Karl Marx and The Jewish Question through the eyes of Julius Carlebach

by Morwenna Silver

Morwenna Silver volunteered at The Keep last year, helping to catalogue the donation of Julius Carlebach’s papers to the German-Jewish Archive. Here she writes about Carlebach’s reading of Marx, what constitutes antisemitism, and the power of language in a politically unstable culture.

More info on the Carlebach collection can be found on The Keep’s website:



Julius Carlebach had the most extraordinary life. Born in Hamburg in 1922, he and his sister escaped the Nazis via the Kindertransport. He was a sailor in the Royal Navy, and went on to manage a Jewish orphanage in Norwood in South London and then served as a rabbi in Kenya. Also an accomplished academic, he was a research student at the University of Cambridge, and taught at the University of Bristol before he eventually became Associate Professor of Sociology and Israel studies at the University of Sussex.  A vast collection of Carlebach’s correspondence, academic papers and research notes has recently been donated to the German-Jewish Archive at The Keep by Carlebach’s family.

During my gap year before starting a History degree, I had the great privilege of helping to catalogue this fascinating collection. Carlebach’s academic work touches on so many interesting areas, reaching from the study of the lives of Jewish women to research on child delinquency – the collection is full of surprises. The area of research that caught my attention was Carlebach’s ideas on the relationship between Karl Marx and antisemitism. For me, this work is highly relevant in light of the current political debate on left-wing antisemitism and also chimes with my own interest in Marxist theory.

Carlebach’s main concern in his 1972 essay Karl Marx and the Struggle for Jewish Emancipation is with the impact that Marx’s writings had on that most tragic period of antisemitism in modern history: Nazi Germany in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Carlebach cites Hitler’s 1920 speech Why We Are Antisemites in which Hitler refers to his idea that the original strength of the German nation has been corrupted by the unfamiliar: “Why is it that only Aryans possess the ability to create states? It was due almost exclusively to their attitude toward work.”. Whilst these sentiments won’t reveal anything particularly shocking to those familiar with Hitler’s brand of fascism, of particular interest to me is the way Carlebach links Hitler’s mention of “attitude towards work” to Marxist ideas, specifically those mentioned in Marx’s 1843 work, On The Jewish Question. Carlebach writes that “there can be little doubt that this vicious polemic was influenced by Karl Marx’s essays on the Jewish Question”, pointing out that it was Marx who championed the idea that Jews see themselves as above the laws of their Christian neighbours; adopting customs that allow them days off from working (such as the Shabbat). For example, Marx mentions that the Jewish people “look to a future that has nothing to do with the future of mankind as a whole”. Here Marx alludes to the idea that Jewish customs and way of life only work in the old system – a feudalist, stunted society that thrives on separation and hierarchy. Marx instead looks to a different future, one of collectivism rather than division; a future where work is shared and working traditions benefit “mankind as a whole”. Carlebach views this as “providing the ammunition which those who seek to destroy will want to justify their hatred”. In other words Carlebach sees interesting parallels between Marx’s vision for a revolutionary working class and Hitler’s vision for a future Germany without Jews.

Hitler’s 1920 speech was made at a time when fascism was not strong enough to stand alone without the ideas of socialism. In this context Carlebach notices the danger of a Marxist critique of Jewish life as it can so easily be used to mold socialism and fascism (in this case antisemitism) together. It would be easy to conclude that Carlebach is calling Marx (a Jew himself) an antisemite, but I believe he is making a subtler point about the power and manipulation of words. Carlebach writes “Jewish social law was addressed not to the Jew as a Jew but to the Jew as a human being – as an individual in society. By not making this distinction, Marx, whether he was an antisemite or not, certainly contributed much to the destructive literature of antisemitism”. Carlebach explains that to decide whether a statement has racist intent is a complex and often unresolvable question. What is of greater importance is how the sentiments made may affect the future of a racial or minority group. He emphasises that Marx is not to blame for the horrific antisemitism of the Nazis, but argues that greater care should be taken when cultural customs and identities are described as being in conflict with an idealised future.

The current arguments about left-wing antisemitism in modern-day politics shed new light on Carlebach’s work. It is interesting to draw parallels on antisemitism through time and, although many of the tropes have changed, such as viewing Jews as shady financiers rather than people with strange religious practices, the idea of the Jew as an outsider remains. Furthermore, Carlebach’s message on the power of words seems more pertinent than ever. In this new era of politics when the words of politicians are broadcast on television, radio and social media, it is important to realise how our choice of words can act as dangerous gateways to more extreme ideas.

I was only able to scratch the surface of this collection in the limited time I had available. I very much hope that others will be able to gain fresh insights from this rich resource in years to come.


Morwenna Silver morwenna.silver99@gmail.com

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