The Eternal Marx: Reviewing Shlomo Avineri’s KARL MARX: PHILOSOPHY & RELIGION

Shlomo Avineri’s recent biography demolishes the charge that Karl Marx was a self-hating anti-Semite. And by dragging Marx, kicking and screaming, back into the Rhinish Jewish community that shaped him, Avineri yields new insights pertinent to today’s global challenges.

The problem with egotists is that they are not particularly good at being selfish. They can accumulate wealth, legal rights, and power, but, in the end, they are pitiable figures who cannot know fulfillment. This assessment of the “egotistic man,” whom he defines as “an individual withdrawn behind his private interests and whim and separated from the community,” is the gravamen of Karl Marx’s critique of possessive individualism – the moral philosophy underpinning capitalism’s oeuvre.

As I read Shlomo Avineri’s exquisite recent biography of Marx, I became increasingly troubled by the image of an individual “separated from the community.” But the individual I was thinking about was Marx himself: the wandering revolutionary who, expelled from his native Germany and forced to leave Brussels and Paris, died, stateless, in liberal Victorian England. Suddenly, an inconvenient question occurred to me.

Why did I always find Shakespeare’s presentation of Shylock and Caliban particularly objectionable (in The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest, respectively)? Was it merely the identification of nastiness with a Jewish entrepreneur and a black man?

No, there was more to it. After all, countless white Christian Shakespearean characters are viler than these two. What pained me about Shylock or Caliban was their excruciating isolation. Shakespeare depicts them as “separated from their community,” forced by their solitude to represent their whole community – a fundamentally racist presentation, because there can be no such thing as a representative Jew, black, Greek, or American.

Avineri addresses precisely this irreducible separateness with a brilliant biography that drags Marx, kicking and screaming, back into the Rhinish Jewish community that shaped him. One can respect Marx’s desire to renounce his cultural heritage and to be judged as a cosmopolitan, global thinker. But Avineri deserves our gratitude for placing Marx in the context he chose to leave behind, not least because, beyond the purposes of yet another reinterpretation of Marx’s thought, this perspective yields new insights pertinent to today’s global challenges.

Marx’s Jewish Life

Avineri is sensitive to the objection that, because Marx’s was by no means a conventional Jewish life, it was inappropriate to include his biography in Yale University Press’s “Jewish Lives” series. But the concern is misplaced. There is no contradiction in saying, in the same breath, that one detests and adores one’s family, in which case it is doubly incumbent upon a biographer to investigate that family’s influence on the subject. Likewise, there is no contradiction in being a Jew who never espoused a “Jewish life” but whose life is uniquely shaped by the experience of Judaism.

And that experience was undoubtedly Marx’s own. The grandson of two rabbis, and the brother of the rabbi of Trier, Marx was the son of a learned, successful lawyer who converted to Christianity to obtain a passport. Marx’s father used that passport to travel to Holland to marry a rabbi’s daughter and, more pressingly, to continue practicing law upon his return. At age nineteen, Marx dedicated poems to his father with verses like these:

Your awakening

Is an endless rising,

Your rising

An endless falling.

I must play dark, I must play light,

Till bowstrings break my heart outright.

For a famously angry writer who delighted in exposing absurd ignominies, Marx’s choice never to write a single line about the humiliation imposed upon his father, and countless others of their community, is as revealing as Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous dog that did not bark in the night.

Combining legitimate speculation regarding the influence on Marx of his Jewish community’s experiences with a fine analysis of Marx’s engagement with Hegel’s philosophy and the political economy of capitalism, Avineri enables us to reframe the concepts Marx bequeathed us. Moreover, Avineri’s biography is mercifully free of others’ tiresome penchant to “discover” the “true” Marx. And Avineri bends over backwards, gracefully, to give Marx the benefit of the doubt and to distinguish him from appalling adherents that important thinkers often attract and do not deserve.

The book is full of gems. We learn, for example, that had it not been for the short-lived emancipation of Rhineland’s Jews by French revolutionaries, the official ideology of the Soviet Union and China might have been known as Levyism-Leninism. The French required emancipated Jews to adopt a non-denominational surname, and Karl’s grandfather chose Marx.

In addition to the anecdotes, there are also deeper sources of elucidation. For example, Avineri advances the credible theory that, unlike Prussian Jews, who were never emancipated by the French, the cause of the great preponderance of radical socialist Rhinish Jews was the experience of de-emancipation after Napoleon’s defeat. The implication is that a swiftly withdrawn taste of freedom fires up rebellious minds.

This also explains why Marx, who left Prussia-dominated Germany at the age of 25 and did not miss, nonetheless remained nostalgic toward his native Rhineland. While careful to state the speculative nature of his hypotheses, Avineri enriches our thinking simply by posing them.

Perhaps the greatest insight Marx left us regarding capitalism’s impact on humanity is the concept of alienation. Preceding social systems may have been more oppressive or exploitative, but only under capitalism have humans been so fully alienated from their labor, so divorced from its products, so robbed of even a modicum of control over what they think and do. Capitalism, in short, turns us all into some version of Shylock or Caliban – monads in an archipelago of isolated selves. By re-establishing the connection between Marx’s life and his Jewish roots, Avineri has, however belatedly, lessened Marx’s own alienation.

Jewish Emancipation/Human Liberation

The only text Marx wrote that explicitly concerns his Jewish community’s status within a Christian Europe struggling to invent its version of the liberal state was his pamphlet On the Jewish Question. Unsurprisingly, Avineri uses it to frame his reconstruction of the life of the essay’s 25-year-old writer, who was transcending the long shadow that Hegel’s philosophy had cast upon him and his circle.

Marx wrote On the Jewish Question in response to two essays by Bruno Bauer, a central figure in this circle. Bauer, a former student of Hegel’s whom Marx had followed to Bonn, possibly in search of a teaching position, had introduced Marx to other young Hegelians, like Moses Hess, a founder of Labor Zionism.

The essence of Bauer’s attack on the Jewish community was banal: To qualify for citizenship, German Jews should renounce Judaism. Today, similar views take a slightly more entertaining form, as when British acquaintances tell me they will consider British-born Pakistanis to be full-fledged subjects of the realm only when they cheer for England in a cricket match against Pakistan.

Young Marx, I believe, would never have bothered penning a response to Bauer’s abhorrent claim were it not for its delicious Hegelian pedigree. Bauer used the same Hegelian concepts Marx strove to weave into a universal emancipatory narrative to argue that Jews could qualify for equal rights only by renouncing Judaism, like Marx’s father.

Because no one in Germany was politically emancipated, Bauer asked, “How are we to free you, Jews?” He then concluded that Jews were egotistical to demand a special emancipation for themselves, as Jews, when Germans had not been emancipated. As Germans, Jews had a duty to help emancipate all Germans and human beings more broadly, not agitate for their rights as Jews.

Looking back at Bauer’s shoddy argument, I was reminded of similar arguments regarding Jews, blacks, and feminists advanced in the 1970s and 1980s by essentially good people who thought of themselves as Marxists. Like Bauer, hardline Western Communists and defenders of the Soviet Union would argue that Jews, blacks, and women (gays and lesbians were not even included) had a duty to stop whining about their oppression and join in the construction of socialism. All their particular problems would be solved once universal proletarian emancipation was achieved.

Avineri is excellent at separating Marx from authoritarians who traded in his name during the twentieth century. But I wish he had accounted for the manner in which Marx’s attack on Bauer’s position inspired many Soviet Jews, and Marxist-feminist women, to struggle against the Bauerite turn of Marxism-Leninism.

Marx’s passionate demolition of Bauer’s Hegelian argument is a sight for sore eyes:

“If Bauer asks the Jews: Have you, from your standpoint, the right to want political emancipation? We ask the converse question: Does the standpoint of political emancipation give the right to demand from the Jew the abolition of Judaism and from man the abolition of religion?… Just as the state evangelizes when, although it is a state, it adopts a Christian attitude towards the Jews, so the Jew acts politically when, although a Jew, he demands civic rights.”

Retrieving the best features of Hegel’s dialectic, Marx combines a commitment to religious freedom of Jews, as well as of Christians, with his wholesale rejection of Hegel’s presumption that the state can represent the general interest. Yes, Jews must be emancipated immediately. Yes, women, blacks, LGBT people must be granted equal rights well before any socialist revolution appears on the horizon. But freedom will take a lot more than that.

Freedom will be ours only after we recognize our “own powers as social powers,” Marx writes in On the Jewish Question, and we no longer separate social power from ourselves “in the shape of political power.” Only then “will human emancipation have been accomplished.” And for that to happen, capitalism must be transcended.

If Marx had stopped writing after completing its first part, On the Jewish Question would today be considered a compelling defense of the rights of European Jews. Alas, Marx went on to pen the second part as if he were determined to foreclose any doubt that he was a self-hating, anti-Semitic Jew.

“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 an 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 an illusory bill of exchange… The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.”

While contemporary readers can only despair at these words, Avineri struggles to defend Marx against the charge of anti-Semitism. He argues, for example, that Marx used “Judentum” (Judaism) as code for capitalism in order to evade censorship, and that he believed it would bolster the credibility of his attack on Bauer to show that he defended Jewish emancipation despite lacking sympathy for the Jews or their religion. While there may be some truth to both explanations, I have a different interpretation – one based on Marx’s proclivity for carelessly brilliant analysis fueled by unrestrained anger.

Pure evil did not enrage Marx. What angered him were people or forces with a capacity to do good that, instead, harmed humanity. Capitalism angered him not so much because it was exploitative, but because it dehumanized and alienated us despite being a progressive force.

Marx’s venom against Bauer reflects disappointment that such a clever man should fashion a misanthropic treatise out of Hegel’s dialectic. As Jenny von Westphalen, his long-suffering loving wife, reveals in her letters, Marx’s worst rages targeted his “own” and those he believed should have known, or done, better. Consider, in this light, his vicious attack on a poor trade unionist, known as Citizen Weston, who dared wonder aloud if striking in support of wage increases might cause inflation that eats into workers’ real income.

Seen through this lens, Marx’s tirade against the “jealous God of Israel” ceases to be unquestionably anti-Semitic. Why were so many Jews drawn to commerce and banking? Banned from extensive land ownership in a feudal Europe where power depended on it, Jews were forced to earn a living through trade. The establishment of international trade routes then sowed the seeds of commodification in Europe, which eventually spurred the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

At this point, dispossessed peoples who by necessity happened to occupy the nodes of international commerce (including Jews, diaspora Greeks, and Armenians) became the first to benefit financially from the transformation of profit into an end in itself. Jews had an additional advantage: Unlike Christians, they were allowed to charge interest. Once debt became the major driving force of production and capital accumulation, Jewish wealth soared.

Marx’s scornful references to monotheism in On the Jewish Question were followed, a few months later, by his description of capitalism’s driving force as “a universal energy which breaks every limit and every bond and posits itself as the only policy, the only universality, the only limit and the only bond.” What is that energy? Profit-seeking. His subtle point here is that, before capitalism, the human soul was pushed around by countless, often contradictory, passions. Money was always valued, but only as a means to satisfy other cravings. Greed always existed, but was expressed in separable quests for honor, land, glory, conquest, chivalry, and the submission of others. What the commodification of everything (that is, capitalism) did was to reduce all passions to a single one: the passion for profit. For the first time, profit maximization could be assumed to be what motivated everyone.

As capitalism spread throughout Europe, all sorts of polytheisms boiled down to the worship of a single god: Money. Because of a historical accident, stemming from the Jews’ exclusion from land ownership, Marx’s monotheistic community suddenly found in its hands many of the levers of increasingly lucrative finance and trade. In the same way that English happened to be propelled to the status of lingua franca (a development that had nothing to do with something innate in its grammar or syntax), Europe’s new divinity, monetized profit, became associated with the God of Israel.

Never too careful with his language, or sensitive to the perils of generalization, Marx did not care enough to shade his argument in On the Jewish Question to acknowledge that European Jews’ marginalization prepared them not only for the role of banker, merchant, and entrepreneur, but also for that of wretched proletarian. Thessaloniki, a majority-Jewish city even when it was annexed by Greece in 1912, is a good example: Jews controlled trade but were also the most exploited of workers (who, led by Abraham Benaroya, founded the Greek communist movement).

Despite his outrageous phrases in the second part of On the Jewish Question, Marx was capable of passionate solidarity with poor Jews. In a newspaper column quoted by Avineri, Marx goes to great lengths to defend Jerusalem’s Jewish community with words that shatter any accusation of consistent anti-Semitism:

“Nothing equals the misery and suffering of the Jews of Jerusalem, inhabiting the most filthy quarter of the town… (they are) constant objects of Mussulman [Muslim] oppression and intolerance, insulted by the Greeks [Eastern Orthodox Christians], persecuted by the Latins [Roman Catholics], and living only upon the scant alms transmitted by their European brethren…attracted to Jerusalem… to die on the very place where the redemption is to be expected.”

When the Judaism-capitalism nexus is seen from this perspective, and mindful of his strong support for Jewish religious freedom, we begin to see that there is nothing anti-Semitic in the proclamation with which Marx concludes On the Jewish Question: “The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.”

The Highest Stage of Liberalism

Marx retains the power to teach us the importance of properly identifying, and resolving, contradictions. He opposed colonialism without naively idealizing the colonized, whom he felt free to lambast for perpetrating various forms of nastiness toward weaker social groups and neighboring peoples.

Marx appreciated the importance of identity without endorsing identity politics. He described women’s battle against patriarchy as the first class struggle, and marriage as a vile property contract, but maintained a belief in the possibility of romantic love. He used offensive language against Jewish bankers but sprang to the defense of Baron Rothschild when, as a Jew, Rothschild was denied a seat in the British Parliament.

When it came to what would follow capitalism, Marx wrote like an incensed liberal. He abhorred the prospect of “barracks communism” and its promise of “common pots and dormitories, control commissioners and control offices, the regulation of education, production, consumption – in one word, control of all social activity; and at the same time, there appears Our Committee, anonymous and unknown, as supreme authority.” Could a libertarian find more powerful words to lampoon Soviet or Maoist collectivism?

“But what about Marx’s call for the dictatorship of the proletariat?” I hear readers ask. Here, it is worth recalling that in the nineteenth century, it was liberals who opposed democracy, denigrating it as the dictatorship of the majority. Marx turned the liberals’ disdain for the demos on its head, telling them: Yes, we are democrats. And, as Aristotle defined it, democracy is a regime in which government is controlled by the poor, who are always the majority.

Under capitalism, democracy can only be, in nineteenth-century liberals’ language, the dictatorship of the proletariat. And how is it to be realized? Once universal suffrage and a parliamentary path became a possibility, Marx turned against violent means, warning Parisian workers six months before the Paris Commune in 1871 that “insurrection would be an act of desperate folly.”

Moving from the political to the personal, Marx censured naive Hegelians for whom oppression, even depression, was a state of consciousness to be overcome by another, opposing, state of consciousness. He drove the point home that industrial-scale personal misery reflected society-wide alienation.

Telling people they must overcome it through an act of individual willpower is cruel. Neither therapy nor pills nor motivational tapes can help those forced into what the late David Graeber called soul-destroying “bullshit” jobs, and whose entertainment comprises working for free for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in a manic quest for likes and shares. “The realm of freedom,” Marx wrote in Das Kapital, Vol. III, “begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases.”

Marx’s denunciation of morality had a powerful ethical purpose, as did his attitude toward religion. Marx anticipated a society in which humans are no longer “oppressed creatures” inhabiting a “heartless world,” and thus in need of an opium-like palliative to lessen their “real suffering.” But he would come down on Richard Dawkins-like religious atheists like a ton of bricks. Disrespecting the faithful, denying them the right to practice their religion with dignity, was repugnant to him.

As Avineri argues, respect for religious freedom, and for the faithful, was for Marx the litmus test of civilized society. When Marx criticized organized religion, he was taking aim at oppressive relations between humans, rather than humans’ relationship with any god they happened to embrace. “The criticism of Heaven becomes the criticism of Earth,” he wrote poignantly. His compassion toward the faithful did not stop him from advocating his own atheism:

“The struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against the world in which religion is the spiritual aroma. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”

Nationalist Means to Internationalist Ends

As with religion, the nature of labor, and the historical role of capitalism, Marx appreciated the contradictions oozing out of the idea of nationhood. Nation-states were being established, for the first time, during his formative years. German unification was all the rage, dominated by the same Prussia that expelled him as a threat to the emergent Germany.

Marx looked at these developments and, atypically, kept his cool. He arrived at a pragmatic, instrumental, assessment not too distant in spirit from that of Jawaharlal Nehru’s aphorism: “Nationalism is good in its place, but it is an unreliable friend and an unsafe historian.”

Concerned, above all else, with working-class unity, Marx supported the formation of nation-states as a means of eliminating borders between pathetic fiefdoms that kept workers divided. While the unification of Germany held many dangers, it created a large unified market within which millions of workers could build solidarity while the capitalists mechanized production in preparation for a future proletarian takeover.

But Marx was less open to the creation of smaller nation-states, such as in the Balkans, that could sustain neither large proletariats nor significant capital accumulation. German nationalism, unlike Croatian or Greek nationalism, was acceptable insofar as German nationalism could be seen as a first step toward socialist internationalism.

Avineri contrasts Marx’s attitude toward the national question to that of Hess, who once admiringly described Marx as “…the synthesized embodiment of Rousseau, Voltaire, Lessing, Heine, and Hegel.” Hess, who, unlike Marx’s father, never converted to Christianity, later published an influential proto-Zionist text calling for a Jewish socialist commonwealth in Palestine. Avineri shows how Marx and Hess embarked from similar theoretical starting points before embodying two opposed socialist traditions: Marx’s internationalist socialism, which sought to contain nationalism, and Hess’s socialist nationalism, according to which national consciousness trumped proletarian solidarity.

Avineri clearly thinks that history has vindicated Hess, not Marx. Notwithstanding Marx’s re-assessment of the nation-state’s significance after the Revolutions of 1848, Avineri believes that Marx underestimated the importance of nationalism. Those of us engaged today in building a pan-European, transnational progressive movement, and even a Progressive International, are painfully familiar with this charge. There are good reasons for criticizing Marx, and people like me, for inattentiveness to national sensitivities, but not for the reasons given by Avineri.

When thousands of refugees flooded Greece in the summer of 2015, the fact that the Greeks themselves were feeling colonized by the troika (EU, ECB, IMF) of Greece’s lenders triggered a rapid political sea change. Following the betrayal of the 62% of Greeks who rejected the troika’s blackmail (“accept new austerity and fresh extend-and-pretend loans or we shut down your banks”) in a referendum that July, the non-nationalist spirit of patriotic resistance to international finance gave way to xenophobia.

The difficult challenge for internationalist progressives is to give voice to those who feel like refugees in their own country without turning against foreign refugees or workers struggling to make ends meet in places like Germany. While this remains an unmet challenge for Marxists, Avineri’s inference that nationalism offers a safer route to emancipation than internationalism seems to me both problematic and wrong.

Nationalism, even in its most civilized civic form, turns on a process of exclusion. The appeal to a shared national identity is an invitation to enshrine arbitrary criteria of who is worthy of inclusion in the national community, like the criterion Bauer wielded against the emancipation of Jews.

Marx’s defense of the Jews’ political rights was, after all, an argument illustrating the limits of political emancipation within the framework of post-Christian nation-states. Ensuring equal rights, he argued, is a universal problem whose “solution” cannot be found within any nation-state, however enlightened. A Jew, or indeed a Palestinian, can be granted equal rights in some nation-state and yet remain oppressed and the subject of systematic, even if covert, discrimination.

In this sense, the struggle for human emancipation cannot be left to any nation-state. It remains humanity’s universal task. Whatever that means in practice, I must confess to disappointment at Avineri’s silence regarding the place of Palestinians not just in the Occupied Territories but, more interestingly, within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. I say this because Avineri served as director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and, given this background, what he has to say is important.

In his Epilogue, Avineri describes his understandable glee when, once upon a time in Nairobi, he won an argument by quoting Marx to a Soviet delegation, from a pamphlet published in Moscow no less. This reminds me of dissident graffiti I spotted on a wall in Warsaw back in 1984, at a time when the communist regime had imposed draconian martial law on behalf of the Soviet Union. It read:

A nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations – Friedrich Engels, Speech on Poland, 1847

Would Avineri care to extend such Marxist irony to Israel? How does he feel about the late Edward Said’s view, also informed by Marx’s dialectical approach, that the only solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a common, secular state?

High Marx

A renewed interest in Marx is not new. In October 1997, a New Yorker article tagged a profile of him with the heading “The Next Thinker.” Avineri concurs: “What Plato has been to classical philosophy,” he writes, “Marx is to modern studies in the humanities.” Even though I would have preferred a comparison with Aristotle, my main disagreement with Marx’s latest, commendably sympathetic, biographer concerns the relevance of his economic analysis.

Avineri takes for granted an old assertion that, however accurate Marx’s economic analysis might have been in the 1840s, today’s “global free market system is very different from the sort of capitalism [Marx] described in the Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital.” Elsewhere, I have argued that the opposite is true.

In Marx’s time, capitalism was foundering, local, fragmented, and timid. It was nothing like the dynamic, globalizing, superstition-demolishing capitalism described in the Communist Manifesto. And here lies the delicious irony: For capitalism to become truly and triumphantly global, the regimes that pledged allegiance to Marx and Engels’s Manifesto first had to be torn asunder, so that two billion Russian, Eastern European, Chinese, and Indian workers could join the capitalist labor market, while Wall Street and City of London bankers were tearing up all fetters placed upon them by New Dealers and bygone social democrats.

It is only now, especially after the long crisis that began in 2008 and was given a new boost by COVID-19, that Marx’s historical and economic analyses of capitalism are coming into their own. It is only now that a showdown between the two great camps he had foreseen (of the ultra-rich and precarious laborers) is pushing humanity on the edge of a genuinely new world. While there is no guarantee that the future will not be at once post-capitalist and dystopian, Marx shows why business as usual is impossible.

As we struggle to make sense of this transformation, and our personal role in it, Avineri’s book offers poignant reminders of the power of unlikely friendships during periods of rapid social change. He has unearthed evidence that Marx spent several summers taking the waters at Carlsbad with Heinrich Graetz, author of the multi-volume History of the Jewish People and a pillar of Zionism. Though Avineri has no idea what they discussed during long strolls in the Bohemian countryside, it is comforting to imagine major arguments might have combined with mutual appreciation between two men whose writings shaped history from opposite sides of a crucial intra-Jewish division.

Turning back, one last time, to the tension between national aspirations and internationalism, the axis around which much of Avineri’s Karl Marx revolves, it is comforting to recount the resolution proposed by Indian author Rabindranath Tagore:

“I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine.”

Marx’s capacity to acknowledge other peoples’ philosophers, poets, and artists was inexhaustible. Now, through Avineri’s fine effort, we finally know more about his connections with other remarkable representatives of the Jewish experience from which he emerged – and to which he contributed.

The above review was originally published in Project Syndicate.