Buttoning Up With Marx

By Andy Merrifield

At a quarter to three in the afternoon, March 14, 1883, Karl Marx passed away peacefully in his favourite armchair. Three days later, a few miles up the road, he was buried, a citizenless émigré, in London’s Highgate Cemetery. At the graveside, eleven mourners paid homage to “Old Moor,” and listened to Marx’s longtime comrade and benefactor, Friedrich Engels—“The General”—remember his dear departed friend: “An immeasurable loss has been sustained both by the militant proletariat of Europe and America, and by historical science, in the death of this man. The gap that has been left by the departure of this mighty spirit will soon enough make itself felt.” “His name,” Engels predicted, “will endure through the ages, and so also will his thought.”

A hundred and thirty six years on, Highgate Cemetery continues to receive a steady stream of Marx well-wishers, of all ages and nationalities, the curious and the converted, and fresh flowers and moving inscriptions, in almost every language under the sun, regularly adorn the great revolutionary’s gravestone. Towering overhead, seemingly indomitably, is the man himself, or rather a gigantic bust of him, with its menacing eyes staring out into the distance, perhaps frowning at his conservative rival Herbert Spencer, whose remains lie opposite across the path.

Over the years, too, the cemetery has attracted its fair share of naysayers, people who’ve had it in for Marx and for all he stood for, still stands for. Reactionaries have taken hammers and chisels to his monument, daubed graffiti over it, tried to blow it up with a pipe bomb—in 1970, in a National Front affront. But the grave’s design—solid bronze bust with a brick-reinforced granite plinth—has so far resisted everything thrown at it. I say “so far” because just this past week, as I write—late February 2019—perhaps the nastiest attack to date has been perpetrated; the Grade I-listed monument might never be the same again. The nastiest attack in the nastiest of times, and that, alas, is no coincidence.

In early February, vandals took a blunt instrument to Marx’s headstone. But they hadn’t reckoned on its thickness. So they returned later that same night, with what seems like a lump hammer, taking further swipes. This time they shattered pieces from the tablet, those bearing the letters of Marx’s name, as well as members of his family, including his four year old grandson, Harry Longuet. And then, several weeks on, the tomb was ransacked a second time, splattered with lurid red paint, saying: “Doctrine of Hate” and “Architect of Genocide.” Ian Dungavell, chief executive of Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, a man responsible for the cemetery’s 53,00 graves, was shocked by both assaults, condemning them as a “particularly inarticulate form of political comment.”

My heart sank when I heard the news. Perhaps because I knew that, these days, inarticulacy is very much the form of our political commentary. Maybe, too, because over past decades I’ve tried to articulate my own vision of Marx and Marxism. Marx’s thought has never been rigid dogma or some sterile formula for me; instead, it’s a rich source of ideas, a vibrant critical (and self-critical) culture, capable of innumerable spin-offs and reinterpretations, imaginative adaptations and provocations. Marx’s vision is about human liberation not collective enslavement. Why would any tyrant ever imagine a society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (The Communist Manifesto)? Or a “society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle” (Capital Volume One)?

Marx’s thought has survived for more than a century and a half because of its fluidity and dynamism—not because of its solidity and rigidity. I say all this while never really being smitten by Marx’s Highgate bust, by an immense iconic image of the man, and of Marxism, a Marxism of big statues and flag-wavering, of a holy orthodoxy far removed from the messy profane world of real mortals. Marx himself, of course, occupied this messy profane world. In real life, he was an intricate and vulnerable figure, a feisty yet frail patriarch, a poor peripatetic vagabond who spent more than thirty years traipsing from one crummy London apartment to another, his whole family often living in just two cluttered rooms, avoiding debts, pawning what little he had (including his own overcoat), shrugging off illness, watching four children pre-decease him. (The two survivors, Eleanor and Laura, later killed themselves.)

Marx’s personal pains far exceeded his political woes. Never had anyone, he once said of himself, written about capital in general amidst a total lack of capital in particular. Marx’s own ironic—not iconic—Marxism often seemed more akin to a Groucho Marxism, avoiding any club that would have him as a member: “I, at least, am not a Marxist,” Karl is once reputed to have a told a French socialist, after seeing his thought bastardised. More often than not Marx resembled a dishevelled underground character from Dostoevsky or Gogol, having his overcoat ripped off his back, feeling the chill breeze of the economy and the climate pierce his threadbare clothing. (The Communist Manifesto is full of such imagery.)

Marx’s clumsy outsiderness, his foreignness, his broken English, could have easily earned him a lead role in a Beckett performance. Marx knew the ropes and tropes of dingy bedsit tenancies populated by the likes of Murphy, or the anonymous evictee of “The Expelled,” flung out onto the rooming-house’s steps, hearing the door slam behind him. For Marx, waiting for the revolution was invariably Waiting for Godot. Marx’s alter-egos were more Watt than Stalin, more Molloy than Mao. His Vladimir was a Didi not an Ilyich. He was the intellectual champion of the underdog principally because he was one. He learned about the brutality of capitalism from political activism and mammoth reading sessions in the British Museum; yet his knowledge of working class domestic oppression came first-hand, was lived out. A prophet of genocide? Give me a break.


I was beginning to agree with the Marxist academic Fredric Jameson: that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Some days, it does feel like we are living through the end of the world. Everything seems such a hopeless dead-end—our politics, our economy, our high-tech culture, our collective future. Maybe it’s a sort of Endgame: the game is up yet somehow the match goes on, square by square, pawns besides Kings. “It’s time it ended,” Hamm says in Endgame, Beckett’s play about the end of the world, a world that had ended yet continues to trudge on miserably. “Clov,” Hamm asks his half-crippled assistant, in a question we might pose today, if only to ourselves, “Have you had enough?” “Yes!” Clov answers. Then, pausing, wonders, “Of what?” “Of this…this…thing,” says Hamm. “I always had,” says Clov.

Have you had enough? Of what? Of this…this…thing? At low times, I’ve really had enough. I suspect I’m not the only one. Daily on the news: I try to avoid looking, try to close my ears. Yet I hear it everywhere. Newspapers. People talking. On screens. In the air. This thing that depresses. Trump? Brexit? Climate meltdown? Consumer capitalism? Hate-mongering nationalists wanting to build walls or create little islands? And then the desecration of Marx’s grave, which tipped me over the edge, or else brought on a raging fever. I knew then how Wally Shawn’s traveling protagonist felt in The Fever, a play about a personal contagion that’s really a political self-reawakening.[1]

In fact, reality has depressed me so much that I vowed now was the time to get back to Marx. It’d been awhile since I’d read him closely, and almost twenty years since I’d taught him at university, in my former academic days in America. God knows, it had been truly awful then, under post-9/11 George W. Bush’s reign. It would’ve been hard for my friends and I on the Left to imagine, in our most terrifying nightmares, that things could ever get worse. Little did we know. First time tragedy, this time farce.

Thus my pledge: to get back to Marx, back to Capital, to Volume One. 2019 would be nothing less than Capital Days: A Year Reading Marx, commencing February, the month his thought was most brutally violated. It would sound pretentious to say A Year Re-Reading Marx, but that would have been truer, since I must have read Volume One of Capital a half-dozen times already, at least. This time I decided to buy a brand new copy—Vintage’s handsome Marx Library Edition, from 1977—so that I could read it afresh, uninhibited by past annotations, by the old scribbles and underlinings found in my tatty Penguin copy, first read in 1986, during Thatcher’s second term.

Everybody says, even Marx himself, that those early chapters of Capital are the most difficult. In 1872, Marx was thrilled to see his great work translated into French and serialized. But he warned French readers not to be too hasty: “the method of analysis which I employed,” he said, “and which had not previously been applied to economic subjects, makes the reading of the first chapters rather arduous.” “The French public,” he feared, “always impatient to come to a conclusion, eager to know the connection between general principles and the immediate questions that have aroused their passions, may be disheartened because they will be unable to move on at once.”

Still, despite his cautioning, there’s something wonderfully dizzyingly about moving inside Marx’s mind, about laughing at his acerbic wit, hearing his often poetic lyricism and following his analytical logic, even getting bogged down in this analytical logic. What Marx is up to early on in Capital is something today we might call coding. He’s literally programming capitalism; and reading him is our attempt to download the critical app he’s created for us, the conceptual software that allows us, step by step, contradiction by contradiction, to trace out capitalism’s whole evolutionary movement. He’s like some genius computer hacker, or maverick theoretical physicist, inhabiting a vast virtual and material universe, scouring it for economic black holes and political event horizons.

Marx’s plane of immanence incorporates the whole wide capitalist world, with its intricate web of global money flows and commodity exchanges, of capital accumulating and stock prices rising and dipping. This system taps into the furthest and widest reaches of our planet while plumbing the depths of our everyday lives. And yet, for all that, its atomic composition, its basic constitutive part—its “cell-form,” Marx calls it—is the “ostensibly trivial” commodity, abounding in all sorts of “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” What Marx wants to demonstrate here is how such “a motley mosaic of disparate and unconnected expressions of value” aren’t so disparate and unconnected as we might think.

One of the great cameo appearances at the start of Capital is the tailor, together with his trusty product, the coat. For a dozen or more pages, the tailor’s coat, and its counterpart, the linen, comprise some of weirdest and most brilliant sections of Marx’s whole text. For centuries, Marx says, humans have made coats without a single person ever becoming a tailor. It’s only with the advent of capitalism that tailoring became a specialist trade, “an independent branch of the social division of labour.” Suddenly, the tailor’s wares became value-creating abstract labour; the coat an objectification, the incarnation of “socially-necessary labour time,” a material thing extinguished of all sensuous characteristics, exchanged on the marketplace for money.

This is how Marx puts it:

In the production of the coat, human labour-power, in the shape of tailoring, has in actual fact been expended. Human labour has therefore been accumulated in the coat. From this point of view, the coat is a ‘bearer of value,’ although this property never shows through, even when the coat is at its most threadbare. In its value-relation with the linen, the coat counts only under this aspect, counts therefore as embodied value, as the body of value. Despite its buttoned up appearance, the linen recognizes in it a splendid kindred soul, the soul of value.

“As a use-value,” Marx continues,

the linen is something palpably different from the coat; as value, it is identical with the coat and therefore looks like the coat. Thus the linen acquires a value-form different from its natural form. Its existence as value is manifested in its equality with the coat, just as the sheep-like nature of the Christian is shown in his resemblance to the Lamb of God.

“In order to inform us that the linen’s sublime objectivity as a value,” Marx says a bit later, “differs from its stiff and starchy existence as a body, it says that value has the appearance of a coat, and therefore that in so far as the linen itself is an object of value, it and the coat are as alike as two peas.”

And again:

in the value-relation of commodity A to commodity B, of the linen to the coat, not only is the commodity-type coat equated with the linen in qualitative terms as an object of value as such, but also a definite quantity of the object of value or equivalent, 1 coat, for example, is equated with a definite quantity of linen, such as 20 yards. The equation 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, or 20 yards of linen are worth 1 coat, presupposes the presence in 1 coat of exactly as much or the substance of value as there is in 20 yards of linen, implies therefore that the quantities in which the two commodities are present have the cost of the same amount of labour or the same quantity of labour-power.   

And a few pages on, Marx resumes:

If one kind of commodity, such as a coat, serves as the equivalent of another, such as linen, and coats therefore acquire the characteristic property of being in a form in which they can be directly exchanged with the linen, this still by no means provides us with the proportion in which the two are exchangeable. Since the magnitude of the value of the linen is a given quantity, this proportion depends on the magnitude of the coat’s value. Whether the coat is expressed as the equivalent and the linen as relative value, or, inversely, the linen is expressed as equivalent and the coat as relative value, the magnitude of the coat’s value is determined, as ever, by the labour-time necessary for its production, independently of its value-form. But as soon as the coat takes up the position of the equivalent in the value expression, the magnitude of its value ceases to be expressed quantitatively.

Thus “the relative value-form of a commodity,” Marx says, “the linen for example,

expresses its value-existence as something wholly different from its substance and properties, as the quality of being comparable with a coat for example; this expression itself therefore indicates it conceals a social relation…The coat, therefore, seems to be endowed with its equivalent form, its property of direct exchange ability, by nature, just as much as its property of being heavy or its ability to keep us warm. Hence the mysteriousness of the equivalent form, which only impinges on the crude bourgeois vision of the political economist when it confronts him in its fully developed shape, that of money.


When I read these sections on the coat, I’d not long finished Samuel Beckett’s early novel Watt, written in the south of France in the early 1940s, as the author fled Nazi Occupation. What struck me immediately were the similarities between both men’s mode of argumentation, their irresistible urge to understand inexplicable realities through dialectical gyrations. At Knott’s house, Watt fixates on the pot much as Marx had fixated on the coat.

“Watt was greatly troubled by this tiny little thing,” says Beckett,

more troubled perhaps than he had ever been by anything, and Watt had been frequently and exceedingly troubled, in his time, by this imperceptible, no, hardly imperceptible, since he perceived it, by this undefinable thing that prevented him from saying of the object that was so like a pot, that it was a pot, and of the creature that still in spite of everything presented a large number of exclusively human characteristics, that it was a man…Thus of the pseudo-pot he would say, after reflection, It is a shield, or, growing bolder, It is a raven, and so on. But the pot proved as little a shield, or a raven, or any other of the things that Watt called it, as a pot.[2]

Yet Watt’s logic is much less politically charged than Marx’s. The coat, for Marx, has profound political as well as dialectical significance. We might even say that the political significance of the coat for Marx emanated from the personal significance of the coat for Marx. Peter Stallybrass’s essay, “Marx’s Coat,” offers a fascinating glimpse of poor Marx, not only journeying to the British Museum in his old overcoat, but also having to periodically shuffle to the pawnbroker with his old overcoat.[3] Marx was so broke that he was often forced to sell what little he had to the pawnbroker. One time, Marx went to the pawnbroker with wife Jenny’s family silver, a precious heirloom. He was unkempt, with a ragged mane, and the silver bore the crest of the Duke of Argyll. The pawnbroker, seeing such a noble stamp peddled by such a wretched soul, became suspicious, called the cops, who took Marx away to the station, locking him up in a cell for the night.

Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Marx’s coat was in and out of the pawnshop.

When Marx’s fortunes picked up, if either Engels helped out, or Marx published a piece of paid journalism in the New York Daily Tribune, he’d go back to the pawnbroker and try to redeem his old coat. Until then, he’d be housebound, especially in winter. Without his coat, no British Museum. Without the British Museum, no research for Capital. “What clothes Marx wore,” Stallybrass says, “thus shaped what he wrote.” As a use-value, Marx’s coat kept him warm in winter, brought him the appearance of a respectable gent, able to access the bourgeois Reading Room of the British Museum. But his coat, as an exchange-value, is evacuated of its use-value; its physical existence, Marx says, then becomes “phantom-like.”

It’s hard to imagine that Marx, the great devourer of Shakespeare, Goethe and Balzac, hadn’t at some point read Nikolai Gogol’s phantom-like tale The Overcoat, from 1842. Gogol was already famous in Marx’s day. And The Overcoat’s hero—or anti-hero—Akaky Akakievich, has his overcoat ripped off by thugs one dark night, much as Marx’s Communist Manifesto (written six years after Gogol’s tale) said market expansion (with its daylight thuggery) would tear away all veils and protective clothing of the labouring classes, overcoats included.

Gogol’s Akaky is a lowly titular clerk, poor and passive yet silently stoic. His problem is that his overcoat is so threadbare that in places its cloth is transparent. It’s nigh useless against the vicious onslaught of Petersburg’s wind, whipping up off the Neva. Akaky fears his coat is done for. So he takes it to Petrovich, the drunken tailor “living somewhere on the third floor up some backstairs.” Petrovich takes a long look at Akaky’s rags and shakes his head. “No,” he says, “I can’t mend that. It can’t be done, sir. It’s too far gone.” He can make a new one—for 150 roubles. Akaky’s head begins to swim. How an earth will he find such a sum?

Somehow, tapping modest savings, scrimping here and there, together with an unexpected little work bonus, Akaky cobbles together the money for the new coat. And Petrovich couldn’t have delivered it at a more opportune moment. The severe frost had just arrived and was set to get worse. But Akaky is warm now, and triumphant; the day of its first wearing is like a great festive holiday, Gogol says. Akaky walks taller down the street. His work colleagues, instead of pillorying him (as usual), now admire him, decked out in his majestic new garb. They organize a drinks party in his honour.

But Akaky isn’t used to these occasions and creeps away early. Though it’s already well past his bedtime; and he’s a bit tipsy after a glass of champagne. Everywhere is closed, shuttered up, and not a soul about the dismal streets. Suddenly, as Akaky’s enters a square, a pair of burly shapes dodge out of the shadows, grab Akaky’s collar, punch him in the face, pull off his coat, and knee him in the groin. The overcoat has gone. Akaky calls for help—to no avail. The night watchman had seen nothing, hadn’t been watching the night. Akaky runs off home, “in a shocking state,” says Gogol.

The next day, he goes to the police. But they’re not bothered. Complain to a superior, they say, to an important person. (Gogol uses italics to denote important people in the bureaucracy.) And yet, important persons aren’t terribly interested in hearing from a poor folk’s grumblings about a stolen overcoat: “If I may be so bold as to trouble you, Your Excellency…” stammers Akaky. “Do you realise who you’re talking to?” the important person admonishes. “Do you know who’s standing before you? Do you understand?…” “Where did you pick up such ideas?” says the important person. “What is this rebelliousness spreading among the young against their chiefs and higher-ups?”

“The important person seemed not to notice,” Gogol says, almost parenthetically, “that Akaky was already pushing fifty. And so, even if he might be called a young man, it was only relatively.” Belittled by this important person, frozen in a raging Petersburg blizzard, on his way home Akaky catches a fever. The malady progresses violently. Akaky breathes his last a day later. “So disappeared forever,” Gogol says, “a human being whom no one ever thought of protecting, who was dear to no one, in whom no one was in the least interested.”


But as so often with Gogol, the end is never really the end. Comedy lurks somewhere around the corner of tragedy. Akaky disappeared, until, until… he comes back to life, haunting the city, this time as a phantom intent on revenge, intent on nocturnally ripping off the overcoats of others, with no regard for rank or title, even tracking down the important person himself: “Suddenly the important person himself felt a violent tug at his collar… ‘Ah, at last I’ve found you!,’ says the phantom. ‘Now I’ve, er, hm, collared you! It’s your overcoat I’m after! You didn’t care a toss about mine and you couldn’t resist giving me a good ticking-off into the bargain! Now hand over your overcoat!’” The important person is terrified out of his wits: It may have been what Marx meant when he said, in the Manifesto, that losing your overcoat was sobering, that then you’d have to face, “with sober senses,” your “real conditions of life.”

I can’t help think that Marx would have loved this imagery of the underdog haunting the overdog. He loved the idea of spectres haunting Europe. And he wasn’t talking about Brexit, either. His spectres haunted the bourgeois order, the spectre of a new social contract, an affinity between people without a country, without a national community, based on a common belonging to a class, a solidarity that brings justice and peace. A phantom-thought still. But let it haunt; let it disseminate our culture as a ghostly presence ready to tear the coats off the backs of important persons. I thought of this as I walked up the hill of Swain’s Lane, on my way to Highgate Cemetery, to its East Wing, going to pay homage to old Moor myself, see what was happening to his vandalised grave.

The brutality of the attack shocked me. Some of the red paint had already been scrubbed off. Yet the plinth had been assaulted with terrifying force, by someone verging on the demented. Scary that they’re still walking London’s streets. (We might wonder what kind of world we’d have if this type ever seized power?) I took a photo of the damage, along with the little bunch of daffodils some gentle soul had placed there.

One suspects that the perpetrator was himself an underdog, somebody who’s had his own overcoat torn away by our system, yet who feels a bilious rage inside, enough to lash out rightwards. There are a lot of bouquets at the base of the grave, from all over the globe, and a sign, on A4 paper, sellotaped on the plinth, left by the Turkish Revolutionary Path movement. Torn but intact, it reads, in red uppercase: “YOU CAN DESTROY MARX’S GRAVESTONE,  BUT YOU CANNOT DESTROY HIS IDEOLOGY.”

“Normally,” said Ian Dungavell, “we take signs down, but on this occasion, I think we’ll leave it.” It’s a nice thought: that that ideology, that those ideas, might still be blowing in the wind, haunting the world, despite the hammer blows that try to destroy them. I could even imagine Marx’s own phantom, Akaky-like, floating up Swain’s Lane, headed towards Highgate Village, up and over and beyond, a phantom intent on vengeance, nocturnally ripping off the overcoats of others—with no regard for rank or title, tracking down important bourgeois persons, before vanishing into the darkness of Hampstead Heath. (On Sunday summer afternoons, up on the Heath, the whole Marx family delighted in reenacting Shakespeare together.) But now I need to cross over Hampstead Heath myself, button up against the damp air, and get back to my Capital Days.

[1]“One day,” Shawn’s dramatic monologue goes, “there was an anonymous present sitting on my doorstep—Volume One of Capital by Karl Marx, in a brown paper bag. Did someone leave it as a joke? Did someone seriously think I should read it? And who had left it there? I never found out. Late that night, naked in bed, I leafed through it. At first it seemed impossible, a sort of impenetrable tangle of obsessively repeated groups of words curling around each other like moles underground, but when I came to the part about the lives of the workers—the coal-miners, the child labourers—I could feel myself suddenly breathing more slowly.”

[2]It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Beckett has his own tailor tale, a joke Nagg tells in Endgame: An Englishman goes to the tailor for a new pair of trousers. The tailor takes his measurements and tells him to come back in four days. Four days later: “So sorry,” the tailor says, “come back in a week, I’ve made a mess of the seat.” A week later: “Frightfully sorry, come back in ten days,” the tailor says, “I’ve made a hash of the crotch.” Ten days later: “Dreadfully sorry,” the tailor says, “come back in a fortnight, I’ve made a balls of the fly…a smart fly is a stiff proposition.” The Englishman, now at the end of his tether, complains bitterly: “God damn you to hell, Sir…there are limits. In six, do you hear me, six days, God made the world, yes, Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making a pair of trousers in three months!” “[Tailor’s voice, scandalised]” “But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look—[disdainful gesture, disgustedly]—at the world—and look—[loving gesture, proudly]—at my TROUSERS.”

[3]Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat” in Patricia Spyer (ed) Border Fetishisms: Material Objects In Unstable Spaces (Routledge, London, 1997)