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NY Times, Feb. 10, 2020
With Cameras Monitoring His Grave, Karl Marx Still Can’t Escape Surveillance
By Elian Peltier
LONDON — Karl Marx may be resting in peace, but he now does so under
24/7 video surveillance.
After his grave at Highgate Cemetery in North London was vandalized
twice last year, the Marx Grave Trust, which owns the monument, decided
to monitor it with video cameras installed in December on nearby trees,
hoping to deter vandals from attacking a famous monument that has been
desecrated several times over its decades-long existence.
While some tombs of illustrious individuals are monitored — a webcam
feed of Andy Warhol’s grave in Pennsylvania is available online —
cameras remain rare in cemeteries, especially around specific graves.
Marx’s is the first one to be monitored at Highgate, London’s
most-visited burial ground, in a city where video surveillance is almost
But it seems as if Marx — who in the 19th century complained about being
followed by Prussian spies when he lived in London, or by British
informers who closely watched his door with “more than a doubtful look”
— cannot escape monitoring. On a recent rainy afternoon, the few
visitors who noticed the discrete closed-circuit cameras watching the
grave viewed Marx’s fate with a mix of bitterness and sour humor.
Paul Baynton, a 39-year-old Londoner who paid a visit to the site as
part of his Sunday walk, said it was a shame that because of “ignorance
and stupid acts,” the tomb had to be monitored constantly.
Among the 170,000 people buried at Highgate in 53,000 graves, Marx is
probably the most famous, and his tomb is a major attraction.
“He’s the star here,” said Ian Dungavell, the head of Friends of
Highgate Cemetery Trust. Over 100,000 visitors walk through the eerie,
gothic, 19th-century graveyard every year, and many of them come to see
Marx’s grave, he said.
Red candles, red marguerite daisies and antifascist stickers lay at the
foot of the 12-foot-tall monument to Marx, the author of “The Communist
Manifesto,” recently. A Lebanese 1,000-pound bank note, worth about 66
cents, was tucked into a crevice in the granite.
In January 2019, the marble plaque that displayed the names of Marx and
his family members was smashed up, and two weeks later, the words
“Doctrine of HATE” and “Architect of Genocide,” among others, were
daubed in red paint on the gravestone, and the plaque was damaged further.
The Marx Grave Trust, which owns the monument, decided to install
cameras after the vandalism, in agreement with the Friends of Highgate
Cemetery and Historic England, a public body that works to preserve
“For some, Marx is a great source of inspiration, and for others he is
responsible for all sorts of terrible things,” Mr. Dungavell said. “But
he’s dead, he rests underneath, and it’s sad that some won’t respect
those who are dead to the point of smashing their graves.”
Although Marx is hailed as one of history’s most influential thinkers,
his legacy is complicated, and many hold him responsible for brutality
committed in the name of his ideas.
Marx was born in Germany in 1818, but he spent most of his adult life in
London after moving there in 1849. He did much of the research and
writing for perhaps his most important work, “Capital,” at the British
Museum, and he was intimately connected to British thinkers of his time,
as he followed the evolution of the socialist movement.
When Marx died in 1883, he was buried under a plain, flat slab on a
small side path at Highgate, with only a dozen people attending his
funeral. The grave was neglected for decades, increasingly hidden under
overgrown weeds, until Marx’s remains were moved in 1954 to a more
visible location in the cemetery, and the monument was added. He is
buried there along with his wife, one of his daughters, two
grandchildren and the family’s housekeeper.
The massive granite gravestone, topped by a bronze bust of Marx, is a
listed monument, a British designation for structures of special
historical importance. Etched into the stone are two of the best-known
lines from his writings: “Workers of all lands unite,” and “The
philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point
however is to change it.”
Along the alleys of the cemetery’s eastern end, Marx’s is one of the
last remarkable graves before visitors find themselves in a beguiling
maze of smaller, crumbling tombs covered with weeds, or cracked by the
roots of trees that have reclaimed some territory.
Marx’s grave has long been a pilgrimage site, with representatives of
countries such as China and Cuba coming to pay tribute on anniversaries
of his death, according to Mary Davis, a professor of labor history and
the secretary of the Marx Memorial Library in London.
The site has also become a magnet for those looking for a symbolic final
resting place: Not far from Marx, former members of Communist parties
from Iraq, Serbia and South Africa, among others, are buried. Those
graves may now be under constant watch as well, because of the cameras
monitoring their famous neighbor.
“Marx brought a band of followers,” Ms. Davis said. “It’s where the left
chose to be buried.”
Even before the vandalism of 2019, the grave had a turbulent existence.
In 1960, two swastikas were painted in yellow, along with a slogan in
German saying that Marx — whose ethnic background was Jewish — loved the
Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann.
In 1970, a pipe bomb exploded at the base of the memorial, and more
swastikas were daubed on it. Police officers noticed at the time an
attempt to saw off the nose of Marx’s sculpted head, raising fears that
someone had placed another bomb inside to blow it off — the cut is still
“The socialist sculptor who erected the monument, Laurence Bradshaw,
knew it would come under attack, and that’s in part why he made it in
granite,” said Mr. Dungavell of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust.
“This grave has had a rough life.”
No suspects were caught in the 1970 attack or in the vandalism last
year. Mr. Dungavell refused to comment on details about the cameras,
including their price. A photograph of the marble nameplate, which has
been removed for restoration, now marks the grave.
Liz Payne, chairwoman of the Marx Grave Trust and of the Communist Party
of Britain, said she hoped the plaque could soon be reinstalled, and
that the cameras had seemed the best solution to protect the site and
the restoration work.
“We went from the ‘do nothing,’ which wasn’t an option, to considering
moving the grave to an indoor site, which wasn’t an option either,” Ms.
Payne said. “We are committed to keeping the monument in place, and to
restoring it to the highest standard possible.”
“These cameras are not watching Marx,” she added, “but people who might
come to damage Marx’s legacy, in the heart of a country that says it is
Nonetheless, Jean Seaton, a professor of media history at the University
of Westminster and director of the Orwell Prize for political writing,
said, “It’s quite paradoxical that Marx, the anti-individualist, the
great generator of collectivist ideas in which you sacrifice the
individual to the greater good, has to be protected so much himself.”
For some visitors, the cameras were a regrettable but necessary evil.
“Who would like to have his grave watched forever like that?” said
Germano Zenkner, 24, a lawyer from Brazil who described himself as a
But, he added, “At least he’s still standing here, somehow protected.”
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