Overrated: Karl Marx

Two new biographies of the Left’s hero choose to ignore his dark side

Communism Overrated
© Ellie Foreman Peck 


Karl Marx has been dead for 130 years, yet his malign influence is perceptible throughout Western civilisation. He is still treated with deference in his latest biographies: Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (Liveright, £35) and Rolf Hosfeld’s Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography (Berghahn, £18). Sperber sees him as a “backward-looking figure” like Luther, who projected the revolutionary past into the future, Hosfeld as a prophet, who asked the right questions but came up with the wrong answers. But both see Marx as a titan, thereby perpetuating the preposterous claim of Friedrich Engels, his chief collaborator and mythologist, in his graveside eulogy of Marx at Highgate Cemetery in 1883: “As Darwin discovered the law of the development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.”

The only one of Marx’s books that became popular appeared in 1848: The Communist Manifesto, with its resounding peroration, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!” In fact, the last sentence was borrowed from Karl Schapper, a minor German agitator, while the first sentence is lifted from Jean-Paul Marat, the most bloodthirsty of the Jacobins, who was himself indebted to Rousseau’s slogan: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Another adage Marx and Engels took from Marat was: “The workers have no country.” Years later, in 1875, they plagiarised another French revolutionary celebrity, Louis Blanc, in their Critique of the Gotha Programme: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” In that same text, Marx described the “transition period” between capitalism and Communism “during which the State can be nothing else than a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”. That fatal phrase, ironically, he claimed to have borrowed from Auguste Blanqui, but seems in fact to have invented himself. 

Much more serious than plagiarism is the fact of Marx’s anti-Semitism and racism. Many Marx scholars are still squeamish about this subject, but the evidence is undeniable. The authorities on this subject are Julius Carlebach and Robert Wistrich, neither of whom is cited by the new biographers, but who agree that Marx went beyond any previous expressions of anti-Semitism by blaming Jews for the corruption of Christian society and demanding their “abolition”. Marx’s early essays “On the Jewish Question” are, in the words of Carlebach, “a logical and indispensable link between Luther and Hitler”. Marx vilified Jews — “whose god is the bill of exchange” and who created Christianity in order “to attain world dominion” — and Judaism, a religion so “anti-social” that it “makes even the lavatory an object of divine law”. Later, his anti-Semitism became less Hegelian and more racist. His notorious description of his benefactor and rival Ferdinand Lassalle as “a Jewish nigger”, whom he accused of selling out the socialists to Bismarck, is all the more odious when one considers that Marx had in fact allowed himself to be used by the Austrian government as a source of intelligence on the exiled revolutionaries in London. He also demonised Jewish bankers in his 1856 article “The Russian Loan”: “Thus we find every tyrant is backed by a Jew, as is every Pope by a Jesuit.” Marx loved conspiracy theories: he believed, for instance, that the English ruling class, led by Lord Palmerston, was in the pay of tsarist Russia.

This unpalatable side of Marx is scarcely a secret. I have in front of me a copy of Aus dem literarischen Nachlass von Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels und Ferdinand Lassalle (Berlin 1913), in which is reprinted the notorious article “Hungary” of January 1849 from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, of which Marx was editor. This piece, written by Engels but with Marx’s full approval, denounces the “ethnic trash” (Völkerabfälle) who will always support the counter-revolution “until their total extinction or loss of nationality”. The article continues: “The next world war will cause not only reactionary classes and dynasties, but entire reactionary peoples to disappear from the earth. That too is progress.” This warrant for genocide has been known for a century, yet Marx and Engels still get a good press.

Within living memory, indeed, the writings of Marx were studied like religious texts. That is why Stalin liquidated the editors of the Marx-Engels Historisch-Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Rjazanov and Adoratskij, as their work threatened to reveal that Marx had feet of clay. Sperber reminds us that strenuous efforts were made, both in his lifetime and for at least a century later, to conceal the fact that he had fathered an illegitimate son by his maid. The real scandal here, though, was the fact that the maid, Lenchen Demuth, was exploited throughout a life of unpaid service to the Marx family. She and her son Fred, whom he never acknowledged, were the only proletarians for whom Marx had personal responsibility. He failed to live up to it, just as he failed the workers and humanity in general.