Karl Marx has proved more influential after his death than during his lifetime. Philosopher, economic historian, political analyst, and journalist, Marx has had an intellectual impact on almost every area of modern thought, but his most important prediction — the collapse of capitalism — has not been achieved.
In this sympathetic and highly readable biography, Shlomo Avineri seeks to separate Marx the thinker from Marxism, a posthumous movement shaped to a great degree by his close friend and frequent collaborator, Friedrich Engels, the executor of Marx’s literary estate. Avineri also explores Marx’s Jewish background and the way it may have left its mark on his fight against oppression. Given the frequent mistranslations and oversimplifications of Marx’s work, Avineri has provided his own translations from the German for this biography.
Marx was revolutionary in his thinking, but Avineri makes clear that he did not support revolution and was not an activist. His only revolutionary activity was from 1848 to 1849, largely as editor of a paper advocating democratic reforms. By carefully explicating The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, Marx’s best-known works, as well as less well-known writings and other material unpublished in Marx’s lifetime, Avineri reveals the depth and sweep of Marx’s thought before it was canonized and codified into a doctrine called Marxism.
The Manifesto of the Communist Party, a twenty-three-page pamphlet published anonymously, was scarcely noticed at the time of its publication, just before the revolution of 1848. As the corresponding secretary for one of several groups of radical thinkers who formed themselves into the League of Communists, Marx was asked to write a manifesto. The lasting effect of the Manifesto lies in Marx’s ten-step revolutionary program and his striking and memorable phrases — rather simplistic if not read in the light of Marx’s serious scholarship. Das Kapital, the only published volume of Marx’s projected six-volume economic treatise, presents a far more scholarly critique of capitalism. Avineri again underlines that Marx did not think the eventual socialist transformation of society would “necessarily come about through violent revolution but will be an outcome of the tension inherent in capitalism itself.”
The grandson of two rabbis, Marx was born into a secular family in 1818 in Trier, a city in the Rhineland. The French annexed the region during the Revolution and emancipated the Jews. After Napoleon’s defeat, however, the Rhineland, with its severe restrictions on Jews, was returned to Prussia. Jews were allowed to retain their professional status — but only if they converted to Christianity. After several failed appeals, Marx’s father, a lawyer, ultimately converted.
Avineri cites Isaiah Berlin’s argument that Marx’s Jewish ancestry and “the oppression of centuries” account for his fight for the proletariat. He also believes the family’s painful history may have played a part, although Marx never mentioned these personal struggles. Avineri admits he cannot adequately explain a sometimes vicious attack on Jews and money in an 1844 essay, but he points to Marx’s lifelong championing of Jewish emancipation and cites a particularly touching description of the Jews living in Jerusalem under Ottoman rule: “Nothing equals the misery and the suffering of the Jews at Jerusalem…the constant objects of Mussulman oppression and intolerance…living only on the scant alms transmitted by their European brethren.” Ironically, Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Marx’s youngest daughter, cited his Jewish heritage in an obituary for her father and worked with Jewish immigrants in London’s East End, at one point protesting Russian pogroms, “as my father was a Jew.”
Avineri provides a glimpse of Marx as a husband and father and chronicles both his financial struggles and statelessness. Expelled from Belgium and France and refused return to Prussia, Marx moved to London in 1849 and spent the rest of his life there, largely unknown.
When not pressed by money problems, Marx devoted his energy to research, emerging as a highly perceptive sociopolitical analyst. But the Russian Revolution, carried out under the banner of Marxism, had little relation to Marx’s theories. A revolution led by a small group in a preindustrial society in no way resembles a mass populist revolt of the type envisaged by Marx.
History also outpaced Marx. To survive, capitalist governments enacted major reforms, many advocated in Marx’s writings, that have benefited and protected workers while preserving capitalism.
Although Marx’s political theories have not proved prescient and their importance has diminished, Avineri points out that no one can write history without recognizing the link between politics and economics. Marx’s thinking also had a profound effect on such fields as anthropology, psychology, sociology, liberation theology, and literature — testimony to the power of his influence, largely indirect, on social and political development. Marx offered a new interpretation of the world, and it has established him as an enduring intellectual force.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.