Marx and the Jewish Fingerprint Question

Karl Marx acquired his last name—the very name that would become synonymous with a whole school of thought and conjure the specter of revolution—as a result of the revolutionary changes that swept across Europe in the decades leading up to his birth. In the 1790s, following its victory in battle, France annexed Marx’s native city of Trier, along with the rest of the German Rhineland, and emancipated its Jews. Jews responded by (among other things) adopting non-Jewish names and “civil” surnames, as required by French law. Marx’s paternal grandfather, Mordechai Levi, the chief rabbi of Trier, came to be referred to in official French documents as “Marcus Lewy” and then as “Marx Lewy”; his father, né Heschel Lewy, eventually took the name Heinrich Marx. Thus, Karl was born into the Marx family.

Napoleon emancipates the Jews, 1806. (From Goethe und seine Zeit, Salzburg.)

“It may be beside the point,” Shlomo Avineri puckishly writes, “but it is still intriguing to speculate that had it not been for the French insistence that Jews embrace ‘civil’ surnames . . . Karl Marx would have been born Karl Levi. Would a theory called ‘Levism,’ or later ‘Levism-Leninism’ have the same appeal and resonance as ‘Marxism’?”             

Avineri’s slim biography is an entry in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, which offers relatively brief biographical accounts of prominent Jews from the Bible to the present. Marx would seem an unlikely fit for this series as he was converted to Christianity when he was only six and never made public reference to his Jewish birth and ancestry. Unlike others, Avineri, a distinguished Israeli political scientist who has written about Marx since the 1960s, does not claim that Marx was a Jewish thinker but suggests that “his Jewish origins and background did leave significant fingerprints in his work, some of them obvious and others less so.” The novelty of Avineri’s study, then, is its tacit promise to detect these Jewish “fingerprints.”

Marx was born in 1818 in the sleepy town of Trier in the Rhineland, a region with a long Jewish history where the rule of Napoleonic France had only recently been overturned. His paternal line through his grandfather consisted of rabbis of the Jewish community of Trier dating back to the 17th century, and his paternal uncle, Samuel Marx, followed in these footsteps, serving as rabbi of Trier until his death in 1827. During the nearly two-decade period of French rule, the Jews of the Rhineland came to enjoy political and civic equality, which allowed Karl’s father Heinrich Marx to study and eventually practice law.

With the defeat of Napoleon’s forces in 1814–1815 and the subsequent annexation of the Rhineland to Prussia after the reorganization of Europe at the Congress of Vienna, the freedoms Jews had gained were steadily rolled back—among them, the right to serve as lawyers, judges, civil servants, or teachers in schools and universities. After his official request to be permitted to continue practicing law was denied, Heinrich Marx converted. His son Karl was baptized in 1824.

Karl Marx studied at the local gymnasium and, in 1835, enrolled in the law faculty at the University of Bonn, only to transfer after one year to the University of Berlin. There, under the mentorship of Eduard Gans—one of the founders of Wissenschaft des Judentums (Science of Judaism, the precursor to modern Jewish studies) who had himself converted to Lutheranism to secure an appointment as a professor of legal philosophy—Marx became enthralled with the philosophy of the late G. W. F. Hegel, whose ideas dominated the faculty of philosophy at the university. During these years, he was associated with the so-called Young Hegelians, who were intent on radicalizing Hegel’s legacy.

Following Hegel, Marx developed a dialectical approach to history based on the notion that progress occurs through conflicts and contradictions and their temporary resolution. Hegel, however, was an idealist who believed that the subject of history was Absolute Spirit, a kind of embedded, dynamic rationality in the universe that, over time, becomes increasingly aware of itself through advances in human knowledge. Reality, for Hegel, was ultimately a product of the mind. Marx, like the Young Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach before him, turned this dialectic of history upside down. It was not ideas that determined the course of history but social and economic realities that determined the ideas. On this basis, Marx found fault not only with Hegel but with most of the Young Hegelians, who criticized ideas and attitudes they found primitive while ignoring the material conditions of life that gave rise to them.

Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, and Marx’s daughters from left: Jenny, Eleanor, and Laura, ca. 1860s. (Ullstein bild/Getty Images.)

The only article-length work Marx ever wrote on Jewish concerns was his “On the Jewish Question,” which he published in the lone issue of the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (Franco-German Yearbooks)printed in early 1844. It was a response to the Young Hegelian theologian Bruno Bauer’s two essays on Jewish emancipation published in the early 1840s. From the left, Bauer had argued against granting Jews equal rights on the grounds that they adhered to a religion that was obstinately particularist and was therefore incompatible with the universalism demanded by modern citizenship. Only if Jews first converted to Christianity, which approached this outlook more closely, could they qualify for emancipation. Marx’s two-part essay rejected this argument unequivocally. Distinguishing between “political emancipation” and “human emancipation,” Marx claimed Jews were entitled to the former, which required nothing of those who lived in the state’s boundaries save that they be law-abiding citizens. Avineri suggests that Bauer’s insistence on conversion may have struck a raw nerve for Marx because of his family history. It may have, but we should underline the radicalism of Marx’s reasoning. As Amos Funkenstein once noted, Marx was one of the few thinkers in the 19th century to decouple political emancipation not simply from conversion but from assimilation altogether.

“Had [Marx] published only Part I of his essay,” Avineri observes, “he would be remembered as a champion of Jewish emancipation and equal rights.” In Part II, however, he demonstrated that his support for Jewish political emancipation coexisted with a strong aversion to Judaism. Asserting that he wished to consider not the “Sabbath Jew” but the “everyday Jew,” Marx proceeded to attack Judaism as a mere derivative of a money-grubbing culture. “What is the secular cult of the Jews?” he asked. “Huckstering. What is his secular god? Money. . . . What, in itself, was the basis of the Jewish religion? Practical need, egoism.” Because “practical need” and “egoism” were “the principle of civil society”—and because money, “the jealous god of Israel, in the face of which no other god may exist,” had become “the god of the world”—Marx concluded that Judaism was colonizing modern life.  “Human” or social emancipation would bring about real equality as opposed to the merely abstract (if still prerequisite) “political” emancipation of universal citizenship. As Marx notoriously closed Part II of his essay, “the social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.” This was code, Avineri maintains, for “the emancipation of modern society from the power of money.”

While acknowledging that Marx’s language was “utterly unacceptable,” Avineri proposes a host of mitigating explanations. In the German lexicon of the time, Judentum could also mean “commerce, trade, huckstering in general,” just like the English verb “to jew” that used to (and, in some quarters, still does) denote haggling or swindling. Furthermore, Marx may have derived his identification of Judaism with money from his German Jewish socialist colleague Moses Hess’s “On Money,” which appeared in 1845 but which Marx had read in manuscript form before writing his essay. Avineri even suggests a psychological motive for Marx’s rhetorical ambush, speculating:

because the argument followed by Marx in Part I for equal rights is so powerful, he might have felt that he had to bend over backward and distance himself as much as possible from Jews and Judaism so as not to be accused of supporting Jewish rights because of his own Jewish background.

This reading would be more plausible were it not for the fact that Marx repeatedly used anti-Jewish slurs in his letters. Avineri notes perhaps the most egregious example of this—Marx’s suggestion that Ferdinand Lassalle, the founder of the first working-class mass movement in Germany, represented a “combination of Judaism and Germanism with the basic negro substance” because of “the shape of his head and the growth of his hair.” Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. Marx also commonly referred to Lassalle in his correspondence as “Jüdchen” and “Jüdel” (little Jew) or “Itzig” and “Baron Itzig.” And Lassalle wasn’t the only object of Marx’s anti-Jewish scorn.

To be sure, Marx was famously polemical, caustic, even hateful in his writings about a host of people. He sought no revocation of Jewish rights (on the contrary), nor did he mean any harm to Jewish individuals or seek to suppress Jewish religious practice. He was capable of forming warm relationships with Jews, as he did late in life with the pioneering modern Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz. In his strongest argument for ascribing a more nuanced view of Jewishness to Marx, Avineri points to Marx’s revisiting of the question of Jewish emancipation one year following “On the Jewish Question” in The Holy Family. There, Marx forcefully repeats his case for Jewish political emancipation while omitting the invective. Moreover, he vigorously defends Bauer’s Jewish critics such as Samuel Hirsch and Gabriel Riesser. Did Marx come to feel, Avineri asks, “that his equation of Judentum with modern capitalism was misguided?” He concedes that there is no clear answer to these questions but leaves open the possibility that Marx made a conscious decision to disavow the vitriolic anti-Judaism of his earlier essay.

It may indeed be that Marx was trying to repair things in The Holy Family. But in light of the considerable evidence of anti-Jewish feeling in his private writings, it is not clear to me that his remorse was more than tactical. The likeliest explanation for Marx’s treatment of Judaism in “On the Jewish Question” is that he shared the derogatory stereotypes of Jews as exploiters and Judaism as an “egoistic” religion that were common even among European liberal and revolutionary thinkers at the time. While it is possible that he was seeking to strategically distance himself from his Jewish origins, it is equally, if not more likely that this was simply Marx, unplugged.

Marx wrote “On the Jewish Question” while living in Paris, where he had moved with his newlywed Jenny von Westphalen in 1843 after the Prussian government had suppressed the first newspaper he edited, the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland News). It was in Paris that Marx met Friedrich Engels, who came from a wealthy German Lutheran family of textile manufacturers. Engels’s already nascent radical and communist sympathies had been buttressed while working with the family’s business partners in Manchester, where he wrote about the plight of the English working class. After the Prussian authorities prevailed on the French government to expel Marx in early 1845, he moved with his family to Brussels until the Belgian government drove him out upon the outbreak of the 1848 revolutions. He then returned to Cologne for a year and a half—the only period in which Marx was truly active as a revolutionary insurgent—before he was forced to leave the Rhineland for good in May 1849 after the Prussian government snuffed out the revolution. He spent the remaining 34 years of his life in London, returning to the continent only sporadically.

Throughout the 1840s, working with Engels, Marx developed a theory of history and class struggle that went unpublished until its concise and limpid formulation in the 1848 Communist Manifesto. According to this theory, human history evolved in light of changes in the productive forces of technology and economic organization, the division of labor, and forms of property. This was a further departure from the Hegelian emphasis on ideas, rather than economic conditions, as the subject and motor of history.

Marx argued, in Avineri’s words, that “changing modes of production gave rise to different classes and ideas of law and property—from primitive common property through slave society, feudalism, and the modern, machine-driven industrial capitalist society.” The dominant ideas of law, morality, and religion at any particular time might be presented as eternal truths but, in fact, reflected the historically contingent and material interests of the then-ruling class. Changes in control of the means of production occurred when the productive forces in a society developed to a point where their further development would “only cause mischief.” As a result, a social class arose, “bear[ing] all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages . . . a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution.” Marx and Engels believed that this point had been reached in their time as a result of industrialization and the immiseration of the proletariat that it had wrought.

In February 1848, a few days before the eruption of revolution in Paris, the founding pamphlet of the recently formed League of Communists was published. It was called The Communist Manifesto, and neither Marx nor Engels was credited with its authorship. It had little impact initially, though it has come to be seen as “one of the most significant statements of Marx’s thought.” Best known for pithy formulations such as “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle,” “[a]ll that is solid melts into air,” and “[w]orkers of the world—unite,” the Manifesto combined a condensed and simplified version of Marx and Engels’s theory of historical development with a harsh attack on other socialist thinkers and schools. Its main goal was to show how “the bourgeoisie produces, above all, its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

In a rarity for Marx, it also provided a plan comprising 10 regulations for the proletarian seizure of political power. Avineri reads these measures very carefully, demonstrating them to be more complex and circumspect than commonly thought. Above all, Marx intimated that the abolition of private industry would be gradual to avoid, in Avineri’s conjecture, both an immediate “economic and financial crisis” and driving the owners of the means of production to become “active opponents of the revolution.” In what is generally viewed as the most revolutionary of Marx’s writings, Avineri discerns hints of caution.

This relative moderation on Marx’s part, according to Avineri, only grew more pronounced following the failure of the 1848 revolutions. Afterward, Marx mostly shunned the “world-historical generalities” of his writings of the 1840s in favor of analysis of “the tedious quotidian details of political and social reality.” From the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” his 1852 postmortem of the abortive revolution in France, to his 1867 Das Kapital, Marx displayed more attunement to historical variations between countries in their progress toward a proletarian revolution. The main lesson Marx derived from the botched revolutions was that capitalism would only be dethroned when it had developed sufficiently to be supplanted.

Marx’s 1871 The Civil War in France, written as a member of the leadership of the International Working Men’s Association (or the First International), was ostensibly a defense of the short-lived and brutally suppressed Paris Commune of the same year. As a result, “for the first time in his life, Marx became famous as an international revolutionary masterminding a worldwide revolutionary socialist conspiracy.” Yet Avineri demonstrates that Marx was ambivalent about the Commune. Although Marx lauded the heroism of the Commune fighters and suggested that the short-lived Commune could have furnished a decentralized model of a socialist society, he never described the uprising as a proletarian revolution.

The everyday Marx remains a shadowy figure in this biography. Avineri makes note of the close (albeit tested) nature of the marital bond between Marx and his wife, Jenny, who supported and aided his involvement in socialist activity to the hilt, notwithstanding the immense burden on the family’s finances it entailed. He conveys something of the grinding poverty the family experienced, especially in the first years after their move to London in 1849. He provides a window into Marx’s numerous health problems, as well as his combination of irascibility with warmth. Yet, for the most part, this is a tour through Marx’s main writings. Avineri never really addresses the paradox of a man who championed the proletariat but who struggled mightily, amid constant indebtedness, to preserve a foothold in the educated middle class and provide a bourgeois upbringing for his three daughters. (His son Edgar died in 1855 at the age of eight—a loss that absolutely devastated Marx—and Jenny had two children in the early 1850s who lived for only a little over a year.) Marx the husband, Marx the father, Marx the friend, and Marx the enemy are seen only in brief glimpses here.

What was Marx’s legacy? Capitalism has yet to collapse of its own internal contradictions, in part, Avineri notes, because 20th-century states increasingly took steps to alleviate the disparities it gave rise to through redistributionist social welfare programs. (He overlooks the recent rejuvenation of Marxist and quasi-Marxist thought in the wake of the 2008–2009 financial crisis.) Avineri, of course, also mentions the demise of the Soviet Union and the tenuous connection of it and the purportedly communist states in its orbit to Marx’s actual writings. In contrast, he points to Marx’s profound influence on the humanities and social sciences. “Since Marx,” he writes, “one cannot write history without acknowledging and researching the links between economic issues and political structures.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Avineri has nothing to say about Marx’s Jewishness in his assessment of his afterlife. Jewishness, I would contend, has proved far more influential in Marx’s reception than it ever did in his life and work. As Julius Carlebach argued decades ago, “there is probably no other individual, from Abraham and Moses to Herzl and Martin Buber, to whom the epithet ‘Jew’ has been more persistently applied than Marx.” This may be hyperbole, but assertions of Marx’s Jewishness were a major trope of the right-wing opposition to socialist parties and trade unions in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, nowhere more evident than in Hitler’s and the Nazis’ broadsides against “the Jew Karl Marx” and “Judeo-Bolshevism.” This survives today on the alt-right. Yet Marx’s Jewishness has also been seized upon by Jewish socialists, who frequently celebrated Marx as a Jewish folk hero who was one of their own.

Shlomo Avineri has written a fine, compact, and accessible intellectual biography of Karl Marx. Its main takeaway is that Marx, especially in the postrevolutionary years, had a more nuanced, incremental, and differentiated view of the path to socialist revolution than the Bolsheviks, and others who claimed his mantle, appreciated. Marx, Avineri reminds us, must be separated from Marxism writ large. Yet the contention that Marx’s Jewish background matters when assessing his work is not, to my mind, quite sustained. Even in “On the Jewish Question,” it is not clear that Marx’s Jewish origins had much to do with either his argument for Jewish emancipation or his assault on Judaism as a manifestation of a money culture.

There is a difference between a reluctant apostate such as the 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine, who spent his formative years as a Jew, addressed Jewish themes in his work, and expressed regret about his conversion late in life, and Marx, about whom none of the above is true. Avineri appears to presume that Marx’s lifelong silence on the matter of his Jewish origins—broken only once when, in a letter to his Dutch uncle (likewise converted), he referred to Benjamin Disraeli as “our fellow tribesman”—speaks volumes about the degree to which his ancestry lurked in his consciousness. But one might also conclude that Marx understood Jewishness primarily in a religious and cultural light, as most 19th-century thinkers did prior to the rise of racial antisemitism, and that he remained mute on the subject because he identified with neither. Nor is it necessary to interpret Marx’s disparaging treatment of many Jews in his correspondence as a kind of negative “Jewish fingerprint,” an attempt to conceal shame about his Jewish lineage. Brutal scorn and vicious stereotypes were rife across the political spectrum in the 19th century.

This is a cogent and insightful biography of one of the most influential thinkers of the modern world, but one may doubt whether it belongs in a series on “Jewish Lives.”


  1. gershon hepner


    Devastatingly, emancipation led to the most deleterious decay
    of Judaism..Marxism would have been Mordecaism
    without it, because Marx derives from Marcus, the immaculate emancipated way
    of saying Mordecai, Karl’s grandfather, most true to Judaism.

    1. Ben Savery

      Was Marx's "Dutch" uncle actually Dutch? Or was he just a "Dutch uncle"? Either way, Marx certainly could've done with the stern advice apocryphally offered by the latter.

Suggested Reading

The Sephardic Mystique

Daniel B. Schwartz

In the late 18th century, an ardor for ancient Greek art and literature swept through German letters. German Jews were not immune, yet during the same period, they also devoted themselves to recovering the linguistic, artistic, and literary heritage of medieval Sephardic Jewry.