Karl Marx: The Greatest Intellectual Fraud of the 19th and 20th Centuries
An impressive new biography looks at the original Jewish leftist—and shines light on the appeal of radical politics for Jews
At 15, sitting in the public library in suburban Atlanta, I eagerly drank in every word of Isaac Deutscher’s monumental three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky. Glossing over Trotsky’s ruthlessness, Deutscher extolled instead his unmatched courage and humane feeling for the masses. A few years later, back in the Northeast for college at NYU, I kibitzed with the Sparticists who hawked their crude newspaper outside Bobst Library. It was 1979, close to the tail end of the old radical Left, when the Rosenbergs were still innocent. My college girlfriend was a red-diaper baby, the daughter of communists. Soon I learned all there was to know about the battles between Alcove One (Trotskyist) and Alcove Two (Stalinist) at the CCNY cafeteria in the 1930s. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were my favorite power couple. I got a work-study job at the People’s Coffee Counter at NYU Law School and even invented its motto: “You have nothing to lose but your change.”
In short, I was a teenage Red. I was no idiot: I didn’t believe a revolution was coming to the shores of America. But I basked nostalgically in what I foolishly thought was the glorious past of Trotskyite Bolshevism.
It took only a few more years before I became disillusioned with the radical slogans. Maybe it was Jesse Jackson announcing at a rally in the early 1980s that he had been to Cuba and knew that it was a true democracy. Or Edward Said, whose hostility to Israel troubled me, writing that the Marxist state of South Yemen was a model for the Middle East. But I also learned something else about Trotsky: During the Bolsheviks’ war on the peasantry, he was responsible for the deaths of millions of human beings. In the end, that was all that mattered.
Thoughts of my youthful enthusiasm for Marxism came back to me recently after seeing the U.K. Telegraph headline “I Want to Save the Capitalism my Father Hated.” The story concerned the clean-cut, rapidly rising Ed Miliband, who won the struggle with his brother David to become the head of Britain’s Labour Party and who might well become the country’s first Jewish Prime Minister since Disraeli. The brothers’ father, Ralph Miliband, was a renowned Marxist and Jewish refugee from the Nazis; he is buried a stone’s throw from Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Ed Miliband practices a mellower approach to capitalism. “The free market working properly” was Miliband’s version of what is to be done in his interview with the Telegraph. But, Miliband added, socialism will never die: It is “a tale that never ends.”
Miliband’s wish to cling to the vestiges of Marxism even as he extolls the free market is not unusual in our recession-plagued moment. Nicolas Sarkozy had himself been photographed reading Capital in the aftermath of the crash, and countless professors in the humanities and social sciences (though not, of course, countless economists) fly their Marxist colors proudly, even if they would never dream of abolishing private ownership or markets. In the rarified world of academic jargon, Marxism plays its role in an intellectual picnic that includes poststructuralist thinkers of every stripe. Being a classroom Marxist means talking about the uncanny character of the commodity form or the phantomlike digital age, tossing in a few scattered lines from Badiou and Žižek, and suggesting that our recent, world-shaking financial crisis proves the “relevance” of Marx—without explaining what makes Marx’s outdated economic theories and their accompanying intellectual apparatus relevant to the tremors of 21st-century capitalism. We might do better, instead, to begin at the beginning.
While anti-communist socialists far outnumbered communists among American Jews in the first half of the 20th century, it is also true that Jews embraced communism like no other ethnic or religious group in the country. The CUNY political scientist Jack Jacobs, who is editing a volume for Cambridge University Press based on last year’s YIVO conference on Jews and the Left, told me, “After the war, in 1949, the American Communist Party”—which probably numbered less than 50,000 members—“may have been as much as 50 percent Jewish.” What better way is there to understand the appeal of radical politics for Jews than to go back to the original Jewish leftist, Karl Marx? In an impressive new biography, the historian Jonathan Sperber focuses on Marx as a 19th-century thinker, a man of his time and place; and one of Sperber’s concerns is necessarily Marx’s Jewishness.
Strictly speaking, of course, Marx was not a Jew: His parents were converts to Protestantism, and he declared his atheism from an early age. In the infamous essay he wrote when he was 25, “On the Jewish Question,” Marx declared that society must be freed from Judaism, which he identified with capitalism: a huckstering entrepreneurial worship of the false god, money. At the same time, Marx advocated that Jews be granted civil rights—so that they could then be divested of their Jewishness and become fully assimilated. Marx’s letters are strewn with derogatory references to Jews; though Sperber tries to make the case that Marx “took a certain perverse pride” in his Jewish ancestry, he can’t muster much supporting evidence. What we see instead are a series of slurs that today would certainly be called anti-Semitic.
Sperber provides an affecting portrait of Marx the man, who was a devoted and enthusiastic father: With one of his daughters on his shoulders, he would play “cavalry” on Hampstead Heath, running to and fro. He was devastated for years by the death of his son Edgar at age 8. But Marx’s habits as polemicist and political organizer have decidedly less appeal. His writing style was a calamity: full of sometimes puerile vehemence, he heaped scorn on his opponents, inaugurating the long Marxist tradition of mercilessly deriding anyone with incorrect opinions. Marx displayed particular contempt for the high-living, dandyish Ferdinand Lassalle, a fellow socialist also of Jewish origin. In a letter to Engels, Marx mocked Lassalle, who supposedly had African ancestry, as a repulsive “combination of Jewry and Germanism with the negroid basic substance”; “the pushiness of this lad is also nigger-like,” he added. In Marx’s pamphlets, mudslinging abounds: His opponents are generally idiots, traitors, and scoundrels, but these heavy-handed insults tend to make us doubt Marx himself, since he relies so much on vituperation instead of reasoned argument.
Marx failed as a theorist too. As Sperber argues, Marx’s effort to derive the market price of goods from their value, the labor that went into them, was a vestige of the 19th-century economic theories of David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill (both of them arch-capitalists). By the time Marx died, economists had already given up trying to relate price to value and were beginning to understand that value was a chimera. With the growing dominance of technology, it had become impossible to locate value in the time required to produce goods, as Marx, following Ricardo and Mill, had tried to do. Machines can make products incredibly fast; but these products aren’t worth any less than if workers had spent days toiling at them, as Marx’s theory suggests.
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