The pioneering political theorist’s warnings about the inequities of capitalism are still relevant and will not be erased by the defacing of his tomb, writes T P O’Mahony.
THEY can deface Marx’s grave, but they’ll never erase his ideas. That was the heading over a short comment piece in The Guardian newspaper, following the recent news that Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery, in London, had been vandalised for the second time in less than two weeks.
The second mindless act left the tomb, which has a large bronze bust of Marx on top of a high plinth, daubed with red paint and the words ‘doctrine of hate’ and ‘architect of genocide’ painted on it.
The red paint can be removed, but a hammer was used in the earlier attack in an attempt to scrape and chip Marx’s name off the marble slab at the front.
The tomb also has a much-quoted Marx line inscribed on it: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
That’s what Marx set out to do, laying the foundations for change in his great two-volume work Capital. You can vandalise a grave, but you can’t vandalise an idea or a concept.
The monument is owned by the Marx Grave Trust, which is represented by the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell. The plaque on the monument was previously on the grave of Marx’s wife, Jenny von Westphalen, who died on December 2, 1881, two years before him.
It was moved when the remains of Marx (who died on March 14, 1883) and his wife were exhumed and reinterred in a more prominent location in the cemetery in 1954.
In February 1970, in the company of an Irish missionary priest, I embarked on a strange pilgrimage, early on a snowy Sunday morning in London. After attending Mass in a local oratory, and as most of the great metropolis slumbered, we set off for Highgate Cemetery to visit the grave of the author of The Communist Manifesto.
We were both admirers, because we shared the view expressed by Terry Eagleton, of Lancaster University, in his book, Why Marx Was Right: “Very few thinkers, as opposed to statesmen, scientists, soldiers, religious figures and the like, have changed the course of actual history as its author”.
We were an odd couple, an irreverent journalist specialising in the coverage of religious affairs, and an iconoclastic priest. He had worked for a number of years in Tanzania, where he came to know its president, Julius Nyerere, who had sought, with considerable success, to adapt socialism to African conditions.
And our pilgrimage was something of an oddity, too, for we were going to visit the grave of a man who was both an atheist and an icon.
Here we were, two Irish Catholics, brought up in a culture that prized religion, yet paying homage — yes, that indubitably was the purpose of our pilgrimage — to someone who had once famously (and scandalously) said religion was the “opium of the poor”.
Marx’s argument was never with religion per se. What angered him was that he saw, as Professor Russell McCutcheon, of the University of Alabama, has explained, religion being used as a “pacifier that both deadened oppressed people’s sense of pain and alienation while, simultaneously, preventing them from doing anything about their lot in life, since ultimate responsibility was thought to reside with a being who existed outside of history”. That’s the sense in which Marx meant religion acted as a kind of drug.
Not long before our visit, the plaque on the plinth bearing the bust of Marx had been splintered by a bomb. If he was revered in some quarters, he was a figure of hate in others, as continues to be the case.
Years later, I would make my way to Dean Street, off Shaftsbury Avenue, to see the plaque on the wall of the house where Marx died in 1883.
In 2018, BBC Radio 4 marked the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth ( May 5, 1818) in the German town of Trier. The BBC panellists discussed what Marx got right and what he got wrong.
What is not in dispute is that not since an Augustinian priest named Martin Luther began a religious revolution by nailing a few sheets of paper to the door of a church in Wittenberg, in Germany, in 1517, has there been such a revolutionary document as the one penned by Marx in 1884.
Luther’s sheets of paper contained 95 theses directly challenging the power of the Papacy, and would eventually divide Christendom, giving rise to Protestantism.
Marx’s manifesto — a mere 19 pages — has been described by the historian Eric Hobsbawm as an “astonishing masterpiece” and would change the world.
Incidentally, Hobsbawm, an unapologetic Marxist academic, is buried just a short distance from Marx in Highgate.
Hobsbawm said it is “almost certainly by far the most influential piece of political writing since the ‘French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’.” Few scholars would quibble with that.
Marx, who influenced James Connolly and the South American priests who developed ‘liberation theology’, is also damned in the eyes of many because he is seen as the progenitor of totalitarian regimes.
But he can’t be blamed for the terrible things that have been done in the name of a perverted version of Marxism. Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism should never be equated with Marxism.
Marx never held political power and was long dead before the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, in 1917. Yet, the thoughts of Marx remain as relevant as ever.
At a time when capitalism is facing a new crisis, and we are all living with the repercussions of how deeply unstable and socially damaging it is, he was a man who saw, more clearly than anybody else in history, its contradictions and inherent injustices.
“Marx believed that the ethic that governs capitalist society — the idea that I will only be of service to you if it is profitable for me to be so — was a detestable way to live,” says Eagleton.
“We would not treat our friends or children in this way, so why should we accept it as a perfectly natural way of dealing with others in the public realm?”
The same thing had been said about the novelist Joseph Conrad. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, Martin Seymour-Smith tells us this of the Polish-born writer: “He certainly shared Marx’s view that men and women should not be treated like merchandise”.
The insights, analyses, and warnings that Karl Marx bequeathed to us have arguably never been more relevant. That is why interest in Marx and Marxism has revived (even in the United States, now, ‘socialism’ is no longer a dirty word), and why it is more important than ever to distinguish between Marxism and the shocking perversions and aberrations of Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism, which were constructed in his name.
“Was ever a thinker so travestied?” asked Eagleton with considerable justification.
Marx was a humanist who was deeply concerned about the plight of mankind, and thought he had the answer in the classless society he envisaged emerging in the future.
“The world has the resources not for us all to live better, but for all of us to live well,” said Eagleton.
“What prevents this from happening is not nature, but politics.”
Marx sought to alert us to that. Things can be different; he was passionate about that.
“Mankind is shorter by a head,” his lifelong friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, wrote to a comrade in America when Marx died, “and by the most remarkable head of our time.”
And Francis Wheen, the author of a 1999 biography, summarises Marx’s stature as follows: “Not since Jesus Christ has an obscure pauper inspired such global devotion”.
It was the dim awareness of this, back in 1970, that led a young Irish journalist and an Irish priest, who might have found a role in one of Graham Greene’s novels, to embark on a pilgrimage to a snow-flecked grave in London.