Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Confronting Marx's Bigotry

Academics are now rightfully confronting the bigotry and racism that pervades the history of philosophy. However, one philosopher is conspicuously absent from many of these accounts (including each one linked above): Karl Marx.

Consider, for instance, an opinion piece from the New York Times titled: "Confronting Philosophy's Anti-Semitism." The piece discusses Hume, Voltaire, and Kant (and briefly mentions Hegel, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein) but says nothing about Marx.

The omission of Marx from a discussion of antisemitic philosophers is remarkable. Here's a passage from Marx's "On the Jewish Question":
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.

An organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, would make the Jew impossible. His religious consciousness would be dissipated like a thin haze in the real, vital air of society. On the other hand, if the Jew recognizes that this practical nature of his is futile and works to abolish it, he extricates himself from his previous development and works for human emancipation as such and turns against the supreme practical expression of human self-estrangement.

We recognize in Judaism, therefore, a general anti-social element of the present time, an element which through historical development – to which in this harmful respect the Jews have zealously contributed – has been brought to its present high level, at which it must necessarily begin to disintegrate.

In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.
There is far more to be said about this essay that I can hope to say here. For now, I'll simply note how Marx's antisemitism and anti-capitalism are intertwined. Marx invokes the antisemitic trope that identifies Judaism with greed and moneymaking, which he in turn associates directly with the dehumanizing properties of capitalism:
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. The god of the Jews has become secularized and become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.
Marx's bigotry is not restricted to antisemitism either. He accused the Chinese of "hereditary stupidity." He also extensively praised racist Pierre Tremaux's amateur work on evolution. In a letter to Engels, Marx writes,
In its historical and political applications far more significant and pregnant than Darwin. For certain questions, such as nationality, etc., only here has a basis in nature been found. E.g., he corrects the Pole Duchinski, whose version of the geological differences between Russia and the Western Slav lands he does incidentally confirm, by saying not that the Russians are Tartars rather than Slavs, etc., as the latter believes, but that on the surface-formation predominant in Russia the Slav has been tartarised and mongolised; likewise (he spent a long time in Africa) he shows that the common negro type is only a degeneration of a far higher one.
Engels himself lauded the "energetic Yankees" who "seized" California "from the lazy Mexicans who did not know what to do with it" in the Mexican-American war. He writes of the "filth" and "savagery" of the Irish here. And this is not nearly an exhaustive account. A more detailed look at the racism of Marx and Engels, including their repeated use of vile racial slurs, can be found here.

The comparative infrequency with which philosophers grapple with Marx's bigotry is startling. (I'll note in passing that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Marx and "On the Jewish Question" makes no mention of the essay's antisemitism). Not only is Marx's racism glaring and pervasive, his work continues to exert a profound influence on academia. The Communist Manifesto is one of the three most assigned texts at American colleges. Nearly 18% of social scientists identify as Marxists. For all of these reasons, no serious reckoning with the racist history of philosophy can take place without confronting the case of Marx.