In this paper I offer a new interpretation of Marx’s essay On the Jewish Question (OJQ) which re-states its key ideas but removes unnecessary debates that are not relevant to current political and legal problems. Because OJQ is a demonstration of critique it does not offer positive proscriptions or suggestions for change. Its utility, I argue, lies in the way it can help us think about the limits of resolving deeply entrenched power-relations without a thoroughgoing engaging of how those powers are created and enacted in civil society. With this in mind I read OJQ alongside the recent campaign to legislate for marriage equality in Australia and the movement to recognise environmental human rights. While both movements might ameliorate instances of discrimination and harm, I argue that they cannot resolve those powers that limit certain kinds of access or render people and things subordinate to other interests.
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The Jewish Question itself concerns the status, standing and freedom of Jewish people living in European states during the 19th century [23, pp. xxi–xxiii].
This phrase is usually attributed to Victor Hugo [42, p. 409]: ‘An invasion of armies can be resisted; an invasion of ideas cannot be resisted.’
Marx says repeatedly that formal legal equality is an improvement. See for example [56, pp. 33, 35].
This is not to suggest that Hegel was an apologist for the Prussian state and this is not a view that Marx expressed in [58, pp. 53–65].
Marx fleshes out this question at [56, p. 29]: ‘It was by no means sufficient to ask: who should emancipate? Who should be emancipated? The critic should ask a third question: what kind of emancipation is involved? What are the essential conditions of the emancipation which is demanded?’
Marx argues that political emancipation is ‘the final form of emancipation within the framework of the prevailing social order’ [56, p. 35]. In other words, it is the best outcome under a liberal constitutional state.
Commenting on the limits of political emancipation, Marx argues that the ‘state can liberate itself from a constraint without man himself really being liberated.’ See also [60, p. 20]: ‘The limits of political emancipation were shown by the fact that the state could free itself from religion without its citizens being freed.’
Today we have such an impoverished dialogue on the meaning of emancipation and liberation. But for a good introduction see .
The term frenzied might also be translated as ‘unbridled.’
We might also argue Marx overstates the relationship between the state and religion and sets up simplistic oppositions between idealism v materialism and the state v civil society. See further [11, p. 111]. See also [51, p. 248] Marx ‘allows himself to become the prisoner of the ideological version of rights without examining what they mean in practice, what profound changes they bring to social life.’
For example, the notion of species being is of much less importance in Capital [38, p. 112].
It is not even clear that young people think democracy is essential .
Marx discusses this point with reference to the shift away from feudal monarchy [56, p. 45]: ‘The political revolution therefore abolished the political character of civil society….A specific activity and situation in life no longer had any but an individual significance.’
See also [79, p. 261]: ‘The decision is no longer up to us. The legal system of the United States has its own momentum. The last thing the courts are likely to care about is whether marriage is a good idea from a queer point of view.
See for example Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the ‘exception categories’ in anti-Jewish legislation [3, p. 132]: ‘What was morally so disastrous in the acceptance of these privileged categories was that everyone who demanded to have an “exception” made in his case implicitly recognized the rule.’
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Burdon, P.D. On the Limits of Political Emancipation and Legal Rights. Int J Semiot Law 34, 319–339 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-019-09634-3
- Political emancipation
- Legal rights
- Environmental human rights
- Marriage equality
- On the Jewish Question