Karl Marx: Phi­los­o­phy and Revolution

  • Review
By – September 23, 2019

Karl Marx has proved more influ­en­tial after his death than dur­ing his life­time. Philoso­pher, eco­nom­ic his­to­ri­an, polit­i­cal ana­lyst, and jour­nal­ist, Marx has had an intel­lec­tu­al impact on almost every area of mod­ern thought, but his most impor­tant pre­dic­tion — the col­lapse of cap­i­tal­ism — has not been achieved.

In this sym­pa­thet­ic and high­ly read­able biog­ra­phy, Shlo­mo Avineri seeks to sep­a­rate Marx the thinker from Marx­ism, a posthu­mous move­ment shaped to a great degree by his close friend and fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor, Friedrich Engels, the execu­tor of Marx’s lit­er­ary estate. Avineri also explores Marx’s Jew­ish back­ground and the way it may have left its mark on his fight against oppres­sion. Giv­en the fre­quent mis­trans­la­tions and over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tions of Marx’s work, Avineri has pro­vid­ed his own trans­la­tions from the Ger­man for this biography.

Marx was rev­o­lu­tion­ary in his think­ing, but Avineri makes clear that he did not sup­port rev­o­lu­tion and was not an activist. His only rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­i­ty was from 1848 to 1849, large­ly as edi­tor of a paper advo­cat­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic reforms. By care­ful­ly expli­cat­ing The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo and Das Kap­i­tal, Marx’s best-known works, as well as less well-known writ­ings and oth­er mate­r­i­al unpub­lished in Marx’s life­time, Avineri reveals the depth and sweep of Marx’s thought before it was can­on­ized and cod­i­fied into a doc­trine called Marxism.

The Man­i­festo of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, a twen­ty-three-page pam­phlet pub­lished anony­mous­ly, was scarce­ly noticed at the time of its pub­li­ca­tion, just before the rev­o­lu­tion of 1848. As the cor­re­spond­ing sec­re­tary for one of sev­er­al groups of rad­i­cal thinkers who formed them­selves into the League of Com­mu­nists, Marx was asked to write a man­i­festo. The last­ing effect of the Man­i­festo lies in Marx’s ten-step rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­gram and his strik­ing and mem­o­rable phras­es — rather sim­plis­tic if not read in the light of Marx’s seri­ous schol­ar­ship. Das Kap­i­tal, the only pub­lished vol­ume of Marx’s pro­ject­ed six-vol­ume eco­nom­ic trea­tise, presents a far more schol­ar­ly cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism. Avineri again under­lines that Marx did not think the even­tu­al social­ist trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety would nec­es­sar­i­ly come about through vio­lent rev­o­lu­tion but will be an out­come of the ten­sion inher­ent in cap­i­tal­ism itself.”

The grand­son of two rab­bis, Marx was born into a sec­u­lar fam­i­ly in 1818 in Tri­er, a city in the Rhineland. The French annexed the region dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion and eman­ci­pat­ed the Jews. After Napoleon’s defeat, how­ev­er, the Rhineland, with its severe restric­tions on Jews, was returned to Prus­sia. Jews were allowed to retain their pro­fes­sion­al sta­tus — but only if they con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. After sev­er­al failed appeals, Marx’s father, a lawyer, ulti­mate­ly converted.

Avineri cites Isa­iah Berlin’s argu­ment that Marx’s Jew­ish ances­try and the oppres­sion of cen­turies” account for his fight for the pro­le­tari­at. He also believes the family’s painful his­to­ry may have played a part, although Marx nev­er men­tioned these per­son­al strug­gles. Avineri admits he can­not ade­quate­ly explain a some­times vicious attack on Jews and mon­ey in an 1844 essay, but he points to Marx’s life­long cham­pi­oning of Jew­ish eman­ci­pa­tion and cites a par­tic­u­lar­ly touch­ing descrip­tion of the Jews liv­ing in Jerusalem under Ottoman rule: Noth­ing equals the mis­ery and the suf­fer­ing of the Jews at Jerusalem…the con­stant objects of Mus­sul­man oppres­sion and intolerance…living only on the scant alms trans­mit­ted by their Euro­pean brethren.” Iron­i­cal­ly, Eleanor Marx-Avel­ing, Marx’s youngest daugh­ter, cit­ed his Jew­ish her­itage in an obit­u­ary for her father and worked with Jew­ish immi­grants in London’s East End, at one point protest­ing Russ­ian pogroms, as my father was a Jew.”

Avineri pro­vides a glimpse of Marx as a hus­band and father and chron­i­cles both his finan­cial strug­gles and state­less­ness. Expelled from Bel­gium and France and refused return to Prus­sia, Marx moved to Lon­don in 1849 and spent the rest of his life there, large­ly unknown.

When not pressed by mon­ey prob­lems, Marx devot­ed his ener­gy to research, emerg­ing as a high­ly per­cep­tive sociopo­lit­i­cal ana­lyst. But the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, car­ried out under the ban­ner of Marx­ism, had lit­tle rela­tion to Marx’s the­o­ries. A rev­o­lu­tion led by a small group in a prein­dus­tri­al soci­ety in no way resem­bles a mass pop­ulist revolt of the type envis­aged by Marx.

His­to­ry also out­paced Marx. To sur­vive, cap­i­tal­ist gov­ern­ments enact­ed major reforms, many advo­cat­ed in Marx’s writ­ings, that have ben­e­fit­ed and pro­tect­ed work­ers while pre­serv­ing capitalism.

Although Marx’s polit­i­cal the­o­ries have not proved pre­scient and their impor­tance has dimin­ished, Avineri points out that no one can write his­to­ry with­out rec­og­niz­ing the link between pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. Marx’s think­ing also had a pro­found effect on such fields as anthro­pol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy, soci­ol­o­gy, lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy, and lit­er­a­ture — tes­ti­mo­ny to the pow­er of his influ­ence, large­ly indi­rect, on social and polit­i­cal devel­op­ment. Marx offered a new inter­pre­ta­tion of the world, and it has estab­lished him as an endur­ing intel­lec­tu­al force.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions