It’s time to knock down Nelson’s column. So says broadcaster Afua Hirsch in The Guardian. His historic defence of slavery makes him, we are told, a ‘white supremacist’. I accept that by modern standards Nelson had some unpalatable views, his contribution to improving the representation of disabled people notwithstanding. So, truthfully, did most historic figures. If we tear down the statues of all those who held some dubious opinion the pigeons would have precious little left to shit on. It’s hard to imagine many, if any, Roman figures surviving for example. So let’s be more selective in our wrath. Let’s conserve it for those who were central to, or inspired, political systems which caused almost unique levels of human suffering. Those whose ideas or actions caused pain far beyond that of the standard historic despot. In this category I would unquestionably place the German philosopher Karl Marx.
Marx’s grave resides in North London’s Highgate Cemetery, a few roads from Hampstead Heath. But it’s much more than just a grave. It’s a behemoth of a shrine, at least twice the height of a full-grown man. Engraved on the rock are two Marx quotes, whilst on top is a giant bust of the man himself. All men it turns out, are most certainly not equal in death. As someone with a keen interest in history I have visited the tombs of both Marx and Churchill. Two differences stand out. Marx’s monument is vastly larger and, more than a little ironically, unlike Churchill’s you have to pay to visit it. As is so often the case the bearers of the Marxist flame have descended into self-parody.
British Communists gather for the unveiling of the current Marx memorial in 1956
So why then, is Karl Marx so unworthy of positive commemoration. It’s hard to argue that he was a truly bad person, though he was undoubtedly both vein and selfish. He didn’t personally order any executions, as so many of those who purported to be acting in his name would elect to do. What he did instead is found a political system which through a combination of innate authoritarianism and economic illiteracy provides a near perfect road to despotism. Russia, China, Poland, Korea – the list of countries which have suffered from this creed has grown long.
I’m not going to use this piece to outline why I think Karl Marx got it wrong, why his economic theory about class exploitation for surplus value is incorrect and his view of history as being driven by class confrontation actively pseudo-scientific. I’ll save these for another article – save to say that when I first read some of Marx’s works I was surprised at just how flimsy many of his core assumptions seemed to be. Rather I’m going to underline Marx’s authoritarianism, a strain which directly links the books he scrawled out in the reading room of the British Museum to the execution squads of Soviet Russia.
Marx and his co-conspirator Friedrich Engels adopted the notion of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ from a fellow socialist. The idea was that, following the workers revolution, a period of authoritarian workers control (via some form of committee) would be needed to prevent the old elite from re-establishing itself. Thus both the socialist revolution, and the suppression of dissenting forces after the revolution, would be intensely violent. Marx theorised that, eventually, this would give way to a classless ‘communist’ society without active oppression; though in practice of course this never happened. Whether this was because Marxist economics doesn’t work, or because having given an organisation dictatorial power it is reluctant to give it up (or as I suspect a bit of both) is a matter of debate.
A Communist propaganda poster drawing a direct line between (from left to right) Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.
As early as 1848 Marx wrote that ‘there is only one means to shorten, simplify and concentrate the murderous death throes of the old society and the bloody birth pangs of the new, only one means – revolutionary terrorism’. Two years later he co-authored with Engels an address to the Central Committee to the Communist League, stating that following the revolution communists ‘must work to ensure that the immediate revolutionary excitement is not suddenly suppressed after the victory…Far from opposing the so-called excesses – instances of popular vengeance against hated individuals or against public buildings with which hateful memories are associated – the workers’ party must not only tolerate these actions but must even give them direction’.
This position was continued by Engels, who in 1872 wrote that ‘A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon’. Shortly after Marx authored the ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’, a document addressed to the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (SDAP) criticising the view of many in the Party that a peaceful democratic means of achieving socialism might be possible. Marx regarded extreme violence as being inherently necessary in both the establishment and initial preservation of a socialist state. He spent many of his later years arguing against those more moderate socialists who believed the new society could be constructed without violence.
Prisoners work at the Belbaltlag Gulag Camp in Russia, 1932.
It is entirely reasonable to draw a direct line from the violent and authoritarian rhetoric of Karl Marx and the butchery and dictatorship which those claiming to be his adherents would later inflict on a substantial section of the world’s population. Exact figures are hard to come by but as an illustration over half a million were killed in Stalin’s 1936-38 Great Purge, whilst some two million would die in Mao’s Chinese cultural revolution. Surely if we’re looking for statues to tear down one of an individual who inspired such carnage should be top of the list?
By way of postscript I should add that I’m not genuinely sure that Marx’s shrine should be demolished – I can see its value as a historical artefact (though I certainly don’t think it should continue to be the site of something akin to worship). But if we’re reacting to an individual’s moral impact on the world I would dynamite Marx’s mausoleum a thousand times over before even considering laying a finger on Nelson’s Column.