Karl Marx

Philosophy and Revolution

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Shlomo Avineri
Jewish Lives
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , August
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The objective of the “Jewish Lives” book series is to explore the many facets of Jewish identity in the form of interpretative biographies. This objective defines the framework for Shlomo Avineri's book, Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution. It is a biography of the German philosopher that addresses the question of Marx's Jewish heritage in a way that resonates beyond the anecdotal. It is also one that disentangles Marx's original ideas from their subsequent integration into the ideologies of 19th- and 20th-century socialism. These two stories—of Marx's heritage and his impact on socialism—are separate but not wholly independent.

Regarding the story of Marx's Jewish heritage, Avineri provides a concise picture of the situation of the Jewish minority in the Rhineland after the defeat of Napoleon, which

were thrown back to their prior status of a protected minority lacking civil rights when Prussia annexed the region.

It is generally recognized that G. W. F. Hegel was a significant influence on the shaping of young Marx's views. According to Avineri, Marx absorbed Hegelian philosophy from Eduard Gans, Hegel's one-time assistant. Gans was a founder of the “Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews.” After Hegel's death, Gans was appointed to his chair, continuing with Hegel’s liberal teachings. Avineri writes that Marx took Gans’ classes and that after Gans’ death, Marx chose to present his doctoral dissertation at another university.

After completing his studies, Marx became the editor of a progressive newspaper. It was the opportunity to apply his radical outlook to concrete social and economic problems. His articles soon clashed with the Prussian censorship and, eventually, the daily folded. At this point, the young Marx wrote two seminal essays. One is a critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, and the second, the infamous essay, On the Jewish Question.

Avineri presents in a few pages the context for the essay and Marx's central claims. The article itself, a critique of the views of Marx's former friend Bruno Bauer, has two parts. This first is a spirited defense of the civil rights of the Jews. The problem is with the second part, which “is laced with so much hyperbole and venom that it gives cause to pause and wonder” (48). How should we understand the difference between the two sections? Should we explain it as the symptom of an inner duality relating to the circumstances of Marx's father’s conversion to Christianity? Avineri concludes convincingly: "we do not know, but it would be wrong to divorce the complexity of Marx's arguments in his essay from his family history" (49).

Avineri shows that Marx's position on Jewish emancipation remains the same in later years, despite his occasional abuse of Jewish opponents (126). Further, the author mentions Marx's friendship with the Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz and a sympathetic remark Marx made about the circumstances of impoverished Jews in 19th-century Jerusalem.

The second story is Marx's influence on socialism. Avineri traces the development of Marx’s thought from his years as a radical democratic journalist and an exiled freelance radical in Paris, Brussels, and finally, London. This story has two parallel tracks, Marx, the activist and agitator, and Marx, the social thinker that would coin the language and ideas for the socialist movement. Regarding the activist, Avineri makes clear that Marx was not the leader of a mass movement, as large-scale socialist movements did not develop until much later in his life.

Avineri's account of Marx's intellectual achievements starts with a description of the 1844 Economic- Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx's first serious study of political economy. Avineri expands in particular on the concept of "alienated labor" (63-69) and Marx's early analysis of communism (69-75). The following chapters follow Marx's exiles and precarious life, balancing his research, political activism, and family life in the aftermath of the defeat of the 1848 revolutions.  These are the years in which Marx worked on Das Kapital.

Here, Avineri is covering well-known subjects with panache and a firm hand. Therefore, it is interesting to remark some of the issues he chooses to emphasize: 1) The ten regulations for the transition from capitalist society to a revolutionary one in the Manifesto (88-95), which advocates for the nationalization of land, banking, and railroads, but not an overall confiscation of every type of private property; 2) the evolution of Marx's concept of revolution (108-113), and his positions regarding nationalism (114-116); 3) his interpretation of British imperialism and its effects on Indian society (116-121); 4) his interest in Russia and his prudence concerning the revolutionary potential of the traditional communal villages (174-181). 

Chapter 10 attempts to provide a historical perspective on Marx’s impact and legacy.  Avineri finds that Marx's predictions of a collapse of capitalism were wrong. However, the current type of capitalist society in which we live is vastly different from the one that Marx knew, in part due to his influence. Then, there is the fact that the first successful socialist revolution took place in a mainly agrarian society, and not in a highly industrialized one. The results, according to Avineri, where catastrophic (189). 

However, it is in the field of humanities where Avineri finds Marx’s enduring influence. Avineri compares Marx with Plato. His writings have "dramatically revolutionized historical, social, and economic research" (191).  This remark may be somewhat dated. There was indeed a renaissance of interest on Marx in the 1960s, but recent contemporary critical thinking sidelines many of the conceptual tools that Marx toiled to forge.   

This is an extremely readable book, and while not intended for an academic readership, it can certainly serve as an introduction to Marx's life and work. For the reader interested in continuing to explore Marx, Avineri provides a list of recommended books, both classics and contemporary.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Maidan is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shlomo Avineri is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.


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