On Marx’s Grave, or “What Price Salvation Now?”

A Philosophical Musing

As a man who in his past has carried the Marx-Engels Reader with him quite often, I thought I should have something profound to say while standing on Marx’s grave at Highgate Cemetery East. Instead, standing below that bulbous stone head, I told the man, the myth and the legend, Herr Karl Marx, what he already knows: namely, that he is dead and that I am alive.

Shortly before this moment, I had overheard a passing conversation between one Englishman and two English ladies. The smartly dressed, middle-aged Englishman seemed to be leading the ladies through Highgate, informing them of the visitors and the inhabitants; i.e., the living and the dead. As he neared Marx’s grave he recalled an anecdote that turned out to be more clever and philosophical than I suppose he intended. He bent his frame in a serpentine manner so as to make eye contact for his story; thus shielding the ladies from the dilapidated death circumscribing their path, while speaking confidently as a man will who is leading two ladies on a quiet walk through a not so well known London attraction.

It seems that throughout the years of Highgate’s existence he had been privy to the knowledge that individuals had been lodging complaints concerning their unexpected veneration to capitalism in the form of £3 to enter the cemetery and visit Marx’s grave. With a determined set of philosophical conclusions, he soberly and jovially pointed out to the ladies, and, incidentally, yours truly, that “without that £3, Marx’s grave wouldn’t be there to visit”! The ladies “oohed” and “aawed” at this rather wry observation before rounding the southern bend, content in their knowledge of the rather unnecessary existential distress this ironic turn of events had caused so many young visitors of Marx’s grave.

The existential juxtaposition of a cemetery needing private funding to house the mortal remains of the man who touted the teleological fall of capitalism—“What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable”—is far too beautiful in its essential nature to be ignored. And the waggish Englishman has a point; in fact, he is quite right. For the Englishman, and the ladies laughing by his side, those griping, idealistic youths who bemoan the payment of their £3 to worship their deceased iconoclast simply cannot see the value of those £3 due precisely to its reified nature as a commodity.

Without those £3 from the living, what would become of Marx’s grave? Would it be moved in its moribund condition to a private estate in Europe? Would the nearly 130-year old corpse be transported to Chávez’s Venezuela, only to be put on public display in all its rotting glory? Or would the cemetery simply fall into dilapidation into a place where hippies and youths camp out and have morbid, anti-capitalistic orgies? That’s no matter. The point the Englishman is making is that those individuals aiming their bleating toward Highgate Cemetery’s pricey containment of Marx’s bones should be thankful a designated space is even available where to pay tribute to der Mann!

Those making complaints have a point as well. Is the irony not palpably obvious? Karl Marx’s grave, the star of Highgate Cemetery—no, George Eliot does not draw the same crowd—is being peddled and promoted as the reason to visit Highgate Cemetery. The man who meticulously dissected the history and construction of capitalism in its most fundamental form is now part of its postmodern, consumerist rendition. The very same man who is evoked when the masses of revolutionaries turn the tables on their oppressors, who inspires colonized to brandish their fists and stones toward colonizers, who allows for an alternative economic structure to be imagined by and for the masses is now being interned in London, where he once found refuge after French exile in 1849, and where you can visit for a mere £3.

But the Englishman is wrong, and so are the complainers. Although they are archetypes of an often necessary dialectic—those defending the class system and those wishing to uproot it—neither of them can see the forest for the trees. The complainers inductive reasoning, e.g. using this specific moment in space and time to fulfill their battle against abstract ideas such as capitalism, is simply a logic that pleasantly ignores their current state of being. They act as though there should be a virgin space where all their altruistic intentions can manifest—and yet even that place has been infested by their dreaded nemesis: capitalism!

The Englishman is no worse in the dichotomy; for, although he visits the moment with a sort of ironic laughter that is required to rip away the solemness of private property, he too holds on to the belief that there should or should not be a place where capitalism touches. This is the very worship of private property as an idea and a manifestation! Both parties cannot see that the very existence of private property is held within the idealizing of a confined and specific space. One cannot visit Marx’s grave without acting within capitalism; whether Highgate is funded by the state, a non-profit group, an individual, or the Communist League, it requires not only capital to exist, but the idea of capital.

Marx’s grave will only be free from complaints and ironic laughter when we no longer care to visit his grave, and when we no longer consider that spot as a necessary point of philosophical departure. That moment, when we all realize that he is dead and that we are alive, will not be a shattering, defeated acquiescence to capitalism’s omnipresence, but a brilliant acknowledgement of the social relations required to keep any economic system alive.

Originally Written: 12.03.2012


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