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A Monument To Revolutionary Politics

Marx’s monument at Highgate was vandalised twice in February this year, with the original family plaque damaged by a hammer and the marble pedestal section daubed in red paint with politically illiterate slogans. One could say that the Marx Memorial was more of a shrine than a monument. The tomb was designed by Laurence Bradshaw and was unveiled in 1956, at the height of the cold war, in a ceremony led by Harry Pollitt, the Stalinist General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The tomb consists of a large bust of Marx in bronze set on a marble pedestal. The pedestal is inscribed with quotes from Marx's works including, on the front, the final words of The COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, “Workers of all lands unite”. It is a brutally ugly monument in the Stalinist style favoured, and paid for by, the Moscow-funded Stalinist CPGB. As such it represents not socialism or communism but state capitalism and the misappropriation of the name of Marx by the Soviet Union totalitarian dictatorship.

The quotation from the Manifesto on the memorial is also particularly inappropriate since in 1917 a political dictatorship was imposed by lies and force on the workers and peasants in Lenin’s Russia. That was not socialism or communism which could only be established by the actions of the working class itself; without a ‘vanguard’, of leaders and the led. To save himself from becoming the focus of a cult, Engels had the right idea: he asked to be cremated and, following cremation near Woking, at the first pioneering and just recently opened crematorium in Britain, his ashes were scattered in the sea off Beachy Head, near Eastbourne.

As an aside, the vandalising of Marx’s monument raises the question of what a future socialist society should do with the tens of thousands of memorials to generals, politicians, the rich, the royals and the powerful which currently litter world capitalism. Will the establishment of socialism see a wave of iconoclasm sweep the globe as statues to the former ruling classes and their political agents are removed and demolished?

Or will they be veiled in white drapes, similar to a painting of war memorials painted by the artist Robert Vickrey during the Vietnam War, to mark them out as memorials of shame? No doubt there will be too much to think about and do in the early stages of socialism rather than worry about what to do with statues and monuments.

As for the ignorant attacks on Marx’s memorial tomb, these only help to highlight the fact that Marx is still one of the most travestied of writers. Routinely the media and politicians misleadingly hold him responsible for genocide - for the actions of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, even Hitler. What Marx wrote has been distorted and twisted into something else. As he once remarked “what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”. Like Napoleon the “monster” of the 19th century, Marx has been used by capitalism’s politicians and journalistic hacks as a convenient bogey-man to frighten the children and is now targeted by vandals to hide their own political inadequacy.

Just as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection cannot be held to account for the actions of Hitler, so Marx’s materialist conception of history, his theory of value and political concept of class struggle cannot be held responsible for the political programmes of dictators and despots.

Engels spoke of this propaganda at the graveside speech he gave at Marx’s funeral. Engels said:

Marx was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him.

The reason why Marx was “the best hated and most calumniated man of his time” is simply explained. Marx was not only a political writer and organiser – an uncompromising socialist revolutionary – he was also a socialist revolutionary who spoke to the working class. Marx remains first and foremost a critic of capitalism, a theorist of its anarchic and exploitive movement in history, and the political and social conditions needed to replace it with a moneyless, wageless and classless world-wide socialist system.

Marx’s most important political contribution to socialist theory and practice was his insistence that socialism had to be established by the working class and no one else. Engels went on to explain why Marx was such an important, ground-breaking socialist:

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case. But that is not all. Marx also discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production and the bourgeois society that this mode of production has created. The discovery of surplus value suddenly threw light on the problem, in trying to solve which all previous investigations, of both bourgeois economists and socialist critics, had been groping in the dark.

If there is a fitting memorial to Marx, it is his political and economic writings, particularly the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO which he and Engels wrote in 1847/8 and the three volumes of CAPITAL, two of which were published after his death. Among the Manifesto’s most noted principles is his vision of Communism where “In place of the bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. His was a view of a society of free men and women in which there will be new social relations made up of fully rounded individuals released from undignified toil and drudgery.

Of the hardship in writing CAPITAL Marx is reputed to have said: “Nobody had written so much about money but had so little” (quoted in Terry Eagleton, WHY MARX WAS RIGHT, p. 157). Nevertheless, Marx did not write CAPITAL as a business manual for capitalists or to help politicians to run capitalism in a better way. He wrote Capital to help the working class to understand the social system that exploits them, why it can never be run in their interest and why the profit system has to be replaced by socialism through the conscious, democratic and political action of a socialist majority.

Marx, though, did not condemn capitalism out of hand. In the first part of The COMMUNIST MANIFESTO he praised the development of capitalism in its early years noting that the bourgeoisie was a progressive and revolutionary force in history. What is it about capitalism, asked Marx in CAPITAL that desperate poverty exists side by side with immense wealth concentrated in the hands of a minority? Why is there freedom for the few and class oppression for the many? Marx believed that in capitalism’s brief existence it had revolutionised the world’s productive forces. It had created fabulous wealth and the potential for a future socialist society.

However, capitalism also created the working class. Marx sketched out the development of workers from an incoherent mass to being able to form a socialist political party by their own efforts. Capitalism produced its own gravediggers and it is in this spirit that he called out “Workers of all lands - unite”.

Marx also explained how it was that capitalism was a “fetter on production”, and an impediment for the possible establishment of the common ownership of the means of production and distribution by all of society. There can be abundance and enough goods and services to meets the needs of all society. To remove the impediment of capital requires a socialist revolution and a socialist working class - not a vulgar monument and the cult of personality. Workers should rather look at what Marx wrote about capitalism, rather than at a head resting on a slab of stone in Highgate cemetery.

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