Karl Marx is far from forgotten, well over a century after his death. This is especially true for those who fear and despise his political legacy. For decades, Marx’s grave has endured a series of vicious attacks: its bust pulled off with ropes, a pipe bomb nearly forty years ago that damaged its front face, and consistent painted slurs. But after the most recent damage, his grave “will never be the same again.” Even with expert repair, Marx’s memorial will bear the scars of this vandalism indefinitely, according to Ian Dungavell, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust chief.
The first of the two most recent incidents took place on February 4th when Marx’s name, which is ingrained on the marble plaque from his original 1883 gravestone, was chipped at with a hammer. The second incident took place on February 15th. Bright red paint projected the slogans “Architect of Genocide,” “Doctrine of Hate,” and “Memorial to Bolshevik Holocaust.” The graffiti covered inscriptions of Marx’s final words of The Communist Manifesto, “Workers of all lands unite,” and the most famous of Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.” The contrast between Marx’s messages of hope and the violent smears that covered them could not be more jarring.
A Brief History of Marx’s Grave
Marx died on March 14, 1883 from bronchitis and was buried alongside his wife Jenny a few days later in the Eastern cemetery of Highgate in north London. As Philip S. Foner details in his book When Marx Died: Comments in 1883, Marx’s funeral was attended by a small group of grieving friends and family, including Friedrich Engels, Eleanor Marx, Paul Lafargue, and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Engels gave the eulogy, paying tribute to his friend as a great scientist and revolutionary:
Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history . . . This was the man of science. But this was not even half the man. Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force … For Marx was before all else a revolutionary.
For many years, Marx’s grave rested in a small patch at Highgate. This patch included Marx himself, his wife Jenny, their grandson Harry Longuet, and Helene Demuth, the family housekeeper. But the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) wished to find a more suitable memorial for Marx. As soon as Marx died, August Bebel proposed the erection of a new monument to their fallen leader at the SPD Congress. According to Bebel, such a monument would not be too grand, but something that accurately represented the gratitude of the working class.
Engels thought that a monument might be in bad taste. He wrote to Bebel:
I don’t know what should be done about a memorial to Marx. The family is against it. The simple gravestone designed for his wife and now bearing his own and his little grandson’s name, would be desecrated in their eyes if it were replaced by a monument.
Liebknecht echoed Engels in his memoirs, stating that:
Marx did not want a “memorial.” To have desired to put up any other memorial to the creator of The Communist Manifesto and of Capital than that which he had built himself would have been an insult to the great dead. In the heads and hearts of millions of workers, who have “united” at his call, he has not merely a memorial more lasting than bronze, but also the living soil in which what he taught and desired will become — and in part has already become — an act.
Marx’s grave was the site for revolutionary processions that commemorated the Paris Commune. It also served as a gathering location for Lenin and other Russian social democrats at the end of their London congress in 1903. For the next twenty years, the grave suffered neglect. It was increasingly hidden by overgrown weeds and grass. This inspired the British Communist Party to issue an appeal to “restore the neglected grave of Karl Marx” in 1922. There were pledges made to finance the upkeep of Marx’s original grave, but other communists thought a more fitting tribute was needed to commemorate Marx’s impact on the socialist movement.
The Worker, which was the organ of the Workers’ (Communist) Party of the United States, argued that the Marxes deserved much better than a simple, nondescript tomb:
We feel that something more fitting than a small headstone should mark the last resting place of this greatest philosopher of the working class.
Capitalism takes care of its own. Paris boasts her Tomb of Napoleon. The Tomb of General Grant graces Riverside Drive in New York City. Recently, an elaborate memorial to Abraham Lincoln at Washington, D.C. Similarly, everywhere else.
Why should not the workers honor the last resting places of those who have fought and sacrificed for them. Pilgrims from many lands by the thousands annually visit the grave of Marx. These thousands should leave Marx’s grave with a fitting impression upon their minds.
These wishes for a more prominent monument were fulfilled in 1956 by the British Communist Party. They found a new site for the grave, where Marx’s family now rests, along with the ashes of Eleanor Marx. A giant bronze bust of Marx sits on top of a granite monolith. Laurence Bradshaw designed the tomb, which he wanted to be “not a monument to a man only but to a great mind and a great philosopher.” Bradshaw intended to convey the “dynamic force” of Marx’s mind; rather than towering over people, the bust is meant to interact with visitors at eye-level.
For generations, the tomb has been sought out by visitors from around the world, attracting thousands of people each year. In 1999, the tomb of Karl Marx was designated a Grade 1 listed structure, which is “the highest listing reserved for buildings and structures of “exceptional interest.”
Given the rise of global fascism and the increasing interest in socialism worldwide, it is not far-fetched to assume that the vandals of Marx’s grave were motivated by far-right ideology. There have been other recent reports of fascist grave desecrations in France, where Jewish graves were vandalized with swastikas. Indeed in 1960, Marx’s own grave was vandalized with swastikas. According to the New York Times report on June 5th, 1960:
Two swastikas daubed in yellow paint were found . . . on the monument above the grave of Karl Marx, father of communism, in Highgate Cemetery. Slogans written in German said the writer loved Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi leader now in custody in Israel.
Why is there a pattern between fascist ideology and grave desecration? It is no mere coincidence, as Mark Neocleous points out in his research on the interconnections between fascism and death. According to Neocleous, the fascist fears that their dead enemies are not properly dead, but “undead.” This means that the dead can — in some mystical sense — come back to life.
Grave desecration, as Mark Neocleous argues, is integral to fascist terrorism. According to Jewish law, “treating a corpse disrespectfully implies a belief that death is final and irreversible.” In other words, treating the dead disrespectfully gives no hope for their resurrection.
Fascists desecrated Jewish graves because it wasn’t enough that those interred were biologically dead; grave desecration meant that the fascists did not think they were dead enough. As Neocleous puts it, “Unable to actually engage in this struggle in the world of the undead, the fascist is forced to the next best thing: attack the grave.”
These attacks against Marx’s grave are meant to prevent Marx from coming back to life — not literally, of course, but in the figurative resurrection of a socialist movement. As Walter Benjamin once put it, not even the dead are safe from fascism; in this case, not even Marx’s grave is safe.
For fascists, Marx’s grave does not represent the site of someone dead, but of something threatening to reemerge. Marxism represents the eternal enemy of the fascist imagination; Marx is not dead, but undead. They fear that Marx is still influencing world history from beyond the grave. Worse, they fear that the socialist movement is resurrecting Marx from the oblivion of the past.
If capitalism is one day overthrown and humanity moves from its pre-history towards real history, then Marx will be more than a ghost; he will be immortalized.