The literary world is no stranger to the infinite possibilities of speculative fiction. However, Shlomo Avineri’s latest addition to the mountain of books devoted to life and work of Karl Marx belongs to a new and ignominious genre — speculative biography.
With the latest in Yale University’s Jewish Lives series, renowned academic Shlomo Avineri seeks to emphasise Marx’s Jewish heritage and its importance in his later work. However, Avineri’s contradictions begin when he asserts that “Marx cannot be seen as a ‘Jewish thinker’,” despite spending several later pages demonstrating that Marx was “unquestionably born Jewish”.
This pattern of contradiction is the key feature of this slim, wearying volume. The context of Marx’s upbringing is sustained in only one of the examinations of his output, namely On the Jewish Question, but any insights are lost in a cloud of speculation about Marx’s motives. Avineri’s infuriating tendency to speculate in a book as compressed as this must be seen a deliberate strategy to demean and deride Marx altogether.
Avineri damns Marx with faint praise as brilliant intellectually, but his “failure” to influence social and political developments is blamed on his fiery personality. However careful or even insightful some of Avineri’s views are on Marx as a theoretician (not as a revolutionary), be they on alienation or a critique of his thoughts on revolutionary violence, he seeks to portray him as uncertain, defensive, cautious and vacillating.
Avineri uses drafts of ideas (from his work for the First International, for example) as proof of Marx diluting his own ideas when all they really show are developments of particular, collective ideas for specific reasons.
He argues that Marx’s polemics against figures such as Bakunin, Proudhon and many others should be seen in their proper context, but then dismisses these intellectual rivalries out of hand, completely missing the opportunity to examine Marx’s evolution as a theorist.
In other cases there are distortions that simply leave out evidence to the contrary, such as Marx’s defence of Fenian violence. Avineri describes Marx as being ambivalent about the rise of the Paris Commune when this is the farthest thing from the truth. For the author to demean the Paris Commune as “one of those romantic, hopeless historical aberrations that nevertheless turned into historical icons”, while underestimating the scale of the counter-revolutionary slaughter, is grotesque in the extreme.
In outright moments of pure exasperation, Avineri compares The Communist Manifesto with the Sermon on the Mount for reasons best known to him. He blames Friedrich Engels for “Marxism”, and his allegations about the 1917 Russian Revolution and its aftermath are so wrongheaded as to only elicit contempt.
When Paul Foot presciently wrote that “each generation of intellectuals buries (Marx) and exhumes him in order to bury him again”, it stands as a warning against writers of reaction such as Avineri. Fortunately, Marx’s life of theory and practice stand in total refutation to these calumnies.