By S. D’Arcy
There are those who think of Karl Marx as a classic example of the kind of “dead white males” that universities in the West lavish with such rapt attention. But is this quite true? He was male, to be sure. And he’s fully dead. But was he white? Or — in what appears on the surface to be the same question — is Karl Marx white?
For some, the question is to be answered by fixing one’s gaze on the colour of Karl Marx’s skin. One is invited to pour over old sepia photographs, looking for clues. I think there’s good reason to doubt the soundness of this approach, as I will note below. But, for the sake of scrupulous comprehensiveness, let’s look briefly at the matter of Marx’s skin. In his first year as a student at the University of Bonn, according to Jonathan Sperber’s recent biography, Marx’s classmates dubbed him “the Moor,” because of “his swarthy complexion,” i.e., his dark skin. Another biographer, Franz Mehring, says that the nickname was “given to him on account of his jet-black hair and dark complexion.” The label stuck with him until his death almost five decades later. He was judged by his contemporaries, apparently, to have physical features associated (in their minds, at least) with the Maghreb region of North Africa. On the other hand, another biographer, Jerrold Seigel, makes a convincing case that the nickname was — at least in part — a reference to the hero of Friedrich Schiller’s famous Romantic novel, The Robbers [Die Räuber], whose name was Karl von Moor and who denounced the corruption of the rich and powerful. (Note that, as Seigel points out, Marx’s nickname was spelled Mohr, in German, not Moor, so the match is inexact.)
In any case, Seigel makes another point which, as I see things, is more relevant to the matter at hand: the nickname served within his milieu to highlight Marx’s Jewish heritage, hinting that he wasn’t fully recognized as German. Seigel notes that, in spite of his father’s conversion at the age of 35 to Lutheran Christianity (and his corresponding name change from Heschel to Heinrich), which was necessary because a post-Napoleanic Prussian legal reform made it illegal for Jews to practice law, Marx was regarded by his peers as a Jew. Indeed his daughter Eleanor Marx Aveling, who was as secular as Marx albeit less estranged than him from their common Jewish roots, continually referred to herself proudly as “a Jewess.” (Eduard Bernstein, in an obituary for her, wrote that, “At every opportunity she declared her [Jewish] descent with a certain defiance.”)
I will put my cards on the table, at this point: If we come to judge that Marx wasn’t white, it should not be because we think his skin was too dark to count (or “pass”) as white. It should be because we decide that Jews in Germany (and Europe more broadly) in the 19th century were racialized as exterior to the “white race.” In other words, if Marx wasn’t white, it’s because other Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Rosa Luxemburg or Leon Trotsky, were also not white.
The question of whether or not Marx was white holds considerable interest, I think, for two reasons. First, it raises some interesting and important questions in social ontology; and second, it raises the possibility that although Marxism arose in Europe, obviously, it may never have been a political tradition dominated by white people, since it has been crucially shaped by and centrally associated with racialized (that is, racially subordinated) people from its inception. Anyone can observe that in our own time, and indeed since no later than the mid-20th century, marxism has been a political tradition whose adherents have been overwhelmingly confined to the Global South. That applies both to intellectuals and to workers’ movements and leftist political parties. There are far more marxists in India today than in Europe, the USA and Canada combined. But it isn’t as well known or well-understood that even many of marxism’s earliest and most influential adherents within Europe were also non-white, including its main founder.
To make the point fully clear, two things have to be established: that European Jews in the 19th century weren’t white; and that Marx and many other leading early marxists were also Jewish, in the relevant sense, even if they were secular and/or atheist, as most were. These two issues are in fact closely related, because in order to make the case that European Jews in the 19th century were not white, one has to establish that Jews were regarded, not simply as a religious group, which one could exit by means of conversion to another religion or adoption of atheism, but a racial one, from which no escape was possible.
Certainly, anyone would agree that Jews in Europe in general, and in Marx’s Germany specifically, were subjected to systematic subordination, often being persecuted mercilessly. The mechanisms of this subordination ranged from the pogroms (violent anti-Semitic rioting) of the Russian empire, to longstanding denial to Jews of civil rights across Europe, to the spread of (sometimes biologically and sometimes culturally framed) ideologies of Jewish inferiority, typified by Immanuel Kant’s depiction of Jews as “a nation of cheaters,” who were “bound by an ancient superstition” which encouraged them to “seek no civil dignity and [to] try to make up for this loss by the advantage of duping the people among whom they find refuge, and even one another” (Kant, 1798, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View). As recently as the late 1920s, the most important logician since Aristotle, Gottlob Frege, could insist that the Jews should not “be considered as Germans,” expressing support for the project of expelling them from Germany outright, if possible, and in the meantime advocating the denial to them of equal civil rights.
So, yes, there was a system of wide-ranging persecution and subordination of Jewish people, certainly. But the question is, was this a matter of “religious persecution” or “racial subordination”? This matters here particularly, because Marx’s family converted to Christianity, with the result that he grew up in a secular family that was officially or formally affiliated to Lutheranism, not Judaism.
Interestingly, according to George M. Fredrickson, author of Racism: A Short History, “The word ‘racism’ first came into common usage in the 1930s when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews” (Racism: A Short History, p. 5). But was the anti-Semitism of the Nazis racist, specifically, and why? How, if at all, was it fundamentally different from the more longstanding anti-Jewish religious persecution of earlier times?
The racist version of anti-Semitism differed from the religious version in that it was linked to an essentialist interpretation of what was viewed as disreputable about Jewishness. In religious persecution, it is one’s religious affiliation that is discrediting, but that can be changed by means of conversion; in the racist version, the view is not that Jews are bad because their religion has disreputable features, but rather that their prior, more fundamental Jewishness explains the supposed defects of the religion that most of them practice, and no mere change of religious affiliation can make that go away. Thus, in religious persecution, one is a Jew because one adheres to the Jewish religion; in racist anti-semitism, if one adheres to the Jewish religion, it is just one of many possible expressions of one’s more basic Jewishness. To the Nazis, it didn’t matter if one practiced Judaism; either way, a Jew was a Jew.
But was this type of racial anti-Semitism a specifically Nazi invention? No, certainly not. Although the details are better left to historians, the overall picture is clear enough: the rise of modern nationalism, beginning at the end of the 18th century, in combination with the rise of modern imperialism, encouraged the development — nowhere more forcefully than in Germany — of the idea of a people bonded by ethnic commonality, distinguished from and superior to foreigners. “Previously, their Christian neighbours had thought of Jews as members of an alien and false religion, adherents to a broken covenant. Now secularized antisemites would hate them as members of an alien and inferior race, unassimilable by those among whom they lived, a dangerous source of pollution for the cultural and racial purity of their neighbors” (Nicholls, Christian Anti-Semitism, p. 313). “Jews were now to be regarded as a race….This was especially true in Germany, where the Romantic movement spoke of the Volk, the ancient Aryan race in its pure German form.” In this form of anti-Semitism, the Jews “were aliens, unassimilable even when they did their utmost to assimilate” (Ibid., p. 289).
It is for this reason that Marx’s nickname, the Moor, is significant: its hint that Marx, in spite of his atheism and his parents’ conversion to Christianity, was nevertheless regarded by his peers as a foreigner, a Jew, whose roots were to be found in the Middle East, not Germany.
Marx, in short, was regarded as a Jew, not a white person, not a German or even a proper European. Of course, it might seem like a leap to go from saying (1) Marx was regarded by anti-Semites as a Jew, not white, to saying (2) Marx wasn’t white. Shouldn’t the critical distance we rightly take from the racist view of Jews lead us to ignore ascriptions of racial categories by racist Europeans in the 19th century?
Well, that would hold if we believed there there were such a thing as mind-independent races. But surely we should not think that. Here, we touch on one of the ontological points that I want to make. Race is “socio-genic,” that is to say, it is the outcome of a social process of differential status-assignment that institutes hierarchically ordered social positions and consigns people to these positions, not because of what they already are (as if racial assignments reflected natural differences), nor because of how they look (as if racial difference were something we that social orders simply registered by noticing pre-existing diversity), but instead by actively establishing as authoritative and thereby instituting socio-political criteria for sorting people into groups using diversity, sometimes phenotypic (physical appearance) and sometimes non-phenotypic, as a pretext. In short, racial categories are a socio-political invention. Racial positions are instituted, socially. (A view that is, in broad outlines, consistent with this view is applied to the case of American Jews in the book, How Jews Became White Folks, and What That Says About Race in America, by Karen Brodkin.)
Of course, it is an invention that is taken very seriously, both by its inventors and by those who take their cue from them. Employers, landlords, judges, police officers, teachers, and many, many others routinely decide how to talk about someone, how to treat someone, and more generally how to relate to someone, based in some large part on the racial category into which they class that person. We all know that. But what’s less clear is why they do that. Or, more to the point, how is the practice of racialization functional for powerful institutions and systems? I won’t stop to try to answer that question, except to say that my own view is heavily informed by Martin Luther King’s view, according to which white supremacy was “engineered” by elites as a form of social control. (For more on that, see “Some Concise Research Notes on Two Concepts in Early Marxism: The ‘Volksmasse’ and ‘Antagonismus.’”)
But it is crucial to see that races exist in much the same way that 20 dollar bills exist: they exist in a way that depends crucially on the fact that people think that one thing (a piece of rectangular paper with certain markings on it) counts as another thing (a unit of currency). Once that social condition is met, however, 20 dollar bills produce very real effects. The idea that they are only imaginary (just because they are, among other things, imaginary) is gravely mistaken. No, they are not mere figments of imagination, but institutions, constituted in part by socially shared imaginings. The key to understanding races, including counterfeit cases of racial ‘passing,’ is to understand that, like universities and 20 dollar bills, races are institutions.
I want to close these comments by returning to my starting-point. Was Marx a “dead white male,” in the sense that people use that term to criticize the narrowness of “canonically” “important” intellectual work? Although Marx was not white, his inclusion in a so-called “Canon” of so-called “Great Philosophers” could still be seen, today, as a maneuver enabled by his acceptance, long after his death, as white (an acceptance made possible by virtue of the very “background” that once precluded him from being recognized as white: his German Jewish heritage).
He wasn’t white, but he is white. He switched races many years after his death. (Of course, this seems like a less remarkable feat when compared to Socrates, who took thousands of years to become, posthumously, a “homosexual.”)
As for Marxism, it should be accepted, I think, that Marxism did not emerge mainly from white society, or rather, from white people. Many of its most important early promoters and innovators were not white (until they were made so, well after their deaths): people like Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Julius Martov, Otto Bauer, and György Lukacs, to name only a few. For the most part, marxism emerged from racialized, non-white intellectuals and activists in Europe, just as racialized non-white intellectuals and activists outside of Europe are today its leading exponents and innovators. Of course, it did emerge from European society and European culture, so the implications of its origins in Europe would have to be discussed separately. There are important works that address this issue, and I will mention four: Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism (which isn’t specifically about marxism, but deploys and addresses it); Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins; Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital; and Robert Biel’s Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement.