Marking Karl Marx’s 200th Birthday
- Credit: Archant
Adam Solomons speaks to those commemorating the German philosopher.
Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson was briefly a member of the Communist Party: radicalised by his first reading of the Communist Manifesto aged just 16. So why did he leave after a week?
“It was like any other political party”, he says. “Everyone was terribly terribly earnest and awful.”
“I don’t actually believe in joining political parties because there might get to a point as a satirist where you have to make fun of the Great Leader.”
Rowson has marked the 200th birthday of Karl Marx by doing exactly that.
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His comic book version of the Communist Manifesto, published by the St Pancras-based Self Made Hero (£12.99), is a quirky, word-for-word recreation of one of the most famous pieces of political theory. But he accepts it wouldn’t pass the censors in most Communist countries.
“With Lenin and Stalin you see Marxism has bred a sort of cultural dogma, a bend towards authoritarianism. Marx was absolutely convinced he was right. It was difficult to satirise those parts of the Manifesto where Marx is going on and on about his personal disagreements.” But Rowson contends that his quirky take on the Manifesto is intended to make it more accessible in these troubled times. “I think it’s more relevant than it has been for sixty years. This idea of the state as a racket, a system invented so the rich could steal from the poor and get away with it. That hasn’t entirely gone away.”
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Dystopian elements in the gig economy and our obsession with the service industry are evidence that Marx’s ideas of class oppression remain prescient, he says.“With these secret shoppers who go into coffee shops and check that everyone’s smiling. We’ve seen the commodification of empathy, and emotions. Marx is wrong about other things but he’s right about that.”
The late American social historian Howard Zinn was also interested in Marx’s contemporary relevance His one-man play ‘Marx in Soho’ which runs Upstairs at The Gatehouse until June 22 sees him return to his old haunts as a begrudging visitor to the modern era and asks what would Marx say if he came back today?
Actor and activist Bob Weick, who plays Marx at the Highgate venue, a stone’s throw from the great man’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, hopes his writings resonate with contemporary audiences.
“You don’t have to be a socialist to enjoy the play, you just have to be concerned about the world. It offers a point of view and encourages dialogue and discussion.”
The play tells a more personal story, centred around Marx’s strained marriage with long-term wife Jenny and the four young children they lost to illness.
“For conservatives it can be unsettling – they are surprised to find themselves relating to the character, understanding him, even liking him. I like coming to conservative bastions and feeling the atmosphere of the room change.”
Weick adds: “Those stark black-and-white images of the Great Thinker can be kind of isolating. The play tries to give a more human face to Marx than we’ve seen before.”
Having said that, the play’s project is a radicalising one.
“It’s great in liberal democracies that we have rights, but we also have responsibilities, to play a part, to move society forward. Howard’s view of history was a hopeful one – based on the idea that social advancements have come only because ordinary people organised. Abolitionism, women’s rights, suffrage all show that. Presidents don’t make change. Get off your ass. Play your part.”
Diana Siclovan, curator of the British Library’s free exhibition on Karl and Eleanor Marx, which runs until August 5 is less interested in that conversation. “I don’t find that debate about Marx’s relevance today very fruitful. I think Marx is very important and we should engage with him, but within his time.”
The exhibition focuses on the years Marx spent writing Das Kapital in the famous Reading Room of the British Museum. It features a first edition copy of the Communist Manifesto - one of only 25 in existence - but also the personal tales of an overstretched man, and his long-suffering daughter, that Siclovan believes speak most powerfully to our time.
“Karl Marx wasn’t actually much of an activist. Eleanor was a more public figure. We wanted to go a bit deeper and tell that story.”
Inspired by Rachel Holmes’s 2014 biography of Eleanor Marx, Siclovan focuses on the woman who appeared with Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the Labour Party, at the May Day parade in 1889. “She worked tirelessly to put women’s rights at the front of the socialist agenda. She really was quite ahead of her time.”
Eleanor was in a long relationship with the activist Edward Aveling, but they never officially married. He was a serial cheater, and when Eleanor discovered he had married a mistress she committed suicide aged 43. “Her relationship with an abusive boyfriend is something that still resonates today.”
Siclovan concludes that the Marx family story, and especially Eleanor’s, still has a lot to tell us, in the personal if not the political.
“Recent discoveries have brought Eleanor to life as an activist, a writer, a woman. We could’ve have a whole exhibition on her. Maybe we will one day.”