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Judaism, Capitalism, and Marx

Mises Daily: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 by


Part 1 of "Judaism and Capitalism: Friends or Enemies?" The Lou Church Memorial Lecture in Religion and Economics, presented at the 2012 Austrian Scholars Conference

The subject “Judaism and Capitalism” needs to be addressed in two related but separate parts. In one of these, the question up for discussion is, what is the relation between Judaism, taken as a body of religious doctrine, and capitalism? In the other, the issue that confronts us is, what is the relation between Jews, taken as a particular ethnic group, and capitalism? Obviously, the two questions are related. One way of identifying at least some Jews is as those who practice the Jewish religion. Certainly, many of those ethnically Jewish are estranged from their ancestral faith; nevertheless, that there exists a connection between the two parts of our topic is clear. I propose to consider both of these parts in the remarks that follow.

I shall take the “capitalism” in our title as not requiring an extended venture in definition or analysis. By it I intend nothing controversial. I mean the economic system in place over much of the world since the Industrial Revolution, characterized for the most part by private ownership of the means of production.[1]

Theories that endeavor to connect Judaism and capitalism often, though not invariably, spring from distaste for one or both of the paired terms. This was notoriously the case in Karl Marx’s famous essay On the Jewish Question, written in 1844. In this early work, Marx said that capitalism was Jewish, in that both were egoistic. In his important book, Capitalism and the Jews, Jerry Muller says: “Were Jews egoistic, as [Bruno] Bauer had charged? Certainly, Marx answered. But in bourgeois society, everyone was egoistic.... Marx embraces all of the traditional negative characterizations of the Jew repeated by Bauer, and for good measure adds a few of his own. But he does so in order to stigmatize market activity as such. 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.”[2]

Marx’s argument is a simple one. Capitalism is based on the pursuit of profit. Each person is supposed to act to secure his self-interest. This makes universal the trader-ethics characteristic since the Middle Ages of Jewish peddlers and moneylenders. Marx of course did not advance this view as a purely theoretical account. He deplored this sort of society; in it, human beings lived alienated both from one another and their own essence.

Marx expresses his argument in unmistakable terms. Criticizing the right of private property in the French Constitution of 1793, he says: “The right of man to private property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion ... without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes everyone see in other men not the realization of his own freedom, but the barrier to it.”

It is precisely the attitude toward others described here that, according to Marx, constitutes the essence of Judaism. “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.” (Emphasis in original)[3]

How are we to evaluate Marx’s argument? It suffers from two main problems. First, Marx fails to establish a connection between selfish, egoistic behavior and the Jewish religion. Why is egoistic behavior distinctively Jewish? It is no doubt true that Judaism looks favorably on a person’s pursuit of his own interests. In the famous saying of Rabbi Hillel in the first chapter of the Ethics of our Fathers, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

But an approval of self-interest by no means signifies a selfish disregard for the well-being of others. One need only recall the continuation of Hillel’s saying, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

One could easily amass other citations on the role of regard for others and charity in Judaism, but one more must here suffice. Jewish sources often view the principal sin of Sodom, the city that God destroyed by fire and brimstone, as lack of charity. As Rabbi Meir Tamari notes in his authoritative exposition of Jewish law regarding economics, “The Mishnah [first part of the Talmud] defined one who said . . . ‘What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine’ as an evil man. He who says, ‘What’s yours is yours and what’s mine is yours’ is a righteous person. But ‘What’s yours is yours and what’s mine’ is mine—some say that is the mark of Sodom.”[4]

A defender of Marx might reply by recalling a distinction made earlier. At the outset, I distinguished the claim that Judaism as a body of doctrine is related to capitalism from the claim that Jews as a group are so related. Has the objection just raised to Marx’s account ignored this distinction? Perhaps Marx is not best taken as making a point about Jewish religious doctrine. Rather, is he not claiming that the behavior found in the economic activities of certain Jews, namely the traders and moneylenders, best expresses the essence of capitalism?[5]

If this is what Marx had in mind, it is no more satisfactory than the earlier version of his claim. What is supposed to be specifically Jewish about either selling or lending money? Marx nowhere informs us.

A more deep-seated failing besets Marx’s account of Judaism and capitalism. Marx characterizes both capitalism and Judaism as based on self-interest, practical need, selling, and money. Surely it would be difficult to find throughout recorded history many large-scale and complex societies in which these features did not play a prominent role. Contrary to Marx, neither self-interest nor the pursuit of money is distinctively either capitalist or Jewish.

In seeking to exorcise self-interest as a feature of the human condition Marx is beguiled by a fantasy in which human beings abandon all antagonisms. Murray Rothbard has aptly noted the influence of this fantasy: “To Marx, any differences between men, and, therefore, any specialization in the division of labor, is a ‘contradiction,’ and the communist goal is to replace that contradiction with harmony among all. This means that to the Marxist any individual differences, any diversity among men, are contradictions to be stamped out and replaced by the uniformity of the anthill.”[6]

Jerry Muller has insightfully drawn attention to the importance of Marx’s essay; but in one respect he goes too far. Muller says, “For ‘On the Question of the Jews’ contains, in embryo, most of the subsequent themes of Marx’s critique of capitalism.... If Marx had one big idea, it was that capitalism was the rule of money—itself the expression of greed. The rule of capital was fundamentally immoral because it deprived the vast majority in a capitalist society of their humanity, requiring labor that enriched a few capitalists while impoverishing the workers physically and spiritually.”[7]

Muller here fundamentally misconceives Marxism. Marx in Das Kapital had principally in mind a scientific critique of capitalism, based primarily on the labor theory of value. The book contains fierce moral invective directed against capitalism, some of which make references to Jewish themes; this is rhetoric rather than the core of the book. (One such reference to a Jewish theme, incidentally, occurs in the famous passage of Chapter 24 of Das Kapital, “Accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the prophets.” The Jewish reference here is not only the obvious one, i.e., the mention of Moses. The entire expression “Moses and the prophets” refers to two of the three divisions in the Jewish arrangement of the books of the Bible: Marx is saying that for the capitalists, accumulation is the Bible.) The crucial point that Marx intended his project as science rather than ethics was made long ago by Werner Sombart, whom we shall be discussing later.[8]

Before turning from Marx on capitalism and the Jews, I allow myself one conjecture. Marx said that the essence of capitalism was egoism. Could awareness of this claim have influenced the young Ayn Rand, who after all grew up in Soviet Russia, where the writings of Marx were abundantly available in Russian translation? I ask because she of course also thought that capitalism was in essence egoism, though she embraced exactly what repelled Marx and ignored his identification of Judaism with capitalism.

What lesson should we draw from the failure of Marx’s attempt to link Judaism with capitalism? Should we abandon altogether all inquiries along the same lines as fundamentally misguided? Such a course was urged by Ludwig von Mises. He remarks in Socialism, “Today the Islamic and Jewish religions are dead. They offer their adherents nothing more than a ritual. They know how to prescribe prayers and fasts, certain foods, circumcision and the rest; but that is all. They offer nothing to the mind. Completely despiritualized, all they teach and preach are legal forms and external rule. They lock their follower into a cage of traditional usages, in which he is often hardly able to breathe; but for his inner soul they have no message. They suppress the soul, instead of elevating it and saving it. For many centuries in Islam, for nearly two thousand years in Jewry, there have been no new religious movements. Today the religion of the Jews is just as it was when the Talmud was drawn up.”

I do not think that Mises’s remarks by themselves settle the questions at issue, even if one accepts Mises’s highly dubious characterization of Judaism as pure ritual, devoid of appeal to the mind. Mises’s comments do not exclude the possibility that legal regulations of the kind Mises describes in such unflattering terms influenced the development of capitalism, either by their content or by the qualities of mind and character that people who adhered to the rituals tended to develop. But these are no more than possibilities: whether these regulations in fact had such effects is another question ...


The author thanks Paul Gottfried, Gary Chartier, and Lloyd Gerson for helpful comments

[1] Contemporary “left libertarians” often use “capitalism” to designate a partnership between government and big business. They contrast this system with a genuinely free market. This is not my usage here.

[2] Jerry Z. Muller, Capitalism and the Jews (PrincetonUniversity Press, 2010), pp. 36, 39.

[3] All quotations from Marx are from Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, consulted here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/. One of these quotations is also given by Muller, p.38, in his own translation.

[4] Meir Tamari, With All Your Possessions: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life (The Free Press, 1987), p.51.

[5] I confine to a note a difficulty with both readings of Marx. If Judaism is capitalism, how can it be at the same time true that Judaism gave rise to capitalism? Obviously, Marx does not use “is” here to denote strict identity.

[6] Murray Rothbard, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2000), p.256.

[7] Muller, pp.41-2.

[8] For a good analysis of the place of morality in Marx’s thought, see Allan W. Wood, Karl Marx (Routledge, 2004). Part III, “Marxism and Morality”, pp.125-161. See also Steven Lukes, Marxism and Morality (Oxford, 1987).