Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Essay: Karl Marx and the Jews

YOU ARE IN: Home Page > Topics > Antisemitism

Conspiracy theories, anti-capitalism and Jew-hatred


Jonah Goldberg


From the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. "In the city that is most finely governed," Aristotle wrote, "the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant's way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue." In Plato's vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling "guardians" would own no property to avoid tearing "the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine' and ‘not mine.'" He added that "all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things." Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for "shaming his family."

At his website, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, "all trade was stigmatized as undignified ... the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse." Cicero noted in the first century BCE that retail commerce is sordidus ("vile") because merchants "would not make any profit unless they lied constantly."

Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. "For where your treasure is," he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, "there will your heart be also." And of course he insisted that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. "The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others," the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, "Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit" - "If one does not lose, the other does not gain."

The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money - usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious.

"While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others," Aristotle insisted, "usury is most reasonably hated because one's possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied."

In the Christian tradition, the only noble labour was physical labour, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.

In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant's life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. "Echoing Aristotle," Muller writes, "Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one's place in the social order."

In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that "this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another."

The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, "whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest." Thus, as Jerry Muller has argued, antisemitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.


Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them. Martin Luther despised commerce. "There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men.... Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf ...  And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill ... hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!"

It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther's views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest.

Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient antisemitism. His demonisation of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonised again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.

Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.

The idea at the centre of virtually all of Marx's economic writing is the labour theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a labourer or labourers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics - and elementary logic - this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labour that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.

Marx had philosophical, metaphysical and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labour theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism - or what we would now call "commerce" plain and simple - was exploitative by its very nature. If all value is captured by labour, any "surplus value" collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just "dead labour". For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of "labour-power" in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labour were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource.

Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:

"To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatisation of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as ‘exploitation,' Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten."


Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way "the system" required selling out to the demands of the market and a career.

"His critique of the stultifying effects of labour in a capitalist society," Muller writes, "is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society."

In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms - from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.

This is a better context for understanding Marx's and Engels' hatred of the division of labour and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism.

For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term "alienation" is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labour encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialisation and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe.

"Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist," Marx wrote. "Money degrades all the gods of man - and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world - both the world of men and nature - of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man's work and man's existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it."

The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay "On the Jewish Question":

Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew - not the Sabbath Jew ... but the everyday Jew.

Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.

What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. [Emphasis in original]

The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew - at least the one who set up shop in Marx's head - makes his money from money.

He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages - individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx's mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community.

This is the essence of Marx's view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as labourers in the industrial machine. The division of labour inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:

The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]

He adds, "The god of the Jews has become secularised and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange." And he concludes: "In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism." [Emphasis in original]

In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend "the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money." [Emphasis in original]

In his Theories of Surplus Value, he praises Luther's indictment of usury. Luther "has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole." Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. "In their description of the confrontation of capital and labour, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury," Muller observes. Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx's "explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau."


For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: "The capitalist knows that all commodities - however shabby they may look or bad they may smell - are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money." (Capital, Vol. 1).

Marx's writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: "Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has bought from him." The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the "bloodsucking" nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.

As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, "The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx's Vampires," the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are prominent motifs: "Capital ‘sucks up the worker's value-creating power' and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking', while US capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalised blood of children.' The appropriation of labour is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,' while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children's blood into capital.'"

Marx's vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of Catholics, as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding "scientific" theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. "If Marx's vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic," Muller writes. "As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx's thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith or Voltaire."


Marx's "social science" was swept into history's dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognise, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.

It is an old conservative habit - one I've been guilty of myself - of looking around society and politics, finding things we don't like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It's unknowable.

And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx's ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world - far more than Marxist zealots have ever realised. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labours, was hardly invented by him.

There's ample reason - with ample research to back it up - to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat - and, as Mark van Vugt has written, "the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you."

To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is - an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to "carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords." He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.

Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they've internalised Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture.

A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers - to some - a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a "Kingdom of Heaven on Earth."

The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. "Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated," the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. "They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without colour and light... And now it's put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it."

When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, "the people" became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people's spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralised group took over.

In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and "globalist" Marxism are closely related. They are both "re-enchantment creeds", as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.

In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanising than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There's a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It's not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited.

The angry populace is always already convinced.

The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures - priests! - with ready-made theories about why the masses' gut feelings were right all along. They don't need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. The story Marxists tell doesn't have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.

Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor at National Review. This essay expands on themes in his new book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy, to be published in April by Crown Forum. © Commentary magazine (, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.


Most recent items in: Antisemitism