In 1986 I was a 17 year old sixth-form student at Bhasvic, studying A-Levels. Economics was one of my subjects. Our teachers had organised an “Economics Trip To London” in December that year for a seminar with some bankers on the top floor of the NatWest Tower. Looking back, this was quite a coup for them and I now completely understand their angry looks when I answered the final question, “Was this an interesting day for you?“, with the words, “It was a load of bollocks.” If my old teachers, Paul Christmas and Jai Trivedi ever read this, my apologies.
It was a load of bollocks though. Back then, A-Level Economics was an incredibly right-wing subject. It took no account whatsoever of any factors other than private enterprise, which rendered almost all its analysis fatally flawed.
Us students had travelled to London on a group train ticket. That meant that we had to all travel together in both directions. The seminar took up the whole morning and half the afternoon but the teachers had thoughtfully allowed us a couple of extra hours to go and have fun in London before we had to reconvene at Victoria Station for the return journey. Unsupervised fun! Such a thing would, I imagine, be impossible these days. There were 35 of us: 17 young women and 18 young men. Can you guess what we got up to? All the girls went to Harrods. All the boys went to Soho, except me.
I decided to visit the monumental grave of Karl Marx. All I knew was the famous communist was laid to rest in Highgate cemetery. Determined though I had been to pay my youthful radical respects to the great man, I didn’t undertake any planning. I’d never travelled around London alone before either but I had not brought a map. Instead a relied on the London Undergound – transport, not political! A map on the wall of a station revealed that there was a tube station in Highgate. I made my way there. On arrival, I asked the startled staff where Highgate Cemetery was. One of them explained that there were two: the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. They are both old. Properly named, they are referred to as the ‘West’ and the ‘East’, with the East being the new one. Karl Marx is in the new one. Armed with the ticket taker’s guidance I started walking around the boundaries to find an entrance.
The West seemed to be surrounded by a very high wall and the East by a fence. Both were closed. It had never occurred to me that they would shut in the night and it was really dark by the time I got there. Having come all that way, and having fended off a rather pathetic mugger just outside the tube station, I wasn’t going to let this final hurdle defeat me. I realised that the West wall was unscalable and hoped that my chosen tomb would be in the new one – at that point I still didn’t know where it was. The fence around the East was also difficult to get over but I found a place where a tree hung over it and, with some difficulty, I managed to climb in. It was even darker inside the cemetery. Without any street lighting, I could not see what I was dropping onto from my branch. It wasn’t far but my landing foot slightly entered a gap between a crumbled capstone and a stone vault. Urgh!
Unnerved by my foot going into someone’s grave, I became quite shaky. After a while I found my way to the path. It was a cloudy night. I can’t remember if there was a moon or not. I just remember the darkness. I could see a little – London’s light had penetrated the graveyard a little. Looking around, I realised the utter folly of my task. I hadn’t even brought a torch! Reading the names on the tombs was very difficult. There were hundreds of them. My nerves were exacerbated by the numerous angelic statues, with arms outstretched, standing over tombs. I’d never seen anything like it. This was no regular cemetery. In the gloom, these figures were terrifying. It became a real act of discipline to pursue the search. I knew what Marx’s distinctive monument looked like so I reasoned that it would be fairly simply to find. Yet I could not find it. Disheartened, eventually I concluded that I would have to give up.
I looked around for a place to climb back out. This was not as easy as you might think. The ground was lower on the inside than the pavement outside. The fence had spikes on it. The prospect of a night in the graveyard did not appeal to me. I looked at my watch. There was only ten minutes before the rendez-vous time in Victoria. No chance. They would have to wait. Being in lots of trouble for being very late was one thing, having the police search for you through the night only to find that you had been hiding amongst the dead – that was not worth contemplating.
I found another tree which I shimmied up and used to vault the fence. I dropped down directly in front of an unseen passerby, who cried out in shock. Actually, he nearly jumped out of himself. I apologised and he said, “What were you doing in there?” My sheepish explanation met with unexpected approval. He told precisely where the Karl Marx monument was. Not only that, he offered to help me climb back in. With one of my feet inside his interlocked fingers, he hoiked me back up into the tree. Thus assisted, I re-entered the graveyard.
This time I felt much more comfortable. Appellant angels and overgrown tombs couldn’t scare me! The helpful pedestrian outside had explained the scheme of the paths and so I walked confidently in the right direction, without studying much around me. Suddenly I noticed that a tomb ahead was on fire. Disbelieving in all that gothic mystical nonsense, I reasoned that I was not the only living soul in there. It also seemed obvious that whoever was warming themselves with a fire in there was up to no good. Frozen, I watched the fire for a couple of minutes. It was about a hundred and fifty feet away but I couldn’t see anyone around it. What was going on?
I approached ever so slowly and quietly, stretching my toes gently down onto to the path in tiny steps. When I was very close, I suddenly realised that my mind had tricked me into seeing a fire. In fact, it was one of those plastic tubes with little lights inside which flick on and off to make it look like the light is moving around. Disgusted with my fear, I walked up to it and picked it up. It was twisted into a figure of eight and had a battery attached. Whatever it was doing there, I didn’t stop to think. I hastened to my left and soon found what I was looking for.
The mighty man’s monument was everything I had hoped for. Flowers lay all around, knee deep in places. At the time, I imagined that I was standing over Karl Marx’s body. Before writing this, some brief research revealed that actually he is buried nearby and the monolithic block and head is actually just a memorial monument.
I stood there, clenched my fist in the then traditional communist salute, sung The Red Flag out of tune and diligently placed my copy of the Militant newspaper at the foot of the monument. Had anyone come back to find their Christmas lights, I dread to think what a fool I must have looked like! I turned to go and then returned several times. All that effort was not going to be rewarded by spending only a couple of minutes there. I don’t know how long I communed with Marx. Maybe it was half an hour, probably longer.
Marx left specific instructions in his final will and testament that he was to be buried in a simple grave. His funeral, on 17th March 1883, was attended by less than a dozen close friends and comrades. Engels gave the first eulogy in English, which was followed by Marx’s son-in-law reading addresses in French from Russian, French and Spanish socialists. After that the legendary Liebknecht gave another eulogy, in German.
Whatever you think of Marx’s economic, historical and political analysis, his influence on politics is beyond question. Aside from the massive historical events carried out by people who claimed to follow him, he introduced key analytical concepts which everybody uses today, all the time. Whenever a proposal is made, we question the motive and interests of the proposer. That is marxist. When we talk about globalisation, that is marxist. When Bill Clinton famously declared, “It’s the economy, stupid“, in his 1992 presidential election campaign, that too was marxist because it was Karl Marx who introduced the idea that politics revolved completely around materialism. When we complain that our spiritual lives have become tyrannised by commodification, that is also marxist. In fact, Marx probably wrote more about our relationship with commodities than anything else.
Although I hadn’t yet embarked on a politics degree, by the time I stood in silent witness at Marx’s monument, I had read a great deal of his writings. I confess that I never read Capital but I had managed to finish the Grundrisse! Reading his works is not easy because, in common with other philosophers, he invented much terminology. Later on at, at University, I read the works of the man who inspired him – Hegel. They were equally impenetrable until you got the hang of them. Both of these mighty thinkers were much mistaken about various matters but they both were incredibly accurate about much else as well. Whereas Hegel had restricted himself to providing the first proper development of philosophical logic since Aristotle, Marx went out and organised people to stand up for their rights. If you’d like to learn about Marx the man, rather than Marx the thinker, I highly recommend Francis Wheen’s biography. It reveals him to be a man of action as well as of words. A humourous, life loving, risk taking, larger than life character. Standing before the quotation inscribed on the monument, I swore I would dedicate my life to carrying following that instruction:
Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is, however, to change it.
Despite what the thieving Tory bastards say about the Green Party, we are not Marxists (note the capital ‘M’), because we consider the pursuit of endless material growth to be ruinous for our planet. In keeping with everybody else in the nineteenth century, Marx did not question the dominant ideological belief of his age – that there would be endless economic growth.
When at last I turned to go, I was cold, hungry and fearful of the trouble I was in. Karl Marx was a penniless political refugee when he arrived in London, pursued by the authorities in almost every European country. Nowadays he would be called an asylum seeker. In 2005, BBC Radio 4 listeners voted him the greatest thinker of all time and The Daily Mail went berserk. He was a man so far ahead of his time that the revolutions and military coups launched in his name, barely recognised his true importance. After perestroika, there was a lull in his popularity but it has returned again with avengeance.
As regular readers will know, in the last quarter of last year I became involved with Occupy London. On the day of the Lord Mayor of London’s procession, St Paul’s Cathedral held its traditional event for children. A few hundred children attended inside the church, under the guardianship of their Christian parents. Simultaneously, outside, several thousand young people packed out the Cathedral steps to hear David Harvey of New York City University deliver a lecture on modern economics. Harvey is said to be the most famous living Marxist. His speech was bang up to date, drenched in Marx’s terminology and repeatedly interrupted with applause. At 42 years of age, I was amazed to find that 90% of the audience was younger than me. The Daily Mail can suck on that too. It was cold on the flagstones and stone steps, it was dark, there were easier places to go but the young people stuck it out, listening avidly to this old Marxist. Don’t take me world for it. Here’s a film of it, shot from about half-way into the audience.
At last I returned to Victoria Station. I was very late. It was close to nine o’clock. Whatever anger my teachers had felt towards me at the top of the banking world, was nothing compared with the tirade they delivered on my arrival. All my classmates had been standing around in Victoria Station for the best part of two hours, becoming increasingly worried about my fate. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. In fact, I had just slipped away from the group of boys without them noticing. They all looked very strained. I felt bad. I should have told someone. I shouldn’t have been so selfish. My male friends had been given a particularly hard time because they’d let me give them the slip. Now I can easily imagine what must have been going through the teachers’ minds. Apparently they had agreed to contact the police if I didn’t show up within the following two minutes. The sight of me waltzing into the station, nonchalantly confident in my newly confirmed life’s mission, enraged them all.
They’d all had to telephone their parents to explain their late departure. The girls looked at me with an unusual combination of anger and admiration. Most of them later told me privately that they thought the boys’ chosen tourist target was loathsome and that they were impressed that I had such an individual character. Though not famous for promoting individualism, I think Marx would have approved. When the teacher first asked, “Where the hell where you?“, some of the girls nodded knowingly but all of the boys muttered words like, “Who? What? Why?“
On the train home, I sat with the others but felt very alone. Somewhere along the line, Jai Trivedi leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You shouldn’t have done that, Duncan, but I’m impressed. Very impressed.“