In all honesty, I don’t know if Karl Marx was an antisemite. And I don’t know if the charge of antisemitism is in Jonathan Sperber’s new book or is just an old shibboleth that reviewer Jonathan Freedland decides to focus on at the end of his essay. But it’s certainly long past time that we put to bed the idea that “On the Jewish Question” provides evidence of Marx’s “straightforwardly anti-Semitic” views.
Read the actual text (in either English or German). And then consult some of the scholarly literature (including the biography by Franz Mehring, Karl Marx: The Story of His Life, which remains after all these years one of the best, precisely because Mehring combines insights into Marx’s character with a sophisticated reading of Marx’s writings).
What you will find is not an essay that is antisemitic, whether straightforwardly or otherwise, but a critique of Bruno Bauer (and, implicitly, of Hegel) and an early argument in favor of “general human emancipation” as against merely “political emancipation”—an application of Ludwig Feurerbach’s notion of alienation, articulated long before Marx “discovers” communism and materialism.
In the first part, Marx criticizes Bauer for focusing on one aspect of emancipation (“Who is to emancipate? Who is to be emancipated?”) and forgetting about the other (“What kind of emancipation is in question? What conditions follow from the very nature of the emancipation that is demanded?”) and explains that political emancipation from religion (in the transition from the Christian state such as in Germany to the political state in its “completely developed form,” such as in North America) leaves religion in existence as a purely private matter, within civil society, based on the “rights of man.”
None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves. . .
Hence, man was not freed from religion, he received religious freedom. He was not freed from property, he received freedom to own property. He was not freed from the egoism of business, he received freedom to engage in business.
In the second part, Marx proceeds to contest Bauer’s reduction of Jewish emancipation to a purely religious question and to transform it into a fully social question.
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew – not the Sabbath Jew, as Bauer does, but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.
Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time.
Far from providing evidence of Marx’s antisemitism, “On the Jewish Question” is precisely an argument in favor of social emancipation, for moving beyond a society in which “alienated man and alienated nature” have been converted “into alienable, vendible objects subjected to the slavery of egoistic need and to trading”—in other words, beyond capitalism.