Saturday, February 12, 2022

Review: The Young Karl Marx by David Leopold

I read On The Jewish Question, an essay written by Marx some 25 years before Capital in response to some antisemitic works by German philosopher Bruno Bauer, and came away from the reading experience feeling rather more confused than I was when I started.

On The Jewish Question a bit of a strange essay; it is a direct attack on Bauer's philosophy, but assumes the reader is already familiar with his philosophy (not an assumption that holds up well in the 21st century) and well-versed in what the legal status of Jewish people was in Germany in the early 1800s, and what contemporary discourse surrounding Jewish people and their political emancipation were. Marx rhetorical approach in this essay is a little odd. In the first (and longer) part of this two-part essay, he refutes Bauer's claims that Judaism is incompatible with freedom, and uses this as a starting point to discuss private versus civic spheres and freedom under the state, albeit with some rather abstruse use of the term "the Christian state" to describe the modern state. In the second part, Marx counters Bauer while using rather repulsive antisemitic language, arguing that it is not that Jewish people are uniquely egotistical, that under Capitalism, everyone is necessarily egotistical. There's a lot of concepts being tied together, using language and rhetorical choices that hold up poorly today.

Chapter 3 of The Young Karl Marx was recommended to me as providing some extra context and interpretation of this essay, and I think it serves this goal quite well. It starts with an overview of Bauer's life and writing, then walks the reader through the arguments he makes in his book, The Jewish Question, in which he concludes that Judaism is incompatible with freedom. Leopold next goes into how Marx breaks apart these arguments and outlines Marx's view of the modern state. (Marx's perspective of the modern state and what might replace it is a running theme throughout The Young Karl Marx). Finally, he finishes by addressing criticisms that the second part of the essay is antisemitic, by proposing a metaphorical (versus literal) interpretation of the term Jew, i.e., that the 'Sabbath' Jew and the 'everyday' Jew are instead terms for religious minorities of any religion and members of a civic society regardless of religious or racial identity, respectively. He further argues that Marx self-identifies as Jewish (although the evidence seemed a bit thin to me) although that there is little evidence for self-hate in this part of the essay. Further, he argues that the re-appropriation of antisemitic language in this essay should be taken in the broader context of the time, in which other (sometimes Jewish) philosophers were often writing much worse things.

With the added context provided in this chapter, I appreciated Marx' writing in On The Jewish Question more. It's kinda fun watching someone take someone else's sword and turn it back on them. 

Whereas Bauer took the received language in which the Christian majority abused the Jewish minority (as egoistic individuals who worshipped money) and repeated it, Marx took that language and extended it so as to include the majority Christian population (as egoistic individuals who worshipped money).


The widespread derogatory association was an exclusive one, in that it suggested that Jews were ‘egoistic’ in a way that the Christian majority were not. This exclusive association was endorsed by Bauer and rejected by Marx. However, the form of Marx’s rejection is significant. That exclusive association could be challenged in two ways: either one might question the association as such, or one might question the exclusivity of that association. Marx’s linguistic extension adopts the latter strategy.

However, it's not so fun an act of political discourse that I felt like the amount of work that I put into understanding Bauer and On The Jewish Question was necessarily worth it. My main take-home conclusion may instead have been that this method of critique—immanent critique launched without the full context of the argument, leaning on the popular tropes of the day—does not age particularly well.

Admittedly, I skimmed the rest of the book. The Introduction provides a little bit of context about contemporary discourse surrounding this period of Marx's work, and how its rediscovery in the latter half of the 20th century was shaped by geopolitical events at the time. Leopold also makes a case for the importance of reading this period of Marx. Chapter 2 takes much the same structure as Chapter 3, providing insight into Hegel before launching into the arguments Marx sets forth in Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Chapter 4 examines multiple works by Marx around the subject of human emancipation (contrasted with political emancipation, the subject of Chapter 3), particularly those critiquing Fuerbach. A considerable amount of the book investigates to what extent various philosophers influenced Marx, which seemed a little like a question that cannot be definitively answered and therefore didn't really hold my interest.

Leopold generally refrains from using block quotes, supporting his dissection of various arguments with quoted phrases instead. The reader is assumed to be somewhat familiar with the pieces in question, or perhaps have them open in a separate tab to read for extra context. Beyond that slight inconvenience, I found the book to be well organized and clearly written.

I'd recommend this book for others looking for a resource for better understanding Marx' works from the early 1940s. It handles this narrow niche well. I remain unconvinced that this is a particularly essential area of reading; I've learned a lot since I was 25 and I don't (presently) think there was anything particularly special about Marx's writing at that age beyond answering curiosities about how Marx's ideas developed over time.

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