How a Founding Socialist Inspired Karl Marx, and Then Went on to Herald the State of Israel

What exactly did Moses Hess believe he was repenting from?

Moses Hess.

Moses Hess.

May 9 2022
About the author

Asael Abelman teaches in the History Department at Herzog College and is a lecturer in Jewish history at Shalem College. He is the author of a comprehensive history of the Jewish people, Toldot Ha-Yehudim, which was published by Dvir in Hebrew in 2019.

In 1862, Moses Hess, one of Europe’s most prominent socialist thinkers, declared that he had become a ba’al t’shuvah, a penitent. This was a surprising turn of events for Hess, who had for the most part ignored the Jewish people in his voluminous writings. Although he had previously written of the Hebrew Bible as a major achievement in mankind’s spiritual development, he saw it only as a steppingstone to the further advancements brought by Christianity, the philosophy of Benedict Spinoza, and the great minds of the German Enlightenment. Even after his decision to return in some sense to Judaism, Hess never embraced Jewish observance, or traditional theology. But he had undoubtedly undergone a spiritual transformation, and would from then on devote his energies—many years before the Russian-Jewish Lovers of Zion or Theodor Herzl—to advocating a revival of Jewish national life in the Land of Israel.

How is it that this thoroughly Europeanized Jew, whose writings influenced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, became the grandfather of modern Zionism, revered by such figures as David Ben-Gurion? What exactly did he believe he was repenting from? And why did he characterize a shift in his thinking in such deeply theological terms? To understand all this, it’s necessary to look at the world that shaped him, and his early thought.


The descendent of a rabbinic family, Moses Hess was born in Bonn in 1812, a dramatic moment in history. Along with the rest of the Rhineland—a collection of duchies, principalities, and free towns—Bonn had recently been conquered by the French Revolutionary army, which in one fell swoop had brought Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality to much of Germany. The new rulers abolished ancient feudal rights, introduced the civil code, separated church from state, and recognized all citizens, even Jews, as equal before the law.

Previously, Rhenish Jewry had lived under severe restrictions that circumscribed where they could live, what occupations they could pursue, and much else. The French conquest changed that: the ghettos—not mere neighborhoods but walled-off areas whose gates were locked at night—were abolished, and discriminatory legislation repealed. For the first time in European history, Jews were allowed unrestricted access to universities. But this situation was short-lived. In 1814 and 1815, Napoleon’s army was defeated and the old regime was restored across Europe. Bonn and its environs were absorbed into the conservative kingdom of Prussia, and the kingdom’s Jews were once more prohibited from serving in the army and in public positions, from teaching and studying in universities, and from voting or holding office.

Many Jews could not tolerate this humiliating deterioration of their social status, and converted to Christianity to put an end to their legal inferiority, hoping to be accepted at long last into German society. This was the route chosen by Heinrich Marx, the father of Karl, and by the poet Heinrich Heine.

Other Jews chose to adhere fiercely to their ancient religion. Among these was David Hess, Moses’s father. After David moved to Cologne to pursue his business interests, it was his father who cared for young Moshe and provided him with a Jewish education that included instruction in Hebrew, the Bible, and the Talmud, alongside a sense of the Jewish past and of the yearning for future redemption. Many years later, he wrote of this experience:

My grandfather was one of those exalted in Torah and piety who did not make his Torah into a spade to dig with, and despite his being ordained as a rabbi, he did not want to use this title. As a rule, he would set times for Torah study from evening until midnight, all year round. And only when the Nine Days [a period of mourning before the fast of Tisha b’Av] came around would he pause his teaching. Then he would read to his grandchildren, who would sit wide awake until midnight, tales of the destruction of the Temple and the exile from Jerusalem. His eyes would shed tears that fell onto his snow-white beard, and even we children could not resist, and we would burst into tears. I remember one story from these tales of the destruction of the Temple, which was thrilling to both grandfather and grandchildren: “When the children of Israel were bound in captivity before Nebuchadnezzar’s army in Babylon, they passed by the tomb of our mother, Rachel, and as they approached the tomb, behold! A voice was heard, wailing, crying bitterly, Rachel is weeping for her sons, refusing to be comforted.” (p. 41, vol. 4)

Young Moses had thought of taking over his father’s business, but his father’s detached attitude left him alienated. Instead, he pursued a career as a writer and journalist, and eventually as an activist. He spent much of his youth wandering through Britain, the Netherlands, and France, where he adopted revolutionary socialist ideas, wrote a great deal, and dreamed of bringing welfare, justice, and happiness to humankind.

Like many young writers and thinkers of the 1820s and 1830s, Hess was deeply influenced by the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who argued that the unfolding of history gradually reveals the truth, leading to the redemption of man and the realization of his freedom. And like many of Hegel’s younger acolytes, Hess put a leftist spin on these ideas, while rising to such prominence that he became known as the “first German socialist.” During those years, Hess met and grew to admire Karl Marx, whom he described as “the greatest philosopher alive today: . . . Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine, and Hegel integrated into one personality.” Hess nonetheless disagreed with Marx about the nature and course of the impending revolution.

In 1837, Hess’s first book, an exercise in Hegelianism titled Holy History of Mankind, was published. It tells a tale of human progress from biblical times through the revolutions in the United States and France; it concludes with a confident prediction that history will culminate in the creation of a new society based on freedom, shared ownership of property, solidarity, and harmony, resulting in the establishment of a “new Jerusalem” in the heart of Europe. Although this book had limited influence at the time, it’s worth noting that it predated Marx’s socialist writings by several years. In 1841, Hess followed it with European Triarchy, a work in a similar Hegelian and utopian vein that calls for the creation of a “new Europe” shaped by “German philosophy, French politics, and English economics.”

In the subsequent two decades, Hess produced scores of journalistic articles, some of which were widely read. These writings are full of the jargon typical of the mid-19th-century left, replete with denunciations of alienation, class polarization, the bourgeoisie, and the “nobility of wealth,” coupled with a yearning for cooperation, solidarity, and harmony that would lead to the disappearance of scarcity, poverty, and crime, alongside the advent of international peace.

In these years of passionate dreaming, Hess distanced himself from his Jewish identity—but wrote sympathetically about the Jews. He described the contribution that the Jews had made to human history as a living, vibrant part of European culture, and expressed hopes that the Jewish heritage would continue to influence the “repairing of the world” in the spirit of the biblical prophets. As for the persecution and discrimination Jews suffered, these, Hess believed, would disappear in the utopian paradise that would follow the workers’ revolution. He saw no need to pay particular attention to the Jews’ problems, and did not see them as having any distinctive future.


Yet two events took place in the 1840s that would sow the seeds of a dramatic change in Hess’s attitude toward his people, which would in turn lead to his eventual t’shuvah. First, in 1840, an Italian priest, who had lived in Damascus for three decades, went missing in that city’s Jewish quarter. Rumors quickly spread among the sizeable Christian population that he had been murdered by Jews who sought to use his blood for their nefarious occult rituals—rumors deemed credible by such figures as the U.S. vice-consul in Beirut. The Muslim authorities responded by rounding up prominent Damascene Jews and torturing confessions out of them, killing four in the process.

The Damascus Affair seized the attention, and kindled the outrage, of West European Jewry, Hess among them. In its wake, he came to the realize that Jew-hatred would always be present, even in enlightened modern times. Decades later, the openly anti-Semitic mayoral campaign of Karl Lueger in Vienna would bring Theodor Herzl to a similar conclusion. But while Herzl finished writing his Zionist manifesto within months of those fateful municipal elections, Hess, for the time being, remained devoted to the problems of the proletariat.

The next transformative event came in 1848, when a revolution broke out in France—overthrowing the monarchy once and for all—and quickly spread to Italy, Germany, Austria, and elsewhere. For a brief moment, it seemed that the workers of the world were finally rebelling against their masters. The socialists were soon disappointed. From their perspective, even the French uprising achieved only moderate goals. Elsewhere, despite initial successes, the revolutionaries were firmly repressed.

But something else unexpected happened. German revolutionaries tried to create not a German workers’ paradise, but a unified German nation, ruled by King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia. Meanwhile, Poles revolted against Prussian rule, demanding independence, while Hungarians, Czechs, and northern Italians rose up against Austria. Nationalism, not proletarian solidarity, emerged as the dominant force sending Europeans to barricades.

By 1849, radicals were left dispirited and often disillusioned. Marx, who had published the Communist Manifesto in response to the previous year’s uprisings, now dismissed them as “bourgeois revolutions.” His subsequent thinking, found in Das Kapital and his other later works, reflected his attempts to assimilate the lessons he had learned from the failures of 1848.

European governments too learned some lessons. Alert to the dangers of socialism, they identified numerous radicals as seditious and forced them into exile—Hess among them. He spent several years moving among Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands, before finally settling in Paris. Yet while some of his fellows abandoned radicalism altogether, he remained steadfast in his belief that socialism would someday emerge victorious.

Yet his thinking was by no means unchanged. Like many of his fellow radicals, he began to reckon seriously with nationalism—which had showed itself a potent force against the old European monarchies—and to support the Italians in their struggle to throw off the twin yoke of Austrian and papal domination in order to create a unified Italian state. His attention to the Italian cause in the 1850s led him to ask an obvious question: should not Jews too fight for their own national liberation? If Italians—not to mention Czechs, Hungarians, Serbs, and other stateless peoples—deserved national self-determination, why not the Jews? Seized by this idea, he immersed himself in the work of Heinrich Graetz, who had just written one of the very first modern scholarly studies of Jewish history. For the first time in his life, the Jews, not the workers of the world, became the focus of Hess’s passions.

Following this new lodestar, Hess didn’t just change his thinking. He underwent the profound intellectual and spiritual transformation that he would later characterize as t’shuvah, “returning” to his Jewish identity, if not to traditional faith or practice. He felt no need to repent for his socialism, but only for his neglect of his own people in favor of universalist, pan-European goals. The end result was his 1862 Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question, which set forth ideas far more revolutionary than any of his socialist writings.


Rome and Jerusalem is written in the form of letters to a close relative, a fairly common literary device in Hess’s day. It begins with Hess’s declaration that he is now a ba’al t’shuvah (penitent), albeit one who has come to a very untraditional course of action:

After an estrangement of twenty years, I am back with my people. I have come to be one of them again, to participate in the celebration of the holy days, to share the memories and hopes of the nation, to take part in the spiritual and intellectual warfare going on within the House of Israel, on the one hand, and between our people and the surrounding civilized nations on the other; for though the Jews have lived among the nations for almost 2,000 years, they cannot, after all, become a mere part of the organic whole.

A thought which I believed to be forever buried in my heart has been revived in me anew. It is the thought of my nationality, which is inseparably connected with the ancestral heritage and the memories of the Holy Land, the Eternal City, the birthplace of the belief in the divine unity of life, as well as the hope in the future brotherhood of men. (Rome and Jerusalem, First Letter, p.48)

Just as the Italians had fought to transform their fractured land into a single nation-state free of foreign domination, so too could the Jews aspire to national independence in their ancestral homeland. What’s more, the Jewish quest for liberation has world-historical significance:

With the liberation of the Eternal City on the banks of the Tiber begins the liberation of the Eternal City on the slopes of Moriah; the renaissance of Italy heralds the rise of Judah. The orphaned children of Jerusalem will also participate in the great regeneration of nations, in their awakening from the lethargy of the Middle Ages, with its terrible nightmares. (Rome and Jerusalem, Author’s Preface, pp. 35-36)

According to Hess, the Jews are an ancient nation rooted in observance of the Torah, historical memory, and a sacred relationship with Hebrew and the Land of Israel. They have a national identity as distinctive as the that of the French, Germans, or Poles, and are just as deserving of the realization of their national aspirations.

In the two decades before Rome and Jerusalem went to press, German Jews had been slowly regaining the legal equality they had won under Napoleon and integrating into German Jewish society. Yet anti-Semitism refused to wither away, as many liberals had hoped. Hess concluded that Jews would always remain strangers, never accepted entirely by modern Europe:

Mask yourself a thousand times over, change your name, religion, and character, travel throughout the world incognito, so that people may not recognize the Jew in you; yet every insult to the Jewish name will strike you, even more than the pious man who is permeated with the spirit of Jewish solidarity and who fights for the honor of the Jewish name. (Rome and Jerusalem, Fifth Letter. p. 75)

For Jews to become truly free would require something besides tolerance, acceptance by Gentiles, and civic equality. Similarly, Jews could and would not achieve equality and acceptance by adapting their religious norms to the surrounding society. Real national liberation lay elsewhere:

As long as the Jew endeavors to deny his nationality, while at the same time he is unable to deny his own individual existence, as long as he is unwilling to acknowledge that he belongs to that unfortunate and persecuted people, his false position must daily become more intolerable. Wherefore the illusion? The European nations have always considered the existence of the Jews in their midst as an anomaly. We shall always remain strangers among the nations. They may tolerate us and even grant us emancipation, but they will never respect us as long as we place the principle ubi bene ibi patria [“where it is well, there is the fatherland”] above our own great national memories. (Rome and Jerusalem, Fifth Letter, p. 74)

The conclusion: in Europe, which was being swept by in a wave of struggle for national freedom, and where the Jews could not really find their place, they must strive to realize their own national freedom.


And what of the Jewish religion itself? Hess saw in Jewish nationalism a via media that avoided both the stagnation of the traditional rabbinic establishment and the artificiality of Reform Judaism. While no defender of Orthodoxy, he saw the latter as incapable of preserving Jewish identity or sustaining the Jewish people:

The threatening danger to Judaism comes only from the religious reformers who, with their newly-invented ceremonies and empty eloquence, have sucked the marrow out of Judaism and left only its skeleton. . . . They fancy that a recently manufactured prayer or hymn book, wherein a philosophical theism is put into rhyme and accompanied by music, is more elevating and soul-stirring than the fervent Hebrew prayers which express the pain and sorrow at the loss of its fatherland. They forget that these prayers, which not only created, but preserved for millennia, the unity of Jewish worship, are even today the tie which binds into one people all the Jews scattered around the globe. (Rome and Jerusalem, Seventh Letter, pp. 94–95)

Nothing made the reformers lack of national commitment as evident, in Hess’s mind, as their abandonment of the Hebrew tongue:

And just as it is impossible for me to entertain any prejudice against my own race, which has played such an important role in universal history and which is destined for a still greater one in the future, so it is impossible for me to show against the holy language of our fathers the antipathy of those who endeavor to eliminate Hebrew from Jewish life, and even supersede it by German inscriptions in the cemetery. I was always exalted by the Hebrew prayers. I seem to hear in them an echo of the fervent pleadings and passionate entreaties, issuing from suffering hearts of a thousand generations. Seldom do these heart-stirring prayers fail to impress those who are able to understand their meaning. (Rome and Jerusalem. Fourth Letter, p. 62)

By contrast, Hess deemed rabbinic Judaism worthy of respect, despite describing Orthodoxy as “barren” and its proponents as “uncritical reactionaries” with whom “it is useless to argue.” Hess believed that every observant Jew was, in essence, a Jewish patriot, and thus it was among traditional Jews that he would find allies in his project of national revival. To the rabbis and sages, Hess asserted, Jews owe “their mental and moral progress,” the endurance of the Jewish family as an ethical model, and ultimately their survival as a people. Yet these scholars now require “some outside stimulus to rouse their dormant national feelings,” so that they will see themselves not just as pious Jews, but as “Jewish patriots.”

Once Jews regained these patriotic feelings, Hess claimed, the secularly educated and socialist among them would find common cause with their devout brethren. Thus the project of national rebirth would heal the divisions wrought by modernity. As if to drive the point home, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer published Drishat Tzion (“Seeking Zion”)—which calls in religious terms for the revival of Jewish nationalism in the modern era—in the same year as Rome and Jerusalem. The socialist activist and the Orthodox rabbi met at the rebirth of the Jewish nation.

But how was this rebirth to be achieved? Hess and Kalischer agreed that this wasn’t so much a question of “how,” but “where,” and that the answer was the Land of Israel. The modernization of the Middle East and growing European interests in region gave Jews an opportunity to take action and begin the mass settlement in the Land of Israel. Also like Kalischer, Hess argued that voluntary donations could enable the purchase of land, and East European Jews could come together to study agriculture and then settle there. Jews would also serve as “watchmen skilled in warfare” to protect against Arab marauders.

Hess presumed that most immigration to Israel would come from Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and Islamic lands, whose social and national distress was most severe, whereas the materially comfortable Jews of Western Europe would be slower to leave their homes for Zion. Here too, we are reminded of present-day reality.


Moshe Hess’s national dream dovetailed with his social beliefs, and he wrote about “establishing Jewish societies for agriculture, industry, and commerce according to the principles of the Torah of Moses, that is, according to social-democratic principles.” The argument that Judaism and democracy are mutually reinforcing, or even a single idea, still has weight today. As for socialism, Hess’s ideas in some ways presaged, albeit with far more sophistication than is commonplace, the theology of tikkun olam that has had such influence on postwar American Judaism. And more immediately, he set the stage for such Labor Zionist thinkers as Ber Borochov, Nachman Syrkin, and A.D. Gordon—whose ideas would be put into practice by David Ben-Gurion as well as by hundreds of pioneers and kibbutzniks. Hess, like his successors, didn’t see his embrace of Jewish nationalism as requiring a rejection of socialism; to the contrary, he saw these ideologies as intertwined.

Strange as this may seem today, when “leftism” and “nationalism” are generally presented as opposites, Hess’s nationalism was not a socialist heresy, but in fact tracked developments in his friend Karl Marx’s own thinking. Marx and Engels originally ignored nationalism altogether and then, once it became too important a force in European politics to discount, wrote it off as a tool of the bourgeoisie and a form of false consciousness. But they eventually came to support the national reunification of Germany and Italy, since this process would increase the power of capitalism and lead to its inevitable demise. Marx and Engels, to put it bluntly, came to realize that shared national fate and love of homeland, language, and culture are inalienable parts of the lives of most human beings, whether bourgeois or proletarian.

Hess understood this all too well. Moreover, he saw that Marxists’ conceptual leap from the solitary individual to the universal utopia was out of touch with human reality. He found evidence of this in Torah itself, which understands mankind as comprising a multitude of nations—70, in the rabbinic tradition—rather than an undifferentiated whole. As debates over nationalism have returned in force, this too is worth remembering.


Rome and Jerusalem did not achieve much success at the time of its publication. When Labor Zionism emerged as a movement in the first decades of the 20th century, it paralleled similar tendencies in Polish, Armenian, and Austrian socialism. But in its own time, the book was an utter anomaly that met with astonishment from anti-nationalist, socialist circles, and strong opposition from Reform Jews, who had been the subject of Hess’s bitter criticism. Thereafter it fell into obscurity, and only decades later, with the rise of Zionism, did it receive fresh attention.

Hess died in 1875, seven years before Leon Pinsker wrote Autoemancipation, 22 years before Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress, and more than a quarter century before the formation of the first branches of Po’alei Tzion, which would eventually become Israel’s Labor party. Until the very end, he continued to publish in the leftwing press, hoping to witness the victory of the socialist struggle. And yet, he continued to maintain his interest in the renaissance of the Jewish nation, and spread these ideas to the public.

In his own day, Hess’s Jewish vision found little purchase. When Moses Hess died in 1875, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Deutz, a small town not far from his native Bonn. His friends—all of them his fellow devoted socialists—inscribed on his gravestone the epitaph: “the father of German Social Democracy.” Not quite a century later, in 1961, Hess’s remains were transferred from Germany to Israel and reinterred in the Kinneret cemetery, alongside those such luminaries of Labor Zionism as Ber Borochov and Nachman Syrkin, as well as the poet Raḥel and the songwriter Naomi Shemer (best known for “Jerusalem of Gold”). Hess’s tombstone reads: “The author of Rome and Jerusalem, a forefather of world socialism, and herald of the state of Israel.”

Together, these two inscriptions, and the posthumous journey from the banks of the Rhine to the shores of the Galilee, sum up both Hess’s life and his legacy—and his ideological journey from prophet of international socialist revolution to prophet of the redemption of the Jews in their ancestral homeland.

It rarely happens in history that a person manages not only to adumbrate, but indeed to predict what will happen in the years to come. Hess did that. A synthesis of Zionism and socialism gained support and popularity, giving rise to the movement that played a dominant role in the founding of Israel, and the first half-century of its existence as a country.

Within the history and prehistory of Zionism, a special place is reserved for the small group of individuals who, though hailing from different backgrounds, came to observe the world and intuit the necessity of Zionism. Because they did so prematurely, their views gained little traction, and they were often dismissed or condemned by their contemporaries. The passage of time, however, proved that they had been more astute interpreters of reality than those who mocked them as fantasists. Moses Hess went against the current, and became the first secular Jewish thinker to understand something that most of his contemporaries could not—that the revival of the spirit of Jewish nationalism and the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel was essential for the survival of the Jewish people.

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