Legacies of tarnished revolutionaries rest in far too much peace

Searching for the resting places of two greats of human sciences, Yiannis Gabriel unlocks the door to Freud and keeps left for Marx

September 24, 2009

On a recent cloudy morning, I set out to visit the graves of two greats of the human sciences, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. As a Londoner, I had long lived in close proximity to the resting places of these heroes of the European Enlightenment whose legacies are currently, well, tarnished.

I wondered if one could approach their graves not as places of pilgrimage or as tourist attractions but rather as opportunities to reflect on their individual legacies. I was not disappointed.

Freud was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, in London's traditional Jewish district, in September 1939, as the Second World War was erupting. He had been in London for a year, having fled Vienna with help from influential friends, as a still-active 82-year-old.

To gain access to the crematorium's east columbarium where his ashes are to be found, one must ask one of the crematorium staff to unlock the door. "Security," the helpful assistant Emma explained. "The remains of many famous people are there, including those of Anna Pavlova and others, and we must be careful about who we let in."

Inside the columbarium, all is peace and tranquillity of a domestic kind. The plaques commemorating different dead, each unique but all very similar, seem harmoniously located, obliquely lit through highly placed windows.

Freud's ashes are held in one of his favourite Grecian urns. There is nothing grandiose about it, yet it somehow made sense to find the father of psychoanalysis in a time capsule of personal and public history.

How different from his four elderly sisters who met their deaths in German concentration camps. No Grecian urns for them.

The 210 bus takes you from Golders Green to Highgate Cemetery, four miles away. Marx was buried there on 17 March 1883, and Friedrich Engels provided a famous oration. One imagines a speech given to great masses of mourners, though we have it on Engels' authority that a mere nine people attended the funeral. A gigantic granite memorial capped by Marx's bronze bust was erected in the 1950s with funds raised by the British Communist Party.

I was charged an entrance fee of £3. "Keep left for Marx," the attendant told me, with a pleasure undiminished by the number of times she must have used the expression.

You find Marx after a five-minute walk. The tomb, immensely imposing at first, carries two epic inscriptions, "Workers of the world unite" and "Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it."

Yet, it was not as I had expected it. Towering as Marx is among the other gravestones, there is something closed and depressing about the sight.

I could not help wondering how Marx, an exile like Freud in "liberal London", could find a resting place in a memorial to a bygone era rather than to his own genius as a theorist and a revolutionary.

Today, the workers, at least in the big bourgeois democracies, appear to have forgotten his injunctions. The philosophers, immersed in their postmodern quagmires, are no longer interested. Highgate Cemetery, far from evoking the class struggle, seems a perfect allegory for the Promethean struggle between humans and nature, a struggle in which nature eventually gets the upper hand.

Overgrown paths, trees, bushes and ivy intermingle with gravestones, crosses and a remarkable number of obelisks at precarious angles in various stages of disrepair. Marx's grave, once a sight of pilgrimage for communist dignitaries and young revolutionaries, was deserted.

Two memorials, two names placed above the names of lifelong and loyal wives. They each seemed fitting; Marx in his wide open space near London's highest point staring reproachfully at the quiescent masses immersed in new opiates, Freud in his secluded time capsule offering an apt setting for the man who explored the unconscious as a timeless, secluded and hidden space.

The theories of historical materialism and psychoanalysis no longer rouse the masses or even the intellectuals. In death, Freud perhaps got the better deal. His is a dignified memorial that resonates with his ideas and views. As for Marx, a more fitting epitaph might have been "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."

His legacy is maintained, used and abused in circumstances not of his own choosing. But this applies to Freud, too. And to the rest of us.

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