It is not merely socialists who are appalled by the second attack on Karl Marx’s Highgate Cemetery tomb in a fortnight. No-one who respects Britain’s rich heritage can be indifferent to what amounts to an attack on our history through the defacement of a monument to one of London’s most famous adoptive residents; besides which the desecration of a graveyard always has a distasteful aspect.
The attack was nonetheless political, the crude and counterfactual insults daubed on the tomb in paint making it clear that in the eyes of the perpetrators this was an anti-communist act.
It cannot be separated from wider political trends — most clearly the rise of an emboldened far right.
As ever, fascists combine violence and hatred towards ethnic minorities with a bitter hostility to organised labour and the socialist left.
Before Highgate was targeted we had already seen incidents where far-right thugs — sometimes donning yellow vests in a parody of the huge and popular protests in France, which are not dominated by the right — tried to start fights with members of the RMT union on picket lines. Pastor Niemoller’s famous poem on nazi Germany, First They Came for the Communists, identified the order in which Hitler’s machinery of repression selected its victims: first the communists, then the trade unionists, then the Jews.
This is not to say Britain is on the brink of fascism. The far right here is still weaker than in many European countries, and the socialist left, buoyed by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and the subsequent growth of his party to become the largest in western Europe, is stronger and more confident.
But the causes of disgraceful acts of vandalism like this need to be exposed. The far right’s rise has been facilitated and encouraged by the Conservative-led governments since 2010 and their “hostile environment” that has seen black British citizens wrongly deported and a horrific, sustained rise in racist hate crimes (as well as in hate crimes against disabled and LGBT people — also, we may remember, groups targeted for extermination by the nazis).
The threat to our corrupt and parasitic elite posed by the democratic socialist politics of Corbynism has led to an unending barrage of anti-socialist propaganda from the media. A normalised Islamophobia (with the online hate peddled by the likes of “Tommy Robinson” blurring seamlessly into incendiary jibes at Muslim women from Establishment insiders like Boris Johnson) is then used to smear left-wing politicians such as Corbyn, who are constantly and baselessly accused of “supporting terrorism” because of their opposition to US and British imperialism. This has consequences: the Finsbury Park mosque murderer Darren Osborne admitted in court he had planned to kill Corbyn.
There has been a breakdown in respect for open debate and democratic norms, with socialists vilified in the crudest terms and violence against them increasingly advocated. At the same time our government and media have been complicit in the rewriting of history and rehabilitation of nazism taking place in other European countries such as Ukraine.
When fascists can be greeted with applause as respectable allies in the Scottish parliament and British troops can be dispatched to train Kiev’s military when it openly deploys neonazi paramilitaries in its war with the Donbass, a warped and weaponised account of the past which whitewashes fascism gains currency here too.
At the opening of the Reichstag in 1932 Communist deputy Clara Zetkin declared: “The battle must be fought to defeat fascism, which intends to destroy with blood and iron all class expressions of the workers.” She called on the working class to mobilise the strength anchored in its political, trade union and cultural organisations. That task remains as relevant today as it was then.
The Marx Grave Trust will be working with Highgate Cemetery to restore the monument and decide on how best to protect it in future. Our collective response must be a political challenge to the poison that feeds such vandalism, with a huge turnout for the anti-racist demonstrations being organised by Stand Up to Racism for March 16 and a mobilisation for the Marx Oration in Highgate the day after that.
This article appeared in The Morning Star Sunday Feb 17th 2019