Religion & Beliefs

Was Karl Marx Really Jewish?

If there was any Jew whose legacy confuses us, it’s Karl Marx. On the one hand, his thoughts led to the largest political movement in history and changed the world. How’s that for a nice young Jewish boy from Trier? … Read More

By / October 17, 2008

If there was any Jew whose legacy confuses us, it’s Karl Marx. On the one hand, his thoughts led to the largest political movement in history and changed the world. How’s that for a nice young Jewish boy from Trier? On the other hand, his writings led to dozens of totalitarian dictatorships, state-sponsored murder of tens of millions of people, and economic catastrophe for hundreds of millions. The shonde!

You can give your guilt complex a nap on this one. Marx wasn’t even a lapsed Jew. He was a lapsed Christian. His father converted to Christianity to advance his career. Young Karl disavowed all religions and would later rant against them, especially Judaism. In fact, he is better remembered as one of the world’s most accomplished anti-semites. His famous "On the Jewish Question" called for an end to the emancipation of the Jews because they were enslaved by a harsher taskmaster than the German state: their own religion. He referred to money as the real God of the Old Testament. And, probably not coincidentally, he was frequently in debt to Jewish moneylenders.

Therefore, Karl Marx only counts as a Jew on the slimmest of halachic opinions. And if there was an expulsion process for the Tribe, he would probably be first on the list. His hatred of Jews arose more from his own confusion about his heritage, and his inability to repay his debts, than from a legitimate concern for the human race.

This isn’t meant to be a "Who Is a Jew" exercise, though. Something more important is at stake. Right-wingers throughout the world often equate Marx’ supposed Judaism with a solid link between the religion and communism. There isn’t. Marx borrowed nothing from the Jewish tradition to formulate his ideals. In fact, the concept of social classes is very much woven throughout the Torah and Talmud. A rich man should be honored, it’s written, because he has received the blessing of wealth from God. A midrashic quotation even claims that God hasn’t performed any open miracles since the sojourn in the desert because he’s too busy being entertained by the rising and falling of human beings along the "ladders of wealth". Apparently the Forbes 400 is delivered up there.

Marx took his brand of ideology from the roiling cauldron of German intellectual thought of the mid Nineteenth Century. His only nod to Judaism was to denounce it. So the next time you’re at a party and a suburban socialist mentions how Marx was a progressive Jew, please correct that person. The God of the Torah wasn’t money, as Marx claimed, but He also most definitively was not a communist. And Karl Marx most certainly wasn’t Jewish.

Sam Jaffe, co-author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success, has spent the last week guest-blogging on Jewcy with fellow co-author Rabbi Levi Brackman. This is his parting post. Want more? Buy the book!