Marx for Our Times

Degrees of Emancipation

Was Karl Marx also a social democrat? 


Karl Marx never publicly referred to his Jewish background. That background was known to all his friends, and Marx gave no sign of wishing to deny it. But even his daughter Eleanor, who studied Yiddish after becoming politically involved with the working-class Jews of London’s East End, refrained from mentioning her father’s conversion to Christianity.

As its title suggests, Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution, by the distinguished Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri, is not, in spite of the “Jewish Lives” series for which it was written, primarily about Marx’s Jewishness, such as it was. The book gives us, along with a quick and readable account of the life and works, a Marx whom Avineri takes as more useful for what he sees as our nonrevolutionary times. In his view, Marx was less inspired by the desperation of the 19th century working class, which cried out for immediate revolutionary change, than by the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and justice, whose realization might be seen as following a less pressured timetable. This fidelity to liberty and justice, Avineri goes on to argue, came in part from his family’s mixed experience of those ideals, dangled in front of them as members of the Rhineland Jewish community during the French Revolution and then jerked away in its aftermath. For Avineri, that jarring experience inspired both Marx’s commitment to an egalitarian universalism and his skepticism as to whether liberalism could deliver on that commitment.

Avineri, one suspects, is also writing from his own experience, as an Israeli and a Zionist. He reminds us in the book that he once served as the Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Sustaining simultaneous commitments to universalism and particularism is never a walk in the park, but it has been an absolute nightmare for the leaders of Israel, a state that has tried to claim it is both democratic and Jewish. Avineri, who has written important books on Marx and Hegel as well as on Zionism, wants to stick up for the universal values of democracy. One can only approve. But by siding with Marx’s universalism—a universalism that Avineri links less to the international struggle of the working class against capital than to an unrealized Enlightenment liberalism—he ushers us gently away from the revolutionary Marx to a more gradualist and social democratic Marx whose central vision of change is better adapted, in the author’s eyes, to today’s limited political horizons. The largest question the book raises, then, is not about Marx but about the times we live in: how drastic a change we need (thinking forward, for example, to the climate crisis, which is not going away, or the climate-change-induced pandemic that will inevitably come after this one) and the prospects that social democracy offers—or doesn’t—for making it happen.

Born in 1818, Marx grew up in the Rhineland town of Trier, near the French border. It was an eventful time for the region’s Jews. Just how eventful can be seen from the narrative of Marx’s family name, which Avineri has gone deep into the local archives to explore. Marx’s paternal grandfather was born Mordecai Levi. He was the chief rabbi of Trier, and it was during his years in office that the town was conquered by the French revolutionary armies and annexed to France. French law was extended to the Rhineland.

This extension of French rights and jurisprudence was truly revolutionary. It meant that, for a brief but consequential moment, the region’s Jewish population was emancipated and granted equal rights. It also paved the way for greater assimilation: Mordecai Levi could (or was encouraged to?) rename himself Marcus Levi, which eventually became Marx Levi—the name that Marx’s father would briefly take on. It is “intriguing to speculate,” Avineri writes, that without French interference, “Marx would have been born Karl Levi.” He then asks, playfully, whether “a theory called ‘Levism,’ or later “Levism-Leninism,’” would have had the same wide appeal as “Marxism.”

As Avineri tells the story, French intervention in the fate of the Rhineland’s Jews was not only a major factor in the lives of Marx’s grandfather and father; it was also central to his own political coming of age. When the French were expelled in 1814, four years before Marx was born, the Rhineland was handed over to Prussia, and the Jewish community of Trier suddenly had its emancipation and equal rights revoked. Marx’s father, who appeared in the 1801 census as Heschel Lewy, had become Henry Marx by the time he started to study law. But when Prussia’s anti-Jewish legislation was reimposed in 1815, it once again became illegal for any Jew to hold a position of authority over a Christian. Thus, Henry Marx (now Heinrich again) could no longer practice law—unless he converted to Christianity. He petitioned to be spared conversion, but his petitions were rejected, and so he converted. Still, Heinrich and his family remained very much a part of the Jewish community. He served as its legal counsel; his brother took over the post of chief rabbi; Heinrich’s wife, Henriette, was also the child of a rabbi and did not convert until after her father died. When Marx was born, she was still Jewish, and according to Jewish law, this made Marx Jewish.

This is a lot of history to have left “no clue,” as Avineri puts it, in Marx’s “enormous body of work, drafts, and correspondence.” It certainly made its mark on his circle of acquaintances. Among the (fellow) Jews who surrounded Marx in his days as a student was Eduard Gans, his teacher in Berlin and a protégé of Hegel. When Gans converted to Christianity in 1825 in order to be named a professor, Heinrich Heine—like Marx, a Jewish Rhinelander who, according to Avineri, was likely radicalized by the community’s bizarre experience of emancipation tendered and then revoked—paid sarcastic tribute in a poem, “To an Apostate”: “And you crawled towards the cross / That same cross which you detested… / Yesterday you were a hero / But today you’re just a scoundrel.” As Avineri notes wryly, “Heine himself converted later the same year, and the anger (and disgust) may have been aimed at himself as well.”

Avineri does not claim Marx as a “Jewish thinker.” He does not endorse Isaiah Berlin’s suggestion that the proletariat was for Marx an unconscious substitute for his repressed Jewish identity. He does not argue that the tradition of Old Testament prophecy spoke through Marx’s messianism, as others have maintained. When Avineri writes about, say, The Communist Manifesto or Capital, he goes silent on Marx’s Jewishness, and he is right in this. To do otherwise would be to overvalue Marx’s Jewish background and undervalue his analytic genius. But Avineri does make a compelling case that for Marx, French Enlightenment universalism drew its long-lasting appeal from the short-lived emancipation of the Jews of the Rhineland, which also gave Marx a standard against which to judge the German state “as not really representing the general interests.”

This disappointment with the pretended universality of the state, Avineri argues, made Marx both an angry critic of Hegel and an inheritor of the ideals of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Communism would do what, despite Hegel’s hopes, the state had failed to do. It is not news that, as Avineri writes, “the origins of Marx’s socialism are in an internal radical critique of Hegel’s philosophy.” But the controversy continues over how much of Hegel he rejected and how much he retained; Avineri sees him retaining a lot. While Marx thought he had replaced Hegel’s idealism with a materialism centered in the deprivation of the working class, Avineri maintains instead that, thanks in large part to the tumultuous political experience of the Rhineland Jews, he was more decisively swayed by Hegel’s commitment to Enlightenment universalism than by the knowledge he acquired (largely through Engels) of the condition of the industrial working class.

“Marx never studied directly the life condition of the modern proletariat,” Avineri writes, and the contention clearly means a lot to him, as he repeats it: “Marx never independently studied working-class conditions on his own,” we read 50 pages later. If Marx was so interested in analyzing the dynamics of what came to be called capitalism (the word didn’t exist yet), it was largely, in Avineri’s view, so as to understand the failure of the 1848 revolutions, which is to say the weaknesses of an Enlightenment universalism that was rolled back almost as soon as it was initiated. Marx’s analysis of 1848 also gave him confidence that another Enlightenment-bearing revolution was just around the corner—or, at the least, should be. But for Avineri, Marx’s study of capital and its impact on the making of modern class led him toward skepticism about revolutionary politics. Insurrections like the Paris Commune were, in Marx’s view, premature and bound to fail. Like other biographers, Avineri points out the irony that it was Marx’s account of the Commune that made him famous as a revolutionary, even though he had not participated in the Commune and indeed had developed serious reservations about it. Only a relatively brief period of Marx’s life, Avineri insists, was in fact devoted to revolutionary activities.

Reorienting us away from Marx’s revolutionary politics and toward a latent philosophical universalism, Avineri then proceeds to the most contentious part of his argument: his rehabilitation of Marx as a philosophically minded social democrat, not merely open to the idea of a peaceful and gradual transition to socialism but quite critical of any recourse to violence. “Marx,” he writes, “argues that the Reign of Terror was itself a testimony of the failure of Jacobin politics…. [A]ny attempt to use force when conditions are not ripe for internal change are doomed to the tragedy—and cruelty—of the Jacobin terror.” The point could also apply to the Russian Revolution. Some Marxist prophecies have no doubt failed, but this is one that arguably came true. On the other hand, should we imagine Marx condemning antifa?

While there is much to admire in Avineri’s insistence that Marx can and should remain relevant to today’s politics, there are aspects of his commitment to social democracy that would leave readers in the dark about some of the issues where Marxism remains most vibrantly alive. One of the foremost is the connection between capitalism, violence, and racism. In theory, capitalism was not supposed to need violence (as feudalism did) in order to separate the poor from the products of their labor. The exception, mentioned at the very end of Capital, Volume I, as the very beginning of capital’s rule, was so-called primitive accumulation, or colonial-style expropriation, which Marx insists is distinct from exploitation.

Yet even if he saw violent expropriation as a precondition for capitalism’s emergence, Marx did not insist that it would necessarily disappear with the advent of wage labor. And as many Marxist thinkers have pointed out, a distinctly capitalist violence has in fact persisted into the 21st century. Colonialism, racism, police brutality, and mass incarceration, they argue, have to be considered central features of a capitalist system that has never been able to—and perhaps never could—make do with exploitation alone.

As the historian Walter Johnson has shown, the textile mills of Manchester depended on the cheap cotton grown by unwaged slaves on the plantations of Mississippi. Likewise, the racialized prison population of the United States gives ample evidence that violent expropriation, premised on the denial of full political rights to some portion of the population, is still very much alive. So too, then, is the Marx who gives us analytic terms for it. Readers who are not alerted to this side of Marx’s legacy are being cheated out of a valuable inheritance.

But what to make of Marx’s own engagement with Jewishness—Europe’s, if not his own? The go-to text here is “On the Jewish Question,” Marx’s youthful 1844 essay (he was 26), which comes in two parts. The first is a critique of Bruno Bauer’s writings on Jewish emancipation, and it offers the groundwork for Marx’s critique of liberalism and the limits of formal democracy. Bauer, who in later years would write a viciously anti-Semitic tract and became a supporter of German imperial expansion, insisted that if Jews wanted equal rights, they would have to convert. Marx, perhaps inspired by the pain and anger he felt at his father’s forced conversion, took umbrage at such a demand and argued against the need for conversion; Jews as they are deserved equal civil and political rights.

So far, so good. But then the essay becomes, in Avineri’s words, “controversial, if not notorious.” In the second part, Marx expresses what Avineri politely calls “some extremely critical views about Judaism, identifying it with capitalism.” This is an understatement: Marx equates Jewishness with money-grubbing and adopts a particularly pernicious stereotype, Judentum, as a metaphor for commercial society in order to denounce it.

One might object, in Marx’s defense, that at the time this was common practice, among Jews as well as non-Jews. Heine, a Jew who had a thing about Jewish noses, described Hamburg as “a city of hagglers” inhabited by “baptized and unbaptized Jews (I call all Hamburg’s inhabitants Jews).” One might also note, as Avineri does, that “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.” In other words: OK, Jews may be like this, but so are Christians. Under present social conditions, everyone is obliged to be like this.

This is not a rhetorical strategy that one can enthusiastically recommend, since it comes dangerously close to reinforcing existing prejudices. Avineri, who does not hide how troubled he is by it, nevertheless defends Marx. He argues, first, that Marx never talked about actual Jewish people or Judaism but only spoke in a “code”—Judaism standing in for the dominance of commerce—that “was known and universally understood by his contemporaries.” And he returns to his insistence on the trauma of the Marx family’s conversion, suggesting that with this recent history in mind, Marx “defensively sought to dissociate himself from even a whiff of lingering identification with Judaism, to prove that his anti-Bauer argument was unrelated to his family’s background.” He also emphasizes the fact that Marx never said anything as offensive as this again, even when a good opportunity presented itself—for example, when he got pugnacious with the Jewish polemicists against Bauer in The Holy Family.

To say the least, it’s not an ironclad defense. If neither here nor elsewhere did Marx discuss actual Jews, their living conditions, or their religious practices, isn’t the same thing true of certain unambiguous anti-Semites? Avineri insists that Marx knew nothing about the lives and religious practices of actual Jews—but could this be true, given that his grandfather and uncle both served as the chief rabbi of Trier? And does it matter either way?

If there is a better defense, it would perhaps entail accepting that Marx spoke as a revolutionary or at least a radical, not as a social democrat, and in that mode he got himself in trouble. After disagreeing with Bauer and supporting political emancipation for the Jews here and now, Marx then goes on to discuss what human emancipation would have to entail. Human emancipation cannot happen, he proposes, without getting rid of religion itself, Christianity as well as Judaism, and that is why Judaism is also the target of his essay. A liberal form of emancipation, one that leaves civil society untouched, would allow religion and its forms of inequality to remain in place—or, Marx adds, even strengthen them by making them part of the unregulated private sphere. It’s the same problem at the level of economics: Political emancipation leaves private property alone.

Marx may be too confident in thinking that getting rid of both religion and private property would necessarily rid the world of anti-Semitism or, for that matter, other kinds of racism. But at least he was trying to speak with that end in view. Social democrats, when they speak, are obliged to be very careful about the sensitivities attached to existing identities—or perhaps that is true only in countries like the United States today, where the Democratic National Committee has put its fate in the hands of women and minorities. Revolutionaries, however, though they also know they have a natural constituency in women and the oppressed, are more likely to assume that no one, including these groups, is so very attached to their own identity, since that identity has been largely imposed on them by a social system they have good reasons to dislike. As a revolutionary, one therefore is likely to speak about those already existing identities in a less generous fashion even if he or she recognizes they are not the root of the problem.

At one point in the essay, Marx writes, “No one in Germany is emancipated. We ourselves are not free. How are we to liberate you?” It’s a fair point—but the mode in which Marx speaks here is even more important. He permits himself a sweeping revolutionary rhetoric that refuses to be toned down even if it might offend. Perhaps it even wants to offend.

The same could be said of “On the Jewish Question” in general. Marx is less attuned to the sensitivities of the present because he writes primarily with a view to the future, a future in which he assumes that many of the binaries that now define us will have fallen. As a revolutionary, Marx assumes that we need to become something other than what we are and that we also want to become something other than what we are.

As Avineri moves beyond the revolutionary 1840s, the Jewish theme goes underground and stays there for much of the rest of the book. But it comes back toward the end when he discusses how, despite Marx’s commitment to Enlightenment universalism, Marx did take into account the particularities of different national situations—for example, when he answered, with some reluctance, questions about the prospects for revolution in this or that country.

Thinking first and foremost of the fortunes of the working class, Marx is often understood as not being extremely sympathetic to the struggles for national independence, for example in Germany and Italy, and this put him at odds with many of his fellow leftists who, Avineri notes, wanted to combine socialism and nationalism, including—Avineri adds—the combination of “socialist Zionism.” And it is true that on matters national and international, Marx’s primary focus on class conflict did not always give him much added insight into the subject of empire and national liberation.

As Avineri shows, Marx was troubled (as many of us have continued to be) by the difficulty of formulating a political position that satisfies both local and international interests and aspirations. His fear of Russia as a reactionary world policeman meant that he also found himself “siding with conservative British politicians who saw the containment of Russia as one of their major geopolitical aims.” After the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he welcomed the downfall of the Second Empire of Napoleon III and called on French workers, who were about to embark on the noble adventure of the Paris Commune, to make their peace with the provisional government. This stance led some on the left to label him (on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend) an apologist for Bismarck and Germany. He defended the position by noting that the success of French imperialism was holding back the self-definition of the French working class—and here he was not wrong.

When Avineri accuses Marx of having insufficient sympathy for the Indian victims of British imperialism, he is iffy on affect—there is no question where Marx’s sympathies lie, even if his revulsion at the imperial plunderers was stronger than his deference to the village communities whose way of life they destroyed. Here Avineri also undervalues Marx’s universalism. When Marx wrote of Indian peasants, he was saying no more than what he said about the French peasants of 1848: that they were not ready for revolution. He was not making a distinction between a European “us” and a non-European “them.” Marx’s disappointment in the political potential of peasants may have been unfounded, but it was genuinely universalistic.

Approaching the end of his book, Avineri comes upon a moment when, in his view, Marx might have taken the demands of the national more seriously: He speculates about what may have been said between Marx and Heinrich Graetz, an ordained Orthodox rabbi who trained in Leopold von Ranke’s school of German historiography, when the two became friends at the spas in Carlsbad and then began coordinating frequent visits there. Graetz is the subject of a chapter in Avineri’s The Making of Modern Zionism, a book that begins, like Karl Marx, with the 19th century emancipation of the Jews. The Jews went into the 19th century defined as a religion, Avineri writes, but came out of it with the option of defining themselves as a nation, and he gives the lion’s share of the credit to Graetz’s proto-Zionist political history.

Born in 1817, the year before Marx, and, like him, deeply influenced by Hegel, Graetz becomes a sort of alter ego to Marx—a notion that grows more pronounced in the final pages of the new book. It’s as if the idea of solving the problem of Jewish identity by becoming a Zionist was always there, floating in the background, waiting in vain to be recognized by Marx.

The missing minutes of their meetings, Avineri notes, await “the creative talents of a gifted novelist—or playwright—to imagine what the two were talking about when walking side by side from one spring of mineral water to another and sharing their ideas about history, past, present, and possibly future.” It’s a lovely image, but these days it seems unlikely that any responsible writer or reader—even those social democrats who might embrace Avineri’s Marx—would give these materials the sort of spin that Avineri seems to be hoping for.

Since it’s unlikely that we can expect the appearance of a Zionist Marx, miraculously uniting Enlightenment universalism with Israeli nationalism, we are left with one final question: Should we prefer Avineri’s social democratic Marx over the older revolutionary Marx? These days would-be revolutionaries are in no position to mock the timidity of the gradualists. Today, who isn’t a social democrat? The term fits Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Rev. William J. Barber II, however revolutionary each may seem in the current American context, and one wonders if parallel to these important figures we also need a more revolutionary voice, like Marx’s, which might inspire the kind of movements that can confront the vast problems of climate change, pandemics, and rising inequality without the polite tones that are preferred by today’s political elite. For that, and more, it’s good to know that the revolutionary Marx can still speak to us, rudely and ringingly and righteously.

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