Question Marx

Tracing Karl Marx’s Jewish ancestry.

Karl Marx Monument, Chemnitz. Wiki Commons.

Why should Karl Marx be included in Yale’s excellent Jewish Lives series when the subject of this fascinating book never referred to his Jewish origins? Shlomo Avineri, the eminent Israeli intellectual and academic, has attempted to unravel Marx’s connection to his Jewishness despite a paucity of historical information. Avineri raises some intriguing explanations, caveated by statements of speculation. 

Marx was born in Trier in 1818, the son of parents who were both the children of rabbis. He came of age during a period of tremendous alienation and subsequent radicalisation of the Jewish intelligentsia in the Rhineland. 

Trier had originally been annexed by revolutionary France which lifted all the restrictions on Jews and gave them ‘full and equal citizenship’. With Napoleon’s fall 20 years later, Prussia expanded to absorb the Rhineland, but demoted its Jews to the unequal status of the Jews of Prussia. This fateful reversal meant that they could no longer serve as lawyers, judges, civil servants, university lecturers or schoolteachers – unless they converted to Christianity. Marx’s father, Heinrich, a lawyer, was one of several thousand affected by this discriminatory measure.

Heinrich fought it for several years, distancing himself from the label of Jewishness, proclaiming himself ‘a deist’, but in the end he capitulated to the demands of the Prussian state. Significantly, he did not convert to Catholicism, but to Lutheran Protestantism. Yet remarkably he continued to be the legal representative of the Jewish community in Trier and his brother was its Chief Rabbi. Did the brothers meet at family gatherings? What was their relationship like?

Avineri attempts to explain Marx’s infamous essay ‘On the Jewish Question’, written in 1843, in which he is disparaging about Judaism and Jews for forging a connection with exploitative capitalism. Yet the essay does not deal with real Jews and conventional Jewish practice. Did Marx headline the essay in order to divert attention from customs officials when smuggling his more incisive works into Prussia? Was it a means of deflecting attention away from Marx’s even harsher attack on Christianity? He described Christianity as ‘the source of universal human alienation’. 

The essay was actually in two parts. The first was a riposte to the argument that Jews should be denied equal rights until they converted. The second, more quoted part, formed the basis of the caricature of Marx as ‘the self-hating Jew’. A year later, Marx contributed essays to The Holy Family (1844), whereby he reverts to a positive attitude towards Jews. As Avineri implies, none of this makes sense. 

Was it an emotional reaction to his father’s treatment? Was it the influence of his friend, Moses Hess, the future father of socialist Zionism? Many questions, but few answers. 

Avineri clearly demonstrates that the figure of Marx was to some extent reinvented by those who came after him. Marx had grave reservations about the use of revolutionary violence and was never certain about the wisdom in establishing the Paris Commune in 1871. He doubted whether socialism could emerge from primitive Russia, given its authoritarian past. 

Heinrich Marx’s conversion to Christianity has long been regarded as merely a historical footnote of little relevance, yet in this study of considerable insights Shlomo Avineri clearly demonstrates that its significance is far more central to the flow of history during the last 200 years.

Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution
Shlomo Avineri
Yale 221pp £16.99

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London.