Looks like you’re using a browser we don’t support.

To improve your visit to our site, take a minute and upgrade your browser.

Karl Marx’s Prophetic Longing

Can we salvage an egalitarian vision from the ruins of Labor Zionism?

Illustration by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Karl Marx was born more than two centuries ago, in 1818, and, given the enormous impact of his ideas, it should hardly surprise us that we are still trying to make sense of his life and legacy. In the English language alone, at least three major biographies have appeared since the turn of the millennium: Karl Marx: A Life by the British journalist Francis Wheen (2000), Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by the historian Jonathan Sperber (2013), and Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by the British historian Gareth Stedman Jones (2016). And then there is the massive, multivolume biography Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society by the German political scientist Michael Heinrich, of which only the first volume has appeared in an English translation, just last year. With such a crowded field of contenders, even an enthusiast for Marx might be excused for asking if there is room for yet another biography, and what it could contribute to the fractious debates that surround his work.

KARL MARX: PHILOSOPHY AND REVOLUTION by Shlomo Avineri
Yale University Press, 240 pp., $26.00

The new biography is by Shlomo Avineri, the esteemed Israeli political scientist, whose study The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx first appeared in 1968 and has long enjoyed the ambivalent status of a classic. Moderate in its arguments, and written at a moment in the Cold War when the topic of Marx seldom inspired moderation, the book bore out the crucial point that Marx never intended his theories to assume the status of unbending, timeless laws; he was always responsive to historical contingency, a talent that shines through most of all in his correspondence with contemporaries. Avineri, too, has lived at the crosscurrents of history: A stalwart of Labor Zionism, he has played a major role in both Israeli and international politics. In the 1970s, he served as director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry under Yitzhak Rabin and headed the Israeli delegation to the UNESCO general assembly. He has not ceased writing important works on the history of political thought, including a study of Hegel, and another work on the German-Jewish proto-Zionist philosopher Moses Hess, who was one of Marx’s interlocutors.

A half-century has passed since the first book appeared, and in the interim we have witnessed both the dissolution of the Soviet Union and, since the 1967 war (if not before), the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land. Both Zionism and Marxism were originally utopian movements, inspired by a longing for a future without oppression. But neither has survived without tragic compromise. To read a new work by Avineri is an experience tinged with melancholy, not least because the attempt to salvage something from the ruins of Labor Zionism today seems no more likely than the coming of the Messiah. Still, we are permitted to wonder how Marx might have judged the stirrings of nationalist sentiment that were to transform Jewish history after his death, and it is Avineri’s concern for the complex question of Marx’s identity as a Jew that makes his new biography truly distinctive. The book appears in the “Jewish Lives” series from Yale, a large and ongoing project of monographs on Jewish luminaries, some heroic (Emma Goldman), some inspired (Marcel Proust), others frankly biblical (Moses). The series descends into American popular culture (Barbra Streisand) and ascends to what is arguably the most Jewish topic of them all: humor (Groucho Marx, no relation).

Marx seldom wished to identify himself as a Jew, nor did he often write with sympathy about the general fortunes of the Jewish people. All the more impressive, then, is Avineri’s skillful treatment of a theme that other biographers of Marx have rarely addressed without embarrassment. Avineri is too sober to permit himself any romantic speculation on the essential “Jewishness” of Marx’s thinking, nor does he distort the historical record to make his protagonist conform to the dubious template of a Jewish life. His biography is a model of restraint, interlacing what is by now the rather familiar story of Marx’s career with concise but discerning insights into Marx’s achievements as a social theorist. Along the way, he casts new light on the controversial question of Marx’s place in Jewish history—a task that may, however, also remind us why Marx felt compelled to leave that history behind. That Marx refused to be defined by any national identity may turn out to be the deepest lesson of his life.


Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, a town in the Rhineland that fell to the Kingdom of Prussia after the Napoleonic Wars. This accident of politics and geography may help to explain the young man’s turn to political radicalism, not least because it marked a reversal of fortune in the Rhineland for German Jews who had been beneficiaries of Napoleon’s meritocratic principles. Here, perhaps, was one source of the ardor for universal justice, and the loathing for political reaction, that would sustain Marx throughout his life. His ancestors, on both maternal and paternal sides, had been rabbis; his grandfather, also a rabbi, appears in an 1801 census as “Marx Lewy,” but soon thereafter vagaries of language and documentation inverted the order of names. When Karl’s father, Heinrich, matriculated at the Imperial University in Coblenz in 1813, he was listed as “Henry Marx, fils de Marcus Samuel Levy.” He was also known as “Heschel Lewy,” later Germanized, and with his father’s first name “Marcus” becoming the family name, Marx. Such hazards of Jewish names were not uncommon in Central Europe, especially during the era of Jewish emancipation, when civic inclusion for the Jewish minority was often conditional upon its consent to local custom. Avineri poses a curious question: If Karl Marx were born as Karl Levi, would we now speak of “Levism,” or the Soviet doctrine of Levism-Leninism? Idle thoughts, yes, but ones that remind us how much in history depends on accident.

It was also a matter of happenstance that Marx was born to parents who were still Jewish and not yet converts to Christianity. In 1815, the Rhineland’s new Prussian rulers revoked the rights that Jews there had enjoyed under Napoleonic rule. Those Jews in the Rhineland who had been practicing as lawyers or civil servants were now informed that they could retain their posts only if they converted to Christianity. Heinrich petitioned the state more than once for an exemption to this requirement, but to no avail, and at last he converted as a matter of necessity. It should be noted (though Avineri does not mention the fact) that Heinrich had little interest in his family’s faith: He placed his trust in the French Enlightenment and was even known to sing the “Marseillaise.” The actual date of Heinrich’s conversion remains a matter of debate: Avineri suggests that it occurred in 1819, which means that both Heinrich and his wife were still Jewish in the official sense when their son Karl was born. Henriette Marx, Karl’s mother, did not convert until 1825, at which point she also saw to it that her children, including Karl, were baptized.

None of these details should be taken as evidence that Karl Marx cared deeply about his Jewish heritage, if he cared at all. Avineri, to his credit, does not place undue stress on these matters, though one can imagine that for Marx the memory of communal discrimination would have enhanced his objections to the Prussian state as the embodiment of political reaction. It is perhaps relevant to note that Marx showed scant concern for marrying within the tribe. His father was friends with Ludwig von Westphalen, a liberal member of the Prussian nobility who served as an official in Trier, and the young Marx became engaged to and eventually married his daughter, Jenny von Westphalen, an intellectually gifted woman who shared his political passions and with whom he raised three daughters.

Though Marx went to the university in Bonn with the intention of studying law, he soon moved to Berlin, where he was drawn into the “Doktoren-Klub,” a group of students that ignited his enthusiasm for Hegelianism as the leading philosophy of the time. Though Hegel himself had died in 1831, his philosophical doctrines were still in vogue at the University of Berlin when Marx began his studies there in the later 1830s. He took a special interest in lectures by Hegel’s student Eduard Gans, the main exponent of Hegelianism in Berlin and also, as it happens, a Jewish convert to Christianity. As Avineri notes, Gans could not have secured his professorship without taking this step, which became a subject of some controversy among Berlin’s intellectuals. The poet Heinrich Heine even made it the topic of a poem: “you crawled towards the cross / That same cross which you detested... / Yesterday you were a hero / But today you’re just a scoundrel.”

Marx’s awakening to Hegelianism was also a conversion. In 1837, he wrote to his father that “a curtain was fallen,” and “new gods had to be set in their place.” In the dialectic, Marx found a conceptual means for uniting the “is” with the “ought,” to bring together a realistic grasp of the world as it now exists with the political imperative that the world must be changed. In Berlin he befriended radical or “left” Hegelians, such as Arnold Ruge and Bruno Bauer, who were critical of more conservative tendencies in the Hegelian school and took from Hegel the more radical demand that the “actual” be made “rational.” Even today, the question of whether Marx was truly a Hegelian remains a matter of controversy, not least because Hegel’s more extravagant opinions about reason’s triumph in history are now seen as a philosophical embarrassment. Avineri ranks among the best scholars to have defended the view that Marx sustained a bond with Hegelianism even into his later years, when the more metaphysical themes we typically associate with Hegel dropped out of sight. This “continuity thesis” lends his image of Marx’s career a greater unity than it might have for scholars, such as Louis Althusser, who insist, despite strong evidence, on a rupture between the young philosopher of humanist emancipation and the mature critic of political economy.


In seeing Marx through the lens of Jewish history, it is only natural that Avineri would devote a full chapter to the 1843 essay, “On the Jewish Question,” which many critics have condemned as anti-Semitic. Avineri addresses this topic judiciously; he is careful to explain that Marx actually defended the rights of the Jews to full participation as equal citizens alongside Christians—a principled stance that distinguished Marx from his colleague Bauer, who held the rather odd requirement that Jews should first convert to Christianity despite the fact that the modern state was to be thoroughly secular. Marx went so far as to say that the question of whether Jews enjoy full recognition as equal citizens could serve as a standard for assessing the rational character of a modern polity. “The states which cannot yet emancipate the Jews politically have to be judged against the fully developed political states—and found wanting.”

But this charitable view of Jewish rights in the modern state did not inhibit Marx from using commonplace slurs against Judaism as a synonym for capitalism: “What is the secular cult of the Jews? Huckstering. What is his secular God? Money.” Avineri notes that Marx’s contemporaries would have been familiar with such language, since in colloquial German Judentum could mean commerce. By insisting that modern society should be emancipated from “Judaism,” Marx chiefly meant that modern society should be freed from the depredations of the capitalist system. Avineri speculates that Marx may have written in code to escape the notice of the censors, but he mentions a further irony: The equation between Judaism and finance had also appeared in an essay “On Money,” which Marx had read only a year before. Its author was German-Jewish writer Moses Hess, who went on to become a forerunner of modern Zionism.

The topic of Jewish nationalism raises certain difficulties for Avineri, since he is keen to see a bond between Marxism and his own socialist-Zionist commitments. This may explain why he emphasizes Marx’s growing awareness that nationalism might be something more than a historical atavism, and that movements for nationalist unification in Italy and Germany might play a progressive role in history, if only in the preparatory stage on the way to socialist revolution. For the same reason, however, Marx looked askance at bids for independence among smaller nations such as the Czechs or those in the Balkans, since such movements, he felt, could only inhibit the development of truly international solidarity among the working classes.

The deeper question is whether Marx could have admitted that nationalism had any enduring legitimacy. Here the answer seems self-evident. From a theoretical perspective, Marxism must judge all attachment to national particularity as temporary, a symptom of tribalism and tradition that we must ultimately set aside. Marxism looks past, or through, any nationalist sentiment and fastens its attention on the material conditions that we share as a species. “The proletariat of each country,” write Marx and Engels, must “first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.” But this kind of nationalism can be no more than a stage, since “the proletarians have no homeland.”


This criterion distinguishes Marx as a truly universalist thinker who resisted the kinds of romantic identifications that inspired other writers of the nineteenth century. His principled universalism would later make Marx a source of irritation to liberal-pluralist philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin, who deemed human cultural diversity a good for its own sake and saw the search for a single and higher standard of human freedom as opening the door to totalitarianism. Where one comes down in this debate will determine how one judges the effort to enlist Marxism in movements for nationalist liberation. But it seems obvious that Marx himself could sustain only the most qualified sympathy for the sorts of cultural and ethno-national differences that, in his view, can only deter us from recognizing our common lot as human beings. Communism was a universal remedy for a universal problem: It was “the riddle of history solved.” This universalism, too, was a principle that Marx had inherited from Hegel, though he transposed it from the realm of spirit to the plane of material life.

The tragic failure of the 1848 revolutions in Europe only intensified Marx’s hostility toward all elements in human history that obstruct the path to future freedom. The coup d’état by Louis Napoleon in France left him embittered, as he now saw how easily the lower middle class could be turned from revolution to reaction. By then, however, Marx had abandoned Continental Europe entirely. Together with his family, he settled in London, where he worked to ensure that his daughters receive a proper education. He wrote dispatches for the New-York Daily Tribune and participated in debates surrounding the emergent communist movement, but he spent the greater share of his time in the British Library, where he pursued his research in economics. The fruits of his research emerged very slowly; first in seven notebooks known as the Grundrisse that remained unfinished, but then in the first volume of Capital, published in 1867.

Avineri narrates the story of Marx’s later years with brevity and skill, though he avoids a detailed excursus of Capital, omitting topics such as the “formula of capital” and the broader problem of exploitation that are arguably the crucial discoveries in volume I. Instead, we are given lively narratives that portray Marx as a worldly critic, responding to the tragedy of the Paris Commune in 1871 and engaging in uneasy polemics with Mikhail Bakunin, who resorted to anti-Semitic slander, accusing Marx of colluding with Disraeli and Rothschild in an international conspiracy. Marx had long suffered from poor health, and in his declining years he frequented spas on the Continent, accompanied by his daughter Eleanor. On one such trip in Carlsbad, in Bohemia, he encountered Heinrich Graetz, the great Jewish historian, and the two struck up a friendship, timing their visits so that they could meet again.

Avineri is drawn to such details perhaps because they shed light on Marx as a thinker who lived at the margins of Jewish history, even if he was not himself a Jewish thinker in any sense. Marx died in March 1883, and did not live to witness the flourishing of the communist movement that adopted his principles as its official doctrine. Avineri does not focus on this aftermath, but he does relate a touching detail about Marx’s daughter Eleanor. A resident of London, she translated works by Flaubert and Ibsen, and also Eduard Bernstein’s biography of Ferdinand Lassalle, the leader of the General German Workers’ Association (a precursor to the German Social Democrats). She also wrote a study of the American working class, and a feminist text, The Woman Question. It so happens that she also learned Yiddish, and, in an address to Jewish refugees in the East End, she spoke to them in their native language: “I am one of you.”


Moving as these words may be, it is uncertain what light they bring to our understanding of Marx’s legacy. In this book, Avineri, through subtle choices of emphasis and detail, has reshaped the image of Marx in such a way as to suggest a spiritual kinship between Marxism and Zionism. Of course, not all Socialist Zionists identified as Marxist, and most Marxists have been hostile to Zionism. But their kinship was once a reality. The historical conjunction of these two movements in the later nineteenth century helped to inspire one of the most utopian projects of the modern era, a campaign for resettlement that gathered immigrants and refugees from across Europe and the Middle East to a sliver of land in the Ottoman Empire where a remnant of impoverished Jews had lived for centuries in a state of messianic expectation. Socialist Zionism, in concert with other variants of Zionism, some cultural, others bent toward realpolitik, helped to secularize that prophetic longing and give it a political form.

In the epilogue to his book, Avineri takes note of a curious fact, that in an 1854 dispatch for the New-York Daily Tribune Marx portrayed the Jewish remnant in Jerusalem with great pathos. “Nothing,” Marx writes, equals the “misery and suffering” of this persecuted tribe, who live upon “the scant alms transmitted by their European brethren” and are drawn to the Holy City only because they wish “to die on the very place where the redemption is to be expected.” Marx also observed that, of Jerusalem’s total population of 15,500 souls, “4,000 are Mussulmans and 8,000 Jews.” Avineri assigns this fact a singular importance, as it suggests that even under Ottoman rule “the Jews constituted a majority.”

But Marx himself would hardly have agreed that such statistics should serve as warrant for permanent ethno-national domination. He was immune to all longings for national redemption. The style of nationalism that he once saw as a progressive force in history has now lost all credibility, and in Israel today the old bond between Marxism and Zionism appears broken. B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, recently issued a statement that the Trump administration’s so-called peace plan will reward Israel for “the unlawful and immoral practices in which it has been engaging ever since it seized the Territories.” The plan “eternalizes the fragmentation of Palestinian space into disconnected slivers of territory in a sea of Israeli control, not unlike the Bantustans of South Africa’s Apartheid regime.”

Such consequences are hardly surprising. Zionism was from the start an unlikely wager, and its descent into yet another species of bellicose nationalism might have been predicted long ago. Nationalism, after all, is born of division, and every liberation for one people means exclusion for another. In a pluralistic world, this tragedy can be avoided only by insisting on a right to citizenship that applies across all differences of ethno-national identity. Marxism, too, of course, has often failed its own idea, and its defenders must continue to reckon with the shameful record of its application. Unlike nationalism, however, Marxism may yet survive its past distortions, since it sustains the vision of a promised land from which no one would suffer exclusion. This may be the promise that the old prophets had in mind.