No, Karl Marx Wasn’t a Hideous Racist

Centrist pundit Andrew Sullivan thinks Karl Marx was “one of the most repellent anti-Semites and racists of the 19th century.” That’s nonsense — Marx’s political project was all about expanding human freedom and fighting oppression in every form.

Karl Marx’s deepest commitment was to human freedom. It’s a commitment that led him to produce a body of work that continues to reward the attention of readers who are serious about remaking society in accordance with “Enlightenment values.” (Robert Diedrichs / Wikimedia Commons)

Andrew Sullivan really, really hates Karl Marx. He writes in his recent essay “When Will They Cancel Karl Marx?” that “the woke” are hypocritical because they’ve “canceled” Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant for their racist beliefs — whereas Marx remains uncanceled.

Marx, Sullivan says, was “one of the most repellent anti-Semites and racists of the 19th century.” Oh, and Marxism has had a “uniquely murderous role in human history.”

Every one of these claims is nonsense.

Marxism, “Wokeness,” and the Enlightenment

To begin with, it’s far from clear what Sullivan means when he says some historical figures have been “canceled.” Immanuel Kant, for example, did say many disturbingly racist things, although historians of philosophy debate how much his views changed at the end of his life. Is noting these facts or grappling with what they say about the man tantamount to “canceling” him if his writings are still assigned and his ideas about other subjects continue to be taken seriously?

Certainly, no one has ever suggested that I stop put Kant’s writings on my syllabus — as I have, semester after semester, since I started teaching philosophy classes.

Sullivan accuses “the left” of wanting to “root out the Enlightenment principles that make America a free country” and quotes black studies professor Kehinde Andrews blaming “Enlightenment values” for “cement[ing] racial prejudice.” Yet Sullivan seems unaware that Marx’s ideas had deep roots in Enlightenment thought — and that intellectuals who do hate the Enlightenment aren’t on Marx’s side. If Sullivan had bothered to check what Kehinde Andrews thought about Marx, for instance, he would have found an article called “M is for Marxism” where Andrews pours contempt on Marx and Marxists for their belief that black and white workers should unite on the basis of shared material interests. “If we are looking for the White worker to join the struggle,” Andrews writes, “we will be waiting forever after.”

Sounding more than a little like Jordan Peterson, Sullivan insists that Marx remains a “core source for the woke worldview, after being strained through the nihilism of postmodern thought and repackaged for American undergrads.” I have no idea what that part about straining and repackaging means. Frankly, I doubt that even Sullivan knows what it means.

But let’s put that aside and focus on the “core source” claim.

Sullivan’s only evidence is an op-ed published by the New York Times in 2018 on Marx’s bicentennial. The author, philosophy professor Jason Barker, claims that “[s]ocial justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo” owe “something of an unspoken debt” to Marx because, like Marx’s critique of capitalism, these social justice movements seek to question things that might otherwise be seen as “eternal truths.”

Since (a) I’m a Marxist and (b) my hot take on racism and sexism is that both are very bad, I’m not averse in principle to giving Marx credit for attempts to counter them. But is it really true that Marx is a “core source” for these movements in their current form?

This would certainly surprise someone like Marxist scholar Adolph Reed, who has criticized the common focus on racial disparities to the exclusion of deeper economic inequalities. Making sure a demographically appropriate mix of people occupies each rung of the economic ladder, Reed argues, wouldn’t create a just society but a “differently unjust” one. Whether you agree or disagree with Reed’s critique, its mere existence is a good reminder of the distinctions that are lost by casually equating Marxism with “the woke worldview.”

It’s also worth noting just how brazenly Sullivan is trying to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, the popularity of an anti-racist movement is evidence of the insidious influence of Marxism. On the other hand, Marx was “one of the most repellent anti-Semites and racists of the 19th century.”

Ranking the Antisemites and Racists of the Nineteenth Century

Sullivan backs up this last claim with three pieces of evidence. First, Marx allegedly supported British imperialism in India and US imperialism in Mexico. Second, in a letter to his close collaborator Friedrich Engels complaining about his sometimes-friend and sometimes-enemy Ferdinand Lassalle, Marx resorted to crude racist stereotypes. Third, Marx said antisemitic things about Jews and Judaism in his 1844 pamphlet On the Jewish Question.

In two of the three cases, Sullivan’s characterizations are at best extremely misleading. The exception is the letter about Lassalle. Marx’s racist descriptions of his then-friend are hard to stomach and a stain on his personal character. But even if the picture Sullivan paints was accurate on all three points, the notion that this would make Marx “one of the most repellent anti-Semites and racists of the 19th century” would still be utterly absurd.

This was a century when the question of whether Jewish people should have citizenship rights in Christian countries was very much a live issue. So was the belief in the “blood libel” — the charge that Jewish people murdered Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals. Pope Pius IX, “the most influential pope of the century,” directly endorsed this claim — making him perhaps a slightly more repellent antisemite than Karl Marx. As to antiblack racism, it’s worth remembering that this was the century when 620,000 Americans died in a war started by Southern rebels with the explicit goal of preserving slavery — an institution that the rebels constantly claimed was right and good because of the allegedly natural differences between the races.

A photographic portrait of Karl Marx from 1861. (Richard Beard / Wikimedia commons)

In 1844, when Marx’s On the Jewish Question came out, the question of granting legal rights for Jews was controversial even within freethinking and democratic-revolutionary circles. His pamphlet was a polemic against Bruno Bauer, a Young Hegelian who argued that Jews had no right to demand that a Christian state give them equal rights as long as they practiced a non-Christian religion. Bauer advocated a secular state but argued that Jews should give up their religious peculiarities in order to integrate into such a state.

Marx disagreed, writing that the freedom of everyone to privately practice the religion of their choice was a natural and desirable result of the progress from premodern forms of society to modern capitalist democracies. While he hadn’t completed his own evolution from Left Hegelianism to Marxism by the time he wrote On the Jewish Question, Marx did conclude the pamphlet by insisting on the need to push past capitalism to create a deeper kind of freedom.

In the last section of the pamphlet, Marx did engage in some casually antisemitic language and metaphors, using what’s essentially an extended pun on the word “Judentum” with its colloquial double meanings as “Judaism” and “commerce.” His overall point, though, was to argue against Bauer and for equal rights for German Jews.

As to India and Mexico, Sullivan is only telling half the story. In his initial writings on British rule in India, Marx said that England was “actuated by the vilest interests, and stupid in her manner of enforcing them” but nevertheless celebrated the idea that by modernizing the Indian economy the colonizers were laying the basis for future progress — progress that would presumably come in the form of democratic and then socialist revolutions. Engels initially said similar things about Mexican territory being gobbled up by the United States.

But four years after his commentary on India was published, when a rebellion had indeed broke out against British colonial rule, Marx wrote in staunch support of the rebels, saying that India’s struggle for independence made it the “best ally” of the British working class as it struggled for its own rights against the same establishment. Similarly, as Lance Selfa notes, Marx changed his tune on Yankee imperialism in Mexico during the 1860s when he was writing about the US Civil War:

Marx welcomed the North’s tentative steps toward emancipation and urged the arming of ex-slaves to fight for their own liberation: “[T]hese emancipated Negroes may be militarily organized and sent into the field against the South,” he wrote. Marx also wrote of the psychological effect of Black regiments in breaking the South’s morale. And . . . in his writings on the Civil War, Marx also rejected Engels’s earlier position on Mexico. Instead of seeing the 1830s war for Texas as an advance for capitalist progress, he recognized it as part of the expansionist policy of the Southern slaveholders.

Sullivan’s final charge is that Marxism has a “uniquely murderous role in history,” presumably because of the crimes of dictators who lived long after Marx died. But the fact is that the only head of state that Marx ever liked enough to send a friendly telegram was the democratically elected Abraham Lincoln. “If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election,” Marx enthused to Lincoln on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association, “the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.”

If Sullivan thinks these are the words of one of “the most repellent” racists of the nineteenth century, I wonder what terms he’d use to describe, say, Jefferson Davis. Or even Thomas Jefferson. Recall that Jefferson is one of the allegedly canceled Enlightenment figures mentioned in Sullivan’s essay. Not only was he personally a slaveholder but as president of the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jefferson tried to isolate Haiti out of fear the country’s antislavery revolution “would spread to the United States.”

Karl Marx’s deepest commitment was to human freedom. He wanted everyone to be able to flourish to their fullest potential and hated any system that inhibited that flourishing by forcing some people to do backbreaking labor to support the luxury of others. It’s a commitment that led him to produce a body of work that continues to reward the attention of readers who are serious about remaking society in accordance with “Enlightenment values” — in a way that Andrew Sullivan very much is not.

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Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Morehouse College, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.

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