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With cameras monitoring his grave, Karl Marx still can't escape surveillance
The marble plaque showing damage from recent vandalism on the front of the tomb of German revolutionary philosopher Karl Marx, a Grade I-listed monument, is seen in Highgate Cemetery in north London on February 5, 2019. Tolga AKMEN / AFP.

by Elian Peltier

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- 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 decadeslong 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 everywhere.

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, head of Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust. More than 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 anti-fascist 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 historical sites.

“For some, Marx is a great source of inspiration, and for others he is responsible for all sorts of terrible things,” 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 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,” 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 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 visible.

“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 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. 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, chair 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,” 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 democratic.”

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 Marx sympathizer.

But, he added, “At least he’s still standing here, somehow protected.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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