Trier, the German city of Karl Marx’s birth, has controversially decided to accept the Chinese government’s donation of a bronze statue of Marx to mark the bicentenary next year. The decision was not taken lightly. Citizens were engaged in a debate as to the appropriateness of the gesture, taking into consideration the human rights abuses committed by 20th century regimes who claimed to espouse his revolutionary thought.
Pondering Marx’s legacy, people in the city examined how best to commemorate their most famous son, who lived in Trier until he was 17 years old. The population was invited to contemplate the presence of such a monument and come to terms with its dimensions in the main square Simeonstiftplatz, where a 6.3 metre to-scale wooden replica currently stands. Councillors voted in favour of accepting the gift with 42 members for, seven against and four abstaining. The mayor, Wolfram Leibe (SPD) expressed his view that the statue has nothing to do with any kind of hero-worship, but rather an appropriate way to recognise Marx’s origins saying: “We should not hide him”.
Reiner Marz, member of Die Grünen, remarked that by accepting the gift, Trier was effectively signalling their approval of the undemocratic Chinese government. However, another politician from the same party, Richard Leuckefeld, said that the decision was set apart from contemporary politics and that the acceptance of the statue had set right the authorities’ “fail[ure] to honour Karl Marx”.
Besides the politics and historical debate sparked by the donation, people have also stopped to consider the popularity of statues in the present day as a method of memorial. It is fair to say that they have fallen out of fashion in an era where one’s philosophical heroes are accessible daily in the public sphere of podcasts, YouTube channels and meme pages. It could be argued that we have moved past such sculptural manifestations as gestures of commemoration.
Statues dedicated to Marx have fallen out of favour in more ways than one. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 (and in the following years) many statues were felled in a symbolic divorce from state Marxism. Yet many remain today, for aesthetic as well as nostalgic reasons. In the former GDR one is never far away from a thoroughfare named Karl Marx Straβe or an avenue called Rosa Luxemburg Allee. Most residents accept these as no longer holding political significance, instead arising from historical legacy.
But are we wrong to make a close link between Marx and the regimes that emerged as ‘people’s democracies’ in the post-second world war period? Some people attempt to make the distinction between Marx the philosopher and Marx the revolutionary. Yet it is hard to separate the two, which are so closely intertwined. Immediately after the fall of Soviet communism Marx went out of favour in scholarship, but the legacy of his works is very much prevalent in today’s academia. Much like Freud, the Austrian thinker, Marx’s vocabulary and thought systems are applied to literary study much more commonly than to practical politics.
Yet that does not mean that Marx is relegated to irrelevance in the political sphere. On the contrary, globalisation and international capitalism is criticised from all angles today, and Marx is experiencing a resurgence of popularity as people look to try and explain the problems of the 21st century. Unlike in the past, when communist regimes covered half the globe, Marx’s name no longer conjures up the fear of imminent violent revolution. Public intellectuals such as Slavoj Žižek and former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis openly invoke Marx when making societal criticisms, and retain a substantial popular following.
Ultimately, accepting a statue does not amount to a clear cut endorsement of ideological state Marxism. We must be careful to separate the man from the crimes committed in his name. It would be impossible to erase such a towering figure from history; and neither should it be attempted.