Karl Marx never publicly pointed out his Jewish background. This background was known to all of his friends, and Marx gave no indication that he would deny it. But even his daughter Eleanor, who studied Yiddish after being politically active for working class Jews in London’s East End, made no mention of her father’s conversion to Christianity.
As mentioned in the title, Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution, by the respected Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri, despite the “Jewish Lives” series for which it was written, it is not primarily about Marx’s Jewishness as it was. The book, along with a quick and readable account of life and works, gives us a Marx that Avineri sees as more useful for our non-revolutionary times. In his view, Marx was inspired less by the desperation of the nineteenth century working class, which called for immediate revolutionary change, than by the ideals of the Enlightenment of freedom and justice, the realization of which could be viewed as following a less pressured timetable. This loyalty to freedom and justice, Avineri continues, is partly due to his family’s mixed experience with these ideals, which dangled before them as members of the Jewish community in the Rhineland during the French Revolution and subsequently withdrew. For Avineri, this harrowing experience inspired both Marx’s commitment to egalitarian universalism and his skepticism about whether liberalism could fulfill this commitment.
It is believed that Avineri also writes from his own experience as an Israeli and Zionist. He reminds us in the book that he was once director general of the Israeli foreign ministry. Maintaining the simultaneous commitment to universalism and particularism is never a walk in the park, but it has been an absolute nightmare for the leaders of Israel, a state that has tried to claim it was both democratic and Jewish. Avineri, who wrote important books about Marx and Hegel as well as Zionism, wants to stand up for the universal values of democracy. One can only agree. By advocating Marx’s universalism – a universalism that Avineri associates less with the international struggle of the working class against capital than with an unrealized liberalism of the Enlightenment – he gently leads us away from revolutionary Marx to a more gradual and social democratic Marx, the author’s central vision of change is better adapted to today’s limited political horizons. So the biggest question that the book raises does not concern Marx, but the times in which we live: how drastic is a change that we need (for example, think of the climate crisis that will not go away, or of climate change -induced Pandemic that will inevitably occur after this pandemic) and the prospects that social democracy offers – or not – for making it happen.