Karl Marx (1818-83) was a German philosopher, political economist, historian, political theorist, sociologist, communist, and revolutionary whose ideas are regarded as the foundation of modern communism.
He summarized his approach in the first line of The Communist Manifesto (1848): “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” He argued that just as capitalism had replaced feudalism, socialism would replace capitalism and lead to a stateless, classless society of pure communism, which would emerge after a transitional period called the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
While remaining a relatively obscure figure in his own lifetime, Marx began to exert a major influence on workers’ movements shortly after his death, which gained added impetus with the Bolshevik victory in the Russian October Revolution of 1917. Few parts of the world have remained untouched by Marxist ideas in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Letters written by Marx are both desirable and incredibly scarce; even rarer are letters by him in English. In this May 8, 1879 correspondence penned from Maitland Park Road (his last home in London), Marx writes: “Dear Sir, Enclosed Post-Office Order for ₤ 2.2.0, for subscription to T.O.A.” I have not been able to determine to which publication “T.O.A.” refers; it would be fascinating and instructive to learn which journal Marx was reading.
Marx was the descendant of a rabbinical dynasty that ended with his grandfathers, both of whom were leading Orthodox rabbis. His father, Heinrich (born Hirschel Halevi), married in a Jewish ceremony but converted to Lutheranism prior to Karl’s birth, in part to advance his legal career in post-Napoleonic Rhineland, then under Prussian control; his tactic apparently served its intended purpose as he was appointed a magistrate only a year later.
Karl’s mother converted, but only after her parents’ deaths, and Karl was baptized at age six. Ironically, Karl’s favorite daughter, Eleanor, considered herself Jewish (she wasn’t) and took great interest in her Jewish ancestry.
Many of Marx’s published and private writings contain a broad variety of anti-Semitic statements, including frequent references to Judaism as a pseudo-religion whose god is money. He would refer to specific Jews with the word “Jew” used as an epithet – for example, “the Jew Bamberger,” describing his lender, who had the unmitigated gall to demand repayment from Marx.
Although he is renowned as a champion of the working class, Marx was a freeloader who had little interest in work and was constantly in debt to moneylenders. Indeed, his mother once told him, “I wish you were more interested in accumulating capital instead of writing about it. Maybe then you could stop asking me for it.” His mother’s refusal to finance her son’s sloth ultimately led to their estrangement.
Marx’s lifelong poverty may have been a motivating factor in the development of both his political philosophy and anti-Semitism. In fact, many analysts persuasively argue that his anti-capitalist animus was grounded in his anti-Semitism, self-hatred, and belief that the root evil of capitalism is the exploitative Jews.
For example, notwithstanding his regular practice of sharply denouncing oppressors of the weak, he remained conspicuously silent when the victims were Jews suffering during the surge of Russian pogroms during the last years of his life. One analyst has argued that Marx’s “hostile silence” was an attempt to avoid all reminders of his own Jewish heritage.
Marxism, arguably, is little more than a conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes – i.e., “the Jews” – control and manipulate the economy to enrich themselves at the expense of poor workers. How ironic, then, that right-wing activists to this day use the term “Marxism” as the catchphrase for a menacing international “Jewish conspiracy” to take over the world. How ironic and telling that through the lens of his own self-hatred, Marx could neither see nor acknowledge ubiquitous Jewish poverty.
Marx’s anti-Semitic writings are legion. On holiday in Ramsgate in 1879, he wrote to Friedrich Engels that the resort contained “many Jews and fleas” and, in another letter to Engels, he described Ferdinand Lassalle, the Jewish founder of German Socialism and Marx’s political opponent, as a “Jewish nigger.”
In Die Deutsche Ideologie, Marx wrote, “It is the circumvention of law that makes the religious Jew a religious Jew,” and, in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, he noted that the “Jews of Poland are the smeariest of all races.”
When Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the famed Jewish financier and philanthropist, became a member of the British Parliament, Marx commented, “It is doubtful that the British people will be pleased to give electoral rights to a Jewish usurer.” When Josef Moses Levi, the Jewish owner of The Daily Telegraph in London, was baptized so as to assimilate into British society (ironically, exactly as Marx’s father had done), Marx remarked that Levi’s Jewish nose would betray his effort in that regard: “Mother Nature wrote her lineage with absurd capital letters exactly in the center of his face.”
In Marx’s famous – or infamous – Das Kapital, he argued that the Jewish exodus from Egypt was actually the expulsion of a “leper people” and that “the capitalist knows that all merchandise, no matter how ruinous it may seem or how bad it might smell, is by faith and in truth money, internally circumcised Jews.”
In The Holy Family, he argued that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” And in “The Russian Loan,” which he published in the January 4, 1856 New York Daily Tribune, Marx called the Jews “children of Judas” and wrote:
Thus, we find every tyrant backed by a Jew, as is every pope by a Jesuit. In truth, the cravings of oppressors would be hopeless, and the practicability of war out of the question, if there were not…a handful of Jews to ransack pockets…the real work is done by the Jews, and can only be done by them, as they monopolize the machinery of the loan mongering mysteries by concentrating their energies upon the barter trade in securities…. Here and there and everywhere that a little capital courts investment, there is ever one of these little Jews ready to make a little suggestion or place a little bit of a loan….
Thus do these loans, which are a curse to the people, a ruin to the holders, and a danger to the governments, become a blessing to the houses of the children of Judah. This Jew organization of loan-mongers is as dangerous to the people as the aristocratic organization of landowners…. The fortunes amassed by these loan-mongers are immense, but the wrongs and sufferings thus entailed on the people and the encouragement thus afforded to their oppressors still remain to be told….
The fact that 1855 years ago Christ drove the Jewish moneychangers out of the temple, and that the moneychangers of our age enlisted on the side of tyranny happen again chiefly to be Jews, is perhaps no more than a historical coincidence. The loan-mongering Jews of Europe do only on a larger and more obnoxious scale what many others do on one smaller and less significant. But it is only because the Jews are so strong that it is timely and expedient to expose and stigmatize their organization.
Scholars argue that such statements were a manifestation of his keen embarrassment about his Jewish background as he sought to create a distance between his own Jewish origins and his intellectual, socio-political ideas. One commentator goes so far as to attribute to Marx a “sharp, even hysterical, denial of his religious background – the essence of a ‘self-hating Jew.’”
In particular, in On the Jewish Question, Marx contemptuously criticized Judaism (and, to a lesser extent, Christianity) from the standpoint of social emancipation, regarding Jews as the embodiment of capitalism and the creators of its evils. This equation of Judaism with capitalism, together with his pronouncements on Jews, strongly influenced socialist movements and shaped their anti-Semitic attitudes and policies toward the Jews. Most agree that On the Jewish Question influenced Nazism, Soviet anti-Semitism, and Arab Jew-hating.
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Exhibited here is an old postcard depicting Marx as Moses bringing down The Communist Manifesto from “Mt. Proletariat” in the form of the Ten Commandments from Mt. Sinai. This metaphor is particularly ironic, if not offensive and reprehensible, given Marx’s anti-Semitism and his repeated characterization of Judaism as “a pseudo-religion.”
On the Jewish Question, written by Marx in 1843 and first published a year later in Paris as Zur Judenfrage, is one of the great anti-Semitic classics, as he reduces Jewish history to rudimentary economics, and characterizes Jews as the quintessence of capitalism and the ultimate representation of all its evils:
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jews? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money. Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities…. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew….
Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time. An organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, would make the Jew impossible…. We recognize in Judaism, therefore, a general anti-social element of the present time, an element which through historical development – to which in this harmful respect the Jews have zealously contributed – has been brought to its present high level, at which it must necessarily begin to disintegrate….
The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general. The groundless law of the Jew is only a religious caricature of groundless morality and right in general, of the purely formal rites with which the world of self-interest surrounds itself…. He [the Jew] considers it his right to separate himself from the rest of humanity; as a matter of principle he takes no part in the historical movement and looks to a future which has nothing in common with the future of mankind as a whole. He regards himself as a member of the Jewish people, and the Jewish people as the chosen people….
Manifesting his ignorance of many essentials of the Jewish faith, Marx argues that Judaism has “contempt for theory, art, history, and for man as an end in himself,” and concludes that “in the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism” – i.e., that man can never be free until all Jews cease to exist.
Faced with this clear record of anti-Semitism, many apologists nonetheless contort themselves in some truly bizarre ways to sanitize what Marx has clearly written and to distort who he really was. Many argue that Marx was merely reflecting broad societal antipathy for Judaism in general, and was thus merely expressing the commonplace thinking of his era; that “Jew” was a commonly-used term for usurer; that Marx hated Christianity just as much as Judaism; that there is no record of Marx engaging in anti-Semitic activities or joining or supporting anti-Semitic organizations; that these statements were merely reflections of his “witty” and “ironic” writing style; and that, “in spite of the clumsy phraseology and crude stereotyping,” his purpose was to defend Jews and to extend full civil rights and political emancipation to them.
However, the gestalt of Marx’s writing, in terms of both his philosophy and his language, leaves little doubt that he was a self-hating Jewish anti-Semite.