Janine Giordano Drake
Most of us know Karl Marx as a fiery atheist. He was, after all, the one who told the world that religion is a hasty balm over the revolution-inducing feelings of alienation, and religious divisions are an obstacle to class solidarity. Many of his followers took this rejection of religion very seriously and strongly advocated that religion be officially rejected from socialist and communist party platforms. Others, however, took Marx's economic analysis as an insight into the building of Christian civilization. In his new biography of the nineteenth century intellectual, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, Jonathan Sperber affirms that Marx was an atheist of Jewish descent, but suggests that we take seriously the radical Protestant world which Karl Marx was immersed in as a young person, and from which he gained his footing.
Sperber argues that this Protestant influence is two-fold. First, Marx's father, Heinrich Marx, converted to Protestantism in 1819 in order to escape the prohibition of Jews from government positions within Germany. Sperber argues that if all he wanted was an opportunity to get appointed to a legal office, Heinrich could have become Catholic. He writes, "Going from Judaism to Protestantism in deeply Catholic Trier meant exchanging one form of minority existence for another." Marx, he argues, was the son of a man who appreciated the radical Protestant tradition for its rejection of the close ties of the Roman Catholic church with the Prussian government. He appreciated the French Revolution's Enlightenment and Deist ideals, saw these democratic impulses more aligned with Protestantism than the ancient Roman Church. After his father died, a librarian found in Heinrich's library a copy of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man.
At the same time, Sperber argues, Marx also defended minority Catholics around the world against a Protestant Prussian government. While he personally rejected religion as a Young Hegelian, he did not support the "Society of Free Men," a group which asked all members to cut ties with Christian churches. He called this attitude "revolutionary romanticism, their addiction to their own genius, their dubious seeking of fame." Marx did not object to private faith as much as he did to dogmatic religious institutions. He was not a lifestyle radical, either--he strove for a traditional nineteenth century marriage and a middle class upbringing for his kids, and did not call for others to reject these visions of the good life. Rather, argues Sperber, Marx was a political radical who sought to "move toward a criticism of the social and political circumstances that encouraged and enforced [religious institutions'] orthodoxy." As Sperber said in a seminar on his book at the Newberry library this past Saturday, "People want to think of Marx as a Jewish folk hero." Rather, he was a nineteenth century Hegelian losing his footing in the middle class, and interested in freeing religious minorities and newly poor people from the political domination of Czarist Russia.
As Sperber shows us, many people want to think of Karl Marx as Jewish in twenty-first century terms--self-conscious about the embattled history of his people, and ready to defend them to the end. But, Sperber urges us to think of Marx was a stateless, bourgeois atheist of the nineteenth century of Jewish lineage. "He often denounced individual Jews as greedy and grasping," and used anti-Semitic phrases in accusation. He had little loyalty to the whole group. After all, Marx was critical of the power in all nation-states and all ethnic and national identities.
The more I read on the socialist world of the nineteenth century, the more ties I find between radical Protestants of the early nineteenth century and socialist radicals of the late nineteenth century. We might need to take seriously Paul Buhle's Radical Jesus and start our lectures on the rise of Marxism with Jacobins, Anabaptists, and other so-called "Protestant Infidels" of their time.