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.
Finally, Marx was a failure as a prophet, in spite of the fact that he inspired revolutions that changed the course of history. His essential idea, influenced by Ricardo, was that capitalism would become less and less profitable and that its downward spiral toward the abyss of deflation—lower prices, lower profits—would be followed by worldwide revolution. Instead, capitalism has become vastly more profitable.
It’s important to remember that American communism was hardly a classroom sport. Like today’s al-Qaida agents, communists were sworn to overthrow the government on behalf of a foreign enemy in order to usher in a millennial moment of radical social transformation. Yet memories of Jewish communism in America usually come wrapped in the warm, rosy glow of the good old days, when passionate solidarity reigned. In The Romance of American Communism, Vivian Gornick interviewed a hundred veterans of the party, many of them Jews. She quotes Sarah Gordon, who describes communist politics as “rich, warm, energetic, an exciting thickness in which our lives were wrapped. … in us and in all like us lay the exciting, changing world.” “The Party was everything,” garment worker Ben Saltzman told Gornick. “If I died I would have willed everything I had to the Party. I would have left my wife if necessary.” One hears the hard edge of fanaticism in such statements, combined with the softness of a towering naïveté, the sentimental and dangerous belief that if one wills something like the greatness of the Soviet Union to be true, then it must be true. Gornick discounts the insidiousness of all of this, intent on seeing only good will and suffering in the impoverished, aging men and women she interviewed. Suffer they did, but they were nevertheless blind.
American communists did some good, particularly when they fought for racial justice. But they did much more bad: David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs helped bring the world close to atomic Armageddon and gave the Soviet Union, as a nuclear-armed power, the might to subject millions to its tyranny. It’s hard to reconcile the Rosenbergs’ treacherous deeds with the tributes to comradeship and humanity that Gornick gleaned from her interviews. A large majority of Jews chose socialism or liberalism over communism, and they ought to be praised for the suspicion that is a necessary part of democratic responsibility, their refusal to give in to Soviet propaganda. Sperber, for his part, is unable to explain why Marx was so appealing to Lenin and Trotsky, Stalin and Mao—and why his ideas became the basis for a terrifying new social order.
In his biography of Marx, Isaiah Berlin singled out one of this radical thinker’s central ideas: that the inner convictions we take to be the ground of moral and religious truth are in fact illusions, myths that need to be demolished so that humanity can be freed from its chains. Our beliefs about right and wrong cannot be taken at face value, Marx argued, because we have been duped into them by our historical circumstances. So, Marx in his March 1850 Address to the Communist League exhorted his followers to “force the democrats to carry out their current terrorist phrases.” Speaking of “so-called excesses” like “the people’s revenge on hated individuals,” he proclaimed that the workers “must not just tolerate such excesses but take over the leadership of them.”
Berlin emphasized an aspect of Marx that Sperber largely overlooks: his endorsement of revolutionary violence as a way to push history forward. In Marx’s view, history is an inexorable process that cannot be resisted or denied; but it also must be helped along. In its full-fledged version, the Marxist dialectic is a powerful intellectual toolkit for justifying oppression, since whatever the party leaders decide to do expresses the will of history itself.
It is striking that popular culture and the universities alike are fixated on Jewish communism instead of Jewish socialism, reversing the actual historical record, in which socialists early on triumphed over their communist rivals. New York’s most influential Yiddish daily, the Forward, was at the heart of the storm. “At the very beginning the Forward was reluctant to criticize the Soviet government, even though they were at war with the local Communists in New York,” commented historian Daniel Soyer, co-author of The Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, in an interview. “They saw the Red Army and the Soviets as a bulwark against anti-Semitism.” But by 1922 the split between the socialist Forward and the Communist Party was complete. Jewish communists even tried, without success, to prevent Abraham Cahan, the Forward’s anti-Bolshevist editor, from being allowed to visit the Soviet Union in 1927. A Russian Yiddish paper, Emes, lambasted the Forward as a “strikebreaking daily”: They called Cahan’s paper a brothel with a mezuzah on its door, the mezuzah being its hollow professions of leftist faith. “One thing Cahan said was that the Soviets had gotten it backwards,” Soyer remarked to me. “Socialism was supposed to abolish poverty, but the Russians had abolished wealth instead.”
As the ’20s went on, the prestige of the communist movement declined drastically among American Jews. “In 1929 the Communists just looked ridiculous,” Tony Michels, author of A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York, told me in an interview, “when they first condemned the Arab riots in Palestine, and then basically supported them, all on orders from Moscow. They were thoroughly discredited, and there was so much hostility to the Communists, it almost put the Communist paper, the Frayhayt, out of business.”
During the Popular Front period of the 1930s, the Communist Party USA famously adopted as its slogan “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism.” But for communist Jews, being Red was a way of asserting their radical difference, rather than their right to belong in American society. The party card they carried signaled their disagreement with American racism and American conformity, with the white picket fences that excluded the downtrodden, the ethnic others. Tragically, such a statement of protest meant loyalty to a totalitarian foreign power and to a leadership that manipulated and abused them as a matter of course.
In the 21st century, with communism long dead, Jews still want to express their difference from mainstream America. But they rarely choose revolutionary politics as their means of expression. Instead, religious observance, commitment to Israel, and work for social justice are the main ways that Jews proclaim their identity. Rather than looking backward with yearning toward a true Red past, Jews should rejoice that most of us were free from the illusion that warped so many minds and lives and that America was spared what so many other countries had to endure: the coming to pass of Marx’s vision.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.