Question as a way to analyze the state and its relation to the “private sphere” of what he calls civil society (which is the system of needs, or for our purposes, the realm of the capitalist economy).  Or put differently, Marx is primarily engaging in a critique of politics (or what he calls “political emancipation,” which occurs when we create a political society based on the sorts of principles we saw in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”).  I will post some more detailed reading questions later this evening, but for now, let me offer a brief analysis of some of Marx’s terminology, so that you can have a clearer understanding what he’s actually trying to express.

Political emancipation: political emancipation occurs insofar as differences between people (say, their religion, economic status, or “noble blood”) become politically irrelevant.  All citizens are granted equal rights (both things like property rights and the equal right to participate in politics), and the state is officially neutral or “atheistic” vis-a-vis its citizens.  That is, the state does not create rights and privileges for citizens on the basis of things like religious practice.

The universal state (sometimes referred to as the state as such): The political state is a form of political community in which the citizens have achieved political emancipation.

Human emancipation: This is a trickier concept; it refers for Marx to genuine freedom or emancipation, as opposed to the illusory freedom or emancipation we see in political emancipation.  It has something to do with making the ideals of political emancipation actual (that is, it has to do with overcoming the alienation found in contemporary life, of returning  the heavenly realm of political ideals to actual and material life) and it has something to do with criticizing political emancipation as such.

Civil society: this is the realm of social relations that occur independently of the state, and typically, the family as well.  Primarily, for Marx, these relations are economic in nature; it is the realm of “free labor” (i.e., the ability for the laborer to sell his/her labor power to whomever can purchase it) or the free exchange of commodities in general.  In capitalist organization, this realm is increasingly divorced from traditional communal ties (e.g., I sell my labor to the highest bidder, not to the traditional strongman in my neighborhood; or the capitalist decides not to purchase my labor anymore, in spite of the fact that we might have a long standing relationship).


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