Everything in socio-economic context

By equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, the bourgeois establishment is determined to brand a racist anyone who dares criticise the Israeli state. Ahistorically plucking out a few phrases from On the Jewish question, it levels the exact same charge against Marx too. Jack Conrad puts the record straight

As a young man Karl Marx studied and thoroughly absorbed the materialist and atheist ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72). However, he soon became convinced that, while atheism was a vital intellectual premise, historic processes, developments in the means of production, social relations and crucially revolutionary practice had to be made the real starting point of “our criticism”.2

Inevitably, that necessitated further, deeper, endless investigations, not least into the “inverted reality” of the bourgeois world. Hence the first of two articles which Marx wrote in what was a seminal period spent in the small Rhineland town of Kreuznach between March and October 1843 - just prior to his Paris exile.

On the Jewish question was published in the first and only edition of the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher journal (February 1844). In toto it constitutes a devastating rebuttal of Bruno Bauer - the Young Hegelian radical, atheist firebrand and a former collaborator and friend. Leave aside the now largely forgotten Bauer - On the Jewish question also establishes a profound critique of the way liberals typically treat demands for equality, freedom, rights, etc.

Protestant Christianity was the only officially recognised religion in Frederick William IV’s Prussia. Jews in particular faced a whole raft of laws which humiliatingly discriminated against them. Bauer - barred from teaching in 1842 for daring to show that biblical stories were full of human invention - argued in his book, The Jewish question (1843), that Jews can achieve political and civic emancipation only if they abandon their religious allegiances, religious modes of thinking and religious practices.

In the meantime, by appealing to the Christian state for equality, Germany’s Jews were inexcusably legitimising the Christian state. Therefore their demands for equality ought to be rejected simply because they undermined the cause of general emancipation. Bauer actually maintained that granting Jewish rights would be incompatible with either the political rights of citizens (eg, the 1787 US constitution) or general civic rights (eg, France’s 1789 ‘Declaration of the rights of man’).

According to Bauer, an atheist state was the only solution … and for him that obviously meant Jews, Lutherans, Catholics - everyone - renouncing their religion. Note, for Bauer, the Christian religion was considered to be altogether superior to Judaism. And, sadly, after the failure of the 1848 German revolution he swung violently to the right and began to promote an ever more vile anti-Semitism.


In the name of human liberation Marx rejected Bauer’s ‘solution’ as theoretically flawed and totally inadequate programmatically. Bauer was trying to solve a social question as if it were a purely theological one. He failed to see that religious inequalities were not the cause of social inequalities; merely their symptom. Bauer’s critique was misdirected because it was aimed at the Christian state, and not at the state as such.

Bauer’s problem (and that of bourgeois radicals in general) was that he mistook political emancipation, embodied in declarations of human rights, constitutions, etc, for human emancipation. Simply decreeing the separation of church and state, while needed, could not ensure the disappearance of religion (and its associated prejudices). The original American states, for example, had written separation from organised religion into their constitutions, yet the US remained “pre-eminently the country of religiosity”.3 Bauer was still using the criticism of religion as his basis for the criticism of politics, but, as Marx insisted,

the existence of religion is the existence of a defect ... We no longer regard religion as the cause, but only as the manifestation, of secular narrowness ... History has long enough been merged in superstition; we now merge superstition in history. The question of the relation of political emancipation to religion becomes for us the question of the relation of political emancipation to human emancipation.4

So it is not that Marx rejects demands for political and civic equality. Of course not. He sees such demands as eminently supportable, but not sufficient for human emancipation. The principal defect of political emancipation in and of itself is that it is purely formal. Taking issue with his own earlier reliance on universal suffrage, for example, Marx points out that various American states had abolished property ownership as a qualification for participation in elections. From the liberal standpoint, it could be said that “the masses have thus gained a victory over the property owners and moneyed classes”, that the “non-owner had become the law-giver for the owner”.5

This victory, however, was only apparent, not real, because there is a world of difference between giving everybody a vote - desirable and necessary as that is - and giving everyone real and effective power over their lives:

The perfect political state is, by its nature, man’s species-life, as opposed to his material life. All the preconditions of this egoistic life continue to exist in civil society outside the sphere of the state, but as qualities of civil society. Where the political state has attained its true development, man - not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life - leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being; and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers ... he is the imaginary member of an illusory sovereignty, deprived of his real individual life and endowed with an unreal universality.6

Counterposing humanity’s “heavenly” and “earthly” existences in a “double life” is, of course, a borrowing from Feuerbach. Marx’s approach to religion was grounded in a Feuerbachian rejection of the way in which religion demands subservience to a fantastic being who is no more than a projection of authentic human sovereignty in alienated form.

Hence the parallel which Marx draws between Christianity and political democracy:

Political democracy is Christian, since in it man - not merely one man, but every man - ranks as sovereign, as the highest being, but it is man in his uncivilised, unsocial form, man in his fortuitous existence, man just as he is, man as he has been corrupted by the whole organisation of our society, who has lost himself, been alienated and handed over to the rule of inhuman conditions and elements - in short, man who is not yet a real species-being. That which is a creation of fantasy, a dream, a postulate of Christianity - ie, the sovereignty of man, but man as an alien being different from the real man - becomes in democracy tangible reality, present existence and secular principle.7

While Marx might have described himself as a ‘Feuerbachian’ for a brief period in the early 1840s, it is clear that he developed increasingly profound disagreements with Feuerbach’s philosophy and specifically with his materialism.

The problem with Feuerbach’s materialism, for Marx, was that on investigation it was annoyingly elusive, abstract and theoretical. A necessary though not sufficient step towards understanding our relationship with the natural environment. Feuerbach forever remained one-sided. Why? Because he conceived of things in passive, intuitive terms. His conception of the sensuous world was “confined, on the one hand, to mere contemplation of it and, on the other, to mere feeling”.8

Nature, for all the importance which Feuerbach attached to it, remained something ‘out there’, something dissociated from humanity, to which he related in essentially theoretical terms. In the memorable words of the Theses on Feuerbach (1845): “The chief defect of all previous materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that things, reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively.”9Marx believed that Feuerbach’s failure derived from his lack of an historical approach. In The German ideology, he argued that Feuerbach did not grasp that “the sensuous world around him is not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and the state of society”.10

Similarly, the problem with Feuerbach’s attitude to science was that he consistently identified it with observation and description of natural phenomena, not realising that ‘pure’ physics, chemistry and biology are inadequate to account for our human species-being:

Feuerbach speaks in particular of the perception of natural science; he mentions secrets which are disclosed only for the eyes of the physicist and chemist; but where would natural science be without industry and commerce? Even this ‘pure’ natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men ... This activity, this production [is] the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists.11

Perhaps most seriously of all, in terms of Marx’s own political agenda for the self-liberation of the proletariat, Feuerbach was certainly a “static” materialist, in that he never really went beyond the notion that freeing human beings from religious alienation would in and of itself, in some unexplained way, simply usher in a society which expressed the ‘communist’ species-being of humanity. Marx’s early writings were, in no small part, intended to counter the “static” approach to religion. Together with the Theses on Feuerbach, not to mention the scintillating first hundred or so pages of The German ideology, this constituted a devastating critique of the Young Hegelians (a group of radical intellectuals which included Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, David Strauss, Arnold Ruge and Max Stirner). That said, there can be no doubt that in its essentials, no matter how enriched and modified, Marx’s understanding of religious alienation remains firmly within the framework established by Feuerbach. It was this that Marx was surely referring to in his Contribution to Hegel’s philosophy of law (1843), when he declared that, “For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete.”12

Unsurprisingly, On the Jewish question reiterates the ethical postulate Marx presented in ‘Debates on freedom of the press’ - a six-part supplement carried by the Rheinische Zeitung back in May 1842. Here Marx lambasted Prussian press censorship - “a perfumed abortion”, he called it. Prometheus-like, he defiantly proclaims: “only that which is a realisation of freedom can be called humanly good”.13

Since organised religion, by its very nature, makes human beings into slaves of an imaginary deity, conceding them merely a specious sovereignty in alienated form, it cannot, in Marxist terms, be a force for human good in any meaningful sense. Religion and ‘morality’ (ie, bourgeois morality) exist in the abstract sphere of ‘public life’, the realm of illusory collectivity and illusory sovereignty represented by the state, whereas the concrete sphere of ‘everyday life’ - civil society - remains dominated by individual antagonisms and by all the kinds of inhuman domination, bondage and debasement implicit in the category of alienation.

Bruno Bauer’s mistake was to imagine that religious emancipation in and of itself could free humanity, whereas for Marx even the most far-going version of (bourgeois) political emancipation cannot succeed in achieving freedom. Religious emancipation gives freedom of religion, but it does not give freedom from the rule of religion, property or trade: it just gives us the right to profess the religion of our choice, hold property and practise trade as individuals, in a civil society dominated by the bellum omnium contra omnes (war of all against all).

Just as religion, though constituting an illusory collectivity of humanity in relation to god, actually renders us into alienated, atomised individuals in relation to an imaginary creator, so political emancipation, while endowing us with an illusory sovereignty as citizens of the state, renders us into alienated, atomised individuals in a civil society dominated by property and the power that flows from it. Genuine, human emancipation requires more:

Only when the real, individual man reabsorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognised and organised his own ‘forces propres’ [own powers] as social forces, and consequently no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.14

The commanding idea is that humanity can achieve real emancipation by rediscovering its identity in and through community, but not through the imaginary community represented by either religion or the state.

In the second part of On the Jewish question, the category of religious alienation appears in another guise, strikingly adapted in order to illustrate the significance of money and commodities in capitalist society, in a way that foreshadows some of Marx’s fundamental ideas about commodity fetishism and the alienation inherent in the capitalist mode of production. While Bauer argued in terms of the emancipation of “the Sabbath Jew” - Jews seen purely in terms of their religion15- Marx extends the notion of emancipation by focusing on the oppression of Jews in actual socio-economic context:

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.16

Why, for Marx, is “emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism,” rated as the “self-emancipation of our time”? Because it is money that dominates all social relations; money and the power that flows from it constitutes the material base of capitalist society:

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. Money is the universal, self-established value of all things. It has therefore robbed the whole world - both the world of men and nature - of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.17

Jewish progressives

Biased or simply worthless opinion - eg, Simon Schama writing in the Financial Times18 - reacts with feigned horror to such passages, denouncing them as unmistakable evidence of anti-Semitism. In other words, Marx was a ‘self-hating’ Jew.

However, such an assessment is quite clearly wrong. Few of Marx’s detractors go to the bother of explaining that he was actually advocating Jewish emancipation. Fewer still show any appreciation of the fact that it is thoroughly misleading to read post-1945 sensibilities back onto the language of the 1840s.19 By contrast Hal Draper convincingly shows that Marx was merely following the near-universal practice of his day. One could make the same point about his male-dominated language: ie, the word ‘man’ is used more or less unremittingly as synonymous with ‘humanity’. Ditto, ‘Jew’ is treated as synonymous with ‘usury’.20In this case a join with well recognised material roots in the economics of feudal society. Other contemporary Jewish progressives wrote in exactly the same terms: eg, Ferdinand Lassalle and Heinrich Heine. And the fact of the matter is that Marx was criticising not Jewry alone, but what he saw as a “Judeo-Christian complex”, which elevates money-making above every human value, relationship and instinct.21

No, at least when it comes to the left, for a hatred of Jews of a kind that does resemble the Nazis, you must look not to the writings of Marx, but to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65). The father of anarchism advocated the physical extermination of the Jews.22Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76) held similar views.23

Leave aside Marx’s own Jewishness, a religiously pious mother and rabbinical lineage - a good case can be made for his communism being connected, consciously or otherwise, with messianic Old Testament prophets, such as Amos, Micah and Habakkuk.24Possibly this came through his personal acquaintance with the proto-Zionist, Moses Hess (1812-72), who likewise condemned the “Judeo-Christian huckster world” - a line of thought that certainly came via Spinoza, Goethe and Hegel. In turn their passionate commitment to human freedom recognisably descends from the Christian utopias of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Not that I would go along with Erich Fromm (1900-80), when he describes Marx’s communism as “the most advanced form of rational mysticism”.25Such a paradoxical formulation, while having the merit of counteracting the dismal technological determinism of the Stalinites, runs the risk of appearing to reconcile Marxism with religion.

Anyhow, for the Marx of On the Jewish question, money was the god of the bourgeois and the worship of money was their religion. Hence the following passage:

Selling is the practice of externalisation. Selling is the practical aspect of alienation. Just as man, as long as he is in the grip of religion, is able to objectify his essential nature only by turning it into something alien, something fantastic, so under the domination of egoistic need he can be active practically and produce objects in practice only by putting his products, and his activity, under the domination of an alien being, and bestowing the significance of an alien entity - money - on them.26

Feuerbach’s ‘inverted reality’ - a world in which the essence of everything is externalised (entäussert), or objectified (vergegenständigt) into an alien, imaginary entity, a process whereby all values are turned upside-down - could not be more clear. Both notions, of course, appear - in a richer, more profound and dialectical form - in Marx’s later critique of political economy.

But - some may ask - how can the social role of money and commodities be equated with religion? Is this not stretching a point? No, it is not, for by ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ in this context Marx refers not to the cultic beliefs or observances of this or that religion, but the subordination of human beings to a thing of their own making. Hence, in Capital Marx says “in religion man is governed by the products of his own brain”. He elaborates:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour ... [the commodity is] a definite social relation between men ... [and] assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world, the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.27

It is precisely the analogical, paradigmatic role of religious alienation in unravelling the “mysterious” nature of commodities, money and much else in the world of political economy that is of central importance to an understanding of the development of Marx’s thought. Commodities - the products of our hands and brains which exert an alien power over us - at least exist in actuality, whereas god or gods are entirely a figment of the human imagination, with no existence in objective reality. It is precisely the ‘purity’ of religious alienation in this respect that endows it with a prototypical value when alienation in general is considered.

The point is that the relationship between religious alienation and its ‘secular’ counterpart in the world of humanity’s productive activity rests on the same basis of a fundamental inversion of subject and object, a radical confusion between appearance and reality at every level:

The religious world is but the reflex of the real world ... The religious reflex of the real world can ... only then finally vanish when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellow men and to nature.28

Hence, as Marx argued, “All science would be superfluous if the manifest form and the essence of things directly coincided”,29but, so long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, we all move about in forms of illusion.


It was the desire to carry the exposure of religious alienation into the real world of politics and society that led Marx to write his Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of law (1844), which effectively summarises his views on religion and contains his best known aphorisms on the subject. Marx begins by stating:

The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion; religion does not make man. Religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man, who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being encamped outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence, because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.30

Again, Marx calls for a shift in focus - from the world of religion, the criticism of which is already “complete”, to the real world of the state and politics. In an eloquent passage, however, he frankly acknowledges why it is that the illusory world of religion can grip the human mind and heart:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.31

This passage demands careful attention. In the first place, the phrase, “Religion is the opium of the people”, is often quoted in isolation, to suggest mere contempt - religious people are just spiritual junkies. In the 19th century, however, opium, especially in the form of laudanum, was in widespread use as a primitive analgesic and tranquilliser. Had he been writing today, Marx might well have described religion as the valium, or the prozac, of the people - ie, a means of dulling not just the physical or mental pain that is an inescapable part of the human condition, but also the anguish engendered by consciousness of the inevitability of disease, decay and death.

To separate the phrase, “opium of the people”, from “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world ... the spirit of spiritless conditions” is to disregard the evident understanding and compassion which Marx feels towards those who have nothing else in their impoverished and alienated world from which to take comfort.

The criticism of religion, the exposure of its illusory nature, is seen by Marx as by no means merely a negative, destructive exercise, engaged in with relish by the cocksure atheist without regard to the feelings of others. In terms of his naturalistic materialism, which attaches so much significance to the needs of human beings, including their spiritual needs, Marx’s attitude is sensitive to the pain that can accompany disillusionment:

Criticism has torn up the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man shall wear the unadorned, bleak chain, but so that he will shake off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man to make him think and act and shape his reality like a man who has been disillusioned and has come to reason, so that he will revolve round himself and therefore round his true sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve round himself.32

Marx believed that to discard the comforts of religion, to throw away one’s chains and come to one’s senses is a necessary part of achieving genuine human autonomy and the only way to encompass a genuine fulfilment. Nonetheless, it is a painful business. The “living” as opposed to the “imaginary flowers” to which Marx refers are flowers of living knowledge. Collectively and individually, human beings have to try to pierce through the veil of illusion and come to know themselves and their world for what they really are. Armed with this knowledge, they can “fashion their own reality”, by transforming nature (and with it themselves) through their purposeful productive activity. Such knowledge cannot, however, be fully attained in a society where we all still move about in forms of illusion.

Exposing the illusory nature of religion and its comforts (the “imaginary flowers”) was, in any case, only the beginning of a much broader historical task:

The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked, is to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.33

At the heart of this ‘new’ critique - one that moves onward from the exposure of religious alienation, while retaining its vital lessons - is the profoundly humanist notion of the centrality of the human person:

To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself ... the criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man, hence with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being.34

By 1844, when these words were first published, Marx had been breathing in the heady atmosphere of French socialist politics in Paris - an experience whose vivid impact provided the intellectual stimulus for the Economic and philosophical manuscripts. Within the next two years, having begun his lifelong collaboration with Frederick Engels, Marx’s approach to religion was to take a radically new direction.

As we have seen, for Marx, the ‘purity’ of religious alienation - ie, the fact that in religion human beings submit themselves to and are dominated by entirely imaginary and fantastical entities that have no existence in objective reality - gave the category a certain paradigmatic, prototypical quality. That is why we find him throughout his life using it analogically - most notably, of course, in the final section of chapter one in the first volume of Capital, entitled ‘The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof’. There he has “recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”, in order to explain how “the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race”.35

Just as “the religious reflex of the real world can, in any case, only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellow men and to nature”, so “the life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan”.36

Only communism can bring about such “perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations”, because production under communism - motivated by human needs, not by profit - will be free, collective and founded on a plan that will not only incorporate the most advanced scientific knowledge, but, more importantly still, will be characterised at every level by active popular control, thereby reintegrating human beings with themselves and one another, in a society where the gulf between appearance and reality - all the illusions and mystifications embodied in bourgeois ideology - will be left behind.


1 . This contribution is adapted from the opening chapter of Fantastic reality (2013). A chapter which is itself part based on a reworking of Michael Malkin’s February 1 2001 Weekly Worker article, ‘Karl Marx and religion’.

2 . K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p144.

3 . Ibid p151.

4 . Ibid p151.

5 . Ibid p153.

6 . Ibid pp153-54.

7 . Ibid p159.

8 . K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, London 1975, p39.

9 . Ibid p6.

10 . Ibid p39.

11 . Ibid p40.

12 . K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p175.

13 . K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, pp158-59.

14 . K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p168.

15 . Ibid p169.

16 . Ibid pp169-70.

17 , K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, p172.

18 . Schama writes: “Demonstrating that you do not have to be a gentile to be an anti-Semite, Karl Marx characterised Judaism as nothing more than the cult of Mammon, and declared that the world needed emancipating from the Jews” (Financial Times February 21-22 2016).

19 . K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, p172.

20 . See H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 1, New York 1977, pp591-608.

21 . Ibid p593.

22 . See JS Schapiro Liberalism and the challenge of fascism New York 1949.

23 . See EH Carr Michael Bakunin New York 1961.

24 . E Fromm Marx’s concept of man London 2004, p52.

25 . Ibid p52.

26 . Ibid p174.

27 . K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p72.

28 . Ibid p79.

29 . K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1971, p817.

30 . K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, Moscow 1975, p175.

31 . Ibid pp175-76.

32 . Ibid.

33 . Ibid.

34 . Ibid p182.

35 . K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p72.

36 . Ibid p80.