The Poisoned Gift: Wu Weishan’s Statue of Marx in Trier
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Standing amidst the bustle of Trier’s central Hauptmarkt, one soon senses the immense weight of history that exerts itself upon the environs. To the north squats the forbidding Porta Nigra, with its roughly hammer-hewn ironstone, while to the south looms the Aula Palatina, a gargantuan late-antique basilica “which probably never had the least beauty,” as the 19thcentury visitor George Waring, Jr. rightly put it. Towering even higher to the east is the Cathedral of Trier, a marvel from without and within, given its variegated facade, its store of prized relics, which include the skull of Saint Helena and the Seamless Robe of Jesus, and the incomparable stucco-work that graces the west-end choir. The Judenpforte that leads into the Judengasse is likewise visible from the Hauptmarkt, a haunting reminder of a community that weathered massacres in 1096 and 1348, expulsions in 1351 and 1418, riots in 1675, the Pogromnacht of November 9, 1938, and the subsequent Shoah. But it is possible that none of these venerable structures have cast so long a shadow as that of the delicate three-story Baroque townhouse located at Brückenstraße 10 (formerly Brückengasse 664), just a five-minute walk away down the Fleischstraße, where on the fifth of May, 1818 a son was born to Herr Heinrich and Frau Henrietta Marx, and was given the name of Karl.

It is evident that Marx, as his biographer David McLellan put it, “did not only get his lifelong Rhineland accent from Trier: more importantly, his absorbing passion for history originated in the very environment of his adolescence,” and the city likewise represented the wellhead of his political thought. French revolutionary values had been implanted in the Palatinate during the Napoleonic occupation, and the utopian socialist movement had taken root as well, so much so that the Archbishop was obliged to condemn it publicly. Overall, the city was dominated by the Prince-Elector, the Church, and the wine merchants, but liberal literary societies and political organizations were not unknown, and the Frederick William High School Marx attended was a hotbed of liberal thought, with pupils often caught with anti-government satirical pamphlets, and with faculty members regularly accused of atheism, materialism, and revolutionary activity. Born into a Protestant household of Jewish extraction inhabiting an overwhelmingly Catholic city, and living in a constant state of rebellion against the bourgeois strictures of his own family, it is obvious why Marx would in his later life become obsessed with developing a theory of Entfremdung, or social alienation. And thus the histories of Karl Marx and of his native city became inextricably bound together, with global ramifications that none could have foreseen on that spring day in 1818.

The approach of the 200th anniversary of that occasion has prompted a series of commemorations in Trier, ranging from the frivolous to the rather more solemn. Sets of cartoonish Karl Marx-themed pedestrian lights have been installed in the vicinity of Brückenstraße 10, with Mayor Wolfram Leibe giddily proclaiming that “Trier is showing its colors for Marx.” The birthplace itself has been under renovation since last November, with a new permanent exhibition to be opened on the philosopher’s birthday. And, more notably still, that same day will bring the unveiling of a three-ton, sixteen-foot tall bronze sculpture of Marx on the end of the Simeonstiftplatz, near the Porta Nigra and the City Museum, an event that will feature remarks by Malu Dreyer, the minister-president of the Rhineland-Palatinate, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission. This statue, an official gift from the Chinese government, has in turn brought with it a massive train of historical and ideological baggage to this quaint city nestled in the Mosel Valley.

In March of 2017 Trier’s city council approved the acceptance and erection of the gift by a vote of forty-two to seven, but the move turned out to be rather more controversial than those numbers initially suggested. The Federal Chairman for the Union of Victims of Communist Tyranny, Dieter Dombrowski, lamented that “for the victims of crimes that can be traced back to Karl Marx’s ideas this event is disrespectful and inhumane,” for Marx was “not just a scientist and philosopher” but a figure who “laid the spiritual foundations for the communist dictatorships that came afterwards.” Ulrich Delius, the director of the Society for Threatened Peoples, likewise called the work of art a “poisonous gift from China,” and castigated the installation as propaganda originating from a country that “commits state terror against its own people.” In the United Kingdom, Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski found the planned ceremony to be “in very poor taste,” while UKIP MEP Paul Nuttall opined that “it is appalling that Jean-Claude Juncker feels it necessary to commemorate a man whose ideology — Marxism/Communism — led to more than 100 million deaths,” adding that “both Marx and his warped ideology should not be commemorated, they should be consigned to the dustbin of history.” The European Commission’s response to this sharp criticism was characteristically unsatisfactory in its bureaucratic blandness, with a spokeswoman insisting that “nobody can deny that Karl Marx is a figure who shaped history in one way or the other.” Much the same might be said of any number of infamous historical figures altogether unworthy of public commemoration.

It does seem odd for German authorities to facilitate the erection of a monument to a man who wrote, in his notorious Die Judenfrage:

Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew, not the Sabbath Jew, as Bauer does, but the everyday Jew. Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew. What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. Very well then! Emancipation from hucksteringand money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time.

Hence Rabbi Emil Fackenheim’s 1970 statement that “in the view of the enormousinfluence of Marx’s thoughts for well over a century it is not farfetched to connect this 19th-century slander either with 20th-century Soviet anti-Semitism or with the compulsive anti-Zionism which bedeviled even the non-communist left.” It seems equally odd that officials in a Germany which once viewed the lands to the east as mere Lebensraum would be giving a fête in honor of a figure who maintained that the “Slavs lack the most basic historic, geographic, political, and industrial prerequisites for independence and vitality.” How curious that EU mandarins, so committed to multiculturalism, would be lauding an ideologue who referred to the Gaels, Bretons, Basques, South Slavs, and other beleaguered peoples as “the waste products of a highly confused development,” and “ethnic trash” that “always becomes and remains until its complete extermination or nationalization.” Furthermore, one wonders what present-day German Social Democrats would make of Marx’s various descriptions of the pioneering labor organizer Ferdinand Lasalle, which include “Baron Itzig,” “the Jewish N*****,” “a greasy Jew disguised under brilliantine and cheap jewels,” and a “union of Jew and German on a Negro base [that] was bound to produce an extraordinary hybrid.” And we have not even delved into what Paul Johnson correctly referred to as the “gross carelessness, tendentious distortion and downright dishonesty” generously interlarded throughout the more academic works of Marx and Engels.

None of this, admittedly, is of any account from the Chinese perspective, and Beijing was after all the prime mover in this affair, having given the statue as a gift and then complained of the subsequent politicization it predictably engendered. Since Marx took a negative view of Britain’s behavior during the Opium Wars, and cheered on the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864, which Mao and his fellow communists had misleadingly appropriated as a precedent for their own insurrection, he has been deemed worthy of China’s eternal gratitude. (Victor Hugo received similar plaudits for his criticism of the sack of the Old Summer Palaceby Anglo-French troops, and as a consequence his bust may be found amidst the ruins of the Yuanming Yuan.) But a closer look at Marx’s Sinological writings would suggest that this affection is mostly misplaced. In a contribution to Die Presse, Marx dubbed China a “living fossil” marked by “an unchanging social infra-structure coupled with unceasing change in the persons and tribes who manage to ascribe to themselves the political super-structure,” and as for the Taiping Rebellion itself, “what is original in this Chinese revolution are only its bearers. They are not conscious of any task, except the change of dynasty. They have no slogans. They are an even greater scourge to the population than the old rulers. It seems that their vocation is nothing else than to set against the conservative disintegration of China, its destruction, in grotesque horrifying form, without any seeds for a renaissance.” As Daniel Little observed,

Notice what Marx’s analysis does not do. It does not identify the class nature of the Taiping movement. It does not ask what were the social causes that led Chinese peasants to follow the Taiping armies. And it does not ask what was the social program of the Taiping movement. The Taipings are represented as a cipher — just an irrational uprising of millions of passive followers. So whatever happened to the tools of historical analysis that Marx recommended — the forces and relations of production, the concrete circumstances of class relations, the intimate connection between material conditions of life and political behavior, and the emphasis on exploitation and rebellion? Why was Marx not disposed to ask the basic questions about the Chinese case: who are these people? What are the social relations from which they emerge?

This is, in other words, “Eurocentrism in the extreme,” and it is surprising that its author would garner any Chinese appreciation as a consequence, though the roughly ninety-million members of the Chinese Communist Party appear not to care overmuch.

In addition to the obvious ideological concerns that attend the new statue of Marx in the Simeonstiftplatz, there are also aesthetic considerations. The sculptor of the work, Wu Weishan of the National Art Museum of China, is an eminently capable artist who in his storied career has admirably managed to meld the expressiveness of Auguste Rodin and Antoine Bourdelle with indigenous Chinese folk styles. His rendition of Marx, however, is regrettably propagandistic, and lacking almost all of the impressionistic verve of prior works like Lao Zi Departing from Hangu Pass, or his far superior portraits of historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Qi Baishi, which are positively suffused with a kind of elemental energy. The Trier sculpture is decidedly more in keeping with depictions of Marx that can be found in Shanghai’s Fuxing Park, or Moscow’s Revolution Square. There was, perhaps, room for a dark, nuanced portrayal of an oftentimes demonic man who once wrote of himself:

I would draw the world to me.

Loving, hating I intend
That my star shine brilliantly….
Worlds I would destroy forever

Since I can create no world
Since my call they notice never
Coursing dumb in magic

And Wu Weishan, at his best, might have pulled that off that very trick, but instead we are treated to a hackneyed work of bronze-casted socialist realism, with its pensive, book-wielding philosopher purposefully striding towards the Ende der Geschichte. One suspects the sculptor himself is aware of the grotesque failure on display, for it was in a profound essay on Rodin that Wu Weishan once held that “the art during China’s Cultural Revolution weakens and diminishes the nature of humanity by using standardized mode of idols, becoming insipid political propaganda.” Quite so.

What’s done is done, of course, and this statue of Marx figures to occupy its plinth for the foreseeable future. While it serves the purpose of underscoring the tendentious, yet intertwined, relationship that has always existed between the author of Das Kapital and his native city, it nonetheless mars the public square both aesthetically and ideologically. If only the Trier authorities had listened to the words of their city’s most famous son, who in an examination essay written just before his graduation from the Trier Gymnasium proposed that:

Only that position can impart dignity in which we do not appear as servile tools but rather create independently within our circle. Only that position can impart dignity which requires no reproachable acts, reportable not even in appearance — a position which the best person can undertake with noble pride. The positions which guarantees this the most is not always the highest, but it is always the best. Just as a position without dignity lowers us, we certainly succumb to the burden of one based on ideas we later recognize as false. Then we see no aid in self-deception, and what a desperate rescue is the one that guarantees self-betrayal! The vocations which do not take hold of life but deal, rather, with abstract truths are the most dangerous for the youth whose principles are not yet crystallized, whose conviction is not yet firm and unshakable, though at the same time they seem to be the most lofty ones when they have taken root deep in the breast and when we can sacrifice life and all striving for the ideals which hold sway in them. They can make him happy who is called to them; but they destroy him who takes them overhurriedly, without reflecting, obeying the moment.

The child, it seems, is not always the father to the man. We can see that the mayor and city council, in accepting a propagandistic gift from a wantonly cruel regime, one which can only be taken to extol the virtue of false ideas, have become servile tools of foreign manipulation.

I am particularly struck by Ulrich Delius’s description of that statue as a “poisoned gift.” The evocative German word for this is Nessushemd, or the “shirt of Nessus,” a venomous garment that cooked Hēraklēs alive. It is a term memorably alluded to in Hyam Plutzik’s poem “Portrait,” which refers to the temptation

To ignore the monster, the mountain—
A few thousand years of history

a gambit that would succeed

Were it not (how gauche and incredible!) for the one ill-fitting garment
The historical oversight in the antique wardrobe—
The shirt, the borrowed shirt,
The Greek shirt…
He wears a shirt by Nessus.

Marx himself thought that “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a mountain on the mind of the living,” but in this scenario he and his continued veneration might be taken to represent a Nessushemd eating away at the body politic. We may count ourselves fortunate, at least, that the rest of Trier, that living archive of tradition, history, and artistic achievement, will continue to stand in contradistinction to Marx’s ugly rhetoric and even uglier adherents, as we set about commemorating, symbolically and in deed, the hundreds of millions who have fallen victim to that city’s most infamous scion. The poisoned gift that will now dominate Trier’s Simeonstiftplatz can at least serve as a reminder of the urgency of that task, and of the danger of ignoring the mountains of history and dead generations that loom around us.

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