Earlier this month I stood among a cheering throng in a city square as a statue of Friedrich Engels was unveiled. This is not a sentence many have had cause to write for several decades.
The “ceremony” marked the closing of the Manchester International Festival, and was hosted by the actress Maxine Peake, with music by Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals plus the achingly hip Mica Levi and Demdike Stare. The statue of Marx’s sponsor and friend was rescued by the artist Phil Collins from a Ukrainian field and now stands proudly and permanently in Tony Wilson Place. Marx is back, and he’s still dividing people, just like Tony did.
The writer Jenny Diski believed that “every generation gets the Marxism it deserves”. Certainly that’s been true here. In the Fifties and Sixties, it was mandarin and intellectual; Hobsbawm and Hoggart. In the Seventies and Eighties, it became moustachioed and tank-topped and screwed everything on the red-brick campus, History Man style. Today’s version is media savvy, in touch with its feelings and soundtracked by indie alt-pop and cutting-edge electronica.
For a long time, after the Wall came down, Karl and his adherents were personae non gratae. Walking through Birmingham just after the collapse of the USSR, my friend Colin and I noticed a Socialist Worker poster that read “What Does This Mean for Communism?” “It means the game’s up, comrade,” remarked Colin. Today, Colin is equally wry about the fact that the next chancellor of the exchequer could be a Marxist of the old school.
I know John McDonnell is a Marxist because everyone tells me so, from the red tops to phone-ins. Recently I commented to a BBC radio colleague what a good election campaign McDonnell had had. “But he’s a Marxist!” came the horrified reply. Fear and misunderstanding surround Marxism – which is why, perhaps, he was even more horrified when I told him that I was one too.
In these days of identity politics and what you might call “the selfie-fication” of political thought, Marxism remains refreshingly bracing in its view of the world. Distilled to its essence, whatever you think you are, if you aren’t an owner of the means of production or part of the mercantile bourgeoisie, you’re probably a proletarian. Wayne Rooney is a wage slave – albeit a very nicely off one – whereas George Osborne isn’t. Wayne can grow as rich as Croesus but he will never step across the threshold of the boardroom or the Bullingdon Club. Granted, this level of analysis won’t get you a first in PPE but it still strikes me as pretty sound.
About a month before Engels came back to Manchester, I’d hung out in Kiev with some of the young people who’d torn down just these kinds of statues in the Euromaidan. They had done this in the name of freedom and were glad to be rid of the Russkies but they were far from seduced by all the trappings of late capitalism. “Heepster street art,” sneered Irina, my translator, at the murals that replaced the busts of Lenin at the metro stations.
Though my Ukrainian hosts were happy to have shrugged off the commissars, Engels, Marx and Lenin were still entwined in their world view with their fierce patriotism. The regimes may have been discredited, but the thinking hadn’t. The lapsed Marxist historian Gareth Stedman Jones wrote recently: “We continue to learn from Aristotle or Machiavelli without having to become Aristotelians or Machiavellians. One day, I hope we shall be able to learn again from Marx in the same fashion.”
There may seem something icy and theoretical about much of the Marxist model these days but it still packs an ideological punch. The ruling class can endlessly accommodate your pleas for self-actualisation. What matters to them is whether you can get your hands on the levers of power. This may occasion pearl-clutching and swooning from the self-absorbed and sentimental of every political hue, but as Malcolm X, a good Marxist himself, put it: “The only thing power respects is power.” These truths remain as stark and solid as Fred’s stern visage glowering down at the bottom of Deansgate.
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue