In many places, the name of Karl Marx evokes the same response as the name of John Wayne Gacy in Chicago: anger, disgust and resentment. The German economist and philosopher who helped to inspire communism is not fondly remembered by most of those familiar with the historical record. Expert estimates of the number of people who died because of the crimes and errors of communist governments range from 65 million to 94 million.
But the Chinese government, whose ruling Communist Party officially embraces Marxism-Leninism, decided a tribute was in order on the 200th anniversary of his birth this month. So it sent a bronze statue of Marx to the German city of Trier, where he was born. Standing at least 14 feet high (some reports put it higher), it depicts Marx striding along carrying a book, oblivious to the suffering his theories would be used to justify.
Not all Germans — some of whom fled to West Germany during the Cold War to escape the grim repression of life under communism — are in a welcoming mood. The unveiling ceremony was disrupted by demonstrators who jeered and whistled. “We want to protest loudly against the unveiling of the Marx statue and raise our voices against the glorification of Marxism,” said Dieter Dombrowski, president of the Union of the Victim Groups of Communist Tyranny.
The occasion was not entirely lacking in drollery, however unintended. China’s ambassador to Germany, Shi Mingde, took the occasion to extol his country’s economic transformation. “For that, we can thank Karl Marx,” he said.
Actually, China was plagued by famine and other hardship for decades after the Communist Party came to power in 1949. The stunning turnaround came after 1978, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who allowed private businesses, abolished collective farms, welcomed foreign investment and reopened the Shanghai Stock Exchange. The modern prosperity of China owes more to Adam Smith than to Marx.
Germany conducted an exhaustive 40-year experiment on the comparative value of a market-based approach and a statist one. In 1989, it was the latter that expired, along with the Soviet-aligned dictatorship that ruled in the east. Marx’s native land has become the economic powerhouse of Europe, boasting such companies as Daimler, Siemens, Bosch and Deutsche Bank.
The country’s economic character has been on view in Trier, whose locals are treating the moment as a chance to make money. Legend has it that Vladimir Lenin said, “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” No business people need fear the gallows in Trier, but they are more than willing to sell you Marx books and busts, along with Marx-themed coffee mugs, mouse pads and even rubber ducks.
Maybe there is justice in the statue’s arrival after all. Marx would be surprised to learn that after all this time, he’s become a capitalist tool.
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