Political Discourse in Exile: Karl Marx and the Jewish Question

Political Discourse in Exile: Karl Marx and the Jewish Question

Political Discourse in Exile: Karl Marx and the Jewish Question

Political Discourse in Exile: Karl Marx and the Jewish Question

Synopsis

Over the years, Karl Marx's tangled relation with Judaism has provoked heated debate among followers and critics alike. Can the Jewish tradition better help us understand Marx's political theory? Which themes in Marx's writings become clearer when read in a Jewish context?

Excerpt

Suppose, playfully, as a kind of parlor game, one tried to answer the question. What single phrase of Karl Marx's tells us most about his life and thought? the reply for which I would hold out comes not from Capital, or The Communist Manifesto, or any of his work that the public and scholars know best. I would point to a letter Marx wrote to his son-in-law Paul Lafargue in 1882, one year before he died. in that note, he gibes, "What is certain is that I am no Marxist."

What did Marx mean by this extraordinary statement? Even before making itself understood, it displays the man's abiding love of paradox--his irresistible pull toward ironic formulations and his fascination with contradictory realities. Once in context, the remark speaks of another, perhaps less endearing trait: his biting sarcasm. For the "Marxists" he puts at a distance are his would-be disciples, the leaders of the workers' movement in France, whom he disowns because of their reformist and anarchist leanings. the old lion devours the young whelps. To a theorist who is also a revolutionary, his followers must be his most prized possessions, since only through their efforts can his goals be expressed in practice. Yet incredibly, one can hear "the cutting disdain with which he pronounced the word bourgeois" ringing through Marx's sneer at "Marxists."

Granted, Marx never took political disagreements lightly. Although a doting father and loving (if unfaithful) husband, over his ideological opponents he often sat as a grim and implacable judge, pursuing them relentlessly in polemic after polemic. Still, I would argue, Marx's declaration "I am no Marxist" is there to teach us something crucial about his theory and our relation to it.

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