Karl Marx's tombstone

Karl Marx is still pervasive and polarizing, 200 years after his birth

  1. 'Catastrophes' always accompany Marxism, says Russian-born physicist
  2. Critique of capitalism remains relevant, say others
  3. Marx declared he was not a 'Marxist'
  4. Various political actors have interpreted his ideas as they wanted
  5. Visitors to his grave must pay for the privilege

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, two middle-aged Kurdish men paid the modest fee needed to enter Highgate Cemetery in north London. A spell of welcome warmth had embraced the British capital; the pair seemed in good spirits as they walked down one of the cemetery’s paths. They weren’t there to pay respects to friends or family. Instead, the former Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) members had a clear mission: to visit the grave of Karl Marx, born 200 years ago on May 5, 1818, in Trier, Prussia.

Although the men (who declined to give their names) had left Turkey more than 20 years ago, they told WikiTribune they were part of a generation of members of the armed resistance group – proscribed as a terrorist group by the U.S. and the European Union – that fought for an independent Kurdistan based on Marxist principles. To them, Marx was an idol and his ideas still very much alive.

Thousands of miles away, a Russian-born physicist living in the United States later told WikiTribune of the dangers of Marxism as he saw them. “I’m afraid it may be relevant forever because the reasons of its attractiveness are still here,” said Alexey Burov, a senior scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago.

Burov is the chairman and organizer of the Fermi Society of Philosophy, a forum for philosophy enthusiasts at Fermilab. “How many more examples are necessary to make the judgment regarding the relationship of Marxist doctrine and the catastrophes that always accompanied its application?” he asked.

At the bicentennial of his birth, Marx’s legacy is pervasive, complex, and often polarizing. Perhaps the epitaph carved in gold letters into his grey marble tombstone captures it: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.”

Tombstones in Highgate Cemetery, London. Source: George Engels/WikiTribune

Marx’s writings inspired ideological and geopolitical revolutions that shaped the 20th century and inform the new millennium. Many of these uprisings were violent, and some set the stage for hugely repressive political regimes – particularly in Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Others came to power democratically – Salvador Allende in Chile and Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala – and were ousted by U.S.-led interventions.

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“[Marx and Engels] would be kicking themselves that they overlooked the kind of dialectic they loved to analyze: how workers’ states would become increasingly totalitarian in their response to capitalist state aggression, and how, in their response to the fear of communism, these capitalist states would grow increasingly civilized,” wrote Greek former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in The Guardian.

How does Marxism relate to Marx?

The difference between Marx and Marxism still animates academics. “Marx didn’t try to run anything bigger than a newspaper, and famously said he wasn’t a Marxist,” said Terrell Carver, author of Marx and professor of political history at the University of Bristol. Carver told WikiTribune that what would come to be known as ‘Marxism’ was an interpretation of the man’s thoughts by others, including his long-time friend and benefactor Friedrich Engels.

“The ‘ism’ really postdates both Marx and Engels [they died in 1883 and 1895 respectively],” said Carver. “Various politicians and dictators – Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro – have made what they wanted to out of the ideas, though so have generations of social democrats, just that the latter didn’t want to be associated with the former, particularly after World War II and various other events.”

‘The ideas of Marx do pose an immense threat to the rich, privileged and powerful’

WikiTribune member David Beale said: “Stalin was certainly not the first to use and utterly distort a radical ideology to ‘legitimize’ bloody oppression, as we know from, for example, the Spanish Inquisition and its use of Christian ideology. However, the ideas of Marx do pose an immense threat to the rich, privileged and powerful, and that’s the case today.”

When Marx was buried on March 17, 1883, scarcely a dozen people attended the funeral. Exiled decades prior from conservative Prussia (now Germany), he had outlived his wife and eldest daughter to die stateless and in poverty at the age of 63 in the then-capital of the industrializing world. Friends and followers gave speeches – some would go on to become important figures in the growing European socialist movement.

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Two hundred years on, Marx’s Grade I listed grave is a pilgrimage site for followers from around the world – provided they pay the £4 ($5.60) entry fee. It has also been a magnet for critics, vandals, and two unsuccessful bomb attacks. Marx’s early years have been commemorated in a play and a film; he also has a library named after him in central London which will commemorate his bicentennial with a day-long event.

Corbyn’s elevation boosted socialist agenda in UK

In the UK, the election of Jeremy Corbyn – a self-described socialist – as Labour Party leader in 2015 injected mainstream British politics with a strong dose of left-wing activism. Grassroots movements like Momentum boast 40,000 paying members as well as hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, which they mobilize in support of Corbyn and left-wing policies. In a recent interview with The Financial Times (may be behind paywall), Shadow Chancellor (Treasury Secretary) and close Corbyn ally John McDonnell said: “Our objectives are socialist. That means an irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favor of working people.” 

Interest in left-wing and Marxist politics in the UK has grown due to almost a decade of austerity policies, on the heels of the global economic downturn of 2007-08, say experts. That combination exacerbated political distrust of traditional elites, said Ben Fine, economics professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He said Corbyn’s election was a confirmation of this trend. “Many of the left within the Labour Party, and those who have now joined or re-joined it, do so from a position of having been influenced by Marxism or from commitment to Marxism itself, having previously thought that it would be impossible for the Labour Party to be committed to socialism,” he told WikiTribune.

Now, traditional hard-left UK political groups like the Socialist Party and the Communist Party expressed support for the 68-year old Labour leader. So do newer parties like Left Unity despite losing members to Labour, said Left Unity media officer Kate Hudson. “With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader … I think many of those obviously left to give Labour a try, or another try,” Hudson told WikiTribune.

‘People’s lives sacrificed through the pursuit of profit’

Marxist ideas also play an important role in shaping political and cultural discourses in the UK and abroad. “It’s now so embedded in the political culture that it doesn’t need to be identified as such,” said Bristol University’s Carver. He told WikiTribune the Grenfell fire (read more from WikiTribune on the topic) and its subsequent coverage was a good example of how Marxist ideas are still used to understand events. “You’ve got people whose lives are ruined and sacrificed through the pursuit of profit, and rich people trying very hard to cover it up.”

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But perhaps Marx’s most pertinent legacy is his critique of the weaknesses built into the capitalist system. According to philosophy professor Jason Barker (The New York Times), Marx successfully developed “the critical weapons for undermining capitalism’s ideological claim to be the only game in town.”

To some observers, his analysis of the paradox of technological innovation – beneficial to capital owners in the short-term but threatening to the capitalist system in the longer-run – seems appropriate today, when advances in automation and artificial intelligence in the workplace threaten the livelihoods of millions. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, recently said: “If you substitute platforms for textile mills, machine learning for steam engines, Twitter for the telegraph, you have exactly the same dynamics as existed 150 years ago – when Karl Marx was scribbling the Communist Manifesto.”

‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it’ – the inscription on Marx’s tombstone

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