One of the last (4,000 or so) essays the late Christopher Hitchens produced in his dying months was a fond remembrance, post–2008 financial crisis, of the pope of Communism (“The Revenge of Karl Marx: What the author of Das Kapital reveals about the current economic crisis”). In a witty letter to the editor, reader Edmund C. Tiryakian of Hillsborough, N.C., wrote, “Over many years of following the stock market, I have found no more consistent sign that we are at the bottom of a bear market than a renewed interest in the teachings of the author of Das Kapital. I have therefore given appropriate directions to my stockbroker.” Hitchens’s essay was published in the April 2009 issue of The Atlantic. The Dow Jones Industrial Average duly hit a low of 6,443.27 on March 6, 2009.
Recently the Dow crossed the 22,000 mark. Great time to celebrate Marx’s fellow master of disaster, Friedrich Engels! British artist Phil Collins announced that after a year of searching for a statue of Engels he had found a vandalized one erected in 1970 in Ukraine—but ungrateful proletarians had knocked the thing off its pedestal, sawn it in half, and left it lying face down behind a creamery. Because Communism’s junkyard is progressivism’s museum, Collins triumphantly brought the two-ton concrete hunk to a pedestal in front of an arts center in Manchester, England, where Engels, before co-writing The Communist Manifesto with Marx, worked at the family cotton mill and began absorbing exactly the wrong lessons about what industrialized capitalism was doing to poverty. Manchester: the petri dish in which the world’s deadliest political virus was born.
Take me home, cried the statue when Phil Collins found it against all odds, and there was a groovy kind of love in the air as the thing was unveiled last month. It turned out that the Phil Collins who had brought the statue to town—born 1970, a Turner Prize nominee in 2006, curly-haired—was not the same Phil Collins who sang “Sussudio,” played on both sides of the Atlantic for Live Aid in 1985, and probably stole a lot of acting gigs from Bob Hoskins, but the audience was treated to mellow pop-rock anyway: “Communism’s Coming Home,” sung by one Gruff Rhys. No, it isn’t a Flight of the Conchords spoof. Watch the YouTube video. Rhys and his band are fervent about this exciting new innovation that has been tried many times in many cultures for many decades and now stands definitively proven to be the worst idea in history, worse even than The Emoji Movie. The visual artist Phil Collins has exhibited in his previous work an awed fascination with Communism and calls Engels someone “with whom we can engage today, with the questions he raises. He isn’t to be confined to his time and forgotten.”
Part of the hell of aging is learning just how few items there are on humanity’s imaginative menu. (Justin Bieber? Seen him before. He’s just Shaun Cassidy with prison tats.) So you can’t resist telling younger people that they’re plagiarizing the past, which makes you look stuck in the past while everyone is having a nice time not knowing that Lady Gaga is just another female drag queen like Madonna, that Michael Strahan is a gap-toothed Rosey Grier, that Daft Punk is merely K.C. and the Sunshine Band with spaceman helmets. The recycling bin furnishes the pop charts, the multiplexes, and the TV schedules. If they’re bringing back Will & Grace, why not Fred & Karl? Didn’t someone say history repeats first as tragedy, then as farce, or at least as sitcom?
But then it never stops repeating. We will never be rid of Marxism because new generations will keep insisting that it’s a new thing, that no one before was ever serious enough about implementing it. So: Engels helped design an ideology meant to raise up the workers of industrialized England that failed to catch on there but instead became the economic basis of most of Asia, where it failed miserably as the workers back in England were achieving spectacular wealth ignoring its precepts. So the Russians cast off Engels and started redirecting their economies after the industrialized free-market West—where today’s artists, intellectuals, and young people are saying, “Hey, maybe the answers we need lie with this Engels fellow.”
Collins’s project was funded by the Manchester city council. The following words, praising Collins, actually appeared in the Financial Times: “Marx and Engels continue to loom large today. . . . Their ideas are being revived beyond the lecture room. They represent a way not taken, a revolution betrayed.” It’s like the New England Journal of Medicine saying, “AIDS gets a bad rap.” In the Manchester suburb of Salford, close to where the Engels family mill once stood, there is a 15-foot sculpture of Engels’s beard for the children to climb in and be inspired by.
To erect monuments to Engels in Soviet-era Ukraine was grotesque, but in today’s West it’s decadent, a symptom of a culture so listless and woozy that it can no longer see what’s good in itself. “In history nothing is achieved without violence and implacable ruthlessness,” Engels wrote in 1849. Now English children are playing in his jungle-gym beard.