A Requiem for Karl Marx
by Frank E. Manuel
(Harvard University Press, 255 pp., $24.95)
Frank Manuel calls his wise and elegant study a requiem, but it is by no means clear that Marx is dead. We should attend any prospective funeral celebrations like dons at a Mafia funeral, approaching the undertaker's confection in the open coffin with a pin in our hand. Marx's demise has been much reported, but it may be one of those cunning strategems of history of which he believed he was the privileged seer. Marxism has lost political power in most of the countries and cultures in which it enjoyed political power, but its ideas and its methods are far from dead, certainly, in Western universities. Resistant pseudo-strains have been cross-bred with structuralism and post-structuralism: the resultant "readings" of everything in the world may be obscure, but they are studied and imitated. Intellectual fashions being as callow as they are, and institutional memories being as short, there is no reason not to think that some subsequent generation of students will not find themselves struggling through the Grundrisse and other light classics of the tradition exactly like the generations that preceded them.
Even beyond the airless confines of the academy, there is much to give cheer to the man Engels called The Old Moor. The Communist Party of China continues to keep a quarter of the world's population under its unforgiving thrall; the dictatorship of the party is proving compatible with free markets (or freer markets) after all. In Europe, Communist cadres are returning to power in the Baltics, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and Russia itself. They may not profess Marxist tenets, but the Marxists were the ones, remember, who recommended that we see beyond the epiphenomena to the real motives, that we study not what people profess but what they do.
The new leaders of Eastern Europe purport to be post-Communist and post- Marxist, but their success depends critically on their Communist past: they alone have experience of the state apparatus and mastery of the Leninist arts of conspiracy and cabal. They have turned themselves into authoritarian populists of the nationalist persuasion or peddlers of nostalgia for the vanished era of Brezhnevite stability. They preside over market economies and civil societies so deformed by state tutelage that any sizable contract must pass through their hands. These Communist-trained elites dominate their economies as they did in Communist days, while skimming whatever capitalist cream comes to the surface of their churn. Serbia's Milosevic is perhaps the supreme practitioner of this new form of primitive accumulation, but his system is only one among many. There is emerging in Eastern Europe, and in Asian and Caucasian Russia, in various forms, a durable hybrid of Communist- style authoritarianism in politics and market economics at its most corrupt and rapacious. The worst of both worlds.
Frank Manuel is aware of Marx's ghoulish return from the grave. He is too fine a historian to suppose that a discredited doctrine exhausts its capacity to generate consequences. Future generations will invent the Marx they need, just as the generation of the '60s invented the humanist Marx that it needed by dint of much ingenious interpretation of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. For such afterlives to be possible, there must be some grain of plausibility in the original texts. In Marx's early manuscripts, there was the philosophical anthropology of man as a "species being," uniquely conscious of his human identity and therefore aware of the unnaturalness of his class-divided bourgeois existence. Such a lofty, almost sentimental idea will not die soon or easily; it is so vast and so vague that it can support almost any imaginable content.
Manuel's book, part biography, part reflection on Marx's reputation and academic afterlife, is an excellent place to begin thinking about his largely nefarious impact. It is based on extended research into the Marx-Engels correspondence, and of course on Manuel's decades of study of the intellectual and political history of the West since the Enlightenment, its utopian traditions especially. The book is a calm yet scathing reckoning, dispassionate yet trenchant. The soul of the world's most famous materialist is not laid to rest, it is laid bare; and the result has the reader both admiring and recoiling.
If Marx will enjoy another afterlife, it will not be his particular doctrines themselves, but his larger intellectual project, his incredible ambition, which will provide the inspiration. What is so striking about the post-Marxist intellectual situation is the general theoretical silence about causation in history, the conceptual timidity, the refusal to even engage with the question of what general causes--demographic, technological, economic--determine the broad trends of our future. Analysis has been replaced by futurology, as in Alvin Toffler, or by academicism, as in Immanuel Wallerstein. At the very least, Marx was not shy of ultimate formulations. His theory was grand. This grandeur, indeed, was his raison d'etre. He sought to ground revolutionary politics in a "science" of the future: we may reject his notion of revolution, we may mock his notion of science, but we can still admire the attempt to explain how power, knowledge, technology and society collide to make the future. Nowadays, as every discipline retreats into the contemplation of its particulars and all engage in the foreswearing of synoptic ambition, as philosophy gives way to irony, the Marxian project seems more tonic and even more difficult to contemplate. It is important to see that the human longing for the big picture will not disappear. Marx remains alive because the project which he initiated--the understanding of the capitalist system as a system--remains a necessity; and Milton Friedman all by himself will not do the trick.
What drove Marx to his particular project? The psychology of abstraction-- why some people excel at theory, why others excel at the depiction of particulars--is an undeveloped science. Manuel suspects that Marx's penchant for abstraction was driven by a profoundly antagonistic nature. He was the kind of figure who could only love individuals as abstractions; he praised the historical role of the proletariat while recoiling from contact with actual proletarians; he revered the revolutionary vocation and loathed most actual revolutionaries; he preferred the comfortingly controllable realm of his own theories to unruly reality. Yet this escapism is common enough. Most bookish people cannot stand too much reality. The question is why this particular bookish person managed to bring together Hegelian dialectic and Scottish political economy with such devastating results. Manuel's answer is that Marx was consumed by rage, and this rage drove him to create an intellectual synthesis as a battering ram against the bourgeoisie.
As a study in the psychology of loathing, Manuel's biography is truly first- rate. Marx despised most everyone: his mother, Jews, black and Asiatic peoples, Poles and other lesser Europeans, most fellow revolutionaries, all bourgeois politicians, as well as the bailiffs and the bill-collectors who tormented his penurious exile. The correspondence with Engels drips with scorn for "niggers," "Juden" and the "Dreck and Scheisse" of the Socialist International. The German socialist leader Ferdinand Lassalle earned the ultimate compliment: "Jewish nigger."
His anti-Semitism was deep and unrelenting. Polish Jews, he remarked to Engels, multiplied like lice. Throughout his private correspondence, Jews were monotonously associated with dirt, pollution and squalid money-making. Toward his mother, a Dutch rabbi's daughter of simple character, he displayed a lifelong coldness and disdain. Toward his father, a mild-mannered civil servant who had converted to Lutheranism, he mixed grudging affection with condescension. Manuel concludes that most of Marx's loathing was an expression of self-loathing. Yet "his denied origins gnawed at his guts on some level of consciousness throughout his life." Marx's carbuncles--the skin inflammations which tormented him at moments of crisis throughout his life-- may have been the outer sign of inner writhing.
Manuel maintains that Marx's self-hatred "when turned outward was transformed into a universal rage against the existing order of society, and bred a utopian fantasy of redemption." The revolutionary fantasy of a golden age, in which there would be neither Christian nor Jew, neither proletarian nor capitalist, recapitulated the Jewish prophetic tradition of a chiliastic rebirth of the chosen people. Certainly his theories displayed an unrelenting emphasis on human universality, at the expense of particularity, be it Jewishness, ethnicity, religion or nationality. "On the Jewish Question," the brutally revealing essay of 1843, makes it clear that Marx believed particular Jewish salvation could be achieved only as part of a general proletarian revolution, in which Judaism would be destroyed. Marx was not so much blind to the claim of the particular, be it religious, ethnic or national, as he was dogmatically convinced that particular forms of salvation- -national self-determination, for example--would delay or defer the universal day of reckoning.
The interesting question is how much this doctrinaire universalism can be taken as a rejection of his own particular Jewishness. Manuel derives most of Marx's philosophy from his biography, in particular his Jewish self-hatred: " The repression of the plain fact of his Jewish origins and the dislike, even the overt hatred of his mother, were interwoven and became a destructive force that underlay Marx's relations with most human beings he encountered." Manuel's account is never crude or reductive--and yet I wonder whether he does not exaggerate the influence of the life, or one aspect of it, on the work. It is a little hard to accept Manuel's view that Jewish self-hatred colored everything that Marx ever wrote. It is also having it both ways to claim that he disavowed his Jewishness and remained captive of its messianic dreams. It is possible to conclude from the evidence that Marx was simply the assimilated son of a convert who had put Jewishness far behind him; that the modern Jewish drama did not always loom as large for him as it does for some of the commentators on him. Self-hatred, certainly, is not a simple thing, and neither is assimilation. One cannot assume, as Manuel sometimes appears to do, when he speaks of Jewishness as "indelible," that assimilation always precedes or follows from self-loathing. It is true that some people assimilate so as to surrender to inner or outer pressures; but some people assimilate as a matter of free choice, because Jewishness (or some other ethnic or religious identity) really has become vestigial to them, really has been replaced by another commitment.
Marx's father does not appear to have suffered from self-loathing. His conversion was an act of prudence, undertaken without passion or a feeling of conversion; and it does not seem to have left many marks on an otherwise mild, secular and inoffensive creature. His son was infinitely more tempestuous, but it is not plausible that the entirety of his temperament had its origins in this single fact of a disavowed Jewishness. The relation between anti- Semitism and self-loathing might also be more complicated than Manuel believes. Does Marx's offensive use of the word "Jew" necessarily mean that he despised himself as one? How primary, not for us but for him, was his Jewish identity? Was it really more powerful than his identity as a revolutionary? It is true that Marx was often assailed by doubt and depression, but it is not obvious that this reflected a specifically Jewish self-denigration.
Manuel's biography is extremely powerful in explaining how much of Marx's analytical enterprise was driven by hatred. It is less successful in explaining why his hatreds took their particular form--why hatred drove him to produce an intellectual anatomy of the capitalist system. The materials-- the Hegelian theory of history, Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, the Parliamentary Blue Books--were all waiting to be combined in a new science of society. Only Marx achieved this prodigious synthesis. Manuel's book leaves us with a sense of wonder at the achievement and at its great cost; and this sense of wonder at the most familiar figure in the history of modern thought is a testament to the freshness, the candor and the intellectual tautness of this book.
Michael Ignatieff is writing a biography of Isaiah Berlin.
By Michael Ignatieff