The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity

By John Murray Cuddihy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 14
FATHER AND SON:
MARX VERSUS MARX

Karl Marx's father, Heinrich—his original name was Hirschel ha-Levi Marx—was a liberal, cultivated, "enlightened" lawyer, a convert to Evangelical Protestantism. At his bidding, on August 26, 1824, his son Karl and Karl's five sisters were baptized into the Evangelical Church. Shortly before graduation from the Trier Gymnasium, the seventeen-year-old Marx wrote a commentary on the Gospel of Saint John entitled "On the Union of the Faithful with Christ according to John XV, I-14, described in its Ground and Essence, in its Unconditioned Necessity and in its Effects." Chief among the "effects" of this union with Christ, Karl Marx writes, is that heathen virtue itself is gentled; it is no longer gloomy, stoic, difficult, and dutiful. "Every repulsive aspect is driven out, all that is coarse is dissolved, and virtue is made clear, becoming gentler and more human" 1 (my emphasis). This early theological work of Marx, as important, in its way, for an understanding of Marxism as the publication of Hegel's Theologische Jugendschriften were for an understanding of Hegel, 2 is structured by the contrast between the highest achievements possible to pre-Christians—"crude greatness and untamed egoism"—and the higher world, which "draws us up purified to Heaven" made possible by the union with Christ described in the Gospel of John. 3 This dialectic of "the crude" and "the refined" is central to Marx's thought.

Once at the University of Bonn, the young Marx's behavior takes a decisive turn—in parental eyes anyway—toward the coarse and the crude. What has been called "The Struggle with the Father" 4 begins. The issue between them was clear: the son had repudiated his father's commitment to "the social art," to bourgeois conversation, respectability, and propriety. The smooth parental solution of the "Jewish problem" did not work for the more passionate and more fastidious son. Because of Marx's deeper acculturation, he was esthetically revolted by the "discrepant profile" the parental conversion had bequeathed to him; he "shuddered at the grotesque admixture in himself of the Prussian and the Jew." 5 To convert was for him to conceal, and to conceal, his high

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