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The text is excerpted from Marx's 1843 On the Jewish Question (trans. H.J. Stenning, in the The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert Tucker. Norton: 1978).
Home > Philosophy > Texts > Social & Political Philosophy > Marx, “On the Jewish Question”

Marx, “On the Jewish Question”

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 is a fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human rights.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 is a fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human rights.

Marx responds here to the analysis of his contemporary, Bruno Bauer, about the prospects for Jewish freedom. On Bauer’s account, the German state’s affiliation with Christianity explained the inequality, and the solution was thus to separate the state and church, abolish religion, and bring political emancipation. In Marx’s critical response, he pointed out that anti-Semitism – to use a contemporary term – flourished in the United States despite the separation of religion from the state. Racism was rooted in “civil society,” he argued, not in the state; thus true, universal human emancipation was the only adequate cure. Liberal politics – even those promoting the most liberal constitutions – conceive of humanity on an atomistic model (as egos concerned with Lockean individual rights), rather than a model which embraces the sociality of our species-life.

The limits of political emancipation appear at once in the fact… that a state may be a free state without man himself being a free man….

Let us notice first of all that the so-called rights of man, as distinct from the rights of the citizen, are simply the rights of a member of civil society, that is, of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community. The most radical constitution, that of 1793, says:

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: Article 2. "These rights, etc. (the natural and imprescriptible rights) are: equality, liberty, security, property.”

What constitutes liberty?

Article 6. "Liberty is the power which man has to do everything which does not harm the rights of others."

Liberty is, therefore, the right to do everything which does not harm others. The limits within which each individual can act without harming others are determined by law, just as the boundary between two fields is marked by a stake. It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself. Why, according to Bauer, is the Jew not fitted to acquire the rights of man? "As long as he remains Jewish the limited nature which makes him a Jew must prevail over the human nature which should associate him, as a man, with other men; and it will isolate him from everyone who is not a Jew." But liberty as a right of man is not founded upon the relations between man and man, but rather upon the separation of man from man. It is the right of such separation. The right of the circumscribed individual, withdrawn into himself.

The practical application of the right of liberty is the right of private property. What constitutes the right of private property?

Article 16 (Constitution of 1793). "The right of property is that which belongs to every citizen of enjoying and disposing as he will of his goods and revenues, of the fruits of his work and industry."

The right of property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s fortune and to dispose of it as one will; without regard for other men and independently of society. It is the right of self-interest. This individual liberty, and its application, form the basis of civil society. It leads every man to see in other men, not the realization, but rather the limitation of his own liberty. It declares above all the right "to enjoy and to dispose as one will, one’s goods and revenues, the fruits of one’s work and industry."

There remain the other rights of man, equality and security.

The term "equality" has here no political significance. It is only the equal right to liberty as defined above; namely that every man is equally regarded as a self-sufficient monad. The constitution of 1795 defines the concept of liberty in this sense.

Article 5 (Constitution of 1795). "Equality consists in the fact that the law is the same for all, whether it protects or punishes."

And security?

Article 8 (Constitution of 1793)."Security consists in the protection afforded by society to each of its members for the preservation of his person, his rights, and his property."

Security is the supreme social concept of civil society; the concept of the police. The whole society exists only in order to guarantee for each of its members the preservation of his person, his rights and his property. It is in this sense that Hegel calls civil society "the state of need and of reason."

The concept of security is not enough to raise civil society above its egoism. Security is, rather, the assurance of its egoism.

None of the supposed rights of man, therefore, go beyond the egoistic man, man as he is, as a member of civil society; that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice. Man is far from being considered, in the rights of man, as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself&;society&8212;appears as a system which is external to the individual and as a limitation of his original independence. The only bond between men is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic persons.

It is difficult enough to understand that a nation which has just begun to liberate itself, to tear down all the barriers between different sections of the people and to establish a political community, should solemnly proclaim (Declaration of 1791) the rights of the egoistic man, separated from his fellow men and from the community, and should renew this proclamation at a moment when only the most heroic devotion can save the nation (and is, therefore, urgently called for), and when the sacrifice of all the interests of civil society is in question and egoism should be punished as a crime. (Declaration of the Rights of Man, etc. 1793.). The matter becomes still more incomprehensible when we observe that the political liberators reduce citizenship, the political community, to a mere means for preserving these so-called rights of man; and consequently, that the citizen is declared to be the servant of egoistic "man," that the sphere in which man functions as a species-being is degraded to a level below the sphere where he functions as a partial being, and finally that it is man as a private individual [bourgeois] and not man as a citizen who is considered the true and authentic man.

"The end of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man." (Declaration of the Rights of Man, etc. 1791, Article 2.)
"Government is instituted in order to guarantee man’s enjoyment of his natural and imprescriptible rights." (Declaration, etc. 1793, Article 1)
Thus, even in the period of its youthful enthusiasm, which is raised to fever pitch by the force of circumstances, political life declares itself to be only a means, whose end is the life of civil society.
It is true that its revolutionary practice is in flagrant contradiction with its theory. While, for instance, security is declared to be one of the rights of man, the violation of the privacy of correspondence is openly considered. While the "unlimited freedom of the Press" (Constitution of 1793, Article 122), as a corollary of the right of individual liberty, is guaranteed, the freedom of the Press is completely destroyed, since "the freedom of the Press should not be permitted when it endangers public liberty." This amounts to saying: the right to liberty ceases to be a right as soon as it comes into conflict with political life, whereas in theory political life is no more than the guarantee of the rights of man&8212;the rights of the individual man&8212;and should, therefore, be suspended as soon as it comes into contradiction with its end, these rights of man. But practice is only the exception, while theory is the rule. Even if one decided to regard revolutionary practice as the correct expression of this relation, the problem would remain as to why it is that in the minds of political liberators the relation is inverted, so that the end appears as the means and the means as the end? This optical illusion of their consciousness would always remain a problem, though a psychological and theoretical one.

But the problem is easily solved.

Political emancipation is at the same time the dissolution of the old society, upon which the sovereign power, the alienated political life of the people, rests. Political revolution is a revolution of civil society. What was the nature of the old society? It can be characterized in one word: feudalism. The old civil society had a directly political character; that is, the elements of civil life such as property, the family, and types of occupation had been raised, in the form of lordship, caste and guilds, to elements of political life. They determined, in this form, the relation of the individual to the state as a whole; that is, his political situation, or in other words, his separation and exclusion from the other elements of society. For this organization of national life did not constitute property and labour as social elements; it rather succeeded in separating them from the body of the state, and made them distinct societies within society. Nevertheless, at least in the feudal sense, the vital functions and conditions of civil society remained political. They excluded the individual from the body of the state, and transformed the particular relation which existed between his corpora-

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tion and the state into a general relation between the individual and social life, just as they transformed his specific civil activity and situation into a general activity and situation. As a result of this organization, the state as a whole and its consciousness, will and activity&8212;the general political power&8212;also necessarily appeared as the private affair of a ruler and his servants, separated from the people.

The political revolution which overthrew this power of the ruler, which made state affairs the affairs of the people, and the political state a matter of general concern, i.e. a real state, necessarily shattered everything&8212;estates, corporations, guilds, privileges&8212;which expressed the separation of the people from community life. The political revolution therefore abolished the political character of civil society. It dissolved civil society into its basic elements, on the one hand individuals, and on the other hand the material and cultural elements which formed the life experience and the civil situation of these individuals. It set free the political spirit which had, so to speak, been dissolved, fragmented and lost in the various culs-de-sac of feudal society; it reassembled these scattered fragments, liberated the political spirit from its connexion with civil life and made of it the community sphere, the general concern of the people, in principle independent of these particular elements of civil life. A specific activity and situation in life no longer had any but an individual significance. They no longer constituted the general relation between the individual and the state as a whole. Public affairs as such became the general affair of each individual, and political functions became general functions.

But the consummation of the idealism of the state was at the same time the consummation of the materialism of civil society. The bonds which had restrained the egoistic spirit of civil society were removed along with the political yoke. Political emancipation was at the same time an emancipation of civil society from politics and from even the semblance of a general content.

Feudal society was dissolved into its basic element, man; but into egoistic man who was its real foundation.

Man in this aspect, the member of civil society, is now the foundation and presupposition of the political state. He is recognized as such in the rights of man.

But the liberty of egoistic man, and the recognition of this liberty, is rather the recognition of the frenzied movement of the cultural and material elements which form the content of his life.

Thus man was not liberated from religion; he received religious liberty. He was not liberated from property; he received the liberty to own property. He was not liberated from the egoism of business; he received the liberty to engage in business.

The formation of the political state, and the dissolution of civil

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society into independent individuals whose relations are regulated by law, as the relations between men in the corporations and guilds were regulated by privilege, are accomplished by one and the same act. Man as a member of civil society&8212;non-political man&8212;necessarily appears as the natural man. Tle rights of man appear as natural rights because conscious activity is concentrated upon political action. Egoistic man is the passive, given result of the dissolution of society, an object of direct apprehension and consequently a natural object. The political revolution dissolves civil society into its elements without revolutionizing these elements themselves or subjecting them to criticism. This revolution regards civil society, the sphere of human needs, labour, private interests and civil law, as the basis of its own existence, as a self-subsistent precondition, and thus as its natural basis. Finally, man as a member of civil society is identified with authentic man, man as distinct from citizen, because he is man in his sensuous, individual and immediate existence, whereas political man is only abstract, artificial man, man as an allegorical, moral person. Thus man as he really is, is seen only in the form of egoistic man, and man in his true nature only in the form of the abstract citizen.

The abstract notion of political man is well formulated by Rousseau: "Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature itself, of transforming each individual who, in isolation, is a complete but solitary whole, into a part of something greater than himself, from which in a sense, he derives his life and his being; [of changing man’s nature in order to strengthen it;] of substituting a limited and moral existence for the physical and independent life [with which all of us are endowed by nature]. His task, in short, is to take from a man his own powers, and to give him in exchange alien powers which he can only employ with the help of other men."

Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself.

Political emancipation is a reduction of man, on the one band to a member of civil society, an independent and egoistic individual, and on the other hand, to a citizen, to a moral person.

Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationsbips, be has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers (forces propres) as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.

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