“What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Bargaining. What is his worldly god? Money. … Money is the jealous god of Israel before whom no other god may exist.”
A non-Jewish anti-Semitic lowlife did not write those words. The author of the essay “On the Jewish Question,” from which these sentences come, was born Jewish and is one of the most influential and still controversial social thinkers of modern times.
He was Karl Marx, born in Germany 200 years ago on May 5. This economist, philosopher, and revolutionary has been revered, reviled and studied as have few other individuals in human history.
He is most famous for “The Communist Manifesto,” the 1848 pamphlet he wrote with Friedrich Engels that inspired communist movements all over the world; and for “Capital,” his voluminous critique of the capitalist economic system.
He is also known for some quotations, like: “Religion is … the opium of the people.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” “A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of communism.”
Others will discuss Marx the communist and the blood-soaked failures of the governments that have claimed his ideological inspiration. Here, I want to focus on what Marx has meant to the Jewish world.
Marx has become practically the archetype of those born-Jews alienated from Judaism, who in compensation work to revolutionize societies that they feel have no place for them otherwise.
Marx thereby also exemplified that minority of radical Jews often used as an excuse for anti-Semitism. Many anti-Semites blame all Jews for communism largely because of Marx; and the German Nazis proclaimed that libel as one of their justifications for the Holocaust.
Yet Marx knew little and cared less about Judaism. Though he was a descendant of rabbis, his parents converted to Christianity and had all their children baptized. Karl became an atheist who despised all religions.
That hostility permeates “On the Jewish Question,” in which Marx attacked Christianity as well as Judaism. This essay contributed to fostering anti-Semitism within communist and socialist movements. Ironically, Marx helped inspire enemies of communism and of capitalism both to hate Jews.
But Marx also was one of history’s great Jewish-born achievers. He is often cited along with physicist Albert Einstein and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud as one of those Jews whose work transformed how humans understand nature and themselves.
According to anthropologist Marvin Harris (“Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture”), Marx’s “materialist conception of history” brought him close to being “the Darwin of the social sciences. Like [biologist and evolution theorist Charles] Darwin, Marx showed that phenomena previously regarded as inscrutable or as a direct emanation of deity could be brought down to earth and understood in terms of lawful scientific principles.”
Marx therefore constitutes one of the most ambiguous Jewish personages of our time, a man whose achievements and influence are almost equally marvelous and terrible. In both capacities, his specter haunts us to this day.
Former Chronicle editor Leon Cohen is chair-elect of the advisory committee of the Coalition for Jewish Learning of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.