Marx: Philosophy and Revolution
by Shlomo Avineri
Yale University Press, 2019
Yale’s “Jewish Lives” is a series of “interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity.” And so it is glaringly incongruent when in the preface of their most recent volume, Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution, Shlomo Avineri, Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes that “Marx cannot be seen as a ‘Jewish thinker,’ and his knowledge of matters Jewish was minimal.” Happily, this is a throat clearing. He goes on:
His Jewish origins and background did leave significant fingerprints in his work, some of them obvious and others less so. One of the aims of this book is to put his background in its proper and balanced perspective.
Avineri doesn’t neglect Marx’s Jewish origins, he makes it part of a larger presentation:
Since Marx’s fame has been mostly posthumous, this biography will try to present him in the actual historical contexts, intellectual and political, in which he lived and acted. Liberating the real-life Marx from the canonization in which his thought has been wrapped helps to discover a much more exciting and compelling thinker who grew with his time and learned from the history he was living through.
We meet Marx the philosopher, economist, journalist, historian, revolutionary, and even Marx the parent. (Mercifully, the book is light on Marx the economist). The “fingerprints” of his Jewish background are understood in the context of these different roles and can be found on the books, essays, and transcripts he left us.
One particularly relevant example is Marx’s On the Jewish Question (1844) which “is ostensibly a review and critique of Bruno Bauer’s two tracts on Jewish emancipation that were published in the early 1840s.” Using Hegelian concepts, Bauer argued that the Jews should not be granted equal rights so long as they maintained their separate religion. Avineri is good at pointing out the importance of Marx’s response to Bauer in terms of his intellectual development, but doesn’t lose sight of what is interesting to a reader of the “Jewish Lives” series:
Marx finds this position unacceptable, and one cannot overlook that there is a passion in Marx’s argument: it is obvious that he finds offensive Bauer’s insistence on conversion as a condition for equal rights…we do not know how much the circumstances of Heinrich Marx’s [Karl Marx’s father] conversion were discussion in the Marx household, but they obviously could not have been totally unknown, so Bauer’s insistence on conversion…did touch upon a personal level of experience, and it would be only natural that Marx could not remain totally oblivious of this.
Avineri’s ability to show the reader a changing, learning, Marx while contextualizing him and his work within the 19th century, his peers, as well as our current perceptions about him cannot be captured in snippets here, but also cannot be overstated. This is the greatest strength of the book, especially when he applies it to passages and works of Marx you thought you knew, and makes for a great reading experience.
Unfortunately, at times this ability subverts his goal of “liberating the real life Marx.” That is, rather than working as a restorative or corrective, one gets the sense that Marx’s rough edges are being smoothed by this contextualization. Nothing essential is ignored (there are important omissions, but the books isn’t intended to be exhaustive), but Marx is never held in front of us for a good look. We can only glance at a few examples from the personal level:
Marx had a child born out of wedlock, Frederick, with the family maid, Helen Demuth. Frederick was not allowed to visit while Marx was home, and Fredrick Engels claimed paternity to save the marriage. Yet, Avineri writes:
The steadfastness of their relationship did survive the hardships that later befell the family in its peregrinations caused by Marx’s political activities and attest to the depth of the feelings underlying the relationship despite everything.
Marx is known not just for his vituperative attacks against opponents, but also fellow travelers in the socialist movement. Still, in a wince inducing passage, Avineri writes:
Yet the singularity of Marx’s intellectual brilliance and learning also carried a hidden curse that accompanied him for most of his life: because he was so intellectually superior to many of his colleagues in the socialist movement, he could not stop himself from pointing out the inconsistencies in their writings, their occasional muddled thoughts, and sometimes their sheer ignorance.
One particularly disturbing writing by Marx (and there are more than a few to choose from) is the second part of On the Jewish Question. Marx wrote:
What is the secular cult of the Jews? Huckstering. What is his secular God? Money…what, in itself, was the basis of the Jewish religion? Practical need, egoism. The monotheism of the Jew, therefore is in reality the polytheism of the many needs, a polytheism which makes even the lavatory and object of divine law. Practical need, egoism is the principle of civil society…
Money is the jealous God of Israel, in the face of which no other God may exist. Money degrades all the Gods of man and turns them into commodities…
The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the God of the real world. The bill of exchange is the real God of the Jew. His God is only and illusory bill of exchange…
The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.
Avineri informs us it is “clear that Marx is writing about something beyond actual, living Jews” and that “there is no mentioning of their religious practices” (admitting this is probably due to Marx’s ignorance of them). Additionally, he compares this to his writing on Christianity, telling us: “If Marx’s words on Judaism are harsh, his indictment of Christianity as the source of universal human alienation because of the rule of money is even harsher.” Still grasping, he unconvincingly tries to argue that Marx was “writing in code.” And in a final attempt at an explanation he reaches even further implying the point of the second part of On the Jewish Question was “to bend over backward and distance himself as much as possible from Jews and Judaism so as not to be accused of supporting Jewish rights because of his own Jewish background.”
Yet here, and in letters, Marx’s comments are obviously conspiratorial. For him the Jew in bourgeois society was the symbol of much of what he hated about capitalism. Even so, Avineri only writes: “the rhetoric of Marx in Part 2 is laced with so much hyperbole and venom that it gives cause to pause and wonder.” No, Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
There is much more about Marx the man that could be said, and we have not the space to explore his long ago exploded paradigm, but when we hold him in front of us with what we have here, it is clear: he was an unfaithful, cruel, and vulgar man. Although it can be discerned, Avineri’s book does not capture this.
The most recent addition to Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series, Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution by Shlomo Avineri, is a flawed book, but a wonderful book. Avineri wrote what he wanted, stopping to show the reader around where he felt clarity was lacking, and it works. It will hold up to multiple readings and pages will keep their marks for future reference. But these virtues only just outweigh a typically fatal vice: we never do get a good look at Karl Marx, a very unpleasant man.
—David Murphy holds a Masters of Finance from the University of Minnesota.