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Memories of Karl Marx and the haters of the harmless dead in London’s Highgate

Saturday March 2 2019

Karl Marx tomb in north London.

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. His grave was vandalised for the second time in two weeks, the association that manages the site announced on Twitter on Saturday February 16, 2019. PHOTO | FILE | AFP 

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You probably heard recently that the tomb of Karl Marx in the north London neighbourhood of Highgate was viciously vandalised. This may have been just another, insignificant, news item, especially to many readers of the present generation. After all, what is one vandalised tomb out there when hundreds of them are being desecrated in France alone? Even President Macron had to come out and tell his citizens to stop the demented racist crime of disturbing the peace of the dead, just because they were Jews.

Moreover, Karl Marx is probably a nebulous, distant being out there on the borders of prehistory. Marxism, the politico-economic philosophy that he espoused, is also considered by many to be rather “old-hat” and irrelevant to present-day concerns.

But to many people of my generation and, especially, that of my elders and teachers, Marx and Marxism were very strong defining realities, whether you subscribed to them or not. I am thinking here particularly of my literary elders and friends, like Mzee Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Prof Micere Githae Mugo and the late Grant Kamenju.

These and other academics, especially at Dar es Salaam and UoN, were strong believers in Karl Marx and in the relevance of his ideas to the post-colonial and neo-colonial African realities. They did a lot, through their teaching and other interactions with students, to persuade us of the great impact that Marxist theory and practice could have on our societies.


A few of us remained sceptical. I was one of those who failed to bite on, mainly because, as one of those great colleagues rightly observed once when we were in an argument, I was too lazy to read enough of Marx to understand him and his ideas. That was true, in the literal sense that Marx was a phenomenally prolific writer, and reading and digesting him could take a few years of one’s lifetime. Many of us stop at his 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party.


Many among us, however, were persuaded, and they enthusiastically and vocally advocated and propagated Marxist ideals both on campus and beyond. I remember, for example, when I started teaching at KU, one of the questions the students routinely asked me was, “Are you a Marxist?” I would answer that I appreciated and supported many of the ideals of socialism, but I did not believe that Marxism was the panacea, or even a panacea, to Africa’s growth and development challenges.

Anyway, Karl Marx’s popularity and influence among the academics and students at the University made him one of the most feared and hated personalities in Kenya, especially in the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s. The people in power then were particularly angry with Mr Karl Marx. A prominent Naivasha-based politician once fumed, “Who is this ‘Karo Makisi’ (Karl Marx), who is causing so much confusion at our Universities? Why can’t we seize him and throw him into detention?”

Well, they were not able to seize ‘Karo Makisi’ (1818- 1883), for understandable reasons (unknown to the politician). But they did get hold of his advocates and subject them to various forms of “discipline”. That was how many of our literary mentors ended up in detention, sacked from their jobs or exiled. So, you can see why what happens to Marx, even in death, has a personal resonance for many of us.

But on an even more intimate note, I lived in Highgate, close to where Marx lies, on two different occasions. My first and shorter stay was in 1972, when I visited with Pio Zirimu, my Makerere teacher, and his family on my way down from Scotland. Pio was on sabbatical leave from Makerere and he was renting a place in Highgate while he worked, at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), I think.


Highgate was not a particularly upmarket area in those days, but when I showed up there again, some thirty years later, in the early 2000s, the story was quite different. Highgate had been considerably spruced up and most of the houses were either new or completely renovated. My friend Prof Ernest Okello-Ogwang, who recently completed his stint as Makerere’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, and I were delighted to take up an airy, furnished apartment in Highgate, from where we commuted to our assignments, also at the famous SOAS.

Now, Karl Marx’s tomb is in a cemetery quite close to where we lived. Many thousands of people visit the Highgate Cemetery every year, mainly to see where the great revolutionary thinker was laid to rest. We certainly were not going to miss the opportunity to pay our respects while we lived in the neighbourhood.

The lady at the entrance to the cemetery said to us, “I suppose you would like to visit Mr Karl Marx. He’s just further down the path. Turn right at the next junction and then right again at the next, you can’t miss him,” in typical London style.

We soon found Mr Karl Marx’s tomb and we spent a few reflective moments of silence before it, reading the inscriptions on the marble plaque under the bust of the philosopher. I do not know what was going on in Okello-Ogwang’s mind. For me, however, the experience of standing at the Proto-Marxist’s tomb was visceral. Whether I believed in Marx or not, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

Karl Marx still incites a lot of strong emotions, including hate, as may be seen in this recent dabbing of his tomb with hate-filled graffiti and the smashing of his marble plaque with blunt objects. The hate may come from those who hate revolutions and revolutionaries, of whom Marx is the quintessence. Or, as in France, it may come from anti-Semitic racists, who hate Jews. Marx, too, was Jewish.

But the question is: what kind of demented hatred would drive one to attack the resting place of a helpless and harmless soul?


Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected] [email protected]