Marx’s Grave: The Comradeship of the Dead

Marx’s Grave: The Comradeship of the Dead

Thrice have I visited Marx’s grave.

First time, happenstance

On a Sunday in 1999, in the midst of a northern hemisphere summer, I was for the first time in England, let alone London. What should one do here, especially the first time? The supposed attractions of the city were many, but they held no appeal for me. At last I knew: I would visit Marx’s grave.

Highgate Hill, where Marx was buried, was as much a mystery to me as London itself. Eventually I found my way on what they call ‘the tube’ to Highgate. A narrow spiral of stairs took me out of the former air raid shelter and into a small pocket of forest. Once again, I had to ask the locals for directions, finally finding Swain’s Lane and the entrance to the East Cemetery.

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Overgrown it was, resembling more a subtropical zone than a temperate one. Tumbling gravestones threatened to disappear beneath a riot of vines, branches, saplings and towering trees. An old woman sat by the gate, sequestering three pounds from me – one for entry and two for the camera. She told me it was the entry fee and I was willing to believe her. She warned me that the cemetery was about to close, so I had better make my visit brief if I was not to spend the night with the bones of the dead.

I strode down the path, followed the left fork past the graves of George Elliott and Herbert Spencer to be met by the three metre gravestone, replete with a bust of Marx himself on the top. At a turn in the path, this grave was not buried in the riot of vegetation. ‘Workers of all lands unite!’ and the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach – ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – the point however is to change it’ – were inscribed above and below the names of those buried: Karl, Jenny von Westfalen, Helen Demuth and a grandson, Harry Longuet.

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I had time to take a few shots with my simple camera and slip away to avoid being locked in. Now I needed a toilet and a beer on this humid London day. On a second beer by the window of the Rose and Crown pub on Highgate Road I scribbled some notes on Marx in London, where he found the most advanced workings of capitalism in England (if only he could see it now!) and sought to analyse its trends and workings. I supposed that some of the buildings would have been hereabouts when the Marx family moved to Kentish Town, with a little more money (thanks to Engels) from the grinding poverty of Soho and a chance for some quieter, less cramped living.

At that time, I was more interested in the living, at least at the time of Marx and Engels. I reflected less on the grave site itself. But that would come.

Second time, coincidence

Eight years later I was in London again – not a frequent occurrence – and this time with my partner. Now it was November, a little cooler, and the path to the cemetery was not entirely unknown. Still we had to pay for entry, up to two pounds each, but nothing for the camera. And still was it overgrown, despite the best efforts of the Friends of Highgate.

But now I became interested in the history, not so much of Marx and family, but of the grave itself. It was of course the main attraction of the whole cemetery, even with its other illustrious residents. The current site is not the original one, for Marx had been buried in Jenny’s modest grave on a small side path. At his funeral, on 17 March, 1883, only eleven mourners were present – a small gathering given Marx’s extraordinary importance since. They were his daughters Eleanor and Laura (Jenny had already died), their husbands and a handful of fellow communists. The ceremony was simple, with brief words in German, French and English, from the leader of the German Social-Democratic party, Charles Longuet (a son-in-law) and Engels. After two telegrams were read out from parties in France and Spain, the small funeral party returned to Marx’s home on Maitland Park Road in Kentish Town for the wake. Sadly, a week later, the remainder of the family was back at the grave to bury his young grandson, Harry Longuet.

What a contrast the following year made. Now over 5,000 people gathered, organised by the Communistic Working Men’s Club in London. Far more than a quiet show of respect, this was a full demonstration, with the plan to march, to the beat of a band, to the cemetery and give rousing speeches in German, French and English. But the cemetery directors were nervous, so the police forced the demonstration to stop in some vacant land near the cemetery. The event was peaceful enough, with people listening to the speeches, cheering and heading home.

In the years that followed, the old grave became a site of pilgrimage. Lenin visited with a group of Bolsheviks in 1903, when they were in London for an early congress.

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In 1956, a large group of Soviet sailors paid a visit and in 1968 the Soviet ambassador formally laid a wreath on the grave, captured in a newsreel:

But the sailors and the ambassador had actually paid their respects at the new grave. More than forty years earlier, people had begun to feel that the run-down state of the grave was unacceptable for a person such as Marx. For instance, in 1923, at the Socialist Annual Conference, the delegate Charles McLean described his effort to find the grave: ‘only after an hour’s search’ was he ‘able to stand at the foot of the grave’. He spoke of the sad state of the grave, feeling that someday ‘there would be international pilgrimages to Highgate Cemetery – just as there were pilgrimages to Mecca by the Moslems’. Surely a better memorial was needed.

The first response came from the Soviet Union. Feeling that the UK government was derelict in its duty, they proposed in the late 1920s to exhume Marx and bring him to Moscow where he would be remembered with due respect. 115 descendants of Marx signed a petition to add weight to the request. It was refused.

Here is the old grave in a newsreel from 1948:

Was there an alternative? On a rainy, cold night in November of 1954, five men met in secret at the grave. They erected a canvas screen, lit some oil lamps and undertook the unenviable task of exhuming the four coffins and their remains. In stealth, they bore the crumbling coffins to a new site, which had been excavated next to the main path where a cedar tree had been felled. The men were sworn to secrecy, so the story slowly leaked out, as the Daily Mail reports. Two more years would pass as Laurence Bradshaw sculpted the massive new memorial: an imposing bust of Marx on a granite plinth with the now famous gold lettering with quotations from Marx and the names of those buried. The planning of the whole project and the raising of funds was undertaken by the Marx Memorial Fund, established the Communist Party. Harry Pollitt unveiled the new memorial before a large crowd in 1956.

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Third time, enemy action

Another eight years were to pass before I returned to Marx’s grave, about which I now knew a little more. As a signal of the changing dynamics of world politics, if not world socialism, I was accompanied by a young Chinese student of Marxism.

Again it was November, again it was rainy and cool, and again it was reasonable walk from the Underground Station. Yet now the entrance had a sizeable booth, set up by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. Entry was now four pounds, with a plea to assist the friends in maintaining the cemetery.

Many have been the visitors before we returned. And not all of them with the best intentions. With the prominent new memorial, right wingers have since 1956 snuck into the cemetery in the dead of night to deface the grave site with swastikas and slogans. In 1965 and then again in 1970 they went so far as to attempt to blow up the monument, as the Camden New Journal reports. On the second occasion, the would-be vandals, believing the bust to be hollow, spent many hours sawing off the nose with a view to pouring the explosives through the hole. A simply knock or two at the beginning would have told them that the bust was anything but hollow. Frustrated, they detonated the gunpowder and shrapnel next to the memorial, causing £600 worth of damage – although most of this was actually the damage to the nose.

Yet the vast majority of those who visit come to pay their respects. On this occasion, we were joined by some others. A man sat quietly by, enjoying a cigarette and pondering the universe and Marx. A Spanish couple took photographs, especially with him holding his fist in the air. We too took photographs, and the Chinese student was thrilled to be at the grave of the man responsible for setting her own government on the path of Marxism.

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Apart from the community of the living, I became interested in the community of the dead. The grave itself has four who keep one another company, including the strong woman and housekeeper Helen Demuth. But over time, others gathered in the vicinity. Earlier comrades include the Trinidad-born Claudia Vera Jones, socialist and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival , and Yusuf Mohamed Dadoo, the Muslim Indian South African communist and anti-apartheid activist (d. 1983). He was interred – with a full Muslim burial – beside Saad Saadi Ali, the Iraqi communist.

These and some others I had already seen in 1999. Yet in 2015 I noticed that the practice continues. Even closer to the Marx grave are those who have died only a few years ago: Nuno de Azevedo (d. 2005); the Russian Wladimir Krysko (d. 2009 at 98); the Australian Ian Mathews (d. 2010); Joseph Kirlew (d. 2011); Dorothy Dove (d. 2011); Lindsay McNeil (d. 2015). Intrigued by the practice, I wondered: is it that the spirit of Marx provides a beneficial aura? Or is it a sense of the comradeship of the dead? If so, the party grows year by year.

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Refugee Train across Europe

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Syria’, said the young man.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. Some minutes later, his friend arrived and they asked me about their train ticket. Or rather, they showed it to me, with quizzical faces. Their final destination was Kiel, in the north of Germany, which required a change in Hamburg. I promised to help them when we arrived in Hamburg.

I noticed that they had a small backpack each and that they looked weary, very weary. Holidaymakers hereabouts usually carry much more. And they usually stay in hotels with comfortable beds, or perhaps – like me – they stay with friends and acquaintances. These two young men were not holidaymakers and they had clearly not slept in a comfortable bed for quite a while.

My thoughts went back to the crossing of the border between the Netherlands and Germany, an hour or so earlier. I was on my way from the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn to Copenhagen, a journey that should have taken twelve hours. At the German border crossing, an unusual number of police patrolled the station and the train itself. The open borders of the European Union were not so open any more. In my carriage, they stopped to speak with another young man.

‘Where are you from?’ The police officers asked.

‘Tunisia’, he said.

‘May we see your passport?’ They asked. Upon perusing it, they said: ‘You do not have a visa. Please come with us’.

He followed them off the train, where a number of people had also gathered. Soon enough they were led off by the police for processing.

At that time, I had not yet made the connection. But with the two Syrians on the later train, it hit me: I was experiencing first-hand the European refugee ‘crisis’ of late 2015. Or rather, it was only the first, very small taste.

By the time I arrived at Hamburg, I realised I was in the midst of the greatest movement of people in recorded history – from countries destroyed by foreign intervention, such Syria, Afghanistan, Libya … It is one thing to see stories on the television or read about it in a distant newspaper, with the usual distortions and sensationalism. It is another thing entirely to experience it directly.

The train on which I was travelling arrived late, having left Osnabrück late. Hoping that in Hamburg my connection to Copenhagen was also late, I raced to find the platform. The train had already left. After rescheduling my travel at the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, I had an hour or more to explore the station. As an ancient centre, Hamburg always bustles. But this was no ordinary bustle. It was packed full of people.

In the toilets, many Syrian men were having a wash. The cost of entry may have been one euro, but the attendant was letting them in for nothing. On the stairs, in the passageways, on the platforms were group upon group of tired refugees. A family sat in a corner, with the mother quietly breastfeeding the baby. A man from Afghanistan spoke with a women next to me, saying he and his group had been on the road for four weeks. They would stay in one country for a night, perhaps two, and then move on. All of them – families, groups of young men and women, occasional older people with someone to help them – had nothing more than a small backpack and perhaps a smartphone in order to keep up with what was happening.

Finally my train arrived, although now I had to go via Jutland and around to Copenhagen. The German railway system was straining, with all trains running late. My train was soon full to overflowing with refugees. I sat next to a German woman from Flensburg.

‘I never expected this’, I said, ‘although I should have’.

‘There are so many’, she said, ‘even more this month’.

‘Where are they going?’ I asked.

‘To every city, town and village in Germany’, she said.

‘How do they get there?’ I asked.

‘The German government provides them with tickets’, she said.

‘In the Netherlands’, I said, ‘people were saying, “it is what you do”’.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘this is what we think too. However, we cannot do it alone’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Other countries need to help’, she said. ‘This is a global problem. But Denmark, Norway, Hungary … they refuse to take any refugees’.

‘Really’, I said. ‘But they are rich countries, with many resources to share’.

She smiled ruefully.

At Flensburg, in the midst of one of my ancestral homes by name of Schleswig-Holstein, we had to change trains. For many, Flensburg was the end of their journey for now. Arabic-speaking Germans were ready on the platform. They wore ‘Welcome Refugees’ jackets and guided people to the station centre. There they provided some food, drink and arranged accommodation for those who were staying in Flensburg.

Yet again, I had missed my connection, so I had to wait for the next train, now in the middle of the night. I did not expect anyone to board the train to Denmark, given that country’s less than welcoming reputation. The barriers on the platform for Denmark reinforced this impression. However, when the train arrived, a large group of refugees were led onto the platform. The station personnel at the barriers did not request passports – only valid tickets. Soon the train was full.

Now I became fully involved.

One young man spoke English, so he became the interpreter and de facto leader of a train full of anxious refugees. They were constantly keen for information in a foreign country with strange customs. At the Danish border, I expected them all to be hauled off the train.

Instead, a Danish police officer came through and asked, ‘Anyone seeking asylum in Denmark?’

One by one, everyone responded, ‘Sweden’.

He walked on.

An Arabic speaking woman followed him, checking to see if people had understood. One or two had further questions. By her shrug and sour look, one could tell immediately that she didn’t care and had no desire to help.

At Fredericia, in Denmark, the train stopped for some time. An announcement stated that we would not have to change, for the train would now go through to Copenhagen. Obviously, the authorities feared some might disappear on their way to another platform. A large group gathered around me as the interpreter asked what was happening. I explained the change in plans in detail, answering further questions.

Soon enough the last toilet on the train stopped working. I advised those whose bladders were about to burst that a corner on the platform was a good place for such purposes – having done so myself. A couple of women were not so keen, so I asked some station attendants of they could fix the toilets. They did so – with much relief.

After yet another delay, we departed. A weary train soon fell asleep. Children slept on seats and on the floor between seats. Old people were given the best spots. Young people did the best they could with the remaining space.

By 3.00 am we finally arrived in Copenhagen – five hours later than my original schedule. Everyone disembarked and asked me – through their translator – whether they had to take a ship to Malmø. The train will take you there, I told them.

‘I wish you all the best’, I said. ‘I hope you find a welcoming country and a place to make a new home’.

They thanked me profusely for the little help I had given, shaking my hand one by one. We waved farewell.

Walking out of the station and into a rainy Scandinavian night in mid-November, I found I could barely imagine what such a journey must be like for them, fleeing a home engulfed in war. Their towns and villages were being destroyed, people around them were being killed, mostly by foreign forces. They did not know what lay ahead.

Yet I was struck by the way everyone was very helpful. No-one pushed or shoved to get on or off a train. Instead they assisted each other. People constantly made room for anyone else, offering seats and places where needed. The feel on the train was far from any sense of danger, but rather a sense of weary and hopeful collective will.

The situation went beyond politics and propaganda. It boils down to a simple question: if someone is in dire need, you either turn your back or you help. For you never know when you will be in such a situation.

Old Ghosts

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His lame leg is stiff and twisted awkwardly at the ankle, the belated effect of childhood polio. The grey moustache bristles with the effort of pitching the worn tent. The lean frame bends stiffly at the waist as he works in the pegs and poles. But he has done it so many times before and insists on doing it mostly by himself. My youngest daughter, his favourite grandchild, assists him with tenderness and adoration – holding a rope here, a peg there.

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I had not expected to meet him here, an old ghost who had once frequented these parts. Yet here he is; his presence palpable as I pitch my tent on the same spot. Some twenty years ago, he had come here eagerly along with my mother. They were keen to take time with their grandchildren, sharing a love of camping in the bush. Since then he had died and I have become used to not thinking of him for long stretches of time. But then he returns, unexpectedly.

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Or perhaps I should have expected it, for this is one of my favourite places in the world – in the Yengo Wilderness. The long day on the bicycle, or two at a more reasonable pace, is full of anticipation. The dirt track for the last six kilometres even more so.

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A last turn of the track and I glimpse the simple shelter on a nondescript shoulder of the ridge. Around the small clearing the trees and wallabies and pademelons and goannas quietly carry on as they have always done. Nothing much has changed for two decades, if not much, much longer. Here one can be entirely removed from the world and get in touch with a far better one.

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While I pitch the tent, gather wood, light a fire and wash with a cup from the water tank, I pause often to look out, suck in the air, absorb the trees, greet the animals. I may see my small children playing with a ball (or a goanna running off with the ball), chopping wood, being washed in a bucket, eating a meal at a foldout table, brushing teeth before bed, reading while wrapped in a sleeping bag. I may recall the strange visit a decade ago (after too long a gap) when I was conscious of the tap on the tank while one of my sons – unknown to me until later that day – was in an intensive burns unit after his house burnt down. Or I may revisit my times here since, regretting that it has been too long since the last time a couple of years ago and vowing to return far more often. But above all, I sense my father, appreciating ever more deeply why he felt the call to come to places like this.

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I too feel the pull more strongly this time. Much has to do with a profound sense of turning, of a recovery of what I like to do rather than what others expect me to do (for their own benefit). With each pedal of the day, I had felt as though one unnecessary expectation after the other had been dumped. So by the time I arrive, they are gone, as if simply being here counts as completion of the process.

No wonder I have time for old ghosts on All Saints.

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