Brooke at a Fistful of Euros

by Chris Bertram on January 12, 2004

I see that “Chris Brooke”: is guest-blogging over at a “Fistful of Euros”: He’s sure to say much of interest at what is becoming one of the best blogs around. His “first post there”: alerted me to something I’d missed, namely “Scott Martens’s excellent exposition of Marx’s On The Jewish Question”: (in comments – you have to scroll down), which connects with some of the issues discussed in “my post below”: about Clermont-Tonnerre and the 1789 debates about the rights of man in the French National Assembly.



jason 01.12.04 at 4:14 pm

good tip.


Conrad Barwa 01.12.04 at 8:10 pm

I find Scott’s discussion a very lucid outline of what Marx has meant on his writings vis-à-vis “the Jewish Question”. How somebody could see the latter as a piece of anti-Semitism, is quite frankly beyond me, unless a wilful misinterpretation is going on. It will of course, give Zionists no comfort but then that is unsurprising, given the general attitude of Marx towards questions of nationalism. On the other hand we must take care to explore the full extant of the issue at hand; 19th century Germany and Europe was in many ways a time and place suffuse with a lot of ethnic and religious bigotry and an inherent problem of the European project of nation-state construction was its inability to do so without stigmatising and generating forms of chauvinism in most cases directed towards de-territorialised minorities on the mainland and towards colonial non-European peoples outside the continent. As part of the former category: Jews, Roma and Armenians were some of the minorities most at risk from rightwing and chauvinist forms of nationalism. Within the ambit of German Nationalism at the time, moreover, this was a poisoned chalice, as Philip Roth remarked “Jews are people who are not what anti-Semites say they are”. It was frequently these chauvinistic anti-Semitic European nationalists who called upon the Jews to prove the charges against them (of being secretive, clannish etc.) were untrue but it was these very same anti-Semitic chauvinists who insisted on being the one who would pronounce of the cogency of the proofs. Both the call to assimilation and the utter improbability of answering it properly (i.e. in a manner which would find acceptance) stemmed from the same source: the power structure of cultural and social domination, which had rendered all the more overwhelming and less changeable by the abolition of legal differentiation and the declaration of political equality. For individuals aspiring to being admitted to the company of the elect nationalism, the world turned into a testing ground and life into a permanent trial period. It became largely a social life under scrutiny, undergoing a life-long and never conclusive examination. The aspirants soon learnt if they did not know before, that they were under observation, that the observation would never lead to a final and irrevocable judgement and that passing the successive trial with flying colours would not exempt them from further tests. It was understood, that they would have no influence on the content of the examination and on the standards by which the results were to be marked. These were set examinations and the standing board of examiners had full freedom to change the papers and the rules of marking without notice.

The career of Heinrich Heine demonstrates the high psycho-social costs this exacted; despite his best attempts, the louder he proclaimed his emancipation from his Jewishness, the more his Jewishness seemed to be evident and protruding. As in so many cases, the very display of assimilatory passion was taken to be the most convincing proof of his Jewish identity. To the Frenchmen among whom Heine in the end settled as the self-appointed ambassador and champion of German culture, he might have been a German. To the German, he was unredeemably a Jew. Nothing Heine did and could do helped him. Some level of internalisation in this environment was unavoidable and how different Jewish communities related to each other could not but play a role in it; wrt Marx, while it is not possible to impugn him as some sort of anti-Semite or racist; he certainly was a product of his environment; hence his radical views on social and economic emancipation nowitstanding; his private correspondence to Engels reveals in the very use of insults against other Socialist figures of the time – such as the epithet “Jewish nigger” when referring to Lasalle and the use of stereotyped descriptions and portraits on occasion could only be made possible in an environment which was permeated with this kind of discriminatory thinking and which created a internal split in the inner lives and self-perception of those subjects so discriminated against.


Scott Martens 01.12.04 at 8:49 pm

Conrad, certainly Marx was a product of his time and place and says many harsh things which he probably wouldn’t say the same way today. I’m certainly not trying to turn him into Saint Karl of Trier.

I’ve called a few people by names I’ve regretted later – “dwarf” once or twice, “faggot” a few times when I was too young to have any clear idea what that meant, “fascist” a few more times when I was old enough to know better – and if there had been no social force to tell me not to do so I suppose that it is possible I might still say such things in private without actually having any less liberal ideas about the value of short people, homosexuals or a diversity of political opinion. I imagine that something of the sort was true of Marx, living in a world where he rarely if ever enountered actual living black people to tell him off, and where speaking of Jews disparagingly did not even necessarily result in Jews fighting back because such insults were so common.

At every turn, Marx was sympathetic to the plight of the common man without regard to race or religious labels, even though he could barely tolerate living among the very proletariate that he proclaimed were the future because he was used to far better conditions himself. He is far harsher in his description of the lifestyle of the lower classes than anything he ever says about religion. Marx prefered the good things in life. The company of the educated, sophisticated elite that he wanted to eliminate was far more agreeable to him than the people he was trying to call to revolution. That involves some cognitive dissonance, but it’s also a very human and understandable fault.


Conrad Barwa 01.13.04 at 12:42 am

Scott, just to say I agree with most of what you say and found your exposition of Marx’s essay on the ‘Jewish question’ an excellent summary. I found it quite disturbing that someone could argue that this particular essay of Marx’s was anti-Semitic, as it is not even remotely so. What I do perhaps find myself concerned with is some of the more general descriptive language and comments Marx makes, mostly in his private and personal writings/comments, which were not meant for publication. I accept what you say and the need for context etc. but what I am a little bit disturbed by, is the specific way some of these tend to occur. I suppose in a way I am subscribing to a variant of the ‘Only Jews are allowed to make Jewish jokes’ syndrome; obviously today I can find it acceptable (if not particularly comfortable) when I walk down the street and hear two South Asians call each other ‘paki’ whereas when the ethnicities are mixed this term takes on a different connotation and would probably be met by a smack in the face from me to the person saying it. Similarly, I can see that certain forms of insults can be appropriated by discriminated communities such as homosexuals and de-nuded of their charge by internal use, in a somewhat different fashion some of the most explicit anti-Semitic tropes and imagery is used in the controversy and conflict between different Jewish communities as the extreme of the Ultra-Orthodox and the more secular wings indicate. However, I don’t think we have reached here, anywhere near the level of social relations where such terms can be used in a good-natured way, on a broad level amongst mixed groups (i.e. when one hasn’t know the person for a long, significant period of time) a reflection of the stratificiations and inequalities within society as a whole and what troubles me about Marx’s language is precisely that I seemed to detect an element of internalisation of this kind sentiment and expressed it, quite frequently to Gentile interlocutors such as Engels, in a manner that strikes me as almost seeking to establish his credentials. Maybe this is too harsh, but these kinds of discourses can frequently become easily internalised; the so-called martial race theory of the Raj in India being an example; it is bizarre to see how this has in different ways impinged on the self-image of the (largely) Hindu elite of post-colonial India and how it has become embedded in the political discourse and consciousness so much so, despite great evidence to the contrary, that it can still strike a chord when some saffronist demagogue gets up on his soapbox to indulge in some Muslim scapegoating.

None of this makes Marx “anti-Semitic” as such; though as you point out, his views on proletarian culture and race would be regarded with some suspicion in today’s environment; the broader problem as I see it, is how Jewish self-identity and cultural/collective life was subject to a high level of pressure in the period discussed and how without being itself racist or chauvinist; it mimicked in a disconcerting fashion the prevailing prejudices of its time.


DJW 01.13.04 at 6:29 am

Scott, excellent, excellent stuff. Chris, thanks for the pointer. I’m going to point my students to this exchange as an example of the dangers of taking political theory passages out of context.


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Halifax Mooseheads Hockey Fan 02.04.04 at 4:35 pm

I did a search for talk about sports as I am looking for information on where Halifax Mooseheads players lived and the history about them and their culture. We have and have had hockey players from all over the world play with the local hockey team here in halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. I am researching anyone who has played in the past and the present for the Halifax Mooseheads hockey team. I came upon your website when I searched for sports, the word “sport” must have been on this webpage, to put you in the search engine for sports. Anyways I read your interesting information you have here on the euro. You sparked my interest and you got me sidetracked reading about it for the two hours. It was very interesting reading, although I didnot find anything about any Moosehead players. This website here is like the tv shows I like to watch of the so called sports experts sitting around a table ribbing each other with their opinions, but here you say your opinion about anything and everything.
Anyways, good luck with your website.
It maynot be what I was searching for this time, but I will be back to see how your opinion has changed or not.
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Take care and God Bless

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