I was approached earlier this year to write a chapter for the 4th volume of the Jewish Lives Project – a six part book series celebrating the Jewish contribution to British Society throughout history published by the Jewish Museum in London. This volume focuses on influential thinkers and I was asked to write about ‘Karl Marx and Anglo-Jewish Thought”. Volume 4 has now been published. This is my essay.
Karl Marx never went to shul (synagogue) despite both his parents being descended from a long line of rabbis. I blame his father, the lawyer Herschel Marx, born in Saarlautern in 1782, who later settled in Trier, a town of 12,000 people by the Moselle, where his brother Samuel was the senior rabbi. In 1817 Herschel the Jew became Heinrich the (Lutheran) Protestant, to sidestep barriers blocking his career. Why did Herschel choose Protestantism in heavily Catholic Trier? Perhaps he still enjoyed being a minority.
Herschel and Henrietta Marx had nine children. Only four survived to adulthood. Karl Marx was born in 1818. Since Judaism is passed down by the mother, and Henrietta postponed her baptism until after her father’s death in 1825, Karl was officially born a Jew. Not for too long, though. Karl was baptised at the age of six. Then, as a young adult, Karl dispensed with both Lutheranism and Judaism and declared himself an atheist. He memorably described religion, In 1844, as “the opiate of the masses”. It comforted people, he said. It relieved pain in their lives, and gave them temporary euphoria and pleasant illusions. But he wanted people to ditch their illusions, confront reality, and change the world.
I was never offered opiates in shul I when I was young. We were lucky to get a boiled sweet from the shammas. I don’t recall much praying either. Instead I heard sotto voce discussions of football, horse-racing and business worries, interspersed with the congregants standing up, singing like an unruly football crowd, or muttering Hebrew words at lightning speed. “In shul”, one Jewish Marxist told me, “people pray to a God they don’t believe in, in a language they don’t understand, for the security of a state they don’t want to live in”.
On my wedding day, though, Karl Marx the Jew was proudly name-checked by Rabbi Bayfield, head of the Reform Synagogue Movement as he generously described me and my partner, Julia, as social justice campaigners within a “Jewish prophetic tradition”, stretching from Amos and Mica via Marx to the present. The mere mention of Marx provoked nervous coughs among some relatives.
But Marx was indeed a prophet, who argued that major historical changes resulted from the struggle for ascendancy between antagonistic socio-economic classes. In 1818, when Marx was born, the old landed aristocracy were being challenged by a rising industrial bourgeoisie. Once the bourgeoisie triumphed though, they could only sustain their dominance through economically exploiting the class that filled its factories – the “proletariat”. It was inevitable, Marx believed, that one day the proletariat would revolt, seize power in the name of the majority, and establish a society based on equality and justice.
When Marx first visited London in 1845 he met German migrant workers and leaders of radical political groups. On his second visit, in 1847, one group – the Communist League – commissioned him to distill his revolutionary ideas in an accessible pamphlet that would inspire the proletariat to fulfil its historic role. He collaborated on this with Friedrich Engels, and in 1848 they published The Communist Manifesto. It has never been out of print. I possess a Yiddish copy, published by the Jewish Socialist Bund in 1919 in Warsaw. It begins: “A ruakh, a shotn geyt arum iber ayrope – der shotn fun komunizm” (A spirit, a spectre, is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism). The pamphlet urges workers to launch themselves into the struggle: “You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win”. It closes with the rallying cry: “Workers of the World Unite!”
The Marx family settled permanently in London in 1849, living temporarily in Camberwell and Chelsea before renting a two-room flat in Soho, an area full of exiled revolutionaries. Later, they lived in Kentish Town.
Most Jewish Londoners at that time would have scoffed at his manifesto. A small influx of poorer Jews from Holland and Germany scraped a living as clothing and cigarette makers, small traders or petty criminals, but heads of Jewish households were more typically bankers, stockbrokers and entrepreneurs living in capitalist comfort, though barred from standing as MPs until 1858, and their children could not study at Oxford or Cambridge universities until 1856.
By the time Marx died in London, in 1883, having written Das Kapital, pauperised Jews from the Russian Empire were pouring into Britain, fleeing pogroms and persecution. Marx’s vision of a just world, where the downtrodden and persecuted would turn the tables, spoke directly to Jewish migrants working 14-18 hour shifts for subsistence level pay in dingy East End sweatshops. They came to view their situation not as a misfortune but as an injustice that they could remedy through forming unions and striking for better conditions against the sweatshop owners. The banner of the Jewish Trouser Makers’ Union, formed in 1882, was emblazoned with Marx’s slogan: “Workers of the World Unite!” in English and Yiddish.
Marx had his greatest influence on British Jews between the 1880s and the 1930s. Some joined the early radical and revolutionary groups, such as the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League and studied his economic teachings. Bundist exiles in London campaigned in Yiddish, keeping workers informed about developments in Russia while preparing them for struggle in their workplaces here. East End anarchists organised around a Yiddish newspaper, Arbeter Fraynd which embraced Marx’s economics but leaned closer to utopian political thinkers such as Proudhon and Bakunin.
Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor admired her father’s work and was active in the Bloomsbury Socialist Society that met in the “Communist Club”. She proudly reclaimed the family’s Jewishness that her grandfather and father had rejected. Her happiest moments, she said, “are when I am in the East End amidst Jewish workpeople.” A talented linguist, drama teacher and recruiter for trade unionism, she learnt Yiddish, avidly read Fraye Velt, a radical Yiddish newspaper, and taught adult education classes at a workers club in Whitechapel established by Yiddish–speaking revolutionaries.
In 1890, when she was invited to address a large indoor rally protesting against the persecution of Jews in Russia, she wrote to the organisers: “I shall be very glad to speak… the more glad that my father was a Jew.” She was living in Jews Walk, Sydenham when she committed suicide aged 42,. Eleanor had told her sister, “I am Jewishly proud of my house on Jews Walk”.
In the 20th century, two organisations provided a sustained Jewish engagement with Karl Marx’s ideas. The Arbeter Ring (Workers’ Circle) was a Friendly Society, founded in 1909 by Yiddish-speaking Bundists and anarchists, later joined by communists and left-wing Zionists. Its membership peaked in the 1930s. It closed in 1984. Circle members had sharp polemics with each other but all shared Marx’s basic philosophical outlook.
The other organisation was the Communist Party, established nationally in Britain three years after the Russian Revolution. In Jewish working class enclaves in Manchester, London, Leeds and Glasgow in the 1930s, Young Communist League branches were brimming with idealistic Jews, proud that so many Jews sat on the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks who made revolution in Russia.
In 1933, on the 50th anniversary of Marx’s death in the city where he had spent the largest portion of his life, a memorial committee purchased a building in Clerkenwell Green and set up a Workers’ Library and Trade Union school. The Marx Memorial Library boasts a hall downstairs called the Simcha Hall. Upstairs the bookshelves bear tags honouring book donors, many of them with Jewish names.
Between 1934-37, the Communist Party (CP) doubled its membership nationally, but its largely Jewish East End branches increased five-fold. The Communist Party led militant opposition to Mosley’s fascists in that period. When Oswald Mosley told a 15,000 strong rally at Olympia that the principal enemies of fascism were followers of “the German Jew Karl Marx”, he was telling the truth for once.
Some historians dismiss Jewish involvement with Communism as a brief flirtation reflecting the convergence of Jewish and communist opposition to fascism. Yet, every conversation I have had with Jews who joined the Party in that period, even those who later left feeling bitter and betrayed, revealed a deep identification with the Party’s Marxist beliefs. Jews whose school lives were cut short by poverty told me how they expanded their education by devouring the Marxist political literature the Party encouraged them to read.
Several of my Jewish teenage friends had erstwhile communist relatives. One friend’s father, Ken, had replaced his youthful attachment to communist internationalism with Jewish nationalism – Zionism – and joined the Jewish Male Voice Choir. He visited America which Party comrades described as an Evil Capitalist Empire, but he came away impressed. Ken did not move far, though, from his working class roots. He urged me to read Man’s Worldly Goods – the bible of economics that the Party had introduced him to as a youngster, written by Leo Huberman, an American Jewish Marxist.
The classic representation of that period in Jewish working class life when many Jews felt that affinity with a party that embodied Marx’s ideals, was written in the late 1950s by Arnold Wesker. His play, Chicken Soup with Barley, centred on a Jewish communist East End family. Scene one begins on the day of the “Battle of Cable Street”. The family are confident they will see off Mosley, fascism will recede and communism will advance. Sarah, the play’s matriarch, is ready to deal Mosley a blow personally with her wooden mixing spoon. By the final scene, set in 1956, both the family and their ideals are disintegrating. Soviet tanks are quelling a popular rising in Hungary. Sarah’s son Ronnie urges his mother to open her eyes. But Sarah defends the ideals that brought her into the Party and turns angrily on him: “You want me to give it up now? You want me to move to Hendon and forget who I am?”
That last sentence illustrated the sharpening divide between East End working class Jews, many influenced by Marx, certain of the place of Jews in the collective struggle for a better world, and those rushing to the suburbs, happy to swap Marx for bourgeois comforts and individualism.
As the Jewish exodus to the suburbs accelerated in the 1960s and 70s, Marx was largely cast aside by those enjoying new prosperity. Their children would be the first in their families to go to university, rather than serve apprenticeships, drive cabs, work the markets or become secretaries. Ironically, in the universities, some of their offspring would encounter Jews for whom Marx remained pivotal.
I was taught by the political theorist Ralph Miliband who fled to Britain from Nazi occupied Belgium, Lou Kushnick a radical Brooklyn-born scholar of race and class in American politics, and the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, exiled from his native Poland in 1968, with many other Jews, when antisemitism was weaponised in a bitter power struggle within the Communist Party.
British universities boasted outstanding Jewish proponents of Marx’s thinking such as the North American philosophers David-Hillel Ruben and Gerry Cohen, the political scholar Norman Geras, and historians Eric Hobsbawm and Raphael Samuel. Samuel’s communist aunt Miriam was married to the Jewish Studies professor, Chimen Abramsky, whose personal library included books with Marx’s own handwriting in the margins. The New Left of the 1960s and ‘70s included many suburban Jewish students whose parents were moving rapidly in the opposite political direction.
Jewish scholars talk of lomedvovniks – righteous fighters for social justice who appear in each generation. Rabbi Bayfield had his line of prophets. The Polish Jewish marxist, Isaac Deutscher, who died in London in 1967, identified common traits among the most radical Jewish thinkers.
“Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky… all found Jewry too narrow, too archaic, and too constricting. They all looked for ideals and fulfilment beyond it… yet I think in some ways they were very Jewish indeed… as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilisations, religions and national cultures… they lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations… in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it. It was this that enabled them to rise in thought above their societies… to strike out mentally into wide new horizons”.
Marx is long dead. For most British Jews the struggle against poverty has receded. Jewish institutions have a decidedly conservative face. And yet new Jewish radical movements are springing up today, proving that a bond between part of Anglo-Jewry and Marx’s revolutionary ideas continues to renew itself.
Jewish Lives Project: Thought is published by the Jewish Museum, £25