Marx in Memoriam

Karl Marx was buried in Highgate Cemetery 140 years ago today. The philosopher's iconic grave has a turbulent history which reveals the struggle to define his legacy – and the enduring power of his ideas.

The grave of the German social, political, and economic theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883) at Highgate Cemetery in London. (Getty Images)

Karl Marx’s funeral was poorly attended. Estimates vary, but it’s unlikely more than two-dozen mourners were present—a modest gathering indeed for the father of historical materialism and prophet of capital’s demise.

‘An immeasurable loss has been sustained both by the militant proletariat of Europe and America, and by historical science, in the death of this man,’ eulogised Fredrich Engels, Marx’s friend and patron, in a graveside address to the lucky few, on Saturday, 17 March 1883.

Exiled, stateless and recently widowed, Marx had died three days before at home in London, with bronchitis and pleurisy at the age of sixty-four. ‘By a strange blunder … his death was not announced for two days,’ said The Graphic newspaper. ‘When his friends and followers hastened to his house in Haverstock Hill, to learn the time and place of burial … he was already in the cold ground.’

In 1924 the fledgling Soviet Union, surely aware of its founding father’s rather underwhelming send-off, ‘petitioned the Home Office for permission to remove his body from Highgate Cemetery,’ the Daily Express reported, and take them ‘to Moscow to be re-interred in the Red Square with suitable honours’—presumably beside Lenin, recently embalmed in January of that year.

Marx’s remaining family refused, with evident pique: ‘his remains and his memory should not be monopolised by the present Russian type of communist,’ wrote his grandson, the French socialist politician Jean Longuet, to prime minister Ramsey MacDonald.

But that didn’t stop the humble grave from becoming a place of pilgrimage. Eventually, on the night of 23 November 1954, at the behest of a newly formed committee, Marx—along with his fellow interred: wife Jenny, daughter Elanor, grandson Harry Longuet and housekeeper Helene Demuth—was moved to ‘a site more suitable for the erection of a memorial,’ further up the hill.

The marble plinth (encasing the original headstone) and gargantuan bronze bust, together forming one of only two Grade One Listed grave monuments in Britain (the other being the Soane family mausoleum at Old St Pancras Church), were designed and sculpted by the artist and communist Laurence Bradshaw (1899 – 1978). He chose the inscriptions too: Marx’s peroration from the Communist Manifesto—‘Workers of all lands unite’—and the concluding lines of his Theses on Feuerbach: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it.’

The icon was, he maintained, ‘not a monument to Marx as a portrayal of his physiognomy,’ but rather ‘the dynamic force of his intellect and the breadth and vision and power of his personality.’

Bradshaw may have been idealistic, but he was also pragmatic: ‘As a person who had been involved for some troubled time in the struggles of the socialist movement, I felt there were bound to be some attacks and attempts on this tomb. We, therefore, employed some of the methods of construction known to the military engineer.’

He wasn’t wrong. In January 1970, a bomb exploded at the base of the tomb, swastikas were daubed on either side and a hack saw was taken to Marx’s nose. On other occasions, the bust has been knocked off completely.

Most recently, in February 2019, the original headstone was permanently damaged by several hammer blows while ‘doctrine of hate’ and ‘architect of genocide’ were spattered across the marble in red paint. The site is now monitored by CCTV.

The Marx Grave Trust has held an oration at the tomb nearly every year since 1956. Last Sunday, almost 140 years to the day since the philosopher’s death, a group of fifty or so gathered at Highgate Cemetery, but the dish of the day was veneration, not destruction. 

Wreaths were laid, photographs were taken and the brief ceremony ended with a rendition of the Internationale. The cemetery trees were stirring into life and the daffodils were out in force; the birds sang more tunefully than the crowd.