Commentary Magazine


A Requiem for Karl Marx by Frank E. Manuel

Shame & Loathing

A Requiem for Karl Marx
by Frank E. Manuel
Harvard. 255 pp. $24.95

At the very outset of his learned and lively book about the life, theories, and influence of Karl Marx, the intellectual historian Frank Manuel grants that his initial presumption may be false: the subject of his autopsy “may not be dead.” Nevertheless, it seems clear that, in the wake of the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe, Marxism has lost much of its appeal either as substitute religion or as utopian romance. The creed with whose magic Shimon Peres once charmed his beloved Sonia—“I sought to impress her,” he writes in his memoirs, “by reading to her, sometimes by the light of the moon, selected passages from Marx’s Das Kapital”—has now been reduced to the fatuities of materialist literary interpretation in American universities. And so a requiem would indeed appear to be in order.

This book does not claim to analyze the published works of Marx in detail, and in fact offers relatively little in the way of close readings of the once-sacred texts. Instead, Manuel emphasizes the relationship between Marx’s inner life and his theories of class struggle, revolutionary strategy, and utopia—conceptions Manuel understands somewhat in the manner of psychohistory as “emanations of [Marx's] whole being rather than . . . independent rationalist structures.” Along the way, Manuel includes chapters on Marx’s upbringing, his relations with his wife and with his friend Friedrich Engels, the vicious internecine warfare among émigré radicals in late 19th-century England, the development of Marx’s theories of history and of class warfare, and his failure to deal with nationalism, as well as a brief account of his final years and his phenomenal posthumous influence.

Not a biography in the usual sense, this book is, rather, a meditation everywhere permeated by biographical information and reflection. And it is for the most part singularly tough-minded, concluding that Marx “cannot be spared the world-historical verdict of complicity” in the many horrible crimes committed in his name.

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The central claim of Requiem is that the most essential part of Marx’s being was a profound shame at his own Jewishness; this hatred of self expressed itself, in turn, as a universal rage against the existing order of things, which in a further turn bred a utopian fantasy of redemption—international Communism. In illustrating this theme, Manuel rehearses a number of well-known and not-so-well-known details about Marx’s relation to Jews and Judaism.

Born to Jewish parents in the Rhineland city of Trier, whose municipal rabbi was his uncle, Marx was baptized in 1818 at age six into the Lutheran faith. His father had joined the Lutheran church a year earlier; but his mother held out until age thirty-eight, when her own father, a rabbi in Holland, died. For her tardiness in converting, as well as for other “despised remnants of [her] Judaic practice,” Marx remained permanently resentful, openly expressing to Engels his wish that she drop dead.

Marx’s own Lutheran education, as Manuel takes pains to point out, was far from perfunctory, and it made a deep and lasting impression upon him. His extant papers do not contain a single letter of the Hebrew alphabet, whereas his style is replete with both the language and the outlook of Lutheranism. “Luther,” Manuel asserts, “is one of the few religious leaders Marx ever cited with approval”; in Das Kapital, he is even invoked as an authority on the economic transformations of 16th-century Germany.

It was perhaps partly with Luther’s help that Marx became such a ferocious hater of Jews. Throughout his career he mocked the “Jewish” character of his various rivals for revolutionary leadership in the Communist and working-class movements. Moses Hess was “Moysi the communist rabbi,” Eduard Bernstein, “the little Jew Bernstein.” The choicest epithets were reserved for Ferdinand Lassalle: “It is now completely clear to me,” wrote Marx to Engels,

that, as his cranial formation and hair show, he is a descendant of the Negroes who attached themselves to the march of Moses out of Egypt (assuming his mother or grandmother on the paternal side had not crossed with a nigger).

Nor did one have to be a socialist to arouse Marx’s anti-Jewish spleen: Moses Mendelssohn, he wrote to Engels, was a “shit-windbag”; Polish Jews, the “filthiest of all races.”

Only once in all his writings does Marx refer to his Jewish origins. But Manuel argues that he was in some sense always aware of the profound effects Jewish anti-Semitism, including his own, could have upon Jews. “If to Marx Jews were dirty morally and physically and he was a Jew, his denied origins gnawed at his guts on some level of consciousness throughout his life.” The young Marx once wrote that “self-contempt is a serpent . . . ; it sucks the life-blood out of the heart and mixes it with the venom of the hatred of man and of despair.” Manuel takes this observation as an important if “strange prefiguration of [Marx's] own bitter psychic fate.” The carbuncles that plagued him physically were the bodily sign of his self-loathing; his utopian hatred of existing society and uncontrollable rages against Jewish rivals, its intellectual and political expression.

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As a comprehensive interpretation of Marx’s life and, especially, his work, this idea is perhaps too broadly stated. But if Marx’s self-deception about his origins cannot really “explain” the theory of surplus value, it is certainly possible to connect it, as Manuel does, to Marx’s neglect of nationalism and ethnicity as forces in political consciousness.

Less convincing is Manuel’s insistence that Marx, despite his exclusively Lutheran education, his Jewish illiteracy, and his anti-Semitism, was after all somehow “rabbinic,” just like his repudiated ancestors. “For anyone who has read Luther’s The Jews and Their Lies,” concedes Manuel, “a Jewish Lutheran must appear a monstrous oxymoron.” Nevertheless, he points to an essay by the young Marx as bearing “traces of both religious strains, . . . a mixed Judeo-Lutheran rhetoric.”

But whence did the “Judeo” strain come? Did Marx in fact inherit in his genes what Manuel calls “the messianic hope . . . passed on through generations of rabbis among both his father’s and his mother’s forebears”? In the end, it seems, not even so shrewd and well-informed an observer as Frank Manuel can resist the widespread tendency to draft Marx into the pantheon of modern Jewish superstars. The lapse mars what is otherwise a fine book.

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