You can find a link to a version of Marx’s essay here.
This is a tricky essay. One of its difficulties is that Marx is writing about controversies that you may not know much about, which means he’s referencing people (Bruno Bauer) and ideas (“political emancipation”) that may seem opaque. So the purpose of this post is to introduce some of the background to Marx’s essay and some of its terminology.
Marx is writing the essay in the early 1840s. This is a few decades after the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest of Germany, and just a few years before the revolutions of 1848. Europe, especially Germany (though it’s not a unified state yet) and France is rapidly modernizing. Specifically, we are seeing rapid changes in social organization related to the growth of industrial capitalism, urbanization. Along with these changes, there is the emergence of an increasingly radicalized industrial laboring class (what Marx will call the proletariat), which in turn, is connected to the emergence of modern political ideologies: broadly speaking, it is in this era that we can first identify the emergence of a political left, along with the emergence of liberalism and conservatism.
It is this last set of changes that is most immediately relevant in this essay. If you go back and read the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” what you see is the articulation of a set of universal human rights. This becomes a key idea for the emerging political left. The idea is that humans will become free (emancipated) insofar as their universal and equal rights are fully recognized by the political state. What this means, then, is that things like religious or ethnic differences should no longer matter politically: The fact that someone is Jew, for instance, should not be a reason to deny him equal rights (the gendered pronoun “him” in the previous sentence is quite deliberate; with some exceptions, the notion of equal rights for women was not yet a major issue).
At any rate, this is a major and ongoing political conflict during this era. Most European governments, especially Prussia (which is Marx’s immediate concern), did not recognize or acknowledge universal human rights. The Prussian state was officially Christian, and so it recognized different rights and privileges for different religions; those on the political left argued and agitated against this. So that’s where Marx’s essay comes in; he’s active in leftist politics, and he’s responding to Bruno Bauer.
Who was Bruno Bauer and what was his position? Bauer was a fellow leftist (in the language of contemporary American political theory, we would call him a political liberal), and he is essentially advocating for a position that is quite familiar to Americans: The Prussian state needs to give up its “particularistic” character as a Christian state (i.e., it needs to become neutral vis-a-vis religion), and the members of the state, in turn, need to give up their particularistic religions and instead become secular (“universal”) citizens. Instead of thinking of themselves as Lutherans, Catholics, or Jews, the members of the Prussian state should think of themselves as citizens. This, in any case, is effectively what the U.S. has done. We have no state religion and all citizens are treated equally (they are, at least in theory, given the same rights and status). And though there are ongoing conflicts about the role of religion in public life, there is widespread comfort with the idea that different religions should not be singled out for special rights or privileges.
What is Marx’s response to this? Well, you’ll need to read the essay. But I can articulate the general idea: Marx wants to reveal the limits of Bauer’s vision of emancipation (what Marx calls “political emancipation”). Marx is very much in favor of providing universal human rights, but he also argues that such a provision is not sufficient. According to Marx, the position Bauer adopts would be progress, but it also enables a new mode of domination to proceed, and in particular, it enables the kind of domination we see at work in Steinbeck’s story from the Grapes of Wrath.
So the crucial thing to keep in mind is that Marx is not interested in the “Jewish question” as it is usually defined; in the debates of his day (and in the current day, to some extent), the question was whether the Jews should be treated as equal citizens. Marx is shifting the question: He’s not asking whether the Jews (or women, or non-whites, or any other group excluded from equal treatment) should be treated equally; he’s asking instead whether equal treatment under the law is in fact the same thing as genuine human freedom. And his answer, in short, is “no.” Marx is therefore posing a radical challenge to standard liberal positions; liberals tend to argue that more or less all forms of domination or injustice can be remedied by providing equal rights to all, by including those previously excluded into the circle of legal rights. Marx, by contrast, is arguing that there needs to be a much more radical transformation.
To conclude, then, let me provide a brief glossary of some of Marx’s key terms in this essay.
Political emancipation: political emancipation refers, in essence, to Bauer’s position. Differences between people (say, their religion, economic status, or “noble blood”) are no longer legally recognized or enforced by the state. All citizens are granted equal rights (both things like property rights and the equal right to participate in politics).
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.
Civil society: this is the realm of social relations that occur independently of the state, and typically, the family as well. In this essay, Marx treats these relations as primarily economic; 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.