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‘Karl Marx – Philosophy and Revolution’ review: Reading Karl Marx in the 21st century

A historian introduces the German philosopher and his critical thinking for the times, warts and all

Reading Karl Marx amid political uncertainty and rise of populism could be a challenging exercise. However, no one could have done a better job than Shlomo Avineri in resuscitating Marx in a non-Marxian period, where students in humanities have rarely heard of The First International and Das Kapital.

Professor emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Avineri dedicated more than half a century in reading, teaching and writing on Marx and Hegel. In his most recent book, Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution, published in Yale’s ‘Jewish Lives’ series, Avineri, once again introduces us to Marx the philosopher, economist, journalist and revolutionary, while “liberating the real-life Marx from the canonization in which his thought has been wrapped.”

Two in one

Avineri’s book is really two books in one. The first is the author’s account, as a historian of ideas, of the development of Marx’s critical thought in relation to his Jewish background and the influence of Hegelian philosophy.

The second is about Marx’s struggles and difficulties as a revolutionary, a friend, a husband and a father. In less than 200 pages, he captures the essence of Marx’s relation with his Jewish identity and presents him “in the actual historical contexts, intellectual and political, in which he lived and acted.”

Avineri portrays Marx as a Jewish thinker who is far from being involved with the idea of Zionism, but writes his notorious essay ‘On The Jewish Question’ (ZurJudenfrage), associating Judaism with the worship of money in a typical anti-Semitic trope, while on the other hand arguing for equal rights for Jews. As Avineri shows us in his interesting research, there is a degree of awareness in Marx of his Jewish background, which doesn’t make of him a Jewish thinker.

The book captures the range of Marx’s work, from his early writings as a critique of Hegel’s philosophy to the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848 with Friedrich Engels and finally the publication of the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867.

Avineri portrays Marx as a man of complexities, with a great intellectual ability to listen, to learn and to lead, but also with a venomous tongue against his opponents.

That is to say, “The singularity of Marx’s intellectual brilliance and learning also carried a hidden curse that accompanied him for most of his life: because he was so intellectually superior to many of his colleagues in the socialist movement, he could not stop himself from pointing out the inconsistencies in their writings, their occasional muddled thoughts, and sometimes their sheer ignorance.”

Impartial study

The impartial study is very successful in engaging with Marx’s intellectual timeline and to do justice both to the thinker and his writings.

In doing so, Avineri follows in his book the path of another historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, who in his book Karl Marx, written in 1939 and considered today as a classic of the genre, wrote the following: “No thinker in the nineteenth century has had so direct, deliberate and powerful an influence upon mankind as Karl Marx. Yet Marx could not, at any time, be called a popular figure in the ordinary sense: certainly he was in no sense a popular writer or orator.”

In the same line of thought, Avineri’s conclusions on Marx are not very different from those of Isaiah Berlin. He agrees with him on the worldly impact of Marx in the first half of the 20th century.

However, he adds that “such a fascination with radical social revolution is no longer a central factor in the political life of western societies.”

It is true that tributes to Marx are quite rare in today’s world, and maybe this is another reason to list this book among the very best studies on Marx in the past two decades.

Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution; Shlomo Avineri, Yale University Press, ₹1,504.

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