What can Karl Marx offer to the 21st Century?


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Two hundred years on, the questions he asked of the world in the 19th century have not lost their relevance or sharpness.

Eric Hobsbawm, the well-known historian, recalls how George Soros once asked him about what Hobsbawm thought of Karl Marx. This was at the turn of the 21st century.

Surprised, and also aware that there was hardly any meeting ground between the billionaire hedge-funds wizard and champion of the free market and a Marxist historian who refused to renounce his membership of the British Communist Party even when the party faced liquidation, Hobsbawm chose to give an ambiguous answer.

Soros’ rejoinder was startling. “That man,” he said, “discovered something about capitalism 150 years ago that we must take notice of.”

Also, in 1998, as the Communist Manifesto turned 150, the editor of the inflight magazine of United Airlines (UA) approached Hobsbawm with a request that amazed the historian. Would he consent to UA using, for their magazine, portions of an article Hobsbawm had written to mark the anniversary, so that American (mostly business) travellers could acquaint themselves with what the Manifesto talked about?

First edition of the Communist Manifesto in German. PHOTO/Wikipedia/ (CC BY-SA 3.0)

But this curiosity about what Karl Marx wrote or stood for is more than matched by a frequent desire to pummel him no matter what. I remember watching a panel discussion on a prominent Bengali TV channel two or three years back. The subject at hand was of the chit fund scams that rocked the state just then.

The BJP spokesperson, a recent convert to the saffron world-view, was speaking just after a left-wing leader had had his say. He began by declaiming that “since Marx, from whom the Indian left draws its inspiration, died more than 150 years ago, it is pointless to engage with the left.”

A gentle reminder that his timelines were somewhat awry provoked a sharper response: the gentleman couldn’t care less if Marx had lived a hundred or a thousand years ago – for, one way or another, he was evil.

Surely the BJP karyakarta was in august company. During  the 136 years that it has stood inside London’s Highgate Cemetery, the many benedictions that Marx’s grave has received from solicitous hands make for a fascinating  story. People have splashed emulsion paint of sundry colours over the tomb. The Swastika has made its appearance upon the memorial with unfailing regularity. Marx’s massive head has remained an inviting target for hammer-wielders.

As recently as in February, 2019, the memorial plaque (bearing the names of the members of the Marx family who lie buried here) was vandalised so meticulously that the trust looking after the tomb feels that the monument may never be the same again.

Connoisseurs also pasted loving messages reading ‘Doctrine of Hate’, ‘Bolshevik Holocaust’ and ‘Architect of Genocide’ on the pedestal, taking care to write only in red, presumably Marx’s favourite colour. An exasperated Maxwell Blowfield, from the British Museum, said he was “just surprised that somebody in 2019 feels they need to go and do something like that.”

Ian Dungavell, CEO, Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, had a somewhat different take on the incident: “That’s the only consolation – he [Marx] has not been forgotten about.”

The Wire for more

Comments are closed.