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
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.
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