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On Consolation by Michael Ignatieff

On Consolation by Michael Ignatieff

Author:Michael Ignatieff
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.


But how was human nature to be changed? Shortly after Marx’s arrival in Paris, he was asked to write a critique of the book The Jewish Question, by a former teacher and associate of his, Bruno Bauer. He seized this assignment as an opportunity to work out, in effect, how to overcome such parochial identities as Judaism and to become what the revolution required: a truly free human being. Being young, he thought it would be easy. If he had emancipated himself from Jewishness, why couldn’t everyone free themselves of the reactionary identities that held them captive?

What was it, after all, to be a Jew? In his view, the essence of Jewishness was huckstering. Jews lived for trade and commerce. Their God was money. Would Jews still exist if the money system were abolished, capitalism done away with, private property replaced? The answer was obvious. Jewishness would vanish “like an insipid haze” in a truly free society. Jewishness and all such divisions between human beings, all such fault lines that prevented people from recognizing each other as brothers and sisters, would disappear if the root of the problem, capitalism, was done away with.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America had recently appeared, and Tocqueville’s America taught Marx that “a state can be a free state without man himself being a free man.” How could men be free if they were still trapped inside the coils of religious delusion, no matter how freely chosen? In a communist future, to be free was to be free of the need for religious illusion and the false consolations it offered.

Marx wrote that in the political revolution of 1789, “man was not freed from religion—he received the freedom of religion. He was not freed from property—he received the freedom of property.” 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 condemned the German Social Democrats’ Gotha Program for endorsing religious toleration. He thought they should abolish religion altogether.

His utopia was dedicated to overcoming the friction, the war of all against all, race against race, religion against religion, nation against nation, inside civil society. What others might have relished about modernity—the frantic jostling of competing peoples in the modern city—filled him with dismay:

What a spectacle! A society infinitely divided into the most diverse races which confront one another with their petty antipathies, their bad consciences and their brutal mediocrity …



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