I’ve never been a huge fan of Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery. It’s designed in the classic Stalinist tradition to express, as its sculptor Laurence Bradshaw said, “the dynamic force of his intellect and the breadth and vision and power of his personality, along with a feeling of energy and endurance and dedication to purpose”. Karl Marx: superhuman, could be its subtext.
But the vandals who attacked the monument this week did not damage the granite plinth or the bronze bust. Instead they attacked the original, family gravestone set in the middle of it. This small marble slab was commissioned for Marx’s wife, Jenny, upon her death in 1881, and Karl’s name, plus the names of his daughter, grandson and one-time lover, were later added – while respectable London quietly forgot them.
This was a monument to the frail, flawed, brilliant human being: the cantankerous political refugee, the prodigious drinker and the deadline-busting journalist. Karl Marx: the human.
But if you’re thinking the vandals probably had no idea who Marx was, don’t kid yourself. The global far-right alliance that stretches from Moscow to Portland, Oregon, is at war with what it calls “cultural Marxism”. Every angry racist boy on Xbox knows who Marx is. He is enemy number one.
When hundreds of neofascists marched through Charlottesville with burning torches in 2017, shouting that “Jews will not replace us”, the city was targeted, said organiser Jason Kessler, because it had “absorbed these cultural Marxist principles advocated in college towns across the country, about blaming white people for everything.”
Google “cultural Marxism” and you’ll be led quickly down the rabbit hole of right-wing paranoia. The theory is that, having failed to overthrow capitalism via the class struggle, the social theorists of the Frankfurt School evolved cultural Marxism to destroy it through political correctness.
In May 2017, Rich Higgins, a deranged Trump adviser, placed a memo on the president’s desk warning him that the entire American deep state, media, academia, the banks, Islamists and the Republican Party leadership had become prey to “political warfare memes centered on cultural Marxist narratives”. And when Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in Oslo in July 2011, he issued a manifesto containing hundreds of references to “cultural Marxism”, against which the only option was armed struggle.
To the new far right, everything they don’t like is Marxism. So it’s no surprise that a memorial that survived the left-right battles of the 1930s, the Cold War and the Thatcher era suddenly gets attacked.
In the mindset created on right-wing bulletin boards, from the troll farms of Lithuania to the frat houses of New England, every woman with an independent sex life, every bus driver with a hijab, every mixed race child, every Brazilian skateboarder walking the streets of London… all these and more are evidence of Marxism’s all-pervasive influence.
As an actual Marxist, I can tell you it does not feel that way. The British labour movement, which Marx nurtured and nudged gently in the direction of internationalism, is currently running scared of xenophobic Tories from the English Midlands. The Communist Party, which paid for Marx’s monument when it was erected in 1956, is urging support for a “People’s Brexit”, alongside its habitual support for Syria’s regime of torture and mass murder.
The intellectual tradition of Western Marxism, around which the right’s “cultural Marxism” obsession is based, is assailed on all sides in the radical milieu: by techno-utopians, post-humanists, left occultists and the trendy philosophy of New Materialisms (sic), in which a Styrofoam cup and a human being are held to possess the same levels of agency and consciousness.
So the hammer attack on Marx is a significant moment. There’s been growing interest in Marx the man. Raoul Peck’s 2017 movie The Young Karl Marx and the hit National Theatre comedy Young Marx, both explore his life as a revolutionary: scribbling The Communist Manifesto amid the factional battles in the run-up to the 1848 revolutions; dodging policemen and pawnbrokers in Soho in the aftermath of their defeat.
Unlike the left-wing hagiographies of the 20th century, which portrayed his thoughts as unified and “all powerful”, most recent biographies have placed Marx firmly in the milieu of the powerless, confused bohemia; a Hegelian from the 1840s, increasingly struggling to comprehend a world of mass labour parties, differential calculus and marginalist economics even as he strove to finish Capital.
Jonathan Sperber, in Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, writes of the monument in Highgate Cemetery that, for its creators in 1956, “the gigantic bust was the physical proof of the transformation of a living human being into an icon, a frozen representation of ideas, political positions, and identities, many of which were only tangentially related to the person’s actual life.”
Sperber points out that the transformation of Marxism into a doctrine of determinism began at his graveside in 1883 and accelerated in the decade following, as Engels and other allies within German social democracy sought to codify Marxism as scientific theory of everything, with a logical toolbox – the dialectic – which could never be surpassed.
By the first decade of the 20th century, this doctrine would be used by Lenin to attack the beginnings of complexity theory in science. Under Stalin, it would arm biologist Trofim Lysenko in his war against Soviet genetics, which saw thousands of scientists sacked, exiled, or in some cases executed, for opposing the notion that environmentally produced changes in living organisms can be inherited.
So those of us who want to be called Marxists in the 21st century have to be really clear about the core ideas we are defending. For me, as I argue in Clear Bright Future (forthcoming), Marx’s singular achievement was a materialist theory of human nature. We have, through an evolutionary accident, evolved from apes into conscious technologists, equipped with the ability to free ourselves from ignorance and scarcity by developing society and technology to the point where scarcity disappears.
Marx, in 1844, labelled this outcome “communism”, adding that it was merely a “fully developed humanism”. Private property would have to be abolished and, with it, all forms of society run on power hierarchies. But this would only constitute the first stage of human freedom, he said.
For Marx, the goal was never the emancipation of labour, but emancipation from it. In an 1858 notebook, which still causes doctrinaire Marxists to spit out their dummies, Marx outlined how we might get to this world without work: by socialising knowledge to the point where a “general intellect” emerged, which could never be contained by what we now call intellectual property. This mismatch between socialised technology and private ownership, Marx said, would blow capitalism’s foundations “sky high”.
This is the Marx most relevant to today: the humanist who consistently pushed for technological progress and globalisation on the understanding that they would accelerate capitalism’s self-destruction.
Faced with Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro, he would have recognised them as classic, risible mini-Bonapartes worthy of the kind of satirical takedown he unleashed on Louis Napoleon. Faced with the Lexiteers advocating protectionism, he might have handed them a copy of his pro-free trade speech in 1848, in which he argued that by abolishing nations and borders: “the system of commercial liberty hastens the social revolution.”
Confronted with tech monopolies, cryptocurrencies, Artificial Intelligence and algorithmic control, he would have recognised them for what they are: the last and biggest barriers to human freedom which – through their size and global pervasiveness – could be easily appropriated: their social forms destroyed but their technologies transformed into tools for human emancipation.
He would have understood, I hope, despite his own poor theorisation of women’s oppression, that the revolution in social attitudes and behaviours unleashed during 50 years of birth control, is unstoppable. As a journalist who urged General Sherman to torch the South during the Atlanta campaign, he would anticipate with glee the moment when Trump falls and the American right starts to torch itself.
The hammer attack on Marx happened now, and not in the era of Mosley or McCarthy, because the ideals Marx fought for are achievable in this century, and because every racist teenager with a laptop, and every ham-faced misogynist, in their subconscious, knows it.