To the Editor:
In his article “Karl Marx’s Jew-Hating Conspiracy Theory” (April), Jonah Goldberg makes considerable use—with full acknowledgment—of my book, The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought, especially the chapter on Marx. There I argue, as Goldberg notes, that in many respects Marx’s critique and analysis of capitalism, premised upon the labor theory of value, reflected a much older belief that commerce in general and moneylending in particular were unproductive and parasitic, qualities that were often attributed to the Jews because of their association with usury (money-lending).
What I do not argue, but Goldberg does, is that “Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews.” Marx didn’t, and his most apposite work, “On the Question of the Jews,” was a critique of the notion put forward by fellow radicals such as Bruno Bauer that Jews should be denied equality of civil rights. To be sure, Marx’s purpose was less the defense of the Jews than the condemnation of capitalism. As my book notes, “Marx combined his moral critique of capitalism with traditional anti-Jewish images, not in order to bolster anti-Semitism but to blacken the moral standing of bourgeois society…. Marx embraces all the traditional negative characterizations of the Jew that were repeated by Bauer, and for good measure he adds a few of his own. But he does so in order to stigmatize market activity. For Marx’s strategy is to endorse every negative characterization of market activity that Christians associated with Jews, but to insist that those qualities have now come to characterize society as a whole, very much including Christians. The Christian tradition of stigmatizing Jews and the economic activities in which they engaged by virtue of their marginality now became a stick with which to beat bourgeois society.”
Goldberg’s notion that Marx’s theory was fundamentally a conspiracy theory is also misleading. As Marx put it in Capital (in a passage quoted in my book):
“Modern industry never views or treats the existing form of a production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually transforming not only the technical basis of production but also the functions of the workers and the social combinations of the labor process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionizes the division of labor in society, and incessantly hurls masses of capital and of workers from one branch of production to another….[It] does away with all repose, all fixity and security as far as the worker’s life-situation is concerned.”
That is no conspiracy theory. And for all that Marx got wrong, he got some things right enough to be worth remembering, including by those who, like me, find many elements of his thought unsound.
Jerry Z. Muller
Silver Spring, Maryland
Jonah Goldberg writes:
I have learned a great deal from Jerry Z. Muller. Thus, my first instinct in any disagreement with him is to assume I am in error, as I consider him an authority on a great many things.
But upon reflection, and with no diminution of my respect and admiration for Muller, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t think anyone can read Marx’s “On the Question of the Jews” in good faith and not come away from the effort thinking it is anything other than an anti-Semitic piece of work. Muller does not actually deny this. Rather, he concedes it in the process of arguing that Marx uses anti-Semitic language and concepts as a convenient way to attack capitalism. Even if I were to concede the point, this strikes me as a meager defense. According to Muller’s own account, Marx “endorsed” and reinforced anti-Semitic slurs merely as a “strategy,” but he wasn’t himself an anti-Semite? If Marx was not an anti-Semite, this explanation would still find Marx guilty of a grotesque cynicism: exploiting and endorsing anti-Semitic stereotypes as a means to throw mud on capitalism.
The problem is that there is ample evidence that Marx’s anti-Semitism was more than merely strategic. To cite just one of many examples, he referred to the German Jewish intellectual Ferdinand Lassalle as “Baron Izzy,” describing him as a “Jewish nigger.” Indeed, if anything, it was Marx’s occasional support for Jewish causes that was strategic. In 1843, while in Cologne, he wrote a letter to Arnold Ruge recounting how, “Just now the president of the Israelites here has paid me a visit and asked me to help with a parliamentary petition on behalf of the Jews; and I agreed. However obnoxious I find the Israelite beliefs Bauer’s view seems to me nevertheless to be too abstract. The point is to punch as many holes as possible in the Christian state.”
It is surely true that Marx wasn’t a practitioner of biological anti-Semitism, and that the temptation to impose Nazi notions of “the Jewish Question” onto Marx retroactively is unfair. After all, Marx was the descendant of rabbis on both sides of his family. But there are other kinds of anti-Semitism, and I’m convinced that Marx came to his hatred of capitalism, at least in part, via his hatred—or shame—of Jews. William Blanchard makes a powerful case in this regard in his essay “Karl Marx and the Jewish Question.” Blanchard states that the “very origin of his antagonism to capitalism emerged from an earlier distaste for what he described as ‘Jewish money-grubbing.’”
As for Muller’s objection to the phrase “conspiracy theory,” I take his point. But I do not think citing a single passage from Capital lets Marx off the hook. He does not dispute that Marx was indeed a conspiracy theorist, a point I illustrate in my essay. Nor does he dispute that Marxist theory lends itself to conspiracy theories about the way the ruling classes manipulate society to their own benefit, because, I suspect he would agree, that is irrefutable. Where we seem to disagree is on whether or not Marx’s explanation of the progress of history stands apart from the psychological dispositions and temptations that characterized Marx’s views and motivations away from the page. I agree we can learn much from reading Marx (though even more that is of use, I would argue, from reading Muller), but I remain convinced that the “science” of Marx’s theories is downstream of more human drives. Many intellectuals insist, though few as passionately as Marx did, that their arguments are devoid of petty biases and agendas. In the case of Marx, I find those denials unpersuasive.