Saturday, September 5, 2009

Marx & religious states

I picked up a book of Karl Marx's Selected Writings on a whim for some light lunch reading today. The very first essay pretty much blew my mind. It's "On the Jewish Question", a scathing critique of the Christian Kingdom of Germany's attitude towards Jews in the 1840s. But the thing that brought me up short is that the whole article is an argument about a problem I never even realized existed:

The Jewish question acquires a different form depending on the state in which the Jew lives. In Germany, where there is no political state, no state as such, the Jewish question is a purely theological one. The Jew finds himself in religious opposition to the state, which recognizes Christianity as its basis. This state is a theologian ex professo. Criticism here is criticism of theology, a double-edged criticism – criticism of Christian theology and of Jewish theology. Hence, we continue to operate in the sphere of theology, however much we may operate critically within it.

In France, a constitutional state, the Jewish question is a question of constitutionalism, the question of the incompleteness of political emancipation. Since the semblance of a state religion is retained here, although in a meaningless and self-contradictory formula, that of a religion of the majority, the relation of the Jew to the state retains the semblance of a religious, theological opposition.

Only in the North American states – at least, in some of them – does the Jewish question lose its theological significance and become a really secular question. Only where the political state exists in its completely developed form can the relation of the Jew, and of the religious man in general, to the political state, and therefore the relation of religion to the state, show itself in its specific character, in its purity. The criticism of this relation ceases to be theological criticism as soon as the state ceases to adopt a theological attitude toward religion, as soon as it behaves towards religion as a state – i.e., politically. Criticism, then, becomes criticism of the political state. At this point, where the question ceases to be theological, Bauer’s criticism ceases to be critical.

I knew that Jews were persecuted throughout Europe for not being Christian. But it literally had never occurred to me that in a country with a national religion, members of another religion are not simply disadvantaged or persecuted. They are not even part of the country/state/political life (I'm not 100% clear on the technical definitions of these terms as Marx is using them). They have no rights and only those privileges expressly granted to them.

As a concrete example, I never thought about a state religion requiring church attendance on the Sabbath as a civic duty. So naturally, exempting Jews from this requirement draws resentment, and every privilege so granted marks them out even more conspicuously. The same with other minority religions, I suppose, though Jews have been the largest minority religion in Europe for like a thousand years (maybe? as far as I know, and not counting the Moors in Spain who weren't the minority while they ruled there). Marx quotes liberally from Bruno Bauer, whose argument he was refuting. One of Bauer's points was that

Just as M. Martin du Nord saw the proposal to omit mention of Sunday in the law as a motion to declare that Christianity has ceased to exist, with equal reason (and this reason is very well founded) the declaration that the law of the Sabbath is no longer binding on the Jew would be a proclamation abolishing Judaism.

Wow. That is so far from my experience of religion... it's tough to see it from here. Which I suppose proves that Marx was right in this case. So right that the very question is foreign to a citizen of a modern nation. I am so firmly moored in the secular world and the secular mode of civic life, it seems absurd to contend that removing a law regarding religious practice would hurt religion, much less that it could extinguish the religion altogether. Bauer seems to regard this as part of the definition of "religion." ... Bizarre.

I also found a fascinating discussion of the different words for "Citizen" used in this article. That's one of the tricky bits of any German philosophy or politics... the words are similar, but the nuances are often very different.

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