Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Excusing Karl Marx

Book Review

To read Karl Marx is to read a writer whose influence is felt today; this is not to say that what he wrote was greatly beneficial to humanity; the opposite case can be made, since Marx did not place human nature, human motivations and human desires in the best possible light. To a large degree, his views has led to the diminishment of the individual, and any writer excusing this is, by default, excusing and defending some of the greatest man-made tragedies in modern history. Prof. George Jochnowitz writes: “Conflict of interest is natural and universal. Politics is a way to reconcile, or at least, manage conflict of interest. When individual needs and individuality itself are rejected, individuals themselves will be considered worthless. Politics was outlawed in every country that worshiped Marx. It is no accident, comrade. Countries as different as Russia, Ethiopia and China all developed the same architecture, the same ‘neighborhood committees,’ the same fear of thought. What is even worse, Communist countries pursued policies that led to starvation on a catastrophic scale. The worst famine in human history took place in China between 1959 and 1961. A famine has been devastating North Korea for years.” 


by George Jochnowitz

Karl Marx: A Life
by Francis Wheen. New York and London: 
W. W. Norton and Co., 2000, 431 pp., $27.95.

The story of Karl Marx’s life is the story of his work. Marx devoted his life to his work: bringing about the revolution he knew would come and change the world. During certain periods, he was a political activist, but at every stage in his career he was a writer—even when he produced nothing but disorganized, unpublishable notes.

Francis Wheen has many harsh things to say about the way Marx led his life, but he is convinced that Marx‘s writings are both correct and benevolent. Wheen describes Marx the person as rude, extravagant, and intolerant. To his credit, Wheen cites Marx’s writing to show his hostility, his wastefulness, and his bigotry. Marx supports his views with sarcasm—rudeness—rather than examples or argument. He writes extravagantly, becoming ever more involved in his own verbal games. Furthermore, Marx made it very clear that he couldn't abide those who differed from him, politically or otherwise.

Any discussion of Marx‘s intolerance must begin with his pair of essays together known as “On the Jewish Question.” Wheen gives us the following excuse for Marx’s anti-Semitism: “Those who see this as a foretaste of Mein Kampf overlook one essential point: in spite of the clumsy phraseology and crude stereotyping, the essay was actually written as a defence of the Jews.” (56) Wheen has set up a straw man. Marx did not advocate genocide; moreover, he did not believe that there should be discriminatory laws on the books, as did Bruno Bauer, the writer whom Marx was answering in his essays. Legality is not the problem. Demonization is what “On the Jewish Question” is about.

What Marx hated was alienation: a society based on division of labor where people produced commodities in order to earn money. He later would call this system capitalism. He blamed the Jews. Since Jews did not rule Europe, he explained it as follows: “Christianity issued from Judaism. It has now been reabsorbed into Judaism. ... It was only then [after Christianity had been reabsorbed] that Judaism could attain universal domination and turn alienated man and alienated nature into alienable, saleable objects, in thrall to egoistic needs and huckstering. ... The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.”
There is something nonsensical about saying that Christianity has been reabsorbed into Judaism, but Marx liked to make extravagant statements without backing them up. He could then claim that Judaism had achieved universal domination and was guilty of the ultimate sin: the creation of capitalism. If most capitalists were Christians, capitalism was nevertheless the fault of Judaism. This is not merely nonsense; it is poison. Wheen is only looking for excuses when he describes “Concerning the Jews” as an answer to Bruno Bauer's opposition to legal rights for Jews. Marx didn’t believe legal rights mattered.

Marx continued to love Christianity despite his atheism and despite the “reabsorbtion” of Christianity into Judaism. “We can forgive Christianity much because it taught us the worship of the child,” said Marx to his daughter Eleanor after “patiently elucidating the story of the carpenter whom the rich men killed.” (215) Curiously, Wheen doesn’t mention the fact that Marx’s father converted his eight children to Christianity when Karl was six, although there is an endnote on Page 394 referring to an article called “The Baptism of Karl Marx” by Eugene Kamenka. In the text of his book, Wheen simply informs us that “Marx was a bourgeois Jew. ... He died an atheist.” (8)

In his writings, Marx talked of Judaism as the source of alienation. In his personal life, his hostility was clearly toward Jewish people, although they certainly weren’t the only targets of his scorn. Here is what he wrote about the noted socialist Ferdinand Lasalle: “Now this blend of Jewishness and Germanness, on the one hand, and basic negroid stock, on the other, must invariably give rise to a peculiar product. The fellow's importunity is also niggerlike.” (cited on 55 and again on 248). There is no reason to believe that Lasalle had any African ancestors, but Marx’s comments would be offensive whether he did or not. A different Jew, Joseph Moses Levy, “was subject to many pages of heavy-handed and anti-Semitic taunts for changing the spelling of his surname from ‘Levi.’ ” (242) ”... Levy‘s nose provides conversation throughout the year in the City of London” (243).

And here is what Marx said about his son-in-law, described by Wheen as a Creole: “Lafargue has the blemish customarily found in the negro tribe—no sense of shame, by which I mean shame about making a fool of oneself.” (291) As for the English, Wheen explains, “For the rest of his life, Marx’s view of the English proletariat oscillated between reverence and scorn.” (205) Yet the scorn is dominated: “One thing is certain, these thick-headed John Bulls, whose brainpans seem to have been specially manufactured for the constables’ bludgeons, will never get anywhere without a really bloody encounter with the ruling powers.” (206) Nor did Marx have a high opinion of women. When his daughter Eleanor was born, he wrote to Engels saying, “Unfortunately of the ‘sex’ par excellence. If it had been a male child, well and good.” (215)

Marx was famous for being insulting. His rudeness overlapped with his intolerance. The theoretical in Marx's writing was always reflected by the particular in Marx's life. In the case of the Jews, the demonization of Judaism is part of a general attack against human variety. Marx hated self-interest and confused it with variety. Marx couldn't understand that self-interest logically and inevitably included interest in one’s family, friends, community, country, and world. Nor could he grasp the fact that people have different tastes, talents, and abilities. “In a communist society there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities,” he said. (97) Genius, for Marx, was merely a by-product of the system of alienated labor.

Marx the activist sometimes showed a willingness to compromise, at least for a while: “In his speeches and editorials he insisted that Germany must have a democratic government ‘of the most heterogeneous elements’ rather than a dictatorship of brilliant communists like himself; but the vehemence with which he delivered these views—flinging insults and derision at anyone who dared to disagree—suggested that this was a man who wouldn’t recognise pluralism if it was presented to him on a silver salver with watercress garnish.” (135-36). Wheen is not quite right about recognizing pluralism. Marx recognized it only too well—and hated it. “Like most of its twentieth-century successors this communist cell asserted its authority by purging anyone suspected of deviation from official correctness.” (103) A theory that has no place for human differences is logically one that eliminates these differences.

The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s most widely read work, was a call for the day when we would see the end of disagreement as well as the cessation of conflict of interest. The Manifesto rejects politics: “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.” Marx hated civil society. He described it in the most offensive way he could think of: “It is from its own entrails that civil society ceaselessly engenders the Jew” (“On the Jewish Question”). In other words, civil society is so ugly that it excretes Jews from its bowels.

Conflict of interest is natural and universal. Politics is a way to reconcile, or at least, manage conflict of interest. When individual needs and individuality itself are rejected, individuals themselves will be considered worthless. Politics was outlawed in every country that worshiped Marx. It is no accident, comrade. Countries as different as Russia, Ethiopia and China all developed the same architecture, the same “neighborhood committees,” the same fear of thought. What is even worse, Communist countries pursued policies that led to starvation on a catastrophic scale. The worst famine in human history took place in China between 1959 and 1961. A famine has been devastating North Korea for years.

Wheen excuses the Manifesto, needless to say: “Any text from the 1840s will include passages that now seem slightly quaint or outdated; the same could be said for many party election manifestos or newspaper editorials published only a year or two ago. It was never intended to serve as a timeless sacred text, though generations of disciples have sometimes treated it as such.” (124) It is certainly true that Karl Marx wrote so very much and so very badly that readers miss the point of what he is saying. Yet elsewhere in his book, Wheen praises the validity of Marx's thinking: “Marx’s work has often been dismissed as ‘crude dogma,’ usually by people who give no evidence of having read him. It would be a useful exercise to force these extempore critics—who include the present British prime minister, Tony Blair—to study the Paris manuscripts, which reveal the workings of a ceaselessly inquisitive, subtle and undogmatic mind.” (68)

Obviously, Wheen doesn’t really believe Marx is outdated. Yet the passages he cites from the Paris manuscripts are neither subtle nor undogmatic: “So, Marx concludes, even in the most propitious economic conditions, the only consequence for the workers is ‘overwork and early death, reduction to a machine, enslavement to capital.’ ” (69) Wheen doesn’t know about the power of organization, the ability to form unions, or the importance of acting politically. Neither did Engels, who said “I delight in the testimony of my opponents” (83) when British newspapers wrote about the harsh conditions that faced workers. Conditions have improved in Britain, but in China, where there are no unions and no free newspapers, there are more people killed in coal-mining accidents per ton of coal produced than anywhere else in the world. (“Dangerous Coal Mines Take Human Toll in China,” The New York Times, June 19)

Marx, who never supported himself, loved money and spent it immediately when he acquired it. His wife Jenny—a patient, loving woman whose life was filled with tragedy—came from a rich family. "He was ridiculously proud of having married a bit of posh," Wheen informs us. (183) When various relatives of Jenny's died, the Marxes inherited money. Marx looked forward to the death of his wife's relatives: “Yesterday we were informed of a VERY HAPPY event, the death of my wife's uncle, aged ninety,” he wrote. According to Wheen, “For the previous few years this indestructible uncle had been referred to in the Marx household as ’the inheritance-thwarter.’ ” (219)

Jenny’s mother sent the Marxes a maidservant, Helene Demuth, “on permanent loan.” (91) It is not clear from Wheen’s book how—or if—Ms. Demuth was paid by the Marxes, who were usually broke. She lived with the Marxes until Jenny and Karl had both died, after which she spent the rest of her life with Friedrich Engels. (385) Her son, Freddy Demuth, was probably Marx's illegitimate child. The child was given to foster parents. (171-76) Perhaps one day DNA testing will shed more light on the question of Freddy Demuth’s paternity. For all intents and purposes, Helene Demuth was property—owned by Karl and Jenny Marx.

Marx’s major book was Capital, about money, property, and value. One of the ideas running through Marx’s work is the labor theory of value, which is the idea that the value of a commodity is the value of the raw materials plus the cost of the labor. It would follow from Marx’s reasoning that a $5 bill and a $10 bill are equally valuable, since the materials and labor that produced them are exactly equal. There is no place in Marx’s theory for services, no recognition of the necessity of stores or other markets, no acknowledgement of supply and demand. What if I worked on a painting just as hard as Rembrandt did? Would Rembrandt's work and mine be of equal value?

Wheen is fully aware that Marx's writing on economics makes no sense. Here is his excuse for Marx’s nonsense: “The absurdities to be found in Capital, which have been seized on so readily by those who wish to expose Marx as a crackpot, reflect the madness of the subject, not of the author.” (306)

This excuse is not satisfactory, not even to Wheen. Sane writing on mad subjects is certainly possible; moreover, it is often necessary as a way to deal with the madness. If Marx thought capitalism mad, he was under an obligation to point out the way to sanity.

Wheen then comes up with a brilliant and original excuse. Marx is another Laurence Sterne, author of the mad and maddening novel Tristram Shandy. “Like Tristram Shandy, Capital is full of systems and syllogisms, paradoxes and metaphysics, theories and hypotheses, abstruse explanations and whimsical tomfoolery. ... To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx’s text is saturated, sometimes even waterlogged, with irony—an irony which has yet escaped almost every reader for more than a century.” (308)

Wheen is giving us a hint. If he claims that Marx’s Capital is all a big joke, he must be telling us something about his own book. Wheen has written a tour de force, a satire of Marx’s theory. It's too bad that Wheen himself has not understood the joke.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This review originally appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Midstream.It is republished here with the author’s permission. 

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