The recent vandalism of Karl Marx's grave is an attack on the memory of Marx and a legacy of resistance and struggle, writes Dana Mills
Only eleven mourners gathered on a cold winter’s day, 17 March 1883, at Highgate Cemetery, to bring back to the earth the body of Karl Marx and allow him to rest next to his beloved wife Jenny. Of the Marx family, only his youngest daughter Eleanor was present at the funeral. His lifelong friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels delivered the eulogy concluding that Marx’s name and work will endure through the ages. Less than a week later Eleanor returned to the family grave to open it once more and add the body of her little nephew Harry, who died aged four and a half. Eleanor Marx’s ashes were added to the family grave many years after her death, allowing her to join her father, mother and housekeeper, so writes Rachel Holmes in her recent biography of Eleanor Marx (Eleanor Marx: A Life).
Engels’ prophecy became reality and Marx became the most significant thinker of his time, and influenced history politically and philosophically beyond measure. Controversial in his life and in his afterlife, his arguments paved the way for a structural understanding of capitalism as a system of oppression as well as providing some practical ways to oppose it. "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however is to change it"; so reads the memorial in Highgate Cemetery. That inscription lives in Marx’s work as well as those who disagreed with it. But more than anything, the memory of a German Jewish refugee who arrived in London as an exile with few possessions and many ideas, bringing along a family that was always ailing but shared a passion for making the world better is inscribed within London’s history.
The story of the work of Marx and Engels is entangled in the march of British history from mid to late 19th century. Eleanor Marx was the only Marx to be born in England, and in turn was the one who took her father’s ideas and brought them to the then fledgeling new Trade Unionism and Labour movement. The family’s history is intertwined in the history of the country that had given them asylum. And the march of history continued to affect the Marx family, disturbing them from resting in peace many years after the family grave.
Highgate Cemetery announced on Tuesday 15 February 2019 that Marx’s grave was sabotaged, most likely using a hammer, damaging the original gravestone which is grade I listed. This is not the first time the grave has been a target of vandalism but this is the most pervasive one and one that would create most work to restore the grave to its previous condition. There is even suggestion to create some kind of security perimeter to ensure this would not happen again.
There is something particularly troubling about this attack at our point of time in particular. Marx wrote in 1852 that history repeats itself first as tragedy second as farce. The history of sabotaging graves is long and dark. There are many stories of violent sabotage of graves in order to wage a war on memory, and especially targeting minorities’ graves in various corners of the world. The sub-history of attack on Jewish graves dates long in time, and of course reached an ugly peak during the Second World War. Whoever entered Highgate Cemetery with a hammer to bring violence against the memory and legacy of Karl Marx was adding their name to a chilling history. This is not only an attack on a memorial; this is an attack on memory itself. The attack on the Marx memorial is an attack on a legacy of resistance and struggle. And, lest we forget, it is an attack on a family grave of German Jewish refugees who had made London their home and let it make a home in their hearts.
Those who believe that solidarity can triumph over violence, that we can and will overcome these dark times in which we live, should take this attack to heart and make sure this evil does not persist against anyone else. We must, from the place where we stand, in the words of Eleanor Marx, Go Ahead! — to work so that no more acts of violence against living and dead alike would be the best triumph to Marx’s memory. In the words of Walter Benjamin: “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious".
Dana Mills is a writer and an activist. She is working on the historiographies of radical Jewish women. She is currently writing a biography and critical study of Rosa Luxemeburg.