Middle Israel: Was Karl Marx a Jew?

At 200, the disgraced thinker assumes new relevance as a historian, an economist, and also as a Jew.

Karl Marx (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Karl Marx
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Workers of the world – forgive me!” said Karl Marx according to a Cold War-era joke that began with him reaching heaven, continued with him touring the future USSR, and ended with the Kremlin grudgingly allowing him to make a one-sentence statement on TV.
Now, 200 years after his birth and 30 years after his legacy’s ostensible demise, the ones who need to apologize are the capitalists who eulogized the economic thinker’s legacy while his statues were being smashed from Leningrad to Kiev.
Yes, Marx said many stupid and also snide things, not only about the Jews (“The real God of the Jews is only an illusory bill of exchange”), but also about the course of history – most notably in the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto, where he stated: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
This blindness toward other things that make humans tick and kill is by now obvious, demonstrated for instance by the current Middle East’s religious fratricide, or by the nationalist bloodshed between today’s Russia and Ukraine, and among yesterday’s Yugoslavs.
Similarly, the claim that political power “is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another” is an utter misunderstanding of power’s substance [and] place in human life.
This is besides the naïve assumption that there can be a classless society, a quest whose unreality became patent in Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas’s The New Class (1957), which showed how communist rulers became a privileged ruling class like all others.
Having said all this, the disgraced Marx has assumed new relevance over the past decade as a historian, economist, and also as a Jew.
MARX THE HISTORIAN understood what other historians, as well as many politicians and journalists, do not understand to this day – namely, the economy’s centrality in history.
Had John McCain, for instance, understood this in 2008, he would not have arrived for his winnable contest with Barack Obama focused on foreign affairs, and woefully unequipped to storm the subprime, foreclosures, healthcare, and investment-banking crisis that debilitated millions and fueled his defeat.
Marx the economist is, of course, trickier than Marx the historian, because conventional wisdom assumes his model was tested empirically before landing in history’s dustbin alongside the communist empire.
Yet Marxist theory cannot be judged by what was done in its prophet’s name over seven decades that began 34 years after his death, largely in disregard of his writings.
As noted by Hebrew University’s Shlomo Avineri, a world-leading authority on Marx, communism’s launch in Czarist Russia’s mostly agrarian economy defied Marxist theory, which said the revolution would begin with the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and only then proceed to the farmers.
That the consequent purges, deportations, starvations and mass murders happened in the shadows of the bearded philosopher’s ubiquitous monuments, busts and posters, doesn’t mean Marx would approve of what his self-proclaimed disciples initiated in his afterlife.
True, Marx the economist was grossly wrong on key issues, like regarding the role of personal gain in a worker’s motivation, and the insistence that owners and employees were inherent enemies.
Marx’s claim, that workers deserve not only their pay, but also the owners’ portion because it is part of the value the workers create, conveniently ignored the value of the risks that owners take and workers avoid.
Similarly, his observation that the owners’ urge to pay low salaries contradicted their hope that workers would earn enough to buy the owners’ products has proven unfounded. The past century’s developed economies have shown there can be enough wealth for all, and – in fact – a surplus of capital, food, and leisure that early economists, from Marx through Robert Malthus to Adam Smith, never imagined.
And yes, Marx was rightly ridiculed – by George Bernard Shaw – for having never been himself either a factory worker or owner, and therefore written about the clash between the two not as a fellow creature, but as a class-war correspondent.
But so what? On the most important issue of his time – the industrial revolution – Marx detected ahead of others ailments for which we have yet to find a cure.
MARX DIED just before the world became awash with cars, telephones, airplanes, power stations or even light bulbs, and therefore did not live to see the scope and intensity of the industrial revolution.
Even so, he understood that it would generate an alienated person mankind had never known.
Similarly, Marx understood already in the 19th century what capitalist dogma denied until 2008 – namely, that capitalism will not always make supply and demand meet.
And most ominously, in a world where skilled workers are fired daily by the thousands while unskilled migrants are pitted against expensive natives, we can no longer dismiss as far-fetched Marx’s claim in Theories of Surplus Value that “It is in the very nature of the capitalist mode of production to overwork some workers while keeping the rest as a reserve army of unemployed paupers.”
Moreover, at a time when workers were treated like furniture, protected by no labor laws, unions, severance pay, health insurance, minimum wage, legal holidays or maximum work hours, Marx decried their plight and inspired the free world’s subsequent quest to foster social justice.
Baptized at age six, but scion of a rabbinical dynasty that ended with his grandfather Meir Halevi – Marx broke the path taken by countless assimilated Jews who set out to mend the non-Jewish world into which they were born.
In crying for the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised, Marx picked up from where the prophets left off, as thousands of other Jews would later do, disproportionately represented among Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, and Romanian revolutionaries; the Spanish Civil War’s foreign volunteers; South Africa’s anti-apartheid strugglers; and America’s civil rights, antiwar, and feminist crusaders.
Marx would protest this dialecticism, but if the apostate who wrote prophecy, demanded justice, scolded the rich, electrified the masses, lived in poverty, and died in exile was not a Jew – who is?