Revisiting the ‘Jewish Question’ and Its Contemporary Discontents

Igor Shoikhedbrod

As this article is being written, the world is confronting a global pandemic that continues to wreak havoc daily. While unprecedented in several respects, the pandemic mirrors earlier crises under financialised capitalism, at least in its devastating impact upon the global working poor and the unemployed, racialised minorities, migrant workers, and other marginalised groups. The pandemic has also been accompanied by a spate of anti-Jewish and anti-Asian violence globally. To be sure, racist-based violence and hate crimes had a long and sordid history before the pandemic. In 2019, a German neo-fascist killed two people outside a Halle synagogue in a deliberate attempt to carry out a murderous rampage against Jews. A year earlier, another neo-fascist was responsible for killing 11 Jewish worshippers and injuring six others at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In addition to these horrific acts of antisemitic violence, there has been a general spike in hate crimes against Jews across Europe and North America, which has given renewed force to contemporary discussions about antisemitism and the ‘Jewish Question’.[1] In the Marxist tradition, the debate about the Jewish Question originates in the nineteenth century, prompted as it was by Marx’s well-known critique of Bruno Bauer’s book, Die Judenfrage (The Jewish Question). The current iteration of this debate is complicated by a host of multi-layered and conflicting realities. These realities include the enduring legacies of the Holocaust, the Nakba, the consolidation of the Israeli state, the struggle of Palestinians for self-determination amidst a brutal occupation, as well as a global political context in which xenophobic nationalisms and neo-fascisms have resurfaced with a vengeance.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


Much as the bold work of Abram Leon may have illuminated the plight of European Jews at an earlier historical juncture, the diverse predicament of Jews around the world has changed considerably since the time that Leon wrote his well-known work.[2] Looking back as one looks forward, Leon’s analysis is understandably dated, and his central thesis about the Jews as a ‘people-class’ was arguably misplaced.[3] However, the question that agitated the precocious 26 year old, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1944, is still with us today. That question is the enduring ‘Jewish Question’. The apparent inadequacies of traditional Marxist approaches to antisemitism and the Jewish Question, Leon’s included, have led some scholars to conclude that the Marxist tradition is hopelessly unequipped to grapple with antisemitism and its political manifestations. In an updated edition to his influential study on Marxism and the Jewish Question, Enzo Traverso reaches the following judgement regarding classical Marxism and its position on the Jewish Question:

The history of the Marxist debate on the Jewish Question is the history of a misunderstanding. Classical Marxism was incapable of comprehending the nature of antisemitism, or of recognizing the Jewish aspiration to a distinct separate identity. Actually, it shared this misconception with all intellectual and political currents that belonged to the tradition of Enlightenment, from democratic liberalism to Zionism.[4]

As for the main source of classical Marxism’s misunderstanding of the Jewish Question and its resultant discontents, Traverso submits:

Finally, the Marxist debate on the Jewish Question shows the tragic illusions of a teleological vision of history. Behind the Marxist conception of assimilation and antisemitism, there was an idea of progress in which history was envisaged as a linear development, an inevitable improvement of humanity, the evolution of society following natural laws and the development of the productive forces under capitalism growing inevitably closer to the advent of the socialist order.[5]

To be sure, one can find passages in Marx and Engels, often detached from context, that support Traverso’s conclusions. The same is true for misappropriations of these passages by some subsequent Marxists. Marx and Engels were indeed children of the Enlightenment – critical as they may have been of its shortcomings – and remained hopeful, at times too hopeful, about the march of progress and the prospects for emancipation in the world. In retrospect, the Holocaust and the countless wars, murders, and dispossessions, both preceding and following the twentieth century, appear to have tarnished any residual hope in the notion of historical progress. While unquestionably critical of Marx’s and Engels’ faith in historical progress in connection with the Jewish Question, Traverso’s most recent work on revolution is more attentive to the presence of ‘ambivalence’ in Marx’s and Engels’s attitudes towards revolution, social transformation, and historical progress.[6]

In general, there has been an impressive renaissance of Marxist scholarship in recent years, coinciding with the ongoing MEGA2 initiative, which has called into question long-held assumptions about Marx and Engels’ irredeemable Eurocentrism, their supposedly unshaken faith in a linear conception of historical progress, including their erstwhile support for British colonialism, as well as their apparent silence on issues of nationality, race, gender, and non-Western societies. What continues to emerge from these scholarly contributions are more nuanced and multifaceted ‘pictures’ of Marx and Engels with which readers are less familiar and comfortable, coloured as prevailing interpretations have been by the Cold War legacy and the practice of selective editing by Marx and Engels’ previous handlers.[7] This is not to suggest that Marx and Engels are beyond reproach; they are not. They were undeniably children of their time, but were also able to rise decisively above many prejudices of their own time. One thinks here of Marx’s pragmatic openness to non-capitalist roads to communism, including his opposition to any attempts at suprahistorical theory, Marx and Engels’ principled positions against racist slavery in the United States and its direct connection with the workers’ movement, and their support for decolonisation and national struggles for self-determination, whether in Poland, Ireland, or India.[8]

In what follows, I do not pretend to unearth previously concealed archival material. Rather, I return to well-known texts, written primarily by Marx, and through a careful and critical reconstruction I show that Marx and Engels have more to offer contemporary readers as regards the Jewish Question than their critics have cared to acknowledge.

Marx died in 1883 and Engels in 1895, so what will be offered in the first section of the article is a critical reconstruction of their most pertinent theoretical reflections on the Jewish Question, which I maintain can still clarify the struggles of our own time. A critical reconstruction should not be confused with an uncritical defence of Marx and Engels, nor should it be regarded as a fateful quest to defend all their pronouncements on Jews and Judaism, whatever their merits. At its best, a critical reconstruction, according to Jürgen Habermas’s frequently cited formulation, ‘signifies taking a theory apart and putting it back together in a new form in order to attain more fully the goal that it has set for itself.’[9] In this case, by critically reconstructing Marx and Engels’ reflections on the Jewish Question, this article will reappropriate their most fruitful contributions with the aim of achieving more consistently the tasks that they set for themselves. While problematic aspects of their pronouncements about Jews and Judaism will be criticised, the underlying aim of this reconstruction is to highlight their potentially constructive contributions to contemporary struggles against antisemitism. For this and other reasons, greater emphasis will be given to the specific political contexts that informed their interventions on this topic. Similarly, rather than interpreting Marx and Engels as engaging primarily with their contemporaries (e.g., Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, etc.), I approach them foremost as revolutionary activists who were deeply involved in the day-to-day struggles of their time, including struggles for Jewish emancipation. In effect, this means approaching their ‘texts’ as active political interventions rather than as abstract and decontextualised contributions to the history of ideas.

It should also be noted that the critical reconstruction offered in this article differs in important ways from other approaches that question the heuristic value of reconstructing Marx and Engels’s reflections on the Jewish Question for the purpose of confronting contemporary antisemitism, whether because of their seemingly unshakable faith in historical progress[10] or due to the dramatic political-economic changes that have reshaped Jewish identity since 1948.[11] The latter approach is arguably more amenable to the critical reconstruction being undertaken here to the extent that it draws on some elements of the Marxist tradition to make sense of contemporary antisemitism, albeit with greater reliance on interventions from decolonial thought, critical race theory, and identity studies.[12] While Marx and Engels did not develop a distinct theoretical approach for the study of antisemitism, their critical insights can be deployed to make sense of contemporary antisemitism and the enduring Jewish Question.

II. Revisiting the Jewish Question: A History of Persecution and De-emancipation

Before turning to Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’, it would help to say a few words about the Rhineland Jewish community’s historical experience of religious persecution and the political exclusions to which it gave rise. In recent years, prominent biographers of Marx have paid more attention to the post-revolutionary emancipation of Rhenish Jews, who were subsequently de-emancipated by the Kingdom of Prussia in 1815. This process of de-emancipation had a profound impact on Rhineland’s Jewish community. Heschel (later known as Heinrich) Marx’s life changed dramatically after the 1815 Prussian Restoration. As is well known, Karl Marx’s father, Heinrich, a descendant of a rabbinical family turned liberal humanist, was compelled to convert to Lutheranism in order to maintain his legal practice. However, Heinrich’s brother, Samuel, continued his rabbinical duties in Trier long after Heinrich’s wife, his son Karl, and other children had been baptised.[13] In short, the legacy of post-1815 de-emancipation was anything but inconsequential for Rhenish Jews. In his recent discussion of the dramatic changes experienced by Rhenish Jews during this period, Shlomo Avineri observes:

In the years between 1815 and 1848 one can discern a deep feeling of alienation and consequent political radicalization among members of the Jewish intelligentsia in the Rhineland and the emergence among them – much more than among the more quietistic Jewish communities in Prussia proper – of radical politics; some did convert under that pressure, but this did not make them more supportive of the system imposed on them; others, while distancing themselves from orthodox Judaism, did try to maintain their Jewish identity in one way or another. But it is among them that one finds the pioneers of radical democracy, revolutionary socialism, and a profound critique of bourgeois society and German nationalism.[14]

I will not speculate here about how Karl Marx understood the impact of the post-1815 period on Trier’s Jewish community. It suffices to note that these political changes had immediate consequences for Marx’s family and contributed to his subsequent development as a ‘Rhineland radical’.[15]

This historical reality of de-emancipation also helps explain why leaders of Rhineland’s Jewish community approached the then 25-year-old Marx with a petition demanding equal civil and political rights for Jews. Marx recounted this petition in his 1843 letter to Ruge:

I have just been visited by the chief of the Jewish community here, who has asked me for a petition for the Jews to the Provincial Assembly, and I am willing to do it. However much I dislike the Jewish faith, Bauer’s view seems to me too abstract. The thing is to make as many breaches as possible in the Christian state and to smuggle in as much as we can of what is rational. At least, it must be attempted – and the embitterment grows with every petition that is rejected with protestations.[16]

Marx’s recollection of events is worth delving into, not least because it provides a helpful context for his subsequent critique of Bruno Bauer, as well as his unambiguous support for the emancipation of Jews in ‘On the Jewish Question’, in The Holy Family (written jointly with Engels), and in his journalistic reflections on the ‘History of the Eastern Question’ for theNew-York Daily Tribune. These texts form the core of Marx’s reflections on the Jewish Question. The critical reconstruction that follows will draw on these texts, as well as Engels’ 1890 reflection on antisemitism, to demonstrate the extent to which the insights of Marx and Engels can clarify the normative and political stakes of the Jewish Question today.

What makes Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’ a particularly incisive work of political theory is its framing. Bruno Bauer’s opposition to the equal rights of Jews is used by Marx as a foil for dissecting the potential and limitations ofpolitical emancipation within the framework of the modern constitutional state. In that essay, Marx takes the claims of a particular group (Jews) for equal rights as a ‘problem’ that is universal rather than particular in character, and whose ‘solution’ is likewise universal. Whereas Bauer faulted the Jews for their unwillingness to renounce Judaism in search of a privileged status within a German Christian state, Marx turned the question back on Bauer by asking on what basis he could demand that the Jews renounce their faith in order to be granted equal rights.[17] In Marx’s view, there was no rational basis for Bauer’s demand, since the most developed modern state presupposes the legal protection of religious conscience as a constitutional right.[18] The fact that Jews could not enjoy the same catalogue of rights betrayed the reactionary character of the Christian Prussian state, as well as the prejudiced attitudes of thinkers like Bauer, for whom Christians were better fit for political emancipation than Jews. As is well known, Marx did not limit his critique of Bauer to the question of who is deserving of rights and who is not; rather, his critique acknowledged the value of political emancipation (i.e., being granted equal rights) as great progress but also identified its inherent limitations in bourgeois society.[19] Marx recognised that one could be a rights bearer in this or that state and yet remain unfree, simultaneously experience and reproduce discriminatory practices, and in the end remain dependent on the exigencies of a capitalist market system that routinely reduces individuals to the playthings of alien powers.[20]

The inadequacies of such a liberation reaffirmed for Marx the difference between political emancipation andhuman emancipation. As we shall see, however, the struggle to realise any fuller conception of human emancipation was not to be understood as the unique political task of a particular religion, national identity, or ethnostate. Instead, it was correctly conceived by Marx as a universal task.[21]

As was noted earlier, Marx returned to the Jewish Question in The Holy Family, a polemic written jointly with Engels against the Bauer brothers and their followers. Marx’s decision to revisit the Jewish Question shows that he considered this question sufficiently important to warrant further commentary, especially since Bauer’s work had met with critical rejoinders by Jewish intellectuals, whose conclusions about the political emancipation of Jews Marx shared. Marx’s discussion of the Jewish Question in The Holy Family helps supplement and round out the position he developed in his earlier essay.

One can discern at least five points that receive closer elaboration by Marx in The Holy Family. The first is that Bauer’s misguided approach to the question of Jewish emancipation leads him to erroneous ‘prophecies of the decay of nationalities’.[22] This insight is revealing, for Marx and Engels have been criticised for engaging in precisely the same kind of naive prophesying of the end of nations, even though they held more sophisticated views on this topic in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions across central Europe.[23] The second point is that Marx takes the opportunity to respond to Bauer’s prejudiced charge that the historical contribution of Jews has been an ‘eyesore’ to the (Christian) world. Clearly identifying with his Jewish ancestry in this context, Marx responds that ‘something which has been an eyesore to me from birth, as the Jews have been to the Christian world, and which persists and develops with the eye is not an ordinary sore, but a wonderful one, one that really belongs to my eye and must even contribute to a highly original development of my eyesight.’[24] Marx is criticising Bauer’s secularised prejudice against Jews,[25] whereby the worst features of modernity’s commercialised ethos are hypocritically projected onto Jews, even though New England Protestants (to use Marx’s example in ‘On the Jewish Question’) were guided by a thoroughly commercialised ethic.[26] Marx finds a similar hypocrisy in the avowedly secular French constitutional republic, which continued to discriminate against Jews because of Christianity’s religious predominance in that country. Marx writes:

Now, according to free [liberal] theory, Jews and Christians are equal, but according to this practice Christians have a privilege over Jews; for otherwise how could the Sunday of the Christians have a place in a law made for all Frenchmen? Should not the Jewish Sabbath have the same right, etc.? Or in the practical life of the French too, the Jew is not really oppressed by Christian privileges; but the law does not dare to express this practical equality.[27]

Jews and Christians were deemed equals in the eyes of French law, and yet in this passage Marx identifies the extent to which Jews remained unequal as a matter of fact.

It is striking that recent commentators on Marx’s attitude towards religious toleration, such as Michael Ignatieff, continue to ignore these critical insights and erroneously conclude that

Marx’s hostility toward the religious toleration granted to Jews and others during the French Revolution was to last for the rest of his life. In 1875, six years before his death, he [Marx] condemned the German Social Democrats’ Gotha Program for endorsing religious toleration. He thought they should abolish religion altogether.[28]

Had Ignatieff read Marx’s work with greater care, he would notice that Marx not only affirms freedom of conscience but also reiterates the particular importance, for a self-professed workers’ party, of liberating conscience from the ‘witchery’ of religion. In Marx’s words:

‘Freedom of conscience’! If one desired at this time of the Kulturkampf to remind liberalism of its old catchwords, it surely could have been done only in the following form: Everyone should be able to attend to his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in. But the workers’ party ought at any rate in this connection to have expressed its awareness of the fact that bourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part it endeavours rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion. But one chooses not to transgress the ‘bourgeois’ level.[29]

Far from exhibiting hostility towards religious toleration, Marx affirms two interconnected ‘liberal’ rights: freedom of religious conscience and freedomfrom religious conscience. At no point does Marx endorse the forceful abolition of religion that is attributed to him by Ignatieff. On the contrary, in an 1878 interview with theChicago Tribune, Marx maintains that ‘violent measures against religion are nonsense; but this is an opinion: as socialism grows, religion will disappear. Its disappearance must be done by social development, in which education must play a part.’[30] One can take legitimate issue with Marx’s optimistic ‘opinion’ concerning the progressive disappearance of religion under socialism without mischaracterising his considered views, which demonstrate a thoroughgoing commitment to the emancipation of Jews and support for freedom of conscience.

The final two points that are worth stressing here are closely connected to Marx’s earlier insight about the hypocrisy of the modern Christian state in relation to its Jewish minority. The first, pointing back to Marx’s earlier essay, is that the defective character of the modern state is not the fault of Jews, nor is the struggle for human emancipation to be understood as the special responsibility of Jews. Marx explains:

The emancipation of the Jews into human beings, or the human emancipation of Jewry, was therefore not conceived, as by Herr Bauer, as the special task of the Jews, but as a general practical task of the present-day world, which is Jewish to the core. It was proved that the task of abolishing the essence of Jewry is actually the task of abolishing the Jewish character of civil society, abolishing the inhumanity of the present-day practice of life, the most extreme expression of which is the money system.[31]

Second, far from ridiculing the project of political emancipation, Marx maintains that the degree to which Jews have been emancipated politically should be regarded as a benchmark for evaluating the general development and normative status of modern states. He writes:

The Jews (like the Christians) are fully politically emancipated in various states. Both Jews and Christians are far from being humanly emancipated. Hence there must be a difference between political and human emancipation. The essence of political emancipation, i.e., of the developed, modern state, must therefore be studied. On the other hand, states which cannot yet politically emancipate the Jews must be rated by comparison with the perfected political state and shown to be under-developed states.[32]

Consequently, the political emancipation (or, alternatively, the de-emancipation) of Jews offers a valuable prism for assessing the normative status of purportedly modern states.            

Having provided an explication of Marx’s early reflections on the Jewish Question, it would be irresponsible to sidestep the long-standing controversy surrounding Marx’s antisemitism, particularly his inexcusable antisemitic attacks against Ferdinand Lassalle, whom Marx derided as a ‘Jewish nigger’ in a 1862 letter to Engels.[33] To be sure, a lot of ink has been spilt on this topic, ranging from those who take issue with Marx’s use of the ‘Economic-Jew Stereotype’[34] to those who read into Marx’s early essay a political aspiration for ‘a world without Jews’.[35] Rather than engaging with either of these misguided interpretations, I will critically assess the most charitable interpretations of Marx’s early essay that have been put forward by David McLellan and Hal Draper. I will also point to an important instance where Marx’s immanent critique of Bauer’s ‘abstract’ approach to the Jewish Question succumbs to anti-Jewish tropes that Marxists must criticise head on.

A word of caution is also in order here. It is understandable that many contemporary critics often rush to denounce Marx as antisemitic for his choice of rhetoric in ‘On the Jewish Question’, particularly when that work is read out of context and in the genocidal aftermath of the Shoah. But even if these charges against Marx are anachronistic, careful readers should take care to distinguish clear instances of anti-Jewish prejudice in Marx’s writings from those where he is engaging in a refutation of anti-Jewish prejudices. The latter is evidenced most clearly, if not always consistently, in his critique of Bauer’s anti-Jewish tract, which is often attributed erroneously to Marx. There are other occasions when Marx’s antisemitism is simply taken for granted. Consider his opening thesis on Feuerbach, a part of which reads as follows: ‘InDas Wesen des Christentums [The Essence of Christianity], he [Feuerbach] regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty Judaical manifestation.’[36] Readers unfamiliar with Feuerbach’s text are bound to conclude that Marx is guilty of harbouring anti-Jewish sentiments. However, in his chapter on ‘The Doctrine of Creation’, it is Feuerbach who argues that ‘the Jews have maintained their peculiarity to this day. Their principle, their God, is the most practical principle in the world – namely, egoism; and moreover egoism in the form of religion.’[37] Far from agreeing with Feuerbach’s prejudiced characterisation of Judaism and his deprecation of practice relative to the (Christian-inspired) ‘theoretical attitude,’ Marx concludes the same thesis by affirming that Feuerbach ‘does not grasp the significance of “revolutionary”, of practical-critical, activity.’[38] In a later context, immediately after describing the phenomenon of ‘commodity fetishism’ in Capital, Marx writes that ‘trading nations, properly so called, exist in the ancient world only in its interstices, like the Gods of Epicurus in the Intermundia, or like the Jews in the pores of Polish society.’[39] Far from engaging in antisemitic animus, Marx’s passing sociological observations about the historical situation of Polish Jews offered an important theoretical point of departure for Abram Leon’s famous study on the Jewish Question. While Marx should not be excused for deploying racist slurs against his opponents (e.g., Ferdinand Lassalle),[40] charges of anti-Jewish prejudice in Marx’s thought should not be made lightly, especially when they are taken entirely out of context. With these preliminary provisions, we can critically assess the interpretations offered by David McLellan and Hal Draper.

According to David McLellan’s still provocative thesis, Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’ is best read against the background of the Left Hegelian and German cultural milieu of the early 1840s in which it was written. This milieu took for granted the parochial use of the German word Judentum, which carried the double meaning of ‘Jew’ and ‘commerce’. It should therefore not come as a surprise, according to McLellan, that Marx played on the double meaning of this term in his 1844 essay. McLellan’s interpretive insight is that Marx’s essay was concerned foremost with the critique of bourgeois society and its commercial ethos rather than with Jews or Judaism.[41] Drawing partly on McLellan’s interpretation, Hal Draper observes that this so-called ‘Economic-Jew Stereotype’ was widespread among nineteenth-century liberal Jews, early pioneers of Zionism, and socialists, most of whom were principally committed to the cause of Jewish emancipation. Draper interprets the retrospective practice of attributing antisemitic motives to Marx’s essay as selective pixillation, which ignores the real question at the time, namely, whether one was in favour or against the emancipation of Jews.[42]In Draper’s words, ‘this was the Jewish question that Marx discussed, not the one that dominated the minds of a sick society a century later.’[43]

I am sympathetic to the interpretations proffered by McLellan and Draper. However, in their attempts to exculpate Marx from retroactive charges of antisemitism, they both overlook an important shortcoming on Marx’s part. Even if Marx was unambiguously in favour of Jewish emancipation, this neither explains nor excuses his succumbing to anti-Jewish tropes in the process of criticising Bauer and defending the rights of Jews. As we have seen, Marx took issue with Bauer’s ‘abstract’ approach to the Jewish Question and advanced an immanent critique of that approach, demonstrating that religious conscience is not a barrier to political emancipation, and furthermore that political emancipation should not be confused with human emancipation. The shortcoming of Marx’s immanent critique is evident when he uncritically rehearses the anti-Jewish tropes upon which Bauer’s account was based. More specifically, in Part II of ‘On the Jewish Question’, Marx makes the following observation regarding the ‘everyday Jew’: ‘We discern in Judaism, therefore, a universal antisocial element of thepresent time, whose historical development, zealously aided in its harmful aspects by the Jews, has now attained its culminating point.’[44] Upon reading this passage, even the most charitable interpreter of the Judentum interpretation would have to concede that Marx exhibited an inexcusable prejudice against Jews.[45] Nothing should bar contemporary Marxists from thoroughly condemning this prejudiced dimension in Part II of Marx’s essay, especially since his goal was to defend the equal rights of Jews.

Notwithstanding his choice of rhetoric and method of presentation, Marx’s methodological approach to the Jewish Question should be critically reconstructed and redeployed to shed light on contemporary debates concerning antisemitism, discrimination against minorities, and the oppression of stateless people. The reasons for this are twofold. First, Marx’s normative benchmark for assessing the character of a state applies equally to all states and is based on the degree to which they vindicate political emancipation. Second, states are to be judged based in particular on the degree to which they succeed in politically emancipating their historically most oppressed members. In the contemporary world, these groups include women, religious, ethnic, and racialised minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, and migrants who are fleeing war and persecution. The struggle for political emancipation remains part and parcel of a broader struggle for human emancipation around the world, and for Marxists this should involve a politics of concrete internationalism, anti-imperialism, and the subordination of national economies to robust democratic control.

Fortunately, The Holy Family was not Marx’s definitive word on the Jewish Question. In a largely neglected but revealing article on the ‘History of The Eastern Question’, published in 1854 for theNew-York Daily Tribune, Marx offered a sympathetic reflection on the oppression endured by the Jews of Jerusalem. It is worth noting that Marx’s article does not bear the imprints of the problematic ‘Economic-Jew Stereotype’ that coloured his earlier reflections on the Jewish Question. On the contrary, Marx demonstrates in this article an acute sensitivity to the ‘Jewish aspiration to a distinct separate identity’,[46] even though he does not identify anywhere with Judaism, or for that matter with proto-Zionism. Marx’s reflections are worth quoting at length:

The sedentary population of Jerusalem numbers about 15,500 souls, of whom 4,000 are Mussulmans and 8,000 Jews, The Mussulmans, forming about a fourth part of the whole, and consisting of Turks, Arabs and Moors, are, of course, the masters in every respect, as they are in no way affected with the weakness of their Government at Constantinople. Nothing equals the misery and the sufferings of the Jews at Jerusalem, inhabiting the most filthy quarter of the town, called hareth-el-yahoud, the quarter of dirt,[47] between the Zion and the Moriah, where their synagogues are situated – the constant objects of Mussulman oppression and intolerance, insulted by the Greeks, persecuted by the Latins, and living only upon the scanty alms transmitted by their European brethren. The Jews, however, are not natives, but from different and distant countries, and are only attracted to Jerusalem by the desire of inhabiting the Valley of Jehosaphat, and to die in the very places where the redemptor is to be expected.[48]

Marx assigns far more significance in this context to the interplay among religious, national, and economic (imperialist) factors for a proper understanding of the complexities involved in the so-called ‘Eastern Question’. This is evidenced by his attention to the exacerbation of Jewish oppression that resulted from the joint decision by England and Prussia to install an Anglican bishop in Jerusalem, which had the unintended consequence of forging a ‘union between all the religions at Jerusalem’.[49] At the conclusion of his article, Marx asserts that Jerusalem and its Holy Places (sites of religious diversity and conflict) ‘conceal a profane battle, not only of nations but of races; and that the Protectorate of the Holy Places which appears ridiculous to the Occident but all important to the Orientals is one of the phases of the Oriental question incessantly reproduced, constantly stifled, but never solved.’[50]

It is striking that Marx’s 1854 article, which offers a more nuanced consideration of religion, nationality, and race, is far less discussed than his earlier reflections on the Jewish Question. Absent countervailing evidence, there is no reason to think that Marx’s description of Jewish oppression in Jerusalem was unfounded or exaggerated.[51] The principled commitment of Marxists to peaceful coexistence between Jews and Muslims in particular should not rest upon a romanticised depiction of the Ottoman Empire, which while favourable to Jews relative to the brutal history of antisemitic persecution in Europe, was hardly an oasis of political toleration and equality. In any case, Marxists should not be in the business of cherishing empires, whether ‘Western’, ‘Eastern’, or some other variety.[52] The various manifestations of oppression must be consistently condemned and fought against in the spirit of concrete internationalism. As we will see, this internationalism extends to the oppression of Palestinians under Israel’s military occupation; indeed, if one were to reconstruct and ‘update’ Marx’s 1854 article to reflect the contemporary political realities confronting the residents of Jerusalem, it is the Israelis who are the masters in every respect, while nothing equals the misery and the sufferings of the Palestinians, who routinely are faced with dispossession, humiliation, and death under Israel’s military occupation.[53]

Whereas Marx’s last and most elaborate pronouncements on the Jewish Question appeared in the 1854 article discussed above, Engels revisited the topic of antisemitism in his correspondence of 18 April 1890, seven years after Marx’s death. Engels’ earliest views on the Jewish Question mirrored Bauer’s prejudiced outlook on Jews, specifically the charge that Eastern Jews were a ‘people without history’, and worse epithets.[54] By 1890, however, Engels’ views on the Jewish Question had undergone considerable change, evidencing an awareness of Jewish persecution and an appreciation of the extent to which Jews continued to make important contributions to the international workers’ movement. Engels’ first observation parallels Marx’s reflections from 1854:

The antisemite presents the facts in an entirely false light. He doesn’t even know the Jews he decries, otherwise he would be aware that, thanks to antisemitism in eastern Europe, and to the Spanish Inquisition in Turkey, there are here in England and in America thousands upon thousands of Jewish proletarians; and it is precisely, these Jewish workers who are the worst exploited and the most poverty-stricken.[55]

His second observation is equally revealing:

Furthermore, we are far too deeply indebted to the Jews. Leaving aside Heine and Börne, Marx was a full-blooded Jew; Lassalle was a Jew. Many of our best people are Jews. My friend Victor Adler, who is now atoning in a Viennese prison for his devotion to the cause of the proletariat, Eduard Bernstein, editor of the London Sozialdemokrat, Paul Singer, one of our best men in the Reichstag – people whom I am proud to call my friends, and all of them Jewish![56]

As for the fate of antisemitism, Engels certainly engaged in hopeful but unwarranted optimism – unwarranted, above all, from a retrospective standpoint. He writes: ‘Antisemitism is merely the reaction of declining medieval social strata against a modern society consisting essentially of capitalists and wage-labourers, so that all it serves are reactionary ends under a purportedly socialist cloak; it is a degenerate form of feudal socialism and we can have nothing to do with that.’[57] Such was Engels’ mature position on antisemitism.

It is against such hopeful speculations about the emancipatory future that Enzo Traverso takes Engels to task for his ‘ambivalent legacy’ on the Jewish Question, one which ‘clearly denounced the rise of antisemitism in Germany and Austria’ [but] ‘nourished the illusion that antisemitism was condemned to disappear, to be inevitably erased by modernity and progress.’[58] To be sure, with the benefit of a century’s hindsight, Traverso is correct to note that Engels should have been more circumspect in his implicit prognosis, especially since he also acknowledged in 1886 that ‘for the history of mankind, too, there is not only an ascending but also a descending branch.’[59] A more hermeneutically charitable approach to Engels’ correspondence would reconstruct those insights that remain prescient in today’s struggles against antisemitism. Three such insights can be gleaned from Engels’ correspondence. First, Marxists should be far better informed than they have been about the history of antisemitism and racist prejudice more generally. Second, Marxists should not have anything to do with antisemites, however much they may profess ‘socialist commitments’ or exhibit anti-capitalist animus. Finally, Marxists should celebrate the contributions of Jews and other oppressed groups to the politics of internationalism, both historically and in ongoing struggles against neo-fascism and imperialism.

III. The Russian Revolution: Emancipatory Hopes and Historical Discontents

Between Engels’ reflections on antisemitism in 1890 and the October Revolution of 1917, the infamous Dreyfus Affair shook France, whose revolutionary spirit inaugurated the emancipation of Jews in an earlier era. Pogroms and state-backed violence against Jews intensified across the Russian Empire. The Russian Revolution of 1905 helped spark the first wave of massive protests against autocratic Tsarist rule, which coincided with the emergence of a group of young Jewish working-class radicals in the Pale of Settlement who saw in these revolutionary upheavals the seeds for their own emancipation, as Jews fighting antisemitic pogroms and as workers struggling against exploitation.[60] It should not come as a surprise that Russian Jews – relegated to the Pale of Settlement and routinely subject to pogroms and humiliation by Tsarist-backed gangs – saw universalist possibilities in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

As is well known, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets passed a decree against antisemitism and Jewish pogroms on 25 July 1918. Nevertheless, legal history teaches that deeply entrenched forms of prejudice cannot simply be decreed out of existence. While antisemitic violence was largely the product of reactionary White Guard forces and their allies, the Bolsheviks were confronted early on with the brutal phenomenon of ‘Red pogroms’, which were orchestrated by peasants and workers who were partial to the revolution and its goals. Red pogroms were rooted in the popular conflation of Jew and bourgeois among the Russian peasantry and working class, with the result that the Bolsheviks were compelled to decouple fervent class antagonisms against the bourgeoisie from virulent forms of antisemitic violence.[61] This task of ‘decoupling’ proved far more cumbersome in practice, and its sources were religious, cultural, economic, and in a word, historical. It is against this background that Isaac Deutscher perceptively observed:

As elsewhere, so in Russia, the prejudice and hatred that had been inculcated into the minds of people over centuries and millennia, were not to be rooted out in the course of a few years or even decades. This was not all. Another ingredient fed the antisemitism of the masses. The poor Russian peasant looked with distrust at the Jewish shopkeeper or innkeeper, whose trade was often fraudulent. In that abysmal misery in which the latter lived, he may have tried to relieve his own poverty at the expense of the muzhik, who was as wretched himself. And here is to be seen in the making of that antagonism of the old peasant or worker towards his Jewish neighbour.[62]

Deutscher’s reflections attest to Marx’s painful reminder that the ‘the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’[63] which in this case, greatly inhibited the long-awaited poetry of the future.

Notwithstanding such fraught circumstances, there were persistent struggles against antisemitism in the early years of the October Revolution, often spearheaded by Jewish radicals through their involvement in government committees like the Yevsektsiia andYevkom, which exerted pressure on the Bolsheviks to confront the stubborn reality of antisemitism within and beyond their revolutionary ranks.[64] Many of these Jewish socialists were involved in the Bund or in the comparatively smallerPoale Zion, the latter developing a territorial outlook vis-à-vis the Jewish working class that theBund vehemently rejected.[65] Despite their struggles against antisemitism in post-revolutionary Russia, the 1930s saw the disbanding of Jewish political and cultural organisations in the Soviet Union, whose representatives were murdered or had disappeared in the Great Purges of Stalinist terror. Antisemitism would take on the most arbitrary character under Stalinism, whereby Soviet Jews were variously denounced as ‘Zionists’, ‘Trotskyist wreckers’, or ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, depending on what was expedient at any given time. Such epithets were arguably even more damaging in their practical effects on Soviet Jews than Winston Churchill’s earlier antisemitic distinction between ‘bad’ international Jews and ‘good’ Zionist Jews.[66] Granted, although Jewish families were given priority by the Soviet government in evacuations from Ukraine and other occupied regions of the Soviet Union during the Nazi invasion, the profound toll taken on Soviet Jewish life was followed by Stalin’s antisemitic campaigns against the Jewish doctors between 1948 and 1953.[67] According to some accounts, Stalin’s long-term aim was to expel all Soviet Jews to Birobidzhan.[68] To be sure, antisemitism did not disappear after Stalin’s death; instead, it became more latent and increasingly bureaucratised. Institutionalised antisemitism was facilitated in part by the Soviet passport, which clearly specified Jewish nationality in its fifth paragraph. This paragraph became a means by which Soviet Jews were discriminated against. Looking back at the October Revolution and its aftermath, McGeever rightly concludes that ‘this was a revolution that promised liberation from antisemitism; its actuality, however, overdetermined them as Jews.’[69] For all its emancipatory aspirations, then, the October Revolution and its Soviet legacy failed to emancipate Jews.

IV. The Legacy of the Holocaust, the Nationalist Abyss, and the Ongoing Nakba

The Jewish Question found its most brutal expression in the ‘Final Solution’ that culminated in the Shoah, the most horrific crime committed against European Jewry by the Nazis and their collaborators. In the immediate aftermath of the Shoah, Jews who survived Nazi ghettos and concentration camps, as well as Stalin’s Gulags, understandably had doubts about the possibility of living in peace with their non-Jewish neighbours, some of whom had collaborated with the Nazis.[70] In one infamous example, when Jewish survivors and refugees returned to the Polish city of Kielce to reclaim their property and resume their lives, they were met with renewed pogroms and brutality from the local population.[71] It is important to recall here that when Jews were fleeing Nazi genocide in Europe, Western countries like Britain, the United States, and Canada were reluctant to accept Jewish refugees, and sometimes were explicitly hostile to the idea.[72] Not surprisingly, some Jews also fled to British Mandate Palestine, which many regarded as a measure of last resort. In retrospect, Isaac Deutscher’s metaphor of the burning house remains helpful for understanding how Europe’s Jewish Question gave way to the Palestinian Question:

A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his own life; but as he was falling, he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control.[73]

But rationality did not prevail. Instead, the war of 1948 between the Yishuv paramilitaries and the combined armies of Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon culminated in the latter’s defeat, paving the way for the creation of the Israeli state and for the Nakba, which saw the expulsion from their homes of more than 750,000 Palestinian Arabs, who have not been allowed to return since.[74] One could argue on counterfactual grounds that different historical trajectories were possible in Palestine – for example, the creation of a democratically socialist and binational state for Jews and Arabs, or two states living side by side under conditions of peace and mutual recognition. There is an unfortunate tendency in historical-political analysis to succumb to the fatalistic ‘blackmail of a single alternative,’[75] whereby the victorious narrative is either uncritically endorsed or denounced, while the losing ones are repressed and excised from historical memory.

Those who have a more expansive historical memory will recall the existence of Jewish socialist groups in Palestine, such as Brit Shalom, Hashomer Hazair, and the left faction of the Poale Zion, which were principally committed to a binational state in Palestine where Jews and Arabs would enjoy equal rights.[76] Not everyone shared this principled commitment across the Jewish-Palestinian Arab divide, whether one takes the triumphant labour Zionists or the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini, who openly expressed political sympathies for the Nazis during the Shoah. The Grand Mufti’s association with the Nazis should not be taken as a general representation of Arab attitudes towards Jews in Palestine,[77] nor should labour Zionism’s triumph erase or eclipse the memory of Jewish support for a binational state in Palestine. History may be written by the victors, but it is neither a cause for celebration nor a reason for historical erasure. Might does not make right, particularly when the suffering of one group gives way to the ongoing dispossession and suffering of another.[78]

In retrospect, the pyrrhic victory of labour Zionism and the subsequent consolidation of the Israeli state were also setbacks for the cause of Jewish emancipation as human emancipation. The Zionist vision of establishing a homeland where Jews could live peacefully, freely, and equitably has been contradicted by the prevalence of perpetual insecurity, hierarchy, and discrimination among Israeli Jews, not to mention the Palestinians citizens of Israel. The distinguished scholar of European fascism, Zeev Sternell, observed that labour Zionists, who were instrumental to the consolidation of the Israeli state, placed ‘socialism’ in the service of the ‘nation’. However, the process of Israeli nation-building was rooted first and foremost in conquest of the land rather than in the universal quest for human emancipation.[79] Not surprisingly, the nature of such nation-building has been accompanied by the proliferation of illegal settlements and the continuing dispossession of Palestinians of their land.

It falls beyond the scope of this article to pontificate about what should be done to address the interlocking Jewish and Palestinian questions in Israel-Palestine, except to reiterate that there is no way forward without addressing persisting wrongs, which include the Nakba, as well as the dispossession of Arab Jews in the years leading up to the creation of Israel.[80] Any solution will require concrete practices of internationalism and an anti-imperialist politics that confronts existing forms of oppression and works towards a democratic socialist state that respects the rights of all nations to self-determination.[81] Here too one can find inspiration in Marx and Engels at their strongest. Engels famously observed that ‘a nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations.’[82] Marx, for his part, surmised that ‘any people that oppresses another people forges its own chains.’ Concrete internationalism, which was possible before, is urgently necessary today.[83]

Conclusion: Retrieving Marxist Internationalism and Rethinking the Jewish Question Today

The Jewish Question remains a thoroughly political question which has universal application precisely because it is rooted in the struggle for human emancipation. The persistence of antisemitism and the proliferation of toxic nationalisms (to say nothing of neo-fascisms) around the world are fateful reminders about the urgency of Marxist internationalism – one that is sensitive to the global history of persecution and oppression. Marxist internationalism should not be confused with abstract assimilationism, which dissolves the identities of concrete individuals and peoples, such that everyone is regarded simply as a worker and everything else about them is ignored.[84] At its best, Marx’s approach to the Jewish Question provides a yardstick for judging the normative status of contemporary states, including those which claim to speak on behalf of all Jews, and in so doing reminds us that every emancipation is a retrieval of human powers and relationships. With the rise of neo-fascist movements and the resurgence of authoritarianism around the world, there is no more pressing a time for revisiting the moral and political stakes of the Jewish Question. The particularity of the Jewish Question has also been the harbinger of that universality and unconditional solidarity that many Jews, including Deutscher, shared with the ‘persecuted’ and the ‘exterminated’.[85] The Jewish Question remains deeply bound up with the incomplete project of human emancipation. The ongoing struggle against antisemitism around the world remains an indispensable part of this unfinished project and its ongoing discontents.


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[1] My interest in the Jewish Question stems from an earlier study of Marx’s largely misunderstood critique of liberalism in Shoikhedbrod 2019a, as well as my recent reviews of Shlomo Avineri’s and Enzo Travero’s books on this topic; see Shoikhedbrod 2019b and 2020 respectively. It is regrettable that Jordy Cummings (2020) took the occasion to write a baseless attack on my review of Traverso’s book, managing to misconstrue not one but two of my reviews. My reviews were supported with direct references to page numbers from the works in question, in contrast to Cummings’ ad hominem tract. Cummings’ accusatory title of ‘bad faith’ betrays a basic misunderstanding of the term. In both its conventional and existentialist meanings, ‘bad faith’ entails a deliberate attempt to deceive oneself and others while avoiding relevant facts and choices.

[2] Leon 1970.

[3] For a spirited critique of Leon’s central thesis, see Ruben 1982.

[4] Traverso 2019, p.216.

[5] Traverso 2019, p. 220.

[6]Traverso 2021.

[7] For a general sense of this renaissance, see Musto 2020a, 2020b; Carver 2018; Anderson 2016.

[8] Losurdo 2016.

[9]Habermas 1979, p. 95.

[10]Traverso 2019.

[11] Bakan 2014; Englert 2018.

[12] Bakan 2014.

[13]Avineri 2019, p. 12.

[14] Avineri 2019, p. 8. Avineri’s observation about political radicalisation resulting from a sense of political alienation among secular European Jews is reaffirmed and elaborated in Jonathan Israel 2021.

[15] For a more extensive treatment of the Rhineland’s radicals, including Marx, see Sperber 1991.

[16] Marx 1975, p. 400.

[17] Marx 1978a, p. 30.

[18]Marx 1978a, p. 31.

[19] Marx 1978a, p. 35.

[20]Marx 1978a, pp. 43–6.

[21] Marx 1978a, p. 40.

[22] Marx and Engels 1975, p. 98. For a concise treatment of Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’ in connection with TheHoly Family, see Avineri 1964.

[23] For a well researched and balanced treatment on this topic, see Benner 2018.

[24] Marx and Engels 1975, p. 88. It is interesting to note here that Bauer’s deployment of the German word Dorn (thorn) draws on the extensive use of this metaphor in nineteenth-century German literature. It is also telling that Theodor Adorno, whether knowingly or unknowingly, rehearses Marx’s witticism against Bauer, inferring in §29 of hisMinima Moralia, that ‘the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass’ (Adorno, cited in Jay 2020, p. xi). Thanks to Meade McCloughan for bringing this important parallel to my attention.

[25]Bruno Bauer returned to the Jewish Question in his 1862 essay, Das Judenthum in der Fremde (The Jewish Diaspora), where he castigates Jews as ‘White Negroes’ and notes their inferior capacity for physical labour relative to their black relatives. See Bauer 1863, p. 10. For a more elaborate treatment of the racial element in Bauer’s later essay, see Rotenstreich 1959.

[26]For a more elaborate treatment of antisemitism and its projection of modern abstraction exclusively upon Jews, see Postone 2006.

[27] Marx and Engels 1975, p. 115.

[28] Ignatieff 2021, p. 142.

[29] Marx 1978b, p. 540.

[30]Marx 1972, p. 25.

[31]Marx 1975, pp. 109–10.

[32] Marx, 1975, p. 110.

[33] Marx 1985, p. 389.

[34]See Carlebach 1978.

[35] See Runes 1959.

[36] Marx 1978c, p. 143.

[37] Feuerbach 1957, p. 114.

[38]Marx 1978c, p. 143.

[39] Marx 1967, p. 79.

[40] It should be noted that Marx was not always hostile towards Lassalle, though this does not at all excuse his prejudiced attacks against him.

[41] McLellan 1973, p. 86. A similar interpretation is offered by Peled 1992.

[42]For a more global perspective on Jewish emancipation, see Sorkin 2019.

[43] Draper 1977, p. 608.

[44]Marx 1978a, p. 48.

[45]In this regard, Dennis Fischman correctly notes that ‘as readers we are entitled to ask why, if Marx meant only to criticize liberalism for neglecting the power of money, he saw fit to drag the Jews into the argument’ (Fischman 1991, p. 14).

[46] Traverso 2019, p.216.

[47]N.B. Hareth-el-yahoud actually translates as the ‘Jewish Quarter’.

[48] Marx 1980, pp. 107–8.

[49] Marx 1980, p. 108.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Nathan Weinstock, the erstwhile Trotskyist anti-Zionist, links the history of Jewish oppression in the Middle East to the Jews’ historically inferior dhimmi status; seeWeinstock 2014. While Weinstock’s research on this topic is far from exhaustive, it should not be dismissed out of hand without further scholarly inquiry and refutation.

[52] For a critical and vivid history of decolonisation that emphasises subaltern cosmopolitan orientations as forms of ‘worldmaking’, see Getachew 2019.

[53]In its report of 27 April 2021 regarding the treatment of Palestinians in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Human Rights Watch observed that ‘in certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution’ (Human Rights Watch 2021).

[54]See Traverso 2019, pp. 23–6.

[55]Engels 1990, p. 51.

[56] Engels 1990, pp. 51–2.

[57] Engels 1990, p. 51.

[58]Traverso 2019, p. 28.

[59] See Engels, 1985, p. 360.

[60] See Shtakser 2014, p. 31.

[61] McGeever 2020, p. 184. This conflation underscores just how dangerous the figural ‘Economic-Jewish Stereotype’ can be in revolutionary practice.

[62] Deutscher 2017, p. 70.

[63]Marx 1978d, p. 595.

[64] McGeever 2020, p. 214.

[65] Deutscher 2017, p. 67. Here it is important to avoid reading back into the Poale Zion, which was partly inspired by Ber Borochov’s ‘Marxist Zionism’, the theories and subsequent practices of Labour Zionism in British Mandate Palestine. Notwithstanding the shortcoming of Borochov’s theory of the ‘inverted pyramid’, the minority of his dissident followers in Mapam quickly became marginalised preciselybecause of their commitments to universalism in the form of collaboration between Jewish and Arab workers in Palestine. For a well-researched critical perspective on this issue, see Sternhell 1998, p. 19. Borochov, it should be noted, returned to Russia during the revolutionary upheaval in 1917 and died shortly thereafter.

[66] Churchill 1920.

[67] See Brent and Naumov 2003. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) was actively repressed by the Soviet regime in the aftermath of WWII because its members (most of whom were subsequently imprisoned, tortured, or executed) documented the specificity of antisemitic crimes on the territories of the Soviet Union during the Shoah and thus underscored the disproportionate reality of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators. One should also note here important parallels with the notorious Prague show trials of 1952, in which eleven of the thirteen accused were Jews, who were variously denounced as ‘Trotskyite, Titoite, Zionist, and bourgeois-nationalist’ traitors.

[68]Deutscher 2017, p. 82.

[69] McGeever 2020, p. 210.

[70] For a recent examination of neighbour-on-neighbour violence on the eve of the Holocaust, see Kopstein and Wittenberg 2018.

[71] Achcar 2011, pp. 58–9.

[72] For the Canadian experience, see Abella and Troper 2012. After recounting the historical persecution of European (Ashkenazi) Jews, which culminated in the Shoah, Charles Mills observes that European Jews represent the clearest instance of ‘borderline’ Europeans, who are phenotypically white persons but whose political status as whites remains in question. When approaching contemporary antisemitism, it is crucial to remember that antisemites are, by definition, against extending Jews entry ‘into the inner sanctum of the racial club’ (Mills 1997, p. 80).

[73] Deutscher 2017, p. 136. Deutscher subsequently distinguishes between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed. He cautions, however, that ‘even the nationalism of the exploited and oppressed should not be viewed uncritically, for there are various phases in its development; in one phase progressive aspirations prevail; in another reactionary tendencies come to the surface. From the moment that independence is won or nearly won, nationalism tends to shed its revolutionary aspect altogether and turns into a retrograde ideology’ (pp. 138–9). Cf. Fanon 2004, pp. 97–144.

[74]Awad and Bean 2020, pp. 15–38.

[75]Kolakowski 1968, p. 97.

[76] Achcar 2011, p. 290; Chomsky and Pappé 2015, pp. 51–2.

[77] For a well-researched critical discussion of Amin al-Husseini in this respect, see Achcar 2011, pp. 137–73. Husseini’s antisemitism cannot be denied, even if its sources were ‘religious’ in inspiration.

[78] I agree with Noaman Ali (2020) that one cannot make proper sense of the Jewish Question in the aftermath of 1948 without also confronting the interlocking Palestinian Question. However, great care should be taken to avoid dissolving one question into the other and thereby trivialising both.

[79]Sternhell 1998, 46. For recent perspectives on the relationship between Zionism and settler colonialism, see Peled 2017, pp. 103–22, as well as Khalidi 2020.

[80] Achcar 2011, p. 295.

[81] See Awad and Bean 2020, p. 6.

[82]Engels 1976, p. 389.

[83]Marx 1985, p. 89.

[84] Marx 1978b, pp. 530–31.

[85] Deutscher 2017, p. 51.

Marxist Interventions into Contemporary Debates

Ashok Kumar, Dalia Gebrial, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Shruti Iyer

For journal subscription and purchasing details, please go here. The special issue 26(2) is currently being printed, and will be available in July 2018. Individual copies will be available to purchase directly from Central Brooks (


2017 was, in many ways, the year debates around identity politics came to a head. No longer exclusively the stuff of intra-Leftist mudslinging, the contrived opposition between ‘class politics’ and ‘identity politics’ resurfaced in mainstream political and media parlance. After having spectacularly misjudged two of the West’s most significant political shocks of the decade – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – talking heads were quick to blame the rise of the far-right on the crushing hegemony of ‘political correctness’. This discursive framework purportedly side-lined the so-called ‘white working class’ in its desperate, emasculating attempts to appeal to women, people of colour and other marginalised communities.

Despite the categorically bourgeois interests behind the UK ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns, and the fact that, for example, lower-income Americans were less likely to vote for Trump than the upper classes,[1] both moments were prematurely framed as cries of revenge from white, working-class men: a category defined by class as well as race, and yet dispossessed not by capitalism but by a multiracial metropolitan elite preoccupied with showing superficial tolerance towards minority identities. White nationalist and former Chief Strategist in Trump’s White House, Steve Bannon, neatly summarised this framework – and its efficacy for his project of the so-called ‘alt-right’:

"The Democrats – the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. … I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."[2]

Indeed, the set-up here becomes untenable for any serious, comprehensive Left project. The struggles of raced, gendered, sexual marginalities are situated in opposition to economic dispossession – which in turn, is experienced exclusively by white people, specifically white men, who curiously are not themselves implicated in a politics of identity-formation. In a further stretch of the imagination, the root of this economic dispossession is not located in the structural conditions of capital, but in the unjust squandering of resources on the less deserving – on migrants, people of colour and queer people. As such, resistance to this economic dispossession lies not in the dismantling of capitalism, but in the intensification of its racial and gendered violence: more incarceration, more detention and more jingoistic grandstanding. The implicit logic here is that the greater the dispossession of the racial and gendered Other, the higher the pile of scraps under the table of the capitalist class. Such a strategy effectively destroys all grounds for mass, anti-capitalist solidarity and resistance.

The original impetus for this Special Issue, which seeks to explicitly intervene in this contradictory discursive context, came in late 2015 – before the aforementioned political upheavals. It came in response to the Left’s ongoing internalisation of these terms, and the cycle of self-defeat it was leading to. Indeed, just as all identity categories are spatially and temporally contingent – socially constructed, yet naturalised – so too is this current bifurcation between ‘class politics’ and ‘identity politics’. This opposition is itself a constructed, naturalised, and – crucially – effective innovation of the Right’s many incarnations. It was clear to us that the Left’s failure to articulate a compelling, rigorous history of identity-formation and, by extension, identity-oppression as rooted in capitalist dynamics left a dangerous explanatory vacuum. Furthermore, it created an organisational culture of individualised, positionality politics that precluded the possibility of broad-based co-operation – a necessity in the fight against capital in its contemporary form. If only the personal can be political, then solidarity ceases to be desirable – let alone achievable.

Tackling this mystification of the politics of identity-formation, the politics of capital and their mutual constitution, is an urgent site of intervention for Marxists today. As many of the contributions to this Special Issue show, there has been a fundamental ideological concession in the discourse regarding the role and nature of identity: of what we are talking about when we talk about identity. Chapters by Chi Chi Shi and Annie Olaloku in particular elegantly demonstrate how the Left has abrogated the notion of identity as being materially rooted, and contingent on historical and geographical context. In its place, we see the hegemonic acceptance of an inherently reactionary alternative: one which perceives race, gender and sexuality as dearly-held, self-fashioning and self-justifying essences. Such a concession has not only reinforced the class/identity binary, but led to a stifled political imagination in which identity-based politics can only be conceptualised within a liberal-capitalist logic. The acceptance and valorisation of one’s identity as the both the start and end-point of politics leaves us with diversification within contemporary power structures as the only conceivable goal. Identity-based organising spaces have become an end in themselves, rather than being seen as part of the labour of building meaningful, constructive solidarity between oppressed groups. In turn, exploring one’s personal identity is no longer the beginning of a deeper, theoretical exploration of oppression and resistance strategies, but the political project tout court.

A form of identity politics that has always strained resistance-movements – one that conceals its roots in historical power-dynamics behind a fog of contradiction and homogenisation – has therefore emerged as dominant. This Special Issue aims to unpack this phenomenon, and begin to carve out alternative understandings of identity and its relationship to political economy. Specifically, the aim is to do this in a way that can effectively rise to the challenges of the contemporary world. It asks: how can we begin to understand identities such as race as not just – to extend Stuart Hall’s formulation – a ‘modality’ in which class, and therefore capitalism, is ‘lived’, but also one through which its power is continually made and remade? Most importantly, how can we use such theoretical formulations as the guiding principle of our organisational strategies?

Identity Politics and Neoliberalism

Marxists have long made a case for the analytical connection between the rise of a particular kind of dematerialised identity-politics and neoliberal hegemony. It is within this academic trajectory that this intervention sits.

The story goes as such: in the West, the late 1960s and ’70s saw the demise of a dominant form of capitalist production (‘Fordism’) – associated with high levels of employment, rising wages and increased welfare spending – all of which fed into a culture of mass consumption. The Fordist years are widely understood as a concordat between capital and labour, where the latter was allowed a minor share in the former’s gains. Neoliberal measures championed by Reagan and Thatcher, however, brought this ‘virtuous spiral’ to an end, and a new kind of political organising grew. Surin identifies two popular positions concerning the rise of this new politics – one is that spreading prosperity under Fordism rendered a class-based politics less indispensable for working people, allowing new forms of collectivity to emerge (the civil-rights movement, and feminist, peace, ecology, and gay-liberation movements).[3] The second prefers to see the growth of identity politics alongside neoliberalism as a quintessentially post-World War II American phenomenon, whereby a new multiculturalism emerged that was linked to the implementation of structural adjustment and Western-led humanitarian interventions. This operated as part of the US’s need to assert itself within a context of newly-emerging independent states in Africa and Asia, along with the internationalisation of the world economy.[4] In both interpretations, the identitarian conjuncture of the 1970s is situated as distinct from any iteration that may have prefigured it; it is a historical break in which the predominant political articulations dethroned a more conventional idea of class-based politics. This reading sees identity politics as emerging from a historical moment that opposes the development of a mass anti-capitalist politics, and, being symptomatic of this failure, cannot possibly generate resistance to it.

Many of these assumptions are reflected in the debate between Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser, where the two competing goods are those of ‘recognition’ and ‘redistribution’. Recognition is the demand by oppressed groups that their distinctiveness be recognised, and the predominance of this vocabulary is occurring alongside the ‘decline in claims for egalitarian redistribution’ of material resources and goods.[5] The demand for recognition is seen as the only viable demand that can be made, in a world where a credible ‘feasible socialism’ does not seem possible, and there remain doubts about the viability of the erstwhile Keynesian social-democratic order.[6] Fraser identifies two problems with a politics of recognition – the first being that it displaces struggles for redistribution by remaining silent on economic inequality, and secondly that it reifies group identities in a manner that freezes them and offers no possibility of overcoming them. In this way, ‘cultural proponents of identity politics simply reverse the claims of an earlier form of vulgar Marxist economism: they allow the politics of recognition to displace the politics of redistribution’.[7]Fraser sees recognition as offering a valuable path for liberation, in that it can map-out a way to overcome the institutional misrecognition of oppressed groups (the status model), (i.e. racial profiling, homophobia, the stigma attached to single mothers, etc.) without valorising the specificity of the group itself (the identity model). In confronting institutionalised discrimination, politics centred around recognition offer the possibility of seeing economic inequalities as barriers to full citizenship and participation in social life, tying the oppression of identity groups into questions around the distribution of and access to resources.

In this sense, identity politics is positioned in a variety of Marxist frameworks as ineffectual; as a politics founded on difference, it is inherently incapable of building the broad-based movement needed to destabilise capitalism. These arguments rely on seeing identity politics as not just historically linked to the neoliberal moment, but a manifestation of a neoliberal logic itself. Under the thesis that neoliberalism is not simply an economic moment, or set of economic policies, but a logic unto itself – turning ‘all conduct into economic conduct’[8] – identity politics has been understood as a configuration of this neoliberal rationality. Where neoliberalism economises previously non-economic spheres and practices, the human being now becomes human capital, and ‘is both a member of a firm, and itself a firm’.[9] Indeed, according to Feher, the primary distinction between the neoliberal subject and the subjects that preceded her is that homo economicus is now concerned with enhancing its portfolio value in all domains of life.

So how might identity politics figure into this idea of neoliberal rationality? For one, as the Foucauldian narrative goes, the hallmark of neoliberal reason is competition, the market’s root principle. Political collectivities formed around insular, demarcated (albeit frequently-changing) identities might therefore be conceived as groups competing for representative primacy and limited resources. As Adolph Reed[10] and Walter Benn Michaels[11] put it, on this model of identitarian liberation, capitalist society is faultless for as long as, within the 1% that controls 90% of all resources, there is a proportional representation of women, racial minorities, and LGBT people. Touré Reed’s interpretation identifies discourses which lead to groups like Black Lives Matter presenting racism in policing and prisons as somehow separate from capitalism.[12] While he chooses a media interview from a BLM activist, rather than the material the movement itself produces (which is quite explicit about the links between capitalism and prisons), his critique speaks to a wider trend in categorising prisons as a ‘race’ problem, and universal healthcare and free education as offering a class-reductionist approach to social injustice. Much of this critique, articulated by both Adolph Reed and Touré Reed, is linked to their frustration with anti-racism overlooking the ways in which the Bernie Sanders campaign disrupts neoliberal hegemony. While groups like BLM are dissatisfied with Sanders’s position on policing and prisons, their aforementioned critics consider the commitments to healthcare, education and other social-democratic policies as a fundamentally positive contribution to struggles for social, economic and racial justice. This conception of identity politics also opens it up to critique on the lines of strategy – whereby collectives organised around the principle of difference will be reduced to trying to win concessions under capitalism for the groups that they represent. Therefore, since political affiliations organised around differential identity brackets cannot confront capital or class, it ought to be dispensed with.

Brown identifies this sort of despair as part of a neoliberal logic, that market institutions are unassailable and that there is no prospect of change.[13] Rather, these critics see identity politics as itself a manifestation of class politics: the class politics of a‘professional-managerial class’ which does not seek to dismantle class structures – considering this either impossible, or perhaps even undesirable – but seeks instead to ensure the representation of minorities among the capitalist class. Replacing an analysis that situates capitalism at its heart, the root of systemic injustice in popular discourse is then increasingly relegated to the ahistorical and individualising domain of ‘intolerance’ and ‘prejudice’. It is then no surprise that the rise of this mode of political organisation and, most crucially, political imagination, happens through and alongside the dismantling of unions and of the possibility of envisioning an alternative to a world thoroughly marketised.

This is not to reject all forms of identity-based movements as unfortunate mistakes – or worse, ‘false consciousness’. Indeed, even these critics admit to there being a utility to identity politics when leveraged against the state for legal remedies – but the contestation is that this strategic, or operational, essentialism must be only that – it cannot contribute to a political vision of liberation, or even one that sees anti-racism and women’s liberation as part of a programme for social justice. In part the claim is that ascriptive identities (like race, gender, or sexual orientation) shift from being understood as, to extend Stuart Hall’s formulation, modalities through which class is ‘lived’ and experienced,[14] to attributes of individuals that attach to them. It becomes part of their ‘portfolio’, categorising individuals on the basis of what they are rather than what they do. In this sense, identity operates as a commodity, whereby the historical specificity of racism and sexism’s emergence through and alongside a capitalist mode of production is mystified.

The emergence of identity politics is therefore also embedded in the liberal-democratic state, and the ability to mobilise around gaining concessions or formal rights from it. These are, in the liberal-democratic framework, intended to translate into material and symbolic equality. The precondition for this collectivisation, however, is the claim that the collective group is oppressed and has been injured in some way. Brown cautions that this approach politicises identity by re-entrenching its own pain, and its continued success is contingent on not overcoming this pain; in other words, the collective identification is premised on a past exclusion rather than the capacity to imagine future liberation.[15] Nair goes further, saying that the ideal subject of neoliberalism is a subject of trauma, and that the corollary, in movements, is a culture of confessing one’s individual trauma, necessitating a certain personal experience and fulfilling a demand for authenticity that is seen to stifle organising rather than creating the conditions for solidarity and effective resistance.[16]

The question remains, however: given their predominance in the contemporary moment, can identitarian movements be a viable part of anti-capitalist political formations? What character would they take, if so? Can identity collectives be predicated on their own eventual destruction, or do they necessarily solidify the formations they seek redress for? It remains unclear whether they offer no meaningful interim reparation, or that the moment of their emergence necessarily precludes these movements from taking on an anti-capitalist character. Of course, a politics of identity that is simply an extension of liberal democracy, and only conceives of itself in those terms, ought to be dismissed outright as having any revolutionary prospect (and, it must be added, they have no pretensions of having any). And as Surin points out, there have been a number of historical struggles that confronted economic dispossession in a way that has centred gender- and race-analysis as core modes through which such dispossession has been made possible (such as the Zapatista movement in the Chiapas, or the Wages for Housework movement). Perhaps it remains most useful not to see identity movements as having supplanted class-based organising, but as a development that is itself structured by a continuing class conflict, regenerated by the financial crisis of 2008 and continued through the political crises of 2016. But if identity movements are to have anti-capitalist energy, the abolition of class and identity distinctions will have to be part of their vision for the future, the society that they struggle for.

The Identity Politics of Whiteness

The critique of identity politics in recent years has been shouted loudest by the Right. Reducing a range of struggles which decentre the West, or overtly problematise whiteness, to matters of ‘identity’ is used to dismiss critiques of European imperialism and its legacies. Yet, it is the identity politics mobilised by the Right which has seen Empire recaptured in the minds of Europe’s citizens most effectively. Take the UK referendum to remain or leave the European Union, as a case-in-point: we witnessed the evocation of Britishness, and by extension whiteness, as an identity, mobilised through a range of signifiers and symbols.

While Britain’s political establishment was somewhat divided on the issue, those in the Leave camp seized the moment, in an unmasking of their tacit racism which was shocking to some. When Barack Obama made a presidential visit to Britain, urging it to remain in the European Union, Boris Johnson, future Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, remarked that Obama holds Britain in contempt due to his Kenyan roots. Combining an acknowledgement of imperial crimes with the ongoing nostalgia for Empire itself was perhaps only shocking as far as it was directed at the head of the old Empire’s most successful legacy. Yet it is Brexit which provided the antidote to both Britain’s post-imperial melancholia and the political correctness (now apparently thrusted upon Britain from a European, rather than a darker outsider) which dampens its proud legacies. The popularity of this white identitarianism was not missed by the press, hoisting the far-right politician Nigel Farage to public stardom. Even the often-liberal Channel 4 News invited Farage into the studio to discuss Empire, as the living survivors of Britain’s gulags in 1950s Kenya forced their old colonial masters to publicly acknowledge their crimes. Neither lawyer nor historian, Nigel Farage’s sole purpose was to posit an identitarian position, reassuring viewers that ‘white British’ was an identity of which to be proud, and importantly, an identity under attack. Flip-flopping between post-colonial immigration threats and those from Continental Europe was, and remains, a seamless transition. Farage’s UKIP demonstrated this with their flagship advertising campaign, which identified the apparent failings of EU migration policy with an image of darker-skinned migrants who have come from beyond Europe’s borders, falsely implying that it is EU membership which leads to migrants from beyond Europe entering the UK.

But, of course, herein lies the power of identity politics – even the most basic level of consistency can be explained away, with Leave voters citing a range of xeno-racist explanations from their position. From the threat of ‘radical Islam’ or the job-seeking Europeans, to the ominous slogan ‘Take Back Control’, with clear echoes to the equally nostalgic ‘Make America Great Again’ being sung across the Atlantic. Interestingly, both Brexit and Trump were interpreted by many on the liberal-Left as being part of a working-class (read: white working-class) revolt. The conceit that the xeno-racist bigotry of Brexit/Trump is the preserve of the (white) working class is not particularly new to the common sense of the liberal establishment. But the platforms afforded to the extreme-Right by the liberal press, as citizens in both the US and Europe went to the ballot box, points towards an encouragement of such a (white) uprising (in times of working-class dissent, the liberal media affirmed a dangerous historical precedent that it is the Right which has the knowledge and the answers). While the complementary relationship between liberalism and white racism has long been documented,[17] it is within this political moment that far-right and fascist forces, emerging from Europe and North America’s capitalist class, were presented as something quite different. Studies following the election of Trump and the British referendum on Europe clearly indicate that working-class people, racialised as white, were not the primary demographic driving these reactionary electoral outcomes.[18] A complex mesh of educational attainment, property-ownership, public/private-sector work, age and, of course, race, appear to be stronger determinants as to the position taken in these battles over identity.

Further-cementing of the white politics of identity became apparent with Prime Minister Theresa May’s post-Brexit international tour. Visiting Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, the Conservative government enthusiastically championed more migration between these historically aligned white-settler colonies. No longer a colonial favourite, South Africa was left off the list of former colonies with which Britain wished to maintain such close ties. And while Modi’s India has been widely praised by Britain’s political class, his proposal for skilled migrants to be afforded more-open access to a post-Brexit Britain was swiftly rejected. Consistent with the rhetoric around international migration, the greatest indicator of how the identity politics of whiteness remains wrapped up in establishment politics is perhaps its foreign policy. While some commentators speculated that Trump’s election could lead to isolationism on the part of America, US aggression in Syria and towards North Korea suggests otherwise. As Sai Englert points out in his analysis of identification with Israel and the Trump campaign in this special feature, even the rampant antisemitism of these white nationalisms has done little to deter white identities globally, which continue to mark the international fault-lines which facilitate the settler-colonial project taking place in what was formerly Palestine. Indeed, the violence of white nationalisms which have emerged across Anglo-America since the Trump–Brexit alliance began to take hold may well be reproduced on the international scale. This should perhaps come as little surprise, for a movement which relies so heavily on a whitened version of an imperial past.

Identity Politics and the International

Beyond the Anglo-American context within which the editors of this special feature are situated, identity politics has also been mobilised across the post-colonial world. Two key examples are the principal regional powers in Southern Africa and South Asia: South Africa and India. In India, the identity politics of Hindu nationalism has gone further in strengthening neo-colonial capitalism and repressing the darker masses. While the BJP espouses a nationalism that, it often argues, is anti-colonial, in its harking-back to a pre-colonial Hindu culture it has in fact re-entrenched neoliberalism. Constructing an identity politics, it has imposed a school curriculum promoting Sanskrit, but also the literature of the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organisation and a patriotic ‘Defence Studies’ used to legitimise BJP reforms. Like the far-Right in Europe and North America, the BJP has blamed the inequalities of neoliberal capitalism on liberal elites which favour national minorities, such as Muslims.[19] Thus, neoliberalism continues to shape the political economy of the subcontinent, with its reproduction cemented, and resistance to it repressed, through a populist party defined by identity.

In South Africa, on which Richard Pithouse writes, identity politics is continually mobilised to promote a black capitalism which has left the vast majority of black South Africans as impoverished as they were during apartheid. The ANC’s shift towards a neo-colonial capitalism has been masked with a rhetoric championing a black capitalism. The rhetoric of the latter is demonstrated through BEE, the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003, the promotion of economic transformation to ‘enable meaningful participation of black people in the economy’ (Section 2(a)). It has, however, only reached a thin layer of South Africa’s black population,[20] particularly those with close links to the ANC government.[21] For example, the ANC-aligned owners of the wine industry have used BEE to avoid land redistribution and improvements in worker conditions.[22] Moreover, a BEE deal involving state forests in Komatiland had to be cancelled after the recipient, Mcebisi Mlonzi, was accused of paying R55,000 to Andile Nkuhlu, chief-director of the Department of Public Enterprises, before the deal was sealed.[23]

Frantz Fanon grappled with the pitfalls of the post-colonial state, as the black bourgeoisie serviced the former colonial masters, manifested in the enduring presence of white monopoly-capital in South Africa. As Paul Gilroy puts it, anti-racism prescribes us the pious ritual in which we always agree that ‘race’ is invented but are then required to defer to its embeddedness in the world and to accept that the demand for justice nevertheless requires us to enter the political arenas that it helps to mark out.[24]

Yet, in attempting to overcome such a contradiction, he affirms that identity should be the basis for our politics, not our politics in-itself. Thus, it is being racialised as black, and all that it brings, that provides the basis for the radical anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist politics of social movements in South Africa, and many other post-colonial contexts. Navigating this strategic deployment of identity is urgent in both the under and over-developed worlds. But rather than making clear divisions between them, this Special Issue instead focuses on the genealogies of identities, their relationship with the state and the extent to which they can help or hindersolidarities.


This Special Issue is organised into three sections: genealogies, the state, and solidarity.


We begin with Marie Moran’s ‘Identity and Identity Politics: A Cultural-Materialist History’. Moran analyses the relationship between economic transformation and political struggle by following the changing meaning and application of the word ‘identity’ throughout the twentieth century. Moran argues that the emergence of the central role of identity in social and political practice is an outgrowth of particular social forces and pressures. In this context, prior to the 1950s identity was discussed only by a small group of philosophers and in a fundamentally different way to how it has emerged in popular culture since the 1950s. Identity politics in its more contemporary form arose in the second half of the twentieth century as a direct response to the inequalities of the postwar consumer boom. In short, through the changing articulation of ‘identity’ and its move, over time, from the political periphery to its core, ‘identity’ in its current expression is both specific to advanced capitalism and a historical novelty.

In March 2016, at the height of her campaign for the White House, Hillary Clinton effusively tweeted about the ‘complex, intersectional set of challenges’ faced by the United States. Whether it was Clinton herself or a high-priced social media strategist behind the tweet is neither here nor there; what is clear is that intersectionality is now part of popular parlance and hegemonic discourse. In ‘Intersectionality and Marxism: A Critical Historiography’, Ashley Bohrer situates the emergence and proliferation of intersectionality against and within a Marxist-Feminist framework. These debates have rested on the antagonism between Marxism, which tends to cast gender and race as secondary or epiphenomenal to class, and intersectionality, in which class remains underdeveloped or absent altogether. Ultimately, Bohrer locates capitalism as the source of modern class, gender, sexuality, and race-based systems of oppression but does not position class as the primary or privileged axis of oppression. As such, an intersectional Marxism is necessary to both understand capitalist exploitation and oppression and mobilise to overthrow it.

Hannah Proctor’s ‘History from Within: Identity and Interiority’ is best read as a critique of the critiques of identity politics. It aims to break with some of the conditional reflexes in debates over identity politics, in particular the assumption that considerations of subjective experience somehow invariably reify liberal individualism. In this kaleidoscopic approach, Proctor delves into twentieth-century psychological texts that preceded the ‘age of identity politics’, drawing on seemingly disparate experiences to draw out the distinction between identification, recognition, integration and subjectivity. Proctor argues against Fraser and others that individual psychology is indeed interwoven with identity – and thus social relations – suggesting that cognitive capacities correspond to externally-manifest social attributes and material conditions. Finally, Proctor critiques a normative impulse in Fanon via Moten, explaining this latter’s politics of non-identity, non-recognition and non-‘framing’ (as against identity politics through a demand for recognition). Ultimately, Proctor helps complicate the contemporary formations of identity by exploring the political importance of interiority. In doing so she breaks with the linear understanding of the relationship between the social and the psychological – asking how the social informs the psychic and how the psychic informs the social.

In ‘Afro-pessimism and the (Un)Logic of Anti-Blackness’ Annie Olaloku examines the formation and limitations of ‘anti-Blackness’ as a theory and a practice. Olaloku understands ‘Anti-Blackness’ in its Afro-pessimistic formulation. In this dominant variant, the basis for ‘anti-blackness’ is a uniform, transhistorical and universal racial hierarchy, and static categories with white people at the top and black people at the bottom. In this social order, proximity to whiteness determines one’s place on the ladder. Consequently, the charge of ‘anti-blackness’ is mobilised against non-black people of colour. The theory and its practice, Olaloku argues, emerged due to number of factors including the collapse of diverse political traditions represented in the black-liberation struggles of the 1960s and the separation between domestic (anti-racist) and international (anti-imperialist) resistance. Through historical analysis, Olaloku wrenches back the Black Panther Party and Franz Fanon from the pessimists, reclaiming them for revolutionaries. She uses Huey P. Newton’s concept of intercommunalism, with its conception of race as historically contingent and its aim to abolish race altogether, as a rejoinder to theories of Afro-pessimism. Ultimately, Olaloku intervenes in contemporary debates through a critique of the growing Afro-pessimism literature, in an attempt to revive the idea of racial solidarity and the possibility of revolutionary politics.

The State

In ‘Feminism Against Crime Control’ Koshka Duff addresses the tension between the struggle against sexual violence and seeking justice through the criminalising state. How can the power of the state – perhaps the biggest single perpetrator of sexual violence – be wielded against perpetrators of sexual violence? Are we condemned to be either rape apologists or state apologists? To answer this, Duff disrupts these entrenched battle-lines by exploring the work of Catharine MacKinnon – known as the most important theorist and advocate of ‘Governance Feminism’. Duff, in a similar vein to Chi Chi Shi’s paper, situates these debates within the current of ‘identity thinking’, whereby a critique of the carceral state can reproduce its logic– which relies on a clear victim/perpetrator binary – outside the state, leading Duff to highlight the need for a more complicated engagement with a multifaceted and contradictory state.

In ‘The State, Zionism and the Nazi Genocide’, Sai Englert interrogates the relationship between Jewish identity, Zionism and official Holocaust memory, as shaped by contemporary identity-politics discourse. Englert describes two distinct but overlapping formations of Jewish identity, one shaped by and for the needs of the settler-colonial state and another constructed through political contestation. Englert argues that despite the rationale of preventing antisemitism, state-led antisemitism has resulted in the Jewish community’s identification with Israel and Zionism and a whitewashed reading of the Nazi genocide that obscures the role of Western states and capital.

Richard Pithouse’s ‘Forging New Political Identities in the Shanty Towns of Durban, South Africa’ sets up two conflicting paths to political power in South Africa – accumulation via the state (authoritarian nationalism organised around forms of clientelism) and accumulation via the market (racial capitalism). However, notwithstanding this conflict between elites, the mandarins of the state and the proprietors of capital found common ground against popular movements. To support this claim, Pithouse takes us through a political history of post-apartheid South Africa and the discursive disjuncture between the articulation of ‘identity politics’ by political elites and the exercise of popular politics by counter-elites or ‘ordinary citizens’. The result has been a deepening fissure between party politics and popular politics, and between established trade-unions and social movements.


Peter Hudis’s ‘Racism and the Logic of Capital’ speaks to Fanon’s understanding of the production of race-class, and race taking on a life of its own. Rather than abandoning class analysis, Fanon expands it into a more relational understanding of society and change. The thesis that racism is ‘at the inner core of the dialectic of capital accumulation’ rests on two lines of argument: that capitalism emerged on the basis of the Atlantic slave-trade, and that the ensuing racism has had a unique impact on its victims by reaching down into a psychic level deeper than anything found in the relation between capital and labour. If the slave-trade is proof that racism is at the inner-core of capital, then the key question remains: can there be capitalism without racism, or was racism built into modern capitalism through certain historical events? Is racism truly essential to the operations of capital (on a par with the extraction of surplus-value), or rather is it a matter of contingent history? Alongside interrogating Fanon’s understanding of these questions, Hudis delves into Fanon’s critiques of the fixed and essentialising tendency of Negritude. Critically, Hudis’s article is an implicit argument against Afro-pessimist misreadings of Fanon and its relation to Marxism, and should be read as a companion to Annie Olaloku’s paper.

Lucy Freedman’s ‘A “Beautiful Half Hour of Being a Mere Woman”: The Feminist Subject and Temporary Solidarity’ observes the role of gender identity in addressing the contentious and seemingly-intractable debate over womanhood. Drawing on the poetry of Loy and experiences of gender-based activist groups, Freedman describes a world in which solidarity and identity have become antagonistic. Borrowing the concept of ‘soft abolitionism’, Freedman argues for a deeper analysis of temporality to find an alternative to the binarity of identity and identity-abolition. Freedman explores the relationship between class formation and gender-oppressed people, asking: when do women and others oppressed by gender move from being a mere collection of individuals sharing a common experience, toward a collective acting with shared interests to challenge and even abolish these categories? Freedman argues that a more malleable and temporary gender-identification could enable solidarity among women and gender-queer people. To Freedman, temporary gender-identification provides an answer to an impasse arising from long-standing contradictions in feminist politics – the tension involved in a choice between reifying gender or an undermining of its own basis for connecting subjects.

In recent years, debates over the political relevance of cultural appropriation have often served as a heated dividing-line between radicals and radical-liberals. In ‘Cultural Formation and Appropriation in the Era of Merchant Capitalism’, William Crane situates this question within the transition-to-capitalism literature to identify a place and time when the discourse of cultural appropriation went wrong. Crane historicises the emergence of cultural signifiers, taking the spice and textile trade of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) and the slaves and sailors recruited by the VOC as early examples of cultural formation as a process of the appropriation of human labour. In this context, Crane argues, cultural appropriation is more appropriately understood as the cosmopolitanism of capital and labour.

Chi Chi Shi’s paper, ‘Defining My Own Oppression: Neoliberalism and the Demands of Victimhood’, addresses a central paradox of the form of identity politics that has grown out of neoliberalism, positing the question: ‘why do we look for recognition from the very institutions we reject as oppressive?’ To Shi, contemporary activist-circles maintain a contradictory position in their praxis. While ‘identity politics’ itself is derided, in practice identity, with its emphasis on experiential accounts of oppression, has become a barometer of legitimacy. ‘The collective’ conceived through intentional construction, as a product of agency and with a final aim towards dismantling the oppressions themselves, is now congealed through experiences of trauma produced by the structures of domination. From this, Shi unpacks how frameworks of ‘intersectionality’ – once introduced as a rejoinder to identity politics – have come to function as its new iteration. Here, differential identities are continually multiplied, flattened-out and naturalised in the name of representation and recognition – a process that sacrifices analytical depth for an unavailing form of breadth. The result of this political culture, organised ostensibly in opposition to these systems of oppression, is to make these social relations more durable.

At its core, the aim of this Special Issue is to intervene in what are make-or-break questions for the Left today. Specifically, we hope to provoke further interrogative but comradely conversation that works towards breaking down the wedge between vulgar economism and vulgar culturalism. We call for an intellectual and organisational embracing of the complexity of identity as it figures in contemporary conditions; being a core organising-principle of capitalism as it functions today, a paradigm that Leftist struggle can be organised through and around – and yet all with a recognition of the necessity of historicising, and ultimately abolishing, these categories along with capitalism itself.

Critically, this work is not new. Looking back at the legacies of our strongest points in history – from the Black Panthers, to Fanon, to radical queer interrogations of gender – we stand in a long tradition of reconciling the material and the symbolic as inextricable components of oppression today. We invite scholars and activists to review this history, and re-orient its questions to the present day. In particular, we invite people to engage with areas that we did not cover – particularly around the pressing issues of Islamophobia, sexuality and debates around digital technology and subjectivity.

Finally, this volume would not have been possible without the (often thankless) labour of dozens of scholars who served as blind peer-reviewers – we extend gratitude for their work.



Benn Michaels, Walter 2008, ‘Against Diversity’, New Left Review, II, 52: 33–6, available at:<

Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2017, ‘Brexit, Trump, and “Methodological Whiteness”: On the Misrecognition of Race and Class’, The British Journal of Sociology, 68, S1: 214–32.

Bond, Patrick 2004, ‘The ANC’s “Left Turn” & South African Sub-imperialism’, Review of African Political Economy, 31, 102: 599–616.

Brown, Wendy 2015, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, New York: Zone Books.

Césaire, Aimé 2000, Discourse on Colonialism, translated by Joan Pinkham, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Du Toit, Andries, Sandra Kruger and Stefano Ponte 2008, ‘Deracializing Exploitation? “Black Economic Empowerment” in the South African Wine Industry’, Journal of Agrarian Change, 8, 1: 6–32.

Egan, Timothy 2017, ‘What if Steve Bannon Is Right?’, New York Times, 25 August, available at: <…;.

Fraser, Nancy 2000, ‘Rethinking Recognition’, New Left Review, II, 3: 107–18, available at: <;.

Gilroy, Paul 1998, ‘Race Ends Here’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21, 5: 838–47.

Gould, Sky and Rebecca Harrington 2016, ‘7 Charts Show Who Propelled Trump to Victory’, Business Insider, 11 November, available at: <…;.

Gumede, William Mervin 2005, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, Cape Town: Zebra Books.

Hall, Stuart and Paul du Gay (eds.) 1996, Questions of Cultural Identity, London: SAGE Publications.

Kinnucan, Michael 2014, ‘An Interview with Yasmin Nair, Part Two: The Ideal Neoliberal Subject Is the Subject of Trauma’, Hypocrite Reader, August, available at: <>.

Nattrass, Nicoli and Jeremy Seekings 2001, ‘“Two Nations?” Race and Economic Inequality in South Africa Today’, Daedalus, 130, 1: 45–70.

Reed Jr., Adolph 2016, ‘How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence’,, 16 September, available at: <>.

Reed, Touré F. 2015, ‘Why Liberals Separate Race from Class’, Jacobin, 22 August, available at: <…;.

Surin, Kenneth 2009, Freedom Not Yet: Liberation and the Next World Order, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Vanaik, Achin 2001, ‘The New Indian Right’, New Left Review, II, 9: 43–67, available at: <;.




[1] Gould and Harrington 2016.

[2] Steve Bannon, quoted in Egan 2017.

[3] Surin 2009, p. 141.

[4] Surin 2009, pp. 142–6.

[5] Fraser 2000.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Brown 2015, p.10.

[9] Brown 2015, p. 34.

[10] Reed 2016.

[11] Benn Michaels 2008.

[12]Reed 2015.

[13] Brown 2015.

[14] Hall and du Gay (eds.) 1996, p. 51.

[15] Brown 2015.

[16] Kinnucan 2014.

[17] Césaire 2000.

[18] Bhambra 2018.

[19] Vanaik 2001, p. 55.

[20] Nattras and Seekings 2001, p. 66.

[21] Bond 2004.

[22] See Du Toit, Kruger and Ponte 2008.

[23] Gumede 2005, p. 296.

[24] Gilroy 1998, p. 842.