Marx's empire is gone, but the faithful, curious are still drawn to his grave

January 26, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- He has a massive, domed forehead, an immense head with a beard that rolls down the cheeks in waves like lava on the sides of a hot mountain. It is a commanding face, with its fierce eyes, eyes full of concentrated vitality which even now promise the world a lot of trouble.

The experiment of communism has failed on every side. Yet people still come in undiminished numbers into the tangled winter garden of Highgate Cemetery in north London to stand before the tomb of its instigator, Karl Marx.

Some come to meditate. Some are pilgrims. Many are just curious to see this extraordinary bronze statue, by sculptor Laurance Bradshaw, of the man who vowed to change the world -- and did, if not for the better.

The face is darkened by the mist and drizzle. It glowers within an arabesque of young ash trees. Ivy engulfs a tumble of lesser graves behind his larger, blockier tomb, which also holds his wife, Jenny, one of his sons, Harry, and his family's housekeeper, Helena Demuth.

There are six floral tributes at the foot of the granite plinth, a few more than usual, according to Jean Pateman, chairwoman of Friends of Highgate Cemetery, the volunteers who take care of this strange place full of dead eminent Victorians.

"The number of official delegations and formal parties has fallen off," she says. "But for the people in London who come individually we have not detected any diminution in public interest."

She produces a visitors book full of signatures and inscriptions in a variety of languages. There are a lot in Chinese. They still come in official parties.

There is the signature of Yusuf Dadoo, the founder of the South African Communist Party. His was the ultimate loyalty. He returned to Highgate to occupy a plot of his own across the path from the grumpy, carbuncular godfather of all socialist revolutionaries.

So the faithful still come despite what appears to be a worldwide repudiation of Marx's ideas. What do they think of this? What do they think of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the first great country ever based on Marxist principles? Possibly the last.

"It has had an obvious effect on me," David Harvey, an Oxford don, a geographer and a Marxist, said. "Politically it was liberating, in that it eliminated the worst aspects of Stalinism. On the other side it was very negative for I see this disintegrating PTC into many nationalisms. What is going on there is deeply worrying."

He adds, "But intellectually, it [the turmoil in the former Soviet Union] hasn't affected my interpretive stance at all. It hasn't been dented one jot."

Dr. Harvey has written many interpretive books about the world's leading philosopher of the left. He teaches geography (mainly urban development) at St. Peter's College, and a course in Marx's "Capital" both at Oxford and at Johns Hopkins University.

The turn in world events has diminished neither the number of his students, nor, he says, their enthusiasm.

"They don't come at it with the attitudes they had in the past, eager to embrace it, or with hostility. It [Marxism] has lost the status of the big ogre, the bogey man. People are starting to see it as a good critique of capitalism."

The question now, he says, is to try to identify an alternative to capitalism. "Marxism is a deep and rich system, and it might give us an idea of what lay ahead."

Anthony Chater, another man whose career is guided by Marxist ideas, says that what happened to the Soviet Union is unlikely to diminish the reputation, such as it is, of the man interred in Highgate Cemetery.

Mr. Chater is the editor of the Morning Star, a left-wing newspaper similar to the old Daily Worker. It circulates about 9,000 copies a day in Britain.

Marx, he believes, was not an ideologue whose ideas could so easily be diminished by the events in question. "Marx was a scientist," he said. "He examined what was happening in society. He collected the facts. He drew conclusions from that.

"In the main what Marx said has been borne out by what has happened."

Marx identified the existence of the class struggle, Mr. Chater said. "He described how capitalism works, the centralization and concentration of capital."

Mr. Chater believes that the class struggle is still being waged in Britain, though with lower intensity. "It shows itself in things like the working class resistance to the poll tax [tried and abandoned by a Conservative government]," he said.

He also believes, along with Dr. Harvey, that what happened in the Soviet Union was not entirely bad for Marxists.

"The dogmatism associated with the Soviet Union has gone, and dogmatism is the enemy of science," he said. "We consider what happened there happened because the socialist ideal was distorted, because it was put into an authoritarian straitjacket.

"We were hoping [former Soviet President Mikhail S.] Gorbachev with perestroika [restructuring] would overcome it. Our hopes obviously weren't realized. It is a defeat, and a defeat is never welcome."

The foliage in Highgate Cemetery is dense and robust. It engulfs entire tombs, here and there envelops the statuary of grief.

When Karl Marx died in March 1883, only 11 people came to his funeral. A year later, on the anniversary of his death, thousands marched to Highgate Cemetery. They have been coming ever since.

Marx is clearly the star attraction in this Victorian Valhalla, and one gets the impression that Mrs. Pateman would be happy if more people came because this is where the scientist Michael Faraday is interred, or to visit the tomb of the novelist George Eliot.

Marx was not English, but he tried to be. He applied for citizenship, but was refused as "a notorious German agitator."

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