Letter to Marx
by Chris Norris
A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre; Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French radicals and German police spies. - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
The London tomb of German philosopher Karl Marx has been vandalised for the second time in two weeks. The words ‘Doctrine of Hate’ and ‘Architect of Genocide’ were daubed in red on the grave of Highgate Cemetery’s most famous resident. A marble plaque was also smashed up in the ‘senseless, stupid, ignorant’ attack, said the charity which runs the cemetery. - The Independent, February 16th 2019
When Marx evokes spectres at the moment he analyses, for example, the mystical character or the becoming-fetish of the commodity, we should not see in that only effects of rhetoric, turns of phrase that are contingent or merely apt to convince by striking the imagination . . . . One would still have to reckon with the invincible force and the original power of the ‘ghost’ effect. One would have to say why it frightens or strikes the imagination, and what fear, imagination, their subject, the life of their subject, and so forth, are. - Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf
Not the first time they've done it, daubed your grave
And headstone with their slogans, nor (I guess)
The last, since what the daubers really crave
Is killing you twice over, just to stress
How dead you are and see that we repress
All thought of you. So they'd ensure there's no
Marx-revenant to spook the status quo.
Can't blame the spray-can mob if they behave
Like manic exorcists afraid you'll mess
With minds and lives or, phantom-like, enslave
Their psyches to the alien duress
Of thoughts long kept at bay yet none the less
Ghost-scripted in advance to overthrow
The staged routines of their ghostbuster show.
No wonder, then, if they unite to stave
Off that Old Mole whose challenge you address
To 'the old powers of Europe', those you gave
Due notice that they'd need to reassess
Their options: hunker down and acquiesce
In old iniquity, or strike a blow
For justice, truth, and how things ought to go!
Small wonder, too, if commentators rave
About 'the Marxist threat' while some confess,
In mumbling tones, that maybe it's less grave
Than the life-blighting, terminal excess
Of rampant capital, and some say Yes!,
Instead of the ghost-panicked cry of 'No!'
Led by execs from Screw-the-Plebs & Co.
You conjured those old powers in dim conclave,
Pale ghosts of yesteryear in antique dress,
'The second time around as farce', who'd save
Appearances by closing ranks to bless,
Not curse, the heirs of inbred idleness
And unearned wealth whose family fortunes grow
In tandem with the wealth-producer’s woe.
It's all there in your Manifesto, all
The ghost-talk, spooky stuff, and hints of what
Your reader-sleuth, Jacques Derrida, would call
The strange 'hauntology' that keeps your plot
From going stale or turning out to blot
Its future copy-book by offering too
Precise or confident a forward view.
A brilliant reader and the last to fall
For totalizing tropes, yet maybe not
Alert to how such scruples may forestall
That ringing call-to-arms that hit the spot
With millions, that Exordium that got
Their spirits up and got your message through
As preface after preface joined the queue.
Most likely we were in for the long haul,
You thought, since those in charge were sure to squat
On their ill-gotten gains, hold us in thrall
To their class-laws, keep fixing the jackpot
By new financial instruments, and tot
The profits up for them, the chosen few,
While us wage-slaves had donkey-work to do.
That's why the spectral metaphors enthrall
Those canny exegetes who'd seek a slot
Marked 'radical' or 'Marxist', but with small
Desire to see their prospects go to pot
Through concrete claims, predictions on-the-dot,
Or any realist reckoning where 'true'
And 'false' hold good despite that phantom crew.
Still it's the daubers on their post-pub-crawl
Defacing binge, or some befuddled sot
Put up to it, who show how you still gall
The queasy consciences of those who'd swat
Your life and work aside as commie rot
Were yours not just the kind of name-taboo
That haunts them like a just-missed rendez-vous.
Yet we've him too to thank, that eagle-eyed
And keen-eared reader, for his curious tale
Of how your friends and foes have always vied
On ground enveloped by a vapor-trail
Of phantoms, ghosts, and such beyond-the-pale
Since immaterial beings as you'd find
Sure signs of an enfeebled state of mind.
Religion: set its comfort-role aside,
Its stock of opiates to countervail
Life’s miseries, and then it’s open wide
(You’d have us know) to Feuerbach’s wholesale
Debunking demonstration of its frail
Since humanly projected, myth-enshrined
Source in the infancy of humankind.
Yet they’ve come back, those figments certified
‘Fake goods’ in your long quest to place the grail
Of social hope where any earthbound guide
Must seek to place it; where succeed-or-fail
Remains an outcome on the human scale
Of making-good and not a scale divined
By occult knowledge, God- or ghost-assigned.
For it’s your ghost the vandals can’t abide,
The thought of you just waiting to regale
Their own and future ages with your tried
And tested theses, concepts fit to nail
Harsh truths the ruling class long sought to veil
By any mystic means, or hide behind
A screen of wish and willfulness combined.
They desecrate your grave because you died
Just once, the headstone shows, so still they quail
Lest you live on through energies supplied
By hopes and fears that tell the vandals they’ll
Forever be re-scheduling your bail-
Conditions if your death’s not underlined
And sealed by spray-can, signature declined.
All images are taken from I’ll have the Last Laugh Yet! which is available online here or from bookshops for £8.99 plus p&p.
Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.