In one of his best essays, Isaiah Berlin compared two astonishing contemporaries, both of them “famous, influential, exceptionally gifted.” Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) and Karl Marx (1818–1883) were men of letters who hoped to become men of action, both addressed the great question of class conflict but from totally different angles, and both did so by way of identifying with classes to which they did not belong. They were both Jews.
Of the two stories, Disraeli’s is plainly the more extraordinary for what he accomplished during his lifetime: Marx did not die “triumphant and full of victory,” as Disraeli appeared to one who was with him at the end. Born the son of Isaac D’Israeli, a delightful man of independent means and scholarly tastes who passed his days compiling his Curiosities of Literature, Benjamin grew up in London, where his life was changed—and history also—almost by chance. Isaac’s parents were Jewish merchants who had come to England from Leghorn. None too pious anyway, Isaac had a sharp little row with the Bevis Marks Synagogue to which he was nominally attached, refusing both to serve as an official and to pay the fine assessed for refusing to serve; in 1817 he had his children baptized into the Church of England.
Conversion may have been the entrance ticket to European civilization, in Heine’s sarcastic phrase, but that wasn’t Isaac’s intention—and the consequences were quite unforeseen, as Adam Kirsch relates in his fascinating and altogether original Benjamin Disraeli. The Enlightenment had admired England as the home of limited government and religious tolerance, and yet the country in which Disraeli was born was ruled by a corrupt oligarchical Parliament in which only members of the Established Church could sit. Jews were excluded on the basis of religion (as were Roman Catholics), but not of race, and several men of Jewish origin, including Sir Manesseh Lopez and the political economist David Ricardo, had sat as MPs. And although England was being transformed by explosive industrial capitalism, whose effects Marx would one day be shown by his friend Friedrich Engels in Manchester, it was still dominated politically and socially by a land-owning elite.
While Isaac sent his younger boys to Winchester, the ancient public school (itself an indication of how social barriers in England could be surmounted), Benjamin’s education was rudimentary, and he never acquired the command of Latin and Greek that was then the mark of a gentleman. After dropping the apostrophe from his surname, he tried to become a lawyer and then turned to publicizing South American mines in which he had invested, writing a pamphlet that Kirsch nicely calls “a more dignified nineteenth-century equivalent of stock promotion spam.” He thereby lost a great deal of money he didn’t have, and then more when a newspaper he helped launch quickly sank.
At just twenty-one, he published Vivian Grey, his first novel, only to reap much indignation in the press and elsewhere when …