In the winter of 1992, I went to visit Karl Marx. He was still at the Highgate Cemetery, where he’d been interred in March of 1883 with no more than nine friends and family members paying their final respects, and I had come to say goodbye to the man whose spirit once shaped the political entanglements of my youth. That I bothered with a pilgrimage—I left him a small satchel of Hanukkah gelt, hoping he’d savor the sweet irony—is a testament to Marx’s intellectual pull, a gravitational force undiminished even long after so many of the Master’s prophecies proved not just loopy but dangerous. His appeal may have something to do with the religion his parents had officially abandoned and he disavowed: his faithlessness aside, Marx often reads like the last of the great rabbinic explicators, a heart-and-soul machine exploring both the wide contours of history and the fine grain of minute interactions. Das Kapital, his masterwork, is a testament to that duality: plow through a terrifically dense bunch of arguments about labor, and you might just notice that beautiful Shakespeare quote hiding in the footnotes, hinting, maybe, that the author’s soul, like the souls of those who first followed and then abandoned Marx, yearns to break free of its chains.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.