Reaching Karl Marx means walking past many, many capitalists. The London area of Highgate where he is buried is the address of the super-wealthy of this planet, people who like living in “gated communities” surrounded by walls.
Entrance to the Highgate cemetery costs four pounds (5.50 dollars), but at least a map comes with it, showing the most important graves. One name alone is printed in red: “Marx.”
Already from a distance one spots the trademark tangle of hair reaching up towards the trees. A few steps later, one is standing before the bronze bust that the Communist Party of Britain installed in 1956.
Some people think he looks grim out from under those bushy eyebrows. Others say he looks benevolent. If it weren’t for the slogan “Workers of all lands unite” engraved into the pedestal, you might think Santa Claus was buried here.
Anyone finding the time to spend an afternoon with “Charlie” will quickly conclude that, 200 years since his birth on May 5, 1818, in Trier, Germany, and 29 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Marx is now cult. Flowers, candles and recently, a fresh pineapple, lie around the pedestal.
The stream of visitors is never-ending. Most of them are young and come from every corner of the globe.
Marx has been making a comeback ever since the international financial crisis of 2008. Part of this is the fact that in the meantime a new generation has discovered him, young people who did not consciously experience the Cold War. To them, Marx is neither the Saviour nor Satan, but simply a philosopher with relevance.
There are passages in the “Communist Manifesto” which may have baffled some of Marx’s contemporaries, but not 21st century readers.
In 1848 he foresaw “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions,” a prediction made when in the German regions industrialization had not yet even taken place.
And this: “The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.” Nowadays, the term would be called globalization.
Marx was also confirmed in his assumption that capitalism tends towards concentration, towards the formation of a just a handful of globe-spanning corporations.
His crisis theories are today “highly topical” according to Hans-Werner Sinn, former chief of one of Germany’s leading economic research centres, the Ifo Institute for Economic Research.
Nor was it just economic developments that Marx rightly foresaw, but also a merging of cultures. “The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property,” he predicted, long before there was Hollywood, Mickey Mouse or The Smurfs.
But the German philosopher’s greatest error was in underestimating the ability of capitalism to adapt. Precisely because the “owning class” around 1900 feared a communist uprising it reached out to the workers by drawing them into the capitalist system.
Voting rights were expanded and social reforms introduced. As a result, the revolution that Marx expected never took place in the West.
In this regard, he would today counter that the cheap-wage sector has only been transferred to countries outside Europe. “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole,” he wrote in “Das Kapital” (Capital).
In today’s world, those words could be seen as applying to the exploitative factories of Bangladesh.
In addition, the social welfare state is retreating in many Western countries. One reason for the revival of interest in Marx could be the rising gap between rich and poor.
Between 1930 and 1980 the relationship between the two was largely stable, points out star French economist Thomas Piketty in his best-selling book “Capital in the 21st Century.”
In the competition with the Communist East Bloc, almost all the capitalist states actively pursued redistribution of wealth.
“Who knows today that in the 1950s, the highest income tax rate in the United States was over 90 per cent and in Britain at nearly 100 per cent – even though in the end nobody actually paid that?” asks Juergen Neffe in his new biography of Marx.
Politicians like US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher then turned back the pages to the “pure capitalism of the 19th century,” Piketty says.
Piketty’s theses are controversial, but at least one issue is still relevant to this day just as it was during the zenith of industrialization in the 19th century. It was the question that Marx struggled with his entire life: How can the wealth be justly distributed?
He drafted a political programme to do away with the bourgeoisie, even though he himself put great store in his bourgeois status with servants, a seaside holiday and piano lessons for the children. He planned a dictatorship of the proletariat, though having scarcely any contact with workers.
The few occasions usually ended in a fiasco. Once, when he tried to mediate in a street fight, the workers then turned on him, even pulling his beard.
Who was Karl Marx? Each generation comes up with its own answer.
But what does remain valid is what his contemporary Friedrich Engels, co-author of “The Communist Manifesto,” said concluding his funeral oration for Marx at Highgate in 1883: “His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work!”(dpa/NAN)