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The Eternal Marx

Shlomo Avineri's recent biography demolishes the charge that Karl Marx was a self-hating anti-Semite. And by dragging Marx, kicking and screaming, back into the Rhinish Jewish community that shaped him, Avineri yields new insights pertinent to today’s global challenges.

ATHENS – The problem with egotists is that they are not particularly good at being selfish. They can accumulate wealth, legal rights, and power, but, in the end, they are pitiable figures who cannot know fulfillment. This assessment of the “egotistic man,” whom he defines as “an individual withdrawn behind his private interests and whim and separated from the community,” is the gravamen of Karl Marx’s critique of possessive individualism – the moral philosophy underpinning capitalism’s oeuvre.

As I read Shlomo Avineri’s exquisite recent biography of Marx, I became increasingly troubled by the image of an individual “separated from the community.” But the individual I was thinking about was Marx himself: the wandering revolutionary who, expelled from his native Germany and forced to leave Brussels and Paris, died, stateless, in liberal Victorian England. Suddenly, an inconvenient question occurred to me.

Why did I always find Shakespeare’s presentation of Shylock and Caliban particularly objectionable (in The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest, respectively)? Was it merely the identification of nastiness with a Jewish entrepreneur and a black man?

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