‘Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution’ by Shlomo Avineri reviewed by Igor Shoikhedbrod

Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution

Yale University Press, New Haven, 2019. 240 pp., $26 hb
ISBN 9780300211702

Reviewed by Igor Shoikhedbrod

About the reviewer

Igor Shoikhedbrod received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto. He is …


A moment’s glance at the ‘Marx biography industry’ reveals as many competing narratives of Marx as there are biographies of him. Shlomo Avineri’s Marx: Philosophy and Revolution distinguishes itself by approaching Marx from a less familiar angle: Marx’s Jewish heritage and its implications for the development of his philosophical outlook. The curious virtue of Avineri’s refreshingly concise biography, published as part of the Yale Jewish Lives Series, is that it intentionally poses more questions than it offers answers. Readers are invited to fill in the many gaps and possibilities unleashed during the course of Marx’s turbulent life as an aspiring philosophy professor, journalist and revolutionary activist (the latter trait is considerably downplayed by Avineri), whose Jewishness survived, if at all, mostly in name.

Karl Marx can be read as Avineri’s definitive attempt to confront the book’s protagonist 51 years since the publication of his magisterial study of The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (203). A considerable portion of this confrontation sees Avineri returning to previous debates and interpretive insights – the importance of Marx’s formative writings (22), his ambivalence towards the Paris Commune (157) and the implications of Marx’s progressivist outlook vis-à-vis his reflections on the future of British colonial rule in India (116-121). With respect to the latter, it is unfortunate that Avineri does not contend with Kevin Anderson’s attempt at demonstrating multilinear dimensions in Marx’s thinking after 1848, including his changed outlook concerning the potential value of an Indian insurrection against British colonial rule (Anderson, 2016).

In broad brushstrokes, Avineri’s Karl Marx offers a sympathetic if not uncritical sketch of a pioneering nineteenth century thinker who, to use Friedrich Nietzsche’s vivid vocabulary, was born posthumously. Avineri prefaces his book with an approving reference to Isaiah Berlin’s view that Marx’s unwavering support for the proletariat’s struggle against capitalist oppression was rooted in his Jewish ancestry, a view that Avineri ultimately rejects (ix). Avineri’s book is sensitive to the diverse political contexts in which Marx formulated his thoughts, noting relevant biographical divergences between Marx and his lifelong collaborator, Frederick Engels, while also reaffirming the Hegelian heritage that he had at once inherited and superseded (37). In much the same way, Avineri goes through great lengths to dissociate Marx from the authoritarian political regimes that bore his name in the twentieth century (190), although this dissociation also comes with the drawback of neglecting the noble political efforts of many Russian/Soviet Jews, who saw in Marx’s vision a concrete basis for their own emancipation.

Not surprisingly, Avineri frames his book through the lens of the so-called ‘Jewish Question,’ which followed Marx like a shadow from his formative years (his father’s pragmatic conversion to the Lutheran faith in order to maintain a legal practice), through his confrontation with the Rhenish Jewish community’s rejected appeals for equal rights, and all the way to his debate with Mikhail Bakunin, who did not shy away from identifying hidden affinities between Marx, Disraeli, Baron Rothschild and the authoritarianism of the rabbinate that seemingly united them all (165). Although Avineri argues convincingly that Marx endorsed the political emancipation of Jews throughout his life despite exhibiting an inexcusable prejudice towards Judaism, he mistakenly misdates a letter that Marx wrote to Arnold Ruge, endorsing the Jewish delegation’s petition for equal rights. The letter in question was actually written in 1843, and not in 1848, as suggested by Avineri (53-54).This difference in date is important because Marx’s underappreciated letter provides a context for interpreting his subsequent refutation of Bruno Bauer’s opposition to the political emancipation of Jews, as well as his own positive defence of Jewish emancipation in On the Jewish Question – an insight that has eluded far too many Marx commentators.

In the course of elaborating Marx’s biography, Avineri seamlessly weaves together the rich exchanges that Marx shared with mostly secular, assimilated, or exiled Jews – Moses Hess, Heinrich Heine, Ferdinand Lasalle – but also with his Jewish uncle, Leon Philips, and the founder of modern Jewish historiography, Heinrich Graetz. Avineri prompts his readers to consider the realistic possibility (out of lack of concrete textual evidence to the contrary), that Marx may well have discussed the role and significance of Jews in history. Avineri puts particular emphasis on Marx’s relationship with Moses Hess, who had an important influence on the former’s conception of communism but was also himself in awe of the young Marx, referring him as the synthesized embodiment of Rousseau, Voltaire, Lessing, Heine and Hegel (56). What is particularly distinctive about Avineri’s discussion of the Marx-Hess relationship is that he depicts the two thinkers as beginning on essentially the same theoretical ground, before transforming into representatives of two disparate secular traditions: the early Socialist Zionism of Hess and the Communist Internationalism of Marx (116). In keeping with the thesis of his 1991 article, ‘Marxism and Nationalism,’ Avineri leaves no doubt as to who offered the more realistic assessment in the end. Notwithstanding Marx’s heightened attention to issues of nationalism after 1848, he is still taken to task by Avineri for failing to appreciate the centrality of national identity for a complete conception of the good life. Indeed, Avineri has good reasons for critiquing Marx’s insensitivity to the relevance of national identity but not for the reasons that he offers in this book, more about which in a moment.

One of the highlights of Karl Marx is an anecdote that is shared by Avineri in the epilogue, where he recounts his experience as the head of the 1976 Israeli delegation to the UNESCO General Assembly in Nairobi. On Avineri’s rendition of events, the delegates were at the time debating the historical presence of a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. Avineri took the occasion to cite Marx’s journalistic reflections on the plight of Jews living in Jerusalem, that had indeed comprised the majority of the city’s population according to Marx’s statistics. The response from the Soviet delegation was that this was a piece of forgery, even though Marx’s article for The New York Daily Tribune appeared in the official Soviet collection of his published writings. Avineri also shares the humorous rejoinder of a senior Chinese delegate who commended Avineri’s citing of Marx to the Soviets.

Avinieri’s anecdote highlights the questionable political uses to which Marx’s thought has traditionally been put and also offers a unique window for understanding how a thinker of Marx’s depth speaks to contemporary challenges. Incidentally, the same anecdote also provides us with an occasion for critically examining Avineri’s interpretation of Marx’s underestimation of the national question and Hess’s acute sensitivity to it. While I do not challenge Avineri’s general claim that Marx and the Marxist tradition have been particularly weak on issues of nationalism, I do question his broader inference that nationalism somehow offers a firmer basis for emancipation than does the supposed abstract and universalistic discourse of internationalism.

Political scientists often make a conceptual distinction between ethnic and civic forms of nationalism; the former is usually derided for its chauvinism, while the latter is typically praised for its emancipatory inclusiveness, especially in the context of historical struggles for national liberation. This scholarly distinction between varieties of nationalism is not so clear-cut in the twenty-first century, particularly because nation states – whether ethnic or civic in composition – are defined by unavoidable zones of exclusion. The well-intentioned appeal to a shared sense of civic values or identity can quickly descend into justifications for excluding those who are not deemed worthy of membership in the community of civically-mined states. Avineri may well ask: what has this to do with Marx and his Achilles Heel – nationalism? In a word, far more than meets the eye, and Marx’s reflections in On the Jewish Question and in The Holy Family furnish fruitful answers.

What makes Marx’s On the Jewish Question a particularly incisive work of political theory is its framing. Bruno Bauer’s opposition to the equal rights of Jews is used by Marx as a foil for dissecting the potential and limitations of political emancipation within the framework of the modern nation state. In that essay, Marx takes the claims of a particular group (the Jews) for equal rights as a ‘problem’ that is universal rather than particular in character, and whose ‘solution’ is likewise universal rather than particular. Whereas Bauer faulted the Jews for their unwillingness to renounce Judaism in search of a privileged status within a German Christian state, Marx turned the question back on Bauer by asking on what basis he could demand that the Jews renounce their faith in order to be granted equal rights. According to Marx, there was no rational basis for Bauer’s demand because the most developed modern nation state presupposes the legal protection of religious conscience as a right. The fact that the Jews could not enjoy the same catalogue of rights betrayed the reactionary character of the Christian state, as well as the prejudiced attitudes of thinkers like Bauer, for whom Christians were better fit for political emancipation than Jews.

As is well known, Marx did not limit his critique of Bauer to the question of who is and is not fit for rights. Rather, Marx’s critique of Bauer acknowledged the value of political emancipation (i.e. being granted equal rights) as great progress but also identified its limitations. In particular, Marx recognized that one could be a rights-bearer in this or that nation state and yet remain unfree, experience discrimination and still be dependent on the exigencies of a capitalist market system that routinely reduces individuals to the playthings of alien powers. The inadequacies of such a liberation reaffirmed for Marx the difference between political emancipation and human emancipation. However, the struggle to realize any fuller conception of human emancipation was not to be understood as the unique political task of a particular national-ethnic identity or state. Instead, it was properly conceived by Marx as the universal task of humanity.

What Avineri takes to be one of Marx’s greatest weakness should be interpreted, dialectically of course, as one of his greatest strengths. Who better to judge the emancipatory shortcomings of the modern nation state than the prototypical ‘wandering Jew’ Marx, who was expelled from his native Germany, forced out from France and who died as a stateless person in liberal Britain? Seen from this lens, there is far more substance in Marx’s rejoinder to Bauer’s vicious claim that the Jews have contributed nothing more than an ‘eyesore’ to history. Marx’s response to Bauer is that this so-called ‘eyesore’ contributed immensely to the development of his ‘eyesight’ (51). The truth is that Marx’s Jewish heritage did contribute to the development of his philosophic outlook, precisely in its commitment to the view of emancipation as a universal task that extends beyond the purviews of national identity and nation states. In this respect, Marx may have been subconsciously channeling the views of the ancient Hebrew prophets of social justice, some of whom (e.g. Isaiah) also stood for a world without war, injustice, and oppression (Zeitlin, 2012: 178). Granted, such prophetic teachings seem utopian in a world of resurgent nationalist chauvinism but they are not any less necessary or urgent. At any rate, this concrete and universalistic urgency for emancipation is Marx’s enduring challenge to Avineri and his most sympathetic readers. At its best, Avineri’s book leaves readers with the timely opportunity to reflect on Karl Marx’s lifeworks and to judge for themselves.

14 October 2019


  • Anderson, Kevin 2016 Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Avineri, Shlomo 1991 Marxism and Nationalism Journal of Contemporary History 26 (3/4), pp. 637-57
  • Zeitlin, Irving 2012 Jews: The Making of a Diaspora People Cambridge: Polity Press

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