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Marx Von Trier

Trier

16 November 2017

Nearly a hundred years ago, the first monument to Karl Marx was erected, in Russia’s then Petrograd. It showed the luxuriantly bearded man and his industrialist companion Friedrich Engels, and was designed vaguely in what was called the “cubo-futurist” style, as a response to a call for monumental propaganda by a revolutionary government that hadn’t expected to last more than a few months. The most recent such piece to be approved is the gift of a capitalist economy, ruled by a self-described Communist Party, to Marx’s home town, the West German border city of Trier. The local government hopes it will attract Chinese tourists to the town.

The statue China is donating to Trier conveniently describes the morphing of communism from an insurgent revolutionary doctrine into the puzzling heritage of a great state power – or the shift of this doctrine from its beginnings in western Europe into being the foundation of Asian economic success, depending on your politics. But what of its design?

Trier’s statue is immediately recognisable as a “communist statue”: granite, representational, slightly angular, a bit pompous. Statues like this used to be mass produced in factories. Indeed, the Lenin monument that briefly stood in Percy Circus, Clerkenwell, which was designed by Berthold Lubetkin, even used this mode of manufacture in a wry functional improvisation – a bust could be easily replaced upon vandalism by another from the Communist Party offices in Covent Garden.

But unlike the revolutionary monuments built by a revolutionary government a hundred years ago – which often tried to embody a revolutionary idea, rather than just represent the body of a revolutionary – statues like that in Trier are just monuments to great men. Although there have been predictable comments from locals about how awful it would be to immortalise “the father of communism”, and some nervousness about the fact it’s the Chinese, rather than the city itself, funding the monument, it is all surprisingly uncontroversial. The burghers of Trier have little to fear when even The Economist concedes that to some degree Marx was “right” about how capitalist economies work. It was communist movements that used to instil fear and horror, not statues of dead philosophers.