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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.